Judging a book – hints about cover design

No, I’m not going to tell you how to design your book cover. I will say find a professional to do it for you as there’s nothing worse than a shoddy cover, and I speak from painful experience.

I decided to change the cover of my non fiction book about my Australian ancestors. The book has been out for nearly four years and is selling reasonably well, but I figured it could do with a boost, and besides it received a general thumbs-down from my writer colleagues on the ALLi Facebook forum.

Print scanned
The original cover

The photo is of the Hawkesbury River, where my story is largely set, and was taken by my good self a few years ago. Criticisms of it included the fact that it was not obviously about Australia, that the colour was wrong for that country, that the image contradicted the title (which was the point) and that it was too contemporary.  Of all those the one comment that made sense to me was the last.

I found a designer, recommended by ALLi and as it happens Australian, and I found an image I liked – a 19th century painting of the Hawkesbury River by an artist called William Pigeunit. It had just the right element of threat.

Hawkesbury Piguenit cropped
Hawkesbury River with Figures in Boat: On the Nepean 1881 (wikipedia)

Unfortunately while the picture itself is in the public domain I could not find a copy of it with a high enough resolution – I think that’s the term – ie, 1MB or more.

So I found another painting – A Summer Morning Tiff by Tom Roberts – again in the public domain but in the possession of an art gallery in Victoria, Australia. They wanted a fee to provide me with a high res image, and they also sent me a licence to sign promising we would not alter the image in any way, and asking to approve a proof of the cover before publishing. My designer (Jessica Bell) decided one way or another she couldn’t work with the picture without making alterations. So back to square one. In the end she worked on my original image, and the end result, which I am very happy with, is below.

3rd draft
Cover by Jessica Bell

Jessica has managed not just to make the picture a good deal more vivid (by comparison the original looks decidedly drab), she has added depth and interest, and the font suggests a story not set in contemporary times. The miniature silhouette of the woman’s head adds a touch of human interest and hints the book is about a woman, which it is.

So, I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know before in my many years of self publishing, and here they are for the edification of anyone out there contemplating using an existing painting for their book cover.

  • Make sure the image is out of copyright and in the public domain.
  • Make sure the image is at least 1MB.
  • Even if you’ve found an image in the public domain if it is not a high enough res you may have to pay for one that is.
  • It is up to the writer rather than the designer to check image copyright.
  • Your designer may and probably will have access to copyright-free images, so discuss it with her or him.
  • If your book is about a person or persons a touch of human interest in the cover is a good idea.
  • The writer isn’t necessarily the best judge of the sort of cover that will make a book sell.

That’s it really. I wish you the best of luck with your cover design adventure, and again if you have any queries get in touch!

Patsy Trench
patsytrench@gmail.com

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5 thoughts on “Judging a book – hints about cover design

  1. I love that final design! I like it much better than the picture you wanted to use. So maybe the best strategy would be to find a picture that portrays the feeling you want and hire a designer to create one that gives the same effect. In this case one that is more modern and dynamic.

    1. Yes, thanks so much for the comments. I agree in the end I did think the new cover was better than the picture of the mountains by the Hawkesbury, but it took a while to get there …

      I like your ‘name’ by the name, where did that come from??

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