Today I have the first part in a new series of blog posts about book covers. What makes a great cover? How can you avoid the basic errors many self-publishing authors make when designing their first cover? And how do you get your cover to really stand out? I have three interviews planned with professional cover designers, along with a competition where you can nominate and vote for your favourite indie cover of all time. There will also be links to some great cover design websites, resources for images, and lots of ‘how to’ links and advice. ‘We’ve Got It Covered’ will be on the blog every Wednesday for the next six weeks.

Right, let’s get going with our first interview. Today I am so lucky to have top cover designer Berni Stevens answering my questions. I met Berni at the Festival of Romance back in November, where there were more than a few of her bestselling cover designs on display. Here’s a little more about her, and you can find links at the end of the interview:


Berni Stevens has been a book cover designer for over twenty-five years. She has worked in-house full-time at HarperCollins, the Penguin Group, and Little, Brown. Since becoming freelance in 2003, she has worked for Transworld, Quercus, Harlequin Mills and Boon, Simon and Schuster, Choc Lit and a lot of Indie authors! Books and their covers are her passion. Her love of paranormal and Gothic fiction began with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and her debut novel, Fledgling, a paranormal romance, was published in 2010. (Sadly she wasn’t allowed to design her own cover.)

1. What is your favourite genre for cover design in general? Which do you think offers designers the best scope?

I adore paranormal and fantasy, but generally I enjoy designing for all genres as long as the brief is good. I find being freelance I am offered a lot more scope than I ever was in-house. In-house designers have to suffer interminably long meetings – the briefing meeting then the approval meeting – and trying to please all of the people attending those meetings is practically impossible. It is, after all, very easy to criticise anything visual, so where one editor might not like a font, another might not like a colour and maybe someone in marketing might not like the picture itself – and before you know it, you’re back to square one and two weeks’ work has all been for nothing. It can get a little soul destroying.

The kind of commission I love is when the client gives me either a synopsis or manuscript to read and asks me to come up with ideas. Something to let my imagination run riot!

2. Describe the worst cover you have ever seen. (Probably best not to name it!)

Some of the worst covers, in my opinion, were for a very successful series – now also a very successful TV series, but I have to add they’re the American covers and not the UK covers.

Anyone who knows me will probably work out which series. J

In a similar vein (pun intended) one of my favourite paranormal series was re-jacketed a couple of years ago when it changed publishers. They now look like YA which they are definitely not, and I think they were both commissioned and designed by people who had never read even one of the books. I think it was a cynical attempt to grab the ‘Twi-hards’.

I would love the opportunity to redesign these and make them look how they should.

I won’t name them, save to say the series was pre Buffy with a female slayer, and they are very, very adult!

3. How about the best? What makes a perfect book cover?

The ‘best’ will always be in the eye of the beholder I think. Everyone’s taste is different.

Just because a book is a bestseller, doesn’t mean the cover is wonderful, although sales and marketing will always want to copy the bestselling covers. Likewise if a book doesn’t sell, the easy thing to do is blame the cover! There is no such thing as a perfect book cover in my opinion. Some work, some don’t.

But there are general rules, which have to apply to any cover. Will the cover work in all sizes? Will it stand out on a white supermarket shelf, or in a dark corner of Waterstones? Is the author’s name legible? If the author is a well-known bestselling author, is their name big enough on the cover, so that the fans know this is the new book? Can you read the title when the book is reduced to a thumbnail size on Amazon? And very importantly in these days of eBook browsing – will the cover stand out as the browser scrolls through many pages of books on Amazon? If the answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above, then the cover is as perfect as it can be.

4. Some indie authors have been criticised for their covers: what are the most common mistakes authors make when designing or commissioning a cover?

The author will always be very close to their work, of course, but the biggest mistake is to try and be too literal to the story, thus making the designer’s job almost impossible. For instance, the heroine must have a pierced tongue, a particular shade of red for her /his hair, three tattoos, a scarred nose and a wooden leg – a bit extreme but you get the gist!

These days of recession mean that most of us are working with found images, i.e. not commissioning, so to expect to find the exact image the author has in their head is pretty nigh impossible. So – do we need to have a person on the cover at all? Or can we use a silhouette? A shadow perhaps? There are ways round. Sometimes the authors do need to step back from being so close to their book and let the designer do their work. (To be honest the above-mentioned heroine would sell precious few books anyway!)

Common mistakes from inexperienced people doing covers, are illegible titles/authors, too complicated an image or images and generally appalling typography. With the growth of Macs, anyone can put a cover together, but not many can put it together well. Again, I know, I would say that, but a poorly designed cover will not do the book any favours at all. It isn’t just the front cover either, the spine and the back cover are just as important. If the book is going into bookshops, the chances are it will be spine out. So the title and author must read well on the spine, and it must stand out from all the other spines.

A classic mistake is to then put half of the book on the back cover in tiny type that no-one will ever read and numerous boring quotes from magazines no-one has ever heard of.

Not important and you will have instantly lost your potential buyer. The back cover copy must be short, succinct and interesting. It’s harder to write than a synopsis – that’s why the bigger publishers have copywriters specifically working on back cover copy. It’s as much an art as designing is for the front.

Have a look in bookshops, wander round and look at other covers in the genre you’re designing for. It’s all very well scrolling through Amazon’s book pages, but that won’t tell you what finishes have been used. Matt lamination, embossing, foil, spot varnish, dye-cut and so on. Treat each front cover as an individual work of art. Nurture it – it won’t disappoint.

5. How do you design a cover from scratch? A client comes to you and says, for example, ‘I want a brilliant, eye-catching cover for my new women’s fiction novel which is about marriage and love and loss.’ What would you do with that information?

I would ask for either a synopsis or the manuscript because that’s not really enough to go on. An experienced cover designer is used to picking out things from a manuscript, which can then be used to make a cover both different and appealing. For instance, it is possible that the wife in this story adores her Maine Coon cat and she and her husband are fighting for custody. Or perhaps her husband dresses up in her clothes when she’s out! Again, that’s a little extreme, but that little extra knowledge is so helpful when thinking of a cover design. Reading part – or all – of the book also gives the designer a feel as to whether the book is rom com, serious or even heartbreaking, and all of these things are essential to help get the feel of the book across in the cover.

6. Which popular cover (let’s go with a mainstream author here) would you love to re-design, and what would you do with it?

Well it’s not exactly mainstream, but I would love to design a collector’s edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. No expense spared! I would commission some beautiful calligraphy for the title, and I’d have a flamboyant Victorian Gothic border, embossed of course, maybe even gold leaf  . . . it would be very covetable! Someone please commission me J

7. For my new series which I’m starting this year, I’d like to go with an illustrated cover, but these are much harder for indie authors – photos are easier to source than illustrations. What advice do you have for an author who is looking for something a bit different on a budget?

There are several photo libraries who hold stock illustrations at reasonable rates. Although whether you would find exactly what you are looking for is another matter. Also you say this is the first book in a series which presents another problem. Generally speaking, you should use the same illustrative style for every book in the series, so that you have a series style – but whether will you find exactly what you want in the same style is another matter. So I think you might have set yourself a very difficult task. An alternative would be to try and do a deal with a young illustrator just starting out, and see whether you can get them to do the whole series for a set price. (Before they get an agent preferably!)

8. How important is text size in this era of the thumbnail image? Should titles be enormous and ‘pop’ out even in miniature, or is this another fallacy?

The title and author should be legible at all sizes. Not necessarily huge, just legible. It’s not always possible where elegant scripts have been used, because they do tend to fill in, and sometimes disappear. But it is something to always be aware of before finalising the cover.

9. What should an indie author expect to pay for a professionally designed cover? How much just for an ebook, and how much for a paperback?

It depends on the designer J Some of the really well known cover designers won’t do anything for under £800. (Sadly, I’m not that well-known!)

There isn’t a set rate for cover designers, you just have to shop around. Obviously an eBook cover should cost less than a complete cover artwork, but bear in mind, the most time-consuming part of any book cover design is the front. So even if you just want an ebook cover, the designer still has to source the photos, do all the Photoshop work and save various sizes of jpegs, in just the same way as if a full-size cover was being done. Also bear in mind, if you want to change the design, the picture – or simply change your mind – it is going to add to the cost.

I would always suggest getting costs up front for everything set out by whichever designer you choose.

10. Finally, what about folks who can’t afford that? What top tips would you share with authors-turned-cover designers who are facing a blank screen and hoping to create something passably good?

Again I would suggest walking round bookshops, and seeing what’s out there first.

Book cover design is pretty specialised – and for a reason. It may look easy – but it isn’t.

Look at how the designers put the covers together, the weight of the type, the style, legibility.

Book covers go in fashions too – you probably remember the legions of historical covers with headless women? One publisher had a bestseller with a Phillipa Gregory and everyone copied. All changing again now of course.

If in doubt, keep it simple, keep the type elegant and don’t try to be too clever.

Watch for weird spacing between characters – it’s always possible to spot a ‘rookie’ design, because there will have been no kerning (adjustment of space between characters) and it looks really ugly. Imagine your cover has to stand out from  halfway across a room and grab people’s attention. Whether it’s by colour, image or title – you have a mere couple of seconds before the buyer moves on to a different book.

Thanks so much, Berni! Fantastic information there, and we are very lucky to be able to pick your brains for free. You can connect with Berni here:
Twitter @circleoflebanon

Coming next week! Nominate your favourite indie cover for our ‘We’ve Got It Covered’ Hall of Fame competition.