Sunday, May 12, 2013

Your Cover Is the Single Most Important Factor . . . by Jeffrey Panzer

Self Publishing Authors:
Your Cover Is the Single Most Important Factor in Whether Your Novel Will Be a Triumph or a Failure.

Don’t Fuck It Up.

So, you’ve finished your novel. Doing so took months, maybe years, but you’re finally done. The hard part is over.
            Or so you think.
            I think that we all start here. Just when we’re certain that we’ve finished doing the real work we realize that there is much more to selling a novel than simply writing the manuscript. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that writing a manuscript is perhaps the easiest, certainly not the longest or hardest, part of successfully producing and marketing a book. If you just got to this point, wait and see. If you have been here before, or are here now, you know what I mean.
            The manuscript is done; that is, the first draft is done. Now come the agonizing months of editing, of finding quality beta readers, later of trying to sell an agent on your work only to realize that no one is interested in an unproven manuscript from an unproven author. You soon realize that it takes longer to edit and sell a book than is does to actually write the thing, and further in an terrifying moment of clarity you realize that you will have to self publish your work before anyone will take you seriously.
            So you have to actually edit your manuscript to perfection, yourself. You have to learn how to format it for epub, for mobi, how to produce a decent PDF. You have to study the business of publishing and determine which route is best for you. Do you publish strictly in ebook formats? Do you publish through Smashwords, LULU, KDP? Do you also publish trade paperbacks? If so, do you use CreateSpace or another POD? Do you even know what these acronyms stand for? How do you market your work once it is published?
            For many of us this is all a blur of unfamiliar terms and confusing procedures, something as authors we would simply like someone else to handle. But alas, in the new age of publishing all of these decisions are ours to make.
            Take a step back, a breath or two. If you are unfortunate enough to be a smoker, as I am, maybe do that.
            Sure, self publishing is a nightmare. It is hard. It takes forever and a day.
            However, it also affords us a great deal of control over the presentation and quality of our work that we would not have in a traditional publishing scenario.


            The first thing to understand is that you can’t simply sit down after writing a manuscript and effectively edit it. You have to take some time off, get some space from your work, before you can regain even a modicum of objectivity.
            And it is what you do during this time that will determine how long it will be until you work finds its way onto book shelves, or web pages, or kindles and nooks and ipads, and eventually into the hands of an agent and publisher.
            My advice: Take this time to begin the process of creating a marketable product.
            The first step, or rather a first step, is to consider your cover.
            You know your novel better than anyone, and as a self publisher you are in complete control of how your novel will look, whether as a paperback, a hardcover, or an ebook.
            Start now, when you have the time, before editing consumes you, before your days end with late nights writing blog posts and your mornings find you sifting through your inbox and corresponding with hundreds of people whom you are trying with all your well-articulated might to get to read your work.
            I have found that the process of creating a cover, although itself time consuming and often tedious, is a welcomed relief from everything else I have to do as a self publishing author.
            Take your time, try different ideas, get feedback from friends and colleagues.
            I’m sure we’ve all heard the old cliché, “Never judge a book by its cover.” I am equally sure that to a great extent people in fact do just that, and it is paramount that we all acknowledge this fact. Today’s self published authors have about 5 seconds to hook a reader into even looking at our work, just the time it takes someone to open and close a tab in a browser or scroll past a thumbnail on whatever vendor site we sell through. If our covers don’t do their job, if they don’t entice people to take a further look, our prospective customers are gone, down the page or onto another, never to return.


            The first thing to understand is that producing a cover is a professional endeavor, not a hobby or a diversion, and you need to use the appropriate tools. I’ve spoken with so many would-be self published authors who either plan to use or have used MS Paint, stricktly, to produce their covers, and in all honesty this fact is glaringly obvious in the designs they produce. Get your hands on quality image creation and manipulation programs. Learn how to use them effectively. I use Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, which I was fortunate enough to already have in my possession. Although the best solutions, these programs can be quite pricey and well beyond the means of the average person. There are, however, other options that are quite good. For image creation (symbols, basic shapes, etc), MS Paint is actually likely adequate to the task. For image manipulation and design, a free program like GIMP ( is an excellent choice; GIMP allows you to work with layers, add filters and effects, and offers a fairly versatile work environment in which to craft your design.

          The next thing to consider is what you would like your cover to communicate. Be flexible, be open minded. Most of all understand that this is an ongoing process and you have all the time you need to get it right (remember that you still have to edit your manuscript, and determine how you are going to publish and find some way to market it, before your cover will even matter).

            I started with a simple design, incorporating a prominent symbol from my story. The fonts were rudimentary, the design minimalistic. This was just a placeholder. I crafted the symbol in Illustrator and put it together in Photoshop, spending perhaps a total of 45 minutes—I had to learn the programs as I went.

  My next attempt was more ambitious. Although I retained the iconography from the original cover, I decided to try to add more detail, to capture a moment from my story that I felt was important and representative of the concepts I wanted my cover to convey. The results were, to be completely honest, hideous (There were other attempts, but they need not be shown here).
            Sure, the image represented the scene I wanted to capture; however, the image just looked corny. It lacked, for want of a better word, gravitas. The colors were washed out; it was confusing for someone who hadn’t read the novel. The fonts were lackluster, the titles too small.
            Most of all I had neglected to remember one important thing about modern book covers, perhaps the most important thing: They have to look good as thumbnails, sometimes as small as 130px wide. This second cover looked like a smudgy mess of faded color at that size.
            At this point I got serious about making an actual cover. I downloaded new fonts from sites like Font Squirrel ( ); I spent hours finding the right ones. I took a step back from my preconceived notions of what I wanted the cover to be and instead focused on what the cover could be. I simplified. I spent time learning more about my software.

            I accepted the fact that a cover cannot have more than four colors, preferably no more than three.
            The results, albeit not perfect, were far better than my earlier attempts, incorporating elements from the previous two efforts, simplifying some elements and emphasizing others. I focused on the iconography. This new cover had 7 layers and used maybe 6 different filters (2 for the symbol, 1 for the big title, and 3 to achieve the effect I wanted for the water in the background).
            But I was still decidedly unsatisfied with the results.
            The fonts looked too outer-spacey (my story has nothing to do with space or space travel). The colors don’t work together. It lacked other, less easily identifiable qualities.
          At this point, however, I didn’t jump right back into design. I took a virtual trip to Amazon’s CreateSpace and downloaded a template for my book cover ), customized to my desired dimensions (5.5’’x8.5’’) and page count. I redesigned the cover I then had to fit the template CreateSpace furnished me. I made artwork for the back and spine.

This gave me time to think about what I actually wanted from my cover, and the results allowed me to better visualize the thing as it would actually exist. I decided on a preliminary pitch and blurb.
             I then went through a series of redesigns and minor changes (many more than recorded here). I listened to feedback from friends online and IRL.

I ditched the “Book One”, after people told me that only buying part of a story was a turn-off:

I changed the pitch and blurb; I touched up the coloring:

              The next step, and one that is of paramount importance, was to print the whole thing out, actual size, on glossy, thick stock. Now, the cover above measures 19’’x 13’’, and of course I was not equipped to print such a large image at home. I went to a FedEx copy center and paid $3.65 to have it printed, after which I cut the trim off and folded it at the spine, providing myself with a good sense of just exactly what the cover would look like on an actual book. It looked good. Almost. What I noticed, what I would never have been able to see if I hadn’t printed it, was that the dpi (dots per inch) was not fine enough, something that did not present itself as a digital image. I then redefined the image file from 300ppi to 600ppi, arriving at my current cover, which employs 16 layers, and perhaps 25-30 filters.
            Presently I am satisfied with it, although without a doubt it will undergo many changes before I actually am able to publish the novel. It works as a physical cover; it is simple enough, with large enough elements, for the front to work as a small thumbnail.

            One thing that must be remembered is that I did all of this, an hour here and an hour there, over a couple months. All while I waited for my beta readers to get back to me with feedback, while I waited to regain some objective distance from my work, in the interim before I could begin a meaningful edition of the manuscript.
            In the process I learned that simplicity is best, and that far from being easy it is quite difficult to communicate a complex idea or feeling with just a few images. This is a lesson that I’d thought I’d learned a long time ago in my writing but that I’d somehow forgotten, or at least failed to apply, when I first approached my cover.


            In the modern age of publishing, it is the author’s responsibility to effectively produce, design, and market his/her novel. No one will do these things for you, and no one will care if you do not succeed.
            A much as we, as authors, don’t want to hear it, the cover of our books is likely the single most important factor in whether our novels will be triumphs or a failures, and by extension whether we will become successful authors, whether legitimate agents will respond to our emails or calls, or perhaps even choose to contact us. Of course, in the end what matters is the writing. However, without a proper cover, which is the front line of your marketing strategy, your brilliant work will likely pass largely unnoticed, condemned to an obscure existence amidst the (literally) millions of other self published books on Amazon or Smashwords, or wherever you end up staking your claim.
            Don’t fuck it up.

Jeffrey Panzer


  1. Excellent post, Jeffrey. Great end-product.

  2. Jeffrey, that has inspired me to believe that it can be done - thank you !