We’ve heard it all before: Covers sell novels. But the process of making a good cover—a cover that sells books—is often hidden in the shadows. Cover designers don’t want to share their secrets… or they’re just too busy to do so. After having worked with my cover artist, Chris Howard, for over a year, I’m inclined to believe it is the second case.

Designing a book cover is seriously difficult work. I use two people for my covers: Chris Howard for the cover art, and Brooke Johnson for the typography. Brooke also handles the formatting for my print editions.

I’m an exception. Most people use one person to design and do the typography for their covers. It lets the artist pull some fancy tricks… but I really like the way Brooke thinks for the typography, and I really love the way Chris thinks for the cover art.

So I married their skills together, and I really liked the results.

I’m an author. I have no graphic design skills. I have no business working on cover art. My attempts are laughable at best. Cover art is so important. I’ve had quite a few people approach me and tell me they bought the book because of the cover—and the hardbound version, at that, which is twice as expensive as the e-book copy. I’ve always been proud of my cover art. I actually book Chris Howard several months in advance, paying a deposit so I can reserve space. He’s worth waiting for.

I typically book three books ahead of my publication schedule to make certain he has the time to fit me in. Right now, I have three covers for unreleased novels. One releases in November. I’m hoping to have the second released in the early part of 2015.

Now that I’ve discussed the background of my cover art a little, I’m going to talk about the process of creating a cover with Chris Howard, start to finish.

It Begins with a Concept

Concepts are important. When you create cover art, you need to know what your book is about. Matching the cover and the book is important. So, I try to think of dramatic scenes from the book that would look good as pieces of art—art that can be enjoyed without the text. I’ll talk about the upcoming cover for Winter Wolf, the second Witch & Wolf novel.

The story is about a woman named Nicole Thomas, so the cover is about her—who she is, was, and who she’ll become. I wanted to marry all of those things in this cover. But I also wanted to make it a scene from the book. I had a lot of choices, but a scene from the end of the novel caught my attention, which in turn led me to a scene from the beginning of the novel. It’s rare to have a novel where there is a juxtaposition of scenes like this—so I clamped onto the idea, and started to talk about it with Chris.

I gave him a description of the woman, of the scenes, and of the layout of the location—a power plant. There are two used in the novel. I won’t tell you which one I used. That’d spoil part of the story for you.

But I told him about Nicole, her affinity for a certain type of rifle, and the puppy who shows up on the cover with her. There were some limitations on covers; for example, the dog showcased on the cover is smaller than the dog portrayed in the novel—which is a good thing. I’m flexible, and what Chris Howard drew works with the cover—even if the actual dog is larger. I didn’t even ask him to change the size, because it worked well. If I had the dog the same size as in the book, the cover would have looked unbalanced—which doesn’t work for me.

So taking what I told him, he drew a concept picture. It’s a low-color sketch of the cover. That lets me see what he’s up to.

Turning Concept into a Finished Cover

The concept sketch is where you talk with the cover artist to figure out how to make the cover better. Don’t feel bad about asking for things to be redrawn. That is the cover artist’s job. His job is to make the best cover possible. Your job is to help him.

That doesn’t mean be a jerk about it, though. Be reasonable. If you completely change your mind on the concept, you’re not going to get anywhere really fast. But you want to improve the cover as much as possible.

My relationship with Chris Howard is really easy going. We’ve done a lot of covers together. (At this moment in time, the count is six, with covers seven through nine or so on the way.) It helps that I study book covers, so I get a feel for what makes interesting covers—and I’ve gotten better at this over time.

But I’m not afraid to push Chris Howard to make the covers even better. The concept phase is usually smooth for us—sometimes we have a redo (We had a redo on Inquisitor’s cover) but sometimes not. Winter Wolf was a one concept cover. He started painting, and a lot of the work was in the details.

Go ahead, let yourself be picky—just be reasonable about it. Ask questions. Explore color options. And, let your cover artist work. They know art far better than you do. That’s why you’re hiring them, after all!

But—and this is a big one—your cover artist can’t read your mind, and it’s your job to give him or her the descriptive guidelines to make the cover happen. You want solid imagery, something that lures readers and represents your book, and it’s your job to make your cover artist see that image.

Making good cover art isn’t easy.

Here is a quick list of things I look for when making cover art for my novels:

  1. Eye catching cover: Colors, characters, etc.
  2. Easy-To-Read Typography: Title and author name must be legible as thumbnail.
  3. Looks professional
  4. Represents the book—at least a little. (high concepts covers can work.)
  5. Solid attention to detail (Detail can make a cover look complete.)

Good luck! And remember, cover artists can be expensive, but it is possible to get a good artist for cheap, especially if they need to build a portfolio. Look for opportunities, and don’t be afraid to explore sites like deviant art in search of a talented artist who will work for cheaper for the chance to fill out their portfolio. (Mutually-beneficial arrangements are great!

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