Some Advice on Book Covers
Two of the most important--and just as often overlooked--features of your book are the blurb you write describing it and the cover you put on it.
They are important because they are probably going to be the very first things about your book anyone ever sees. For this reason, the blurb needs to be letter-perfect: not only does it have to make your book sound attractive and interesting, it is the first example of your writing anyone will see. If it is rambling and ungrammatical, with poor spelling and worse punctuation you will find few people willing to wade into a couple of hundred pages of the same thing.
The cover, too, needs to make a good first impression. It may be the first thing that attracts the reader's eye. It will likely be what gets the reader to stop and read the blurb.
And, just like a badly written blurb, if it is confusing or amateurish the potential reader may well give your book a pass.
You might think of these things as like being careful to be neatly dressed and well-groomed when going out on a job interview: first impressions are important.
I won't say there are any hard and fast rules to creating a good cover. There aren't. They are more like, as the pirate said, guidelines.
The fact that there are guidelines at all sets book cover design apart from the other visual arts, such as illustration. This is because the book cover has a very specific, tightly focused purpose. And that is, of course, to get a reader to stop and look at the book it is on. As I have mentioned before, book covers are much more akin to posters than any other art form. And as a poster, a book cover has a specific, utilitarian function to perform.
In fact, in that regard, a book cover is probably even more closely related to packaging.
Book covers are often confused with book illustrations--but they are not the same thing at all. There is no requirement that the cover of a book accurately depict any particular scene or event. In fact, many if not most book covers don't even try. Once again, this is because the purpose of a cover is not to illustrate the book but to sell it. In order to do this it must make an almost instantaneous impression. If there is a key scene or a visually striking set piece in a novel that would both get across something of the character of the book while being eye-catching at the same time, then the cover design can include an illustration. Indeed, whenever I get a cover assignment, the first thing I do is carefully scan the text, looking for just such visual set pieces. However, if I don't find one I look instead for something that would represent the nature of the book: an isolated image or combination of images, a central character or characters, or even a symbol of some sort. (In fact, of all the covers I've done for my own novels, only one is based on an actual incident described in the text. Out of the several hundred covers I've created for traditional publishers probably less than 10% have depicted an actual scene from a novel.)
One of the hardest things a DIY cover designer needs to overcome is subjectivity. When you are creating the cover for your own book, it can be very difficult to remember that while you know everything about what goes on in the story your potential reader is not privy to this information. Something that may seem to you to be overwhelmingly important to get on the cover may only mystify and confuse the uninitiated. You need to divorce yourself from your book and try to approach it objectively...as though you'd never seen it before.
A corollary to this is to avoid putting imagery on the cover to make sense of which requires knowledge of the book. I've often used the example of the author who put a pastoral photo of a stone bridge on the cover of his fantasy adventure novel. It looked like the cover of a travel guide. When asked what in the world the photo had to do with a fantasy adventure he replied, "Why, that's the bridge the troll lives under."
I've asked many authors what in the world some utterly mystifying image has to do with their book and have been told, "Oh, you'll realize what that is when you get to Chapter Twelve!" Well, that's putting the cart before the horse.
This sort of thinking is one of the reasons I will sometimes be hesitant about working directly with an author on a book cover: the lack of objectivity. When working with an art director at a publisher, we are on the same page, working toward the same purpose. Which is, of course, getting people to come to a skidding halt to look a new book. It's hard for most authors to realize that getting their favorite scene included or making sure that all the buttons on a uniform are correct are not the most important considerations.
Speaking of objectivity...
Your precious little snowflake may have made the cutest drawing in the world in her kindergarten class but trust me, it probably doesn't belong on the cover of your book.
You also need to control the urge to put everything mentioned in the book on the cover. This is what I call the "kitchen sink school" of cover design. The hero of your story may drive a Lamborgini and own a gun and fly a plane and visit Cairo and have a girlfriend and recover some stolen jewels...but it is not necessary to put all of these things on the cover. You will only wind up with a cover that looks like a bulletin board.
One of the restrictive guidelines that sets cover art apart from illustration is the need to include the title and author's name. Needless to say, these are pretty important.
One of the biggest mistakes I see most often in homemade covers is treating the cover art and the typography as though they are two separate issues. For instance, I'll see cover art that makes no provision for the placement of type, with the result that the title either covers up the most attractive parts of the art or, even worse, the title and author's name are crowded into the margins to avoid covering up any of the art.
The art for a cover can come from any source. If you are an artist yourself, you can create your cover art in any medium: digital or traditional. Some of the best cover illustrators working today work in traditional media such as oils or acrylics. Anything can be eventually scanned. Some artists will create a painting in a traditional medium, scan it and then complete the art digitally. This enables them to create special effects that would have been difficult or impossible to achieve otherwiise.
If you are not an artist, the resources for stock imagery on the Internet are almost endless. Two or three caveats must be mentioned here. The first and most important: be absolutely certain that you have the right to use an image you've found on the web. Just because it's on the web and just because there may not be a credit or copyright attached doesn't necessarily mean it's there legitimately. Be certain of your sources. There are plenty of reputable resources for public domain and copyright-free artwork. Many of these have already been listed elsewhere in the forums so I won't go into them here.
Another potential problem with using stock art is that a great many other people may be using the very same image on the covers of their books. I have seen this occur too many times. One of the things a book cover needs to do is make your book look distinctive, make it stand out from the thousands of competing titles. If your cover image also appears on a dozen other books, you risk diluting that impact. If you are using a stock image, then do whatever you can to make the image unique.
(This problem exists to a lesser degree with the use of templates: a thousand other people are using the very same ones you are.)
It's vitally important to consider both art and type together when designing a cover. They need to work together and enhance one another. If you are creating a cover image yourself or are having one done for you, be sure to leave room for the inclusion of the type. Professional cover artists leave at least 1/3 of the art open for the placement of the title and author's name. This doesn't mean that the art is simply blank in that area, just that there is nothing important in that space or anything that would compete with the type. Here is an example of this by Stephen Hickman
Some artists will include the title and author's name in the illustration itself. A artist needs to be an expert at lettering to do this well, but when done right it can be very effective.
In fact, the typography of a book cover is so important that hundreds of effective covers have been created that use nothing but type--or type and some small graphic. Take a look at the original cover of The Godfather, for instance.
Or this brilliant cover design...
By the way, speaking of type, just because you have design software that came preloaded with 275 fonts you are not compelled to use all of them. Pick one--at most two--for your cover.
Also remember that readabilty is of prime importance. The fancier the font, the harder it is going to be for someone to comprehend...and they just may shrug their shoulders and move on to the next book. Keep it simple, bold and readable.
And since there are thousands of fonts available, try to choose one that is appropriate for your book. Comic sans rarely works for an urban vampire story. By the same token, try to avoid fonts that are massively overused, such as Papyrus, Mistral or, God forbid, Bleeding Cowboy.
When designing a book cover Mies van der Rohe's injunction should always be at the forefront of your mind: Less is more.
It's been pointed out--too often--that a book written by a famous author can get by on the author's name alone and that the remainder of the cover is pretty much irrelevant. Well, this is more or less true. But what gets lost in that argument is the fact that by and large most Lulu authors are not famous. In which case, the design and artwork are of paramount importance. What is also lost in that argument is the fact that every famous author had to have had a first book. Sometimes the covers of these--such as Mario Puzo's Godfather, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man--have become almost as memorable as the novels themselves and show up in almost every list of great book covers. It can certainly be argued that they contributed materially to the initial success of those books.
Stephen King may today be able to sell a book with nothing on the cover but his name and the title...but when he started out his novels needed the help of strong cover designs.