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At the recent (fabulous) 20 Books to 50K Conference in Las Vegas last weekend, one of the speakers challenged the 450-odd authors there to think of something they could contribute to benefit their peers. It occurred to me that there is something, as an artist, that I am eminently qualified to speak about – cover design, and how to get the absolute best out of the artist you’re working with so you both end up happy with the finished product.

How not to commission

There are two things all freelance artists dread.

The first one is the “I want a cover that has sparkles and unicorns and bevelled typography and looks like [insert bestseller name here]. Can you do that for $50?” client. Don’t ever be that client. You will not get what you’re looking for, and your artist will be sad.

If you have $50 for a cover, you can expect a $50 cover. That’s the first thing to know: approach artists within your price range. It not worth anyone’s time: yours, or the artist’s. Find someone who probably works for the amount of money you have. Email them, give them a description of what you’re looking for (genre, examples of other covers, the pitch of your book) and ask them for an approximate quote. Most artists will happily reply with a quote, or an hourly rate and the expected number of hours your cover will take.

This leads on to the second thing artists talk about around campfires late at night: the client who has the money, but has no idea what they want or how to describe it. This is actually worse than the cheapskate, because the erstwhile freelancer can tell the cheapskate to get lost. If they have a paying and otherwise awesome client, their heart sinks as a conversation like this gets going:

Artist: “So, what kind of cover are you looking for?”

Client: “I don’t know. Something like… uhh… something with magic in it.”

Artist: “Okay. What kind of magic? Do you want characters? A dragon?”

Client: “I don’t know. It’s fantasy with a female MC. There’s demons and dragons later on in the series.”

Artist: “Dragons. Okay… I can work with dragons.” *creates thumbnail sketches* “Like this?”

Client: “Sure.”

Artist: “You sure you’ve approved this thumbnail sketch? The one with dragon?”

Client: “Sure.”

*Three weeks and 20 hours of painting later, artist returns with a cover.* “Here you go!”

Client: “Why is there a dragon there? I wanted a demon. I write urban fantasy with a demon hunter.”


While slightly exaggerated, this kind of exchange is more common than you’d think. There’s also variation of the same string of communication errors where an artist provides exactly what an author thinks they want, but they don’t get the result they were seeking. The author can’t fault the artist, because they delivered exactly what they asked for… but what they asked for just doesn’t work for some reason. They go away feeling disappointed, unsure of why their cover isn’t as great as their fellow’s, even though they both had the same designer.

Here’s why.

How to speak Artist

An artist is capable of delivering within the constraints of two things: their skill and ability to fulfill a creative vision, and the author’s ability to describe their own vision and their needs. So as with all things in Indie publishing, the initial responsibility to form that creative vision of your cover starts with you.

To start with, go to Amazon or Kobo or whatever and pull up books in your genre. Make note of the following things:

  • Even though the characters are interacting, the scene is very ‘still’.

    Are the cover images static or dynamic? These qualities describe movement. Romance covers tend to be static, with half-naked people in various states of artful passion or, conversely, very well-dressed Victorian ladies (for Regency). But static. The people are standing around, sitting or posing, like portraits. By comparison, Action, Thriller, and Urban Fantasy tend to have dynamic covers, with action poses or interactive scenes. So do children’s books. Why do you think that is?

  • Are the cover images desaturated or saturated? Saturation describes the intensity of color in an image. The more saturated an image, the brighter and cheerier it looks. Horror and Memoirs tend to have desaturated, subdued palettes. Urban fantasy and PNR often have highly saturated colors against dark backgrounds, sometimes almost garish. The more desaturated something is, the more ‘dark’ (in terms of emotion’) and the more serious it seems. Very high saturation can make images look psychedelic. Find some desaturated covers and some highly saturated covers within your genre and see how they seem to be selling. Does bright and cheerful work better?


  • Look at the way the covers use light. Light is the foundation of all art, and the skill of an artist can be measured in the way they use light to manipulate mood, emotion (yes, they are different – mood is the overall tone conveyed by setting, emotion is something you read in specific parts of an image, such as a facial expression or the placement of objects). The darker the content of the book, the less light there tends to be. What light there is will be seen in ‘slices’, such as flashlight beams or small focused sources (like the helmet above). BDSM Romance will have light used in focused, almost spotlight-like ways. In sweet, uplifting, or Christian Romance, you’re going to see a lot of sunlight, and diffuse, dreamy, yellow and blue light tones.

  • What kinds of colors are used in the covers in your genre? Make a list of five or six (or two or three, if you write Horror. Hint: They’re Red, Dark Red, and Gray).
  • Make note of composition in your example covers. For example, in the Nicolas Sparks covers above, we have a series of very similar images that convey the very specific thing this author writes: emotional, love-focused, uplifting romance. We see that in the way the composition focuses on the people’s faces, closed eyes (a sign of trust), and their hands touching their lovers’ cheeks or necks. Note in all but one it is the man doing the clutching. That’s important – it tells us something about the expectations the readers have of the relationship dynamic between the characters. If you’re trying to indicate intense possession with body language, how would you go about that? What about ‘magic’?
  • Think about the emotion or ‘feeling’ you want to see in your book. If your book is dark, you can communicate this with low saturation, focused light sources, moody composition. If you’re writing contemporary women’s fiction, you probably want a lot of white, light breezy colors.
  • Speaking of colors: Colors by themselves communicate a lot of different emotions and can be used to express personality. Goths wear stark black and red for a reason. So do vampires, for similar reasons. Red, violet, gold, silver… they’re colors that communicate opulence, passion and royalty. Good colors to use if you’re writing vampire regency romance (I assume this exists).


When you talk to your cover artist, these are the kinds of things you will want to know. Your artist doesn’t know your audience – not unless they’re a specialist in a certain sort of cover, and even then. Someone like Tom Edwards, who is very well known in the space opera market, produces images he thinks will work as covers. You, as the author, are going to know whether or not your audience prefers battling dynamic spaceships with drop marines dropping from drop ships or majestic whale-like battlecruisers with no people or dynamism at all. Look up Dead Space and Battlestar Galactica, and make note of the similarities and differences. Same basic genre – space opera – but one is horror and one is drama. Note differences in saturation, dynamism, palette, light, and composition.

When you go to an artist, you can use these as frames of reference. Let’s redo our dragon conversation from earlier:

Artist: “So, what kind of cover are you looking for?”

Client: “My book is Urban Fantasy with a female main character who is a demon hunter, and I’m competing with the likes of [this cover] and [this cover]. I’m looking for art with a central character figure, really high contrast and saturation in black plus reds and oranges – ‘Hell’ colors, and some high contrast ‘flash’ somewhere in the piece to indicate that she can use magic.”

Artist: *spontaneously orgasms* “Why yes, I can do that for you. Let me draw up some thumbnail sketches…

That’s the basics of image composition. Next post, I’ll discuss where typography fits in, and how you can correctly identify your perfect font.

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