Author InterviewsInterviewsPodcastsThe Great Cover-Up with Ann McMan

Creating The Brand Of Your Book

In the second episode of The Great Cover-Up with Ann McMan we talk about Creating The Brand of your book.

In this 3 part series of The Great Cover-Up with Ann McMan talks to Sheena about getting great covers done for your books.

Ann McMan is best known for her prize winning novels but she also runs a design company called TreeHouse Studio and has been a professional designer for most of her career.

In this episode:

  • The difference between romance and erotic covers
  • Signifiers for genres
  • Make the font do the heavy lifting
  • A series brand
  • Fonts and why you should use the originals

Listen to this episode here

Find Ann McMan Online




Transcript for Creating The Brand of your book

please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect

[Music] welcome to the great cover-up with Ann McMan I’m Sheena and Ann is joining me today to talk about covers and thank you thank you for asking me to participate in thrilled episode to knowing what to look for in a great cover in this episode we’re talking about how to create compelling covers I can I can talk to you about the things that that stand out to me you know cuz I do this I do this all the time you know to push myself and to try to make make sure that I because there are trends as you know I mean there are trends in cover design just like there are trends in fashion you know when Pride and Prejudice when mrs. Bennett is by moaning her fate because long sleeves have returned you know to downs you know the same things happen in book cover design things come in and fall out of fashion and you always want to kind of keep your toe in that pond right what are people doing what are the best writers have on their covers you know so I try to do that a lot I try to spend a lot of usually I just get really depressed you know because I look it because I look at them and think oh man I want to do covers like that but you know sometimes you get lucky sometimes you get lucky and you get to do exactly the cover you wanted to do you know what I’ve had a few of those most of them have been for by water but but I’ve had a few of those where where I had an idea about something I wanted to do that I thought was dramatic and edgy and provocative and and eye catching and that really spoke to the message of the book and they’ve sailed right through I’ve gotten to do a couple of those you know but usually I go back to my see-through frog and it’s usually like that’s the first thing you give and then you have to start throwing the layers on top of its you know but but to me what what makes a compelling and effective cover is something that okay I read an article a while ago just caught me up by the short hairs and it was actually about graphic design in general and how much graphic design has changed and how much graphic design has changed us as consumers the reality that today the average person in our culture sees more graphic images think about that in terms of packaging and signage and things on the internet and books and magazines the average person sees more pure graphic images in one hour then a Victorian saw in their entire lifetime in one hour so that’s what you’re up against you know you’re up against consumer who is constantly under attack by thousands and thousands and thousands of graphic images coming at them from every place and now they’re animated and now they have sound and now sometimes you have to listen to them whether you want to or not and it’s all over us and it’s all around us even our cars now have maps and things there that are animated and moving and talking and little pictures flashing and all of it it’s everywhere it’s all around us what covers are the same way and the best thing that you can do is give somebody a break give them some respite give them a thing to look at that is simple that’s direct that they can access and understand in just a second because a second is about how much time they’re going to give it that’s it when I was starting out in the old days as a designer one of my favorite things to do was to go to the mailroom in the college where I worked and I would literally watch people coming this was in the old days when they actually had the walls lined with pigeon holes you know everybody had a box and all your mail got stuffed in there and this room had a trash can that could have had its own zip code it was huge because every person would come in and go to their mailbox and walk over to the trash can and they would start flipping through stuff and 95% of it would be uh nope ‘end and go immediately into the trash and I was working then as the person who was creating fundraising advancement materials and a lot of that’s direct mail you know and the way you design direct mail is a whole lot the same way you design a book cover it is intended you know nobody’s gonna open it they’re gonna look at the front of it and they’re either gonna hang on to it or it’s gonna go right in the trash or in the case of a computer they’re not even gonna stop they’re just gonna keep scrolling so I learned a lot what were the things that people threw away and what were the things they actually picked up and looked at for a second and then threw it away but at least if you get that second if you get them to kind of go oh wow this looks kind of intriguing and then the next thing is do they turn it over or in our case if they’re not in a book store does the cover catch their interest enough that they’re gonna click on it and want to go what is this about this looks really cool you know they might read the blurb then you got them so to me you want to visually give give the consumer give the potential reader a break show them something that’s simple and direct and easy and compelling and accessible clear clean consistent typography there are 800 million typefaces only about 12 of them should ever be used and almost none of them should ever be used in combination you know at the most when you’re doing a book cover you should pick two and that’s it one serif once an serif and use them consistently and make sure they’re readable and when you’re looking at that ever make it as small as you can and see if the title of that book and the author’s name is still readable you know that’s what you want to do so those are the things I look for color back in the days of film when movies were all black and white and the introduction first it was the introduction of sound that changed everything then it was the introduction of color and some of the greatest directors I think it was some the Russian filmmaker Eisenstein is said you should never use color unless it has a reason to be there you know unless it tells you something about the story otherwise it’s just gratuitous well none of us would agree with that now but I remember back in the gosh I think it was in the 70s there wasn’t there was an Italian film called garden of the finzi-continis and it was based on the novel and it’s it’s a it’s a movie about when the Nazis came into Italy and gradually took it over you know they invaded it and they took it over and how all of these wealthy families lived in their bubble and paid noted wealthy Jewish families and paid no attention at all to what was happening they ignored it they didn’t think it was serious they didn’t think it mattered you know until it was too late and of course by the end of the film they were all transported to camps where they died but what the director did in this movie and you weren’t even aware of it when you were watching it as the movie is going on he is gradually sucking the color out of the film and you don’t even realize it until the final scene it’s completely black and white because that’s what happened in their lives you know it went wait so what does that have to do with book covers everything so you need to go back to the Frog you know you need to start with the simplest most basic most direct thing that gets at what is the heart of this book what is the one thing this book is about and then you add things because they need to be there and only because they need to be so let’s talk about people you said in the first episode that you don’t always add people to covers but is this general belief that people uncovers so base of the covers without people I think it probably is I think particularly in certain genres like romance it might be like a chicken and egg thing I’m not really sure if they have to be there or whether we just believe they need to be I’m not sure which one came first it might be because romance novels for so long have been defined in a certain way that if the covers aren’t presented like that I think a lot of times authors fear that a potential reader won’t know the book is a romance because it doesn’t look like other romances so I think there’s that kind of tension going on all the time I think that putting people on covers is fine and and that many times it’s the best approach you can take but I think where it can go off the rails very quickly is when the client whether it’s a publisher or an author becomes very specific about how the people need to look if you’re good you know there’s a there’s like a school of thought that if you put a person on a book cover that person has to look exactly the way the person in the book is described and I think that becomes a problem first of all there are a lot of readers who don’t want you to tell them what the person looks like they want their own idea you know if I say hey this is what I don’t know like a I don’t pick an example like Harry Potter what if the the who did the original Harry Potter cover made him look in a completely different way you know everybody now identifies Harry with the way the kid in all those illustrations looks right but on a romance you know if the if the protagonist is a you know a long leggy you know sultry blonde with long flowing hair and stuff and you you put a person on the cover who looks nothing like that you know then you sort of set up this tension so I generally don’t like putting people on covers for that reason but I do it like I said I think there are times when it’s the most effective approach you can take but when I put people on covers I usually try to use the idea of a generic person versus somebody who is intended to look exactly like the main character if there’s I know there’s also uh I remember there was a session at GCLs a couple years ago about this very thing the trend in particularly in lesbian cover design of the headless woman where the depictions of women are pretty much limited to what I would call their bidness parts you know they’re basically just torsos and that’s kind of icky because it does play into that whole narrative that you know women are just about sex and nothing else about them has any integrity or merit but at the same time I can understand how that happened because probably the authors and the cover designers could never reach consensus on what the person needed that look like you know so we just lop off their head I think that’s pretty accurate yeah and then we get into the thing also where we’ll see lots and lots of romance covers where you only see women from the back or the side like you might actually see the whole figure but it’s not focused on their face or they’re not looking right at you you know they’re never like looking off the cover at you they’re usually staring off to something or you know other technique like that that sort of minimizes the particular attribute the other thing that you get into there I think is the one of the pet peeves I have are these idealized images of women who in my view not only don’t look a whole lot like most of the lesbians I know but who also sort of cross over into some of the potentially unhealthy stereotypes the media and advertising have generally about how women are supposed to look you know we’re all supposed to be swizzle sticks and you know have glamor linked fingernails and you know and and I mean it isn’t the case that there are no women like that in our culture because of course there are but I think that we can you know we need to be careful not to only show that because it you know in some ways we we sort of cross over into the the same sort of unhealthy patterns of identifying women that we’ve all struggled against with men for centuries you know that we’re not just sex objects although I of course I am but well that’s interesting likely because then you absolutely right because the depictions on book covers or what’s appearing in the readers heads if there’s an image of a person right right so young readers as they come into the sake so they start looking at this is what this is the model why should be this is even if it’s a subconscious thing right there’s an element to of you know when you think about younger readers there’s so much we just don’t know about you know the the demographics of who is reading what and how people select the things they want to read like I know I would love to have some good credible information about young adult literature which is huge but I honestly I confessed it I have next to no information about how people we would classify as young adult readers select the books they buy what do they look for and I understand the value of wanting to see books that look like they’re about people like me and I remember in the early days when I first discovered lesbian literature you know back in the what 80s I guess I was a late bloomer I was I was actually a thirty thirty-one years old when I realized I was a lesbian and went and got a job a part-time job in a gay bookstore because I knew nothing about it and I remember the books that were available then and they all none of them had women on covers I mean unless you read like patka Livia or something you know most of them had these very smooth pastel you know beatific little you know landscape scenes you know with like sunsets and stuff so there was like no depict mean it wasn’t like you would go find a book that had women who looked like you on it cuz that just didn’t exist so I do appreciate that there’s a value to that you know that you want to go and find books that tell stories that talk about the experiences of women who are like you you know who have things in common with you to a point but also when you’re in that young adult phase you are looking for models people who you can emulate people who you can become especially if you’re like I was the only gay person in my entire family and I had no friends and I had nobody to you know so lesbian fiction was where I emulated for a long time I was that was my model right you know and it’s I mean and you know I remember – I remember all the books I started reading and thankfully you know many of those books are written by authors who are still writing today but you know for the most part they they told stories about women who were idealized I don’t I feel like we’re veering off topic here but I guess that’s okay but I’m but I mean like you know they were they were these very sort of idealized stories about really beautiful compliment who just discovered that they loved other women but they but that was kind of where the similarity stopped you know so I don’t know I mean I think its attention for us I think as our as ours as we begin to tell different kinds of stories now because now we can get married now we can have children we can adopt children we make families and guess what we get divorced so there’s that whole thing now right how do you write about that you’ve got to tell those stories many of us now are at the time in our lives when we’re thinking about things like long-term care I don’t have anybody to take care of me you know or come in and manage my you know I’ve Salem of course but we don’t have children you know so you begin to sort of look around you it and all the things you’ve collected you know in your lifetime that matter and you know one day unless I go out in a blaze of glory which is my plan you know I’m gonna end up in a nursing home somewhere we need to write about that what’s that like we’re to get people go where do we go you know are there places that will let you know lesbian couples be together there are they’re expensive way expensive but you know those are parts of life experience that are now part of our culture and and they need to become part of our literature and the way we talk and write about ourselves but you know a lot of people don’t would read that stuff yeah I remember what kg McGregor taught me a long time ago and she said this very lovingly I mean it wasn’t critical at all but she talked about her one-handed readers who think about that that’s a reality and that’s a that’s a needle you know that those of us who are writing and those of us who are designing the front doors that go on these stories that’s a needle that we all have to thread you’re listening to the lesbian talk-show the lesbians or choke on your hub of podcast information okay so let’s talk about designing covers for the erotic literature I mean what are you doing differently to romance what’s fundamentally the difference between those two between romance and erotic literature covers can i I can’t joke and say the lighting you know again I don’t know that I’ve ever done a well yeah I have maybe gosh in my career maybe I’ve done like one or two covers for erotic books I don’t consider that a strong suit of mine probably because you know probably because I don’t really read or you know eroticism it did not say in the world wrong with it I mean it isn’t like I have an issue with it it just isn’t a sub-genre or genre that I know a lot about I would suppose that and for the couple of books where I have worked on those I’ve tried to do things that are more graphically evocative you know maybe more dramatic use of color maybe lower contrast and images and maybe things that sort of hint at what you cannot see because that’s kind of where that lit you know that’s where that lives so versus a romance where mostly with a romantic book or story you want to stick with a lighter color palette you want to try to you want to try to use imagery and typography in a way that’s warm and you know embracing and uplifting versus sort of ponderous I think I’m many many romance writers have a real fondness or cursive typefaces because they have a belief that that there’s something about that kind of florid writing you know that’s really consistent with the idea of romance I don’t really agree with that but I understand it you know because it is so prevalent in the genre and that probably is you know they’ll talk about a card player who has a towel you know like a facial tack or if they get a really good hand you know their nose twitches or something like that so I mean I do think that in cover design there are some towels that you can build into the way you approach it that are going to tip a reader off immediately that that’s what this book is so they’d be things like a softer color palette sometimes images that are have liked the design equivalent of a ghost filter you know and generally a combination of fonts that will include at least one typeface that has some sort of floor at or handwritten element I whereas with erotic novels I would tear erotic literature I would tend to think of covers that are more suggestive you know kind of murkier probably collisions of colors versus harmonious I’m probably gonna get pilloried for this don’t hire me for that okay so let’s talk about some of the towels for the other genres what about a drama oh you know there I think in a lot of cases for a book that’s like a thriller or a mystery I got to do several covers for Ellen Hart and I’m loved designing her covers because and I’m not the person who created her brand either but you know I inherited it a really fine designer name I think I think it was Bonnie list who actually originally created sort of the brand I’m not talking about the st. Martin’s covers which and that’s sort of would be an interesting laboratory thing to discuss Ellen’s ebooks are produced by st. Martin’s Press they do not do paperbacks by water did Ellen Hart’s paperbacks so by water had the contract for those so the paperback designs were always completely different from the e-book covers that st. Martin’s we do but in her paperback designs to me they were really really effective ingenious the designer who originally created the brand used very dramatic black-and-white photography usually showing one person or one element and then there is a spot color one spot color that comes into play somewhere in the photograph one of the covers I got to do for her was for her novel taken by the wind about a young boy who’s kidnapped and I used a really stark black-and-white photo of he’s probably 12 years old you know 10 or 12 year old boy part of his face is cut off so you see half of his face and I have one tear coming down his cheek that’s blood and that’s it that’s the only image on the cover and then the rest of it is her brand you know where it has her name the title of the book so to me when you’re talking about a book that’s you know mystery a drama thriller you want to pair the elements down you want to try to evoke a sense of dramatic intensity through sparing use of color and images that have really high contrast almost if you go back and think about you know film noir all those wonderful old Bogart movies Broderick Crawford or Lauren Bacall all that you know that kind of where they always had this really dramatic my Eden big shadows and then I would use always very very sort of clear maybe almost blocky typography versus something fussy which my definition suggests that the content of book is later to me okay and then this is something like cometh yeah comedy I think you can have a blast with honestly you know a lot of my books are humorous usually they combine both elements as comedy and drama and I try to you know weave them so they work back and I always try to think of it as like boxing you know where you’re dancing around somebody and you’re feigning and you’re feigning and you’re feigning and then you land a punch and then you go away from them and you dance a little more you know so to me approaching cover design is the same it’s the same way but you want a little bit of liveliness you want a little bit more action and animation you know in the cover for something that’s funny I think particularly with humorous books is to not it’s an opportunity to do something really fun with the type like let the type be the design do something funky with the letters like drop one of the letters so it’s kind of hanging out of the title you know or put something in there that’s backwards you know that kind of thing so I try to do that my favorite covers are the ones that are driven almost entirely by the typography rather than the image I don’t know are you familiar with the cover for Anna Burke’s book compass rose mmm that’s one of the best covers I’ve ever designed I just love that company and it was a hard sell it was a hard sell to me with the publisher and the author to get them to agree with the fact that I broke the title of the book not between the syllables you know I did it intentionally so the way the words broke was was really like off kilter and you really had to look at it kind of go what is you know but I felt like it worked because to me it said everything about that the plot of that book and about that main character Rose for whom navigation and knowing exactly where she is at any moment is instinctual to her but in a private life is completely at sea and has no clue she is so trying to come up with something that would really evoke the tension between those two things you know when I put those jellyfish in the background you know because they’re kind of what in her book they’re sort of like the plague of the sea the bad guys who can sink any ship so that’s why I did that I intentionally broke the words in wrong places to send that message about this character that’s pretty cool yeah I loved doing that with type it’s my favorite thing you know the type has to be there make it do the heavy lifting and I would say this to authors work with somebody to help you come up with the right title for your book because usually the author is the worst person to do that and there’s a joke at Bywater like our authors a lot of them will say I’m not even gonna put a title on this because I know you’re going to change it you know but it’s sometimes your debts better for you sometimes it’s better to let somebody else say no this title really works better for the story you’re telling you know when it’s gonna be quick and direct and people are gonna get it and plus I can do really cool things with it so you ideally like shorter titles because long titles are cumbersome on covers they are they’re way cumbersome there’s like a level of sophistication that comes in to picking the right title of your book that relates to what’s the term it’s not like algorithm it’s it’s like it’s like some kind of search metadata thing like you don’t want the you know because they’re gonna be eight hundred thousand trillion million books that begin with the word they so you want to try to come up with titles that are going to you know I think there’s actually a psychology to naming conventions like it’s really good to have the first letter of your title being a you know because it’s going to work it’s going to float right to the top and any kind of search you know thing like that so yeah so I mean I think shorter titles are better I think subtitles are useful in historical monographs and academic work but if you’ve got to add a subtitle to the title of your book you don’t know what your book is about this is that’s like you know simple pare it down take things away the exceptions are that could be if it’s part of a series and what the series title only that’s true and you can do that I mean there are ways you can do that you can put it up you know you put it on there small you track it out across the bottom and you know that other things about about a series brand you know there are other we talked about like tells the card player has you know when you do a brand for a series you’re going to standardize the placement of the elements the author’s name is going to be in the same place on every cover the title is going to be in the same place on every cover the style of imagery will be the same it can be different it can be a bit obviously it would be a different image but on ellen Hart’s book the style of the images is the same on every book you know you’re going to have a black and white image that’s really compelling with some piece of it pulled out and presented in a contrasting color the front of the author’s name and the front of the tarsal will be keeping them the same okay I keep them the same in terms of where they are you know their placement and how you deal with them is the author’s name always in all caps then it needs to be presented exactly like that on every book you know you wouldn’t put it in all caps on one book in an upper and lower case on the second book and have it at the top on one book and at the bottom on the next book you want to standardize those elements so that when someone is looking for I don’t know if I’ve read all of the Jane Wallace books you know that you can you look at them all and you can you can tell oh I read this one not this one this one’s red this one’s blue this lime-green this one’s cute that kind of thing and you know you can do something too with the particular way you Brandt like George beers hired me to actually brand her name you know so that her name looks exactly the same on every one of her books and that’s a really good thing to do particularly I think when you were as successful in his prolific an author as she is and people want to find her stuff so I was thrilled to work on that with her and you know I found a perfect typeface that isn’t one that’s used much at all I mean it’s not like a common one that you see I made sure that I got one that had you know they’re called ligatures you know I got her permission actually to purchase this font family because it was expensive and made it clear that I would only use it for her and then when I created her author brand I spent hours turning and putting the letters together in a certain way you know so that some of them overlap each other you know so that now when you see that you know immediately that that’s a Georgia viewers blog it’s a great brand it’s it’s strong it shows that it’s a romance author not a thriller worker right what I would love to have someone say about me as a cover designer is that I had really good typography you know that I did I use type well that it’s clean and it’s clear and that I understand how to use it that’s what I would like at the end of my life if anyone ever cares to give me an epitaph that’s what I would like to hear Wow boy she really knew how to work with tight I would feel like I had done my job but but what I would say about thoughts you know we talked a little bit earlier on about stock art where to get good stock art images and the difference between high quality and not-so-great and making sure that you’re appropriately licensing things and not just grabbing them you know without paying and all of that what I would say about typefaces is is the same thing the internet is flooded with sites that offer free fonts you can go and you can find a knockoff typeface for just about anything that you’re going to be able to download for free well here’s the issue some of those are created by people who intentionally are ripping off something else that another person designed and if you don’t pay attention a lot of times when they say that they make the fun available for free what they mean is it’s free for you to use for personal use so Sheena you want to make yourself a new resume and there’s a typeface you really like but you don’t want to go and pay 150 dollars for it so you look around and it you know the font or one of these other sites you find a free typeface that looks just like it and it says it’s free you download it and you use it well that font is free for you to use as long as you don’t create a product or put it on something that’s going to be sold those fonts are protected against that so if you read the fine print a lot of times it’ll say free for personal use but you can’t put it on a book cover that’s illegal and a lot of times the people who create those fonts will code them down inside all the weird computer stuff that none of us get to see they’ll actually code the fonts so that they won’t embed which means if I have a copy of Photoshop and I want to make a book cover and I pull this typeface in or I’m doing cover and you know PowerPoint or you mentioned CorelDraw or what you know some other program and it looks perfect to you and you output it and then the typeface looks fit backed or fuzzy or it doesn’t render correctly well the reason is because that font is not free to use for production you know they designed them so that you cannot embed the font in a PDF or you know a high-res any kind of high-res output for printing so that’s another thing to watch out for you know if you’re using free fonts and everybody does people just don’t think about it you know it’s like the Wild West out there but I use real typefaces that I own the license too you know so I know that when I put it in a file and the publisher or the author takes that file and uploads it you know – 8 – LSI or you know Kindle Dirac door sends it to a conventional printer that that font is going to render and print exactly the way it should which makes things and it’s sent it to two images the lot of the free sites that you can use images for you conexu use them for anything that you’re gonna make money off of that’s right and they’re clear about that and just because it says it’s free to download you make sure that you go and read that’s with that fine print you know there is like a two-edged sword first of all nobody wants to get sued for copyright infringement nobody wants that secondly you don’t want to go grab an image that you know is 75 other people are going to use on their cover because it was free which happens in this it really does happen a lot it really surprises me because I mean I know that you know in the aggregate we publish lots and lots and lots of books but boy we shouldn’t we shouldn’t see the same images used over and over on as small as as relatively small as our community is that’s all for this week and thank you so much for joining me thank you I’m Sheena and this has been the great cover-up with Ed McMahon you can find links to U and McMahon’s online presence in the show notes as well as a link to our patreon page if you love the content we create and want to support us that’s where you go it’s slash the lesbian talk show not only can you help us expand our shows but you get exclusive content too that’s all for today join us next week for episode 3 bye [Music]