Author InterviewsInterviewsPodcastsThe Great Cover-Up with Ann McMan

Finalising Your Book Cover

This is the final episode of  The Great Cover-Up with Ann McMan in which we talk about Finalising Your Book Cover.

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:

  • How much is enough? How much is too much?
  • The ransom note method of design and why it’s terrible
  • Cover design for digital vs printed books
  • The two biggest mistakes people make on covers
  • Using a pre-done cover design service
  • How to use your cover to maximum impact in your marketing
  • The Back cover and the spine
  • How much time should you allow for cover design?

Listen to this episode here

Find Ann Online





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 and thrilled episode three and we’re talking about finalizing the cover at what point do you know that the cover is done from my perspective now that’s a good that’s a really interesting question because there actually really is a process for that usually when I start working on a cover and I don’t send these all to the author which is probably they would love it if I would but I don’t I’ll do several different covers like several different approaches to get at the one that I think is right and I will generally make a decision about the right kind of typeface first here is how I want to present the title and this is what I want to do with the letters and then I work on finding exactly the right kind of image to get or combination in my case it’s usually combination of images I tend to like take several images and marry them together in some way I’m a big fan of that I kind of like sort of being able to see through one image to another you know like that kind of thing and so I’ll try several approaches and usually what we’re when I know that I’m done when I think I’m done is when I take enough away that I’ve got it sort of pared down to the most essential elements sometimes you have to start with a whole lot more and then start peeling stuff off to get to that perfect place so when I feel like I’ve come up with something where the the graphic image that I’ve created were found or made is working perfectly with the way the title is presented and that the things are in the right positions you know because when you’re when you’re doing graphic design you have to appreciate that there’s an editorial function that has to come into play it isn’t just what’s the best picture and you know what with the author’s name you have to kind of look at the composition in a way to try to anticipate the way a viewer is going to get the information what do you want them to see first when they look at the cover and there are some design tricks that dictate how that works generally if you have something white your eye automatically goes to the white thing first so I try to use that I might put depending on who it is I might put the author’s name in white you know I might pick one word of the you know something like that so when I feel like I’ve reached the place where there isn’t anything else I can do to it or take away that I feel like okay there it is you know this is exactly right and then I’ll send it off and wait and I found that when I hear back immediately it’s usually because I got it right and the person is really happy and that generally the longer it takes to get feedback no it could just be that you know I have so much damage that I don’t understand delayed gratification it makes no sense to me you know like I knew things immediately right so I have almost no appreciation for people who have you know the the self-control or you know thoughtful process where they can have a reaction and then think I’m going to live with this for a day or two I mean they’re kind of like objects in a museum to me I don’t understand that but but you know I’ve found that the longer it takes for somebody to get back to me that usually it’s gonna be because the cover just ain’t working they probably have to sit and figure out why they don’t like the coven what feedback they can give to you yeah well that’s true too and you know and I I think I also have to own that you know I have a pretty strong personality and it’s probably not always easy for people to come back and go yeah this really sucks you know I really don’t know like I like this you know so I mean I think sometimes people are you know just trying to sort of let me down gently you know but you know what a lot of times they just have a better sense of what they think represents the material than I took away from what they told me do they get to see any progress between talking to you initially and the in product that you send them nope you know I just don’t share that like you know and yeah I’ll tell you the reason I think a lot of that comes from having a 40-year career you know as a professional designer because within the business and any designer will tell you this even the really fate like you could you could interview chip kid and he will tell you that if he sends several approaches to somebody they will always pick the worst one always or every designers nightmare they’ll say I really like the picture on this one and the tight on this one but I like this color I call that the ransom note method of design you know where you sit down with scissors and a bunch of magazines and you cut stuff out you know and try to put so so I’m I’m a you know it’s so working with me is not always a cakewalk you know because I don’t do that I’m not gonna send you here are the seven or eight approaches I’m thinking about I don’t even send people things like here are the images I found you know and I think one of these might work is there one you like better I don’t even do that I’m actually really sort of possible you know I just kind of mess with it and I come up with what I think based on what they told me and based on the research I did and based you know what I know about the genre and the other books they’ve written you know I try to come up with what I think is gonna you know and then and I and I generally find that if you have trouble getting answers from people about those questions on the front end all you have to do to get them to tell you what you really need to know is send them something that doesn’t work and then suddenly they are so articulate you know about exactly what they want in the waist dismiss the mark do you even if you’re struggling to get the information you need out of your clothes do you ever send them like a dummy cover I have done that honestly there have been times where it has been so difficult to really get you know like oh I’ll continue to push and ask and say I need you to tell me what this book is about and all I get is a plot summary you know when if I push and say well no I understand that you know I get that this happens and this happens and this happens and this happens and this happens but but like what is the overarching message of the book what is it about you know and sometimes I just can’t tease that out of them so there have been occasions where I’ve just made something in Senate because a lot of times that really does work you know people can that it’s like suddenly they find the vocabulary once they say something you know to kind of say no no no you know it isn’t this it’s this and I’m like oh okay okay but you know why that happens is because you have a superpower that not all of us had I wasn’t I wasn’t insane there are people who can visualize something from the knee and then there are people who caught and I know this because I have worked with a lot of people who can visualize something from the knee like yourself and I am NOT one of those people so if somebody describes something to me then unless I’m actually looking at it I actually can’t really picture it in my head and they said I’ve got some sort of reference you know I wonder if I um you know if I would be really well served to have to you’ll have to charge me for this it’s like therapy you know like if I would be really well served to try to learn that you know about a person I’m working with like like I don’t know how that like what’s your learning style like how do you you know how do you what like maybe ask if I’m gonna do a cover for you you know say Shanna what would be most helpful for you to see from you know you know to know that we’re moving in the right direction well okay so most people don’t know whether they’re all visually able to do this or not I have just with a lot of people so this is how I know I’m not able to do this I think most people think that they can do it but they actually quote I think that’s true – if I was to to work with you I would probably give you a mood board type deal and say this is kind of the five I want so I like that that would be helpful you know Rachel Spangler did that one time with one of her books and it really was useful because it was I don’t know if it was like a Pinterest thing or you know whatever she had done but um you know she sent me a link to it and I went up there and looked and then and it really was informative I mean it really helped me think okay at least this is how she understands you know what the story in her book is about these are the big motifs these are the themes you know these are the kinds of images that resonated for her and that I was able to take those and come up with a creative solution because it is like puzzle it’s a lot like solving a puzzle you know finding the right combination of pieces that fit together and you know make make something that’s evocative of what what this book does now design is funny three difficult to book with me because I give them a kind of a feeling I want and then make them go away and do something and then only afterwards I can say okay no it needs to be angry or it needs to be whatever it is right but that would be helpful you know if you came back to me and said this needs to be angrier I would know what that meant I would know visually how to try to start getting at that I would just channel my mother one of the other challenges I think that exists for many authors probably particularly for authors who self publish is cost we know we talked a little bit about audiobooks and and how expensive they are to produce and and you know where that what that equalization point is where you recover up front costs to do it and then you actually start making money the same thing is true for not just for a publisher but for an individual who’s putting out their own book they gotta pay all the freight they gotta pay the somebody that typeset it and somebody proofread it and you know maybe somebody to edit it and then they have to pay to have a cover designed unless they do it on their own and all that stuff really adds up and then there are the peripheral expenses like how much does it cost to get the piece of stock you know will they have to pay that if they work with me they’re gonna get a break because I have a subscription account with Getty Images and I don’t mark the art up I just it’s more of a pass-through cost all of that stuff really adds up and and they’re just you know for a lot of people it’s just prohibitive what can you realistically charge what does the market bear when do you price yourself out in my case my goal is to try to do things that raise all the boats in the harbor you know not just make one really good cover but hopefully help enough people get hopefully better and more thoughtfully designed covers that will lift our whole genre up you know because my hope is that if we get better at how we present ourselves a lot of times what’s inside the cover is is without blemish and those books deserve to have absolutely the best looking front door they can have absolutely without a decent cover you’re never gonna crush into mainstream and we have to and we have to because the stories were telling are important and they matter you know so I do this because I want to help people you know get that I want to help them get the attention and the notice and the recognition they ought to have so I try not to charge too much I certainly don’t charge what I could be charging but gosh then I would do no work because people just can’t afford it absolutely okay so let’s talk about the technical aspects of printing and we’re gonna display and how the images relate and all that stuff yeah there are some nuances there like if you’re gonna if you’re gonna hire somebody to work on your cover talk with them on the front end about how you’re gonna have the book produced if it’s gonna go straight to ebook only and you’re not going to do print the cover designers should know that because one of the things that tells me and that doesn’t happen very often most people will do paperbacks at some level even if they’re just print on demand but when you’re doing things that are only going to be viewed on a computer screen or on a phone you can get away with so much more then you can in print for one thing you’re working in a different color space you know you’re working in RGB and RGB because that’s the color space that a computer monitor lives in that’s how it it’s like the difference between additive and subtractive color which nobody needs to understand but when you’re dealing with things that are only gonna be viewed on like let’s say an artificial medium you know a phone or screen you can just you can use outrageous colors that are bright and and almost neon and they’re gonna keep that integrity you know that’s not going to change well if you design that or the e-book and then you have to translate that into a CMYK cyan magenta yellow and black color space for printing because things that go on paper live in a different color space than things that are backlighting on the monitor you there’s no equalizer that printed piece is not going to look like the e-book cover unless you would have both for the pen tones well even the Pantone’s ink is not light you know what I mean it’s not in pixels you know what is one is additive one is subtractive they have different primary colors you know so if I do a cover and I use like a flaming lime-green which I used on Rachael Spangler’s book love all is a black-and-white photograph with that bright bright lime green type at the top in the in the e-book that color just vibrated it did exactly what I wanted it to do I wanted it to look like a tennis ball that was coming at your face and then when I had to translate that design to CMYK to print the paperbacks those colors flatten right out they just flatten right out and even using a spot color doesn’t make any difference because ink on paper does not react the same way as light on a computer screen it’s just totally different so you need to know those things on the front end and you need to make sure one of the things that I do when I’m designing a cover I toggle back and forth between the color spaces like I create the design in RGB and then I’ll toggle to CMYK and see what happens to it and invariably it’s almost like you take a oh I don’t know like a sheer curtain or something and put it on top of the design because everything just gets darker and flatter it just does and then that’s where you really have to go to work you know as a designer you have to learn the tricks and the things that exist for you that you can do that are going to try to recreate the way the thing looked originally I spend hours doing that do you consider the fact that on the Kindle the covers all black and white yeah yeah I think that kind of sucks I mean and I know that that’s really a function of the device and not the medium you know if you’ve got like a paperwhite or whatever they’re called you know it just doesn’t have the ability to render color but it is good to know that like if someone tells me I want to make sure that the cover you design is gonna render well when it’s converted to black and white you know in fact I don’t know that anyone has ever asked me to do that but they should you know they should ask me they should ask me to go ahead and make them a black and white version of their color because when I do that you know we put a lot of times that by water we’ll put ads in the backs of our books or other titles and I have to do it for those I’ve got to go and take the original color file and adjust it so it has good mid-tones and good contrast and doesn’t just turn into this blob that’s it yeah that’s a good question okay so what have common mistakes and how do you avoid them there are two that I would identify the I think the most common mistakes are trying to pack too many elements onto a cover you know trying to show too much trying to tell everything you know about the story in a cover image instead of just trying to communicate one thing because trying to communicate one thing is always going to work better for you and you should push yourself to figure out what that one thing is an oddity whatever that one thing is it needs to emote something in the view it up it does what what emotion do you want them to have you know like you talked about uh maybe I want maybe I want this to look angrier or maybe I want it to be you know optimistic or poignant or maybe it’s about somebody who’s recovering from great loss you know there are things you can do that will speak to that you know that might be might be a simple image that still speaks to hope or promise so I think the most common mistakes would be trying to put too much on there trying to overlay the cover with too much detail which no one’s going to get no one’s ever going to get that the only one who would ever get that is the author which is a good reason for a lot of times why the author that the author needs to be involved but they shouldn’t drive the process because they’re too close to the content the author should recuse and then the second greatest pitfall is appropriate typography you want to have typography that works not just with the content of the cover with what the book is about but that’s readable that’s clear that’s accessible you know that is readable at full size and is readable at a thumbnail size which by definition means you need to pair things down and make them simpler I have a great I have a great example I remember this from a hundred years ago I was working for a college in Greensboro about an hour from here and I used to have to go and do on press checks for big printing projects and you know they would start running these jobs and they would run them 24 hours a day and when they had a new form ready they would just call you if it was 3 o’clock in the morning you got up you got in your car you drove over there you went in and you stood and you looked and you check the color and all this other jazz well I had a back way that I would go back and forth to this printing company it was almost always in the middle of night and there was this one place on the outskirts of the city that I would pass and it was this ramshackle white just beat-up business that repaired cracked diesel engine blocks for trucks so like some big truck blows the head gasket and then you send the whole engine in and this place fixes it you know they machine it they do whatever out in front they had giant engine hoist you know with halves of big truck engines hanging there and the name of this business was Greensboro Diesel crack repair that was the name of the company their sign I’m not making this up their sign was in wedding script so I mean I would see that and I’d be like who thought that made sense you know there’s this like fussy little with all these curly cues you know and then you look at what they do you know so to me that was always my my kind of mantra for making sure that the font choice really fits you know the content of what you’re doing so I see I see covers many times done by other designers other designers who do lots and lots and lots of covers and you know sometimes I’ll look at one and think wow you know they they nailed that that image is perfect but oh my word that typeface is horrible sometimes I think that’s a function of the computer I really do I think that computers have just like across-the-board desensitized us so that we don’t think as deeply about those questions as we once did it’s just kind of like I’ll just type it in there and the way the letters display is the way they display rather than kind of looking at it and saying wow I could park a Buick between the first two you know I’m gonna go in there and I’m gonna tighten this up and I’m gonna you know mess with the letters to get them exactly right so they nest exactly the way they should to me those are the two big ones too many elements and poor typography I can see a case for it what would you say selling the wrong concept is something that I struggle with with covers so images that evoke the wrong emotion so you expect a book that’s going to take you on a horror ride and you get a book that’s actually a romance with a slide for a theme I got you yeah I got you yeah that’s pretty serious and you know one or two like I know it’s a temptation for for some people and it might it might just be a function of the economy to use a cover design service and they’re out there you know any cover is a hundred bucks or whatever you know and there are just hundreds and hundreds to hundreds of them and you scroll through and pick one that you think oh this one’s cool and it just says your name your title you know and it already has the image and you just get the book and put your name where it says your name and your title and you’re done so I think there’s probably you know there’s a real danger there too you know that you’re going to end up with things that don’t exactly speak to what your book is really about differently alright so let’s talk about now you’ve got your cover and you have your cover and how are you using it in your marketing what can you taste you know I think there’s a lot of missed opportunities like I know it’s becoming popular for many authors to when you know maybe they have a book page or an author page like on Facebook or you know they have Twitter accounts that are specific to their writing versus their personal but but I do think it’s really good to think in terms of having a synergy among all of those platforms if you’re going to use whatever your new release is to kind of drive your marketing effort if you want to tailor everything around what you’ve created that it behooves you on the front end to talk with somebody about creating that family of materials for you you know I want to cover on one ebook I want a paperback I want an audio book cover I want a face book cover in I want a cover image for my Twitter feed I want a couple of web ads so I mean that’s one thing that I would suggest and you can do that I mean particularly if you’re you know if you’re like a Melissa braying George beers and you’re so well branded so that people can pick your books out of a police lineup you know they have great opportunities to have those things created in whatever their new book is is always going to be consistent and fit right in you know so I would try to do that and I think that becomes especially important if you get into branding if you want to brand yourself as an author then you want to make sure that you consistently carry that brand through and you absolutely want to do that because it gives you professionalism that otherwise you like I think so and I like doing that for people I don’t have I don’t have a lot of authors who really ask me to do things beyond just their covers you know periodically someone will come and say do me a facebook cover do me you know do me a series of ads you know do me a creative postcard do this do that no it’s a great thing to do you’re listening to the lesbian talk show the lesbian talk show calm your hub of podcast information you know it’s like almost like a catchphrase that sometimes appears on covers so it’s like cover title and then a little thing saying John saves the world from zombies or whatever it is those are those funny things do you work with them do you recommend them do you not I have had I have used them in the past because authors have asked me to include that as an element I find those things to be somewhat cumbersome and again because they’re usually not very intelligible at a really small size you know stuff like that tends to just fall off and I will sometimes try to push people to migrate content like that to the back cover or to the blurb you know if somebody’s going to click on your cover to get more information then you want is gonna save the world from zombies you know to be what the biggest thing so that that’s kind of I mean I think about those the way I think about subtitles you know like if you have to tack one on maybe what you need is a better title okay but that’s just my designing ebook covers is very different from designing print covers also because you have the Beca cover in the spine yeah and it’s hard for me to imagine why so many people think the back cover is just a throwaway and that’s not unusual I mean that’s not unusual in the industry that there are many authors and many publishers who really do next to nothing with the back covers and I don’t know whether that’s because they don’t expect to sell very many paperbacks versus the large quantities of e-books they might move so they don’t really worry about the back cover but to me it’s a big piece of real estate and it really needs to do some work for you so I you know except when I’m directed not to when the back cover of a book is proscribed and has to look exactly the same way you know and I can’t do anything with it I always try to design the back cover I I think of it as an extension of what’s on the front you know because to me the the greatest thing in the world is when somebody picks the book up and turns it over cuz you’ve almost got them right yes because I’m not even convinced people necessarily read all the text on the back cover I think they may read the first couple of lines but look at the the image of rule and it’s it’s at that point that pushes the sale I think so too and they might like drop their I don’t read the bio of the author and you know it says Rachel Spangler is the author of you know 14 novels and you know forgive me I don’t know the exact I know it’s a lot but you know I mean you might go oh yeah I read that one I really loved it or at the top you have praise for and it would either be the last book they wrote you know that says per command of the English language as they’re her characters come life and leap from the page and blah blah blah and you recognize the names if it says Tara Scott the lesbian review I know I’m gonna buy it you know so yeah that kind of stuff really does matter and I think that and I you know and and no designer should charge you to do that like you hire me to do your book cover you’re gonna get the back designed that’s part of it you get the front you get the back you get the spine you know you get you get the high-res jpg for the e-book you know I’ll do the audio cover for next to nothing if you need one you know so I just think all of that it’s I think it’s a real missed opportunity if you don’t design the back and the spine because show us enough so often it’s sitting in the bookcase with the spine out and that’s in bookstores that’s in all these visible areas so your friend comes over and all they see is the spine you you have an opportunity to sell this book to your friend as well and how do you do that you do that by making sure that they can a read what’s on the spine which should inform the typeface you use and that’s when it becomes really valuable I think to try to brand the name of the author well and you have to make a decision about which thing you want to dominate on the spine you know is that the title is it the author’s name there’s always going to be some kind of publisher imprint logo and this is another thing that I do I also design logos I mean I I don’t just do book covers I do everything you know and when I work on logo designs an imprint designs for publishers I give them every conceivable permutation of a logo they could possibly need vertical horizontal you know square color black and white just a symbol that doesn’t have any writing you know something like that so that you can you know they’re sub polishers do an excellent job with their with their brand you know they’ll love bold strokes by water I think you know I think a nilva I think too but they do a really good job so that if you see a little yellow you know box with a BB you know on it you know it’s a Bella book if you see the triangle you know it’s a bold stroke you know if by water you see the little lighthouse so I think those things really matter to you don’t just take your full-size logo you know from the back and try to squeeze it into this tiny little spine this is not gonna look like anything no and a branding of publishing houses is important I know that’s the big publishing houses in the sector I’m more likely to pick up their books than some unknown publishing house yeah because you feel like okay you want you probably understand that they meet certain thresholds yeah we’re editing you know if you know production you know that there that it there’s probably a greater likelihood that you’re gonna like the book or at least respect the way the book was produced because you have that understanding about what they put out some of the other things that are interesting to have to think about when you approach a cover is the way some publishers now the publisher brands to cover so it’s not just the author brand you know where they have like the part of their logo or something appears prominently on the front bold shirt says that and you know I understand the reason for that as a designer I don’t really like having to work around that because I feel like that actually pulls you out of I guess it depends on the editorial voice that you want to have and I understand perfectly the need to let a potential buyer know immediately for the reasons we just identified that this is a book from this publisher and that should tell me these top-level things so maybe having that on there works on that level as a designer and not as an auditor I have to say that I really don’t like working around those because usually those things are they occupy a certain color space that flicks with you no and you have to be really careful about the placement of other elements so that you don’t run into that all that chess but I do appreciate why it’s there I think it’s the same theory as why you brand a Steven Spielberg film as a Steven Spielberg film exactly it’s exactly it’s exactly the same thing no angry and is anything else you feel we need to cover I don’t know like can I actually ever say anything that’s not a compound sentence no I mean I I thank you I this has been wonderful and it’s been a great exercise for me to actually have to sit and think about this stuff cuz you you know how it is right you just you kind of just do things and sometimes you don’t step back and remind yourself of why you make the choices you make it’s why I like having conversations like this is because you can sit and and plunder the greatest things in life well one could only hope that a good cover is one of the great things in life I happen to it is okay answer wait can people find you and what do they need to do if they want something designed by you oh well the easiest way to find me is to email me and McMahon at you can send me a Facebook message sometimes I go up there if you ask Lynne a so I’d go about twice a year but just email me is send me a message ask me and you know one thing we didn’t talk about is how much time you should allow okay you know at what point in the process I think once your book is maybe in its final sort of editorial flow and you have a pretty clear sense that nothing epic about the book is going to change that that’s a great time to get talking about a cover I know that there are many people who move whose processes are so fast that there’s never a bunch of lead time that they pretty much go from by finished writing it it’s going to come out next month but then there are other places like by water and I’m sure bold strokes and Bella and it will own some of the Sapphire and some of the other desert palm and they work more ahead so that at any one time they’re working on books that are going to come out next year so they’d have a lot more time but I think as soon as you know that your book is kind of in the can in terms of what its gonna be it’s a great time to begin talking about it I don’t know about other designers I work really fast generally if somebody approaches me and needs a cover I hope nobody comes up and you know bites me on the butt for this but for the most part I usually turn them around in in a couple weeks so it’s pretty fast unless we have to go in and do rounds and rounds of changes but I think that in a perfect world you should give your designer 30 to 60 days to do it and that’s it to me that’s a generous amount of time depending on what that person’s workload is like you know it’s usually not good to approach somebody about creating cover two weeks before the publication date so you might want to give yourself a little more latitude than that but anyway I work fast just shoot me an email and and ask and I almost never say no unless it’s just something that I know is a bad fit for me and I’m honest about that there are just some things I won’t be good at you’ll design company is called tree house studio it is tree house studio then you design everything I do everything I do book covers I do logos I do you know branding packages brochures I do tremendous amount I do fundraising materials I work for a lot of nonprofits a lot of them because I just like to I also do a lot of pro bono stuff you know I I do a lot of design work for lambda literary and a lot for golden brown literary society as a volunteer because I think that’s the right thing to do I’m also a real sucker if you’re doing a book an anthology or something and you’re trying to raise money for a cause I I really try to work with people on that you know and charge if they’re not going to make any money then and and they’re trying to raise money to benefit something you know a scholarship whatever I like to try to collaborate fabulous 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 Anne McMahon you can find links to you 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 bye [Music]