Saturday, October 6, 2007

Ten Questions for a Cover Designer

Odyssey Reviews caught up with cover designer Cathi Stevenson and we lobbed our ten questions at her:

Odyssey Reviews: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and what compelled you to become a book cover designer?
I've always been interested in design and advertising and it seemed no matter what careers I embarked upon, I always ended up back in this industry.

Odyssey Reviews: What genre of book do you enjoy designing for most?
I like non-fiction because I like the structure that is usually involved in the design of non-fiction, although it competes with my love of grunge, that I rarely get to do.

Odyssey Reviews: What are, in your opinion, the most important qualities for a great book cover?
There are just so many things that can contribute to a good, strong design and it's not always possible to employ every one on the same cover. Ultimately, it's what works for the market. While a brooding, artistic painting might get rave reviews and be the perfect design choice for one book, the same design could hurt the sales of the book beside it. Sometimes, just a plain cover with the title grabbing the browser's eye is the recipe for success. It depends on the market and on the book. It's often a balance, but the main thing is that the cover looks professional. Nothing will do more harm to a publisher's image than something that looks like it should be on the front of a fourth-grader's history project.

A good case study in this is with The Little Book That Beats the Market (Wiley, 2005). It wasn't doing very well at all until they redesigned the cover and coordinated it with their marketing efforts. After the redesign, the book became a hit and much of the credit has been given to the new look.

Odyssey Reviews: In your opinion, what are the worst mistakes an author can make in designing his or her book?
Using clip-art, or 3d images in the wrong way; unprofessional fonts; layouts that don't work and colors that cause "visual vibration," making it impossible to look at the book for more than a second or two. And clich├ęs! I'd like to start a petition to encourage self-publishers not to use any more handshakes, keys, chess pieces or puzzle pieces on their book covers. They were fine a few years ago, but the market is flooded with them, now. Unless of course the designer can come up with a fresh approach to using them.

Odyssey Reviews: How do you come up with a cover concept?
It's usually a collaborative effort between myself and the publisher. I read the book's synopsis, we discuss the target audience and I often spend hours studying book covers in bookstores and online.

Odyssey Reviews: What is the weirdest book cover you’ve done?
I didn't do it, but one guy wanted me to create a cover with no title or author name.

Odyssey Reviews: What is the best way for an author to choose a cover artist?
Take a look at the designer's samples. With digital technology where it's at today, usually an online portfolio or website is adequate. And study what's in the marketplace for your particular genre so you know what you're looking for in terms of design.

Odyssey Reviews: Hiring a cover artist can be an investment. What tips do you have for authors to keep the cost manageable?
Some designers charge a flat rate, so that's something to look for, but the number one thing that causes projects to go over budget and take longer than they should is disorganizing. Get your ducks in a row before you get the designer to begin working on the project. It might seem easy to change a title, add a quote, make editing changes after layout, create new barcodes or adjust a spine, but it's time consuming and most designers will charge you for these things. Not to mention the fact that it could cause you to miss deadlines, and add a lot of unnecessary stress on everyone.

Odyssey Reviews: What are the three most common problems you see in other book designs?
Mostly amateur issues. People not kerning the titles (kerning is the spacing between the letters). Sometimes you'll see the letter W or Y and it looks like it belongs to a different word it's so far from the next letter.

Too many fonts or badly chosen fonts. Stick with one or two font families for the entire project. If you study books produced by the larger publishing houses you'll see they rarely break this rule.

Poser. I'm sorry, but unless the Poser elements are taken into another program such as PhotoShop and given a new life, Poser characters should stay in the gaming world, unless your book is a gaming book for teens.

Odyssey Reviews: Do you have any other special tips, anecdotes or advice for first time authors?
Keep an open mind and study book covers before you begin. With the Internet you can find covers designed back in the 1800s right up to ones not even released yet. Look at hundreds of them. Visit the sites of Random House and Time Warner Books and Simon and Schuster and all the bigger companies and then check the New York Time's best sellers' lists for the past few years. Get a feel for what the public is buying. Take the job of project manager seriously, because essentially, that's what a self-publishing author is.

Cathi Stevenson is from You can find samples of her work there. Thanks Cathi, those are great answers!