Iconic Cover Art

Bella Andre and I were sitting together at a book convention once, gabbing about shoes and handbags, when an author came up and asked what we thought about their book cover. Funny they should ask the two of us, because Bella is one of the absolute best authors in the multi-verse at putting together her own cover art. (Just take a gander if you don’t believe me.) And I’m the absolute worst.

But I love doing my own covers just as much as Bella has to do her own covers. For her, it’s because she knows no one can do a better job. And she’s right. For me, it’s because I love every aspect of book creation and presentation, no matter how much I suck at it.

On this day, at the con, Bella and I both looked at this author’s cover, and we looked at each other. And I was thinking, “You should handle this, because you’re the talented one.” And Bella was thinking, “This looks as bad as one of your covers, so maybe you should go for it.” What we did instead was demonstrate to the author, so they could see for themself.

I took the book and began walking away from the table. I asked Bella to stop me when the book became “Amazon size.” That’s the size the book will appear to anyone scrolling through an online retailer. Bella kept waving me back. Fifty feet. A hundred feet. “Stop,” she said.

“What do you think of the cover?” she asked the author.

The author nodded. “I see what I need to do,” they said. They took their book, thanked us, and went off with the sort of determination that causes me not to worry about people.

Bella looked at me like, “You do know that people think they can get away with covers like that because of you, right?”

I looked at her like, “Bella Andre, you’re so dreamy!”

It used to be said that great cover art becomes iconic over time. I can think of a dozen or so covers that I can still pick out from a thousand paces. When I first saw the red cover for WOOL that Random House came up with, I had that sort of feeling about it. There had never been a cover quite like that. It would stand out. Be instantly recognizable. I loved it.

It’s the grabbiness at a distance that works. But more importantly these days, it’s the grabbiness at a tiny size. More than half of print books are now purchased online, which means what you put on the back of the jacket, or the inside flap, or how detailed your artwork is, has all become less relevant. These days, cover art needs to be not so much iconic as icon. We need to think about them as little clickable buttons. For design ideas, it’s time to start looking at our desktops rather than bookstore shelves.

My last two covers are, I think, good examples. And even if they are bad covers, they show the direction I’m thinking cover art should go. I put both covers together in just a few hours. I know it looks like they took a few minutes, but you aren’t seeing all the iterations I didn’t go with. First, THE BOX:

The Box Cover

What’s unusual about this cover is that it intentionally uses whitespace to blend in with the background on Amazon product pages. The effect is what looks like a small square cover rather than a rectangular cover. You can’t pull this off in a bookstore. You have to think about the work and approach it from an online-retailer perspective.

Another point that I’ll go into detail about in a bit: Where else can you get away with not putting the author’s name on the cover? When you know the product page will feature the name, this is unnecessary. Again, not something you can pull off with a brick and mortar store in mind. This is cover art design tailored for the retailer you have in mind.

Next is BEACON 23:

Beacon 23 - Little Noises

Another simple cover that works at a very small size. What I loved about this one was using nothing but typography for the graphics. It’s all done with font. Messages in the story are text-based and costly to send, so there’s a bit of subtle meaning there. Even the stars are just periods, and there’s meaning there as well.

Okay, neither cover is as pretty as Bella’s books, but hey, I’m not as pretty as Bella! But they’re covers that come from me, that relate to my story, that I put together myself, and that I’m happy with. They are meant to work as icons, not be iconic. But who says icons can’t? Maybe these won’t, but yours might.

beacon 23 2(Another aspect of cover art creation that I’ve encountered is the ability for readers and other writers to join in. After sharing my design for BEACON 23, author Andrzej Tucholski shared his version. After riffing on his design, I came up with what is currently the cover being used for the short story. This is cover art like jazz.)

I know we are used to high-res graphics on covers, and that photography is the base for most cover art, and that’s been true for me as well. But all we really need is a cover that gives us the title and a taste for what to expect. We might think romance novels, for instance, need a shirtless hunk or a sexy vixen on the cover, but the bestselling erotica of all-time had a cufflink. And it could’ve been a render of a cufflink.

Would indie cover art look better or worse if we stopped trying to make them look like print books on a store shelf and more like a little bitmapped image you might click on to launch an application? I argue they would look better. The biggest mistake I see with cover art is that authors pay so much or work so hard on the art, that they shove the title way up at the top and their name way down at the bottom to not cover up what they’re proud of.

secondsuicide_ebook_FINAL copyI think this is a huge mistake. Look at portfolios from professional cover artists. They cover up their background art with the title and the author’s name. They make the font big, bold, and legible. We should be doing the same thing. I would argue that graphics and art aren’t needed at all. Or better yet: Think of each letter in the title as a separate art element. That’s what M.S. Corley did with his cover for my short story SECOND SUICIDE, and it has become one of my all-time favorite covers:

Or go the other route and leave off the title and author’s name completely. Insanity, right? This is something you simply can’t do with book jackets. But when you know all the metadata will be on the Amazon product page, you don’t have to put the metadata on the cover. That’s exactly what I did with my print flipbook, the TwinPack Vol. 2. Here’s what the product page looks like for this collection of two short stories, which are printed in reverse, with cover art on either side:

Deep Blood Kettle

The title of the work and the author’s name are right there. Which allows me to leave Galen Dara’s fantastic cover art all alone to shine and be admired. Here, the idea of icon as iconic is taken to the extreme. The cover art is a striking image that works at thumbnail size, and it only advertises itself with its blend of colors and shapes, not with a label telling us what it is.

All different concepts, but the connecting theme is that our covers are going to be small, but they still have to stand out. We shouldn’t be designing covers to sit on store shelves, and we shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, to let the typography be more important than the artwork, or to go to the other extreme and let the product page handle the metadata, and let the art stand alone.

If you’re playing with your own covers, try taking that background image and fading it away. Try breaking up your title font so that each letter is on a separate layer, and then blow those letters up, shift them around, play with the kerning, stretch and warp them a little, so that the reader can tell that the word wasn’t simply typed out. Use large and bold text that’s easy to read at any size, and don’t be afraid to keep it simple. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Build iconic cover art. The kind you want to click on.



17 responses to “Iconic Cover Art”

  1. Man, you’re really challenging my preconceived notions tonight, Hugh. I love the idea that you can have covers without any text, or to make the text a major part of the design. I’m not sure how these would work with romance, but I’ll certainly be giving it a lot more thought when I’m doing my next cover,

  2. Very interesting and informative. The way you move backward to show the cover smaller and what is needed to stand out reminded me of what one can do when observing an Impressionist’s painting, like a Monet. If I recall correctly, it’s been awhile, if you move closer to a Monet painting, you’ll see more dots and erratic brishstrokes, but when you move away from it, the picture he was painting becomes clearer.

  3. Oh, you know I agree with your sentiment, cover art is what sets you apart in the world of online retail, as I have always said, there is too much choice on places like Amazon and due to the fact that unless you already know what you are looking for, all the customer has is the cover art, the authors name and the title of the book when they are looking through the list of books so the old “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” no longer applies.
    Sure, we would all love to look at each and every book in the list, read the descriptions and comments and ratings and stuff, but we just don’t have the time to do that anymore.

    I passed up Wool for a solid 2 months before I finally found “The Hurricane” and “The Plagiarist” and after giving those two a chance, only then did I finally give Wool it’s time (you had me at hell-uricane)

    Though, yes, I am starting to agree that we need to pull away from the traditional paper look of books, especially because you aren’t limited (From my limited knowledge) to just having the one cover for both book and digital books… but it really is hard to get away from, it’s deeply engrained into us… but then again so is the thought of the kooky indie that is more art-house than anything as proven by so many independent authors these day (Too many to list)

  4. Interesting points and your justifications make sense, but I’m not certain if now is the time that the most extreme step as exemplified with the Twinpack cover should be done. I think that readers expect to see the title on the cover and appreciate the way that the title integrates with that. Moreover, even with the sales page clearly showing the author and back cover type material, that doesn’t carry through to other places where that cover might appear like in advertising emails.

    As you well know, cover styles go through fads that can last for a decade and more. Look at the highly abstract SF covers of the 50s and early 60s; they showed little relation to the contents and served as little more than a signifier that the contents were avant garde. There were similar fads for all text and text effect covers, 3D covers, embossing, etc. It may well be time to go with text or abstract covers again or the next phase may become something even more webcentric like animated GIFs that would certainly grab attention when they first appear and then quickly decline as sales pages become a flashing, confusing mess.

  5. As an author who designs my own covers and a designer that has created more than seventy other covers for authors, I really appreciate this post.

    The world of independently released books has grown so huge yet so many of these authors do not understand the importance of 1) professional editing and 2) professional cover design.

    If an author can create the cover themselves, great, but it has to look like a quality book or people just aren’t going to click on it. Once their parents and that cousin you never see have bought it, the book will sit on the Amazon shelves.

  6. […] I saw that Hugh Howey had posted an article on book cover […]

  7. YOU are iconic – your name on the right with the title on an Amazon page is STILL instant recognition.

    Newbies, not so much.

    I think going for quiet competence is a good place to start first – and designed my first cover to place myself quietly among the other books in mainstream fiction.

    If I ever get famous, I’ll try playing.

    Famous FIRST, then PLAY. The other way around would be a hard slog for a beginner.

    1. Completely agree. I feel like I need to get a good grasp of some basic rules before I can start breaking them, though what Hugh Howey says makes perfect sense. Plus, I’d worry that any Amazon visitor who saw a “cover” without a title or author name would get confused and wonder whether there was some kind of technical error, or whether I was trying to sell a poster or some such. This is especially true for a newbie self-published author whose book-making credentials are unverified.

      But definitely the questions raised are good ones. There probably will be a big rethink on what design elements are necessary for drawing a reader to an ebook as opposed to a paperback. I already know from comparing how colors come out on a screen to how they’re rendered in print that trying to design imagery that’s ideal for both types of format has serious limitations.

      It seems that Hugh Howey’s view is that these two formats are such totally different beasts that the idea of a cover doesn’t even apply to an ebook, and while this never really struck me before this now seems blindingly obvious. Definitely food for thought here. On a future book I might experiment.

  8. The two most important aspects of the book writing process (to me, at least) are ensuring the book is edited well, and getting a cover that pulls a potential reader into your book. That’s where I’ve invested the majority of my expense in putting my first novel together. I’m thrilled to have been able to retain sci-fi master artist Stephen Youll to do my cover. He did an amazing job – and, as he does the art and his wife does the design, I have a cover that is not only beautiful, but functional as well! (Now all I have to do is finish laying it out, and hit “publish!”)

  9. I have a folder where I keep sample covers that I like. When I saw this obit I realized that 90% of the covers I like were by Paul Bacon.

    Paul Bacon, 91, Whose Book Jackets Drew Readers and Admirers, Is Dead

    Go to Google Images and search on, “Paul Bacon Book Covers”, to see what can be done.

  10. I’m guilty of trying my hand at designing my own cover. The result was a spat of reviews praising the story and crucifying my crappy cover (and slow sales). The smartest thing I ever did was hunt through covers on Amazon until I found similar designs to what I wanted, then I reached out to the cover artist and paid him (far too little) to save my books from obscurity. Sales quadrupled at once and I learned my lesson: I do the things I’m good at and I pay professionals to do the things I’m not (including editing). And really, as much fun as I had designing my own covers, I like the professional ones better. And I know my readers do.

  11. Thank you very much for covering such a vital topic.

    With my wife’s extremely able help, I designed my covers from the start to be readable and catch the eye at a size of 60×100 pixels (the size of Amazon’s thumbnail images). We’ve developed a theme for my covers, each of which has the title at the top in a clear, easy-to-read font. The central third of the cover has an image of a spaceship or smaller craft in the center, standing out to draw the eye. The bottom third contains the author’s name. It’s worked reasonably well over the seven books we’ve published so far.

    We’ve also had enough success that we’ll be talking to a couple of artists about buying half a dozen to a dozen exclusive images for future covers, based on the plots I’ve worked out so far. That’ll be more expensive than buying royalty-free images, but it’ll also allow us to specify the placement and type of the central image, background colors, etc.

    We haven’t used text-only covers yet, but they might fit a couple of planned books. We’ll experiment along the lines you’ve showed us. Thanks for some great ideas!

  12. Good post and something to think about. Love the look of the site!

  13. […] Iconic Cover Art – The Wayfinder – Hugh C. Howey […]

  14. Hugh,

    I’m in the process of having a real pro re-do my covers so this post really drew me in. The things you’ve had to say here have been taken in and we’re definitely using some ideas you’ve demonstrated.

    Thanks as always.

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