Judging a book by its cover: Designing Book Blueprint (by Jacqui Pretty)

Today, we have a post written by an awesome client of ours, Jacqui Pretty of Grammar Factory. The post, about her experience of finding and working with us to receive a cover she eventually loved, was first published over on her site. Thanks to Jacqui for gracefully allowing us to repost this here. So without further ado, here it is:

Jacqui PrettyI have a mixed history with designers.

You see, my significant other is a former graphic designer. Today he’s a training manager at a software company, but tends to take on a lot of design responsibilities there on the side of his main role. As a result, any time I’ve wanted to create anything with a visual element (websites, brochures, business cards, etc.), he’s been the first one to raise his hand.

The problem is, I’m a word person, not a visual person. This means I struggle to explain what I want, because I generally don’t know what I want. My direction involves words like light, bright, quirky, clean and polished, rather than descriptions like, ‘I want an A5 portrait brochure with a two-column design where one column is white with dark grey text and the other column uses white icons against a blue or orange background.’

Unfortunately, he’s someone who needs those specific directions, which means any attempts at design collaboration haven’t been very successful. As a result, most of what you see online is a DIY job, while any printed collateral was designed by a lovely designer I found on 99designs who gets my vague directions and turns them into polished, professional brochures that still manage to be bright and quirky.

However, he’s not an experienced book cover designer. So when it came to designing Book Blueprint, I needed to find someone new who would be able to take my vague desires and turn them into a cover that I and my readers would love.

I originally connected with Scarlett Rugers through one of my clients, and she’s been the designer I recommend ever since. Why? She does good work, she has experience working with entrepreneurs rather than just fiction authors, and she makes things simple and straightforward with standard packages. She’s also well priced and was able to work to my tight publishing schedule, which was a plus.

 

The formalities

We got started by catching up for lunch where we talked about our businesses, my book and my concerns about finding the right cover. After the official bits and pieces were out of the way (payment of the deposit and signing of the Ts&Cs), she had me fill out a very long survey about my book and what I wanted.

Beyond the dimensions of the book and details of the package, some of the questions included:

  • Who is your target market?
  • Do you want the book to be legible at the size of a thumbnail?
  • Do you have a specific idea/design that you’d like to see?
  • What’s the impression you want to give your audience when they first see the cover of your book?
  • What don’t you want on the cover?
  • Which adjectives do you want to describe your cover? (Multiple choice)

The most interesting one, though, was choosing whether I wanted Scarlett to design something that was typical of my genre (business books) or something different and unique.

 

The designs

Scarlett got to work on June 1st and had three concepts in my inbox on June 10th.

When I saw them at thumbnail size, my heart sank. I didn’t like any of them. It was exactly what I’d worried would happen.

I took a deep breath, downloaded the designs and opened them up at their full size so I could give more detailed feedback.

Design 1

jacquipretty_bookblueprint_web1
While the colours of this were right on brand and I could see she was playing with the blueprint idea, this just didn’t look like a business book to me. The font of the author name and tagline was too informal, and the grid lines made it look more like a text book than a paperback.

In some cases it can be helpful to deviate from the standard designs in your industry. However, when I saw this, my worry wasn’t about whether or not my book would stand out – it was whether or not an entrepreneur would even recognise it was a business book.

 

Design 2

jacquipretty_bookblueprint_web2
My first thought was that this one was very … orange. Yes, I know Grammar Factory has an orange logo, but this just felt like too much. It would also clash with pretty much everything in my wardrobe (I like greens, purples and reds), which may seem like a silly concern, but if you’re planning to pose for photos with your book at events, it needs to be considered.

I also wasn’t a fan of the feature font. I understood there needed to be a feature font to help break up the cover, but handwriting fonts always make me think of memoirs. Once again, I was worried that this didn’t look like a business book.

Once I looked more closely, though, I noticed all the little notes around the key features of the cover. There was a testimonial from ‘Reputable person’. There was a note indicating that I was an ‘Experienced and knowledgeable author’. There were even measurements for the cover size! The more I looked, the more I realised that this was quite cool.

 

Design 3

jacquipretty_bookblueprint_web3
This design was fine. I didn’t mind it, but I didn’t love it either. It was just a bit ‘meh’ for me, though I would have been willing to take it as a backup if we hadn’t been able to find anything else.

 

Round 2

I went back to Scarlett with my feedback – I wanted to develop the second concept, but make it blue instead of orange and use a more professional feature font.

She got to work and the next day had sent through some new versions of that cover with different fonts, one of which was this one:
jacquipretty_bookblueprint_web2_3
I loved it!

From here I went to my target market for some feedback on the tabs and got to see a rather vigorous debate unfold before my eyes on Facebook. The consensus was that if they were real tabs (i.e. if they marked out different parts of the book) I should go for it, and if they were just on the cover it would be better to go without. Given that real tabs would have drastically increased my printing costs, I went without.

This brings us to the final cover:

book_blueprint

Key learnings

So what did I learn?

  • While it can be helpful for you to know what you want up front, the right designer will be able to take your vague ideas and give you something to work with.
  • It doesn’t matter if you don’t like your initial designs – they are just a starting point and help your designer figure out how to create something you will
  • Feedback from the market in the early stages can be helpful, but it’s only really necessary if you have a couple of designs you like and are trying to decide between them. If you have one you like, focus on developing that and then get some feedback once you’re comfortable with it.
  • There are only two people who need to like your cover – you and your target reader. No one else matters. Therefore, feel free to ignore everyone else’s feedback. No matter how well-meaning, if they aren’t your target market (meaning they wouldn’t buy your book or your other products or services) then their feedback isn’t going to tell you what your target readers want.
Scarlett Archer

10 things about my writing life you might not know


Today is a personal blog post. I’m a bit sick of writing the technical stuff of book cover design so it’s time for a break. You’ve probably arrived here looking to learn something new about book cover design, but did you know I’ve been writing for over fifteen years?

Here are 10 things you might not know about me and my writing life:

Scarlett Archer1. My pen name is Scarlett Archer. Years ago it used to be Scarlett Marsden but I always got flack from people, saying “Did you get that from John Marsden?”

As a teenager, in Australia, in the John Marsden era this simply wouldn’t do so I used my nephew’s name for my last name. If you haven’t read the Tomorrow Series- the first being Tomorrow, When The War Began, get your hands on a copy ASAP.

You can check out my author website over at www.scarlett-archer.com . Don’t mistake me for Scarlet Archer (one t). Google is your friend, if you want to know why.

2. I’ve been writing since 1998. That’s fifteen years of writing. I’ve written over ten books, one is a four book series about the use of mental powers as the next step of human evolution, a cult culture, and the influence of belief. Sounds super boring but I promise, it’s not! It is on the back shelf however.

3. My first two books published are: 1001 First Lines and Oscar & Josephine. One is non-fiction, one is fiction.

1001 First Lines by Scarlett ArcherOscar and Josephine by Scarlett Archer

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. I’m a 7 year winner of NaNoWriMo, a 3rd year retiree. I’m still a little bit a part of the Melbourne community but it’s because I have so many friends involved with NaNo every year. If you’re looking to spend a November in a different city some time, Melbourne is the shiznit. We have drinkies, write-ins, and word wars aplenty!

5. In my first year I finished 50,000 words in a week, in second year it was 3 1/2 days, in my third year it was 2 1/2 days. I knew if I really stuck at it I could get it under 48 hours but pushing yourself that hard is quite a feat, and I all the work I was writing needed major rewrites and overhauls. I didn’t kid myself, NaNo is an editor-free zone and I don’t care what anyone says, the end result is pure dribble. It’s more important for me now to write quality, instead of quantity. 7 years of word-vomit is enough!

One year I might try doing only 1667 words a day, since that’s a pace I can write at that doesn’t destroy my inner editor, but not just yet. It is a great motivator though, and I’m a huge fan of word wars, so this November I’ve written about 10k more than I normally would have.

Wizard of Oz Dark Retelling by Scarlett Archer6. My current book is chick lit, about an artist in New York trying to get her break, and driving a taxi to get her by. My next book is either going to be my Wizard of Oz dark retelling (click on the poster to see it in full, and read the concept), or my next chick lit series about Paparazzi. Oz is taking some time to develop and research but it’s one of the big projects waiting for me.

I’m very strict on my writing process and only work on one WIP (work in progress) at any time, until it’s finished.

I used to write down all my ideas and start them the moment they struck but I’ve learned over time that if the story is worth writing it will stick around and flourish, so that when the work I’m doing now is completed it will be sitting there waiting for me.

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark7. Although I’ve been writing for fifteen years, my writing has only crossed the line from ‘unpublishable’ to ‘publishable’ in the past three. This isn’t because of lack of practice, oh no. I hit my 1 million words back in 2003 or so. It’s a combination of experience, skill, and understanding. The biggest contributors were:

8. I’m really good at shutting off my inner editor. In my first (and often second and third) draft it is just about getting the story down and in the right order. When writing, the editor knows what will happen should they decide to approach.

brucelee

This has helped me with NaNoWriMo, but also allows me to focus on what the real issue is in the moment, rather than being distracted due to spelling errors, awkward sentences and mixed up descriptions. Editing has it’s time later on, but right now it’s not allowed in the zone.

9. I love editing. I’m sorry, I think I’m a freak amongst writers but I do love editing. I didn’t always, until about year 8 when I really got a grasp on the true potential of editing and what it meant for my work.

The best piece of writing advice I ever heard was:

There is no such thing as a good writer, only a good rewriter.

There’s no writer who has a perfect first draft, and those that say they have a perfect first draft are lying. It’s very possible they worked and reworked a scene until it was completely finished before moving on to the next one, but that’s editing. That means your book still goes through drafts before it is finally finished.

When the first, second and/or third draft is done then I’m ready to work through the editing process. I normally go through 6-7 edits before it’s finally finished. This can often take longer than writing the manuscript in the first place but it is just as important. My first, and sometimes, last, line edit rounds I do back to front. I got this advice given to me in year 5 or so of writing and I’ve never looked back. Editing back to front means you don’t get caught up in the story and are forced to focus on the structure of each line.

kramer

10. I write my ideas in the shower. Whiteboard marker + shower tiles = great brainstorming session. The shower is the deep cocoon of pure inspiration, that’s where all the best ideas come from. If you need to write yourself out of a corner, take a shower. If you need to figure out the next scene for your book, take a shower. It’s sort of like each shower is the end of the writer’s rainbow, you just gotta tap into it.

Writing is in my blood, it’s my first love. Although I’m dedicated to design and business, I’m home when I have my WIP in front of me, a cup of tea by my side, and some music playing.

What are some things about your writing life nobody knows? Do you have any secret or hidden habits you have, or things that dramatically improved your story telling?

How does a book cover look in the early stages?


You’ve been waiting for it all week… the first visual concepts from your book cover designer… and they’re going to be AH-MA-ZING. You’ve seen everything else they’ve done and this is just going to be the icing on the cake.

A ping in your inbox; it’s here! You open it up and… what the hell is this?

pUxM5FY

Imagine that designing is just like writing (because it truly is).

The first drafts are always, always the worst.

You’ve been dreaming and imagining for a while now, expecting you’ll be overwhelmed with the first magical round of design, but that’s not how design works. Design is a collaboration, and requires input from two people: The designer and the client.

Step 1: Your expectations are too high

The first obstacle is that you’ll already have something in mind. Something that crosses all boundaries of standard design. You’re imagining the Willy Wonka magic ticket and setting yourself up for disappointment.

Willy wonka golden ticket

How to fix it: Enter your partnership with your designer knowing it is art, and art requires time, feedback, and development. Don’t expect your designer to create something off the bat that is 100% what you want because you’ll be writing yourself into a corner. Talking about, and working with the design, is normal.

Step 2: You lose trust in your designer

7bueiVm

The second obstacle is losing trust in your designer. Because your perfect book cover hasn’t immediately happened, the trust and confidence you had in your designer dims a little bit. You start asking yourself,

“How did we get here?” [Naturally. This is a part of the process.]

“Why did they misinterpret what I wanted?” [They didn’t. More communication is needed.]

“Should I have gone with someone else?” [No.]

How to fix it: Understand that this is part of the process. Remember, design is like writing. The first drafts are never the perfect ones, and the designer needs to start somewhere in order to work towards the final result you really love. You have to make the first step before getting to the top of the mountain, or something like that…

concept_rough_examples_scarlettrugers

Step 3: It looks low res and choppy

You were expecting perfection and it’s possible you got something with watermarks, low res images, and a whole lot of collage-like mess. They might have sent over three or four different designs, but they all look like this.

How to fix it: Let it go. If you’re responsible for purchasing stock images then the designer has to work with what they can (i.e.: low resolution, watermarked stock images) before you commit to the final concept and they can buy the high resolution images. Trust the process.

Step 4: There’s been a lack of communication

This cover isn’t what you were expecting at all. It has totally different concepts. You wanted people; they’ve put on scenery or use symbolic images.

I specifically wanted salmon

How to fix it: Did you tell them you wanted people? Did you share with them other covers you like that have models on them? Did they read the brief properly? It’s just down to communication. Before jumping the gun and telling them they did it all wrong, perhaps ask them to explain the concepts to you and why they went in this direction. They might just change your mind.

 

All of these conflicts can be solved with communication. Remember talk to your designer, ask questions. You aren’t expected to know how it works, that’s the designer’s job. And remember that design is an artistic job and will always need your direction and feedback to end up where you are totally happy with it.

Have you had a shock when dealing with designers? Ended up with something totally different? How did it work out for you?

Are book cover designers working for readers or authors?

The reader or the author
When I started designing I thought I knew everything. I thought I knew more than the author’s that I worked with, and I was the bees knees. But… with experience comes knowledge. The more I understand, the more I realise I don’t know shit! So I’m writing this article to share what I’ve learned with you, that there is no black and white answer. Yeah, there’s a lot of grey scale- but there’s a lot of good in that grey scale so don’t stop reading now…

Before self-publishing designers were hired directly by the publishing house and given a brief. Over time the book cover was designed and developed by the guidance of a head designer who knew about the publishing industry and how to communicate to readers.

When Penguin arrived on the scene in the early 1900s, with their simplistic paperbacks and clean outlines, it was obvious their trust in the book’s success lay implicitly in the literature between the two covers. Now a lot of the trust is gone. To an extent we must convince the reader that the work inside is a good one, so those simple, block colour, single type family covers don’t cut it any more.

Unless your name is known it is upon the shoulders of the designer to make the siren call to the readers. 

Why I’m asking this question: When an author comes to me to design their cover they often have an idea in mind. If they don’t, there is still a level of expectation remaining that I will do what they want, in a way they want it. They are, after all, my client and I’m here to work for them. But 90% of the time the author doesn’t know as much about book cover design as I do.

Case Study: Designing for the author

bookWhen the author comes to me it’s ultimately my responsibility to fulfil their needs. We’ve talked over ideas and I’ve gotten a general idea as to what they want for their cover. Some may even have a very specific idea for what they want which could be anything from a particular typeface, to a model, to a background.

The outcome for this case study is that the author is happy with the outcome.

Pros:

The author gets what they want

They feel proud to share their book cover

They feel like they contributed greatly to the process

They understand the connection between the final design and their book, they understand the message

If they have a background in design or art, they will already have a good understanding about what is needed for the cover

They know their book better than anyone else, and can give an informed opinion as to what will work best.

Cons:

Just because they understand the concept, doesn’t mean the reader will

The author may be stuck on wanting one single image, something they’ve put a lot of time and thought into, but may not be right for the design.

They run the risk of eliminating readers because of their biases, opinions, and personal judgements as to what they feel should or shouldn’t be on the cover.

Case Study: Designing for the reader

Although it may seem like the designer’s obligation is first to the author, we must consider the purpose of the design in the first place- which is for the reader. This requires a lot of trust on the part of the author, which is hard. No matter how great the artist, creating something from scratch is scary if you don’t know what to expect.

Pros:

The designer draws from experience and industry knowledge to design a cover that will target your readers.

Will offer concepts about your cover that you may not have considered

Will draw off themes from your book that you didn’t realise were in there

Gives a third party perspective

Makes decisions on layout, composition, typography, colour and semiotics

Interpret your story into a visual medium in the most simple form, for easy understanding.

Cons:

Well founded and considered opinions of the author may not be taken into account

The designer might believe the author doesn’t know as much as the designer does, when it’s important to take on all thoughts and ideas.

If the designer doesn’t have a lot of experience their interpretation of the brief may be unsuccessful.

 

I believe it is the designer’s responsibility to work with the author for the best outcome for the reader.

The reader’s delight is the true purpose of the project, not the author’s. But the author and designer must work together to get to that point, and have an open mind for it.

Each person brings their own knowledge and experience to the table, why discount it? This isn’t a war or a conflict but a great artistic collaboration. Great things can come out of it, so long as ears are open and everyone is open to change.

So when the author says,

“Look… I think it’s important to have the stencil typeface to show that it’s a military book, and combine that with the script type face, to show it’s romance.”

It’s important to listen to what the designer has to say. They can tell you why stencil and script typefaces don’t work together, and how tacky stencil font faces can be.

BUT I think it’s also important for the designer to at least give it a shot. They won’t truly know until they try it out.

So when the designer says,

“Look… I’ve used illustration on your chick lit book cover because it is an easily recognizable genre style and it shows a fun, frolicky side of your book. ”

It’s important to listen to what the author has to say. They can tell you why illustration might not be the best choice because, although they’re writing chick-lit, they know from the books that they read that photographs can be used just as well.

BUT consider the amount of research the designer has in the field, and that the book cover they designed for you has come together from comparison of others in your genre.

So when starting out with your designer it might be an idea to talk about who you feel is the priority in your project- is it you, or your readers? When you’ve figured it out, then you know how much input you should give your designer, and what kind of input.

Keep your readers in mind, figure out what they want and find out the best way to get there.

Do you feel it’s the reader or the author who the designer is working for? What’s your experience when designing a cover? Do you keep your readers in mind or find your own desires for the cover taking over?