Author Alan Parkinson on perfecting cover design, discovering & developing your visual brand, and the many mistakes along the way.
Get ready for “one of the most spectacular cock-ups in design history”. Literally.
Hello, Creatives! Jay here. Honest & upfront, this entire post is a repost from three articles on his blog (which is full of tons of advice for aspiring authors, behind the scenes content, and extra material from Alan’s creative brain). Alan’s also a 99% Perspiration Podcast alumni; you can re-enjoy his podcast appearance here.
“Those of you who have followed my writing career or have read my earlier self-publishing blogs will know that I have a love hate relationship with book covers. Being a self-published author means that you have to be responsible for every aspect of your book’s publication and it’s fair to say that designing book covers is not my strongest suit.
“With a new novel on the horizon, I decided it was time for a bit of a rebrand and I’m going to take you through the process. But first, it’s time for a history lesson.
Leg It, the Early Years
“I first self-published my debut novel “Leg It” in January 2011. Six long years ago where a combination of naivety, inexperience & excitement led me to commit some horrendous self-publishing crimes. Most of them have been well documented, & I’ve since run author’s workshops on how others can learn from my mistakes, but I’m going to concentrate on book covers for now.
“Some of my recollections are a bit hazy but I think at the very beginning, I didn’t even produce a cover. This sounds insane now but in my haste to get the book out there and onto people’s Kindles, I thought just the book itself would be enough.
“A couple of days later, I realised the error of my ways and decided to knock one up. I can remember it having photos of a ‘Keep Off The Grass’ sign, a football, and some font. No idea which. The fact that I can’t find the picture anywhere gives you a hint as to how bad that book cover was.
“It wasn’t long before my brother stepped in with a subtle hint that maybe he design a slightly better cover. Despite not having a background in design, he came up with a pretty decent effort.
“The green and yellow colour scheme reflecting the Brazil strip synonymous with the time period the book was set in. A 70s style font & a small football hinting at a pastime that focussed heavily in the protagonist’s early years. The silhouette at the bottom was a generic cityscape, but it was something that I particularly liked & would lead to one of the most spectacular cockups in cover design history. (Literally.)
“This cover served me well; the cover Leg It had when it peaked at the top ten in Amazon’s humour chart. At one point I was one place above Alan Partridge in the top twenty.
“My problems really started when I decided that I wanted a paperback. Instead of asking my brother to do me another (unpaid) favour, I decided to resize the cover myself. This proved a lot harder than I had thought, so I went to create one myself based on my brother’s design, but with one significant design “improvement”.
“I had no experience in design, had no knowledge of Photoshop, & crucially no apparent ability to critically appraise my own work.
“I kept roughly the same colour scheme, but as my copy of Photoshop didn’t have the font he used, I just used another. (Note that at this stage, Leg It still has an exclamation mark that dogged me for a long time.)
“I wanted to keep the silhouette but to ‘improve’ it I wanted to make it less generic & more to do with Sunderland where the book was set. So, I chose two Sunderland landmarks; the Wearmouth Bridge & the Roker Lighthouse.”
Stage two; Leg It(!) author Alan redefined the boundaries within the design, applied a simple filling / vectoring technique. So far, so good enough.
“Finally, idiotically, I decided to stick with the original design’s silhouette theme, applied it to my first novel’s cover design, and ended up with this:
“If all you see is a bridge and a lighthouse, well done. You are pure of mind & are sure to go to heaven. If, like most people, you see something else, I apologise. I truly never meant to offend anyone.
“Without having the faintest idea of the book cover design from hell, being totally sick of the whole process, I finally posted my finished cover on Twitter. In seconds I got my first response. ‘It just looks like a fat bloke with his … out.’
“I was so determined to do it myself and get it published that I never thought to seek anybody else’s opinion before publishing. This seems like madness now but it’s a trap that most first time self-publishers will fall into.” – Leg It author Alan Parkinson
“My error unwittingly got me some publicity & could well have led to some sales. T-shirts with the cover that has become known as the “original” Leg It cover have been spotted in Mexico & Disney, and whilst running the Sunderland 10k I spotted one fan with a poster of it sat in front of the Roker Lighthouse itself.
“Sales began to dip after a while, & I decided I needed another refresh in 2013. Whilst the cover had been fun, it made me look (and feel) unprofessional. I’m not sure why, but I only decided to change the Kindle cover and not the paperback. I suspect it was a lack of faith in my Photoshop skills and the relative low sales of paperbacks.
“This time I abandoned the colour scheme and went for a brick wall background with a graffiti font:
“Looking at it now, it looks very ‘self-published’ but I was happy to get rid of the naked fat bloke book cover. The refresh helped boost sales again, I kept it until I brought out my second novel, Idle Threats, when I again decided on an upgrade.
“The dilemma that every self-publisher will face is knowing when and where to spend money. In an ideal world we’d get professional editors, spend a fortune on advertising and get the best book cover that money can buy. Unfortunately most of us live in the real world where money is tight so we have to prioritise.” – Leg It author Alan Parkinson
“Every penny you spend as a self published author is a gamble, you never know whether it will pay off. There are many options open to you, a variety of price ranges. I’m not going to go through all of them here, but I chose one of the cheaper options.
“A colleague was looking to build his graphic design portfolio, showed me some examples of his work. Whilst it wasn’t his profession (he was a software tester) I was suitably impressed, & as I already knew I could work with him, we decided to give it a go.
“The slight stumbling block was price; not that he was asking too much, just that neither of us knew how much he should be charging & were too polite to bring it up. It’s worth talking about money with your collaborators early. We came to an agreement that I hope we were both happy with, & he began work on designing me a “proper” book cover.
“I gave him a brief overview of what Idle Threats was about, and let him come up with some ideas. There’s a slight Mexican theme going through the novel so Craig quite quickly came up with the idea of a Mexican death mask. This worked for me, & it wasn’t long before he came up with a first draft.
“We went through a few iterations, most crucially adding a headset to the mask as the novel is set in a call centre, & we agreed on something we were both happy with. The colour scheme, whilst we didn’t notice at the time, was probably inspired by the application he was testing at the time.
“With both of us satisfied, this is the finished product that we decided to go with.
“The colours worked well together; however in hindsight I’ve realised that good design and good book cover design aren’t necessarily the same thing. The theme was too dark and didn’t stand out enough. This wasn’t a fault of Craig’s, he designed to my spec, but I’ve come to realise over the past year that I hadn’t considered promotional applications, like having my book involved in photoshoots, only considered the thumbnail on Amazon.
“Similarly, whilst looking good and being decent colours, my font possibly wasn’t as big as it needed to be. Plenty of people saw it before publication and not one of us considered it to be an issue, it comes with experience, learning what works and what doesn’t.
“The Mexican death mask was this book cover design’s greatest strength, & has appeared on merchandise from mugs to jigsaws, phone covers to fridge magnets. My niece had great fun planting flyers in the antique shops in her home town and proudly sported an Idle Threats t-shirt to school.
“The colours (intentionally gender neutral) worked a lot better than Idle Threats’ as they were brighter; but, again with the benefit of hindsight, the football dominates & gives the wrong impression of what the book is about. I’ve heard a few people say that they think the book is about football, whilst football is only a small part of my debut novel.
“It was a huge improvement on what had gone before (sans phallic imagery), & I’ve sold far more versions of this paperback than the original design.
“One final change I made was to change the finish of the paperback from gloss to matte when Createspace introduced the option. It’s personal preference, but I think it looks (and feels) more professional.
“So. We’ve discussed the disasters I’ve had and the improvements I made to my book covers, but now I’ve decided to change again. My driving force behind the decision, is that I’m seeking a consistent theme across all my book covers.
“I want people to be able to look at a book cover and recognise it as one of mine in an instant. Most of my favourite authors have had a theme over the years. Think Iain Banks & his black and white theme, or Christopher Brookmyre’s quirky font and bright colours.” – Leg It author Alan Parkinson
“Admittedly their books have different themes now, but for me these iterations were eye-catching.
“Through learning from my past book cover design mistakes, I decided on three key components for my new theme. Bold colours, consistent easy to read font, & one small graphic per book cover.
“Idle Threats was probably the easiest of the two. I already had the graphic I wanted with the Mexican death mask wearing a headset. It dominated the original cover, however I made it smaller and I believe it is more dramatic because of that.
“With the colours, I trawled Amazon for covers that I liked, & looked for colours that complemented each other on book covers. I decided on three colours per cover. The main background colour, one colour for the graphic, & one for the font. I’d toyed with keeping the same colour font (black) throughout all of the books, but it limited the number of options available to me. I think my current choice of colours works well, and draws the eye of potential readers.
“I had a font that I really liked but after seeking feedback, question marks were raised about it; so I looked for another, finally settling on Oswald Bold.
“This wasn’t a standard font in Photoshop Elements. so I downloaded it from 1001fonts.com. Crucially it was free for commercial use, something you will always need to check.
“Leg It wasn’t quite as straightforward. I didn’t have the graphic & I had to resist the temptation to use any of the more obvious ones such as a football, “Keep Off The Grass” signs, lighthouses, naked men, etc.
“Anybody who has read Leg It will know that there is a very funny story about a budgie. I created a cover with an empty bird cage, but it felt like it was missing something so I added the upside down budgie. This cover hints at something but doesn’t give away the full story. Do judge a book by its cover design.
“I got both images from Pixabay.com, again free for commercial use, & merged them in Photoshop, creating an outline with far more skill than I possessed when I did the original cover. I’m still very much a Photoshop novice but Google and YouTube videos are a Godsend.
“I’d gone for a blue theme but the general consensus was that it was a bit dull and not bold enough. The orange is close to the yellow of Idle Threats, but I believe there are sufficient differences. They are part of the same series so I think it will work with them being similar.
“I tried with a black font but it didn’t work so settled on white. The name ‘Leg It’ has also caused me problems. Ideally I would have both words on one line but it runs the risk of looking like ‘Legit’ so put it over two lines and therefore did the same with Idle Threats.
“I think you’ll agree that the end result is a step up from my first attempts six years ago.
“Once I’d gone through the feedback process with my writing group & some trusted friends, I went about the process of updating the covers and realised how much I had forgotten from the last time around.
“First things first, I made sure that both covers were consistent. Same sizing and positioning of text, graphics etc. I was tearing my hair out at times but once I worked out how to use guides (incredibly simple task) in Photoshop, things became easier.” – Leg It author Alan Parkinson
FYI. Alan’s blog posts go on to give detailed advice on how to update on various book publishing websites. Click here if you’d like to read more.
Alan Parkinson, author: “Next I had to update everywhere that I use my book covers. Website, Twitter, Facebook, even a message board where I use Idle Threats as my avatar. Everything needs to be consistent as, whilst I hate using this word, it is your brand.
“Now that everything is updated, I just have to sit back and wait for the sales to roll in. (If only it were that simple.)
“The cover for novel number three is almost complete, however I haven’t fully decided on the name. The length of the name could cause me issues for the cover with it being far longer than the two words in my current novels. I’m almost sure of the colours, and the graphic is nearly there, but there’s plenty of time for me to decide.
“Well, thank you for joining me on my book writer’s voyage through dodgy book cover design, all the way to educated & consistent book cover design. Any feedback or comments, I’d love to hear from you.”
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Executive Producer, 99% Perspiration