They say, never judge a book by its cover…

But that seems to apply to everything but books. People certainly judge a book by its cover. All aspects of the design. Color, image, font, word placement, and the list goes on. It can be daunting and frustrating. Should you do the cover yourself? Do you hire a designer? Do you hire a company? If you hire someone else, what do you look for when making your decision?

So many questions. Questions that I cannot answer with my limited experience. So, I decided to ask an expert to cohost a blog with me. Thankfully, he said yes.

Who is our mystery guest?

I am super excited to introduce Ron Miller!

Ron is an illustrator-author specializing in science (especially astronomy), science fiction, and fantasy. He is the author of more than 70 books, many of them award-winning (including the Hugo Award, I added that because he is too humble to do it himself). He provides illustrations for many traditional publishers and magazines and has designed 400+ book covers. He has also created postage stamps and worked as an illustrator and designer for films such as “Dune.” To learn more about Ron, check out his website here

Here we go!

Thanks for joining me, Ron. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and expertise on book cover design. Let’s get right into it. Why do you think people are so enamored with book covers?

Ron: I think the only people who are really “enamored” by book covers are the authors themselves. It’s understandably pretty difficult to not take the cover of one’s book personally.

If you must do an elevator pitch cover design for a new author, how would that go?

Ron: It’s not really done exactly that way, regardless of the author’s experience. Even a cover for an established author goes through much the same process as that for a new name. After getting some idea of what the book is about, its characters and any set pieces—scenes that might best represent the nature of the book visually—I will prepare three different sketches. The author or art director will choose one and let me know what changes or revisions they’d like to see. Then the final art is created. Here is an example. 

Talk to me about fonts. When I see you commenting on book covers, it always seems to include a comment on fonts. What do you think is the biggest mistake people make with fonts?

Ron: Trying to be too elaborate. This is especially the case with fantasy and romance novels, where the urge to include every available swirl and swash is given full sway. There is also the urge to apply all sorts of special effects to type: embossing, textures, sparkly highlights, etc. These effects often only serve to obscure the type and when they are applied to already decorative typefaces the results can be devastating. When Mies van der Rohe said that “less is more” he may have been talking about book cover typography instead of architecture.

The first thing that the title of a book needs to do is be readable…and it has to be readable at first glance and at every size.  If no one can read, the title of your book, you have lost a lot of advantages. A book cover is not a puzzle for the potential reader to figure out.

Speaking of discussions in writing groups. One thing you said stuck with me. What does your book look like in a thumbnail? Can you explain why that is so important?

Ron: A thumbnail image is how most people will probably first see your book, either on an Amazon or Barnes & Nobel page, in a catalog, or as part of a review. This means that your cover needs to be readable at any size. And this includes the possibility that the cover may even be first seen in black and white. If your cover is dark with type that doesn’t contrast well with the background, all you will end up with is a murky little postage stamp that not only doesn’t attract the eye of the potential reader, it says nothing at all about your book.

There are two good tests for any book cover. The first is to reduce it to the same size as an Amazon thumbnail image. The second is to convert the cover to grayscale. This latter is a test for contrast: everything should still pop out even when the cover is in B&W.

Do you have any favorite covers? Your own or another artist? I have to admit, one of mine is Space Viking by H. Beam Piper.

Ron: I have far too many favorite covers to list here! Many of my illustrator colleagues have done or do book covers and all of them are outstanding. One of my favorite artists is my late friend, Steve Hickman (who sadly passed away last Summer). He created hundreds of science fiction and fantasy covers, often designing the type into the painting itself.  You can see his work here


Steve Hickman Covers

My blog contains a great many examples of what I think are outstanding book covers. A half dozen entries are devoted to some of the best examples from the history of book cover design, going back to the 19th century. Other posts are devoted to outstanding examples of recent covers from different publishers and different designers. This is the most recent post along those lines

It’s probably easier to pick some of my favorites from among covers I have done! (B.K.: I went ahead and did that, including them here).

Can you talk about covers and series? How important is it to have a consistent theme, and does that require you to have all of them designed at once?

Ron: Well, branding is indeed important when a series is involved: you want to have that visual continuity. I have often compared a book cover to packaging (which is what they are), no different than the label on a can of peas at the grocery store. There is a reason why products from different manufacturers have consistent labeling—even if that is only a logo. A customer loyal to, say Del Monte canned vegetables will look for the Del Monte label. Likewise, a reader caught up in a series will look for a cover on a new book that lets them know it is part of the series. This can be done in any number of ways, though. There can be a kind of logo, a consistent style of typography, a similarity in the style of art or any combination of these things. 

What advice would you give to someone who says they do not have $50 or $100 to hire a professional cover designer?

Ron: Well, I would advise them to save up their money and not try to take things into their own hands. This is especially so if the author has no experience or ability in illustration or graphic design. Even if they do, it’s very, very hard for an author to look at their own cover objectively, as a prospective reader would. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in details that seem immensely important to you—making sure that a character has the right number of buttons on their uniform—or including things that seem significant to you but are only meaningful to someone who has already read the book, which is putting the cart before the horse.

One of my favorite examples of the lack of objectivity and of being too close to the subject is the time I was shown a cover depicting a rustic stone bridge crossing a lovely little stream in the middle of a sunny meadow. It would have been perfect for a travel guide to the English countryside, but I was told that the book was a rousing high fantasy adventure in the line of Tolkien or Howard. “How,” I asked, “does this have anything to do with high fantasy?”

“Well,” the author replied, “my main character is a troll and that’s the bridge he lives under.”

Think of it this way: every single one of the thousands of covers at were thought to be perfect by the author.

Ah, you bring me to my last question. You have posted about a website that tracks terrible cover designs. Can you share that link? And, I hate to put you on the spot, but can you show us the top three worst covers you have ever seen?

Ron: Here is the link:

That request is a tall order! I see horrific covers almost every day! Let me see what I can do…

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