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Guest Post: Brave New World (What I’ve Learned About Cover Designs...

The following is a guest post by author Sherry Thomas who self published an anthology with Courtney Milan and Carolyn Jewel.  She offered up an unusual story about cover art in the digital age.

The book cover as a marketing tool interests me. Whenever there is a good blog post or a talk, I stop and pay attention.

But most of the available opinion, advice, and debate I’ve come across are centered around physical publishing, when a cover is meant to fetch you from across the store and get you to pick up and fondle the book by using various colors, textures, and contrasts. Nowadays, a great deal of publishing is done on a digital-first basis, and in this new environment, authors looking to have their books discovered must judge their cover designs with a modified set of standards, as I learned from the design process Courtney Milan, Carolyn Jewel, and I undertook for MIDNIGHT SCANDALS, our historical romance anthology.

Courtney served as our cover designer. It was decided early on in the process that we would use a stock photo, most likely a woman in a bridal gown, as the beginning point of the cover image. As Courtney put it, “My theory is that as long as it looks like a pretty dress, it will convey ‘historical.’ I don’t see a cover as anything except a marketing device. If it conveys subgenre and looks pretty in both thumbnail and larger version, it works for me.”

This is what we started with. Since the title of the anthology is MIDNIGHT SCANDALS, it seemed appropriate to go to bat with midnight blue.

Midnight Blue Draft Midnight Scandals


Courtney sent the preliminary design both in thumbnail size and in large size.  I, being a complete neophyte in terms of digital publishing, went immediately for the large size.  At this point in my career, I’d looked over a number of cover designs and my sage thought on this particular cover?  I fretted that the material on the gown looked like it was made of foil.

I also worried about the blue of the dress and the blue of the background do not play well together.  Courtney, being the patient saint she is, sent other combinations.

Click for larger image

You are seeing but a small sample of the close to thirty variations Courtney generated.  At this point, I was still looking at the covers in full size.  Carolyn, probably realizing at last how clueless I was, said in her next email, “I opened all the images on my desktop as thumbnails.  I think thumbnail size is REALLY important.”


And you know she was not talking to Courtney, who already knew how important thumbnails are.  J This is what Courtney said on the point, “My theory on covers is that you have to design for thumbnail first: if the cover doesn’t draw the eye, nobody will click on it. If nobody clicks on it, it’s a losing game. I see covers that are crappy, crappy up close selling extremely well, and covers that are gorgeous up close being relatively lackluster–and it’s all a question of “does the cover stand out in the pack?”

How does one decide whether a cover stands out in the pack?  One field tests.

“The proper way to do a field test,” noted Courtney, “is to bury your cover in a montage of images of other covers in your subgenre. Hide it somewhere in them. Look away, and then look back at the covers. How long does it take you to find yours in the big heap of images? If it takes a long time, your cover isn’t visible enough.”

Below is our cover in a field of 15 other romances.

Field Test

Can’t find it?  Neither could us.

Our cover, in a different color combo, against the field.

Field Test Take 2

Again, our cover was really hard to find, wasn’t it?


This is what Courtney observed: “The one thing that struck me about making the first two images is how much my eye was consistently drawn by the cover for The Blue Devil, which you wouldn’t think from looking at the cover in full length. In that cover, it’s the contrast between the dress and the background that makes you look first.”

Carolyn remarked in addition, “Overall on the image montages, I’m surprised by how muddy so many of them look. I agree that the Blue Devil cover is a win in thumbnail. The one with the yellow dress is also eye-catching: simple with good contrast and color combos.”

And I just sat there, thinking, 1) I had no idea it was possible to be this meticulous (you are only seeing a fraction of the number of field tests) and 2) I so wish I’d gone through this process with these ladies before I judged the designs for my own overseas backlist self-pub covers.  I would have used a completely different set of criteria.

So now we decided that what we wanted was a high contrast color scheme. Courtney went back to her magical software and out popped another half dozen field test.  I’ll show you just this one.

Field Test Take 3

It is absolutely remarkable how much better our cover pops against the field, with this new color combo.


(Until about this point, I’d preferred the blue dress, worrying that one could see the photoshopping on the orange dress from a mile away.  After the field test, it was orange dress all the way.)

Now that we’ve nailed the general color combo we wanted, I thought we were done.  Not so fast.  Next Courtney had us examine “super-tiny thumbnail images in both color and black and white.”

The thumbnails were 50×75 pixels.  Why were we looking at covers of that size?  Because one of the venues we were designing for is people who browse directly from their Kindle device—in black and white, in other words, so the color contrast won’t show up.  So along with how well a cover performs in color, we also must pay attention to how it looks in grayscale—while at a tiny, tiny size.

“It may sound ridiculous to design for viewability at 50×75,” wrote Courtney, “but this is how word-of-mouth happens. Look at the attached screenshot, and ask yourself what Tia is reading. That author just lost the chance to have hundreds of people see her name because it was mentioned in the thread.”

This is the screenshot Courtney was talking about.  Goodreads, if I’m not mistaken.

Field Test, GoodReads


And indeed, look at those two books Tia was reading.  I couldn’t—and can’t—make out either the author’s name nor the titles.


Courtney continued, “If someone really wants to know, sure they can click on the book… but she’s just lost the chance to have a reader do some unconscious advertising and get her name out there, because the book cover was not designed to take advantage of how book covers are viewed in social media.”

This also answered a question that I had from the very beginning, namely, why our names were so freaking huge on the cover.  I’d thought it was because, well, without any publisher holding us to a tier system, we could all have name fonts as big as #1 NYT bestsellers’.  Nope, it was because Courtney had been designing with 50×75 thumbnails in mind from the beginning.

We adjusted the background color slightly, because that particular shade of green as the background look somewhat strange in full size. We had some issues with typography to resolve as well. We switched our names around in an attempt to get the bottom name to clear the model’s skirt.  In the end, we shrunk the size of all the names a little so the L in JEWEL would be clearly visible, rather than lost in the orange folds.

Here is the final design in various sizes.

(click for larger version)


Unfortunately, Courtney does not hire herself out as a cover designer.  But I took what I learned from this digital publishing cover process, i.e.,

  1. Always consider thumbnail size first and foremost
  2. Always make sure your name is legible even in the smallest thumbnail
  3.  Go for simple, high-contrast, non-muddy covers
  4.  Check the cover for how it looks in grayscale

and applied it to the cover design of my next self-pub title, an erotic novella referred to in snippets throughout my current trilogy.

Frauke Spanuth, my designer at CrocoDesigns, gave me three color schemes.  They all looked great in full size.  And they did not look bad in thumbnails either.  Big, visible fonts, high contrast, simple design.  (My name is not on the cover by choice; the story, in the trilogy, is specified as having been written by “A Gentleman of Indiscretion.”)

But what if I look at them in 50×75?

Aha, the title becomes much harder to see in the third one.  Bye-bye, third one.

The next step, grayscale for the survivors.

Now the first one has lost all contrasts.  And we have a winner.

Bride of Larkspear Winner

I skipped the field tests, because, well, I’d just rather Courtney do them for me.  But you should definitely make them a mandatory part of your cover design process.  :)

Anyway, I hope this post has been of some use and/or interest to you.  And if you have digital cover design tips of your own, feel free to share them in the comments.

You can learn more about Sherry Thomas here (and The Bride of Larkspear is scheduled for a Sept 30 release); Courtney Milan here; and Carolyn Jewel here.  Midnight Scandals is currently for sale.


Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Ros
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 05:55:55

    So much YES! It amazes me that so many self and e publishers have failed to grasp the importance of the thumbnail. If your cover is indistinct at thumbnail size, you’ve failed, no matter how pretty it is at full size.

    The other thing that consistently irritates me about self-published covers is the lack of attention to typography. Courtney’s done a terrific job with yours, but so often it is the typography that instantly says home-made to me, and makes me think that the rest of the book will be equally unprofessional.

    “As Courtney put it, “My theory is that as long as it looks like a pretty dress, it will convey ‘historical.’ ” I know this is true but it makes me sad. I like historical dresses, not wedding dresses.

  2. More on digital book covers « Ros Clarke: romance writer
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 06:09:55

    […] a terrific post at Dear Author today about digital book covers and the importance of the thumbnail. Thumbnails are the most […]

  3. Jayne
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 06:36:06


    “As Courtney put it, “My theory is that as long as it looks like a pretty dress, it will convey ‘historical.’ ” I know this is true but it makes me sad. I like historical dresses, not wedding dresses.

    I’m with you on that. The pictured dress is striking and makes a vivid cover but it seems more like something I’d see on a modern runway during a fashion week in Milan or Paris. I find myself much more drawn to covers that at least make a stab at period details.

  4. Michelle
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 07:10:38

    I don’t like it when the names on an anthology aren’t in alphabetical order. Also the dress doesn’t cry out “historical” to me either.

  5. Patricia Eimer
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 07:30:20

    Um wow, I never realized how much work went into my cover designs. I’m going to have to go send Heather Howland flowers now cause that is an intense amount of work.

    Your cover is amazing by the way. I’d have gone with the blue dress too on gut but the orange is just Wow all the way.

  6. Jane Litte
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 07:34:56

    In the first field test, I actually miss the Midnight Scandals cover book 3 out of 4 times. When I reviewed the post, I triple checked to see if I had actually inserted the right image. It’s kind of amazing.

  7. Kati
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 07:45:05

    This is fascinating. I know authors don’t discount the importance of cover appeal, but when considering whether to give a new author a try, I’m often deeply influenced by the cover art and blurb (which is a whole different post).

    What a truly wonderful post. I hope lots of authors read this and take notes!

  8. Lil
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 08:02:09

    Gotta say, the one that caught my eye each time was Maids of Misfortune. For two reasons:

    1. I could read both the title and the author’s name.

    2. It didn’t look like all the others.

    All those prom dresses may signal “historical,” but is that enough?

  9. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 08:29:34

    I learned long ago that I suck at cover design, so congrats to Courtney for doing an effective one.
    However, if I buy one more book that I think is a Regency, from the look of the dress on the cover, then find it’s a Victorian (which I dislike), that will be the last time I buy one. I want a period-specific dress to at least give me a clue!
    The blurb isn’t that much better, in most cases, as it’s vague about the period.
    I know, I’m funny that way, but I do like a bit of history in my historicals.

  10. Tina
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 08:37:35

    Oh what a fun article!

    Also, am I subconsciously just a Mary Balogh fangirl? Because in both field tests the two Mary Balogh books stood out for me.

    – Temporary Wife/Promise of Spring drew my eye because of the big ‘ol bouquet of flowers basically acted like a target.

    – The Secret Mistress because of the bright yellow couch contrasted against the blue.

    That said, good idea on not going with the first choice. I think the model would have been lost in a big old field of blue. Kinda like when you see actors working on a green screen, only their heads stick out.

  11. Ros
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 08:51:26

    @Lynne Connolly: The anthology is a bit odd in that the three stories are set in the same place but at different time periods from, I think, Regency through to late Victorian.

  12. Meri
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 09:04:18

    @Tina: I am not a Balogh fangirl, just an occasional reader of hers – but those really popped for me as well, especially the blue/yellow cover.

    Maids of Misfortune also stood out, as Lil noted the cover just looked different.

  13. April Kihlstrom
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 09:07:32

    Wow! I had no idea. Such a useful post–thanks for writing it.

  14. Marquita Valentine
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 09:29:03

    I design my own covers, and one of the things that I always do while designing is look at it in thumbnail. The program I use has a large view and thumbnail view that changes as I make changes. Like Sherry said in her article, it is very helpful.

    My first tip , and I might be alone on this one, is make sure that your name is as large as possible without being overwhelming. I’m horrible with titles but great with names. Maybe from being a school teacher, I don’t know. LOL!

    My last tip (s) is that you don’t have to spend a bazillion dollars on a nice stock photo to have a great cover, but you *will* need to invest into a photoshop program and learn how to use it. And you do need to consider if the stock photo actually fits your story, not just slap up man titteh because you think it sells. (BTW I can’t tell you how many Big 6 covers I’ve found on different stock sites while searching!)

    Anyway, those are my tips. Hope they help. :)

    Thanks for the blog post Sherry and Jane.

  15. dick
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 09:31:09

    Aha! There IS a reason for those cover contests.

  16. Lev Raphael
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 09:39:35

    This should be required reading for all authors whether they’re indie or traditional (or both like me). If you’re publishing traditionally, this gives you facts with which to discuss the coevr with your editor, and even the art director if like me you’ve been lucky enough to have access.

    So often we feel uncomfortable with our covers, and can’t put our fingers on just why.

    It also captures how much time indie authors spend on the fine details. I published 19 books with publishers large and small, and went indie for my next five, and always fuss with font, colors, layout. It’s a gift to be able to make these choices.

  17. Emily
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 09:55:42

    The anthology by Mary Balogh stood out for me.
    I with all the others who said they were depressed that Pretty dress equals historical.
    Time Specific equals historical. Pretty dress equals young adult, probably post-apocalyptic.
    Still the cover is nice and congrats on the anthology. Thanks for the tips!

  18. Isobel Carr
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 09:57:17

    @Lynne Connolly: The problem is that actual historical cover stock is REALLY hard to come by, and hiring out costumes and models and photographers to shoot your own is prohibitively expensive for most authors. I loaned all my Regency costumes to both Kim Killion (Hot Damn Designs) and Jenn LeBlanc so they could shoot historical stock. I’m hoping to do the same with my Victorians and my Georgians so they’re will be more variety out there. Eventually, I’d like to organize a big historical photoshoot with all my re-enactor friends’ costumes on hand, but the whole hiring of models is stumping me (need to talk to Jenn about that, LOL!).

    Just a note: I’m not profiting in any way from the loan. Just wanted to make that clear.

  19. Jayne
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 10:12:28

    @Tina: Yep, both Baloghs stood out to me as well as the Sands book. The Maclean book just looks like a big mass of peach. The Greene (?) one (bottom row, second picture) is a total fail. I can’t read either the title or the author. Plus the side by side images make it look choppy

  20. Carolyn Jewel
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 10:17:27

    I have no graphics skillz so I was really happy when Courtney said she’d do the cover for Midnight Scandals. What I do have is a background in web development and typography and working with talented graphics people who patiently explained their jobs to me when I was a web developer. It was such a relief to know Courtney understood the color, contrast and typography issues we faced. Sherry is underestimating her contributions. She’s very good with color and detail and it was a big help.

    Arriving at a good typographical and positioning solution for our names was a challenge. My name started out on top because the names were in order of appearance in the anthology. But typographically, the characters in my name, particularly my last name (jewel) made it far easier to fit in the last position. And there’s a lot to be said for having the NYT bestsellers on top. (Hah!)

    As someone mentioned, the stories in the anthology range from Regency, Victorian, to Late Victorian, so any gown on the cover that was specifically tied to a period (Regency, for example) would have misrepresented the other periods. A house would not have suggested Romance.

    I’m actually coming around to the opinion that eBooks should have two covers. The one that goes on the “outside” and is focused on selling and another that goes on the inside and acts more like a step back. Aside from the cost of two images, why not?

    For anyone who has Midnight Scandals, you’ll see we also used color in the interior design of the eBook. It’s really, really pretty. If you’re designing eBooks, you should be remembering that unlike with a print book, color is free. This is not an excuse to run wild but if you’re producing files, time spent learning about color theory and typography is well spent.

    Someone else mentioned typography and oh my, I agree. 98% of the DIY covers I see have terrible, terrible typography. Choosing the right fonts for the job is an art, getting things positioned and kerned correctly is yet another.

    Lastly, I think the cover of Midnight Scandals demonstrates that Courtney has skillz. Owning photoshop or GIMP does not magically grant you skillz. Outsource to an expert if you don’t have skillz.

  21. Ros
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 10:33:23

    @Carolyn Jewel: Colour on the inside of ebooks is free, but totally wasted on everyone who reads your book on an ereader.

  22. Cheryl
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 10:54:40

    As I have a Nook tablet, I noticed the touches of color inside “Midnight Scandals”, particularly at the scene breaks. Very cute!

    And as someone who did graphic design/publishing before becoming a SAHM, I will admit I’ve bought umpteen million books based on the cover. At the moment, I’m surprised by the number of publishing houses jumping into the black and white covers a la 50 Shades of Grey pool. It is a marketing tool that is working for the moment, but at some point the designs will have to move forward. And to be quite honest, many of the covers being redone (Megan Hart’s come to mind) I don’t like as well as the original covers.

    What can I say? I like nekkid people on the front of my books, even in paperback form. lol

  23. Gwen Hayes
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 11:11:58

    Also, this post is just one more reason I think Courtney Milan should rule the world.

  24. Grace Draven
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 11:33:36

    I either design my own covers or work in tandem with an artist to design them. I’ve used all the steps noted here except the one for burying it within a montage. What a great idea! I’m definitely going to add that to my process on the next book cover I tackle.


  25. Patricia
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 11:42:26

    I read ebooks on my iPad, mostly through the Kindle app. I would love to see more color inside of books.

  26. Moriah Jovan
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 12:04:32


    Colour on the inside of ebooks is free, but totally wasted on everyone who reads your book on an ereader.

    But it doesn’t take away from your experience. It DOES add a whole ‘nother level of experience for those who read on a color device.

  27. Ros
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 12:17:34

    Depends on whether the greyscale works or not, and also what you’re talking about. Decorative stuff, fine. Text, not so much. My main point is that I wouldn’t spend ages on something that won’t be appreciated by a big chunk of your readers.

  28. Carolyn Jewel
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 12:40:19


    Well, it is for anyone reading in a B&W reader, but not for tablets, smartphones or apps. I’m pretty sure (but haven’t looked it up) that tablets + smartphones + apps outnumber the B&W readers. As long as you’re careful about your use of color so that when seen in B&W it’s not washed out or invisible, there isn’t any issue with a judicious use of color. And, of course, even now, covers are uploaded in color but displayed as B&W for devices not capable of color.

    So, absolutely you are correct that anyone deciding to use color needs to have in mind that a subset of readers will not see the color. I recently read an eBook (I think it was No Easy Day) that used a gray text for the first word of each section. It was interesting, but actually kind of annoying.

    Also, in Midnight Scandals, the use of interior color was limited to the background of the title page images and the color of the dingbats.

    Any “feature” is open to abuse by people who don’t test and regression test or fully understand the technology.

  29. Erin Satie
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 13:51:26

    Gizmodo ran an article today on this kerning game

    I went to check it out and it’s kind of fun! Also, exausting by the time you get to the tenth word…and the long words…who knew?

    Anyhow, after reading this article it was especially illuminating to get a bit of hands on experience.

  30. Karina Fabian
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 14:38:57

    Can you please, please tell us how you set up the field test? The tech bits, and if there’s a shortcut to simply copying and pasting a bunch of covers into a photoshop file. I really want to do this with my covers from now on–both those I design myself for my stories and those my publishers send me for suggestion/approval. I think this is the most important publishign/marketing article I’ve read in ages.

  31. Sally Clements
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 14:46:57

    Fantastic post – I hadn’t really considered this in any great detail, and it is really so true. And the tests were a real eye opener…

  32. SAO
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 15:02:22

    Mary Balogh stood out for me because it was the only words I could read without leaning closer and concentrating. It took me several tries to find the Blue Devil. While not as fancy as the more cursive fonts, the font for “Mary Balogh” was graceful and feminine.

  33. CC Denham
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 15:20:47

    WOW. Here I thought I had a pretty decent start on cover design. I cannot tell you how helpful this post is. But I am bookmarking the hell out of it. Thank you thank you thank you THANK YOU.

  34. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 15:42:31

    @Isobel Carr: When they came to do the cover for “Lisbon,” we found it really hard to find Georgian costumes. But even when they’re wearing the right clothes, they’re not wearing them right (wrong hair, modern makeup and so on). I’d settle for tastefully nekkid and a period background. All those pretty girls in prom dresses and hair tumbling down their backs are just depressing.

  35. Isobel Carr
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 16:37:47

    @Lynne Connolly: That’s why I want to do a big shoot where my re-enactor friends and I oversee the costumes, hair, and makeup. I even know someone who specializes in Georgian wigs! I just need the time and the money for the models. Maybe I should do Kickstarter, LOL! All authors kicking in get X number of covers per level of donation …

  36. Jax Garren
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 17:09:47

    Wow. I now have a lot more respect for my cover artist (and that’s saying something because I already liked my cover before trying the thumbnail test). Thanks for a fascinating article and congrats on your beautiful cover! Can’t wait to read what’s inside.

  37. Carolyne
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 17:49:18

    @Isobel Carr: I’d pledge on that Kickstarter :) I’d even kick in extra for (extremely rare as the need may be) a couple of authentic Roman ladies and gents, though the wigs can get pretty crazy depending on the time period. At least I’ve never seen a big-skirted prom dress on an ancient-world novel. Basically, I just want more ancient historical romances :)

    Not that I mind seeing half-naked oiled-up guys in gladiator loincloths, but I’m pretty sure even the hunkiest ancient fellow wore actual street clothes occasionally.

  38. Courtney Milan
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 18:22:56

    @Karina Fabian:

    I do all layout work in Inkscape, which is free, open source vector editing software. (I also use the GIMP for those following along at home–I own photoshop, but because I’ve been using the GIMP so much longer, I default to it–it’s just easier for me!)

    For the field test, I picked a bunch of covers that were high up the historical romance sub genre list at the time. In Inkscape, you can easily drag and drop covers. I am a huge fan of Inkscape.

    I try to keep tabs in the books that are selling well in historical romance, and if it’s an unexpected suspect, I try to figure out what’s driving the sales. There are a lot of factors, but sometimes you can tell the cover is playing a role by just dropping it into a montage of other covers, and it just draws the eye magnetically.

    Then, if it’s 3 in the AM and you really can’t get back to sleep, you do crazy things like try to figure out what’s drawing your eye. The figure? The pose? And you modify the original cover and see if you change that one thing, it stops drawing the eye.

    For dresses: yeah, I wish there was a great stock of unused historical dresses in romance-like poses. The problem is there isn’t one, and every time there is something close, those pictures get used on a thousand covers all at once. This tells me there is massive demand for such a thing, and I’m part of it.

    At some point, I will probably start commissioning individual photo shoots for my covers (and I’ve even talked to a photographer about this!) but it’s hard to swallow thousands of dollars for proper clothing and a shoot versus the $20 in stock art I spent for this one.

  39. Lucy Francis
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 19:54:40

    Love this post! The montage field test is brilliant. Not sure why, but the grayscale test never occurred to me, so that’s a very helpful tip. Great work, Courtney, you have mad skills!

  40. Sylvie
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 21:18:40

    @Isobel Carr: where are you located? I’m in LA, and finding models who will work tirelessly for free (and a couple of pics) has been the easiest part – costumes/props – more difficult. I’ve had great luck finding them through modeling agencies or even on Craigslist. (I used to shoot portraits back in the day). NYC has been the same. I don’t know about other areas, though.

  41. Jim Nichols
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 22:42:45

    Honestly, I had no trouble at all finding your cover in the first two bunches, and a really hard time finding it in the third. The thing that really stands out in the first two examples is the TEXT. Those covers use 60% of the cover space for authors and title. Every other cover in the group has more colors, more color detail, more contrast, and only half 0f much of the space used for text. The third version certainly has more color, but it also makes it nearly impossible to read the title.

  42. Karina Fabian
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 22:43:43

    I decided to apply what I learned in your article to the cover I just made. It’s for a short story I did as a fundraiser, but I may put it on Kindle later. Here are the progressions if anyone is interested:

  43. Evangeline Holland
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 23:19:34

    @Sylvie: @Isobel Carr: Model Mayhem. Full of aspiring models, many of whom will work for free to build their portfolio.

    And not just historical stock art–can we get more images of models of color in historical dress?

  44. Ebony McKenna
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 23:48:18

    This post is awesome.
    I’ll be doing exactly this next year and I’ve been studying small thumbnail sizes for the same reason – readers with devices buy from their devices. I hadn’t thought about greyscale tho, so that’s something I’ll do from now on.


  45. Jenn LeBlanc
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 23:50:50

    Isobel! You’re costumes are wonderful and I do need to shoot them more often, I can’t possibly thank you enough (and need to return them) and we’ll talk about models. It shouldn’t be difficult to arrange.

    Love this article, and I’ve used Courtney’s process as well, though for the life of me don’t remember when I first heard her talk about it… It’s been awhile. But it’s truly brilliant.

    Covers are important. If readers don’t get past the cover, you’ve already lost. What drives me nuts is there are tons of affordable ways to get covers, good covers, and bad covers still happen. If you can’t do it yourself, pay someone to do it. It is entirely worth it. You spend the money on editing, the time on words, you can’t drop the ball on the cover.

    I do not design covers, though I’m able, I choose to leave the design to those who are as dedicated as Courtney to your design. I believe there are experts for reasons. I shoot images, then hand them off to designers who hopefully know as much about designing as Courtney does.

    Most of the designers I’ve worked with are amazing and I’m grateful. It is a talent, and I love that this one part of cover design has been showcased here. It can’t just be a pretty cover, it has to also be a competitive cover.

  46. Carol
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 00:54:49

    @Lynne Connolly: Thank you!!! I couldn’t agree more. I like regencies and read them voraciously. There are Victorians I’ve enjoyed, but usually I’d prefer to avoid them. I want to know what I’m buying and it’s maddening how often you can’t tell until you’ve read enough of the story to stumble across some telling detail. (And I’ll stop now before I get going on a mistorical rant.)

  47. Chris
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 04:48:19

    I don’t know. The blue and tan cover with the white lettering jumped right out at me. The orange green cover took me almost a minute to find. It was like a word search puzzle. Also, the colors didn’t make me want to read the book, whereas the previous cover piqued my interest right away. Sometimes there is more to a cover than just ‘standing out’ among the crowd. If that were the only reason for choosing a cover then you might as well make it day-glow orange with black text and no picture. That would have jumped out even more.

    A cover should also elicit an emotional response from the reader as well. Simply grabbing their attention is not enough. Readers don’t buy books by purchasing the first one that jumps out at them. They peruse several different books looking for the one that ‘speaks’ to them. Then they read the back blurb. Then they might look inside if that is available. Lastly, they look at reviews and then make a purchase. And like I said earlier, the last cover didn’t make me want to read the book and I found it more difficult to spot in the group of other covers.

  48. Jill Sorenson
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 07:18:05

    What you need for a field test is someone who’s never seen the cover before and doesn’t know what they’re looking for. Then you ask them which cover/covers stand out. I had a hard time finding the cover in all three examples, so I wonder if eye-catching elements are just as subjective as everything else. I think my eye was most drawn to bronze bare skin.

    I didn’t know that grayscale was important. I’ve only recently switched to wi-fi and haven’t shopped for books on my kindle yet. I always use Amazon to browse. But I’m on GR also and I look at thumbnails all the time. Clinch covers have started to look like m/m to me unless one of the models is obviously female. It’s hard to tell in the small version. I was scratching my head over a plain RL Mathewson (is that the right name?) cover. Gray with basic text, like an ARC. Maybe that style is popping on Kindle screens?

  49. Athena Grayson
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 08:20:55

    In many of the thumbnail field tests, I couldn’t even read the titles or the author names, because the script was too thin and florid. I think many of them were scans of paperback covers, so the medium is different, but wow–some of those covers I’ve seen in the bookstore, and they did pop and attract my attention, even 30 feet away in the cafe (so the relative size is pretty close), but on a screen, they looked muddy and unclear in thumbnail form.

    @Tina: Like Tina, I was drawn to the Mary Balogh cover, too. It was light, so it attracted my eye, and I could read the author’s name clearly in the thumbnail. Which is weird, because I’ve always thought the book’s title should be a little more important than the author’s name unless the name is a big, well-known name, but when I went to look, Dean Wesley Smith had just the opposite to say.

    But maybe the Mary Balogh attracted me because it’s in the upper left hand corner and that’s where you start reading. Still, the combination of light colors, yet the contrast of the dress and the background, the size and pop of the author’s name, and that big punctuation of the red blotch right in the middle of the light dress drew my eye (and I think it’s a bouquet of roses, but at thumbnail size, it looks like a blotch).

    My cover artist made my rom-com black text on a white background with the cartoon characters. She’s a professional designer, I really love the cover, and I’ve gotten compliments on how the cover advertises exactly what’s in the tin (cute and fluffy and none too serious).

    But recently, she suggested a re-styling and I’m taking it. I would have thought black and white would pop the most *in* black and white, but the gradient background, text resizing, and slightly different element placements do make it look more…catchy. (Of course, that’s the great thing about going indie–I can change covers any time. :) ).

    Thank you, Sherry Thomas, for posting your learnings about covers. It’s a wild and crazy new world for reading and publishing, but the changes give us the opportunity to understand what goes on under the hood.

  50. M.J. Schiller
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 15:09:09

    Okay, for the totally technologically unsavvy, how do you make your image thumbnail size?

  51. Widdershins
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 16:49:45

    Wonderful information – with graphics that tell the story so well too. Thanks!

  52. Ksenia Anske
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 22:38:28

    Excellent post, thank you so much! I’m far away from designing the cover for my book (still on the 4th draft) – but I’m glad I know what to do when I’ll get there.

  53. Sherry Thomas
    Sep 13, 2012 @ 07:57:51

    @M.J. Schiller: I am on a mac, the preview software–the one that lets you see images–comes with certain editing functions, such as sizing. When I used a linux-platform laptop, I think GIMP came free with it and you could size on that.

    Can’t remember whether my PCs ever had a free program. I had bought Photoshop Elements years ago, so never quite noticed whether PCs had such programs pre-installed.

    I don’t have a working windows-based computer anymore, but you can just open an image on your PC, if that’s what you have, and see what options you have.

  54. booo
    Sep 13, 2012 @ 09:53:27

    I like this anthology a lot.

  55. Amanda DeWees
    Sep 13, 2012 @ 10:22:15

    This post demonstrates to me that it’s extremely difficult to create an effective ebook cover that will also be an effective POD cover, which is aggravating for those of us publishing our books in both formats. The high contrast and pared-down design that work for an ebook thumbnail will probably look unsophisticated and even clumsy on an 8.5×5.5 paperback cover. And as others have demonstrated, an elegant print cover design often becomes too fussy and cluttered when reduced to thumbnail size. It begins to appear that books will need two different cover designs for the different formats.

    As for the historically inaccurate costumes on cover girls, I agree that it’s unfortunate to see so much of this, but my own experience proved to me that the stock photography available has some huge gaps. For my 1855-set Victorian gothic, I ended up going with a cover girl in Regency dress. I hated to, but the hoopskirt offerings I found weren’t suitable in other important details, including mood and expression.

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  58. George
    Sep 17, 2012 @ 22:11:28

    I’d just like to point out that considering thumbnails “first and foremost” is fine and dandy, but you’ve completely overlooked the effect different screen resolutions will make. On a 23″ screen at 1920×1080 pixels, your smallest thumbnails posted here are essentially illegible. I’m sure they’re much more readable on a 10″ netbook screen at 1024×600 – but, well…

    Also, the font on the cover of Bride of Larkspear is never going to win any awards for legibility, at any size. :)

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  61. Rhonda Woodworth-Tardif
    Sep 22, 2012 @ 20:44:28

    What a helpful article. My cover may not look near as good when I put it through those hoops. Thanks a heap.

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    […] Brave New World (What I’ve Learned About Cover Designs for Digital Publishing) Post from author Sherry Thomas about what a writer in the digital age has to consider about cover design. Courtney sent the preliminary design both in thumbnail size and in large size. I, being a complete neophyte in terms of digital publishing, went immediately for the large size. At this point in my career, I’d looked over a number of cover designs and my sage thought on this particular cover? I fretted that the material on the gown looked like it was made of foil. […]

  63. Suzanne Semsch
    Nov 07, 2012 @ 15:38:44

    What a helpful description of the ups and downs/ins and outs of digital book covers. I have a new book coming out soon, Turn on No-Bridge Road, and I thank you for filling me in on what to consider for the Kindle cover! I hope it will look half as good as yours.

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  66. Linda Louise Rigsbee
    Mar 25, 2013 @ 18:11:04


    I’d like to hear more about topography.

  67. Lizzi Tremayne
    Sep 02, 2013 @ 15:05:18

    Great tips, thanks!!!
    Lizzi Tremayne, Author

  68. Shirey Wine
    Sep 02, 2013 @ 15:51:17

    Fantastic article…. it’s great to see the process of cover design from the top so to speak. The practical demonstration of what works and what doesn’t is a real eye opener and is actually applicable to more than just book covers when dealing with social media. Thanks so much for posting this.

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