B&N Week 70: Cover Time

| April 24, 2012 | 10 Comments

With every Tuesday comes a song in my heart and a smile on my face. Truly, all of you make each and every Tuesday something special. Thank you for it.


This week, I wanted to talk about the very first thing your readers are going to see: the cover to your book. So, let’s get into the Bolts & Nuts of that, shall we?


The cover to your book is going to be extremely important. It has to capture the eye of the customer, being striking enough to get them interested enough to pick up the book and hopefully buy it.


Back in the day, covers had to distill the story of the book into a single image. Think of one of the most striking covers of all time: Amazing Spider-Man #50, Spider-Man No More! You’ve got a large image of Spider-Man with its back turned toward the reader, looking back over its shoulder, and a small Peter Parker walking toward the reader, head down, shoulders slumped, and looking defeated. Striking imagery, and it distills exactly what’s happening in the book.


Modern [superhero] covers barely do this anymore. They’re barely more than pinups, and have little to nothing to do with the story inside.


Is one way better than the other? I think so. I would rather have a striking image that speaks to the story inside than have a generic pinup any day.


When it comes to covers, there are two schools of thought: the cover should be done by the artist that does the interiors, or the cover should be done by a specialist.


There are times when the interior artist isn’t a great match for doing the cover. Sometimes, they just don’t have that spark. There’s also the fact that there are times when you can hire a pro to do a cover, and that will help to sell your book. Let’s say you’re doing Pen-Man, and you have Graeme McFreelancer doing the interiors. Well, you now have a choice: Graeme can also do the cover, but covers aren’t his strong suit. Or, you could get a cover artist such as Wilson Coverington to do it [after paying Wilson’s price]. The choice will always be yours, though.


About 10 years ago [and before, going back as much as 20], you had to be on the lookout for cover artists. You’d pick up the book based on only the cover, get home, crack it open, and you’d see what you considered to be crap on the inside. It would happen time and again. Now, I believe readers are more savvy. They’ll pick up a book based on a cover, but will also crack it open to see what the art is like on the inside.


Some retailers are hesitant to pick up a book that has a different cover artist. This is not the case with the majority of retailers, but it would be fair to mention it. Also, there are some readers who are hesitant to pick up a book if the cover artist isn’t the same as the interior artist.


In the indies, especially today, I think it gets even worse. You can hire Wilson Coverinton to do your cover, and it looks great and is extremely attractive. And what is it doing? It’s being a shiny wrapper on the craptastic art that’s inside. (Craptastic, Steven? Isn’t that pretty harsh?) No, not at all.


Instead of shelling out for a decent artist, lots of creators are opting to save money on art, get their story told, and then wrap it in an attractive package [cover] so that it will sell. I’ve seen it time and again. Or, so as not to put as much onus on the interior artist, there are times when the interior art is adequate-to-good, but the cover artist is just superior. It’s akin to getting Jim Lee to do a cover on Gerry Conway interiors. You’re expecting a slick-looking book when you get home, and instead you have an old master. Nothing against having an old master doing your book, but getting a new master for the cover sets up a different expectation. See how that works?


Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about cover construction.


Now, there are some elements that covers should address. This will be true of the majority of covers that you look at.


The very first thing is facing.


When you look at covers, characters are generally going to do one of three things: they are going to face straight out at the reader, they will face each other, or they will face to the right.


If they face straight out, then it seems like they’re engaging the reader. Think of the Uncle Sam posters, and you’ll get the idea. Facing out [even if they’re looking back behind them] is all about reader engagement. It’s about pulling you into the story so that you buy the book. It’s an enticement [as all covers should be].


When you have two or more characters on the cover, then a lot of times they’ll be facing each other. Think of it as a scene in a comic, distilled and stylized for the cover.


If it’s a single character, then if they are not facing out, they’ll face to the right. Why is this? Because they want you to open the book. They’re leading your eye to the right, where you get the first page turn. They’re all but telling you to open the book.


Generally, what you shouldn’t do is have a character facing to the left. [I’m generally talking American comics, folks.] That is leading them out of the book, away from cracking the book open and seeing what’s inside. The reader won’t be interested as much, because you’re telling them not to be when you have characters facing to the left. As a general rule, don’t have single characters facing to the left.


Next is color. Color is very important to a cover. While you can go very dark, when the cover goes on the shelf, it’s easier to get lost among all the other dark covers. You definitely want to have a balance of color on the cover, as well as colors that complement each other. (Well, duh! Complimentary colors! Thanks, Captain Obvious!) Trust me, if I didn’t have to say it, I wouldn’t. Make sure the colors compliment each other.


There’s something to be said about white covers, and here’s the place to say it. White covers are striking, because they have very few elements to them. Conventional wisdom tells us that white covers should be special event type covers: something special is happening inside, or a convention cover, or a sketch cover, or something like that. Do you have to go with conventional wisdom? Not at all. But if you go to this particular well too many times, then your covers will cease to stand out among your own output. Think long and hard about white covers before you do them.


Also, the colors on the cover should reflect the tone of the story inside. This is especially true if you’re distilling a scene from the story. For pinups [read: superhero], then the colors aren’t going to have much of an impact, but if you’re distilling a scene, then this will be important. If you have a bright, cheery palette, then your readers are going to expect bright cheeriness on the inside. Don’t jar them with a somber story. The reverse is true, as well.


Let’s talk about elements.


The cover should be balanced in their elements. You don’t want one side heavier than the other. By heavy, I mean elements bunched up on one side, with not as many elements on the other. Think of the cover as a seesaw. You want it balanced [or just slightly off] in order to make the most impact. A cover that is badly out of balance is a cover that is not going to work for the book or the story.


What do I mean by elements? Elements are everything that you see: characters, objects, words, colors—everything. Covers that are out of balance make for more difficult sales, psychologically speaking.


The cover image shouldn’t have anything important any other place than the middle of the cover. Think of the cover as having a smaller Live Area [that’s a lettering term—you have been studying how to letter, right?] where you only want to put certain elements. If it’s important, put it to the center and maybe even toward the right of center. [When you grow up, you can hide important story elements on the cover by placing them in areas that are not obvious.]


Anyway, if you put the important elements that are centered or to the right, then you have a better chance of those elements being seen, and not being lost in the shuffle.


Words. Besides the logo, you don’t often see them on today’s covers. From hyperbole to characters talking, either to one another or to the reader, you just don’t see it too often. It used to happen all the time, but now, it’s a rarity.


While on that subject, you also don’t see a lot of words on a cover that is not part of the trade dress, period. Modern fashion has taken certain elements out of the tool box for covers, and part of that are words, either spoken or chosen to highlight the story inside.


(Trade dress? You’re losing me, Steven.)


Trade dress is the logo of the book, the company logo, issue number, and price. I’m talking about the things that make the book recognizable as what it is and to whom it belongs. If I were to have a Pen-Man logo made using the font and color of the Wolverine logo, as well as using a company logo that is similar in shape and color to an old-style Marvel logo, then it could look like Pen-Man is not only being published by Marvel, but that it’s also a Wolverine spin-off. [Which would increase your sales, but also get you sued by Marvel: trade-dress is protectable, and you don’t need to register it in order to sue. It can be registered, but it doesn’t need to be.]


Generally, the company logo, issue number, and price are all within a single box, and that box is generally toward the upper left hand corner of the book. If you put an important element toward the upper left, it could get lost because of the elements that are already there.


And that’s all I have about covers for the moment. Does the make you an expert? Not at all. There are always things to learn.


Homework! When looking at covers on the shelves, look to see if the cover is doing the book justice. Could it be taken as a scene distilled from the book, or is it little more than a pinup? Is it a dark cover? Are there any elements that get lost? Is the trade dress attractive and not distracting from the overall aesthetic of the book? Go through your own collection and see what the covers tell you. See if there’s anything that drew you, or would have made you shy away from the book if you weren’t a completist. Be objective. Also, think about whether or not your interior artist will be the cover artist, or if you’re going to hire a ringer.


There’s the bell! See you in seven.



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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (10)

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  1. Another good column. You must have been reading my mind.

    I’ve just recently posted a mock-up cover in the CT forum for a story I wrote!

    After reading this column I feel there is much I can do to improve this.
    It is rough, and just a mock-up, but I think everyone should head over and comment.
    Yes for selfish reasons (getting feedback) but also to pump some life into the CT forum.

    So head over: http://comixtribe.44.forumer.com/index.php

    • Jules Rivera says:

      I have no problem offering critiques and opinions to help your cover along, but maybe next time link to the image itself. It’s not nice to make people dig around for your work: http://i934.photobucket.com/albums/ad190/Epsilon_Zero/MockupCoverJPEGedited.jpg

      My thoughts:

      1. I like your title treatment. Looks hand-lettered, which can help your comic logo stand out in this highly digital world.

      2. No colors? Is the cover supposed to be black and white? Or do you plan on adding colors later? If I’m judging based on values, I’d say make the background darker to make your main element, the sign, stand out better.

      3. Speaking of your main element, I’d say it’s kind of weak. It’s a sign. And there’s words on it. That’s it. It’s too reductive. Also, it’s a prohibitory sign. Your cover is a sign that literally tells the reader “GO AWAY.” That’s not a very good idea. You want to lure readers in with provocative imagery. The comic is titled “Clandestine” as in secretive or hidden. Why not tease the reader with some hidden secrets? Are there aliens? Superhuman experiments? Lasers? Maybe you could hint at one of these things on your cover. Maybe put a silhouette of an alien behind that sign or of a mushroom cloud. Some piece of imagery – not words – that spark the reader’s curiosity.

      I hope this helps. I look forward to seeing more.

      • Thanks Jules,

        Your right, I should have posted the link to the image as well.

        Responses on your thoughts below:

        1. I wasn’t planning on using a hand-lettered title, although now its sounding like a good idea. Thanks!

        2. No colours at the moment as this was just a mock-up in my sketchbook. I thought the grayscale would just help me identify contrasts and values and where these may need tweaking. I’ll take your advice and I think I will make the background darker. Thanks again!

        3. I agree its weak and I think you’ve hit the spot. Someone else has also mentioned that I need to add some other image to also give a clue of what the story is about and draw them in more. I think I have just the idea.

        Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated.

  2. Jules Rivera says:

    Thank God somebody finally did a topic on covers. This is such a pain for many artists. Covers have always been a bit of a vice for me, mainly because I don’t do them often enough to get good at them (though I plan on changing that in the near future). What do you use for the subject matter? How do you compose them? How do you render them? Do you give up and hire another cover artist? There are so many factors that go into doing a good cover that makes the process so complicated.

    I had a bit of a breakdown (or rather, the opposite of a breakdown…epiphany?) where I really sat down and focused on all the covers of my webcomic, redoing a total of three, rendering a fourth new one. I decided to go with a painted look (i.e. no inks or lineart) to set the artwork apart from the interiors. Also, I wanted to invoke the look of old sci-fi novels with painted covers. My focus in doing/redoing these covers was on composition and color theory, because I’ve noticed the best covers focus on those two elements. I think my attempts at redoing my covers were successful but I’ll let you guys be the judge:

    Prologue: http://www.valkyriesquadron.com/archive/prologue-page-0/
    Chapter 1: http://www.valkyriesquadron.com/archive/chapter-1-cover/
    Chapter 2: http://www.valkyriesquadron.com/archive/chapter-2-cover/
    Chapter 3: http://www.valkyriesquadron.com/archive/chapter-3-cover/

    This exploratory experience has allowed me to form a few opinions about covers:

    1. I find stronger covers focus on 1-2 elements. Covers with a whole bunch of stuff happening on them tend to overwhelm the reader. Pin ups with a huge mass of elements tend to make better posters than covers.

    2. COLOR THEORY COLOR THEORY COLOR THEORY. If you/your interiors artist isn’t so great with colors or they work strictly in b/w, consider recruiting a specialized colorist for the cover. (Horribly shameless plug: I’m available!)

    3. Sometimes, it is a good option to consider hiring a cover artist. Either they do lots of covers for a living and have experience composing an effective piece or they’re a celebrity and are able to sell your book. I recall a writer friend recruiting a well-known artist to do covers for his graphic novel. The artwork was actually kind of terrible but because the cover artist was well-known to the target market, the book sold. My personal recommendation would be to have the cover art at least sort of look like the interiors so that the readers won’t feel totally jilted when they see the art disparity, but that’s just me.

    4. Research. Research your market, research good composition, research good color theory, or research effective cover artists.

    • DonU says:

      Hey, Jules.

      I like the Valkyrie Squadron covers you’ve come up with. I think they’ll do a good job of representing the art of your web comic.

      I do have one criticism. I’m not a huge fan of the foreshortening of Lt. Vega’s arm on the Chapter 1 cover. Her gun feels like it’s the right size, but her hand seems too small for the illusion to work. Everything else (in all four covers) is great.

      • Jules Rivera says:

        Thanks for the input. Yeah, I agree with the foreshortening on Lt. Vega’s hand. I could also afford to polish up her mouth a bit. I’ll have to tackle that soon before I reprint book 1 with these. Thanks again!

  3. LJ Wright says:

    I agree Steven about liking when covers have some degree of significance to the content inside. Even if it’s not a story or plot point, at least something that kind of points out relation to the issue. I’m not a huge fan of the vague pin-up stuff of most of the superhero stuff. Indies seem to do it to, though to a lesser extent.

    Words and phrases outside just the logo might be making a bit of a comeback. I believe the majority of DC’s New 52 relaunch has stuff like that again. I’m not sure if they plan to keep doing that, but they have for the first 9 months now, and it’s been a successful campaign for DC thus far. Could see it being adapted elsewhere, too.

  4. Steve Colle says:

    I wrote this over at Digital Webbing a couple of years ago that I believe there are three different cover types with regards to design: The POSTER, the HOOK, and the HOMAGE. The Poster is character-driven and usually designed to be solely eye catching, with the potential of being sold as a literal poster after or simultaneous to the issue’s release. The Homage pays tribute to the cover design of a previously published work and will (or should) have the artist’s signature with the words “After (insert big name here)”. The Hook is entirely story-driven and doesn’t even require the “star of the show” to be present. This used to be the norm and would include word balloons to entice the reader through the character’s speech. Very rarely will text be added now.

    Another thing to look at is the underlying visual effect created on the cover. You can tell these from the look of the cover itself. Here are the three I notice based on the idea of level of audience presence: PORTRAIT, THEATRICAL, and CINEMATIC. With the Portrait Cover, you can automatically feel the lack of audience presence. The big thing is the subject’s awareness of the camera/photographer with a staged gaze and body positioning. It doesn’t matter what the size of the venue is, the minute the person becomes aware they are being watched, it becomes a portrait. The Theatrical Cover gives off a very shallow depth between the subject and the backgrounds, which look almost painted on instead of being natural, like watching a stage production within a closed and limited venue. Finally, the Cinematic Cover is wide open with natural flow and movement to the subjects and their surroundings.

    Placed together, you can have Portrait Poster covers, Theatrical Homage covers, Cinematic Hook covers, and any other combination you can think of that makes sense. You can, by the way, have a Portrait Hook, as long as story components exist in the image.

    I like how you (Steve) described the components of the composition of the cover and the effects of color. Black and white covers especially need strong composition to make up for the lack of color. Fantastic article as usual, sir.

  5. Steve Colle says:

    I just wanted to add that the cover to SCAM #1 would be considered a Portrait Poster cover due to the character’s awareness of the camera as he indicates for us, the readers, to shush. It doesn’t fulfill the criteria of an Homage or Hook cover and could well be sold as a poster or print as well. Looking below this reply are reference books which I’ll describe as the following: SAVE THE CAT! would be considered as a Theatrical Poster, HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL WAY is a Theatrical Hook, FRAMED INK is a Cinematic Poster, and MAKING COMICS is a Theatrical Poster. Get the idea?

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