Cover advice: Fire's Maiden

Updated: Aug 26

Apropos of this post on Covercritics.



In your corner, you have a great synopsis:


"Eloise is a princess in hiding, an orphan, and an heir to the throne her uncle wants. In her grandfather’s day, Uncle Frideric would have staked her out for a dragon’s meal. Two birds with one stone, so to speak. Fortunately, virgin sacrifices to the dragons are passé now.


Until the day she rescues a baby dragon, whose parents are searching desperately for him. Then she might just be food for wyrms, if they don’t realize she’s their heroine first…"


Your is snappy, full of personality, clear in tone, picking out the right hook/s of the story to talk about. It's everything a blurb should be and it makes me want to read the book. Unfortunately it's everything your cover is currently not!


So now you just need a cover that gets the same thing across - or browsers will never get as far as the blurb.


A book cover's job is to shout out to the exact readers who are likely to enjoy your book. That means it needs to fit in with the existing good/successful books that are similar in genre, audience and tone.


And while doing that it should also have enough personality of its own that people are particularly interested in this books over its neighbour.



Your rough versions


I won't embed them here, but you've tried a couple of directions: the green/symbol one and a couple of roughs of a design which uses a computer-based illustration of two human characters and a baby dragon.


Of these the first (green/symbol) was actually the strongest.


The two illustrated versions are much farther from being an asset to your book. The image (with the final rendering) doesn't have a horrible look for its style, but it's weak in what it chooses to illustrate and how it composes that illustration.


I.e. this isn't the moment that makes me want to read your book. I'll go into how best to pick the subject to illustrate in a bit.


These covers also don't at all capture a particular atmosphere, vibe or tone, and it's not clear who this book is for.


As I say the first attempt was the better design, but it's still not quite right. It's definitely less dated-looking than the others but it's still a bit dated. And while it looks more professional, it's still lacking in any specific enough to get the vibe or audience of your book.


So let's go through the process of how to get something much more useful onto the cover!



1. Research


The first thing is always to check out what similar books in the market have going on!


I only have your synopsis to go on but that seems to pin the book down nice and clearly: yours is a fantasy adventure with a lot of personality and a sense of fun; it's not completely po-faced though it is also exciting and dramatic. It's got a classic swords-and-sorcery kind of setting with maybe a touch of the fairytale-ish in there. With the character and story, this is also somewhat female-audience-oriented.


Audience wise I'm getting a YA or Crossover vibe. The way you describe your heroine makes her sound not only young but dealing with specifically youthful problems in her story. Being an orphan, being in the charge of an uncle she can't trust etc.


So with this sense of genre/audience in mind, I do my research. That can sound a bit daunting but it's super simple - you just go to Amazon. (If your primary market is the US, make sure you look at .com, if your primary market is the UK, go to .co.uk etc. Different countries have different trends and tolerances of cover design and you want to be in the right zone).


You just have a root around in whatever sub-category/ies are relevant to your story. Here I've gone Books>Teen and YA>Fantasy and SF>Fantasy.


I grab any cover that I think has some relevance to the one I'm working on, that seems to be for a similar audience, deals with related subject matter and/or is just particularly cool-looking.


Current trends


As soon as you start researching female-tending YA and Crossover fantasy design you will very quickly realise there are exactly two types of covers dominating that field right now.


Firstly, what I call the 'decorative' approach: a nice (and big) typographic treatment of the title surrounded by a pretty border of illustrated elements:

These kinds of covers have got so big because they tick all the boxes for what is most important in cover design right now. I.e. these days, now that books are sold online, a cover needs to work when seen only at thumbnail size. So it's very important that the title treatment be big so it's readable at that size. And if it's going to be big and dominate the cover, it should also be attractive and expressive of mood and genre.


So these title treatments are all super carefully crafted to be beautiful and tell us about the mood and genre of the book via their aesthetic.


And if you have an evocative title, half your work is done - a nice typographic treatment and you're pretty much there.


As for everything else on the covers there, we see the thing that professional designers know and novice designers frequently mistake. The cover's job isn't so much to tell you literal things about the content but to give a strong sense of atmosphere and tone, and to intrigue. (This seems particularly true of female-oriented publishing.)


So with the 'decorative' style the illustrations aren't even very clear what they are at thumbnail. They just form a pretty/gothy look and so give an overall sense of mood.



The other big design trend in your area is 'girl':


The 'girl' covers, like the 'decorative' also feature a big fancy title treatment, but here it is slightly smaller because the cover has another dominant element too. Here the title treatment is framed by image of the heroine.


The girl in question might be in a fancy dress or waving a sword, but she's always posing dramatically, and it's always romantic and beautiful imagery. She's facing out, at us, and tends to be centred and close-up, and lit/colourered for a lot of atmosphere and drama. Even if she's set back a little (e.g. Find Me Their Bones) there's little by way of detailed scenery around her. It's all about the girl.


So between them. 'decorative' and 'girl' cover 90% of what's going on in your broad publishing area.


And there's stuff from both of those trends that is helpful and relevant to you, and stuff to note as not so relevant.


  • Big and attractive title typography is always a must.

  • Mood and tone are really important, more important perhaps even than exact content.

  • Relatedly, colour is important. See how each cover has a simple and rich palette.

  • These cover trends are beautiful and atmospheric and very good at appealing to young female readers...

  • However they're also pretty firmly parked in a single tone - one of slightly gothy seriousness, which is not where your book is at.

  • There's also the issue that to some extent both these design approaches rather rely on having bespoke illustration. You're obviously unlikely to find a fabulous stock illustration of a girl who just happens to look just like your heroine to suit a 'girl' format, and the 'decorative' covers would seem to require a lot of bespoke design work to look good. Put a pin in that second one, I'll come back to it later.

  • Plus I do feel like both these design tropes are so used that they're about to crash into tired cliche. Even the titles are getting samey: I'm sure a big part of the reason there's so many "An X of Y and Z" titles on the market right now is because of how neatly they fit into this kind of good-looking cover.



So let's look at what I've gathered which don't fit the above categories...


Here are some covers I gathered that are pretty similar to the 'girl' format but manage to get across a bit more lightness and uniqueness:

And just for comparison, I've also gathered up a few book covers that use something other than hero shots as an illustration. Here are some examples with dragons.

As you can see, these immediately code younger.


Finally I've gathered the covers that I thought had the most personality and applicability to your own book:

Shadow Scale and Burn are really effective because while they too show dragons, they choose a different medium from digital oil painting, and that makes them look more unique and sophisticated. Every other cover shown uses essentially the same traditional digital painting approach. These two look unique and classy and intriguing because they go for something different.


We Hunt The Flame and The Guinevere Deception are essentially subscribing to the 'girl' format but again a unique treatment manages to lift them away from the pack into their own personalities. Where all the other 'girl' covers here have their illustration and title treatment all conform to a single cohesive look, these covers play more confidently with contrast and so have more character.


West also eschews the overwrought-ness of the 'girl' covers for a more stark profile shot, soft illustration uncluttered by other elements.


Tess of The Road is clever and uses negative space to really draw the eye.



So! I'm sure that seems like a lot of info to process. But you don't need to draw any firm conclusions or anything, it's just about noticing this stuff. Grabbing existing covers and just trying to group them like this can be really helpful. You begin to see how this stuff works by noticing the patterns.



2. Stock


Having taken a look at the kinds of covers you'll be appearing alongside, it's time to start looking for your own imagery.


You'll still need to keep it broad because you're reliant on what already exists. But having taken the time to look at the cover possibilities, you'll be far better placed to spot imagery that might be useful now.


Illustration subjects


The other thing you'll want to have in mind is what exactly you should be illustrating from your book. I've said the choice of the girl/boy/dragon grouping isn't it, so what is?


Think of it like this:


You're idly channel-surfing and you come across a film that's been on for a bit. It's seems to be at about the third act, the heroes are just starting to battle the bad guys. Do you stop and watch that film? I don't. None of it grabs me because without the context of the earlier part of the film none of it is interesting to me. I don't know these characters or the stakes so it's just generic action.


Another time you're surfing away and one one channel there's a film playing and as you watch it's the moment where the protagonist discovers he has superpowers, or finds a magic sword - or sees a baby dragon hatching. Do you keep watching? I do, because those are the story hooks and I want to know what will happen!


Covers are like that. Their job is to get across the thing that will be interesting to the person who has no info at all on this story. The beginning, not the end, the set-up, not the pay-off.


Even those 'girl' covers are doing that. The hook they're trying to get us on is "doesn't this girl look cool and interesting and aspirational? Wouldn't you like to know her story?". They don't tell us where this is going, they just present us with an image that suggests possibility.


And in terms of how much is going on in an illustration, remember that less is more. The less you show by way of specifics the more intriguing it is. E.g. an illustration of a girl watching a dragon hatch is quite good - but just the dragon hatching is much better. And just the broken dragon-egg-shell is best. Covers can be like a game of reverse-Buckaroo - how much can you take away and still have the cover communicate the sense of the book? The less direct information, the more intriguing!


With those principles in mind I gathered a bunch of stock that sparked possibility, and have organised them into rough moodboards:


Firstly:

These are the traditionally illustrated images of dragons. I've gone for images which I feel are an interesting and unusual angle on the subject matter, which manage to distill a vibe which feels relevant to your book into a very clear and simple presentation.


E.g. The painting of girl and dragon speaks to the central hook in your book - the human/dragon dynamic. Crucially, again, the illustration illustrates the moment of tension, a question, rather than an answer: is the dragon going to respond to the human's reaching out, or is she about to be incinerated?


None of these images seem a perfect fit tonally etc, but always remember you're going to have a few other elements in play which can be used to to use to twiddle those dials, so let's keep them in the mix for now.


One of these reasons I start off with a lot of possible illustrative directions is because it can really surprise you how an illustration looks when interacting with a title treatment. It can transform the vibe in unexpected ways.


My second mood board:



This feels more promising.


I feel as if the dragon hatching is a very strong hook to put on the cover. That's your fascinating story hook: a girl in a world/position where dragons eat people finds a hatching dragon, what does she do?


In the dragon egg image I feel you've got there exactly what you look for in cover design: it suggests a whole story in one image.


Finally:

These are some collections of spot watercolour illustrations which I think offer possibilities for something in the 'decorative' style I described. Obviously the challenge you have here is finding a collection of images that happens to match your book's content well. But if you have some Photoshop ability you can play with what you find.


The advantage is that like the 'decorative' covers, and Shadow Scale and Burn, having illustration in something other than a traditional digital look immediately makes your book stand out and give it a bespoke feel, even where the imagery is still stock.



3. Trying out images


So now let's start testing some of these and seeing how they look.


I've created a couple of rough typographic treatments of title and byline, the right kind of lettering and effect to stand in for a final thing and give me a good impression of how various illustrations will work paired with typography that's in the right vibe. I've got a heavier/fancier one, and a lighter/simpler one.


That's obviously a pretty quick thing to do when you're a working design and more of a challenge otherwise. I've included some tips about typography at the bottom.


Taglines


You'll notice that on some of these I've thrown in a scratch tagline. Taglines for covers - at least in SF and fantasy - are almost ubiquitous now. They're another way of getting your hook across to your reader.


(There's a hierarchy of attention-grabbing:


First the general vibe of the cover draws the browser's eye. Then they read the title and get more of a sense of subject and genre from that. Then if interested enough they click on the thumbnail and see the cover large. This is where the tagline comes in, alongside any smaller illustrative details not visible at thumbnail. If they continued to be intrigued as the information stacks up, they take a look at the blurb.


So a tagline is like a teaser trailer, it's just that little half-step to persuade them it's worth reading more.)



So let's try out a couple of images from that first set of stock images, the traditional illustration set.

Both dated. The one on the left looks extremely 80s, the one on the right looks very 90s.


So how about the thing I thought was a strong lead - the egg imagery?

Better. They are much more simple graphics are therefore look more modern, and more intriguing.


The two at either side have potential. The middle doesn't, it doesn't suggest intrigue and anticipation and tension, it's calm and static. The event has happened. The others make you wonder about the story; something's about to happen.


Because the imagery is so simple, the typography would need to step up to make sure the cover still had a sense of being particular and individual instead of generic.


As you work on what you have you often find new ideas suggesting themselves. As I thought about the texture and simplicity of the egg design, I thought that a pattern of dragonscale might also be well worth a try. I found a stock image which I felt conveyed the right look suggestive of magic and personality as well as drama.

Not bad! Definitely much more modern now. As with the egg design, this would rely on great typography to nail exactly the right vibe.


This cover is super simple but you get straight away the fantasyness, the dragonness. The colours make it feel fun and inviting as well as rich and exciting.


Now let's play with those watercolour spot illustrations...


This also has potential. The drawback is that this is a design that will take pretty confident design and Photoshop skills to make work tough. There's a lot of parts and things will fall apart easily without an experienced hand.


I've taken this one on a step:

That's really coming together into something that looks apt as well as speaking to current cover design trends. It's from that 'decorative' school of cover design (central typography, detailed little spot illustrations arranged as a border) but it only leans into that as much as it's useful and also does something more particular and expressive of this book.


The bright palette and watercolour style bring in the sense of lightness and fun (as opposed to the serious gothy blues and blacks of the examples I showed above). There's a bit of a medieval/fairytale vibe which seems right. There's enough in the illustrations to get across a broad sense of a story hook, with the broken eggshell and the cheeky little dragon at the centre.



Summary!


So it's as simple as that, as a process


1. Research 2. Gather stock 3. Test out a bunch of different things


Simple, but not easy of course - because it all takes design thinking and skills which is all so much harder and time-consuming when that's not your day-to-day job. But the steps in the process are very methodical and reliable.


Ultimately book covers aren't complex objects. They work best when they contain very few distinct ideas/elements. What they are is nuanced: each of those elements needs to be pitched exactly right to work with the others give just the right impression of your book.


From going through the process I'd say I've come up with three strong contenders - which is the typical number of possibilities at this stage. From there it would simply a matter of picking which to take forward based on both what you feel is the best possible fit/advertisement for your book, and also which you feel best equipped to execute to the best standard.


From the directions I've arrived at, for instance, a novice designer would be best advised to pick the dragonscale or egg. Those ideas need the least work to take them to a great finish. It's already pretty much there as a design - it just needs a bit of polishing.




Some random typography tips:


  • If you can, use gold for your typography (at least at the testing stage). Failing that, white. They're neutral so will work with most backdrops but communicate 'fantasy'.

  • DAFonts is great for hundreds of free fonts - and you can filter to make sure it only shows you ones that are free for commercial use.

  • If you are going to use a fancy font, hand-adjust the shapes and placement of the letters until your title treatment feels bespoke and like it wasn't just typed out. Change the overall shape/s of the words until they fit the illustrative elements in a complementary way. If you haven't got that ability, keep the font simple and classic - an elegant serif for fantasy. 'Fancy' fonts without any manual adjustment always stick out like a sore thumb as unprofessional.

  • Centre-align! Look at all those research examples: all the text elements are centred. Sometimes a title will throw a little 'the' or 'and' out to the side to shake up the shape, but the weight of the big words will always pull to the centre. Left-aligning text will make your cover look like a book report!

​© 2018 by Kathryn Rosa Miller. Created with Wix.com

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