Apropos of this post on Covercritics: https://covercritics.com/?p=3334#comment-area
I like to start with the very basics because people designing their own covers often trip up right here, being too close to the work to quite see things with the necessary coolness of eye:
So what is a book cover for? A book cover is the poster and packaging for a book. It exists to first attract the attention, and then sustain the interest, of the kind of browser who has the potential to become a reader.
The clearest way to signal quickly and clearly to a person that they might like this book is to make it clear what other books it is in the same zone as. Hence why book covers operate according to incredibly strongly felt trends and conventions. You have to be speaking a language your browser already understands!
So the first step in designing a cover is always making sure that you are really familiar with how other books at all like yours are looking.
This is imply properly familiarising yourself with what books that are anything like your are looking like right now.
I used to recommend Amazon for this stage but it's recently gotten to be a much worse tool for narrowing down to specific book sub-genres. So these days I am more likely to use other online booksellers (i.e. online booksellers that actually care about books!). I use sites like Barnesandnoble.com and Waterstones.com. Often it's important to be specific to your country's market but with YA the tropes and trends are very international so today I'm not worrying abut that too much.
So what particular genres and audiences should we be looking at here?
The book in question is for a YA audience and is about a future society with a specific distopian quality.
Now that puts it in a sub-genre with a very specific recent history that it's quite important to undertand as a context for what we're seeing with covers there.
As we all know, distopian YA was for a brief time the biggest thing in publishing - and then, like a stock market bubble, the genre collapsed swiftly and completely as a major force.
That doesn't mean these books stopped being read or, after a brief dip, steadily popular.
But the genre's very public fall from grace means that publishers have been incentivised to distance their books from the aesthetic of that time.
With that in mind, let's take a little survey of current books in this neighbourhood:
I've grouped these into rough categories of design direction but I'd say the thing I most note is how varied these covers are. They don't feel like they all belong to one genre. As I say, this is a design area still in reaction mode. One of the main priorities of these covers is to not remind you of books like Divergent. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the current covers for the Divergent series itself!
So much for distopian YA.
To round out our research, there's another group of books worth checking in with.
A major note in the premise of the book we're looking at today is that in this futur,. all women are gone (except one). And that ties it to a small collection of books with a 'gender plague' kind of premise. The most famous example would be Y: the Last Man, the comic series which has recently been given a big TV adaptation, but I don't think there's anything very notable design-wise to look at there. Then there's a few novels:
The three on the left are from the adults market, the two on the left from YA.
I also want to note the thing that the three books on the left share: pink. It's not an easy thing to find imagery that depicts the concept of gender. But the colour pink is a clear and versatile tool for evoke 'femaleness' in design.
So... there's a lot there.
But actually our findings are not as scattered as they might seem at a glance. We can observe a few strong trends, like this trend for illustration that's delicate, airy, more watercoloury than oil-painty, quite East Asian and artsy-anime influenced.
We can see that typography-led covers are a huge trend.
We can see that the 'gender plague' concept is hard to evoke visually but one useful tool is the colour pink.
And one thing I think is worth stressing is that all these examples have in spades is mood. All of these books have a really clear vibe or atmosphere. I think nothing is more important in a book cover than this; people don't respond to details about the content or premise so much as the promise of feelings.
Having done your research,... the next step is also research!
As an independent/no-budget cover designer you're not able to commission original art of photography. You are relying on images that already exist - stock. That word can conjure some bad associations; no one wants their cover to feature an image that looks like a meme. But a site like Shutterstock doesn't just have your classic 'woman laughing alone with salad' and 'distracted boyfriend' images. It has loads of artistic photography, illustration in all kinds of styles, textures, patters... here are a few covers I've worked up using stock imagery:
So you can see there's a huge variety of stuff out there and something suitable for every cover. The real trick is finding it. That involves a lot of search terms, patient scrolling through pages of results and a bit of an imaginative open eye for spotting possibilities.
You can't be too specific in your search terms. You can't put 'girl cryogenic sleep future without women' and expect anything back, much less anything that is actually suited to a book cover. While the image might exist that perfectly captures that, frustratingly it's not likely to turn up when searched for like this.
The broader you can be the more luck you're likely to have. You'll get a tonne more results and most of them won't be in the right territory but as you scroll some will stand out as maybe speaking to your novel's specifics.
You have to mentally break down your premise into chunks of idea that the site might be able to answer. It can be a bit of an exercise in really getting down to the most basic emotion or tension of the book. And then if you're lucky, and prepared to trawl through pages of results, you'll find one or two examples that might speak to what you need.
So I tried things like 'frozen girl', 'future girl', 'cryogenic', 'science fiction fairytale' etc. In the end the most productive search term turned out to be simply 'girl alone'.
Where I feel like an image has some potential, I open it to a tab until I have dozens and dozens of tabs open Then when eventually I feel like I've rinsed Shutterstock for everything nice it's likely to turn up, I start trying out various images for size.
I don't end up trying every image I've opened. As you try things your understanding gets refined so some tabs, when you come back to them, you realise there's not the potential there after all.
But I think a common mistake amateur designers make is not throwing enough at the wall at this stage. They find one image they get attached to and proceed along those tramlines. It's important - and straightforward, and even fun - to try loads of options. Once you've set up a basic template (a document the dimensions of your intended book-cover, a rough title treatment to try over images), you can just copy and paste images into that to see what might work.
So the images I pulled out from my Shutterstock search ended up falling into two broad categories - stuff that was focused on mood an introspective, symbolic symbolic image of a girl. And stuff that was a bit more fairytale-ish.
Let's start with the images I found in a moody/symbolic imagery. These are the three I narrowed down to there:
As I say, you start with a very rough try - these are all super scrappy roughs but it's enough to tell me what might have the potential to be something good and what is just never going to be worth pursuing.
So in this case I'd say that the options in the middle and to the right don't work at all. While the images are in themselves good they don't end up conveying what's needed here or feeling like they belong to the right audience.
The image on the far left though is much better. It's very clearly symbolic of the premise of the protagonist being the last girl alive - a female figure, pink, isolated in a field of blue. It makes for a distinctive and striking cover image
The drawback is that this doesn't feel like a particularly YA approach to imagery. Crucially it is lacking in the sense of strong atmosphere that I mentioned was present and so important in all those YA covers above.
Now that might be something that can be rebalanced via some tinkering with pallette and with other elements. But I think it would also require an actual title change. There isn't enough shared meaning between the image and title to really evoke any sense or angle of intrigue.
But assuming we don't want to change the title, what image might connect better to it?
The title and the tagline both seem to be pulling hard in a particular direction - evoking a fairytale.
That makes sense. This is a sleeping beauty story. It's a strong angle: Sleeping Beauty meets distopian YA.
So let's take a look at the images I found that evoke that fairytale vibe:
One wants to balance the fairytale-ish with the mature - this is a YA novel so we want an aesthetic that is still teenagery. I was particularly trying to find images of a girl looking encased in or defrosting from ice which is the clearest way of illustrating the 'freezing' of the title. The closest I found were these slightly frosty ladies at the top.
I also thought watery imagery could work, since the title is punning on the word 'rain'.
In four out these five, I've styled the title lettering to resemble a crown to renforce the words that necessary extra little bit.
These covers then are the most cohesive I've come up with. Everything is singing from a shared hymn sheet - title, title treatment, imagery and tagline all speak to the same vibe of fairytale/queenliness.
Even in this very rough form, there's immediately more of a distinct mood or atmosphere to all of these options.
The palettes of pinks, whites and blues also tie to that fairytale vibe, while also speaking to the theme of gender.
The drawback is that while these are cohesive covers they are arguably too cohesive. Perhaps they only speak to the fairytale and don't leave space for the fact that this is a futuristic distopia.
I've included a play on the 'female' symbol within the title treatment which helps signal that this books has a particular sociological idea it's interested in. But it's a lot of weight for that one bit to carry.
Let's take one of these a little further to see i that's something we can rebalance with some fine-tuning. I've tried the option bottom left in a couple of more variations of colour to see how we can adjust the dials of tone and genre that way.
I've also adjusted the typography to try and bring a bit more modernity/futuristic-ness in than the fantasy vibe, making the letters sans-serif and steely textured.
But I'm still not sure it's quite finding anything other than that pure fairytale look.
Finally, I found a couple of images that don't quite fit either of the above categories of 'moody' or 'fairytale' - they have elements from both.
I think both of these images are pretty strong options.
The one on the left does a nice job of connecting with several points about the story and making them feel like a cohesive whole. I've used the crown shape for the title again because I think there's enough in the image to connect to that 'queen' idea: the isolated chair suggests a throne; and while the setting is modern/futuristic but the colours, lighting and painting style have enough of the sumptuous fairytale feel to tie in.
Also, while the setting is somewhat futuristic and hard-edged, the girl's pose and clothes position her as an ordinary girl, which evokes the book's tension quite nicely.
The option on the right suggests a slightly older audience though I think the natural sombreness of the image can be well balanced with a quite lively title treatment like this to bring things out in what feels like the right balance. It's a lovely image very well suited for a cover.
However, in this case I think the tagline 'Earth's final queen is no princess' stops working and would need to be revised to something that works better with the other elements. Something that emphasises the futuristic setting and/or is more clear about the only-girl-left premise.
One issue I haven't mentioned yet that applies to all of these is the factor of the model or depiction int he image matching the description of the character in the book. Though an author can't afford to be too attached to a precise image of heir character for cover purposes when relying on existing imagery, it can't be dismissed as a consideration entirely. Broad characteristics like skin and hair colour should match. I really like the image of the girl sitting on the chair against a cityscape, but if the character in the book has curly hair or dark skin or a significantly different body type etc, then obviously it's not going to suit. In most of these examples, the stylisation or pose obscure the details of the model a lot, which is helpful.
So there you have it. I haven't arrived at a final design. But if this was my project I'd feel comfortably on my way to developing something that was really going to attract readers. And the process is really pretty simple, it just takes a lot of patience for poking around on a stock site, trying out different images for size.
I've drawn the typography by hand for some of these but that's obviously not a skill everyone has at their disposal, and elsewhere I've used a font (e.g. where I mocked up a version of the book called 'Last Girl' I used the font Drakolomb).
When using fonts it's best to keep things pretty simple. The more distinct a font is, the more obvious it is when it's been used without much bespoke editing. I'd avoid anything with a grunge or texture effect as these can really show one up (as the grunge pattern will be identical on repeated letters).