Thursday, January 10, 2019

3 Things to Consider When Designing Your Novel's Cover

By Ray Flynt

Part of the Indie Author Series

Cover design needs to hit some specific targets to catch a reader's eye.

Have you made your New Year’s Resolution yet? I gave up on the usual “lose weight” resolution about 35 pounds ago. I hope you’re planning on sharpening skills on the business side of being an indie author. Columns in Fiction University’s Indie Author Series are designed to share best practices and stimulate your thinking on HOW you can do just that.

As you read, please consider topics for Indie Author’s that you’d like to see covered in the coming year. Share them in the comments section below.

Last month, we discussed book covers. This month, let's look at three things to consider when designing your novel's cover.

1. Should you use a photo of your protagonist?

novel cover, protagonist on cover
Will readers see what you see?
Imagine yourself sitting across from Oprah for your big interview after the launch of your book. One of her questions might be, “Do you have an actor/actress in mind that you’d like to see cast in the movie version of your book?” Let’s face it. We’ve all run that scene in our heads. You see your protagonist firmly in your brain and have described him/her on the page. There may also be the temptation to search for a cover photograph to share with the world your vision of what that character looks like. Is this a good strategy?

I’m a fan of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I read all of his books before watching the successful Amazon series, Bosch, in which Titus Welliver plays the famed detective. Welliver doesn’t look like the Harry Bosch described in the books. The character on the written page has a mustache. He’s also older in the books than the TV series. I conjured up a vision of Bosch from more than twenty years of reading, and I was pleasantly surprised while reading Connelly’s most recent Ballard/Bosch novel that the image in my head hadn’t been replaced by Titus Welliver (although I think he does a great job playing the part).

Erle Stanley Gardner never fully described Perry Mason. It’s impossible to read those stories without picturing Raymond Burr.

So back to the strategy question: Do you want to search sites like for a shirtless image of a ranch hand for the cover of your new western romance, DESIRE IN THE HAY? Will the reader like the photo you select as much as you? Would an image of a ranch hand walking toward a barn, where we can only imagine his face, be more effective?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. Food for thought.

(Here's more on five tips to improve your novel's cover)

2. Are you confusing the reader?

confusing covers, too much on the cover
Does your cover make sense?
I recently spotted a book cover where a red cross was superimposed over the letter O in one of the words in the book title. “Why is that there?” Was the author trying to indicate rifle sight crosshairs? Or perhaps it is a lifebuoy? Honestly, it was neither, since crosshairs wouldn’t have been as thick as the red lines depicted, and a lifebuoy would not have continued those red stripes through the middle of the O.

If a reader is confused about what an element of your cover means, they might not take the next step to buy your book. Show your intended cover to friends. If they point at an aspect of it and say, “What’s that?” it may be time to re-think your design.

(Here's more on working with a cover designer) 

3. Are you pulling a bait and switch?

tricking your reader, fake covers, cover element that's not in the book
Don't trick your readers!
If your story is really good, it may not make a difference, but avoid putting a critical image on your book cover that never appears in your book. Example: You find an intriguing photo of a man pointing a gun. “This will sell books,” you say to yourself. However, in the climactic scene of your story the protagonist is involved in a knife fight. A damn good knife fight, but nonetheless – a knife fight. “Where’s the gun?” the reader may shout as he hurls the book against the wall at two-thirty in the morning. Yes, I’m being overly dramatic. Hey, I write fiction. I’m sure you’ll get my point.

(Here's more on cover design on a budget)

Wishing you a great writing year in 2019. PLEASE use the comment section below to share your best practices on book covers. What have been your own joys and frustrations in creating covers for your books? If you’ve found a useful resource, please share it. Finally, if there’s a future topic you’d like to see discussed in this monthly column – on the business of writing – please suggest it in the comments section.

Ray Flynt authors two series: Brad Frame mysteries, and one featuring journalist Ryan Caldwell. He’s also written a political suspense, KISSES OF AN ENEMY. A native of Pennsylvania, Ray wrote and performs a one-man play based on the life of Ben Franklin. Ray is a member of Mystery Writers of America and active with their Florida Chapter. He is a life member of the Florida Writers Association. Ray retired from a diverse career in criminal justice, education, the arts, and human services.

Website | Goodreads |

About Unforgiving Shadows

Brad Frame lived a serene but aimless existence on Philadelphia’s Main Line until his mother and sister were kidnapped and murdered.

The tragedy transformed his life.

After helping the police catch their killers, and with the aid of his mentor, Philadelphia Detective Nick Argostino, Brad opened his own private detective agency vowing to help bring justice to others whose lives had been turned upside down.

Eleven years later, Brad is invited to the execution by lethal injection of Frank Wilkie, one of two men responsible for the death of his mother and sister.

Thinking that Wilkie might have something to say, Brad reluctantly attends. Wilkie remains silent, but as Brad exits the prison the chaplain races after him, thrusting the condemned man’s Bible into his hands.

Within hours another man is anxious to get his hands on Wilkie’s Bible, and Brad suspects the motivation could involve the still-missing ransom money.

But as the reason becomes clear, Brad’s world is once again turned upside down. Aided by his associate, Sharon Porter, Brad unravels an eleven-year-old mystery that casts new suspicion on family, neighbors and business associates alike.

UNFORGIVING SHADOWS is the first book in the successful Brad Frame Mystery Series.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble |Indie Bound


  1. The to-character-or-not-to-character on the cover is an interesting question that's had different answers in the last few years. Some of the answer depends on genre and audience. I know some space opera writers who released their books using the expected spaceship a--. But now they've realized that although yes, spaceship says sci-fi and space opera, their particular audience is primarily women, and female readers respond more to characters. So they're redoing their covers to include characters.

    This is a great series - thanks!

  2. I agree with your dissection of the topic of whether to put your character on the cover. My own idea of what the hero looks like while reading a book is often quite different from the pic on the cover, so best to let the reader develop their own idea of what he/she looks like. They will anyway.

  3. Thanks, Nicole and Sylvie for chiming in on this discussion.