Like many Indie Authors, I want to make my book cover sing (well, more like scream in my case, but you get the gist). So when DEADLY LIES was in need of a cover makeover, I went looking for an artist who could capture a whole new look for the story. I found a great one. Meet award winning cover designer, Monica Haynes who shared some of her thoughts on what makes a great cover design.
How did you become a book cover designer? Tell us a little about your background. How long have you been doing it?
After spending a decade as a college registrar, I became a stay-at-home-mom to my young children. I enjoyed every second of this period in my life, but eventually, I realized I needed something more. That’s when I found M. L. Gardner, author of The 1929 Series. I was a fan first, responding to her ad for a part time assistant after having read every book she had published. We clicked, and I began designing her Facebook banners, and then her book covers among other assistant duties. My BA in photojournalism was put to use and with her encouragement, I opened the doors of The Thatchery, my book cover design business, in 2013.
Wow, that’s a great story! Launching a new career is challenging, especially with young kids. What was the scariest part for you?
I think figuring out how to manage my time efficiently was the scariest part. In 2013, my kids were 4, 3, and 2, I was assisting M. L. Gardner (still am), and launching a new business. My husband’s job on the SWAT team kept him away from home at all hours, and everything landed in my lap. I’m glad it worked out the way it did, though, because instead of diving into my business head first, I took things slowly, initially working out the business end of things and then building up my clientele and portfolio.
I know some authors who always have music going. Do you listen to music when you work? If so, does the music change based on the nature of your design?
That’s an interesting question because while I love music, I do my best work in silence. It’s almost as if I need the quiet to allow my brain to do its job without distractions. And this might explain why my best ideas come to me in the shower!
Me too! About the silence thing, anyway. Ideas often come to me when I’m driving to work. Are there other activities or places inspire your creativity?
A good power nap does wonders for creativity. 15 or 20 minutes is all I need, and BOOM! an idea presents itself like it was waiting there the whole time.
It has to be hard to capture the spirit of a book you haven't read yet. How do you do it?
It’s important to me that the book’s cover is a reflection of what’s inside so I created a questionnaire for my clients. I request the book’s description and genre but dig in deeper with questions about overall vision, inspirational covers, colors, fonts, moods, etc.
I’ve had several authors send me a synopsis, too, and even then, I’ll usually have a few questions about the plot or some of the main characters when the design work begins.
If it’s a redesign, I’ll download the book and skim through, reading passages here or there and I’ll also take a look at reader reviews. Readers are great about zeroing in on the essence of the book and their thoughts are often invaluable.
So true! I’ve had readers who are better at summarizing books than I am. Is it easier to do a redesign or an original cover?
I’d put them both on the same playing field. Whether it’s a redesign or an original cover, my process is the same—I’m creating something completely new. That being said, I appreciate having the ebook in my hand—it’s like I’m in possession of a map, and with it, I’m able to design a cover that’s truly reflective of the book.
Where do you get the inspiration for your designs?
Everywhere. My mind is constantly storing ideas away for future projects. It might be a commercial, or the view out my car window—I see book covers everywhere I look. I love going to the book store and studying book covers, checking out the trends and discovering what is currently attracting readers.
How do you capture your ideas?
I take pictures and screen shots of book covers I see in stores and online. I also snap photos of patterns, interesting light, and landscapes—anything that speaks to me. All of these are saved in a file on my desktop.
Are there genres you prefer designing for? Are there gaps in your portfolio—say a genre you’d like to design for and haven’t found the right project?
Surprisingly, I don’t have a preferred genre when it comes to designing. I meet each book as an opportunity to create something breathtaking.
I’d love to do more with romance in honor of my late grandma, Phyllis Geraldine Bloom, who adored Danielle Steele.
Fabulous! My Mom was a romance fan too. In my early twenties, my bookshelf was half Danielle Steele, half Stephen King. Twenty years later, Stephen King won out! Besides M. L. Gardner, who are some of your other favorite authors?
L.M. Montgomery! I loved Anne of Green Gables so much that I named my daughter Avonlea. I also admire Philip Pullman, Hugh Howey, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Gabaldon, Laurie Breton, Jeremy Asher, Anne Rice, Keith R. Baker, Zack Mason, Andrea Hurst, and most recently, you! I think I could go on and on. I find it difficult to pick a favorite.
Covers sell books! What elements go into a great cover design? Is there some kind of checklist we authors who can barely draw stick people should know about?
It’s important to remember that readers see a thumbnail of your book first, and that’s a really small piece of real estate to work with! You might be tempted to cram in as many elements as possible in an attempt to recreate an amazing scene from your book, but more than likely, it’s not going to translate well into a book cover. Instead, focus on the title treatment—that it’s legible, reflective of the genre, and well designed. Give readers a glimpse of the storyline with artwork that’s conceptual, eye catching, or impactful.
Love it! Have you designed book covers for a series before? How does this impact your approach to the design?
Yes, I’ve designed more series covers than standalones. When designing for a series, I think about future books as well as the cover I’m currently working on. It’s important to come up with a design that will be cohesive throughout an entire series. If I’m using a model for the cover of book one, are other usable photos of this particular model available for upcoming books in the series? Can a layout, theme, or coloring work from book to book?
In M. L. Gardner’s 1929 Series, I set the scene in the bottom half of the book, positioned the title in the middle, and used the top half to introduce the characters. The mood and coloring of the covers are conveyed in all 6 books of the series—it’s obvious they belong together.
It seems to me like a book’s title and a cover should go together like peanut butter and jelly. How does the book’s title influence your design?
For me, the title is everything, especially since it’s my starting point when designing a book cover. Let’s say you’re working with the title (made up, of course) “The Crash of the Red Bird”. If I changed the title ever so slightly to “The Flight of the Red Bird”, you’d have a completely different book cover. Titles matter. Sounds like a new hashtag doesn’t it? #TitlesMatter
HAHA!! It’s a good name for an Indie Author support group too. Titles don’t always come easily to me. Sometimes when a book gets made into a movie, like The Martian, the publisher changes the cover from being impressionistic to being literal (like a shot from the movie). What are your thoughts on this practice? Or impressionistic vs. realistic in general?
I understand that publishers do this for marketing purposes. Obviously the cover is more recognizable in its “movie” format and although I usually prefer the original design, in the end, the purpose of the cover is to sell books.
In general terms, certain genres do well with realistic covers. Take romance for example. You’re often presented with a sweet scene and a smaller title. Case in point: Debbie Macomber’s A Girl’s Guide to Moving On”. On the flip side, mystery, thriller, and suspense novels tend to go more impressionistic like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.
Sometimes when I’m writing, I get a little zing when a scene is going particularly well. What gives you that jolt of creative satisfaction?
I usually hit a point in a design when I just know I’ve got a winner on my hands. My heart rate increases, I’ll spin around in my chair, and shout “yes!” If my kids hear me, they stampede into my office, and my 7 year old takes the opportunity to offer her feedback. She’s surprisingly intuitive. It’s these moments that keep me designing.
7 year olds are can be frighteningly intuitive. Has negative feedback from this pint-sized Yoda ever caused you to scrap a design and start over?
Absolutely! Both my daughter’s and husband’s opinions weigh heavy on me, and sometimes, I’ll completely rework or delete a design because of something they’ve said. If I’ve spent hours working on a project, I’m too close to it. It helps to ask for feedback or step away. And lately, I’ve been messaging myself the design because when I’m able to see a thumbnail of the cover surrounded by white space, I get a better feel for whether or not it’s working.
With design tools becoming easier to use and more accessible, what are the advantages to hiring a professional to design your cover? (What are all the intangibles we authors don’t think of that go into a design?)
What authors may not realize is that designers use layers and layers of images, textures, and overlays to create a book cover. The DIY tools available to authors are great, but due to software limitations, you may not end up with the custom designed book cover you had in your head.
Designers work expertly with their medium (photographs, typefaces, colors, shapes, textures, resolution, ink bleed, spine width etc.) because they are trained to do so. Just like editing, book cover design is something best left to the professionals, and the investment is worth every penny. Authors will recoup their money back in book sales.
Yes, and with the market so competitive, it’s important to give your book every possible chance to stand out. They say that first impressions are everything, but what would you say to someone (who like me) is contemplating a cover redesign?
I look at redesign like this. Sometimes with the change of the seasons, I'm inclined to freshen up my wardrobe, take a few inches off my hair, and even try a new lipstick. And although my previous "look" is perfectly fine, I'm moved to change something...anything, really, just to breathe some new life into my day to day routine.
The same can be said for book covers. A perfectly wonderful cover may have worked fine for awhile until it began to feel stagnant. You might think it's time for a change, and why not? It's the first thing your readers see. A new cover might attract a new reader. Time to freshen up your look! I’m able to work with an existing cover tweaking what what’s already there or I can start from scratch and do a complete overhaul. Your call, your book.
If you were an Indie Author looking for a book designer to work with, what are some tips you could share to make it a great experience for everyone?
If you’ve done your homework and selected a good designer, trust them. As a professional, they know what they’re doing, and they’ll guide you through the process.
Be communicative. Feel free to share any ideas you have for your book cover. Your designer can tell you right away if it’ll work, and I guarantee he/she will take your concept to a level you didn’t even dream of.
It’s also helpful if you’re available. If a designer has a question about your plot or wants to show you a potential design, try to be responsive. It puts the whole project on hold if an author takes days to respond to every email. Obviously, this isn’t always possible—life happens—but be sure you let your designer know if you’ll be out of pocket.
As a designer, you’re a dream to work with. I found it a very collaborative experience. Can you talk a little bit more about the “doing your homework piece”?
Thanks, Chris! It was fun working with you, too. If I were an author selecting a designer, I’d start by searching Amazon for covers I admired. If you click on a book’s Look Inside and scroll through the first few pages, more often than not, the author credits the designer—it’s a great way to find a designer who has the design aesthetic you’re looking for. I’d also visit trusted websites for their recommendations. Shelfbuzz put together a nice list, and yes, I might be a little biased because I’m on it! Visit author groups on Facebook, Goodreads, and KBoards. You’ll find lots of recommendations there. Once you’ve narrowed down your list of possibilities, study their portfolios, and if you have questions, email the designer.
Not only do you create amazing designs, but you run your own business too. What are some of the marketing tools you’ve used to spread the word about your design services?
I’m slightly old fashioned in that I primarily rely on word of mouth. Yes, I do use Facebook and Instagram, but I’ve found that creating connections and putting out good work is the best marketing tool you can find.
I also actively participate in a few Facebook author groups, Enlightened Indies and the Curiouser Author Network. And I’m part of the focus group (and created and designed the website) for the upcoming Curiouser Author Society—an exclusive community for serious indie authors.
It’s effective. I found you through word of mouth. My agent, Andrea Hurst, recommended you. Any words of advice for Indie authors looking to network with other like-minded souls?
Join groups, both online and off, and participate. As an author, building professional relationships brings you closer to success. You. Cannot. Do. It. Alone. Trust me. I know this side of the business, too, with my years of experience as an author’s assistant. This author thing takes a village—find your people, help each other out, talk shop, and grow your businesses together.
Why? Because your village has your back. They’re committed to the same cause, and they’ll help you in anyway they can. We learned this in preschool so it must be true. Ha! (From Make New Friends) “You help me, and I’ll help you and together we will see it through.”
Could you share a few covers you’ve designed that you love and some covers that you didn’t create that you love?
I’ve enjoyed designing each and every book in M. L. Gardner’s 1929 Series and especially the last one, 1931. Most of the series is set in the real town of Rockport, MA, and I was excited to use an actual landmark, Motif #1, in this cover.
I especially loved designing your Deadly Lies cover, Chris, because you allowed me to tap into my creative reservoir and think outside the box. It came together with surprising speed.
I admire the cover for Jason Gurley’s UK Edition of Eleanor. It’s stunning with so much attention paid to the tiniest details.
There’s something about Cat Winters’ cover for The Uninvited that intrigues me—maybe it’s the lighting, the side profile of the period dressed woman. I don’t know what it is, but all the elements are working for me.
Congratulations on winning a design award for your covers! That’s got to be an awesome feeling. What did winning mean for you personally and professionally?
Thank you! After twice receiving the Gold Star Award from TheBookDesigner.com, I felt I was heading in the right direction. I’m a one woman show and while the validation was great for marketing and visibility, it did wonders for my soul. Who doesn’t like to win an award? My happy dance was off the charts!
What do you love best about what you do?
I so appreciate that I get to work with books. Books are my constant companion—I can’t breathe without them. And to find someway to incorporate them into my working life is truly a blessing.
Well said, Monica. Thank you for talking the time to share your experience and insights with me. I love the new cover for Deadly Lies and look forward to working with you again!