Ken's Guide: Indie Publishing on Linux (Cover Design 2)

Elements on the Cover

When it comes to certain aspects of a book, the considerations differ between a self-published author and a publishing house. For example, a traditionally-published book often will have pages of advertising materials related to the publisher's other offerings. This obviously is inapplicable to a self-published author. You may advertise other works of your own, but rarely would it be desirable to list anything else.

While that particular difference is fairly pronounced, others aren't as obvious. The major contrast really is between modes of sale rather than the type of publisher itself --- though it's unlikely traditional publishers will adjust their tried-and-true approach any time soon. When it comes to the cover, the question is: which elements best serve the primary mode of sale.

Traditional book design revolves around attracting the attention of a physical customer in a physical book store. In this regard it is similar to any product-package design. But these days most sales take place through online venues (basically, Amazon) rather than physical bookstores. Most potential customers aren't going to pick up your book, turn it over, and read the cover materials. This especially is true of self-published authors, who have little realistic prospect of appearing in the majority of brick and mortar stores. If there is browsing involved, it will be online and the user only will see images of your front-cover and some accompanying descriptive text. It is very important to optimize this description, but that is another subject.

The point is that back-cover text no longer is a major vehicle for advertising. The only advertising a cover offers online is through direct visual appeal. A beautiful or mysterious cover can and will draw readers in, and is critical to sell your book. Nothing says "amateur crap" as loudly as a badly designed cover. As with most things, care in appearance rightly or wrongly serves as a proxy for care in all things. People do judge a book by a cover, so ensure yours is a cover you’d like to be judged by.

I’ll mention one other consideration — though this pertains to the illustration itself more than the design. These days, a lot of fiction is classified as "genre." Aside from the possibly snooty connotations in some circles, the meaning typically isn’t judgmental. However, it is important to know where your book falls and whom you are marketing it to. With genre fiction, there may be certain expectations about the information conveyed by the cover image. A space novel should have a space-themed cover, etc. This is part of why so many genre covers look similar — even ones which aren’t trying to be part of the herd. To paraphrase one professional illustrator: if the reader expects zombies and gets space battles, they won't be happy. They may even give you a bad review. So space novels have space-themed covers and zombie novels have zombie-themed covers. If yours (like mine) doesn't neatly fit a niche or is more literary in nature, then there’s a bit of a tightrope to be walked. Among other things, a genre-themed title could dissuade a more general reader. There is a fine line between enticing genre readers and putting off literary ones.

Returning to the specifics of cover design, modern covers need not contain traditional elements such as the author bio, description, and reviews. That is not to say these are harmful or counterproductive. They take a bit more effort, but still can serve as advertising via word of mouth. One person sees a book someone else owns, picks it up, and the traditional browsing model kicks in. Whether or not to include such elements is a personal choice. I feel they clutter the cover (for a paperback), and prefer not to. However, I also see no reason not to include such items on the inside flap of a hardcover dust-jacket.

But what about other elements? The same could be argued for the ISBN itself. After all, the ISBN is utterly irrelevant for online sales. Its purpose is to be scanned in retail stores. Why include it? This is a perfectly legitimate question. And it very well may be worth omitting from the back-cover images (if any) of your ebooks. However, keep in mind that the ISBN does remain useful for some purposes like indices and PCNs (no need to worry if you don't know what these are; they'll be explained later). And for those craving the trappings of “legitimacy,” whatever that means, the ISBN is expected.

For print editions, the main reason to keep the ISBN cover element is because Ingram demands it. This isn't a mere anachronism. Ingram-Spark is not just a printer, it also is a distributor. As soon as your book is available on their system, it can be ordered through the majority of physical bookstores (as well as online ones such as Amazon). Since (in theory) it will be passing through physical bookstores, the ISBN is necessary. In practice, it is necessary for many other reasons as well. Physical books are expected by libraries and retailers to have ISBNs printed on them, advertisers often will ask for the ISBN, and so on. But if no other reason serves, keep it because Ingram requires you to.

Some other cover elements which may seem superfluous for the reasons I described are not. I speak of the spine text (usually title, author and imprint/logo). This serves an important role, even if the book never appears in a physical bookstore. Bookstores aren't the only places with bookshelves. Your reader likely will have the book on their bookshelf and shouldn't be left to guess what it is! The same is true of libraries. To my eye, the absence of spine text bespeaks amateur production quality.

Here are the major elements of a cover design:

1. Front Cover Text. This may be simple text overlaid on the illustrations, embedded as part of the illustration, or ensconced in various decorative boxes or other elements. All the usual typesetting considerations apply, as well as any artistic arrangement/etc. Color also is a factor. While most interiors are black and white, the cover almost always is color. The following are some common Front Cover textual items.

Title (mandatory)
Author (mandatory)
Line from a Review (less-common)

2. Spine Text. This should be sideways along the spine. Whether it is rotated clockwise or counterclockwise is a matter of personal preference. On my books it is clockwise, so that it will appear upright when the book is placed face-up on a table. I typically arrange the title toward the middle of the spine, the author toward the top, and the logo toward the bottom. The following are the main spine items:

Title (mandatory)

In my opinion, the logo should be rotated (like the imprint text) if it appears next to the imprint name. If the logo appears alone and is a single symbol, it generally should appear upright rather than rotated.

3. Rear ISBN. The ISBN box is provided by Ingram's template. They claim it should not be resized, but I found that for small books some resizing was necessary. In my opinion, the background should be white, not transparent. The box is placed near the bottom of the rear cover. I prefer near bottom left, but both bottom-center and bottom-right are common too.

4. Rear Text/Author-Photo: This can be done many ways and can include a bio, reviews, description, author-photo, etc. I personally do without these in the paperback edition, though I think them well-suited to the inside flap of a hardcover dustjacket.

As mentioned, spine text is not allowed by Ingram for super-short books (48 pages or less) because there's no room. Createspace is much less generous and doesn't allow them except for quite thick books (130+ pages).

None of the cover elements should be right up against the edge. They can be aligned relative to one another, but shouldn't depend heavily on being a precise distance from the edge. On the Ingram template, they must all sit in the pink regions.

Page Count for Spine Width

Before we proceed, we must determine the relevant spine width. Although we will deal extensively with the interior layout in future posts, spine width has a critical impact on cover design and requires immediate consideration. For this reason, we digress to discuss the page count — the primary determinant of spine width. To do so, we enumerate various common interior elements which may contribute.

First, there are two very important constraints imposed by Ingram

1. The page count must be divisible by 4. Ingram says the page count must be divisible by 2, but in my experience they really require 4. If you ever employ offset printing, a multiple of 4 will serve you well there too.

2. The last page must be blank so they can put some production info there if necessary.

If either of these requirements are not met, Ingram will add the necessary number of blank pages at the end. However, Ingram’s cover template generator (and spine calculator tool) may not factor such pages in. For example, suppose your book is 97 pages (with ink on the 97th page), and you enter 97 as the page count in the cover template. It dutifully will return a 97 page-based spine width (or perhaps a 98 page one). It won't cleverly upsize to 100. Instead, they will do that when they process the files for printing down the road. This may change, but my experience is that it is up to the author to make sure the calculations are right. To be safe, round up to a multiple of 4, leaving at least 1 blank page at the end.

The interior of a typical book consists of 3 parts: front matter, content (also known as the body or main matter), and rear (or back) matter. These are roughly divided as one would expect:

1. Front matter: Any title pages, copyright page, advertising or publication lists (preceding the content), table of contents, preface, introduction, etc. A good rule of thumb is that front matter consists of everything prior to the start of arabic numbering.

2. Content: The raison d’etre of your book. Generally these pages use arabic numbers. However, sometimes rear-matter is included in arabic-numbering as well.

3. Rear matter: Any epilogue, index, glossary, acknowledgments, rear advertising material or publication lists, author bio, etc. Some of these items may appear in the front as well.

An excellent discussion of book layout is included in the LaTex "Memoir" package documentation. This is the package I recommend for the interior layout of literary works, and it is worthwhile familiarizing yourself with it. We will be seeing a lot of it in future posts.

As an example, here is the layout of The Way Around. E means even (left), O means odd (right). Books open right, and the first physical page is odd.

1 Simple Title Page: Most books have this. It just contains the title, usually all caps.

2 Blank

3 Full Title Page: Title, subtitle, author, imprint

4 Copyright, ISBN, LCCN, "Cover Art by ...", etc.

5-9 Table of Contents (since this is a book containing 74 very short works, it is a long TOC)

10 Blank (if the TOC had ended on an even page, there would have been 2 blank pages)

11-100 Main Content (this must start on an odd page)

101-102 Blank (if the main content had ended on an odd page, one blank would have sufficed).

103 About the Author

104 Blank

105 Acknowledgments

106 Blank

107 Other Works (pitch for my other stuff)

108 Blank

The TOC, Main Content, and first page of (non-blank) rear matter must begin on odd pages. It's a matter of taste whether each piece of rear matter must.

In total, my front-matter is 10 pages, my content is 90 pages, and my rear matter is 18 pages.

It may seem an absurd waste to have 18 pages of cruft for 90 pages of content --- but it's the way things are done. Many traditionally-published books have a much higher cruft to content ratio. They have indices, glossaries, endnotes, extensive advertising, lists of other books in the series, introductions and prefaces and heaven-knows what else. The truth is that you have little control over some of this.

The Rear-matter is entirely optional, though a book should have at least 2 blank pages after the content ends to look decent. Novels won't need a table of contents, but I strongly advise against dispensing with any of the other standard front-matter elements in a bid to cut costs.

There are many ways to make a printed book look unprofessional --- crappy illustration, bad font choice, narrow margins --- and jumping right into the content is one of them. Yes, the items I described may be superfluous packaging, but they are what readers have come to expect. Besides, they look nice. The whole point of this exercise is to produce a beautiful book, and a beautiful book isn't designed to optimize the ink to paper ratio or minimize the production cost. In my opinion, there is no point to producing a physical book if it won't be beautiful. After all, most people buy ebooks. The main reason to print a book these days is because you care about offering a quality product. The good news is that it's now very possible to do so, the bad news is that you'll need to waste a bit of tree.

Starting material: The Raw Illustration File

As mentioned in an earlier post, I commissioned a local artist to produce to drawings for my first two books of short works. He produced lovely ink drawings, which I framed, and also gave me high-resolutions scans for use with my books. The first was used for The Man Who Stands in Line. For that, I hired a professional cover designer. She embedded the elements in the illustration.

For The Way Around, I decided to do the cover design myself. The JPEG I received from the artist was 10200x6600 (around a 46 MB file), an aspect ratio of 1.54545. However, not all of the area was usable. It was a scan of a real drawing, and the edges were tattered, there was some info below it, and it had a big swath of white next to the image. None of this was unexpected. These are all things one typically finds in an artwork and they tend to be covered (or wrapped) when framing.

Ken's Guide: Indie Publishing on Linux (Cover Design 2). Self-Publishing. Pre-Image.

Note: When given an image, you can determine the size in pixels using Imagemagick's "identify" tool.

"identify myfile.jpg"

Starting material: The Ingram Cover Template

I next needed a cover template to work with. I supplied Ingram's Cover Template tool with an ISBN for the paperback. I was pleased with the appearance of my first book, The Man Who Stands in Line, and decided to go with many of the same stylistic choices. Here are the relevant parameters:

Trim Size: 5x8"
Interior Paper: B&W, Creme (50lb paper)
Binding Type: Paperback, Perfect Bound
Laminate Type: Matte
Page Count: 108
File Type PDF

I didn't enter any price info since I didn't want a hardcoded price as part of the ISBN-block barcode. To my mind, it’s a bad idea and I’ve never understood why publishers do it.

Note that not all book options are available from Ingram for all trim sizes. 5x8 is pretty standard (much like 6x9), so most choices are available. For less-common sizes, there may be fewer options.

Here is an image of the template they emailed me.

Self-publishing cover template from ingram.

Our goal will be to precisely overlay the pink and blue area with our cover.

Next time we will start creating an actual cover from our image and cover template!

K.M. Halpern