On Self-Published Book Covers

Work in progress of a chalk pastel squid drawing.

The Same

When I started out self-publishing, there was a lot of pressure to use covers that looked like the ones big publishers would use. What a terrible thing it would be if people noticed the book was self-published. They might think it was different in some way. Different is bad.

I’d often had my short work rejected for being too different, too weird, too unlike what we’ve published before, not the direction we’re going in, and many other ways of saying it’s just plain odd. This raised the question of whether I actually wanted a cover that looked like I was writing something I wasn’t. The stories were different and maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. The cover should surely reflect that.

It turned out that big publishers didn’t disagree. There were covers that stood out from the crowd as being different, because that’s how the book was being marketed. One that stuck with me was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, where the majority of the cover is a solid colour. There’s a small picture of someone’s legs and feet in the top corner. The text is pushed to the edges.

A lot of online critique means well, but without context about the book and the publisher, that cover would be slammed. The elements shouldn’t be at the edges. Make the picture fill the whole space. Look at covers in your genre, because they don’t look like that. Indeed, some versions of the cover are more typically laid out. But it’s the one with the tiny picture that I noticed.


The Different

People talk about professionalism and quality, as though they’re carved in stone and never subjective. This is usually the artistic equivalent of a generic business suit, as though that would be suitable for every job and situation.

The Garden Gang books were written and illustrated by Jayne Fisher. She was a child and you can tell that from the drawings. The pen lines are clearly visible where the characters are coloured in. These books are not bad, low quality or unprofessional. The art and writing is just right for them. They were also published by Ladybird Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Yayoi Kusama dresses in bright polka dots. She’s an artist known for her work with patterns. There’s nothing unprofessional about that.

In a creative industry, there’s a very big range in what is acceptable. If it works, it works. Sometimes there’s no way to know if it will work without trying it.


The Unchoice

In the end, I didn’t really have a choice about doing my own covers. I couldn’t afford anything else. But thinking about these issues helped me break away from trying to make covers that looked like other people’s covers. I made covers that fit my books, with a focus on the styles I was best at doing. The result was people have bought my books based on the covers and I started selling art as well.

The one people most often talk about is Werecockroach, because I drew it in wax crayons. It was a bit of a dig at people who complain about self-published covers drawn in crayon, though it’s also a scene in the book. This has worked when I’ve run adverts, because it really stands out in a line of book covers (crayon covers are not actually the most common sort outside of jokes). It marks the book as being extremely self-published in a way some readers want.


The Twist

That hasn’t been the end of the story though. There’s a plot twist, because the issue of AI generated covers is at the forefront. Suddenly, it’s become an advantage to have a cover that doesn’t have a style that screams AI.

My humble crayon drawing is very difficult for AI to get right, because the AI is not one of Asimov’s robots. It copies things based on probabilities, with no understanding of how a tool might be used to create it. Smooth finishes are preferred over brush marks and sketchy wibbles where someone’s hand shook. Attempts to copy these things never look quite right. More like a digital filter put over the top.

I visited the Tate Modern’s exhibit on Matisse some years back. Viewing his cutouts up close, the pencil lines can be seen, along with the pin marks where the paper was held. It’s something AI is currently unable to accurately copy.

It’ll be interesting to see what this means for self-published covers. In a world where readers will increasingly judge anything that looks like it might be AI, and there’s no guarantee that hired cover artists will be honest, there’s a bigger push for self-published authors to make their own covers. An author might be better off with a cover that’s simply a nice typeface on a plain background.


The Future

For myself, it’s clear that I’m better off producing art by hand as much as possible. It’s going to be an advantage to show the sketchy lines and other marks, to the point of thinking of ways to make them more obvious. Embracing the imperfections that show thought behind them rather than being the result of mathematical mistakes.

There’s a sadness to this though. I like doing my own covers. It’ll be fun to see if more authors go that route. But I wish it wasn’t something that was forced and going to make it harder for artists who do cover art commissions.

Maybe the future will end up more balanced, but until then, it’s time to break out the pencils.

Book Launch: Rainbow Lights (Plus Cupcakes)

‘Tis the season for lots of sugar, as my collection Rainbow Lights is now live on Amazon. In celebration, I made cupcakes in rainbow cases and decorated them with a rainbow of sweets. Some might notice indigo and ink are missing from my collection colours, which was due to the availability of dyes and sweets. But the family aren’t complaining, as it’s all still sugar.

Cupcakes in rainbow-striped cases. Each row of cupcakes is iced in a colour. From front to back: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. An assortment of matching coloured sweets is on each one.

In less sugary information, the book is a collection of fantasy and science fiction stories and poems (mostly stories). I have an official page on my site, which has the table of contents, links to any stories available free online (you can also read the first couple with Amazon’s look inside feature) and a comprehensive list of where to buy. Currently these are Amazon’s sites in various countries, but there will be other places later.

There’s also a page on Goodreads if you’d like to mark it for later, leave a review, or anything of that nature.

Dates and Deadlines

The date I originally set was 13th May, 2013. This was great, except I’d forgotten it was my parents’ ruby wedding anniversary, and I was down to cook a meal. (I remembered the meal, but not the date.) This meant the collection was pushed on a little way, but I didn’t miss it by much. The book went live on 23rd May, and I got down to making cupcakes on the 25th.

Future Plans

Currently the book is only available on Kindle. I’d like to get it up on Smashwords too. I also plan to make a paperback version, with charcoal illustrations inside. The paperback will take time due to the extra pictures, so I’m not setting a date. It’ll be done when it’s done.

There will also be a steampunk novelette in the future, and the family appears to have nominated me to make themed cupcakes for that too. I may have set a precedent here…

But now it’s time for me to drink tea, eat cupcakes, and start work on the next thing.

Rainbow Lights cover: a rainbow squid in chalk pastels, in a charcoal black ocean.


Rainbow Lights: Writing the Back Cover

Cartoon rainbow octopus

Recently in one writing community, a new person arrived and declared themselves amazingly talented. Their other online bios said they were special and unique. The reaction was a certain amount of bogglement, to say the least.

This is the issue self-published books face. Everyone knows the author wrote the summary on the back*, so the usual marketing fluff sounds hilariously unaware at best. Most authors deal with it by writing as little as possible, which is going to harm their sales, because it leaves the reader with little idea about the book.

So what can go on the back, if declaring myself to be an amazing writer is off the cards**?

I tackled it in a similar way to covers, by going out and reading descriptions for short story collections (and a few anthologies). My thoughts aren’t rules set in stone. Someone else may prefer an entirely different sort of back cover. But these are the things that I felt worked, or didn’t, when it came to telling me whether I wanted to buy the book.

Sections of the Summary

These are the main areas I found in summaries. They appear in different mixes in effective summaries, but I didn’t find any I liked that missed out summaries of the stories inside. After all, I’m buying the collection for the stories, so it better say something about them.

1. Author Name

It sounds obvious, but a lot of self-published collections missed this piece of information. It’s on the cover, yes. But it still helps to state it directly in the product description, so it’s clear it’s a collection of stories by one person, and not an anthology.

2. Genre and Themes

This might refer to the author or the stories. Genre writers have this one easy, as it’s where the book would be placed in the bookstore (romance, mystery, fantasy, etc.), with perhaps a modifier like humorous, dark or experimental. It’s a little trickier with books that don’t easily classify, but experimental, interstitial and cross-genre are all possibles.

Some descriptions avoided this direct reference, and tried to rely on descriptions of the story content. The issue here is some left me uncertain about the overall genre. Stories about dark secrets could be literary fiction about people’s past traumas, mystery stories about serial killers or paranormal stories about werewolves. So which is it?

Making up genres also doesn’t help. I know people like to believe they’re created something all-new, which couldn’t possibly be described in basic terms, but how many readers will search the online store for spacehamsterpunk?

3. Statistics

The ebook age has changed the needs of the summary somewhat. In a physical book, you can see how thick the book is, so you know roughly how many words are inside. In the digital world, a collection could be anything from three short stories to fifty. The reader needs some idea of length, so they can judge whether it’s good value for money.

Self-published authors win on this point, as even the shortest description tended to include the number of stories and their length category (five short stories, three novellas, and so on). Some of the trade published books have yet to catch up.

4. Story Summary

This is likely to be the biggest part of a lot of back covers. It’s a way of going past a basic genre tag and showing what the author writes about. A few common ways:

Story description: A cat grows a fish tail and swims across the Atlantic, to be reunited with her owner.

Character lists: A sentient potato, a pink mushroom and a lump of coal find happiness in this collection of twelve romance stories. Character lists worked the best for collections with unusual characters. A college graduate, a house spouse and an office worker aren’t as eye-catching. The lists also tended to be part of a sentence with some other elements (like the genre and number of stories).

Character plus story: A cheerleader has a dark secret. A squirrel is chased by the ghosts of acorns. This combines the character list with a bit of story, but not as long or detailed as the single story description.

There wasn’t one true way of making these work. The back covers I liked the best all had some story summary, but different combinations work best for different books. The biggest failing of this part is some descriptions tried to summarise every story in the collection (or as many as possible). In general, this worked best with a maximum of three descriptions in a row, or three items in a list. More than that started to drag. It’s understandable if it was a collection of four novellas to include a description of all four, but ten in a row is too many.

5. Author Achievements

Not every author has achievements, but when they do, it helps. Someone with professional publications or award wins is expected to be able to put out coherent prose. However, some back covers tried to use achievements to carry the whole collection. It doesn’t matter how many awards someone has won… if I don’t know the author and there’s no suggestion of the type of stories in the book, I won’t buy it.


Established authors often have quotes from reviews or other authors. Personally, I find these useless for buying books. They take up space with waffle about how great the author is, without telling me what the author actually writes. Someone obviously likes them, as they’re common, but I skip these. When a back cover is mainly quotes, I’m moving on to the next collection.

7. Table of Contents

An optional extra for short collections is to include the table of contents after everything else. This is more common for online product descriptions than the back cover of printed books, and works best for collections with only a handful of stories. I don’t think anyone would expect a collection with thirty stories to list them out.

Back Cover Issues

Order and Weight

The order of the elements mattered. If it started with three quotes from other authors, I would have moved on as a reader. I only read to the end because I was analysing them. If it ended with those same three quotes, it wouldn’t have mattered as much.

Some descriptions were also a bit too in love with one element, such as listing author achievements and not much else. Yes, it’s nifty they’ve done all those things, but if no space is given to the stories, it won’t attract new readers.


Some summaries had an attack of the vague. Everything’s amazing, ground-breaking and awe-inspiring, but nothing got more specific than that. What’s the book about exactly?

I Hate my Genre!

It’s a fantasy story, but it’s totally believable, unlike those other fantasy stories. It’s science fiction, but there’s no science in it, so it’s like it could be the modern world. It’s romance, but without any of that love stuff. Apparently it needs to be said this isn’t a good idea. Readers generally like the genres they read. Why would they read a book written by someone who hates them?

Repeat Everything

Repeats were often not the exact same word, but similar enough. Mythic, mythical or myth-inspired. Dark, darkness and darkened. This doesn’t always pop out as a problem, in that it reads okay when the words are spread out, or someone changed darkened to shadowed. But it means the description misses the chance to introduce a different aspect of the collection. If I replace one of the darknesses with melancholy, it’s given me an idea of how the collection is dark.

Oh, the Humanity!

A surprising number of books assure the reader it’s about humans. Or if it’s not about humans, it’s about humanity, the human experience, or some other way of saying it’s all about humans. Generally, I think it’d be safe to say people will assume the book is about humans. Or of it’s about non-humans, that it won’t be so mind-bogglingly incomprehensible a human can’t understand what’s going on.

I’m never again going to be able to read a cover mentioning the human experience without laughing.

But other than adding to my general level of mirth, you’re also filling up space with a rather pointless message. Shock news: there are humans in this! Actual real ones who do human stuff!

Nobody’s Perfect

The summaries I liked best were not perfect. Some summarised a few too many of the stories. Or they started with a rather vague review quote. Or they didn’t say how long the book would be. But I would have bought the book, if I was looking for that sort of story, and that’s ultimately the goal.

It’s important to keep in mind, because trying to make things perfect can lead to stripping out any voice and soul from it. A back cover won’t work for everyone. It mainly needs to work for the target audience and it only has to work enough for them to want the book. I’m sure some instances where the summary was over-long or repetitive were due to trying to answer all the questions critiquers had (because I’ve seen the exact same thing happen to queries).

My Back Cover

Putting this all together, I came up with something for my summary. Here’s how it ended up:

A deep-sea robot tells stories in every colour, but no shade can describe meeting a giant squid.

Rainbow Lights is the first collection by science fiction and fantasy author Polenth Blake. Alien scorpions, vampire ice cream sellers and clockwork flies, try to find their place in worlds where being human is optional. These thirty-five stories and poems are a mixture of new pieces and work published in venues like Nature, Strange Horizons and ChiZine.

And here’s why:

A deep-sea robot tells stories in every colour, but no shade can describe meeting a giant squid. [Leading with something storyish seemed a good idea, as the back cover is mainly for buyers who don’t know who I am. It’ll be down to whether the stories sound interesting.]

Rainbow Lights is the first collection [Not compulsory, but it sounds shiny and new to be the first one… if it were the tenth and they’d never heard of me, they’d wonder] by science fiction and fantasy [I have genres!] author Polenth Blake. [And also a name. This gets the basic stuff out of the way.]

Alien scorpions, vampire ice cream sellers and clockwork flies, [I aimed to make each part do as much lifting as it could. The character list gives an idea of the range of sub-genres (as it implies science fiction, steampunk and urban fantasy), along with a liking for invertebrates and quirky things (unless ice cream becomes the next big thing for urban fantasy, I think it’s safe to call it quirky)] try to find their place in worlds where being human is optional. [Okay, I’m having a joke at the expense of human experience summaries. But there really are non-humans, so it works whether anyone shares my sense of humour or not.]

These thirty-five [I really hope I counted them correctly] stories and poems are a mixture of new pieces and work published in venues like Nature, Strange Horizons and ChiZine. [I write well enough for people to pay me, and these also come with some genre implications, as Nature is hard science fiction and ChiZine is dark/horror. I have range, or something like that.]

And there we go. Someone did suggest I mention my imaginary goldfish on the back cover, but I’m saving that for the author bio.

* Though I’m calling it the back cover summary, it’s also the product description for online stores. It’s sometimes called the blurb too, but I’ve seen that used to describe quotes from other authors about the book, and that’s not what this post is about.

** Not that it was ever on the cards. I’ve always hated job application cover letters, where you’re supposed to say you’re reliable, hard-working and the best person for the job. I’m cursed with a certain amount of honesty, so I know I’m not the best person for the job, and no more hard-working and reliable than the other candidates. My solution was to achieve things, so I could list achievements, rather than talk about how wonderful I was. It’s helpful to have something else to waffle about.

Rainbow Lights: Analysis of Rainbow Covers

Colour Wheel

Usually covers have a limited colour scheme, using shades of one colour, two colours that work together (either because they’re close together or dramatic opposites), or a bold tri-colour scheme using the primary colours. This is mainly because it’s very easy to make rainbows look like a unicorn vomited on the book.

Which is all very well, but the theme for my collection is rainbows, so an all-green cover wouldn’t exactly fit (no matter how lovely). I want to avoid any of the unicorn-vomit pitfalls, but I also want a rainbow. So before starting my own cover, I looked at other artwork using rainbows. These are my thoughts about using that colour scheme effectively.

Rainbow Rules

My first step was a visit to Google images. I searched for terms like “rainbows” and “rainbow lights”. A few observations on the pictures that came up are as follows:

  • Some images used the vomit method on purpose, such as psychedelic artwork and digitally edited photos of rainbows. These are intended to overload the viewer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for a book cover, it’d detract from the details you want the viewer to see (the title and the author).
  • For non-psychedelic works, the most effective had de-saturated backgrounds, such as black, grey or a greyish shade of a colour. This made the rainbow stand out and also solved the visual overload problem. White backgrounds were also used for a brighter feel, but the rainbow stood out less against them.
  • Some focused mainly on one or two colours, with only small amounts of the rest. This gave the feel of the rainbow, without too much of a colour explosion.
  • The central colour would often appear to dominate at first glance, even if it was in the same quantity (or less) than the rest.
  • For contrasting areas, some used rainbow opposites. What I mean by this is they’d pair the opposite ends of the rainbow – red and violet. Usually in art, you’d use the opposite on the colour wheel* for this sort of contrast (which would be red opposite green, and violet (purple) opposite yellow). Red and purple wouldn’t be considered to have this sort of contrast, as they’re next to each other on the wheel. However, in a rainbow, the viewer has the expectation that red and purple are opposites, so odd though it is, it works (as long as the picture sufficient screams “rainbow”).
  • Realistic rainbows had more subdued colours for the rainbow itself, because in the real world, rainbows aren’t generally that bright against the sky. Sometimes it’s good to remember that you don’t have to set saturation to maximum when editing a rainbow picture.
  • Rainbow lights often had darker shades of the colour at the edges, with highlights in a bright/light shade. Most of these in the image search were photographs of lights, but the principle would work for a painted image too.

Cover Examples

After looking at rainbow images in general, I found book covers with rainbow colour schemes, and analysed which techniques they used (and how well).

Meant to Be – Lauren Morrill

Meant To Be Cover

The cover takes an inspiration from natural rainbows, both in having the rainbow in rays like a sun, and having a scene in the foreground. There are colours in the scene, but they’re somewhat muted (note the red dress is not that bright, and has been mostly shadowed out… the grass is somewhat de-saturated). It’s focused on reds and yellows, which goes with the feel-good contemporary novel blurb. It’s also used some rainbow opposites to show the city against the sky.

It does a decent job of implying a groovy psychedelic theme, without going into eye-bleeding territory. The thing I least like is the font choice, but that’s not a colour issue. It’s certainly readable.

The End of the Rainbow – V.C. Andrews

End of the Rainbow Cover

Not only did a unicorn have an accident here, but the magic turned it into a rainbow-vomit whirlwind, which ate the protagonist! Also, the title is in a similarly bright colour so there’s no real contrast. Add in the blurb, which talks about devastating tragedies, secrets and hardship, and someone had too many skittles.

In terms of colour balance, red was shifted to pink, and the yellow/green part is smaller than the rest (possibly in an attempt to make the yellow title text stand out a little more). This wasn’t a successful cover, and it doesn’t surprise me they changed it for the newer version (the new cover barely has any rainbow on, so I won’t be looking at it).

Arclight – Josin L. McQuein

Arclight Cover

The black background makes the light beams stand out, with white to outline the face without drawing away from the rainbows. A focus on purples and blues is common for speculative fiction, and has been used to good effect here.

Rainbow opposites were used for the title, making it stand out, but also fit with the rainbow theme. It uses the same patterning as the lights, linking the title to the picture.

Crewel – Gennifer Albin

Crewel Cover

Another speculative book with a different approach. One trick here is the extremes have been minimised. There’s only a hint of violet, indigo and blue. Red is softened to pink for most of it. Saturation has also been used – most of the background colour is less saturated (more subtle than using a grey background, but it’s still there). The swirls are the most saturated parts, and draw the eye (the focal point of those being near the centre, close to the title).

I liked the choice of the pink swirls and red lips as the central colours. It’s playing with cover colour stereotypes, as such colours are usually put on chicklit books. But it’s using them in different ways, with an overall composition that’s more dreamlike and suggests a speculative book. This goes with the blurb about becoming a beautiful and deadly spinster.

Much like Arclight, the title interacts with the picture. It’s dark, so it stands out, but has reddish sections where it crosses the picture.

My Plans

My original idea was a rainbow squid in a black ocean. Arclight was very close to my colour scheme ideas, so I’ve seen it can work.

The debatable point is how bright to make the squid. It could be lit up, as though it’s self-illuminated. It could also be fairly dark, as though a light is being shone onto it. Or a mix of both, with small points of light. As the squid body will take up a fair bit of the cover, I’m leaning towards a darker approach, with some points of light.

Colour-wise, purple/blue is often associated with speculative work, so would be a sensible dominate colour scheme. I liked Crewel‘s play on the cover colour stereotypes, but it’s more of a risk for self-published work. Making the genre easier to identify increases the chances of a reader looking at the book.

I preferred the covers where the title and the picture went together. Meant to Be worked as far as the picture was concerned, but the text seemed separate, as though it was an afterthought. But this decision can come a little later, as I’ll be adding the title digitally. The next step will be drawing the squid, which is a story for another post.

* See the top of the post for a picture of a basic colour wheel.