The New World: Publishing: Killing Your Sales One Shot at a Time

Over the last month or so, (I suppose because I was preparing for the “Think Like a Publisher workshop) I started noticing how indie writers shoot themselves in the foot as far as sales. And not just once, but often so many times that it guaranteed that no sane reader (past family and friends) would pick up their book.

And they did it all purposefully. And were often very proud of the fact that they did what they did, having no idea what their decisions were doing to their sales.

I call that “Shooting Yourself in the Foot.”

You hold the gun, you aim at your own foot, you pull the trigger. You have no one to blame but yourself when you indie publish.

So, let me detail out a few of the “shots” I have seen indie writers take at their own feet lately.

Shot #1

Tiny little author name on the cover, sometimes hidden in some part of the very busy artwork.

It has been proven over and over and over that author names sell books. So an indie writer has ten books out, which means that if someone manages to find one of the author’s books, the reader wants to look for other books by the same author. And how does  the reader do that????

Author name.

I was looking for an indie author the other day who had a list of twenty books. I scanned right past the author’s books because the author’s name was so tiny on the covers, in thumbnail it couldn’t be read.

If your name isn’t in about 60 point type, you are just taking shots at your own foot. (Just a general guideline, but think about it.)

One toe now gone…

(I look forward to your letters on this first shot… (grin))

Shot #2

Wrong genre. In about thirty different ways.

Always have someone else tell you what your wrote. Writers are awful at knowing what they write. Indie writers put their books on the wrong shelves in online stores all the time. Or call it by the wrong genre name, making sure that readers who might like it will never find it, and readers who do find it will hate it because it’s not what it claims to be.

Wrong genre on cover design.

Folks, I hate to tell you this, (and I made this mistake early on as well) but covers need to scream genre. For example, I had a book I did called “On Top of the Dead” which was a pure science fiction story with aliens and everything. So what did I do to make sure it didn’t sell?  I put the lower half of a dead body in a street on the cover, making it look like a literary mystery. And, of course, it didn’t sell much. I just redid the cover putting alien spaceships hovering over New York City on the cover instead. Duh…

And genre in fonts.

The types of fonts on a cover will shout to readers about the genre. Put a romance font on a science fiction book and trust me, you ain’t going to sell many copies. Start learning fonts.

And genre in blurbs.

For heaven’s sake, if you call your book a romance, it needs to have a complete focus on the romance, must have girl meets boy, must have issues, and must live happily-ever-after in the ending. And that needs to be clear in the blurb. The blurb must be focused on the romance, not on the murder that brings the two together.

So if you don’t know what your wrote, ask someone else and then focus your blurb to the elements of the genre that are important to readers.

Second toe gone….

Shot #3

Dull blurbs, filled with plot elements.

Plot is dull. “My story starts with a woman getting out of bed, yawning, going to the restroom, brushing her teeth, washing her face, brushing her hair, then stumbling to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.” You would never think of doing that in a blurb to sell your book, yet indie writer after indie writer do exactly that, only in more general terms.

Plot is the linked events. Readers want to read the story to figure out the linked events. But to buy the book, the reader first wants to know WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT. Not the events in the book. Two very distinct things, folks.

And dull blurbs also means nothing but passive verbs. Sure, we all use them at times in blurbs. I do as well, but I know what I am doing to make a reader buy a book. I know how to write tag lines that snap. And when I write a blurb, I ask myself what would make a reader buy this book? But if you use nothing but passive voice, the reader will automatically think your book is dull and never open it to the sample.

Third toe missing…

Shot #4

All your books look different, even if they are in the same genre or series.

A good friend of mine is having this problem, causing bad sales.  His name floats all over the covers, different sizes, his art is all different, his fonts are all different from book to book. He now understands what he did wrong and is fixing it. Here is how this shot works to not only blow off a toe, but kill almost all sales.

A reader finds a copy of a book and reads it and likes it, so goes to look for more work by the same author, and finds a ton of books that all look different. What happens?

Instead of the reader just grabbing a book that looks similar, (and in the same genre as the one he liked) the reader must now start over, look at each book to try to figure out what he wants and what each book is. And that guarantees the reader will often not buy another book, because the author is making the reader start over with every book. And work to find another book.

And if you are looking to build the sacred 1,000 fans who buy all your work, doing this will make sure that never happens.

In other words, if you do this, every sale to every reader must be like a first sale.

There is a real reason traditional publishers make all books from a bestseller look pretty much the same from book to book. Just walk into any bookstore or stand in front of a rack with a lot of books and look at that. Then ask yourself why you aren’t doing that as well? I know some of you hate traditional publishers, but in some areas, like author branding, traditional publishers know what they are doing. So copy what they do, learn from them to increase your own sales.

Fourth toe missing…

Shot #5

Covers looks like they are indie published.

Wow, is this going to cause letters. (grin) But alas, true. If you can’t put your book next to a traditional publisher’s book in the same genre and have your book look more professional or at least at the same level as a traditional publishers’ book, you are losing customers.

Most indie-published books all look the same. Sadly. Title at the top, centered, author name in small print near the bottom, centered. Nothing else on the cover except a picture or art, often done so it looks like it was photoshopped. No contrast in anything. Fonts are wrong for the genre, no tag or blurb or anything.

A cover likes that SHOUTS indie published and will push readers right past it.

Why? Because you sent your book to a job interview half-dressed and without shoes, that’s why. The reader will not hire your book and spend money on it. And why should they? It screams amateur.

Readers are looking for quality and covers scream if a book has quality or not. The customer might not actually notice an indie-look cover, but they will subconsciously, and move on to a different book.

What makes a professional cover? A bunch of things, but let me list a few major ones. (And please, this is all general.)

— Massive contrast in fonts, big author name at the top of the book.

— Only two fonts that are compatible, usually one serif, one sans-serif. (Many fonts is a pure sign of a beginner.)

— A small blurb near the author’s name such as “Author of (another book title).”

— A tag line or small active pitch about the book on the front. And no more than that. Only the four print elements on the cover, or five at the most.

— Art or photo that is clear and matches the genre and the font genre.

— It looks like other covers of other books and stories the author has written. In other words, it is CLEARLY branded.

Again, all that was general and I left off a ton of stuff.

Professional covers take a skill that is easily learned given some practice and the ability to use InDesign (or Photoshop.) But to learn it you must study covers and sometimes imitate traditional publisher covers in your same genre. It takes a focus in the learning. But if you just toss up a standard CreateSpace template cover, your book will shout indie and drive readers away.

Your book must complete with the best of the traditional publishing covers.

The fifth toe is now gone.


Those are the five major areas that indie writers and publishers shoot themselves in the foot and thus kill their own sales. There are others, of course. And all I talked about was in general terms. We teach entire classes on some of this stuff.

So if you are wondering why your books are not selling when everyone tells you your story is wonderful, maybe you should back up and look at the package you put the wonderful book inside.

Clearly, there is more to this indie publishing that some let on, isn’t there? (grin)

But honestly, for me, it is great fun learning. And having the freedom to write what I want, when I want. And only write for me and my readers.

That’s worth the learning curve a hundred times over.

Keep having fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  

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67 Responses to The New World: Publishing: Killing Your Sales One Shot at a Time

  1. The Smoker says:

    Shot 1:
    I agree that the author name should be visible. I disagree in regards to size. If it’s huge and obscures the theme set by the typeface, imagery and color coordination or pulls the readers eyes away from the genre branding of the cover it is too big. In my opinion smaller is better than too big. I also don’t believe we should all pull a Steven King and have our names take up nearly half of the thumbnail. It’s also important to remember that the thumbnail will be at the front of the file as an image. Many covers look awesome small with big text, but horrible at full size. There needs to be a design balance.

    I agree in both cases. I would almost go as far to say that genre branding is more important that clarity of concept on the front of the book (As most of us design our own covers here, most will have already realized the fallacy of photo sites. There is only so much available stock that looks good and a lot of the time it isn’t as related to what we have finished writing.)

    Ok, but you’ll probably have to give an example. What you are saying is confusing as there’s nothing concrete to link it to.

    Ex: A young boy searches for a mysterious gem in the caverns of the Moonling Tribe. Little does he know that an ancient evil born from the painful deaths of a tribe of Indians waits for just such a young one to feed on. Danger, fear and courage under the worst of situations: These lessons and more will our young adventurer learn in the greatest story ever told.

    (Plot elements and some YA adventure elements. Says: Boy faces evil being.)


    Ex: With one vicious stroke of a rusty knife, a hard boiled New York cop loses the only thing he has ever treasured. The Smoker brings us another hard action, super paced, thriller where love, violence and redemption combine in the story of one man’s war on the mafia that can only have one end. Until death do we part. How far will one man go to avenge the lives of those he loves? Read this book and find out.

    (Nealy no plot elements. Says: Cop vs mafia + revenge.)

    Critique is fine. These are just examples, but perhaps it might clarify your point a bit.

    Agreed, but not everything should be the same. Clearly if you write a few genres, you need to ensure theirs no confusion. I use pen names and cover design for this, but a mystery series shouldn’t look too much in font positioning, etc, to a romance series. That’s going to make some fans rather unhappy. Different genre, different style, IMO. Still, your advice is good and WMG’s most recent covers are a testimony to your team following its own advice.

    Overall, nice post. I’m liking it!

    • dwsmith says:

      The Smoker, well, on Shot One, I flat don’t agree of course, especially in this new world of thumbnail covers. If you can’t read clearly the author’s name on a cover at postage stamp size, you are flat losing customers. Sorry, you are wrong on that one in my opinion, unless you are writing nonfiction, where author name matters less, or literary fiction, where author names are always tiny.

      As for S#, I knew that would be confusing because it takes four days in a workshop before that concept comes clear. All younger writers think their books are about linked events and the pretty sentences. Actually, sentences mean little and what the reader cares about is what the book is about. Your second example is a ton better than your first example FOR A SALES TOOL. Yeah, I know, tough for writers to think of anything to do with sales, but that’s what I am talking about. Linked events done in a passive voice do not sell books. Your second example is a great sales tool. Your first example is all right, but it will turn many readers away who don’t care about some generic painful death of a character they don’t yet know and a generic ancient evil they could care less about.

      I’ll do a cover fun post again here shortly to show some of WMG Publishing Inc new covers. We’re having great fun.

      • The Smoker says:

        Interesting reply. I’ll have to think on it a bit. You’ve implied something I’m going to have to mull over for a bit. Thank you.

        • Very interesting reply from dwsmith, but I did like your first blurb just as much and on reflection, I believe it “works” equally well as a “sales tool”- actually, the way it’s written, it falls clearly within a well-defined genre (YA in this case) and while I’m with dwsmith in not caring a hoot about ancient evils lurking in mountain caves, that’s (no doubt) because I’m not a YA fan and have no use for this kind of fantasy. But if you like that sort of thing, the blurb does work: it tells you not only what the “book is about” but what to expect, i.e. what genre it’s in. So yes, a blurb should tell readers what the book is about AND what genre it’s in!

  2. Vera Soroka says:

    I’ve been taking notice of covers of late as I attempt my own. I write erotic romances and I like covers that have no people on them. El James had no people on hers, I loved them. Nora Roberts hardly ever has people on hers and most of hers are gorgeous. That is what I’m striving for. You have to create a mood that reflects the book.

    • dwsmith says:

      Vera, every author, every cover is different. Up to you, no rules that people should or should not be there.

  3. Christian K says:

    “Wrong genre on cover design.”

    Twilight, Switched, 50 Shades of Grey. These are romances that do not have romance covers. In fact when the cover of Switched was “fixed” sales fell. You must look professional, but having an interesting, artful, and unexpected cover could be very valuable.

    • But those aren’t wrong genre. They have cross-genre covers with strong visual signals for mainstream (in 50 Shades) and mainstream/genre crossover for the others.

      None of those books would have done so well with a space ship on the cover. Or six-gun.

      Twilight and 50 Shades in particular were hammering the slick commercial style. If you already know how to do that then you don’t need to be reading blogs to learn about covers. The people who do designs like that are major pros.

  4. Phaedra says:

    I have a question on the Cover Branding. I’ve seen more Branding done on a Series rather than the author. The impression being, if someone likes a book and goes to look them up or to their website, which is usually where I go first, they can spot all the books in a series.

    I’ll use Devon Monk as an example. Her Allie Beckstrom novels have a different look from her Age of Steam, BUT they are all Devon Monk. The Beckstrom novels use the same fonts and placement and type of image. The Age of Steam all use their own images, placement, and font type.

    I know when I create covers for clients we talk about a specific look if it’s for an ongoing series.


    • dwsmith says:


      Branding is done extensively inside of a series. No doubt there. And should be played up. But from series to series, the author brand should be clear as well. That’s the key. When a reader sees an author’s story they like, even if in a different series or a stand-alone book, it needs to be clear at a glance it is that author’s book. That’s just my opinion and what I have observed working for authors. Make sense?

      • Kel says:

        Note: Reader here, I just used to work in publishing… 😉

        As far as inter-series branding goes, it can be as simple as having the same overall layout on a cover, or using the same artist for your images. Series branding should be very consistent; same artist, same style, same font, same layout.

        But that’s less important over different series. The absolute main thing that must match is your author website. Nothing screams “I have no idea what I’m doing” like a website that clashes with the cover images you have posted.

        • dwsmith says:

          Kel, very good point. Thanks!

        • Mark Jones says:

          Can you be a little more specific? How does a website clash with your covers? Seeing as I am not (and don’t want to spend the time and money to learn to be) a website wizard, I’m using wordpress and some basic templates. What should I be looking out for?

    • I think series branding is critical — especially if the author has more than one series. Let’s face it, when you have series fiction, readers are going for the series first.

      I would think that if an author is writing dead center on a genre, then keep the author branding to design of the author name (size, font choice, placement). Let the rest of the branding elements speak to the genre and series.

      If you’ve got a weird author like me, who has only nebulous contact with genres sometimes, then building a brand for the author is trickier, because, imho, the author brand has to stand in for the genre.

      I’m doing my own covers partly because I could never afford to pay anyone to do the kind of work it takes to really find the styles and flavors that fit my work. (Although once I’ve figured it out, it would be easy to hire the illustration work after that.)

      One thing that might help is to ask the author to browse established commercial art — posters, books, movies, album covers; classic and retro as well as current — to find something that evokes their style. That has been the most fruitful of all the things I’ve done: stop shopping for art, and start studying artists.

      • dwsmith says:

        Camille, I also go all over the place on genres, so writers like us have to build the brand around our names. On all new books, I have moved my name to the top and are keeping the style and look identical in fonts and everything. Then I move the genre around with the art and the title font and structure of the lower, less-important part of the cover.

        Writers believe that all books have to be very different from their previous book for some reason. Not the case. And not what New York does either.

        • Ted Dekker is another example of branding around a name — every book he’s done, the appearance of his surname is stylized so the second ‘k’ is slightly smaller than the other letters. Has the effect of making his name into a logo of sorts.

  5. Excellent advice, clever metaphor. Thanks, Dean. I’ll confess I do have trouble with #2, in that one reason I had trouble selling to traditional publishers is that my stories cross genres, or bust genre boundaries. I’m currently finishing a science fiction novel about a werewolf — no magic, no schlepping back and forth in the moonlight, no wolfbane. Conservation of mass is maintained. How on earth does one even explain that story, much less illustrate the cover? And that tends to be a challenge (I will not say “problem”) with many of my books. I don’t write to fit neat pigeonholes. I’m okay with that, but it does make it a little harder to come up with a cover that doesn’t inevitably tick off some readers. *shrug* I guess that comes with the territory. Thanks again for the excellent advice, Dean.

  6. My biggest problem is Shots 2 and 4.

    Since I don’t write neatly in a genre, it’s hard to nail the cover style. (And that affects the blurbs too — bye bye middle toe.) And since all of my books are different, all of my cover styles are currently different.

    The difference between me and a lot of the indies you talk to, though, is that I already know this. I am working on building my body of work so that I have clusters of styles, and working my own visual branding, so at least the covers will start matching and making sense within my own bookshelf.

  7. Jamie D. says:

    Well, at least I still have a couple toes left. Or do I? Heck, at this point, who knows? But I have been changing older covers lately, and it *is* helping – merely changing the cover and blurb for one of my books took it from selling nothing for months to selling several per month for the last three. So at least I’m headed in the right direction, even if I still don’t exactly know what I’m doing. I don’t care for big author names on covers, but I’m willing to suck it up and go with it if that’s what it takes. So I’ll make mine bigger when I get a chance, wherever they’re hard to read in thumbnail.

    Thank you for that cover checklist! That is incredibly helpful. I am having issues choosing a “basic brand” cover for my stand alone stories. The series books I’ve got figured out (though I guess I’d better go recheck against your list), but I’m waffling on the others. Tag lines. I need tag lines for nearly everything…

    Blurbs are an altogether different sort of nightmare. I’m working on it. We’re working on gecko-biology here, right? So I can grow toes back?

    I write in well established genres (and stick to the traditional plot structure for the most part), so I think I’m okay there – my editor confirms that. So they should be categorized properly. That’s one toe I get to keep. Yay!

    Fonts. Crap. *sigh*

  8. Speak to us of the sacred 1000 fans, o guru.

  9. CS Perryess says:

    Great observations. I particularly appreciate shot #5. In my role as audiobook narrator, when I’m hunting for jobs, I find some indie-published covers represent their authors professionally. Others fall painfully short. Thanks for the fine post.

  10. I find that my name gets a little bigger with each book I put out.

    …this might be ego-related, however *snort*

  11. Rob Vagle says:

    Great post dean. As for making covers, I do have trouble figuring out the genre in many of my stories. For example, a fantasy that takes place in the old west–that takes some figuring out when doing the cover. I’d like to ask if you have any further advice on stories like these, but perhaps I do know the answer: focus on an image from the story and convey the correct mood?

    Much to think about. And learn. But fun.

    • Megan M. says:

      You described your book as “a fantasy set in the old West.” The word that jumps out there (to me) is fantasy. I would make it clear on your cover that it is a fantasy novel, with some Old West imagery thrown in. Anyone who is looking for a straight Western and finds a fantasy would be thrown. The other way around might not be as big a deal, since fantasy readers are used to atypical settings. JMO.

    • Eric Gerds says:

      The term that I have heard about fantasy that takes place in the old west is often called “Weird West Tales”

  12. RD Meyer says:

    Number two is probably the biggest point that most folks will cry over, because so many things cross over genres. Is it horror or sci-fi? Romance or adventure?

    Your point to get someone else to help you figure it out is the best advice I’ve seen on how to decide.

    • Mercy Loomis says:

      It also helps to strip it down to the story. The book I’m working on is historical paranormal, but if you strip out the genre bits it’s really mostly a family drama. Now, the cover and blurb will need to reflect the historical and paranormal elements, but the meat of the story is the family drama, and that’s what the cover and blurb need to show most. I think that’s where people get confused. Genre-wise, my book is urban fantasy (unless they’ve subcategorized non-steampunk historical urban fantasy while I wasn’t looking…) but genre is very broad. The blurb especially needs to talk about what the STORY is ABOUT. (Like Dean said above.) If I tell you it’s historical paranormal, that doesn’t tell you anything about the story. If I tell you it’s about a young, independant girl who has always been a loner learning to trust others when she joins the household of a politically active man and his son, then you know what the story is about. The fact that the girl is a skinshifter and the man is a vampire and the story takes place in Roman Britain is just flavor, but the flavor determines the genre. (Except in romance, where the story determines the genre. The flavor determines the subgenre.)

  13. I know for a fact that I’ve fired several of those shots. Working hard to learn and improve though. :)

  14. antares says:


    Thanks for this post. I have given some thought to my covers, and your post gives me some guidance in crafting them.

  15. #1 you taught me over a year ago. The trick for me is my long last name sets a maximum font size that I can fit on a cover, so I had to play around a while to find an effect that I liked. And after all that thinking, I ended up with something not a lot different from Kris’s examples in your next post: my last name as big as it can fit, my first name and initial inset at the top in smaller letters. I found a PowerPoint text effect that I liked; and with PPT, I can render this in different color schemes for different books with a minute or so of effort.

    #2. Identifying genre doesn’t seem like an issue to me. I write science fiction, generally Hard SF. Once in a while a little fantasy, but nothing I’m ready to release yet. I might edge into espionage or mystery, but always in a SF setting. I have one that I might think is a science fiction romance, but readers will quickly correct me there: the romance readers keep trying to get me to change the ending so there’s a happily ever after, and I just can’t do it. It’s not right for this science fiction story, no matter what romance readers expect.

    Knowing what art goes with the genre is a trickier one. For my near future space stories and my space operas, that’s easy. But a present day parallel worlds story? A 19th century first contact story?

    #3. There’s a toe gone. I have no clue on blurbs. I don’t tell the plot, but I always end up with something that seems like a blurb from a movie poster.

    #4 kinda goes with #1, and I learned it from you at the same time. I’m really aiming hard for a common “brand”.

    So I’m learning, I hope!

    • I just had an epiphany about blurbs.

      Why shouldn’t they sound like movie posters? I think a part of why writers write such bad blurbs is because we are ‘raised’ thinking of writing a query letter or pitching a book to an editor.

      And editors, who hear pitches all day long, advise: “Whatever you do, don’t make it sound like a movie poster or an ad. I’ll be the judge of whether it’s a fast-paced story of action and intrigue or not.”

      So we tend to cut out the sales pitch before even considering it.

  16. Leah Cutter says:

    I’m in the process of redoing my covers. Just changing the font on two of the novels has increased sales (changing the genre from literary to fantasy.) So I know I’m on the right track. This is one of the things I love about this new world — as I learn, I can make updates, because I’m in control of all the aspects of my product.

    Thanks Dean for sharing your knowledge (again.)

  17. asraidevin says:

    What amazes me is the graphic artists selling covers at $30-100 a pop that have that indie look to them. I have several DMs on Twitter of people linking me to their cover art and it all looks like something I could do.

    • I would assume that covers for $30-100 are aimed at people who can’t do it for themselves at all. That’s super cheap, unless it doesn’t include the cost of the illustration or photo.

  18. Oh, man, number 3 has been kicking my ass. Several runs at the problem haven’t given me anything decent. Odd thing though, something about the way you tackled it in the comments just unlocked a block in my head about my most troublesome book. Here’s to fresh experiments with better blurbs!

    Thanks much, Dean :-)

  19. S#1 I had this discussion yesterday when I showed someone the cover I was designing for my book. Their first comment was, “Your name is too big!” I argued back, saying, “If Nora Roberts can take up half the cover with a name, so can I. Anyway, it’s not the title of this book I’m selling on my next book; it’s my name!” They still disagreed. I had a similar discussion earlier this year with my fantasy novel. “Name is too big.” I stuck to my guns and kept it large. I just checked the font size and it’s…60! lol I guess I did that right.

    I started branding from the first book. My name will appear exactly the same (colour might change) on all my fantasy novels. I’m set to release my first romance novel in a few weeks, and I decided to start a new branding name to distinguish between the two genres. The font is still large, but goes at the top this time and is slightly different.

    Question: While displaying a few examples of book covers I’m considering for my upcoming novel on my blog yesterday, I had two people comment that the font for my name and title should be the same. I don’t often see that, and to be honest, I like making them different. It makes both stand out. Other, smaller text on the cover matches either the title or the name to limit myself to two fonts per cover. What are your thoughts on this?

    I’ve been designing my own covers from the start, and I learn more with each one. Can they stand beside a professional cover without shouting “self-published”? That’s difficult to say. I get lots of positive comments about my covers, so they can’t be horrible. It’s incredibly difficult to judge your own work, so I go by what others say. I hope they are giving honest opinions.

    Thanks for reaffirming many things I already thought. It’s a battle when others try and tell you differently.

    • An awful lot of the people who comment on covers know nothing of design, and of those who do, you’ve got to watch out for those who know nothing of publishing.

      As soon as someone criticizes a cover for something that’s normal in professional covers, you know that you have to discount most of what they say.

      For the idea of different fonts for author name and title: look to the covers you most want to emulate. Are the covers for the best known books in your genre using two fonts? If so, don’t sweat it. If not, look a little deeper to be sure it isn’t an anomaly. Once you know what’s usual, make your conscious choice — do you want to look like a book in your genre or not, and if not why not?

  20. I agree about branding. Both for the author name, and for series. I’ve got a couple of stories and a novel to finish up, but I think I’ll work on making a brand next, before they go out.

    I’ve been putting my name in a large font from the beginning, but it’s usually on the bottom (five out of eight; it’s on top on the one I just redid). I’ve been wanting to redo covers and blurbs anyway, so lots of work to do. :)

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Dean! I love to read your reasoning behind what you’re saying.

  21. Zelah Meyer says:

    Genre is the kicker for me (the Genre online workshop is one of those on my wishlist.) I’ve put my first story up under romance/fantasy & romance/short story, because I think the romance is more central to the plot than the alternate world/slightly futuristic fantasy. However, my cover is more fantasy than romance, because it’s going to be followed (in time) by sequels/prequels using the same cover with different cover models – and some of those stories will be more fantasy/adventure than romance.

    Basically, I’m in the situation of having to choose between super-accurate genre portrayal, and series branding. However, I think the current covers will work for both romance and fantasy – it’s just that they don’t work exceptionally well at either, because they’re having to do the job of both.

    When I’ve finished with that world, I may go back and do a cover re-design across the series. If nothing else, because my cover design skills will hopefully be stronger by then!

  22. DG Sandru says:

    The author’s name has always been the brand and it should be very prominent on the cover. In the past when paper books were the only way to publish, and there were limited number of books, limited number of published authors, for a limited time available in the bookstores, having a pseudo author name made sense. One name, one genre. Nowadays in the virtual book store at Amazon, with millions of titles, with millions of author names, for unlimited time, having a different pen name will diffuse your brand name. I’m in the process of writing a paranormal thriller and a true story. What are the chances that people that read my YA Fantasy under DG Sandru will find my other two books under two different names? Very slim. I would have to make three marketing efforts for three different names. Or instead of dedicating 100% to one brand name I would dedicate 33% to each pseudo name.
    I like what Dean said about placing the genre on the cover. It warns the reader that this is from the same author whose book you liked so much (I prey,) writing in a different genre. In this way you can have one brand name for different genres, and sell more books.

  23. What an awesome list! One problem I am facing is that I write in two different languages and under two different names (one for each language), but I’m definitely planning on branding each series with similar covers. I think I’m doing well on the covers themselves (well, I have a professional artist do mine). The blurbs, however…might have at least aimed at my toe a few times there lol

  24. Byron Gordon says:

    Interesting info that hits just as I’m starting to revamp some of my blurbs and covers et al.
    What I do find interesting is the number of traditionally published books that limit text on the cover to the title, author name, and maybe one line of a review. Maybe I am misunderstanding, but it seems that Dean is advocating a much larger amount of text on the cover. Not trying to issue a challenge here, just stimulate discussion. It seems to me that the extra text winds up cluttering the cover. Maybe I am using to large a font for the taglines?
    Another piece that I have experienced difficulty with is how large to make title and author name legible in the thumbnail view, without covering the entire cover. Maybe I need to start focusing on building the artwork around the text and not the text around the artwork, if that makes sense. I know I have seen very cleverly constructed covers in the past that use the text of the title and author name as integral parts of the overall image. What do you all think?

    • dwsmith says:


      Not saying that at all. There normally are four text units on the cover of a professional book. Author Name, Title, (something about the author in small print tucked near the author’s name) and (some tag line or very short blurb about the story). That’s it. Some publishers get away with three if the art is right, others use 5 text blocks. But four is normal and looks professional. That’s what I am saying.

      And yes, the text is critical. Art is a way to show genre in combination with the font. Author name is critical and must be seen in postage stamp size. That’s all I am saying.

      • Byron Gordon says:

        Thank you Dean, that makes sense. I thought it seemed a little odd and that’s cause I was misunderstanding!

        I think the biggest point I’m now getting here is that instead of minimizing text because I hate picking out fonts, I need to stop being a shirker and learn what fonts belong where. (haha). Thanks for another informative post!

      • Jeff Ambrose says:

        Dean, that has got to be the absolute BEST summary of how to make a professional cover.

        Question: I’m getting ready to go back to all my covers and look at them. What dimensions to you recommend? I’ve been using 6X9 for ebooks, which seems like a good size to me. Just curious.

        • dwsmith says:

          6 x 9 is standard. Stay with it, even with some strange measurements coming out of online distributors. It’s the one that makes readers feel the most comfortable with fiction. Text and young adult books a different matter.

          • Josh says:

            6 x 9 always felt a little oversized to me. I’ve opted for 5.5 x 8.5 for my YA novels. I’ve seen lots of YA in 6 x 9.

            My short stories I’ve been binding in 5 x 8, which gives them more heft. At 10,000 words of late, they are nearly 50 pages, which gives them a spine almost large enough to print on.

          • dwsmith says:

            John, I also use 5 x 8 for the short fiction and I use Times New Roman 12 point with 18 point leading it I can get about 65-70 pages out of 10,000 words. Great fun, huh?

          • Josh says:

            I’ve been using Adobe Garamond Pro, 12pt., and about 18pt leading. Garamond is a bit smaller than TNR. My margins are about .6″ around (excluding the running head).

            Yes, it is very fun. Nothing like getting that proof order in the mail.

          • dwsmith says:

            Josh, Garamond is a great font as well for interior. Minon, Garamond, Times New Roman, all great. I am using 7.5 margins at the top and bottom to leave room between the required .5 margin and the text for running headers at the top and page numbers at the bottom. .7 gutter margin, .5 outside margin. Seems to look the best at this size.

  25. C.E. Petit says:

    I don’t know whether this response is my “counterbattery fire”… or bringing a knife to a gunfight (which is actually quite a good idea at some ranges and for some kinds of guns).

    Dagger X (responding to shots 2,4, and 5): Regardless of marketing issues, do not actively misrepresent the book’s content with the cover design and illustration. Commercial publishers frequently get this wrong. Consider, for example, “Jack Campbell”‘s wonderfully subversive Lost Fleet books. They are humanistic, left-wing, military-vessel-based science fiction. The [string of foul and offensive expletives deleted] art director at [Big Six commercial] publisher has emblazoned them with various versions of “guy with gun”… when that is the antithesis of the content, and the main characters never carry guns. Further, the actual art appears as if it’s unusually proficient HALO fanart. Even though the chosen genre and subgenre are “correct,” the actual covers misrepresent the content rather egregiously… to the detriment of reaching the book’s target audience (as I’ve confirmed by, like, actually talking to them). There are more than a few shades of Justine Larbalestier’s problems in here.

    Dagger Y (responding in general while Our Gracious Host is reloading): Do not assume that the size and lighting conditions that you have when creating your cover design reflect how people will see the covers. Two examples from the missteps of commercial publishing illustrate this problem.

    First, consider the “metal foil stamping” issue: The supposed value of having metal foil stamping on covers as a way of attracting customers. Leaving aside the history of foil stamping (a descendant of the impermanence of inks on leather bindings), its simultaneous nadir and zenith came during the era of fluorescent-light-flooded big-box bookstores and trade shows. Let’s just say that those conditions aren’t often reproduced on a tablet computer screen shopping from an e-store… and remember that the equivalent of “metal foil stamping” on an e-cover is probably not metallic color codes, but <blink> (a widely derided option for good reason).

    Second, in the old days nonfiction art directors preached the value of the “15-foot test”: Is the cover distinctive enough at 15 feet — a typical distance between a customer on the sidewalk and an endcap visible through the front window of a store — to attact attention? Fiction art directors, particularly for genre fiction, disagreed… until changes in inks in the late 1980s made it possible for the covers of mass-market paperbacks to have greater contrast, at which time they went overboard.

    Thus, I would slightly disagree with something that Our Gracious Host said: It’s not size that counts, but what you do with it. The relative size of the author’s name and the title don’t matter as much as how visible and distinctive they are at the target display size under the target display conditions. An author with a very short name should not fall to the temptation to stretch his/her whole name across the entire width of the display area… particularly for a book with a long title. And vice versa. This is a mistake constantly being made by commercial publishers. Consider these three pairings:

    Mark Helprin
    Winter’s Tale

    (author dominant)
    Eric van Lustbader
    First Snow

    (title dominant)
    Mark Haddon
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

    I submit to you that any claim that a set relationship between author typesize and title typesize fails for at least one, more probably two, and quite possibly all three of these examples. Instead, visibility and distinctiveness is the key. Use of color, contrast with background, drop-shadowing, gradients, and so on are at least as important as size. (And I very carefully chose male-authored books for all three examples for precisely that reason…)

    • dwsmith says:

      C.E., I don’t think it’s a knife to a gunfight, but I do think it’s a graduate art program to a grade school coloring class. But thanks, I do hope many will understand what you are talking about.

  26. FYI, Mark Coker alerted Smashwords authors to new guidelines for cover art. Smashwords will now require a higher pixel count, largely due to requirements from Apple and the iBookstore. If you’re designing a cover for an e-book, you might want to keep the new guidelines in mind:

  27. Teri Babcock says:

    Diane said:
    S#1 I had this discussion yesterday when I showed someone the cover I was designing for my book. Their first comment was, “Your name is too big!”

    Comments like that have nothing to do with the merit of the design, and everything to do with the psychology of the person making them.

    There are always going to be people who don’t want to see you succeed too much. When, as a writer, you “begin as you mean to go on” and start building your brand to represent the successful writer you are aiming to be, you will bug the shit out of some people. Those people will ‘help’ you with really bad advice that actually sabotages your progress. They’re the same people who tell you to re-write a story a dozen times instead of submitting it and writing eleven new stories instead.

    Unfortunately, these people often aren’t honest with themselves, can’t admit to themselves or to you that they feel jealous and actually want to see you fail. Or at least, not do very well. Then they don’t feel so badly for not working on their own future. And it can be anyone. People who love you, people who don’t even know you.

    Actually, showing someone a cover with your name in 60pt font is probably a great way to determine just how much they really want you to succeed… and whether you should ever ask them for their opinion on your work ever again.

  28. joemontana says:

    Great info as always, Dean!

    A quick question on covers…

    Say you are previously unpublished or have only a few shorts up *ahem like me ahem*, what do you suggest for the 4 lines on the cover?

    MY NAME (top)

    LORD OF THE RINGS (bottom)
    then perhaps Book 1 of the IMGONNAGETSUED Trilogy

    What about a little bit of info to add? I can;t put USA today bestselling author. (Well, I could, I’d just be lying…) Best to do nothing? Wait until book 2 so I can put “Author of…”?

    Thanks for all you do to help us mere mortals!

    • dwsmith says:

      Joe, my guidelines are only general here as always, to try to help writers get away from the “indie look” of the CreateSpace template and have fun with covers. But let me answer your questions.

      1 Name, large near top. (Large enough to be read if you reduce it down to a postage stamp size on your screen. Do that with every cover, folks.)

      2 Small text element near name saying something about the author if possible. “Author of….” The content means little, honestly, but the small text element needs to be there. It will show up as a faint white line blur at postage stamp size, which is what you need.

      3 Title larger size, but not bigger than the name. Often works in with the art work or book design.

      4 Somewhere closer to the title than the author name, or under the title, doesn’t matter, just needs to relate to the title instead of the author name in distance, is a tag line or series line or very short blurb. “Death stalked her until Death tripped” Or “She swore ‘Til Death Do Us Part.’ And she won that race.” Or, “Second in the Death of Stupidity Series.”

      If you make all four elements the same size and font, you will make your cover just as ugly as an indie template. Contrast is the key, but contrast that works together and with your art.

      Good luck, that’s just about as simple as I can make entire year-long classes in graphic cover design. (grin)

  29. Carradee says:

    #1 (author name size)

    *brain stop*


    I’ve been putting my name at the bottom of the image, which is what I prefer, but… Looking up some of my favorite authors, their names are on the top—on the urban fantasy books, anyway. Traditional fantasy covers go both ways.

    Clue stick received, thanks. ^_^

    #2 (wrong genre)

    Agreed. One of my stories, I thought it was a coming-of-age novel.

    First beta feedback: “Um, no. Narrator’s too mature for that.”

    Me: Gah!
    (While inwardly blubbering “But—but—”)

    Granted, I’m listening carefully to what others say about it to make sure it wasn’t just that beta.

    #3 (dull blurbs)

    Agreed. As a reader, I hate the ones that overtly tell me it’s a “fast-paced thriller”. Tell me that—and nothing about who the story’s about or what the situation is—and even if I’m looking for that type of book, the likelihood of me buying your book just dropped.

    That might be a side effect of my experience, though: When someone tells me what (they think) their story is, it’s anything but that.

    So I’ll try adding some “telling”–type lines to my blurbs and seeing if anything happens to sales. ^_^

    Personally, I tend to focus my blurbs on who the book’s about + their goal, but I also try to match the story tone and content…and give a clue stick to readers, for if it contains elements that’ll attract or repel them.

    That means sometimes the blurbs are a pain in the neck to write (the parallel plot for Destiny’s Kiss comes to mind), but I get good reader feedback from them. And readers who, say, have no interest in reading about slavery can read the blurb and say “Ah. Not my thing,” rather than start reading and go “Gah! Brain bleach!”

    #4 (different-looking books)

    Working on fixing that, though overall, I have been consistent with item location on cover + fonts within a series.

    #5 (cover looks indie published)

    That’s something I’m taking a long, hard look at, too, for my own covers.

    And thanks for that note on serif vs. sans-serif! I was trying to put my finger on the pattern for the two fonts used on covers!

  30. Thank you for this. I’ve been treading into this world of self-publishing slowly, maybe a little too slowly, and I see myself making rookie mistakes left and right. That’s largely why I’ve removed myself from the Indie Author community, commenting and interacting so rarely that I’m either making myself utterly forgettable, or painting myself into a corner where I seem aloof and probably somehow stuck-up. Again, thank you for this list; it will help me a great deal in rebranding my output in the coming year.

  31. DeAnna says:

    AHHHHHH!!!! More stuff I don’t want to hear today, LALALALA!

    I especially don’t want to hear about making my name bigger on the cover. Crap crap crap. It makes sense, but I don’t want to hear it!

    I’ll think about it, though, probably kicking a few things for emphasis.

  32. Dalya Moon says:

    You’re right about my covers. My name is too small on the ones I have.

    I’ve spent the better part of today altering most of my covers so the name is visible and legible in the ‘alsobot’ thumbnails that are 87 pixels high.

    Thanks for giving the great advice! I’m taking it!!

  33. Sahar says:

    Thank you for the great advice! It’s good to read these things over and over again (this is not my first time reading both this post and the follow-up), as the prevalent norms in society (SELL MORE! BECOME FAMOUS REALLY FAST DOING WHATEVER IT TAKES, EVEN SELLING YOURSELF SHORT!) tend to somehow sneak into common sense time and time again. Hopefully by the time I will have written millions of words, I will be also a well known author! Until then, please continue sharing!

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