Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Working with a Book Cover Designer

I've covered various topics on the subject of book cover design over the years, from How to Sell More Books with Great Book Cover Design, to giving talks on the design process. 

What follows are a series of case studies by authors who I have had the great pleasure to work with on their books, to give an insight and flavour into the relationship between author and designer from a writers' point of view.

Rohan Quine

Of the five titles by Rohan Quine so far, The Imagination Thief was the first to be published, by EC1 Digital and the Firsty Group. Its cover was designed by Andi Rivers at Firsty. The novel is essentially literary fiction, but with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror; and since the secret  of how to market even “pure” literary fiction has always been more elusive than most secrets, it was decided the cover should tend more in the direction of the novel’s magical realism and horror credentials instead. 

Then when Jane at JD Smith Design designed the covers for The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong, the brief included ensuring a continuity of branding, to match the same cross-genre categories. The branding elements that all five covers share in common include the use of Rockwell font in a consistent layout, along with imagery themed around eyes, faces and skyscrapers at night. The depicted locations relate to the five tales’ urban settings around the globe – as will be the case when Jane is most enthusiastically brought back on board (subject to her availability, of course) to design tale number six, which is provisionally being referred to as the Hollywood canyons novel, to be published later in 2016. A prequel to the existing five, this title will feature the same branding elements, including the Los Angeles skyline. It’s been a pleasure to see these publications adorned by Jane’s and Andi’s brilliant work, large-format displays of which are at


Gabriela Harding

I didn't fully appreciate the importance of a cover designer until I started working with Jane. At that point, what I had in my hands was a rough, editable manuscript (in fact, she was the one to put me in touch with a great editor, so never underestimate an artist's web of contacts) which I hoped to publish traditionally. With several positive responses from agents under my belt, I suppose creating a cover was more of a caprice - something I had to do for myself, to give my work 'a face' or identity. Or maybe I knew, deep down, that I would self-publish (which I did, using the cover Jane and I worked on, which everyone loved - in fact, it's the first thing they say about my book: 'Wow, the cover!')

When I contacted Jane I had no idea what to expect. I thought Jane was some sort of a magician and that it would be dead easy to make something that will stand the test of time, or maybe even outlive me. I was right, in a way. Jane was a magician - but even a design god needs to know what is the exact wish they are expected to fulfil. I was in trouble. I was a writer, not a designer. As I flicked through the images Jane sent me, I started having cold sweats, already suspecting that I was as wrong about cover designing being easy as I was about book writing being a walk in the park. Writing is hard, editing is harder, marketing while competing with so many good books, a team of sharp warrior publishers behind them, gives you a real taste of the big bad D. You taste blood, but you carry on. And the cover is the first thing you have - the one thing people see even before reading the blurb. Unknown to me, I would find the cover design the most difficult part of writing and producing a book.

That's where Jane's role was crucial. I've lost count of the many combinations we tried. We put pictures together, and they made sense, but they just weren't MY BOOK. I started to get a little taste of the agony writers experience when the cover is being done for them by traditional publishers ( something my traditionally published friends complain about, not having a say about the cover). The agony, but also the relief. They didn't have to feel like attempting a million combinations to a stubborn safe. When Jane produced the image that would become my cover, I knew straight away it was 'the one.' And having gone through the labour of choosing got me closer to my book. It was the magic touch that changed a manuscript into a real book.

Ian Atkinson

The suggestion to write my first book, actually came from my mother. I had previously mentioned that leaving the Royal Navy after more than 32 years was going to leave me tinged with sadness and hopefully I wouldn’t forget it. Mum simply said, “Why don’t you write all your adventures down, so you can look back on it.”

Taking her advice for once, I had been doing this for about 2 years, on and off, before I even realised that I might just finish it. Up to this point, I didn’t even have a title or a cover and the prose was in a very rough, unedited format on my word processor. Having never published anything before, I didn’t know what to do and always considered publishing a book to be an expensive luxury. I simply didn’t have thousands of pounds to waste on the vain publication of my ramblings.

A chance e-mail from indie author Cathy Kirby to the Submariner’s Association wishing to research life on board a submarine was the key to the advice and the assistance that would finally see my work in print. It also served to give me a richly deserved kick in the pants and reignited my motivation to get it finished.

Cathy belonged to an on-line forum of writers who freely offered advice, support and recommendation on the writing, publication and advertising of the finished work. Amongst others, she pointed me in the direction of Editor, John Hudspith and the talented and very lovely cover designer, Jane Dixon-Smith.

After some thought, I had a cover idea formulating in my head. The title was still a work in progress, but I wanted to convey that the content covered my service on both ships and submarines. I am also intensely proud of the submariner’s ‘Dolphins’ and also the White Ensign. This seemed a tall order to include all of this and well outside of my skill set.

An e-mail to Jane followed by a phone call, trying to convey my ideas, set the ball in motion. Jane then asked for some decent quality images that she could try to work her wizardry with.

The first draft was always going to be a starting point as I couldn’t actually see what I wanted in my mind. I knew I wanted colour, it to look eye-catching and to really convey the contents. I pointed Jane in the direction of a list of already published covers to gain an idea of the sort of thing I was looking for.

This prompted an exchange of e-mails between us over the coming weeks with me providing honest feedback and Jane trying her hardest to interpret my vague description and turn it into art.

I am sure Jane was getting fed up with me nit-picking in the end, but maintained cheerful and helpful. It was as if she really cared about the cover as much as I did. Perhaps she did, after all, it would become an advertisement for her work after it had been published.

Finally, the front cover was everything and more than I could have hoped for. All of my wishes for images had been encompassed. Some of my suggestions, were tried, but they didn’t look right, on reflection, so Jane tried something else.

This email exchange continued until I was delighted with the result.

Now I needed the back cover, as the book was intended as paperback. I fudged together a blurb (yes, that’s really what it’s called) and allowed John, the Editor, to tinker with it slightly and then it was a simple matter for Jane to format it into the back cover design. I can’t remember whose idea it was to incorporate a photograph of young me, but I like it and the finished cover and the ramblings within are something that I will always be proud of.

For an in-depth look at the design process including:

- How to select and work with a designer
- What works and why
- Where to find images
- How to make informed decisions
- Why formatting matters
- What branding means to you
- How to give your book the best chance of success 

The Importance of Book Cover Design is available on Amazon.


  1. Thanks very much to Jane for sharing here the lovely work she did designing these covers for me. And for any publisher or author seeking the convenience of working with the same designer on both the cover and the interior of a publication, I should add that she did a super-cool job of these paperbacks’ interior designs too. As you can see via the “look inside” displays at
    those print interiors feature the same Rockwell font (in various sizes) for all running headers, footers, chapter titles and section headings, with elegant and professionally laid-out front matter and back matters including photographic content. I’m much looking forward to seeing her continuation of that interior print design for the Hollywood canyons novel’s paperback interior, later this year, as well as for the covers of that novel’s print and electronic formats.

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