The Ingenium Books Podcast: Author. Publisher. Changemaker.

The Book Cover Design Brief with Jessica Bell

September 22, 2021 Ingenium Books Season 1 Episode 35
The Ingenium Books Podcast: Author. Publisher. Changemaker.
The Book Cover Design Brief with Jessica Bell
Show Notes Transcript

It's a common English idiom and I'm sure you've heard it: You can't judge a book by its cover. This metaphorical phrase means you can't always tell the value of something only by what it looks like on the outside. EXCEPT if we're talking about books.

People DO judge a book by its cover all the time. And with good reason. That's what we're digging into today — the all important book cover. Why it's so important, and what goes into design and production of a good one. Who better to talk about this with than someone who is listed as one of the top book cover designers on the wildly popular Kindlepreneur website and in the top ten of She's also the designer of choice for us at Ingenium Books. Jessica Bell does much more than book covers — she's a creative entrepreneur, publisher, musician and more. But we're gonna focus on book covers. 

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Introduction 00:00

Discussion, tips, insights and advice from those who’ve been there, done that, helping you write, publish and market your nonfiction book.

Being an author is something that you’ve got to take seriously. 

I’m proud I’ve written a book. 

What does the reader need, first? What is the reader need, second?

What happens if you start writing your book before you identify your “why”? What’s the problem with that?

You’re an indie author, you take the risk; you reap the rewards; you are in charge of the decisions. You’re the head of that business. 

Every emotion you’re feeling when you’re writing is felt by every other writer.

The Empowered Author podcast. Your podcast hosts are Boni and John Wagner-Stafford of Ingenium Books.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 00:49

It’s a common English idiom; I’m sure you’ve heard it: you can’t judge a book by its cover. This metaphorical phrase means you can’t always tell the value of something only by what it looks like on the outside. And that is except, of course, when we’re talking about books. People do judge a book by its cover all the time – and with good reason. That’s what we’re digging into today. The all important book cover: why it’s so important and what goes into design and production of a good one. Who better to talk about this with than someone who is listed as one of the top book cover designers on the wildly popular Kindlepreneur website and in the top 10 of She is also the designer of choice for us here at Ingenium Books. Jessica Bell does much more than book covers. She is a creative entrepreneur, publisher, musician, author and more. But today, we’re going to focus on book covers. Jessica, welcome. 


Jessica Bell 01:51

Thank you very much, Boni. It’s wonderful to be here. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 01:55

Well, and technology seems to be cooperating. We’ve had a couple of fits and starts. So internet seems okay: so far, so good. We’ll cross our fingers and look forward to having a good conversation about book covers. So why is it that book covers are an exception to that idiom that says you can’t judge a book by its cover?


Jessica Bell 02:20

Well, firstly, I think it’s because it is the first thing readers are going to see before they even read the blurb of a book. So you want to make an excellent impression right at the get-go. And if you haven’t hooked them with your cover, the blurb most likely isn’t even going to be read. So – and also people love to post pictures of beautiful book covers on social media. So if your cover’s a winner, you’re going to get free exposure that way as well. And exposure means sales. And readers are also going to buy beautiful looking paperbacks just to see them on their bookshelf. I know that I always do that. So really, it’s all about hooking the reader. It’s the first impression. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 03:03

I often have these conversations with the authors that we work with at Ingenium Books, about the – once we finish the development or the author has finished their manuscripts – that the book cover is a new part of the process. The book cover is about marketing and not content. Can you talk a little bit more about that?


Jessica Bell 03:26

Well, I think the first thing you need to look at is the genre and target audience. And then the book description and whether there are any symbols used. I think that a lot of authors try to get all the details of their story on a book cover when the book cover is not there to tell a story. What you really need to aim for is a feeling: to try and evoke an emotional response in your potential reader. There is – the story is meant to be on the inside of the book; not on the outside. Basically what your cover is, is an advert. I mean, you will never see a billboard explain all the details of their product; they’re going to show it in the real world – how it’s being used – and evoke some kind of emotional response. So I think a book cover needs to do that as well. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 04:34

Yeah. I have to pause this because I just realized that I want to know how you got started designing book covers. I think it’s a bit of an interesting story.


Jessica Bell 04:47

Well, I – as I’m an author myself, I decided to … Actually, let me rewind a little bit. My debut novel was published by a small press. So then that book cover was obviously not designed by me; it was designed by the press. Then about a few months after it was released, they liquidated. So I was left with the choice of either self-publishing this book or looking for another publisher. And I could not go through the submission process again. I mean, it had already lasted three, four years by that point. I was tired. And I thought, “That’s it, I’m going to take the bull by its horns and do this myself.” So I learned how to use Photoshop; I designed my own book cover; I got it out there. And ever since then, I found a new love for creating book covers: I just found it another creative outlet for me. So I – one of my author friends actually said – asked me to do one, a cover for them as a favor. So I said, “Sure, no problem.” Then another one. And then another one. And then another one said to me, “Why aren’t you doing this as a business?” So, “Yeah, it’s a good idea. Maybe I should sell some of these.” So I started selling them. And I haven’t looked back at it since.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 06:22

Yeah. So how have you seen – or have you seen the landscape for book covers change over that time? Are there trends that you’ve seen? Things that people are doing now that seemed to be either good or acceptable that really weren’t when you first started?


Jessica Bell 06:50

Yeah, there are a lot of illustrated covers at the moment. I mean, I get – I’m subscribed to Goodreads’ newsletter. So I, every day, I’m getting recommended books. And 98% of these book covers are illustrated: in every single genre. When I started, illustrated book covers were thought of as children’s book covers. And now it’s a really big trend. I mean, when I started out, it was professional photography: eye-catching, epic scenarios. And now it’s bold colors, 2-D, very simple and thematic. It’s a huge jump in trend from what I began. It was about 10 years ago that I started doing this.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 07:37

For a designer like yourself, does that change your creative process? Does it change where you look for concept elements, design ideas or anything like that?


Jessica Bell 07:54

It does, to a certain extent. I mean, I actually really enjoy doing the illustrated covers because vector imagery and illustrated imagery is a lot more – it’s easier to manipulate in Photoshop. I mean, I can’t change a photograph as well as I can change an illustration because I can actually add my own illustration to any illustration. But I can’t add – manually add photograph to a photograph. So it actually has allowed me to become more creative with my covers this way. And I mean, I don’t know if I’ve said this to you before but I don’t usually start my sample designs with an idea in mind. I have to – because I’m limited by stock photography, I scroll – I look at the brief: I see what the themes are, what the storyline is. I look at the stock imagery. And if there’s anything there that inspires me and I say, “Oh, that might work well,” so I stick that into the PSD and have a fiddle around and that’s been – my ideas start to develop from there.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 09:04

Let’s pause for a moment for a message from our sponsor.


Commercial 09:07


Boni Wagner-Stafford 09:43

So you mentioned the cover design brief. So I think this is a really interesting convergence point. Whether it is a publisher commissioning their design teams in-house or an indie press like us, commissioning designer like you or a independent author – self-published author – either commissioning or perhaps they have, you know, design expertise and they’re doing it themselves. What goes into that all-important cover design brief? And how much time and energy – not time – but how much energy and focus does it deserve before the design process starts?


Jessica Bell 10:34

Yeah, I generally like – well, I have a questionnaire. So unless it’s from a publisher who already has a design brief that they typically send out, I send my client – which are usually independent authors – a questionnaire which includes genre, target audience, book description, whether there are any symbols or themes. I will – most times I can get a vague idea of what I want to do just by looking at those things. And if I do, I think that’s a brilliant sign because it means the author is very clear about how the book fits into the market. If not, I look at all the other information I asked for, such as excerpts from the book; if it’s nonfiction, what a reader will learn or come away with by reading the book. If I still don’t have any ideas then, then I’ll look at what the author envisions for the book cover themselves and any examples of other book covers that they like. Sometimes I find that if I have to look at all of the information in the questionnaire to get my ideas, then I’m going to struggle with targeting the right audience. And usually, when that happens, each of my samples are very different from each other. Other times I look at the rest of the information to build on the ideas that I already have. So I always like to have all of it just in case I should need it. But main thing is genre, target audience, book description, symbols and themes, so those are the things I focus on the most.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 12:10

And I guess rather than how much time and effort, the question is, how important is that front-end thinking before you go straight to design?


Jessica Bell 12:24

Well, I think firstly, genre and target audience will be the base of that because then I’ll need to do some research on what other book covers are out there and what other people – what’s trending right now as well. And also themes and symbols because that gives me ideas for imagery if the author hasn’t actually provided ideas of imagery themselves or there isn’t anything specific in the description that describes any imagery, like a setting or what characters look like or era. So it’s very important for me to find ideas for imagery in the brief. Otherwise, there is no – nothing I can work with. For example, if an author says to me, “My character, my main – my protagonist is very beautiful and sensitive,” what imagery do I get from that? You can’t find an image of someone beautiful and sensitive; you need to tell me: what does she wear? What’s her hair color? What color are her eyes? This is a very basic example.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 13:40

So you touched on something else that I think is very – it’s a common thing that we come across here at Ingenium Books when we work with our authors – and that is separating author preference, for what they might like, from what is going to be suitable for a genre. Now you do – in your questionnaire, you mentioned that you ask for them to give you examples of what the author likes and dislikes. So there’s a balancing act, I’m imagining, there. But can you talk about how you navigate with your independent authors that line between producing something that the author themselves is going to like versus their audience and the genre?


Jessica Bell 14:27

Well, it’s very rare that I produce anything exactly how they have described or exactly the way – the exact cover examples they’ve sent me. I use those to make sure I’m designing something that’s aligned with their likes. I don’t necessarily put something in there that’s specific. So for example, if they’ve given me all these covers that are blue and orange, I’m going to think, “Okay, they like blue and orange. Let’s try and do something like that.” Also, one of the main problems I have is when an author is too specific about the details on their cover. For example, “The boy needs to be looking over his shoulder with an angry look on his face and a red cap with a dragon tattoo on his back, holding a pistol from the 1950s,” or something. “And he needs to be standing in a crowd with people holding pink umbrellas.” And I’m like, “Sorry, if you want that, you’re going to need to pay for a photographer, a model, a costume designer and a set designer. And that doesn’t come cheap.” So it’s a very – when authors are like that, I have to be very firm and say, “Look at – you’re, if we’re going to be using stock photography, I need a general idea to work with and build on myself and be creative myself, in order to get you something that you’re going to be happy with.”


Boni Wagner-Stafford 15:57

We hear stories and read information about – and we know that this happens where, you know, probably more often in the traditional publishing world and I don’t know how current it is how much it’s happening now – but where you have one cover designed for the book that’s going to sell in, for example, the American market and there’s a totally different cover design for the one that’s going to sell in the UK market. Do you see that as much anymore? Are there regional differences that need to be considered with book cover design today?


Jessica Bell 16:31

Usually, I do not do that and I have not been asked to do that. The only time I see that is when a publisher has picked up a book in the United States and only bought the rights for the United States. And then another publisher has picked up that book – the rights – for the UK. And then they’re both designing something different for their company. And that’s when I see different cover designs. I don’t think it’s …


Boni Wagner-Stafford 17:00

That makes more sense. 


Jessica Bell 17:01

I don’t think it’s a regional thing anymore. Yeah.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 17:03

It’s a rights thing and differentiating one product from another. That makes perfect sense. Okay, let’s talk a little bit more about the vector versus stock photography thing that you’ve talked about a little bit. Both of those elements are still stock. 


Jessica Bell 17:20



Boni Wagner-Stafford 17:22

I had an author recently say to me, “Yeah, but I don’t want anything stock on my covers.” Like, oh, everything pretty much is sourced from stock. So tell me a little bit about that and what the options are for searching for stock photography or image – imagery, rather – elements rather than just photography.


Jessica Bell 17:42

Well, first, I would like to say first that even though it is stock that I’m using, it’s not going to look like one photograph that is a stock image on the stock site. I mean, I use multiple images to create a unique image in itself. I don’t want to just get a photo and stick some text on top of it: that’s not part of – that’s, I think authors get confused with that, especially when they’re working with things like Canva: they’re just getting an image and sticking some text on it. And that’s not what I do. I mean, if you want to do something cheap like that, you can do that yourself. The title and the author name and any text that’s on a cover has to really be, become one with the imagery. It’s all a seamless flow of creativity and an idea molded together with imagery and text. So don’t think that stock means, oh, cheap, ugly: it’s not. The designers using stock, they’re just using that to create a new image. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 18:51

Yeah, that makes sense. And production of the cover: so the design element for the front cover is one thing. Then there’s the design elements and they – and what goes on the back, spine width and all that stuff. What is your recommended way to think about, once either a indie author or self-published author goes to move the book into the print production – and of course, the machine is moving closer to where I’m sitting now. But gloss versus matte versus, you know, paper quality: some of those options that we can choose with some of the distributors; not all of them. But have you noticed trends or do you have recommendations for how people think about that?


Jessica Bell 19:41

Well, use – they used to just be plain white paper and plain cream paper available and matte and gloss covers. So that was basically your choice. And that paper quality was nice but it’s thick and heavy. I would say the paper that used to just be available is perfect for notebooks. But now, they’re also – especially IngramSpark is also offering groundwood paper, which is a lot – well, it is the like the paper used in trade paperbacks. So it’s light and thin and easy to hold. And also, they – well, they’re called duplex covers. Have you seen those in Ingram, where you can have a print on the inside of the cover as well? So you can do – yes, it’s very nice. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 20:43

Oh, I like that idea. 


Jessica Bell 20:44

Yeah. Yeah. So there are more options gradually being added and added as self-publishing becomes more popular.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 20:52

So the gloss versus matte notion is really a …


Jessica Bell 20:56

It’s a personal preference. I mean, I do my books in matte. But I have occasionally – I mean, I run a small press as well and there are some books there, which I thought, “Oh, they’d look really nice in gloss,” like especially if it was an image of the ocean. I think gloss would bring out the sparkle in the sun shining on the sea a lot more than a matte cover would. So I make decisions based on what is actually on the cover for production as well. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 21:26

Yeah. So what else do you think authors can and should consider doing once they have their book cover image? It can go more places than just on the book, for example.


Jessica Bell 21:38

Yes, you can create Facebook cover images, Twitter headers, Instagram posts, imagery for Facebook ads, BookBub or anything on social media. You can create videos with that imagery. All those social media marketing assets, I think, you can utilize that design for.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 22:08

And you would encourage people to do that. Don’t just leave it sitting in the book cover closet? 


Jessica Bell 22:14

No. Use it as much as possible. Let people see it.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 22:20

When you’re in the feedback – so you’ve produced three concepts for a cover. Your client says, “Okay, I think let’s go with concept number two but I like elements of – whatever it is – from concept three. And can we bring in elements from concept one?” How do you know when – you know, sometimes a concept is, “Oh, there it is. That’s perfect. There’s nothing else that’s needed to be done.” And sometimes there’s more work.


Jessica Bell 22:50

If the designs are similar in style, of course I can mix and match. But if they’re three completely different designs, like one’s illustrated and one’s photograph, one uses script font and one uses serif, it’s going to be difficult to mix them all together. Usually, I can still incorporate elements like a changing font or an added image on top of an image – like a bird in a sky – but I can’t mix. I can’t mix the contents of one sample with the other sample in their entirety. There needs to be some cohesion there. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 23:34

Yeah. Yeah. And …


Jessica Bell 23:36

So I need to – if they’re confused about what they want, I just say, “Look, which concept do you want to start with? And we can build on that.”


Boni Wagner-Stafford 23:44

Yeah. And what’s the – if you think about, is there a project – without getting into specifics – that was the hardest and took the longest and the most back and forth? And can you talk a little bit about that, if there is one that comes to mind?


Jessica Bell 24:03

I think I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve only had maybe two or three complete redos. And I think that has come down to the author really not knowing what they wanted in the first place. So – and I usually can identify that with their answers to the questionnaire because nothing’s sort of – like everything contradicts each other. And I think the best way forward with that is just to create the samples so they have something in front of them and they can decide what they do and don’t want there and then just move forward from there. I mean, some, obviously, I have a contract to begin with. So I don’t make endless revisions. So if they end up wanting more, they’re going to have to pay for it. Or if they go into a project without knowing what they want, I’m sorry but that’s on them. I can’t get into their head.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 24:59

Yeah, that makes sense. So a final question for you: if you summed up the most important things that you think authors should know about, going into their own book cover design process, what would you tell them?


Jessica Bell 25:16

Do their research; know what they want before they come to me but still be open to my interpretation and be open to me being creative. Because if I get very strict, specific, limited brief, that shuts off my creativity. And sometimes, if that happens, you’re not going to get the best work from me. I also need to enjoy the process and feel like I’m creating something wonderful that I’m proud of. So it’s a lot – it’s a collaboration; it’s not a, “Do this. I pay.” It needs to be teamwork. So expect to have a relationship with your designer; don’t just expect to send them a brief and get a cover and then use it.


Boni Wagner-Stafford 26:08

Yeah. And I would add to that, from our experience, that your cover designer is not just the holder of the tool; it’s to let the designer do what the designer does best. Don’t say, “Oh, I want that line moved over four spaces. And I want that,” you know, “change the font size by point set.” Like the minutiae is not where the author belongs.


Jessica Bell 26:39

And it’s amazing, though, how much a cover will change by changing the font size by half a point. It changes the dynamics and the aesthetics of it completely. I mean, the things I choose are there for a reason. And I think I have actually had so many authors destroy their covers because they want these things. And they’ve been so adamant that they like that. And there have been a few that I have not put my name on because I just could not. I didn’t want it in my portfolio because it wasn’t me anymore. So there really needs to be a bit of a compromise there. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 27:19

Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. Well, congratulations on all of your achievements and recognition in the indie world of book cover design. And we’re certainly thrilled to have you on our team at Ingenium Books. And I’m going to wrap us up there. We do have a date to have you back to talk about something completely different: show versus tell on the writing side, bringing your other expertise – or sides of your other expertise – in to bear in writing craft. That’s a few months away, though, but we look forward to having you back then. And thank you very much for joining us all the way from Greece. Here we are in Mexico speaking to indie authors, wherever else they may be in the world. And we will talk to you again soon. 


Jessica Bell 28:06

Thank you. 


Boni Wagner-Stafford 28:07

Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this episode of the Empowered Author podcast, please feel free to share it on social media. We’d also be very grateful if you could rate, review and subscribe to the Empowered Author on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you access your podcasts. That’s helpful for us but, more importantly, it’s helpful for other indie authors who are looking for resources to help them on their continuous learning journey.