How to Make a Book Step 5: Make a Cover

In this eight-part series, I’ll walk you through the creation of a book using the next release from Practical Fox as an example. As I do the steps to make Life Among the Paiutes, I’ll write about it! You can start with Step 1.

Okay, you’ve got the text, edited it, and designed the interior. Now comes the fun – and stressful – part: creating the book cover.

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. We all probably strive not to judge people by their looks, or clothes, or what they order at the coffee shop. But we all almost certainly judge actual books by their actual covers. Being judged is the only job a book cover has, so you want to set that cover up for success.

What Should a Cover Look Like?

You certainly know as well as I do that book covers can look like almost anything. They can be illustrated, or they can be plain with bold text. They can be black and white, they can be brightly colored. They can use photographs. They can have shiny foil or cutouts. It’s all fair game.

If you don’t have design chops, you’ve got a couple of options. The first is to hire a book cover designer. This is a particular skill set; any artist or graphic designer friend probably won’t know what book covers need to succeed on the shelf at a bookstore.

The second is to buy a predesigned cover. There are people out there who create gorgeous covers, particularly for genre books like fantasy, horror, and romance. They drop in placeholder text for the title and author name. These are usually less expensive than hiring someone to create a cover from scratch or commissioning an artist to create original work for your cover.

The third is to learn the ropes yourself. If you can’t find a class in book cover design specifically, you can create a curriculum for yourself. You’ll need to know how to use the tools, like Photoshop and InDesign. You’ll want to learn the principals of good design. And you’ll want to have some solid book marketing information on hand so you can design the kind of covers shoppers will judge kindly.

Kinds of Covers

Every version of your book will have its own cover:

  • Paperback
  • Hardcover
  • Ebook
  • Audiobook

They’ll all share elements, like the graphic and typeface. But they’re each a different size, maybe a different resolution. The audiobook format is square. The ebook and audiobook versions won’t have back covers for an excerpt or blurb. If the hardcover has a jacket, it might need more photos or information than the paperback to fill the available space.

Also, keep in mind that books sold now probably shouldn’t have white backgrounds. (A mistake I have made and continue to live with.) That’s because when they show up on a screen in an online bookstore, which usually has a white background, the title of your book looks like it’s floating in space.

Elements of a Book Cover

There are a few things that are required on a book cover:

  • Title on the front and spine
  • Author on the front and spine
  • ISBN on the back
  • Publisher, usually on the spine

It’s also nice to have some text on the back, like an excerpt of the text or a blurb from a well-known author. Those could help a reader decide to buy your book.

The Cover of Life Among the Paiutes

I mentioned that I wanted to commission a modern Native American artist to do the cover of this book to a friend. She said, quite simply, “Oh, you should ask my coworker Steph. She’s super cool.”

That was an understatement. Steph Littlebird Fogel was on board with this project immediately, and her work (see it on Instagram at @artnerdforever) was a perfect fit for my vision for the book.

In case you want to work with an artist, here’s how we did it, and it was very smooth.

  • We met to talk about the book and the project, and I sent her a PDF of the cleaned-up text. We agreed on a price and a timeline that worked for both of us.
  • I paid her half the fee up front.
  • She sent about a dozen sketches via email, and I picked the three or four I liked best for this book.
  • She refined those and offered a variety of color palettes.
  • I showed these to fellow readers and publishing professionals and selected the one I was going to use.
  • I told Steph which one I liked and asked for a few final tweaks.
  • She sent me the final version, complete with font suggestions.
  • I paid her the final half of her fee.

I knew enough of design and publishing to create the covers myself, so I dropped Steph’s final cover into InDesign. I also created a low-res PDF that I could more easily share on social media and in my newsletter.

And here, to satisfy your curiosity, is what the cover looks like.

Skull and Sidecar: Where Did Those Characters Come From?

If you’ve read my novel Skull and Sidecar, or even if you’ve only read its description, you might be wondering, What the hell kind of name is Gunn Flagely? And where did Nell Kelly come from? Well, wonder no more, friends! 


Gunn Flagely

A couple of years ago, I was on the phone with my grandmother. I hadn’t begun working as a freelance writer and editor yet, but we had moved into the house where we live now. I was in my old office, which is upstairs. It wouldn’t have been painted deep pink yet; it would have still been the pasty tan color that the renovators used on all the walls. 

Gram had reached the part of the conversation where she told me how her friends were faring, health-wise. I always do my best to pay attention, but I’ll admit I often fail. I hear her, but I’m not listening carefully. My mind wanders. I look out the windows at the clouds above the elementary school across the street, or at the squirrels playing in the plum tree next to the front porch. 

On this day, during this particular failure of mine to pay attention, Gram said something like, “You remember Gunn Flagely, from over in…” I did not remember a Gunn Flagely. There was no way there could possibly be a person with a name like that. But I was hooked on the name. I began to imagine this woman who, in her youth, wore a tweed riding suit and had a motorcycle. She had bobbed hair and fantastic lipstick. 

I could not let her go. There was obviously a book to be written about her. But she needed a foil. Someone less audacious, less daring, less sexy. 

Nell Kelly

Gunn Flagely needed a Nell Kelly, but I didn’t have a name for this character. I wanted her to be serious, studious, and feminist. She should be smart and strong, but in ways different from Gunn. The tension between them would come from their different ideas of how independent women should live their lives. 

So this character needed a straightforward, no-nonsense name. I tried a few; none clicked. I don’t even remember what they were. 

Between my North Portland neighborhood and the southeast part of the city where my friends lived is a home renovation and reconstruction business of many decades: Neil Kelly. Its headquarters has the name spelled out in big red letters on a two-story building that sits at a corner with a red light. I often get stopped there, and I often laugh to myself at the number of times I read that sign wrong and think it says Nell Kelly. 

Oh, hey. Nell Kelly.

After spending years writing, revising, and publishing Skull and Sidecar, I now have trouble remembering what the actual name of the business is. Nell Kelly comes to mind far more often than Neil. 

Once I had characters and names, plus a motorcycle with a sidecar, the rest of the book spooled out across the state of Oregon. There were plenty of dead and dreadful drafts in the early days, but these two women were always the twin stars that kept the story moving. 

Get a Copy of Skull and Sidecar

Skull and Sidecar
Skull and Sidecar

Take the Wheel Gets Bigger and Better

The revised edition of Take the Wheel: A Woman’s Guide to Buying a Car Her Own Damn Self will be out in November! Here’s a quick tour of the changes:

  • The booklet Alternative Fueliverse has been updated and included in the text of Take the Wheel. If an electric car or plug-in hybrid is on your shopping list, you’ll find the most useful information for making that decision all in one book.
  • All makes and models have been updated, so there aren’t any mentions of cars that aren’t built anymore.
  • The financial and insurance sections have been updated to include special cases like ride hailing and car sharing. There’s information on these uses for your new car throughout the book, but you’ll see the most impact — and run into the most pitfalls — when it comes to financing and insuring your new car.
  • There’s basic information included on advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and the coming of autonomous technology.

All told, the changes and updates add a couple dozen pages to the book. And it’ll be getting fresh, fly cover! And a new, lower price! It’ll still be available in both paperback and ebook formats.

There are a couple points of bad news. The first is that in order to create the new edition, I had to take down the old edition. So the 2013 first edition is no longer available. You can make it.

The second point of less than great news is that I wanted to include a myriad of voices from women who have bought cars. I put out the call, I boosted posts, I asked in person, and I got two lukewarm offers of stories. Meh. So I had to let that dream go and merely update the information to make it more timely and relevant for today’s car shoppers. If you want to tell me your car shopping story, though, I’d still love to hear it! Click Contact to send me a message.

If ADAS and autonomous cars are something you’re interested in, a published book is not ever going to keep up with that noise — um, I mean, news. To separate the news from the noise and find out how to use the new technologies in your new car, head over to Carsplaining.com.

Learning? Let Lynda and Your Library Help!

This post brought to you by the letter L.

I’ve self-published a book before (Take the Wheel: A Woman’s Guide to Buying a Car Her Own Damn Self), and I work in publishing, so I feel pretty confident about publishing Lightning in a Throttle: Three Early Electric Vehicle Victories this summer. I’ve got lots of friends and colleagues in the biz who can help me out, and the paper has already been edited, so it’s nearly ready to go right now.

But what if I did more? What if I used this book as an opportunity to learn new skills? What if I, a wordsmith of many years, tackled design, which I have no business doing at all?

My friends and colleagues are likely weeping at reading that. Self-published authors with outsize opinions of their design abilities are the bane of their existence. But how hard can it be to pick up InDesign when you haven’t used it since 2006? How difficult can it be to create a cover in Photoshop using a vintage image from a presentation you did and a font you downloaded? It’s an awesome font!

Um, it’s hard. All those things are hard. Even with an awesome font.

But not impossible, thanks to Lynda.com and the Multnomah County Library! So Lynda.com is a site where you can learn a whole bunch of business stuff; it’s owned by LinkedIn, which I do not use. Multnomah County Library is a magical network of books both print and virtual in Portland, Oregon; it is owned by the people, of which I am one! Just as I learned of the existence and usefulness of Lynda.com, my friend and fellow library user Carly told me that I could log in to the learning site using my library card and the classes would be free. Holy. Shit. Yes. 

This is where I am learning the very basics of InDesign CC, which I downloaded on Saturday. By the end of the afternoon, I had placed my text and made some headers using my awesome font. I have not yet tackled images in reflowable ebooks. It seems daunting. But I’m pretty sure Lynda is going to teach me how to make it happen in the next series I’ve saved to my playlist, InDesign CC 2015: EPUB Fundamentals. I took a short refresher course in ebook publishing basics yesterday afternoon on a whim. For free. I’ve also got Creating Ebooks for the Kindle waiting for me. I’m going to own this shit. Sort of. In all likelihood.

If I truly mess up my manuscript in the design process, I do have friends and colleagues I can pay to bail me out and fix my fuck-ups. Whether or not you have this kind of professional safety net, it’s worth checking to see if the library card languishing in a desk drawer might be able to help you improve your ebook’s design, inside and out. Though if you’re a writer, your library card is probably not languishing. It might be in rough shape from overuse, but not languishing. Languishing. Languish. Languish. Now it sounds weird.

Anyway. To recap: Lynda + Library = Love + Learning. Happy publishing!