Monday, May 2, 2016

Guest Post - Andrea Grigg & Melissa Dalley: Peeking Under the Covers

By Ian Acheson

We all know how important a cover is in attracting readers. After all, it’s the first thing they see on the shelf, be it online or in real life. Covers also happen to be a topic we all have an opinion on. But what makes a cover good? And not just good, but great?  

A few weeks ago on Australasian Christian Writers (ACW), author and friend, Andrea Grigg shared two posts on the subject. Interestingly, she interviewed her daughter, Melissa Dalley, who happens to be a Creative Design Manager, and the producer of a number of book covers including Andrea’s two novels.

The covers of Andrea's 2 novels
The response to the two posts was so positive I thought it would be great to share Melissa’s insights with the ICFW community. I’ve condensed the two posts into one. It’s a longer post than normal but I think it’s one we’ll be very interested in especially those of us who are moving in the self-publishing space

So please welcome mother and daughter, Andrea and Melissa to ICFW.

Andrea: Personal preferences aside, there are two basic principles with which I’m sure we would all agree: First, the image used needs to reflect the genre and relate to the story. Second, the title and author’s name must be easy to read (including the spine if the book is going to print)

But there’s obviously far more to it than that. What are the essentials for cover design?

Mel: I’m sure most people think the essentials are the image and the font(s) you choose, the colours and balance of the artwork. But there’s something even more important, and that is knowing your primary target audience. Having this established sets the stage for everything else. I can’t emphasize it enough. It directly affects all further choices.

Andrea: You’re right, that wasn’t the answer I was expecting but it makes a lot of sense. And because it wasn't something I'd thought of myself, it made me realise there's a lot I don't know about the world of design. Which brings me to the next question. 

What other reasons are there for me to employ a graphic designer rather than attempt to create a cover myself?

Mel: There are many reasons, but for now I’ll give you three. 

The biggest one is time. What a designer can do in an hour would probably take you three to four hours. Wouldn’t it be wiser to use your time writing?  A designer has years of training behind them and have acquired a unique skill-set, just like a writer has a unique ability to write. I know people design their own covers to save money, but why not view the employment of a graphic designer as an investment in the lifespan of your book? Even to the untrained eye it can be obvious when covers are designed by someone without training. You want your book to stand out for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

Another reason is a very practical one, to do with the printing process.

In the design world, Microsoft Publisher and Word are equivalent to swear words! (Something I was told over and over during my training). Those programs are very limiting. They’re not pre-prepped (when you need to get everything set up for a professional printer). Some printers I work with won’t accept work unless done by a graphic designer. This is because errors can occur when working with Publisher and other programs not intended for professional printing and design. They’re not accurate enough and can become file corrupted. 

Thirdly, I'll address some excellent questions raised by an ACW member. She wanted to know if it was possible to have covers that wouldn't become outdated, and what to avoid in pictures and fonts to make them stay relevant and attractive. 

This all comes back to the designer you use and their knowledge of trends, having a well-communicated brief, and what you envision for a shelf life. For a designer to keep their job, they need to be up to date and know the latest trends. If you're not in the game then it's very hard to know these things.

Other covers Melissa has worked on
Andrea: Fair enough. So what can I do to get the best result from my graphic designer?

Mel: First, find one who’s not afraid to give you an honest opinion. 

Second, write the best brief you possibly can, explaining what you’re after. The content and research that goes into this is very important.

Third, send the top three images you’ve seen of other books in your genre that match your ideas and thoughts for your own. It will save you time and money with your designer. It will also stop you from looking like everyone else.

Andrea: Which rookie errors stand out the most?

Mel: That’s an easy answer. Fonts and their colour choices, and balance.

Andrea: Okay, so could you please expand on those?

Mel: Sure. As far as fonts are concerned, don’t use what’s automatically on your computer. It’s quite limiting and it shows.

Second, make sure you know which style fits with your genre. Swirly and flirty is great for romance. There are many modern styles available for non-fiction and Young Adult (again, depending on the genre), and some great creepy styles for mysteries etc.

Third, be aware that some fonts come with copyright issues. However, you can purchase fonts for use, often between $5-$500, (similar to images), and this gives you the legal right to use them.

I mostly use for purchase but there are Royalty Free and free fonts all over the internet. (Be aware the free types aren’t always that great – they can be cheap-looking). The most important thing is to read all the licensing and understand what the fine print means.

As far as balance goes, the text shouldn’t be too heavily positioned on one side, nor should the imagery. Balance is also about the reader not having to turn their head to see something. Sometimes it can be an automatic reaction and we want to avoid that!
Andrea: Great advice. Now, what can you tell us about images?

Mel: Obviously, the image you use must fit your genre. I generally buy images from Shutterstock and iStock. Their imagery is licensed for use on book covers. Again, the fine print must be read.

In my opinion, Photoshop is the best software for editing imagery and Adobe Suite is the best program for designing and editing for book cover design and imagery editing. It gives you more control and helps make sure your work is up to speed for printing specs. Someone asked about Gimp, but I’m afraid I don’t know anything about it.

If you intend using a photographer for a custom photo, you need to brief him/her as you would if a designer was creating your cover. Remember to ask about their rights for reproducing and marketing their shots.

A logo is another form of imagery used on a cover. I recommend a designer to create one of these as they can be tricky, especially when used on a spine. Again, give the designer a well thought out brief, and include examples of logos you’ve seen and liked.

There’s a stack of good counsel in Melissa’s comments. Please thank Andrea and Melissa for such an informative post and we look forward to receiving any comments and questions you may have.

Andrea Grigg was born in Auckland, New Zealand, but moved to Australia when she was in her mid-twenties, which now seems like an awfully long time ago. Andrea didn’t begin writing until the year she turned fifty and is glad she took so long to get started because now she has lots and lots of story fodder from all the people she has met. She has written two contemporary Christian romance novels, ‘A Simple Mistake’ and ‘Too Pretty’ and is currently working on a Christmas novella as part of a box set to be released as an e-book later this year. The best way to contact Andrea is by email: andreagrigg(at)live(dot)com.

Melissa Dalley has a degree in Marketing and eCommerce, and a diploma in Graphic Design and PrePress. She works as a Creative Design Manager for a well-known shopping centre group, is on the board for a charity as their marketing and creative adviser, and freelances designs for authors and small businesses. Not only that, she is a wife to Robb and privileged caretaker of two cats, Jimi and Scout. You can reach her at: melissadalley(at)live(dot)com


  1. My local ACFW chapter had a guest speaker last week on cover design. This makes a great addition. Thanks, Ian.

    1. Sounds like it was great timing, LeAnne. I took away a great deal from Melissa and Andrea's comments.

      Thanks for sharing.

  2. Ian, Andrea and Mel, excellent post! Lots of gems of wisdom for writers looking to indie publish. A great cover is essential if you want your book to stand out among the millions of ebooks that are available for purchase on the retail sites like Amazon.