Ebook Design: Interview with Sarah E Melville

A picture from Sarah E Melville's self-published book "Beautiful Things That Happen to Ugly People"

I’m honored to share an interview with Sarah E Melville. Sarah is an extremely talented graphic designer and award-winning artist.

Recently she launched a new site, Your Cover Uncovered, where you can submit your book’s cover for review – as well as learn from reviews of other books.

Designing covers specifically for ebooks is a challenge and the more we talk about it the better. Here’s what Sarah tells us. Enjoy!

Is the role of a book cover changing in digital times? In which direction?

It definitely is changing. With the advent and increasing popularity of ebooks, cover design has been pared down significantly. A lot of work I do is for front covers only–back covers, spines, and French flaps are all extras now, which is a pity, I think, as they allow the design of the front cover to carry on and get played around with.  And it goes without saying that you lose the tactile elements with ebook covers–no more glossy vs. matte, no embossing, foiling, inlays.

The actual design style has changed a bit, too, with ebooks, as they’re so often viewed at a thumbnail size.  There’s a greater emphasis on readability, and nuances, fine details, get swept aside.

Designing covers for print books and e-books – what differences should designers be aware of?

Print or ebook, your cover should be a very strong piece of art, but I think there’s more pressure on ebook covers for this. Print covers have back covers and spines to continue working on the design theme, creating more of a concentration of images instead of a stand-alone piece, and in the end, a lot of covers just look better in print. There’s something about a velvety, matte book jacket that enhances a cover design–it can fool you, making a design look more sophisticated than it really is.

Because the tactile aspect is gone from ebook covers, flat colour and design that looks really two-dimensional isn’t very successful. Subtle textures are important to include, to give them the depth we’re used to having with a real book.

How would you assess the general level of the cover design of self-published ebooks?

Overall, the design seen in self-published ebooks isn’t where it should be. Because book covers are an art form, they need to be handled by professionals. It’s a shame to see people putting so much work into their novel and then not having a suitable image to represent it. Spending money on a good cover is the best investment you can make–it’ll do more for you, especially in the long-run, than blog tours, endless tweeting and re-tweeting, and whatever other marketing ploy out there. People like nice-looking things, and they’re always ready to assume that if the cover is good, the book will be too.


What advice would you give to self-publishers, who would want to create a book cover on their own?

You need to know your book very well, and have the ability to look at it in themes and metaphors, at big picture stuff. Forget specific scenes and characters. You need to figure out first what it’s really about, what’s lurking under the surface. That is what you put on your cover. Your typefaces, images, colours all have to work under this central theme. Don’t try and show two sides to the same novel; it won’t work. You can only have one subject, theme, idea. If you try to put too much of the small-picture stuff on the cover, it won’t work.

As for actually using this info and making it into that alluring, must-buy cover, you need to be familiar with art and design theory.  Look online for rules of composition and how to combine typefaces (remember, Comic Sans, Papyrus, Party LET and Bleeding Cowboys are never, ever acceptable typefaces). Look into basic colour theory, which colours and colour combinations elicit different moods. Familiarise yourself with design theory and use what you’ve learned. Find blogs and tumblrs dedicated to book cover design and find out what everyone’s drooling over.

The advice could go on, but the bottom line is–work with one idea. Don’t overcomplicate it. Try to stay away from using stock photos, and don’t be afraid of thinking outside the box!

Your Cover Uncovered is a fantastic example of a service authors and designers can use to improve their books. What tips would you give to them before they submit a cover for your professional review?

Read some of the critiques that have already been posted and see if your cover is repeating any of the same mistakes (if it is, change it!). Make sure it’s in top form–really, as excellent and amazing as your two little hands can make it. Read the submission requirements carefully, and make sure to send me info I ask for.  And, as a little luxury for me and the readers, give us an elevator pitch so smart you could brush your teeth with it.

One sentence tip for book designers?

Keep it simple.

Sarah E Melville is an artist, graphic designer, author, and all around creative-type from California. She’s an award-winning fine artist, and had her first design commission at the age of fifteen. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies, most recently in Sex Scene: An Anthology (she also made its book trailer), and she has done readings on both sides of the Atlantic. She is the self-published author of Beautiful Things that Happen to Ugly People, a synthesis of art and literature, a modern-day illuminated manuscript, about a simple soul named Paulie.  She is currently seeking representation for her fifth completed work, This is Paulie, a novella about two people who do not fall in love.

She tweets @sarahemelville and blogs at S-Melville. She is twenty-one years old.

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