10 Things...Painting Book Covers

cover for "Day Keeper" by Tom Durwood

Greg Manchess

After years of painting book covers, and loving every part of that aspect of illustration, I've collected a few thoughts to keep in mind when working to give a book the best possible cover to attract a buyer.
My job as the cover artist is to fascinate the potential buyer. To draw them in, and keep them there.

There are many 'don'ts' on this list, but just as many 'do's'. Always strive for the best work you've ever done for a cover. It pays off in more work, and a reputation you can bank.

1. Entice the buyer.
Your job as the cover artist is to get the potential buyer to pick up the book. Once it’s in their hands, the writer takes over. But you have to support the writer with your imagery. Be authentic to the story, but do not over-complicate things. The writer has enough on their plate. You can help by keeping it intriguing.

2. Set a mood
Setting a mood for the book is better than explaining what’s in the book. Again, show, don’t tell. Stay away from complex images that try to explain what the book is all about. That’s the writer’s job. You set the mood for the characters to live in. You introduce the world they inhabit. That's far and away more interesting.

3. Do not describe a scene
You will not be able to get inside a reader’s head. Again, the writer does that. As the artist, you’ll only be showing a scene the way you, as a visual story-teller, will see it. 

You are more advanced than the writer at showing imagery. Your picture is not an excuse for a lack of 1000 words. Language is limited. What the writer describes in words is never quite enough to complete the image. That’s why the writing has such power. Writers allow us to complete the image in our minds. You, the artist, must be able to do both: give information while allowing the viewer to finish it in their heads...and do it very well.

I have yet to find a writer who has the graphic depth and experience to design fictional clothes with appropriate color balance, or design architecture, spaceships, or lighting. The artist must interpret and finesse the author's impressions.


Everyone pictures a scene differently, especially the writer. We all interpret what they mean. You will never get it exactly right. If a writer says you've nailed it, then smile and say thanks. You just got lucky.

4. Do not reveal or solve a mystery
If you get a mystery or thriller cover assignment to illustrate, then no matter what: do not reveal the mystery on the cover. Don’t even hint at the answer as you will kill the reveal. And that’s what the reader pays for. The reveal. Keep it as mysterious on the outside as on the inside. The writer will love you for that.

5. Graphic interest.

Keep it simple. Repeat: keep it simple. You cannot get the reader to understand some subtle, psychological attitude without destroying the impact of a striking, simple cover. Simplicity stays compelling. Complexity confuses at first, and when understood, loses graphic impact.

6. Strong figures
Every figure on a cover must be visually pleasing. No, I don’t mean sexually appealing. I mean that the viewer must instantly feel that the figure is ‘right.’ Even if it’s distorted, the figure must feel good to the viewer. Balance is appealing.

7. Do not paint the turning point of the story.  

Do they show the best part of a film in a movie poster? (ok....don’t answer that--Hollywood is remarkable at destroying fabulous moments by putting them in the dang trailer....and we never forget we've seen it...) Do you buy a book hoping to understand it by looking at the cover? Do you want the turning points pictured on the cover before you’ve let the writer have a chance to build toward that special moment? 

Story is process. Do not take a writer’s power from them (or let the ignorant writer demand that you do). They know how to tell the tale in sequence. Don’t destroy their labor.

Besides that, turning points of story are usually dull without set-up. And visually boring.

8. Set up the world that the writer makes exciting
Create a setting where the characters can live, or contrive a visual conflict between characters within the setting that can enhance the mood of the story, and cause a potential buyer to be curious. Curiosity sells books. Mysteries-promised-to-be-solved sells books.

NC Wyeth was particularly excellent at building a painting from the material involved. It was not necessarily something directly out of the book, but it always gave a fresh perspective that drove interest back to the story.

9. Keep the reader returning to the book.  

You do this by making the imagery simple and direct enough to create a sense of questioning, of curiosity, that entices the reader back to the story. A good, solid cover can cause a reader that’s slogging through a long book to come back over and over again. The writer will love you for that. Or should anyway. An aware publisher/art director/author won't ask you to explain everything in one scene.

10. The cover is not a short film.

Some art directors and many publishers will tell you how much stuff happens in a scene that they want you to put on the cover. It’s ridiculously complicated. It’s enough to flesh out a small animation.

YOU HAVE BARELY ONE SECOND to capture the imagination of the potential buyer. It’s like looking at a website. Images load too long? They click away.

Paintings do not have enough time to explain this conflict: that she loves him, but she can’t tell him because that would ruin their friendship, since he’s already married, but his wife is terminally ill, and waiting for him won’t work because he’s on his way across the sea to fight in the.....

Nope, I don’t think so.

Bang: two people in a garden setting, she’s holding his hands within hers. We only know what we see. Later the writer brings us to this point, through set-up, and when we look at the cover again, as the reader, we understand what it's about. Then it has staying power. Impact.

To repeat: it should not be the turning point. Let the writer have that glory.

11. Both artist and author work in tandem.
Let the writer have their day in the sun. It started with them. You are there to make them shine. You are there to allow the publisher the easiest path possible to multiple sales.

“They pick it up because of the cover. They put it down because of the author,” is an old saying, but I prefer to think of it this way: “They pick it up because of the artist, they keep it because of the author.” 

The artist is the author’s wing-man. You’ve got their six.