Book Cover Design for Dummies… or Just Me

Did you ever wonder how book covers are selected? I had no idea until I became a published novelist and I assumed authors had a great amount of input in to the way his or her creation would look. When one views the covers of my first three novels, it seems obvious there was an intentional effort to create a “branding” of sort since I’ve had two publishers yet each of the covers are black and red. Yep. Deliberate. Intentional. Part of a master plan.

Or not.

Many people think the author is the person who chooses the cover design, but that is usually not the case with traditionally published works. In the case of my first novel, Resolve, I had received an email from the publisher letting me know it was time for the cover art selection. I thought, “Great! I’ve got so many ideas!” I replied to the publisher letting them know that my incredibly artistic mind (I did pull down a solid C in my eighth grade Art class) was ready to go. The publisher politely responded with a thanks, but we’ve got this message. I was shocked. I was deflated. However, I was determined to have my creative genius play a role in this vital process.

So, I asked the publisher what kinds of cover designs they were considering. They reluctantly told me they were going to select from five drafts they had on hand. I asked if I could see the drafts. They reluctantly sent me the drafts. None of the drafts were close to what I had envisioned, and being a first-time author with no track record, I decided it was wise to let them know I wasn’t thrilled with any of the selections. They didn’t care. Ever determined to have my voice heard, I decided to tell them that IF they were going to insist on going with one of the drafts, then the obvious choice for a book set in Pittsburgh was the one with the black cover and gold font.

Have you seen the cover for Resolve?

Not black and gold.

Not black and gold.

Now, it turns out the publisher was a lot smarter than me. Covers with red font and graphics stand out in the sea of novels, especially in the e-reader world in which we often only glance at a thumbnail image on a screen. The cover I would have gone with would have been lost in the myriad of images we scroll through on a home computer or Kindle. Lesson learned.

My next book, Measure Twice, was picked up by a different publisher as part of a two-book deal. When that publisher sent me an email letting me know it was time for the cover art selection, I decided to prove I had grown as an author and remained silent. I politely responded that I’m sure they had some great ideas and would come up with a great design. To my great surprise, the publisher immediately responded that they would love my input into the design.

I was ecstatic.

I was elated.

I ran to my wife (my creative partner-in-crime fiction) and said, “The publisher wants our ideas for the cover of Measure Twice! They actually want our input!”

My wife replied, “Do we have any ideas?”

I stood with my mouth agape. After a few seconds I said, “No! I didn’t think they would want any!”

My wife and I (okay, mostly my wife) came up with an idea for the design and I quickly sent it off to the publisher. It wasn’t until two or three days later I realized that in my email to the publisher, I had failed to mention my preferred color schemes. This one could be in black and gold. I sent another email to the publisher, pointing out the omission.

The publisher responded with, “No worries. The cover designer took a look at your first book and knew you must like the black and red scheme. So, here is what she came up with. We’re going with this.”

Also not black and gold. But my wife came up with the awesome ruler/knife combo.

Also not black and gold. But my wife came up with the awesome ruler/knife combo.

Of course.

By the time my third novel, Chalk’s Outline, was set for publication, people were associated the colors black and red with my books. Needless to say, I suggested we stick with black and red and here is where we ended up.

Chalk's Outline cover. White flag of surrender not pictured.

Chalk’s Outline cover. White flag of surrender not pictured.

I don’t know what my future book covers will look like (now I actually love the black and red), but I’ve chosen to take the only speak when spoken to approach, as there are many people smarter than me in the book industry and it seems things have a way of working themselves out. That being said, if the cover of my next mystery contains a bare-chested, muscular man, with flowing locks of hair… I’m probably going to deviate from my silent approach.

Feel free to comment below.

J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
Twitter @JJHensleyauthor

Watch for my new book, BOLT ACTION REMEDY, in 2017!


image1Cyprus Keller wants a future.
Jackson Channing has a past.
Robert Chalk has a rifle and a mission.  Kill Cyprus Keller and anyone who gets in his way.


An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.



In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered.  When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.

resolve-cover art CL (1)

Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel
Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!
Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air

 And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology



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