Posts tagged: Rewrite your draft novel

Award Winning Book Covers: Your Book WILL Be Judged by its Cover. Book Cover Coaching.


"It May Be Forever" Cover by Lewis Agrell

"It May Be Forever" Cover by Lewis Agrell. I love this cover!

Most of the book contests, like the Benjamin Franklin Awards, IPPYs, Indie Excellence, and all the rest, are closed for the year. The books have been submitted and they’re being judged. Will your book win? Two factors have a very large weight in determining whether you walk away a winner––or get passed up: Your COVER and your TITLE. Today we’re going to talk about book cover design. While it may be late if you’ve got books in competitions this year, you can use what follows for future years.

I’m very pleased to introduce my second guest blogger, Lewis Agrell of The Agrell Group. Lewis and I go back years. He designed promotional materials for my first book, Stepping Off the Edge. I loved what he did and called on him to do the same for Numenon. Lewis designed a one-sheet for Numenon, book marks, and a gorgeous over-sized post card. He also designed the e-book that I’ve been giving out to those who sign up for my email newsletter. And his wife, Kathryn, edited it. What a team!

I think this blog is going to be known as the “get deep into the psychological underpinnings of writing & publication” blog. Irene Watson of Reader Views introduced us to Jungian personality type. I added a bit, and now Lewis is going to introduce concepts that I learned originally in graduate school in counseling.

Knowing these concepts is very important: They’re operating in your buyers’ minds and souls (and yours) whether you know it or not. Better to know it. But don’t worry! Lewis Agrell makes them user friendly!

Lewis has been kind enough to let me illustrate the blog post with some of his covers. And now, here’s Lewis Agrell on book cover design:


In my estimation, the best covers are the ones that are the most beautiful. Billions of dollars are spent every year in advertising, fashion and manufacturing to infuse more and more beauty. Why? Because beauty attracts the eye. That’s why the most beautiful models, actresses, cars, houses and boats cost the most  money. Beauty is a precious, treasured commodity. Beauty has specific qualities. These qualities are harmony, balance, unity, synthesis, and refinement. Designers struggle to make the colors and design elements (fonts, photos, illustrations, and other graphic elements) work in such a way that the greatest beauty is attained.


KILLROD The Cross of Lorraine Murders. Cover by Lewis Agrell. Simple, elegant design employing archetypes––the cross and circle, which also looks like a moon.

KILLROD The Cross of Lorraine Murders. Cover by Lewis Agrell. Simple, elegant, & beautiful design employing archetypes––the cross and circle, which also looks like a moon. Love this, too.


Attributes of the Designer

Why are some designers better than others? This is not a simple question to answer. Designers must be trained in the basics of graphic design, particularly color theory. The other qualities that are necessary are:

  1. Experience (it helps to have tried many different approaches to design work, and learned what does, and does not, work)
  2. Intelligence—reading as much as possible about the industry is very helpful, because it is important to stay current, not only with the latest design movements and techniques, but also the tools of the trade (computers and software).
  3. Worldly awareness: it helps to know what is going on in the world, because world events are often reflected in design work. Witness particularly the dynamics of the sixties and the seventies, when many social shifts occurred. Designers and illustrators exploded with new ways of working, as a reflection of the dynamism of the period.
  4. Sensitivity. A designer must be sensitive to the material with which he/she is working, as well as to the needs, desires, and expectations of the client.

“As he thinketh…so is he”

An individual’s consciousness can vary tremendously. Wherever a person places the bulk of his attention will indicate the level of awareness. People are generally focused either physically, emotionally, or mentally. It is best for a designer to have as high an awareness level as possible.

Why is this critical?  Because a designer, or any creative person, cannot create beyond his or her level of awareness. When a high level of awareness is attained, that individual also has a connection to the lower levels, having passed through them, at some point in his or her maturation.

For example, a designer who is entirely focused on the physical realm, would not do well with a project focused on matters of the heart. A designer who is swept up in the world of emotions, would not do well with a project that has deep philosophical leanings.

In the mental realm, there are three areas of focus:

  • The lowest is the subconscious. Designers focused on this level create work that is very dark and mysterious—perhaps even very ugly and horrifying—and certainly distorted and misshapen. The primary color in their palette is black.
  • The next mental level is that of the concrete mind. This is the realm of logic and reasoning. This is the area of scientists and mathematicians. The design solution from an artist focused on this level will be very balanced and harmonious. The Golden Ratio, or Divine Proportion (approximately 1.618) might be very important for a designer on this level of consciousness. Someone who has a mental focus labors very carefully to determine a proper approach, utilizing logic, reasoning and analysis.
  • The highest level is known as the superconscious. In this level, symbolism is very important to the designer. Also, the designer will use a palette of very bright, cheerful, and uplifting colors. The keys to identifying designers who work on this level are a) their work reflects a wide variety of creativity or understanding; and b) they generally “know” immediately what the best solution will be for various projects. The “Eureka!” moment is very common for these designers. They will usually have a vivid mental image in mind before a person finishes explaining a concept to them. They think very quickly.

Many designers specialize in one particular area. This is because they have a strong physical, emotional, or mental strength, and design in that area.


"The Money Belt" I love this cover: clean, catchy, powerful. Does the job!

"The Money Belt" This is not a "grunge" cover. Great for mass market book. I love this cover: clean, catchy, powerful. Does the job!


The “grunge” look

If beauty is so important, why is there a “grunge” movement? The reason for this may be a temporary backlash to the “perfection” that can be created by computers. A world saturated with the unwavering perfection that computers are capable of creating can become a bit maddening to designers who like to put a more human touch to their work, so designers are fighting against the coldness of computers with “grungy” designs—those that appear as though they are not created from the computer, even thought the computer remains an indispensable tool for production.

This will become overused and will be rejected in time, in the same way that the psychedelic look passed away at some point in the early seventies. Great beauty will always be the sine qua non for designers. Deviations from beauty are only a temporary stylistic meandering. For example, ugliness will never gain a foothold in auto manufacturing because of the importance of high volume sales. When one particular car was created that people thought was not beautiful (the Edsel, 1958), the car sales were dismal. Car manufacturers don’t want a repeat of that noted failure.

What catches the eye besides beauty? Newness and uniqueness. An example of this is reflected in the story of the designer who needed to create a new cereal box to be displayed in grocery stores. He saw that all of the boxes had bright, vibrant colors. So, what did he chose to do? He created a cereal box that was mostly white. This “non-color” stood out from the rest of the boxes on the shelves, gaining that valuable eye-catching quality.


"Mediterranean Madness"  Cover by Lewis Agrell. In a genre cover, the designer must give readers what they expect. Wow, and good design.

"Mediterranean Madness" Cover by Lewis Agrell. In a genre cover, the designer must give readers what they expect. Wow, and good design.


Genre design

There are genres of books that have a “standard look,” that the buyer expects to see, for example, romance novels. All purchasers of romance novels want to see an image of a very strong, handsome, romantic yet masculine man embracing a beautiful woman on the cover of the book. To deviate from this “formula” is to risk loss of sales.

The same is true with fantasy novels. The buyers want to see a careful rendering of a dragon, or some such fanciful creature. Wouldn’t it be odd to see a biography without a painting or photo of the person about whom the book was written? The challenge for the designer, when dealing with these genres, is not a simple one. He/she must create something similar, yet unique and powerful.

How to pick a designer for your book

The easiest way is to examine the designer’s website and see if there is a style that is similar to what you imagine for your book. If you like what the designer has done, but don’t see something that you are looking for, simply send an email to the designer and ask if he/she has done anything similar to what you have in mind. Very often, the designer will have work that is not on the website.

If you still have doubts about the artist’s ability to create what you want, you can always hire the artist to do a concept sketch. If you are less than happy with the concept sketch, you can then either ask for another sketch, listing your desires, or you can thank the designer for his work (be sure to send a check for the hard work!) and then move on to another designer.

Designing your own cover

Don’t do it. That’s my answer to all writers who want to design their own cover. You have put a lot of energy into your book. You want the cover to reflect as much energy and power as your carefully groomed text. The person who can provide that energy and power is someone who is trained in graphic design.

Graphic designers have spent years, or decades, perfecting their art.Keep in mind that they spend eight hours a day, five days (or more) a week, twelve months a year, year in and year out, working to perfect their craft. They have tried and failed, so they know what doesn’t work. They have succeeded, and their work has been tested in the marketplace.

Simply put, they know what they are doing.

You wouldn’t rewire own your house yourself; you’d hire a professional electrician. The same goes for book cover design: Hire a professional. Sure, it can be expensive, but the extra “oomph” that you get in the professional design may translate into an increase in the number of books sold, simply because people are attracted to and impressed with the cover design! To sell the most books, save your pennies and hire the best graphic designer that you can afford. You’ll be grateful that you did when you see the results.

Please, don’t take my word for it. Talk to authors who have used professional designers to create their covers. You might be surprised by what they say.


"No Sisters Sisters Club", an engaging cover for a Young Adult book.

"No Sisters Sisters Club", an engaging cover for a Young Adult book.

Lewis Agrell has been an award-winning professional designer and illustrator for thirty years. He worked as the Chief Artist for the New York Times Company at its largest regional newspaper for ten years. He and his wife, Kathryn (a writer/editor) are the principal owners of The Agrell Group, a graphic design/creative writing firm, located in Prescott, Arizona. To contact them: or   Phone: 928.445.7038.

From Sandy Nathan: It’s been a privilege to share Lewis’s thoughts and words with you. Here’s a surprise. You may think that book covers of this quality must be very expensive. Not so. Lewis’s covers––front, back, spine––usually run between $500 and $1,200. You may want to consider him for your next book.

"Shades of Truth" A provocative one piece cover for a mass market book.

"Shades of Truth" A provocative one piece cover for a mass market book.

Win Book Contests – Make Your Book a Winner!

You win the minute you walk into the arena.

With horses, you win the minute you walk into the arena. This is a Matched Pairs Class at the La Bahia Peruvian Horse Show in Watsonville, CA. My husband and I are riding horses that are full brothers––same mom & pop. Except for the extra chrome (white markings) on Azteca, these horses pass for identical. The judge told us after the class, "You won that class the minute you walked into the arena." Your book will win or lose the same way.

Most of the 2009 book contests are closed. The books are and supporting materials are in. The judging is on. The contestants hyperventilate as the countdown continues. Will they be finalists? Actually win?

A nice thing about book contests is that you are an award winner even if you’re “just” a finalist. In the same way that Academy Award nominees get to say, “Academy Award nominee Snelda Grottie” forever, you can say Benjamin Franklin Award Finalist. Being a finalist counts as an award!

I’ve got my book, Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money, in five contests. I’m about to freak out. Should I have entered it in different categories than the ones I entered? Where’s the receipt from that very prestigious competition I took a chance on? I did enter it, didn’t I?

The anxiety will continue for the contestants until the finalists are notified. And longer, until the winner is announced––often at Book Expo America, the largest  book publishing event in North America. This year, BEA is May 28 to 31 in NYC.

It’s a little late for an article about setting your book up to win in 2009 book contests, but I’ve got to do something to fill the time.

I’M SANDY NATHAN. So far, I’ve won eight national awards for my two books. I’ll post a list of my wins at the end of this article.

Less well known is the fact that I also have experience as a book contest judge. My writerly credentials, contest wins, and the fact that I graded papers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business for 18 spring quarters make me an ideal candidate for judging.

I love it, truly. Brings back memories. I used to work for a top rated Stanford professor along with a jaded team of other smart people. Every year, he gave each of us a FOUR FOOT TALL stack of academic papers to grade OVER THE WEEKEND. Brutal.

I got really good at separating fluff from substance. Fast.  The books presented to me to judge remind me of those wonderful days of the nonstop pursuit of achievement, which I have not left behind.


If you win a book contest, chances are you already know how to win it. Here’s a story: When the Publisher’s Marketing Association (now the Independent Book Publishers’ Association) notified me that my book, Stepping Off the Edge, was a finalist in the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Awards in the New Age/Spirituality category, I boo-hooed. They choose only 3 finalists per category nationwide, one of which would be the winner. This was the first contest I’d entered. My first book.

“Oh, I can’t believe it. I’m so excited. Oh, my God. I’m so grateful. One out of three finalists! I can’t believe it. This is so wonderful!” I walked around our ranch emoting tearfully. Then something happened.

The overarching category of my writing is spiritually––which is based on spiritual or religious experience. That’s because I have spiritual experiences and have had them all my life. In the cacophony of my inner dialogue, one voice stands out. It’s calm, clear, unaffected, and never wrong. I think of it as God. This voice spoke:

“What’s the big deal, Sandy? You’ve been a straight A student most of your life. Why shouldn’t you win? You know what went into that book.” There was a pause and more communication. “Don’t you trust Me to reward you? To notice that you’ve done a good job? Don’t you think I care about you?”

Oops. My tearful gratitude had the smell of a contestant on a TV quiz show flipping out over winning a new refrigerator. It was an unnecessary display of ego and self importance, which also pointed to my lack of faith.

So let’s leave that behind and talk about how to win.

The key is: If you win a book contest, you already know how to set up a winner. It’s a job of work, like mucking out stalls at our ranch.

Just like winning a horse show class.  You win the instant you ride into the arena on a winning horse. Similarly, you win in a book contest the instant the judge looks at the array of books he or she has to judge. Your book has to leap out of the stack of ho-hum contenders and SING. Also tap dance.


1.  HARDBACKS SHOW UP BETTER. You’re a judge.  Thirty or forty books are sitting on a table. You won’t read all of them. You see well-designed hardback with a killer cover. Your eyes and hands gravitate to it. Wow. It’s beautiful. Paper even feels classy. You put the book in the “keeper” pile. Hardbacks have more weight in competition.

Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money

Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money. Your cover should hook the viewers' archetypes: The symbol in the middle of my cover is based on the photo of a Shiva Nataraj I own. Not only is the circle an archetype of wholeness, Shiva is revered all over the world. Including by me. Note the high contrast and predominately black cover. This design will dominate pretty near anything.

2. YOUR TITLE AND COVER will make you win or sink you. Do you know how to judge a cover? Lewis Agrell of The Agrell Group, will be a guest blogger with his terrific article on what makes a winning book cover. I’ll post it soon.

For now, let’s rely on phone book ads. Open the yellow page ads in any phone book. Scan the page quickly. Where do your eyes land? Note the ad. Do it again on another page, and another.

In all probability, the ad that draws your attention is SIMPLE. UNCLUTTERED. EITHER BLACK, WHITE, OR MOSTLY EMPTY. The ads that grab your eyeballs and hold them have attained PAGE  DOMINANCE. People hire consultants to create dominant ads for them.

Now go to a book store sale table and look at the books. Which books grab your eyes? Which do you pick up? Buy? A book contest is like that table. Clear, bold, design that dominates the competition will win.

YOUR COVER MUST HAVE AN EMOTIONAL HOOK. THINK ARCHETYPES. Primal images. Something that grabs the inner psychology of your reader/judge.

To win and much more importantly, to be purchased, your book cover AND SPINE must dominate any table and any bookshelf.

3. YOUR TITLE IS REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT. First off, your title embodies your book’s essence. It is the first word or words the reader sees. It should be engaging, easy to read, evocative, and compelling––it should set the emotional tone for your book. As should the SUBTITLE or TAG LINE (THE ONE LINE DESCRIPTION BELOW THE TITLE.) Also, most of the big catalogs of books will list your book by its TITLE ONLY. Better be memorable. Like Twilight.

4. THE WORDS ON YOUR COVER, FLAPS, AND FIRST FEW PAGES OF YOUR BOOK, YOUR BOOK’S COPY, SHOULD BE UNFORGETTABLE. These words are your prime real estate and are what will make your book succeed. The book contest judge, book store owner, and your buyer will make a decision about your book based on these words––in seconds. You want emotional hooks, ease of reading, and enchantment in these places.

Writing copy is a skill. You can write text like an angel and not be able to pump out a winning tag line. I’ve got an Emmy-nominated screenwriter Laren Bright, the best copy writer I know, preparing an article for this blog. He’ll tell you how to do it.

I say: Hire it done if you can possibly afford it. Copy writing is like writing poetry: You need to be able to produce succinct messages packed with meaning and emotional associations in a tight space.

5. BOOK DESIGN, INTERIOR & EXTERIOR: YOUR BOOK SHOULD LOOK LIKE RANDOM HOUSE PRODUCED IT. NO LESS. We’ve talked about the cover, title, and copy. Every page and every word should be as well designed as your cover. Go to a book store and look at best selling books. Get a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and memorize the order of pages in a book.

A very important thing to note: NEVER HAVE YOUR TITLE PAGE ON THE LEFT. DO NOT DO THAT. Do your homework. Know the proper order of pages in a book. Know what a half title page is and where it goes. The contest judge will know all about this.

6. SELF PUBLISHING, SMALL PRESSES, THE MAJORS: Some contests are specifically for self published books, by that I mean books put out by the big POD printers like, iUniverse, Outskirts Press, BookSurge and the rest. If this is your competition, let your lulu imprint show.

If you’re in open competition, hide it. Some people have real prejudices against self-published books. There’s not as much of a prejudice against author-owned small presses––after all, Benjamin Franklin did it. So did Mark Twain, DH Lawrence and tons of big literary names. If you own and operate a small press, that puts you in a different category, even if your book was printed by CreateSpace or Outskirts Press. Just make sure that nothing about the mass producers shows.

If you take this approach, create a killer logo and press name, and have the book professionally designed and produced, you’ll be in good shape to compete in contests.

I have no prejudice against self-published books. I have a real bone to pick with poorly produced self-published books whose authors don’t respect me––the buying customer and reader––enough to get the thing professionally edited and proofed before offering it for sale. Or stick it in my face and expect me to judge it.


7. PROFESSIONAL PRODUCTION: The book contest judge may not have time to read all of your book, but he or she will sure sample pages and text. Typos, lousy interior and exterior design, cheap paper, all of it pops out. Hire an editor, copy editor and proofreader. Hire a book designer. Believe it or not, they’re not all super expensive. Look at my blog roll. Some great professionals are listed there.

TEMPLATES: Many of the big POD publishers offer templates for book interiors. These don’t show up well in contests. The text is set too tight, and the margins too small. There’s not enough variety in the overall design. In contests, judges see many books with very similar, standard interiors. If your book is one of thirty in a category, or one of THREE HUNDRED, it has to stand out. Templates won’t do it.

8. PERIPHERALS: YOUR WEB SITE, STATIONERY, & PRESS KIT. You did include those with your entry, didn’t you? I assure you, the winners did. The book contest judges are very likely to check your website, especially if you make it through enough of the hoops to stay in “the good pile” to the end. The “ad-ons” are breakers.

Two books might be ranked about the same, but if one author has an amazing web site and hosts a blog with a bazillion visitors a day providing a vital services to the world––who do you think will win? Ditto if on author provides copies of his book’s terrific reviews, testimonials, and advertising materials in a lovely custom folder. Which book will win?

Oh, yeah. What about the VIDEO FOR YOUR BOOK? Is that linked prominently on your site? Mentioned in your press kit?

9. THE BOOK, AS IN––WHAT’S BETWEEN THE COVERS? In your writing group, you concentrate on the writers’ skills and arts. Word by word, you construct and deconstruct and reconstruct your masterpiece. Ditto working with your editor. Your write, rewrite, have it slashed and burned, and make it rise again. You struggle to express exactly what you want, worry about pacing and plot and characters.

I was in two writing groups for a total of eleven years. I’ve worked with maybe six or seven good, tough editors. The content of your book matters, especially if you want it to sell. If you want word of mouth to propel it. If you want to read it yourself in future years and not be embarrassed by it.

The contest judge or panel of judges isn’t going to read all of your book. They’ll sample it and look at different aspects of it.

Does that mean you can skip the 11 years of writing groups and all those creative writing classes? No. Whatever random page a judge’s eyes fall upon will produce an impression. All the pages have to be good, since you don’t know which one will be read. Know what terms relating to race, ethnicity, or sexual preference are OK to use in modern literary and cultural circles. Get it right.

The curious thing is: Most people writing in academic settings concentrate solely on the quality of their manuscripts. They don’t look at any of the other points noted here, any of which can destroy their chances of winning a book contest or selling. That’s because in the major creative writing and MFA programs, people assume that they will be published by the major publishers.

They haven’t had direct experience of the realities of the publishing industry. Such students often have no idea that to succeed, they may have to set up a small press and learn to do things they never were taught in school. Academic programs may not talk about the recession and cut-backs and literary agents being laid off, either.

The real world can be a big surprise, even if you got your MFA from Iowa.

Producing a book that wins contests is a big job requiring a commitment of time and money. It doesn’t have to be a HUGE commitment of money, but its going to cost something. Before you enter a contest, you should know what you’re up against.

What do you win at the end of the day?
Some of the awards won by Rancho Vilasa. A few of these are my wins. The real victory that comes from athletic competition is a winning of soul, which is transferable to other endeavors. If you can show a horse and win, you can do anything.

To win in a horse show, you need a horse that grabs the judge’s eye the instant he enters the arena. He needs the stamina to look good at the end of a grueling class. For book contest, you need a book that’s set up to win from one end of the judging process to the other. And then into the marketing arena.

That’s it, folks! Happy competing!

Sandy Nathan, award winning author of Numenon & Stepping Off the Edge. I’m a bit burnt out writing about winning. Here are some links to what I’ve won in book contests:

Numenon Kindle Is .99 on Amazon!

Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money

Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money

The Kindle version of Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Mystery is available and priced at an unbelievable 99 cents!

Here’s a link to Numenon on the Amazon Kindle Store!

Am I crazy? Like a fox! When I last looked, Numenon was #8 in Religious Fiction (closing on The Shack), and #1 in Mysticism in two categories of Religion & Spirituality. JOIN THE STAMPEDE!

Buy the Kindle version of Numenon, and you can enter the world of Will Duane, the richest man on earth, and Grandfather, a great Native shaman, in less then a 60 seconds. Numenon won two national awards as an Advance Reading Copy. It’s entered in more contests. We’re waiting for results.

Here it is on my web site: Numenon on

Here it is as a print book on Amazon. Look at those Five Star Reviews.

Check out this video:

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