The Independent Writing Series Continues With Chip Borkenhagen, Cover Designer

Unless you are that creature as rare as a unicorn – a writer with design skills – figuring out what to do about a book cover is a challenging step in the self publishing process. Despite the old cliche “don’t judge a book by its cover” that is exactly how most people browsing online decide to click or not to click. 

Today, I am happy to share an interview with Chip Borkenhagen of RiverPlace Communication Arts, a design company that specializes in cover design. They offer a variety of packages from Basic to Creative, and each cover is designed from scratch because they don’t use templates. Take a look at their site to see samples and learn more:


Can you talk a little about the difference between book covers for non-fiction and fiction books? Or even about the difference that genre makes?

Chip Borkenhagen

Chip Borkenhagen

I can’t speak for all designers, but for me it isn’t a matter so much about fiction or non-fiction, but about the book itself. With genres like historical fiction, etc., there is such a very fine line between real and almost real. So I work on the premise of the “soul” of the particular book itself. It feels to me that each book can describe its own needs and desires of its image. Obviously the intended readership is the main focus as I’m getting started. What are their ages? Genders? Hot-buttons (visually), etc.

This question has been on my mind for a while: do cover designers usually read the books they design covers for?

Unfortunately I am not able to read every book I design for, simply because of timing. I am typically working on a number of projects at a time, so to be spending half my day reading does not leave enough time to design. Typically I am given good direction from the author or publisher, along with a full synopsis of the book. I will scan-read the book with my antennae up for clues for the cover. I sketch as I go. Then, when I feel comfortable with the ideas I’ve formulated, I’ll do them in digital layout form – not completed, but enough worked through to make it clear what I am envisioning.

Then, with back and forth between the author and myself, we tighten up the “winning” design and fine-tune it to the author’s and my content.

What do you think is the most important consideration in cover design when a book will primarily be sold in electronic format?

Sample cover from RiverPlace.

Sample cover from RiverPlace.

Less is more. It is important to keep the “personality” of the print version’s cover, but text needs to be larger, and colors need to be tweaked. When I know the book is going to be an e-book from the start, I just use a slightly different style of design. Many times there isn’t all that much difference. You definitely need to have punch, though. The net is cluttered with e-books, so a stand-out cover is even more imperative.

 The same basic rules apply, however; you need to design for the book’s readership. That is just always the bottom line.

When should a writer start thinking about a cover?

It seems that many authors to some degree begin to envision cover ideas somewhere through the process of writing it. Sometimes I have authors describe the cover they have come to see in their mind, and then we work together to try to bring that vision alive. The earlier the writer decides on the cover artist, the better. Because this is such a crucial aspect of the book’s success, it’s ideal to devote enough time to doing it right. Waiting until the book is completely finished just eats up the time it takes to locate the artist that has the “chemistry” that the author should have with his/her designer. Good designers are busy, so getting into their Queue early is very helpful.

What is your advice to writers who have no budget, who are writing more to fulfill their dreams than to make money? Should they still invest heavily in cover design?

Probably not. And, ideally, they shouldn’t have to. Our firm, for example, offers cover design packages, and the basic package is not very costly at all, but we still do great work. But good design can be as simple as the right photo and tasty type treatment, and this shouldn’t necessarily be costly for the author. But the investment in the cover design is critical for any author to consider. If one is writing to fulfill dreams, the image associated with the dream is no less important.

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