Book cover design

Judging a cover by its book

From Rick:

This week, we’ll continue where Scott left off last time. He pointed out how a potential buyer will use the title and cover to decide if the book is worth a second glance. This week we’ve deliberately switched the article’s title to reflect our look at the book as a guide to crafting the cover.

One caveat: Neither of us claims to have the magic formula on creating perfect covers. We’re not cover designers, but we’ve seen a number of professional covers that seriously miss that mark. However, we do have some excellent guidelines to follow when designing one. For the time being (and a possible future blog), we’ll assume that you have the perfect title. We’re assuming as well that you’re designing the cover for an e-book. Most of these principles also apply to a print book.

Other bloggers have pointed out what helps sell a book.

Konrath says: “Once a reader realizes a book exists, the author has to make a good impression. A great cover, great blurb, and professional formatting are all subtle indicators that this is a quality product. Believe it or not, the size of the author’s name on the cover can subconsciously signal that the author is important.”

David Gaughran says: “Let’s face it, everyone judges a book by its cover. If you have an ugly cover, people may never read your story. There are certain conventions in book design—play with these at your peril. A reader selecting a title depicting a cartoon blonde overburdened with shopping bags and teetering on stilettos is not expecting free-form poetry.

“If you set false expectations, your sales will suffer. George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice nearly never got off the blocks. For the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, the designer opted for something a little different, and sales were muted.

“Thankfully, his UK and Australian publishers went for a more traditional fantasy cover, and the international success of the series convinced his US publisher to stick with it. It has since sold 7 million copies worldwide. Make no mistake: design matters….

“The stigma attached to self-publishing, although not as widespread as it once was, exists partly because many of the covers of self-published books appear unprofessional. You don’t want to put people off before they even get a chance to sample your writing. Also, remember that your self-published work won’t just be up against other indie authors—you have to compete with the rest of the publishing world too.”

Here are some design guidelines.

(1) Your cover must look good as a thumbnail because many people will only see your cover on search listings. Shrink your cover image down to between one and two inches in size. Is everything clear? Is the title clear and easy to see? Can you read the author’s name? The latter is less important because at this stage the reader is looking a cover images. He probably already sees the title and author on the listing.

(2) The cover should also look good as a grayscale image (black and white) because many readers will be browsing for books on their Kindles.

(3) Keep your cover uncluttered. Small details will be lost, and a crowded, complicated–or dark–cover will become a mess in small size. If a customer can’t see it clearly, you’ve lost that sales advantage.

(4) A good book cover, along with its title, should pose a question to the reader, such as “What’s going on here?” Likewise, the cover should suggest the genre.

Okay, I see you raising your hands. “What about romance novels?” you ask. “Don’t they typically show just a hunky man or gorgeous woman, or both in a suggestive pose and little about the story?” Yes, many of them do. At the same time, look at the background and you’ll often find a suggestion of the type of romance. Go into any bookstore and look in the romance section. (Oh, wait, bookstores are getting hard to find. You know what I mean.) Browse any section of the store and look at how the covers convey (or should) the genre. Pay close attention to what questions those covers ask you. Do you want to know what the book is about simply from the cover image? If so, the cover has done its job. If not, the cover has failed. Remember that well-known authors do need as much hype as unknowns. Readers buy based on the name.

While you’re in the store, also look at where the author’s name appears on the cover. I saw big-name authors had their name on the top of the page in big letters, with the title was somewhere below it and maybe in a fancy font. But the name was very clear. At the same time, I noticed bestselling novels where the reader would recognize the title, but perhaps not the author’s name, had the titles first and the author name below it or at the cover bottom.

As authors, we all like to think that readers are interested in our name (that’s our vanity), but that’s not the case. Readers want a good story first. THEN, if they like that novel, they’ll shop by your name in the future. Don’t let your ego override good sense and design your cover accordingly.

(5) Other things that make a cover look amateurish:

–A bunch of crap on it that has no clear connection. Remember what Scott pointed out last time. If the image only makes sense after you’ve read the novel, it won’t make much of an impression on your prospective customer. I’ve seen covers with a bunch of things on it that all had meaning to the story–but the reader had no way to know that in advance (as in some of Scott’s examples). All they did was clutter the cover.

–Artwork (or a character) on the cover that looks like an amateur drew it.

–Too many colors on the cover so that there’s no clear theme

Read over the following articles for more insight.

Konrath on ebook promo

5 Things I wish I’d known about ebook cover design

Book Cover Design Tips and Tricks

This last link deserves close attention for an intensive look at cover design. Thea Atkinson also cited it. Read it and learn!

Now, as an example, I’d like to point out what I consider an outstanding novel cover. Check out Jason Willow by Gareth Mottram. In my opinion, this cover hits all the right marks. The colors are bold yet minimal, and the title is easy to read. The author’s name is in small font at the bottom; the character on the cover appears to have been drawn (not a photograph); the images paint a mood and strongly suggest the genre. I’m currently reading the novel and find the story lives up to that cover. The cover convinced me to sample it, and the sample convinced me to buy it. Simple, yet compelling.

Now, let’s consider Scott’s Martyr’s Inferno cover. Instead of the St. Louis arch as shown, what if he had used an American police badge with a gun, a Russian flag opposite those, and the arch framing a mushroom cloud or a firestorm? I’m not saying this would necessarily be an ideal cover, but it would send a different, less sedate, message about the novel. The title and cover together would now pose a question and tell a story by themselves.

We haven’t exhausted the discussion of cover design by any means, and we’ll probably take it up again in a later post. In the meantime, share with us some of your favorite book covers that convinced you to look at what lay under the cover.


One thought on “Judging a cover by its book

  • Hi Rick:

    I’m honored you listed my site in your wonderful essay. Great points, all. I find graphic design a real challenge as there’s so much to learn. I did my own covers except for the most recent one, which I hired out, and even reading all this information and doing all the research, I still feel they need work. One tip for would be DIYers is to take your time with the cover and make sure it really IS the one before you upload it. I’ve changed some of my covers 3 times.

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