Under the (Book) Covers

The human brain is designed to form opinions based on first impressions. As much as we all love a good adage like “Never judge a book by its cover,” the truth is that we do judge a book by a cover. Every time. According to Forbes, readers take exactly seven seconds to look at a cover and decide if they’re interested in buying a book.

That means your front cover is the single most important factor readers use to decide if they want to look at your book.

No matter how much marketing and promotion you do, no matter how well written and edited your book is, if you have an unattractive, dull, or amateurish-looking book cover, your book is sunk. And the worst part? You won’t find out for sure until it’s too late. Once you’ve released your book into the world, there are no take-backsies, no do-overs, and no reader is going to say, “Oh, I know there are a million new books a year being released, but I think this ugly book is the one I want to spend my money on.” Nope. Nope. Nope.

And it’s not just readers. Booksellers aren’t inclined to feature books that they don’t see as “quality.” The media is more likely to pass on reviewing those books.

Much like good writing, cover design requires a substantial amount of skill, experience, and knowledge. So if you’re going to DIY it, then you’d better take the time to inform yourself about the elements of cover design before you upload a free stock photo and drop the title text down in bold sans serif and then congratulate yourself on mastering design in the span of ten minutes.

Whether you’re hiring a pro (we seriously and strenuously recommend it) or think you have the design chops to pull it off yourself, here are some things you need to know about your book cover.

What Makes a Good Cover?

It clearly identifies your book’s genre.

Elements such as color, imagery, and font selection should clearly indicate to readers what your book is about.

“For example, science fiction and fantasy book covers often combine fantastical content with a realistic illustration style, and even favor specific choices like all-caps titles and blue or amber coloring,” author Tim McConnehey told Forbes. “Non-fiction, on the other hand, often uses a clever or thought-provoking image to engage readers on a cerebral level. Even if readers don’t realize they’re looking for these signals, they’ll notice that your book looks similar to others they’ve read and enjoyed.”

You may not have realized that each genre has its own design conventions, but spend some time poking around your bookstore or library and we bet you’ll spot them pretty quickly.

It looks like it belongs on a shelf with other bestsellers.

In order to ensure your book stands out—but conversely (and irritatingly enough) also fits in with other books in the genre—you’ll want to spend some time researching other books in your genre. What do covers look like for bestselling comparable books? What things do they have in common? What catches your eye?

“Whether you’re a self-publishing author or an independent publisher, you need information about what your target audience wants so you make sound, data-driven business decisions,” writes Karla Lant in “Anatomy of a Book Cover.” “Before you start on cover design, research 20 to 50 books in your genre, dissecting each cover into parts. Note the front cover, back cover, spine, layout, picture, fonts, and other elements of each cover.”

Its design elements are carefully considered.

Professional designers understand visual composition the way writers become instinctively aware of good grammar and sentence structure. Without these elements, the most unique or creative approach turns into a mess.

  • Contrast: The play of light against dark and of different colors against each other can increase the visual appeal of your book and make your title stand out.
  • Color: Aside from creating visual interest and contrast, marketing experts have identified an entire strategy around the psychology of color. Red is exciting. Blue means business or even something health related. Green can indicate something natural.
  • Font: “The fonts you select communicate more than the words they spell out, so choose based on the content and tone you’re aiming for,” advises Lant. “Don’t get so creative with fonts that your title and other information is tricky to read. Set the right mood with your font; choose a more flowing font to suggest romance, a whimsical font for humor, and a bold, strong font to create a sense of drama or adventure.”
  • Space: One of the biggest mistakes amateur designers make is trying to fill up all the empty space. The challenge here is to know when space is good (keeps the cover from getting too busy) and when it’s bad (the cover looks empty and incomplete).

It includes necessary sales features.

Not every independent author has been writing long or successfully enough to have accumulated professional endorsements, but if you have, you’ll want to include phrases such as “internationally bestselling author/book” or “New York Times bestselling author” if you do, in fact, qualify.

Another great promotional feature authors can include are “blurbs”—excerpts from reviews or praise for the book or author from a well-known author or publication. (Check out our blog post on “The Art of the Blurb” to see how to most effectively use reviews to market and promote your book.)

What Makes a Bad Cover?

Much like terrible writing and a complete lack of proper sentence structure can give away a writer’s inexperience, cover design has its own distinct tells:

  • Unaltered stock photography, while being by far the most affordable option for imagery, lands a lot of DIY designers in trouble. Nothing is more embarrassing than two, three, or even ten books all featuring the same cover image.
  • Using the whimsical fonts standard on your computer is another “creative” cost-saving practice that can indicate an inexperienced designer is at work. If you want to use a distinctive and dynamic font for your book, license a professional one. Otherwise, stick with neutral, reader-friendly font like Times or Helvetica. Make sure your font is clear and easy to read. Types that are too swirly or too blocky can be hard on the eyes.
  • Using silhouettes as imagery can be a workaround when you’re relying on stock photography, but the overall effect usually results in something less stylish and more … well, cheesy.
  • One of the hardest impulses for indie authors to fight is using the cover to tell the story. Much like back cover copy, an experienced hand knows which elements will tease the readers and which details to leave out.
  • Another aspect to consider is scalability. If your cover looks good only when it’s full-size, you’re going to run into trouble. With online bookstores and ads relying on thumbnail images, you’ll need to ensure your cover looks as enticing at only an inch or two tall as it does on the book itself.

Remember that a book cover isn’t about “making your vision a reality.” A well-designed cover is intended to appeal to your readers, get them picking up or clicking on your book, and generate sales. Much like writing the book itself, designing a book cover is an investment—one that will pay off. So take your time, consider creating a budget for a professional book designer, and remember that at the end of the day, your cover is the first thing that will announce your book to readers and give them an indication of what’s inside.

“I believe that if the publisher or author took the time and expense to create a great cover, it shows that they paid the same amount of attention to the content and book design,” says Tim McConnehey. “Very rarely do you see a well-written, finely edited book with a bad cover.”

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