Book Covers: The Last Thing Writers Think About but the First Thing Readers See


I’m a broken record. Yeah, I know. But let’s talk about the most important aspect of your marketing for a moment: the book cover. I’ve been toying with the idea for a year now of opening a small, regional publishing house, sort of a micropress hybrid… the main reason for this? the amount of really bad book covers that I see on books put out by small, traditional publishers.

The fact is people judge books by the cover. It is your very first opportunity to say something about the book—your first introduction—and it speaks volumes and on a pass/fail basis. Think of a bookstore shelf like a formal party; if you wear torn sweatpants and forgot to shower and do your hair when everyone else is in tuxedoes and evening gowns you are not going to make it past the bouncer. Your book might need to freshen up and see a tailor.

Most of these duds don’t even meet industry standards and if chain, retail booksellers decide to start cracking down on their own guidelines, a lot of titles from smaller houses will disappear from the shelves. I predict this will happen in the future. With the glut of books being released despite shelf-space disappearing, something is going to give way at some point and there will be a crackdown. If your book somehow made it to an open seat at the dinner party despite the dress code, it might not get to stay to enjoy dessert.

I mostly pulled these tips from a design blog post (Tugboat’s 7 common cover design mistakes.) I have previously written a guide with a different list of cover no-nos including:

Extreme close up
Bad CG stock art
Poor font choice, textures, and text overlays
Bad photo manipulation
Spelling errors and text placement
Improper blending of pasted elements
Overly complex/simple artwork
Amateur hour/refrigerator art (I see lots of indie childrens’ books that are just scanned crayon/marker drawings… that doesn’t translate well to mass production.)
Transparency/opacity abuse
Landscaping time (stock photo of unrelated background used as cover graphic—that’s only a good choice if your book is about gardening)

I liked the article from the Tugboat blog and wanted to expand on my list; some of their elements weren’t on mine. There are several things to keep in mind for a book cover.

  1. On a marketing note, remember that it makes the target continue looking at the book. Part 1: don’t turn the reader off by committing the above fatal mistakes (the sweatpants at the ball). Part 2: this one is a little trickier, but make the viewer actually want to read the book. This means using the marketing tactics we’ve been looking at for weeks, now. Use emotion and imagery that communicates a story and draws him or her in. A picture is worth a thousand words, so make them say something. Make that something be “you need this book and here’s why.”
  2. Don’t try to match every detail of the book perfectly. That’s a great way to paint yourself into a corner with stock art that is not a good fit. Yes, the models might have all the right physical details, but the emotion and tone of the art might be wrong. The object of the cover is to get a reader to continue holding the book and consider a purchase… it is not to communicate minutia and book details.
  3. Don’t break the mold. I’ve written about this regarding the content of books before. There is always someone doing something bold and new that rocks the literary world to its knees with such a clever stroke of the pen. Guess what. It’s probably not you. If your goal is to get people to read this book, then don’t be too different. Your photos of Rorschach diaper smears might very well be examples of artistic genius that we mortals cannot easily comprehend; so give us something that we can. Look at covers by bestsellers in your genre and use it as a guideline—those norms and stereotypes help the cover tell a wordless story. It communicates the genre without ever saying a word. If readers can’t guess who will like this book at a glance, the only thing they will take away is “this book is not for me.”
  4. Ask yourself what you want readers to see first. Use contrast, color, font and text size to determine what the focal point will be on the cover. The geography is limited so give this some consideration.
  5. Remember to obey industry standards! The cover’s thumbnail should be easily read (including the title and author name!) The ISBN should have a code and the 13 digit number must be human readable. The spine should also be readable with publisher, author, and book names included.

You can read more about industry standards for both Covers and a book’s interior/formatting at the Independent Book Publishers Association website.

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