Designing a good book cover means more than just finding a cool font and a cool picture and making sure the author’s name is on there somewhere. I’ve been designing book covers for ten years now–more, if you count the annual report covers I designed before that. All too often book cover design is presented as something that can be done on a turnkey basis; numerous self-publishing sites offer a range of book covers from which authors must choose. What comes out is about what you would expect–there are a great many books out there that all look very much alike. If the covers were designed to actually sell books that might be all right, but many of them have been intentionally designed to be bland and generic. After all, this cover “design” will be applied to many books on many different subjects. Bland is the best you can do in a case like that.
I’ve heard numerous authors complain about their book covers, and then shrug and finish, “But the book was all right.”
Here’s a tip: “All right” doesn’t cut it. Your book cover design can make or break your book’s success. So what makes a good cover? And how can you know if you have one? The following list reflects conversations with publishers, book distributors, and self-publishing professionals. Read them over, and see what you think.
1. Don’t make it brown. I’m doing this one first because I’ve never understood it, or the rationale behind it. However, book distributors at Publishers Group Northwest swore that books with brown covers rarely if ever sold well. Why? I don’t know. I love brown, myself. But a good book cover is not just one that looks pretty–a good book cover sells your book. If the distributors say brown doesn’t sell well, I listen. When I’m designing book covers I don’t make them brown.
2. Keep the type easy to read. Readability results from three factors: Size, type complexity, and color. If you’re wondering about the type on your book, try a little experiment. Take the cover art, trim it to size, and go to your local bookstore. Stand it up on the shelf (it actually works even better if you can get a friend to do this for you). Now go to the end of the row and “browse” the shelf.
Do you see your book cover quickly? Does it draw your eye, or fade into the woodwork (possibly one reason for the moratorium on brown covers)? Can you read the name quickly and easily? Doe the book invite you in? A good rule of thumb is to shoot for a cover that catches the shopper’s eye from at least six feet. Tiny, tasteful type isn’t going to do that in most cases. Neither is overly ornate type; it’s simply too hard to read. Look at the book covers in your genre. Even if you’re writing bodice-rippers (customarily the frilliest of covers) you’ll see that while initial caps may be set in an ornate font, the bulk of the book title is nearly always in an easy-to-read font. The same goes for spine copy. Make sure that your type is set as large as is tastefully possible on the spine. What happens if your book is shelved, spine out? Consider adding a small art element, if you can do so without crowding the copy.
Now compare the artwork (if any) on your cover with the other books on the shelf beside it. Obviously you don’t want your art to look bizarre on the shelf, but on the other hand you don’t want it to just become part of the wallpaper, either. If most of the book covers in your section use illustrations, consider illustration. If most use photography, consider that–but be aware that art usage fees can drive your cover costs through the roof. Choose wisely.
“Choose wisely” also applies to the relationship between cover art and book content. If you’ve written a steamy little bodice ripper where people are collapsing into bed every other page, it might be a good idea to have your book cover hint (Note: keep it tasteful!) at that content. You will attract readers searching for your type of book–and warn off readers who are not.
Relating cover art to book content doesn’t just apply to sexual content; it applies to geography as well. I once stumbled across a book purporting to be about the Amazon jungle. I bought the book, but I still don’t know if it was actually about that area–because the photo on the cover was a nicely composed picture of Multnomah Falls, in the Columbia Gorge. That might be a wonderful book–but I will probably never find out because someone in the cover creation process didn’t do his or her homework.
And that brings us to the third area in which you need to choose your cover art wisely. The internet is full of images. The use of images is governed by usage laws. Before you include a piece of art on your cover, double-check that you are not infringing those usage laws.
One last thing to consider is color theory. The color spectrum is divided up into warm colors (reds and yellows) cool colors (blues and violets) and neutral colors (greens). Within each category colors can be further described as “warm” tones (those that include a significant amount of yellow in their formula) and “cool” tones (those that include more blue). People tend to be stimulated and attracted by warm colors, and calmed and repelled by cool colors. Does that mean giving your book a red color guarantees sales? Well, no. But including warm reds, yellows, and golds helps create a welcoming cover that invites browsers to pick a book up. It is not by accident that so many books feature yellow and gold titles against cooler illustration images. Using contrasting warm and cool colors is a good way to create a visual push/pull, which makes for a more dynamic, attention-grabbing cover.
Consider visual texture. Real texture–embossing–is expensive. In fact, it’s probably beyond your means if you’re self-publishing. But, with the judicious use of color and the restrained use of embossing and drop shadow PhotoShop tools you can create something of the effect of texture. Texture invites touch. You want people to pick up your book. You want them to open it. You want them to buy it.
What’s on the back? It should be a short blurb giving a taste of what’s in the book. Optional items are an “About the Author” section, and a “Praise for” section. This gives you a chance to excerpt a few of your best review quotes. If your book has won an award, make certain that’s prominently mentioned, too, front and back. The back of your book should also include your book’s bar code, and the ISBN/EAN number (Note: major book distributors require a 13-digit EAN number for books now).
In the end, a “good enough” cover is a failure. Your book cover is your first–and often your last–chance to persuade browsers that your book is worth noticing, worth picking up, worth examining, worth buying–and worth reading.
If you have questions about your book cover, or of you need one, check out our Book Design services page, then email me. We’ll talk.
Sherry Wachter has been been designing print and online materials for fifteen years, and books for ten. Her designs and illustrations have been used by Hilton Hotels, Wesson Oil, Mobil, Star System, Korn/Ferry International, and numerous others. You can see some of her work here, here, and here.