What is a book cover for?
Arguably, it is there to stop you spilling tea on the words inside.
But all too often a cover can be a barrier not just to tea, but to the success of your book. And that can’t be a good thing. So let us see what we can do to rectify that.
Firstly, we need to address that old and well-worn cliché that (all together now) you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. No, of course you shouldn’t. The cover is the face your book shows to the world, but the important parts are all inside. The story is what matters. However, a bad cover may mean that your book is not judged at all, merely ignored.
There are a lot of books out there and the reality of publishing is that your book will be vying for attention alongside thousands of other options. The key job your cover has is to make somebody stop and pick up your book. Then they can read your blurb, then they can see what your story is all about, then they can start to make a judgement.
Ask yourself this: is my cover getting in the way or is it getting me attention?
Consider these five things and make sure you are not giving potential readers an excuse to ignore your book.
1. Size matters
Where will people see your book? If your potential readers are picking up a paperback in an actual bookshop, then they will have a very different shopping experience from those browsing the virtual bookshelves of Amazon.
Decide where your book is going to be seen and design your cover accordingly.
Have a look at Amazon. Go on, have a look, I’ll wait for you. Do you see how small each cover is? That is the size at which your potential readers will be seeing your cover. If you are selling on Amazon then your cover must look good at small sizes.
And by “look good” I really mean this: a potential reader must be able to read the title, read your name, and they must be able to understand the imagery that is being used. If they cannot do these three things when seeing your book at a smaller size, then you are giving them a reason to ignore your book and move on to the next in line.
2. Less can be more
What imagery should you use on the front of your book? My recommendation, in the majority of cases, is to have one, easily understandable image on your cover.
This helps with the size issue. If your book is mostly going to be seen at Amazon thumbnail size, then having one, clear image on the front will help ensure your cover is still understandable at that smaller size.
Grab your cover and zoom right out. Shrink it down to the size it will be seen on Amazon. Does the imagery still make sense, or has it become a bit of a mess? If it isn’t immediately clear what the image is, then you risk offering another excuse for a potential reader to slide on by.
Even if you are publishing paperbacks that will be sold in a bricks and mortar bookshop, there is still an argument for keeping your imagery uncluttered. There will be hundreds, if not thousands, of other books in that shop and your cover still needs to shout for attention. Keep it clean and easy-to-understand and you stand a better chance of catching the eye of the bookshop browser.
3. Tease me
There is no easy way to put this, so I’ll just say it. Sometimes an author is too invested in their book. And this can be an issue if that author is designing their own cover.
Now, designing your cover yourself is definitely a valid option. But you need to work really hard to make sure it doesn’t look like you designed it yourself.
One trap that can snare the unwary writer is the desire to share everything about their book. After all, no one knows the book better than the author. There is that awesome scene where all the characters go to X so we should have a picture of X on the cover, and there are two main characters so they have to be on the front, and there is an important bit of backstory involving Y so let’s chuck a picture of Y on as well, and – really – the whole book is a metaphor for Z so that has to be on there.
Okay, that is an extreme example. Or is it? Haven’t you seen covers with just a little too much going on?
Tease the reader. Get them interested. Make them want to find out more. And, by all means, make sure the cover reflects what happens in your story. But don’t put it all out there. Leave most of the revelations where they are supposed to be: between the covers.
4. Follow the crowd
You want to stand out, don’t you?
I’m afraid to say that, in actual fact, you probably don’t.
Remember, the aim of your cover is to not be ignored. It needs to be easily understood. Your potential readers have been trained to recognise certain visual clues when browsing through the bookshelves and your cover needs to contain those clues or that reader might just walk right past.
Say I am browsing for a thriller. On the shelf in front of me is a book called Maximum Thrill. Okay, that sounds like a thriller. Except, the title is written in a cursive font and the colour scheme is in a range of pastel shades. Perhaps it isn’t a thriller after all. Perhaps I will move on to the next book with its large sans serif font and its black and red colour scheme. That looks like a thriller.
I’m not saying that you cannot buck the trends of your chosen genre. And you certainly can play around with them. But don’t let your cover choices get in the way of your book. If it is an out-and-out thriller then, maybe, make it look like a thriller.
Again, it is all about not squandering that opportunity to say “pick me up and find out more about me” when a potential reader is sliding their gaze across your cover.
5. The law of the letter
We touched on fonts in that last section and they are another key aspect of your cover design. After all, your title and your name are two of the most important things on the cover, and they need to be written in something.
Firstly, there are those genre conventions to think about. Choose a cursive, serif, or sans serif typeface to match the genre you belong to.
Next, you need to think about display typefaces. Display typefaces are the gregarious, outspoken cousin of your everyday text typeface. Your book will be published in a text typeface, one which lets the words do the talking. Your cover, on the other hand, deserves a display typeface. Something that demands a bit of attention.
Taking an everyday text typeface and blowing it up to a large size is not always the best move when designing your cover. It can look a little home-made. It is better to select a display typeface that has been designed to look good at larger sizes.
Search online and you will soon discover a wealth of fonts from which to choose. The most important thing, however, is to read the licencing information for the typeface you are buying. Make sure that you have obtained the necessary permissions to use that font on your cover (ie for commercial use), otherwise the creator of that font may come knocking and be, justifiably, a little upset.
Is that all?
There are many moving parts that need to come together to make a great cover. But I hope that these five things are a useful starting point. Five questions you can ask of your cover to see if it is helping or hindering your book.
Jon is an illustrator from England with a love of books and writing. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before he brought the two together and started designing book covers.