Seven Ways to Ensure
Your Cover Is Worthy of Your Story
by Sabine Berlin
You’ve been taught your whole life: Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s great advice. Who knows what friendships you might have missed out on, what new things you might not have tried if this hadn’t been hammered into your head since childhood? But the funny thing is, the one place where that advice should be easiest to follow is the one place where the rule flies right out the window.
Everyone will judge your book by its cover.
I get it, I really do. Your book is your baby. No one will ever know your book as well as you do, so who better to dress it all up? Unfortunately, unless you’re a professional designer who also has a background in book marketing, controlling your own cover might be the worst marketing mistake you’ll ever make. So what’s a writer to do? Here are seven great tips to help you get your dream cover—and the dream sales to go along with it.
1) What Is a Cover?
Your cover is your first impression. Since we’re spouting words of wisdom, here is another gem you should remember: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. A weak or bad cover may communicate that the book inside isn’t so great—and may be enough to make a reader not even pick it up off the shelf. You want the opposite to be true. You want the reader to be drawn straight to your book. Just the other day I bought a book simply because I was in love with the cover. I didn’t even bother reading what it was about. (Luckily it was the perfect book for me, and I already knew that, because the cover was the perfect cover for me.) For physical books and e-books alike, marketing your book is ALL about your cover—front and back. Those are the only selling tools you’ve got, and they’d better be 1,000 percent.
2) Who Is Your Cover For?
The first question you want to ask yourself regarding your cover is: Who are you trying to attract? In other words, who is your key audience? A sci-fi thriller with a romance in it is going to have a completely different look than a romance with a sci-fi element. Good cover designers spend (a lot) of time on Amazon and Goodreads looking at comparable titles. They analyze what bestsellers are doing on their covers to make them say “genre/hook,” and then they copy those design principles/motifs. In short, there’s a specific look for YA covers. Same goes for sci-fi. And for romance. They all end up looking like totally original covers, but each one will say something to the reader that is instantly recognizable. You have to speak to the niche for whom you’re writing. If you try to speak to everyone, you end up speaking to no one.
3) Font of Knowledge
If you’re like most authors, you have put vast amounts of time and maybe even blood, sweat, and tears into picking a title for your book. Why sabotage it? Fonts are critical! They can make or break your cover. You really need to understand the basics before permanently putting them on your book. You can go here and here to learn more and see examples. Make sure your font or fonts (two is plenty) are professional looking and easily readable (so no Comic Sans or Papyrus). The fonts that came with Word are not going to cut it. If you’re designing your own cover, you should invest the $40-plus in a professional font. Make sure that there’s space around the text. A common self-publishing mistake with the cover is putting the words right on the edge of the image (the rare, deliberate design can pull this off, but usually it says amateur).
Your title must be readable. You also want to make sure that it’s not too long, that it’s not confusing, and that it goes with the image you’ve chosen. By the way: your title is also marketing copy. It should say something about the genre/category of the book—the kind of story it is (primarily adventure, thriller, intrigue, horror, adult romance vs. teen, etc.)—not just about your particular plot. Again, do your research; what are the patterns for titles selling in your genre? One- or two-worders? Eyebrow-raising main title with explanatory subtitle? Consider adding an explanatory tagline (see the top of our sample cover) that will tie the cover image and title together if the cover elements aren’t clearly selling a single, compelling idea.
4) Picture Perfect
Before you open that free stock image, STOP! Don’t do it. If you use a stock photo, buy one from a reputable company such as istock.com or shutterstock.com. Unless you are a professional photographer, don’t try to use your own photos. If you are willing to spend the money on the right font and the right photo, you should invest in a graphic designer to help you create the perfect cover. Best of all is a designer who has actual experience in the publishing industry, because those designers understand the trends/traditions for different genres (i.e., they know what’s involved in marketing and why certain looks are trending) and can help you with your fonts and layouts.
But if you plan on designing your cover yourself, you’ll need more than basic office software—and the experience to go with it. If you have these tools, remember that less is more. Remember, too, to keep things relatively simple; don’t use a picture that overpowers your cover or the marketable idea you’re trying to sell. (And watch out for common newbie mistakes—a black silhouette with no gradation, or focusing on whether the figures are wearing the right clothes, or have the right hair or look to match your book’s content. If you’re choosing between an image that tells the type of story you are selling vs. one that is accurate to the content of your story, go with the less accurate image that makes your product packaging clear and marketable to your ideal reader.)
5) Don’t Trust Yourself!
Not to give you low self-esteem or anything, but remember, this is your book, and in your eyes there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s why you hired an editor or got your fantastic critique group to help you make it perfect (if you didn’t, I promise you, you are not ready to design a cover). Sometimes the story we see is not what other people see—and sometimes the cover we love is not what others will love (read: “buy”). Get a few mock-ups from the designer and run them by readers of the genre as well as some other professionals in the publishing industry (successfully published authors of the genre work too). Which mock-up draws them in? Which image is most intriguing? Which font style and/or placement is most pleasing to the eye?
6) Nail It!
Thumbnail it, that is. Before finalizing that cover design, it’s critical to look at it as a thumbnail. Can you still tell what the image is? Can you still read the text? If you’re too close to your project to be objective, ask someone else. Remember that potential readers will most likely see your cover as a thumbnail first; they’ll click to make it bigger only if the thumbnail image has sparked their interest.
7) Turn It Around
If your cover is going to make your reader pick up the book, your back copy will make them open the book. You want a back cover that makes the plot or marketing hook (or your unique nonfiction angle), character hook, and genre very clear. Professionals spend hours on these and are paid well to produce them, so don’t fail to consider how seriously you need to take this marketing copy. If you don’t have training here (this is not a plot summary and is not the same as the book description on Amazon), we suggest getting a little help from someone who does.
Your front/back covers are not only going to draw in potential readers, they are going to get you bloggers and book reviewers—who will either rave about your book (and thus get you more readers) or shun your book. I myself have written blogs about books that were not half bad, but I spent more than half the blog talking about how awful the cover was. If the cover is bad, in fact, you may not even get a blogger to read or post about the book. So go ahead and commit some funds to this part of the publishing process, and definitely take the time to judge your book by its cover—because everyone else will.
Do This Now
- Get on Amazon or go to your bookstore and look at the top thirty bestsellers in your genre (make sure you are very clear on what your genre/category is and why). Look for patterns in the covers. For instance, during the time this article is being released, sci-fi thrillers are presenting a lot of icy blues, angular/thin fonts, taglines with a hook, no spaceships, and so on. Choose your top three favorites among these sample covers and hold them in reserve to send to a designer when you’re ready. To get an idea of how many people are involved in making the “cover decision” at traditional publishing houses, and the extensive process they go through to ensure they have a winner (because it’s THAT important!), check out this video. (The meat of the discussion happens about five minutes in.)
- Don’t go it alone. Hire a professional, or at least find a group of people whose artistic abilities you trust and who will be honest with you. Then listen to them!
- If you are dead set on doing this on your own, study, study, study! You’ll want to study everything from covers to titles to learning the software that you’ll need to use. (And get bids from designers before putting in all that time—unless you really value the DIY experience. You’d be amazed how inexpensive a good cover can be.)
Ever bought a book based solely on its cover? Or passed by a book for the same reason? Share with us. What draws you in as a reader?
Sabine is an avid reader of everything from Asimov to Zusak. She has a degree in history, writes YA fiction, and was selected to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, where she studied writing and critiquing. She has been with Eschler Editing since 2012. She invites you to visit her blog.
You wanted to know if I ever bought a book because of its cover? The answer is, YES! Not too long ago, I purchased a Brandon Sanderson book because I loved the cover. The book, “The Alloy of Law” has a cover that reminds me of historical fiction–which is one of my favorite genres. I know that’s not Sanderson’s genre, but I was still intrigued. I bought the book on whim and have yet to read it. But I LOVE the cover. And every time I look at it, I tell myself I will read it someday!
King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City (awesome maze of independent bookstore-ness) has largely benefited from my have-to-buy-that-because-of-the-cover problem…
Great article, Sabine! So many DIY covers out there act as “reader repellent.” It’s sad, because I’m sure a lot of them contain great stories that will never be read because of the cover. You gave some great advice here though. Good job!
I so agree. Self-publishing is a great option we as writers have, yet so many people neglect the basics in their rush to getting their book out there!
Such wonderful advice! I will be bookmarking this article! 🙂
I love this! Some authors I know were recently designing their own covers, and they were doing crazy things like writing their own blurbs, and making their author name bigger than the title of their book. They really could have used this article! Such good information to consider. A pretty shiny cover has definitely sold me a book or ten in the past!
Yes, there’s a reason to everything. Traditionally, your author name can be bigger than the title of your book, but usually that happens when the author has a big name–a known “brand” in the market. The name could possibly sell more books than the title, and hence it is the dominant text trying to get a reader’s attention. Generally, if you don’t have a recognizable name, you want other text to draw in the reader, to hook them. Like a snazzy and market-savvy title and image. People mess around with that for various reasons, but it helps to know why marketing copy was and is done in certain ways.
Fantastic article! Basically what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t do my own book cover, right? All good information to think about for sure.
Unless you are a professional photographer and a professional designer with a background in book marketing, probably not :). But don’t fear, even when you work with someone who knows what they are doing, you can still provide input :).
Dude, I am so not doing this process on my own! I’ll hire someone if I ever decide to self publish. I have no photography experience and zero confidence in my marketing ability. haha. However, I’ll still do tons of research even to hire someone. Even to just approve a design. So this is good advice for the future. Thanks!
This is a fabulous article. Thanks for the ideas. I have definitely passed on a lot of books, because the covers just didn’t call to me.