A great book cover design can make or break the future of a book. Quite simply, it is one of the most important marketing tools we authors have at our disposal.
In fact, even if we work hard to send a lot of people to our sales pages, we’re going to end up empty-handed in terms of sales if the cover isn’t top-notch.
Of course, a great cover isn’t necessarily a safe-conduct to success, but an ordinary one can really drive potential readers away.
Fact is, these days the number of books on sale is so large and people so busy that even those claiming that their buying habits aren’t particularly affected by covers—for example, people like me—must admit to being a lot more susceptible to amateurish and simplistic covers than they were just, say, five years ago.
That’s why we should, ideally, hire a professional.
However, for those of us who have a shoestring budget not all is lost. In fact, even though in matter of taste there cannot be an absolute truth, covers of successful books tend all to share certain features. So, learning about them can help us in the creation of low budget but effective covers.
Features great covers share
They are organic
They are readable
They are coherent
They are all about high quality
They are restrained
They are genre-wise
They are reader oriented
In fact, even though 99.5% of a book is constituted by the story, for potential readers the story is the only part they have no access to.
They have access to the title, the author’s name, the blurb, the synopsis, and a relatively short sample. But not to the story.
As a result, an effective cover must make use only of the elements readily available to prospecting readers. This means that if we couple the picture of our cover with the title, the subtitle, and the author’s name to raise an emotional response, or to stir questions this is fine as long as at least part of this emotional response can be farther elaborated in the blurb and/or the synopsis.
For example, A dark Christmas could present a snowed in landscape in stark contrast with the black lettering of the title. This could raise questions about what contrasts our readers might be about to find in the story. But if in the blurb we fail to exploit the duality the cover evoked, most of our potential readers would probably go back to browsing.
Similarly, Eternal love could be paired to the picture of an autopsy room. In this case the picture could represent a hint about how the story will end. But it could also represent the starting point of the story. I mean, it could be a book about zombies, or reincarnation. This actual subject is not really important. What matters is that in the blurb our readers can find hints about what the story is about and new deeper questions awaiting answers.
These are just a couple of barely sketched out examples, but I hope you get the idea.
This applies in particular to indie writers publishing ebooks. In fact, as we all know, thumbnails on Amazon, Kobo, IBooks, Smashwords and, as a matter of fact, any other online publishing platform, are quite small.
Sure, if a prospecting reader clicks on the image, the thumbnail turns instantly into a full-sized image. But the moment someone clicks on our thumbnail our cover has already done the work it’s should hopefully do. Namely, catching potential readers’ attention.
It’s already bad enough that thumbnails are small. Besides, a sizable part of potential readers surf the web through their cells, and a large part of the population wears, or should be wearing, glasses.
This means that even as a thumbnail our cover must be as easy on the eyes as possible, with a clearly readable title and uncluttered graphics.
Indeed, ideally our cover should focus essentially on one or two well identifiable elements. This is one of those cases in which, if done properly, minimalism can pay out nicely.
The elements of our cover should also present a certain degree of coherence. This doesn’t mean they must all present the very same characteristics. In fact, a cover built only on similarities would be just as appealing as the flat line of an ECG.
However, we should also be aware of the dangers of going in the opposite direction. For sure, a picture blending drawings and photos is, generally speaking, a bad idea. By the same token, title, subtitle, and the author’s name, should rely on fonts which don’t clash with each other too garishly.
In fact, just like contrasting colors can work wonders, also contrasting fonts can be quite effective. However, they have to be handled with extreme care—for example, putting them on the opposite ends of the cover and with one, generally the one used for the title, larger than the other.
I rarely go shopping. When I do, I generally look for hiking boots, or technical gear to go hiking up the mountains. On these occasions, every time that I single out a pair of boots or an item of clothing, I discover they aren’t just pricey but outrageously so.
Sure, I could simply be one of those people who wear only designer clothes. But this isn’t really the case. I mean, for my everyday activities I’m one of those people who could go on forever with nondescript cargo pants, sweatshirt and snickers. The fact is that, in general, quality products tend to distinguish themselves from all the others, no matter what they’re priced–but be wary of wines!
The same goes for book covers. If they sport cheap clip arts, and/or our own photos or drawings, chances are that potential readers will briefly look at them and then without any hesitation… will look somewhere else. This means we can make simple and effective covers, but we can never make cheap and effective ones.
Of course, if you’re a professional photographer or artist you can probably discard this suggestion. But remember that a cover isn’t only a drawing or a photo. It requires a holistic approach to exert its full power.
The fact we have at our disposal an artist we’re friend with, or some powerful programs like Photoshop, or Gimp doesn’t mean we have to go mad and try out all the possible graphic effects in the same book cover. Indeed, gradients, garish color combinations, transparencies and whatnot, they all have their uses, but the safest bet about how to use them is to avoid using them at all.
Like it’s often the case in literature that less is more, the same goes with covers. Potential readers can and want to interact with what they are examining, what they’re scanning. But if we saturate their senses with an overload of extravaganzas, they may well decide to withdraw from our work. Sometimes too much is simply too much.
Genres have a series of key features. Consequently, also covers should follow the same guidelines. It’s not really a matter of mechanical production. It’s rather a way to help the right kind of readership for our novel to find us.
In fact, if a great but misleading cover in terms of genre persuades thousands of readers to buy our book, we can bet we’re going to end up with a not so pleasant share of critical reviews.
In case of novels that cannot be easily pinned down to a single genre, it’s important that the cover be coherent with the story. At the very least it should evoke the dominant mood of the novel.
In any case, we’d better make sure to steer away from such misleading approaches as those presented below. Sure, nowadays we all know about these masterpieces, but what if we didn’t know about the real content of such stories?
For us writers, the story we have written represents everything. Indeed, we know our story so intimately that the way we see our cover has nothing to do with the way potential readers can see and experience it.
This is why it’s so important for us writers to use our imaginative powers to enter the shoes of our potential readers. Only in this way we will be able to think up a cover that really serves the needs of our readers.
It seems difficult. And sure it is. But as writers we should be used to this kind of impersonation. So we have no excuses about this.
A last word
In any case, we should always remember that even following all the rules of book cover design, and applying and adjusting them to our personal needs, there’s no guarantee whatsoever about sales and reviews.
That’s why writers should also learn early on how to grow a thick skin.
Interesting Articles about book cover design:
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Image by Retro-Lounge