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In a competitive marketplace your book cover needs to entice your readers
In a competitive marketplace your book cover needs to entice your readers Image credit: Pietro Bellini

People really do judge a book by its cover - First impressions count

Everyone knows the age-old idiom ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ and oddly enough it’s applicable to everything except books. People really do judge books by the cover, so it’s incredibly important to get it right or lose sales.

The saying means you cannot judge the quality or character of someone or something just by looking at them, but when it comes to book cover design it’s the opposite. You should make sure that someone can very definitely judge the quality and character of your work from the cover, first impressions count.

Character of your book

People browsing for a book, either in a bookshop or online, normally aren’t looking for something to grab their attention. They're not looking for something to surprise them, they’re looking for something specific as they already have an idea of what they want.

The job of your cover is to get people to read the blurb for further explanation, much like a shop window is dressed to entice people inside. To do that it needs to have certain visual cues that clearly tell potential readers what your story is about, promoting the theme and placing your work in a specific genre.

Certain imagery creates certain expectations.

If you have written a science fiction novel, you want sci-fi fans to clearly recognise the theme, and not wonder if it might be a romance or a historical drama. Likewise, if you want people to read your erotic novel you want to convey that it’s not a spy thriller or medieval fantasy. The way to do this is to have clear thematic elements on the front of your book.

The left two books are clearly adult thrillers, using the clichéd silhouetted figure facing away from the reader’s point of view. The right two books are unmistakably erotic fiction using imagery of a couple in a passionate embrace.

Both sets of books are clear about what they are, a reader can instantly make a judgement as to the genre. They might both be clichéd but it’s because they work and help to sell those books.

Define your story’s tone

It’s doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve got your genre nailed, you need to give a sense of tone.

Going back to the sci-fi example, you might want to have futuristic elements, but they must be relevant to your story. It’s no good just whacking a spaceship on a star background and calling it a day if your story is about one man’s fight against an advanced dystopian government.

Stars, spaceships, planets, etc, all point to an epic space opera and not to an intimate anthropological exploration of man. A close-up of a person holding a silver box covered in switches and lights does not imply an interplanetary adventure.

You need to make sure that you include a few defining elements of your story to help sub-categorise your book in readers’ minds.

The two books on the left are doubtlessly space adventures on a galactic scale, whereas the two on the right are obviously stories about impending planetary doom. They both share similar elements, but are clearly different sub-genres.

Remember your reader

As an author, you obviously want as many people as possible to read your book, but when you wrote it you had a type of person or reader in mind. It’s important to remember who your potential readers are and make sure the cover appeals to them.

A brightly coloured cartoony astronaut image is going to imply a children’s space adventure, whereas a dark themed, lone, grizzled man with a laser-pistol is going to appeal to those looking for a gritty sci-fi thriller.

All of the above are all very much western orientated books yet each of them is appealing to a different reader who is looking for a different story.

Word of ‘mouth’ works wonders

If your book has been reviewed or recommended by anyone, or even won any awards, it’s a great tool to get your book noticed amongst all the others.

Pull quotes from reviewers along with simple four or five star imagery is the equivalent of someone whispering in your reader’s ear saying “Other people like this book, it must be good”.

It’s also beneficial to mention any previous works you’ve written that have been successful. Even if people don’t recognise the title they will acknowledge that you’ve written before and are successful enough to go on to write another book.

Quality of your book

You could well have all the ingredients for a very successful book cover but if once put together they don’t look professional it will not get looked at. An amateurish looking cover is worse than one which is vague about its genre. People just aren’t going to buy your book if it looks like it was made in five minutes using Microsoft Word.

The main distinguishing factor of a well put-together cover versus a poor cover is the text. Font and colour choices are incredibly important, as well as placement of the text. You could have a very bland looking image with great typography outsell a book that has an amazing artistic work emblazoned across the front with horrible text.

All of the above books are simple recipe books for the latest trendy fasting diet. All of them have similar elements, pictures of food with the title clearly displayed. However, you can tell at a glance which book is more successful.

The one in the middle by ‘Susana C’ is using a similar colour scheme to the more professional looking book by Kate Harrison but the fonts look cheap, inappropriate and are too varied, and the colours haven’t been used well. The sentence is broken up by the different fonts making it difficult to parse and the colours direct the reader in the wrong way.

The one on the right by Maria Roberts has fewer fonts, which is better, but the layout is wrong and the subtitle is too large and wordy. The colours don’t have any relation to the content and it jars against the healthy eating concept.

Think about building a brand

Starting to think about your image as an author from the beginning is important. As you’re deciding about your fonts, title style, layout, etc, you need to bear in mind that if it’s successful you’ll want to keep it and build a brand around it. Using the same successful formula for your cover designs ensures that your fans will recognise your book from across the room and make a beeline for it.

Best-selling author, Tom Clancy has a very recognisable look. With his name and the title taking up much of the space, in the same font across books, his work is instantly noticed at a glance, regardless of the base colour, title, or imagery.

Your brand might be based on your series of stories, your main character or theme.

Bloomsbury Books released J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series with alternative ‘Adult’ covers so that commuters wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen reading children’s books on the train.

Although the series was already very popular, it became a massive overnight sensation after publication of book four, The Goblet of Fire, when it was announced that Warner Brothers had bought the rights and a film was to be released. This can be seen in the layout of the adult covers.

At first, the association with ‘Harry Potter’ was small, just above the title of the latest instalment, which was the main thing on the cover. Then after it became acceptable for adults to be seen with stories about a teenage wizard the layout was changed and the title was swapped on its head, making the character's name the biggest thing. Now, all the adult covers have been retroactively changed to feature Harry Potter as the biggest item on the front.

Don’t you be the judge

Sometimes authors can lose sight of what the cover of their book is meant to do, what its role plays in the reading experience, and they lose objectivity. It’s an advert, a tool to get people from seeing your book to buying it (and hopefully reading it). It’s better to get others around you, who’s opinion you trust, to judge what may be best.

Instead, authors can become precious of their work, insisting that the cover accurately portray exactly what their book is about,or have their own ideas on how the cover can complement their story. You cover is not part of your work, it’s purely used to encourage readers to buy your book.

You can, and probably will, change your cover over time, as you find that your intended demographic is slightly different from what you first imagined, you update and publish later editions, publish in different countries, or you rerelease the work at a later date.

The Harry Potter series has changed covers numerous times over the years from the first edition to the more popular releases, American rewrites, and the cover that adults aren't embarrassed to show in public. The following books are all covers from the same story, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and it's not exhaustive.

Have a look on Amazon and drill down into the different genres and sub-genres. The deeper you go the more you’ll come to realise that the books all start to look a little samey. They’re different and distinguishable from each other, but they all seem to have similar elements or concepts.

There are tried and true formulas to apply to your cover because they are known to work, if you go outside of these rules it may well lose you visibility in a crowded marketplace.

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