Covering the Myths

I’ve written about this many times here at Mad Genius Club, but it’s a topic that gets asked about over and over. And it’s an important topic. The book cover is the first thing your readers see, and no matter how often they might insist that they don’t judge a book by it’s cover, they are judging silently in their heads.

Your cover sends subliminal messages, even when it’s the size of a postage stamp, and little things like font choice, age of model (hat tip to Dorothy Grant for pointing this out to me recently), and contrasting areas on the cover art can make a huge difference.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an author say… No, let me back up a little. Let’s talk about myths and mistakes.

Myth #1: The scene on the cover should be pulled straight from the pages of the book.

No, the cover should contain the distilled essence of the book in one powerful wallop. You know that cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words? yep, that one’s truth. Furthermore, if you choose one climactic, thrilling scene, you risk spoilering a whole story right there before they even start reading. I have to admit to having fallen for that one recently while working with a client. Both of us were very excited about the mental image his final scene provoked… but it would have meant the book was revealed on the cover. So that had to be set aside.

Myth #2: The cover art should be like no one has ever seen before.

Again, no. Just like most stories contain comforting tropes that allow authors to take shortcuts and pack a story into a hundred thousand words or so, avoiding explaining every last little assumption (unless it matters to the plot, you really don’t need to explain the innermost workings of your fundyminion drive and hyperquespace). Just like you can use some handwavium in the writing, you can use it on the cover, too. Genre covers change fashions like hemlines, and you’ll want to keep up with whether miniskirts are in this year, or ankle-length hoops instead. That being said, there’s a fine balance between following the herd, and finding a way to stand out (and standing out in a good way, not pink flamingo in a zebra herd, but pink zebra in the herd kind of way). If, say, you’re writing a romance the trope is heaving bosoms (male or female. Don’t ask me why male bosoms are a thing on book covers, because they are all shaved and oiled and frankly I prefer my men built like teddy bears in the chest hair department but you’ll never see that on a cover because evidently I’m weird or something). If you’re writing science fiction, it’s space ships or mechanized men in roboto suits.

Myth #3: The more detail the better! Gorgeous art you have to stare at until you’ve seen all the amazing points is the best!

No, no, no… so much nope. While this may have been true on print books (and I will admit to having picked up a few books just to stare at the art, but see above about hairy chests) it is certainly not true for the modern book marketplace, which is about 90% ebook. Ebook covers are usually viewed in thumbnail, maybe on a PC at about a tenth of the size they would be in print. On a phone? less than a postage stamp size. Now, when I’m building a cover, I format it to the size it would be on a trade paperback (6×9″, 300 dpi), but that’s file and image quality, not the size it’s going to be judged at. Ebook covers are all about contrast and one (usually one, there can be exceptions, but I’d say never more than three) focal element. Also, you need room for your title and author name, which brings me to my final myth…

Myth #4: I should be humble and make my name discreet on the cover.

Honey, this is no time to hide your light under a bushel. At BARE (bear… heh) minimum, you should be able to read your name when you’re looking at the cover shrunk down to a thumbnail. When I was first starting out fumbling my way through making covers, I took Dean Wesley Smith’s workshop on cover design, and that’s one of the major points he makes (I highly recommend that workshop if he’s teaching it, BTW). Make the author’s name bigger. Bigger than that. Put the name up in lights – you might not be a celebrity yet, but the readers don’t know that. Make it loud and proud and legible.

Mistake #1: Font Choice

I have seen so many bad fonts on covers. heck, I’ve *used* bad fonts on covers, although admittedly with Pixie Noir I was at least doing it on purpose modelling after the old pulp noir covers. Rule of thumb is to never use a font for a title that you would use in the book for the body of text. Fonts can subtly signal so much, take the time to look for one that says what you want it to say. And if you’re not a font geek, use the categories at or 1001 Fonts to help you sort. But then, look at the title in thumbnail. Is it still readable? Is it readable quickly? Ask a friend (or two or three) to look at it. Can they read it? Ornate fonts can look terrific – if they are ten feet tall on a billboard. They shouldn’t be on a book cover. Readers are not going to sit there and puzzle it out. Now, you do have the benefit of a book description right next to the cover most times – but not always. Design the cover to be able to stand on it’s own two feet.

Mistake #2: Too much text

You do need more than just your title and author name. Not a lot more, though. The bare minimum would be (located near title) a series identifier: e.g. Book One of the Souldark Saga. Located near the author name, if you have other work, would be ‘author of Firstbook’

Where I have seen covers run off the deep end and into trouble is with subtitles, book blurbs (clue: they don’t go on the front cover on ANY book version), and pull quotes. Pull quote, singular, is about all I want to see on a cover that is well-laid out and here’s were we break the thumbnail rule: it should NOT be readable in thumbnail. What you’re looking for is the overall appearance of a modern print novel cover, and most (but not all) have pull quotes which are too small to read in thumbnail, but you can see there is text there. And if you have a print edition, it will be readable there. Really, this is a part you can skip, a lot of people do these days. I like it. I don’t use them on shorter works than a novel, though. It’s too much, and that’s not a story that will be appearing in print, unless it’s an anthology and then you do want a pull quote, probably from the foreword you talked someone into writing for you. Now that we’ve wandered far into the weeds, let’s find our way out again…

Mistake #3: Not being a Professional 

Ok, this one isn’t necessarily a mistake. It’s more a life choice when it comes to presenting your writing. If you want to be merely an amateur with your writing, go right ahead and use that painting your five year-old made for you on the cover. But if you want to create a powerful marketing tool that evokes an emotional reaction from a potential reader, draws them in to read the blurb (and then to read the whole book) then you need to have a professional looking cover. You can do it yourself, you can buy one, you can commission one – costs range from free, to a couple of hundred dollars, to thousands. No matter which path you choose, consider your return on investment, and realize that a properly packaged product sells far better than one which is presented shoddily wrapped. Consumer products brand design is wrongly predicated on the notion that shoppers make rational, informed decisions. In truth, most are purely instinctive and reactive. Eye-tracking studies show that consumers read on average only seven words in an entire shopping trip, buying instinctively by color, shape and familiarity of location. Best sellers succeed by appealing to the reptilian brain, which decides before logic has a chance.

I’d get into branding, but I think that this post is already long enough. So, I’ll check in on the comments, and I’m happy to critique those who are brave enough to present their cover concepts here and want help with them. Commentors, remember, be gentle! This may be their first time…





69 thoughts on “Covering the Myths

  1. One i have seen is people doing fantasy books wanting to use gothic/old english style fonts that are basically illegible. Also, sci fi books using techno type fonts with similar readability problems. Just because it looks awesome in an illuminated manuscript or on a control panel doesn’t mean that it is good on a cover.

      1. Let’s hear for the Extra-Large Icon and Large Icon setting on Windows Explorer. Makes it easy to check and even compare.

      1. Nice example, Mary. I’ve seen some OE style fonts that are much more ornate, tho… and less legible.

      2. A good compromise if you’re trying to signal medieval / gothic niftyness is the super fancy / illuminated initial followed by a readable (and appropriate) font.

  2. Not really a problem for most of us at this point, but you will need a different cover for translated books. Why? Different markets need different covers. Germany uses lots of script fonts for romance and “fluffy” books, bits of well-known art for historical-related or fantasy books, or no art at all (literature, translated fantasy, some non-fiction). And in general the art is simpler than US-Canada covers, although see “historical fiction” for a major exception. In all cases the art takes up less of the cover, at least in the popular paperbacks I was browsing.

  3. > font

    I guess I’m blind to the font signaling thing. If it’s Western or Fraktur, or maybe Federation, yeah, but otherwise I generally don’t notice unless it’s some horrible fake-cursive unreadable mess.

    > brand

    That can bite you, though. DAW was great about “brand.” And your friends would ask why you had all the yellow books shelved randomly instead of as a series…

    > Book One

    Yes, please! Several times I’ve had a book come to a stop without resolution; or picked up a book that started off assuming I’d read the first one, two, or three, and therefore got dumped into something with no idea what was going on. (and never did find out, either…) While marking your book as part of a series might lose you a sale, it will keep you from making my “jerk author, do not buy again” list.

    > cover art

    I’ve expounded on this at length before, but no art is way better than bad art. And “professional” has nothing to do with it – take a look at Signet’s paperback line. With Dell and Ace not far behind. Nothing fails to say “I put forth maximum effort” like badly morphed generic clip art.

    1. >Font
      That’s why I suggested using helps for font-finding.
      I definitely need to do a post on that, because that’s not what I meant, although I’m very familiar with what you mean (and have found them all together in used book stores, which had me tempted to just buy a half-shelf of books at a go).
      >Book One
      Yep, same with me. And frankly if someone doesn’t pick up your book because it’s two and they haven’t read one, that’s a good thing. If they really like the concept, Amazon makes it amazingly simple to find the whole series.
      >cover art
      simply: find good art. No art isn’t really an option these days unless you want to signal public domain book.

      1. The simplest way to get the “right” font is to pull up the image of a good cover in the genre that your book is, then to scan the free font sites to find one that looks similar. (Make sure your font is labeled “free for commercial use” so that you don’t run afoul of somebody’s intellectual property.)

    2. The thing is, people don’t have to notice they are noticing the inappropriate font for it have an effect.

  4. Very timely. I have to start working on a cover for “Unfair Advantage.”

    I’m going to the art show today, I’ll keep an eye open for anything cover-worthy.

    1. The useful takeaways appear to be: The price point for maximum income has drifted up so $4.,99 is better than it used to be, somewhat like $2.99. Pre-order is very positive. Boxed sets apparently do not yield a lot of income but can be a recruiting tool. First book of long series free can be good.

  5. So let’s see if this works. The cover of my book: the font is one called Eagle Lake. I used all caps but changed the size of the first and last letter separately from the rest of the title so that I could position them differently. The face is one that I painted using (and changing) a photo reference. I had several layers involved with the effects on top, also using “free for commercial use” brushes. Note that *this was my job* for many years; I worked for a photography studio on the production side, so I have extensive experience with Photoshop and lots of shortcuts. Even with a mouse, this took me less than eight hours of work, most of that on the painting end.


      1. Lovely!

        Although I suggest you soften the black stroke on the type to a dark gray, instead of the black. You might also try the effect of a graduated screen (from black to transparent) at the bottom behind your byline, set at 20% opacity. It will help your byline pop without being too intrusive on the art.

        1. Actually, if I recall correctly, that stroke is in dark green (same general color as the overall shade.) I’d originally had the lettering in pale gold and it… was obnoxious. I basically threw that cover together in three days, including painting, under a fast deadline of “you’re using somebody else’s computer and have to do the trial version of Photoshop.”

      2. I like it, but I think the title could pop a little more. I’m not sure exactly what to do – slightly bigger, wider border, a tiny hint of shadow? – but there’s so much going on in the art that unless I make an effort, I don’t notice the title very much and might not be able to remember the name of the book.

        1. The simplest solution might be to create a gradient layer – dark to light to medium light from bottom to top in … Hmmm.. maybe the Green from the water lily flourishes.

          Thicken the stroke along the bottom and left side of the letters, but change the outline colour to be a much darker shade of whatever is behind it – green, tan, reddish peach, etc.

          Yes, that art is luminous, but don’t worry about hiding it in semi-opaque shadow (especially at the bottom where your name is)


  6. Another problem I see: too much title.

    Rise of the Fallen: A Darkshadow Novel: Book IV of the Sword Chronicles*

    *Not an actual title, but very close.

      1. I think that many of these new writers can’t pick between titles and try to pick them all.

      1. ‘something something something: being a story of the great war between the nouns and their allies against the scary scary nouns or actual four word title.’
        With a fanfic I can get away with a long title in three to six lines of stuff that includes that, media properties, and legal disclaimer. People ignore those if the story is awesome.

      2. Groan.

        Though my best-selling novel (off the bottom of the charts I agree) had the longest title, as Mistress of the Waves outsold This Shining Sea, Minutegirls, or The One World.

    1. I have a fanfiction project, with a short title for it. I have a longer title, inspired by some of the Stratemeyer syndicate titles, that gives clues as to the story, and will only be used once in ‘front matter’. (Like other stories, there are good and bad ways to introduce and pitch fanfictions. As a reader, I like to be hooked into the story on the first pageload, and do not like a long artistic statement or infodump to start things off. I probably ought to research, analyze, and write up a post at some point.)

    2. More like:

      Rise of the Fallen: A Darkshadow Novel: Book IV of the Sword Chronicles: An Epic Tale of Dragons and Magic for the Discerning Reader

      …that is, appending an advertising blurb as part of the title.

  7. I’ve been noticing just how boring and generic most modern, trad pub covers are, particularly fantasy: vague medieval symbols and heraldry, maybe a compass. Worst of all are the new eBook covers for older stuff. I’m thinking of Niven and Barnes Dream Park. The used paperback I got had a glorious, lurid scene of the heroes fighting a giant baboon creature. New one? Borinfg and generic.

    With that in mind, I don’t really mind possible spoiler action scenes. With me reading DP I was like: so THAT’S coming up? Can hardly wait!

    1. It could be worse. I sold a programming book once. When my author copies came in, the cover art was swarms of question marks of various sizes. They looked more like some kind of Doctor Who tie-in than anything to do with computers… I know if I’d pulled one of those out of a shelf, I’d probably have slammed it back in and covered my eyes in horror…

    2. I noticed that too about Dream Park. I had to look two or three times to figure out what the heck the cover had to do with the book.

  8. My cover had one job: to indicate yearning. I think I got that. It was an incredible amount of work. My brain is working on a similar cover for Book 2 of the trilogy. Only different – but with the same fonts and feel.

    And I have wanted to have a reason to learn graphics to that level for years, so I got that, too.

  9. Reblogged this on Colfax Den and commented:
    Fellow indie author Cedar Sanderson hits some of the high points on covers. I’ll not say we’re in 100% agreement with the cover = art bit, but that’s also because I sell the prints at cons. To the point where a couple of my covers have either paid for themselves completely or are well on the way to doing so. So, as always, apply the logic to your situation rather than simple rote following.

    1. Yes, but you’re buying art from artists and paying for the print rights – most authors aren’t going to have the money or patience for that. It’s not a bad plan, just not the right one for most authors.

      1. Oh I know, plus I have one of my artists literally “in house.” As I noted–your advice applies in the overwhelming majority of cases and is very sound. I’m just pointing out that it’s not all_ cases.

        I also forgot to point out that when hand selling, one wants to give a reason for people to stop. Between Anita C. Young’s art on one side and my cover art as prints in the other, we have a pretty good rate of causing people to at least do a short halt. If I can make ’em stop, I can make ’em talk.

          1. My abilities run pretty much to stick figures. Thankfully the better half’s Kung fu is already strong, and in a year should be truly devastating.

    2. Oh, and I’m probably going to start doing prints of some of my art, but that’s because I’ve worked doggone hard at raising it to a level where it’s good.

  10. A friend of mine got a cover done and it was really nice, humorous bent, colourful, slightly whimsical, all of which matched the tone of his writing very well. It even matched well with the title so it fit as one piece. The only problem (and it was a big problem) was the fact the character who appeared to be the central character on the cover (a young high school student) was not the main character, his teacher was (who wasn’t on the cover).

    Basically he had a great cover on a great book, that appeared to match that book, but the cover informs prospective readers that the book is for an entirely different demographic. A young teen front and center on a cover usually indicates the book is for young teens and his book wasn’t intended for that market. Also someone buying that book because they liked that cover might be slightly disappointed to find the appealing central character (on the cover) barely appears in the book at all.

    But it’s one of those tricky situations; he commissioned the art, the art was great, the art was from a scene in the book, everything was right. Except it was wrong (he knows this, I asked him about it and it was something he saw as soon as he started selling the book. He may change it on a future edition but the cover he has seems to sell the book well, just not the book it actually is and he worries those who bought it thinking it is one thing are disappointed when it turns out to be something else).


    1. That’s a good question for the artists here. How much feedback do we give the commissioner if we think what they want will fail the purpose of the thing for which we are paid? (ergo, the requested art – main character featured on cover ends up misleading potential book buyers as to what the book is?)

      1. The greatest book cover artists will insist on reading the book and could refuse the job if it’s a poor fit but then, if you’re Trina Schart Hyman you can afford to be picky. I’ll read any book, no matter the genre with her cover art. I’ve never been disappointed.

        But for all us lesser mortals, I’d hope you could get a sense of the “feel” of the type of book your commissioner is selling and see what the genre leaders are using. Military spy thriller? What are the Tom Clancy knock-offs doing. YA violent dystopia: Hunger Games and The Testing. Cosy mystery… umm.. Aunt Dimity covers? You get the idea.

        I think Mrs. Sanderson is right in that if you set the expectation (and manage to avoid making it cringe-worthy) you’ll be forgiven if the character’s hair colour is wrong.

  11. The age of model note alluded to: statistically speaking, people in the 18-25 year old range buy books with cover models in the 18-25 year old range. People in the 25-35 range statistically buy books with cover models in the 18-35 range. People in the 35-45 range buy books with cover models in the 25-55 range, with a statistically significant subset in 18-25 (YA scifi, mostly – think “like the hunger games”).

    Therefore, although your protagonist may actually be grizzled and white haired, and an old man in his pre-industrial society at 35, you’re better off targeting your market with a grizzled face that’s ambiguously in their thirties to early 40’s than a truer representation that looks in his 60’s-70’s on today’s aging scale. And while your protagonist may be ugly, pox-marked, and scarred, the cover will sell a lot better if you have an aesthetically pleasing face with a few artistic scars.

    Advertisement, not faithful representation. You’re selling the Big Mac(r) you see on the TV ad, not the squashed burger with wilting shredded lettuce you actually get tossed to you from the drive-through window.

    1. Thank you for expanding on that, Dorothy! I’ve known some of that on an instinctive level, but it’s good to have it broken down in detail. And the Big Mac metaphor is so very painfully true.

      1. I’m willing to bet there’s a little more going on than the study shows, because the studies have artificial siloing by age range, and a 25-year-old man who’s served a combat tour is a completely different person than an 18 year old girl fresh out of high school and running amuck at a liberal arts college.

        That said, for a broad generality, it works pretty well. And I may not have been precisely clear in my email to you. (Was it before coffee or after work? If so, I’m sorry.)

        1. And if you want to get an egoboo from all the epic fails from professional art departments, consider: Anyone working with older kids – teens knows that while you can sell a book with an older (up to late teens) looking protagonist on the cover, if you make the kid look to young, the reader will give it a pass.

          You think this stops would-be YA novels putting what looks like an 8-year-old on the cover? Heck, no.

    2. It may depend on the model, too. When I was in that 18-25 age range, the women my age really went for some much older men. (Think Ricardo Montalban or Lorne Greene – those two had many college aged girls watching Fantasy Island and Battlestar Galactica solely for their appearances…)

    3. “pox-marked, and scarred, the cover will sell a lot better if you have an aesthetically pleasing face with a few artistic scars.”

      Edward James Olmos.

    4. Historical aging counts for a lot. I’m in a Gilbert & Sullivan production—Patience—where one of the principal characters is Lady Jane, who makes references to her “rugged old bosom”, has a song about graying, slowing down, and getting fat, and who is definitely represented as being “on the shelf.”

      She’s probably all of 27. (I know *I* started to go gray by then!) At 40 years of age, I’m still getting tapped to play “maidens” on stage. If I were 40 in the Victorian era, childhood diseases, malnutrition, and lack of central heating would probably throw me into the “antediluvian” category.

      You know, there’s a reason that all the princes and princesses were handsome and beautiful (barring inbreeding.) They got access to all the best food and living conditions.

  12. Additional note on font: if you put the title and byline in different fonts, you want them in different font families. This gives them a sharp distinction that will benefit you by not making them subtly “off.”

    One of the many useful tips I picked up from The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams

    1. That is an excellent book, and very clearly presented. Another book that I saw lo these many years ago was called Before & After and was principally about advertising, but it was very useful there.

  13. ” Rule of thumb is to never use a font for a title that you would use in the book for the body of text. ”

    You can occasionally get away with that if the art is of an open book.

  14. *dives back in* So, lots of good advice, further information, and ideas. Always nice picking other people’s brains for stuff. Not like I need this info immediately…. :p

  15. Another useful note: the artwork’s not done until the title’s selected. There are artwork that would work fine with a somewhat long title and have too much neutral space with a short one — and more often, there’s artwork that has neutral enough space only for a short title.

    1. The best artwork for covers often has a zooming capability—as in, there’s enough interest but non-critical stuff in the background to work under a longer title, but is clear and clean enough to be brought closer if the title is short.

      1. Still another useful note: you don’t know whether your cover works with a title on it until you put a title on it. I’ve had some surprising reactions when I slapped down words in what I thought was neutral space.

  16. My two cents for the aspiring graphic designer trying to market something (in my case it was events – posters)

    Whenever you see a book cover that catches your eye and makes you want, even if only for a second – to pick it up – look at it with the “can I do this with the tools / skills at my disposal? You will be amazed at how often the answer is “yes.”

    And if the book is selling what you’re trying to sell? Take a snap with your cell phone.

  17. You may trash the cover to

    Mistress of the Waves is the title (large); my name is smaller.
    The image is purchased stock.There is a sailing ship in the tale (many, in fact); the strap line is ‘Could her wits compete with starfarer ultratech? I paid for someone to put title author, and strap line on the page.

    I am not sure that questions make good strap lines.

    1. My critique is with the title size and placement. If I were you, I’d enlarge both Mistress and Waves and shrink “of the”. It’s also necessary to keep the automatic line spacing and kerning* under control; it’s obviously the default. Changing those things immediately makes the title more of an artistic element.

      Personally, I’d zoom in on the artwork a bit too. Maybe mirror it; motion towards the right indicates forward momentum; motion towards the left has a feel of being trapped.

      One question: What is the genre? I’m not getting it right off the bat.

      *Kerning is the spaces between the letters. Because you have “W A V” in sequence, they look further apart than they actually are.

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