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 dafont.com 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…