Let me just say this right up front: any sighted person who tells you he doesn’t care about a book’s cover is either fooling you or himself. With 40% of human brain real estate given over to receiving and processing visual information, we’re a visual species; for lots of good survival reasons, we place a lot of importance on what we see even when we’re not aware of doing it. People with functioning eyesight can have trained their visual facilities or ignored them; they can be more or less consciously aware of how visual they are, but no-one with a human nervous system is “not visual.”
And all of us judge books by their covers.
Whether you imagine your readers browsing bookstore shelves for your title, or (far more likely and getting likelier by the day) browsing pages of books at an online bookstore, you’re going to have to tell them a lot with one glance at your cover. Whether or not you decide on a print version of your book (and POD services like CreateSpace and Lightning Source put print in nearly anyone’s reach), or decide to go digital only, your cover is your first and most impactful sales tool.
Your cover design consists of cover art and typography working together. Elements of cover art include image, color, contrast, brightness, clarity, and composition. Elements of typography include typeface (font), size, position, and most if not all the elements of the cover art itself. If these are artfully combined to convey a few important things about your book at a glance and compel specific readers—the ones most likely to buy your book—to click them and find out more, then to follow your cover's invitation to a sale, you’ve scored a cover design hit.
Bad Cover! No Biscuit!
I just went browsing through a couple of hundred author-published books whose covers were reduced to about 150 pixels, which is the size at which most of your potential readers will see your cover. Here are some things I noticed by glancing at the images as they went by:
- Type in styles and sizes that made it difficult or impossible to read the title, the author’s name, or both
- Too many typefaces
- Type obscuring other cover elements, including faces that would otherwise be the cover’s focal points
- Type out of proportion with other elements
- Body text enlarged and re-purposed as display text
- Fancy type unreadable at any size, but especially so when reduced
- Covers made up of too many images to convey a coherent message about the book
- Cover art that seems unrelated to either the type style or the book’s title
- Muddy colors, overly garish colors, just plain horrid colors
- Amateurish art and/or photography
- Too many cover elements
- Muddled composition
- Cover elements that lack a relationship to one another
To be fair, I also saw some lovely cover composition and typography that would stand up proudly next to any traditionally-published book out there, and even outclass a good many of them. These are books by authors who know and care about the difference between amateurish cover design and covers that hook potential readers. They may not have taken on the task of cover design themselves, but if they didn’t they went to someone who knows how and hired it done.
Your cover needs first and foremost to be simple. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean plain, but it does mean that there are a few cover elements that work together to tell the reader something about the book—its genre, its general approach, its tone.
Does that sound like a lot to convey in one picture and some type? It is, and it will be a challenge to do it right. Will it be more than you can handle to produce a professional-looking cover with art and typography appropriate to your genre and the voice and feel of your book? There's one way to find out: 1. give it a whirl and see what happens. 2. be honest with yourself about the results 3. be willing to hire the work done if needed.
Typography alone is an artform. You'll need to be able to judge what each typeface conveys in the way of information, personality, and appropriateness to the elements of a particular book. By studying what others have done, you can learn a lot about what works and what doesn't. Type doesn't always have to be fancy and attention-grabbing, nor does it always have to be plain and unobtrusive. What it has to be is right for the particular purpose you have for it.
You may feel like you already know quite a bit about type. Would you put an old-west style typeface on a contemporary romance novel, or a delicate script face on a murder mystery? Probably not. Almost no-one makes type mistakes quite that blatant. But typeface and other typography decisions have many deeper layers and subtleties for the learning, including but not limited to negative space, linespacing, line weight, and letterspacing.
Every type decision a professional makes has a good reason behind it. You can learn a lot by studying what professional designers have done with it on book covers. Ask yourself why you think they went a certain way with a design and not another. Think about how the type looks at full size and at thumbnail size, and how two typefaces on the same cover relate to one another in terms of likeness and difference and how they define the spaces around them.
You may be as “visual” as any other human being, but that does not, in and of itself, make you a cover designer. That’s why many authors make enough of a study of professionally-designed covers to be able to create something that works for their book. Others depend on professional cover designers. Unfortunately there are a lot of cover design websites in the virtual woods, and not all of them are created equal. Some “professional” covers I’ve seen are scarcely better than the best of the worst out there.
Your Sales Copy
If you’ve got a click-worthy cover, the next thing your potential reader will see is the copy you wrote to convince them to buy it. Write this copy with care after studying at least several dozen examples of books from your genre and others. Your sales copy needs to be long enough, and contain enough of the flavor of your book, to engage the person reading it, make them curious, and make them click through to your sample or a sale. It needs to be short enough to do its job and get the hell out of its own way before your reader's eyes glaze over.
So go learn enough about typography, cover design, and copy writing to be dangerous. This is not your grandmother's publishing environment; if you're going the "indie" route you have to know a lot more about what goes into a high-quality book than last-century's authors would have conceived in their wildest dreams. But in exchange you'll have real choices and real power over the books you decide to publish yourself.
It would be entirely possible for an article on cover design to consist of two words and a link:
Joel Friedlander: http://www.thebookdesigner.com.
I think it’s safe to say that Joel has done more for the awareness of cover design among indie publishers than anyone on the Internet.
In addition to providing a virtual education through his website and e-courses in self-publishing, Joel also runs a monthly ebook cover design awards program that’s an education in itself on what makes a strong book cover, and what will keep it strong when it’s reduced to 150 pixels. He also has many years’ experience in print book design, and you can hire him (!). It just gets better and better. If you’re serious about designing wonderful covers for your books, or being able to participate meaningfully in discussions with a professional cover designer, study the monthy contest posts. They contain a wealth of cover design knowledge.
Barry Eisler on Covers, Titles, and Branding
Bestselling thriller writer Barry Eisler has some very good advice on the purpose of a book's cover and title and how they work in harmony. Barry has a good understanding of the difference between a good cover and a bad one, and the difference between a cover that's merely eye-catching and one that captures the soul of a book.