Jump in the wayback machine and set the dial for 25 years. People are still hailing cabs and watching Dirty Dancing on their VCRs. And book publishers are churning out about 40,000 books a year.
The main way of promoting a book is through professional book reviewers – yes, there was such an animal then – and buyers for bookstores. Put yourself in their shoes. Each day the mail brings a new armful of books, each carrying the hopes and dreams of an author someplace.
How could anyone evaluate them all? Where would you start? One way to make a quick decision on the books that are not worth your time and to identify the losers fast is by judging that book by its cover. And that is why the book cover was of paramount importance. If the cover looked amateurish chances were the writing inside was judged to be the same and so off you go book into the reject bin never to be considered for review or sale.
OK, get back to 2016. Welcome back. Aren’t you glad that world of gatekeepers is gone? Now millions of books are produced every year and the marketplace decides what books are good and which books are not. But in the new democratized publishing world of book publishing the importance of the book cover remains, only in a different form. So let’s look at how to best design a stand-out book cover and why…
The Big Message
Today most books are discovered online and that next mouse click or finger tap is coming up awfully quickly. You may only have a split second for your book cover to make an impression before the potential reader is gone forever. The cover must drive a point home to the reader fast. In a glance the book cover needs to communicate what the book is about, what general genre it resides in and something about the mood of the writing. Is this a whimsical bit of fluff or a serious tome?
That sounds like a tall order but it can be achieved by focusing on that single communication goal – the big message the book is meant to deliver. That means keeping the cover simple. Only consider the title, subtitle maybe, and a graphic element. Unless the author name is going to sell a copy, downplay it or cast it away altogether. This is not the time to stroke egos.
While you were away in the wayback machine you may have run into a whole lot of people who did not know what fonts were. Steve Jobs changed all that. He loved typography and insisted that Apple computers be loaded with fun and fancy fonts. New fonts are now invented every year for designers to play with.
So you have a near inexhaustible fount of fonts to choose from for your book cover. Now forget them. No elegant script typefaces. No quirky, atmospheric typefaces. No fonts with letters that disappear when reduced in size. No trendy typefaces that may not be instantly recognizable. Stick with the clearest, readable fonts (with names like Helvetica and Times Roman) that will not cause the reader a moment’s hesitation in comprehension. And only use one of them.
Legibility at any size is the goal. Go easy on all-caps, italicized words and outlined letters. Do not shape the letters into arches or patterns that may cleverly describe your book. Potential readers do not have the time nor inclination to decipher your “cleverness.”
And make the title large, as large as possible since it is most likely going to be read on a screen. Make your own thumbnails of your book cover and make sure you can read it instantly. If not, make it bigger. Also make a thumbnail in grayscale to be certain the cover looks sharp and readable in black and white.
Once you have the font size squared away take not of how the title works with the graphic element to create a balanced visual presentation. The title and graphic must work in concert to reinforce the message but the reader’s eye must be drawn towards the title because that is what must be remembered to find the book in a future purchase decision – not the photograph of the dog sitting on the end of the diving board.
Like fonts, colors have become a vast playbox for designers. Color palettes exist online for you to join in the fun, mixing and matching colors. Test different combinations on how they look together. Pursue contrast: put a bold color next to a contrasting color to amp up the excitement of your cover. When you decide on colors you like, pare the final selection down to two or three. No more.
Colors convey meaning and familiarize yourself with the feelings associated with various colors – gold for prestige, green for natural, purple for luxury, red for passion and so on. And beware of white backgrounds; they can disappear on the computer screen to send your book cover floating across the website.
Just like words can be cliched, so too can images. Even if your main character experiences a life-altering revelation at the end of the book and is ready to charge off into a new life, do not use a sunrise on the book cover to symbolize a brand new day. It has been done to death.
Have you ever been disappointed by a movie after reading a book because the actors cast did not fit what you were picturing in your mind? Do not do the same thing to book readers with your cover by making photographs too literal. If your book is about a princess, use a tiara; if your book is about a highwayman, use a menacing pistol; if your book is about a superspy, show an overturned shot glass. Do nothing to constrain the imagination of your reader.
Also using a literal image is redundant – it is explaining or reinforcing the title. That is a waste of an image – not to mention insulting to your reader. Make your graphic evocative, not descriptive. The let the reader take it from there.
When considering graphics stick to photographs. Artwork rarely achieves the desired impact on a book cover, especially non-professional drawings. If you need a dramatic photograph or illustration there are many stock services ready to help out; splurge and pay a few dollars instead of trying to get by with free stuff. This is your book cover we are talking about.
If you absolutely must use a graphic illustration consult only professional illustrators. You may think a home-made drawing adds that “personal touch” to your book but instead it is sending the message of a craft project. Unless, of course, you have a children’s book. Then you want the artist to prepare the best painting in the book.
An image is doing its best work depicting the tone of the book. It can establish an historical period or be a signpost that there is humor ahead. And do not be afraid of white space when laying out your graphic, less is often more. For that matter do not fear the absence of all graphics – a book cover with only imaginatively displayed type has the power to stop browsers in their tracks.
The Back Cover
Amazon now offers a chance to see back covers so do not neglect this valuable piece of real estate. Find your best blurb or testimonial and highlight it in large font. After that, the more you tell, the more you sell as the wizened direct response copywriters tell us so lay out the most compelling case you have for your book’s story.
Where Do I Get Ideas for Book Covers?
There are millions of book covers out there. Look at lots them and find the ones you like. Then look at a lot more. Study the techniques and adapt them to the message you want to send with your book cover. Use existing book covers as a springboard to your own imagination.
Hire a Professional
If you decide that your book is too important to trust anyone but a professional, that is a rational conclusion. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars. Find a graphic designer who has book cover designing experience and ask to see a portfolio and a few designs to choose from. But remember, you will only get as good an output as the input you provide. That means explicit directions of that “Big Message” your book is saying to the reader.
In the end good design is simple design. Especially in an Amazon world where books are reduced to on-screen thumbnails. When so many book covers suffer from being overthought and overwrought a clean design will sparkle like sea glass on a beach.