15 Ebook Covers: Success and Failure in the Kindle Store

by | Dec 20, 2010

Everyone wants to join the ebook revolution, from what I can see. More books are going “straight to digital” the way films used to go “straight to video.” You can almost hear people scratching their heads, wondering “Why should I deal with the cost of a printed book? Is anyone still buying them?”

Rationally, we know that print books continue to make up the vast majority of the market, but the momentum seems to be all on the digital side. Displays of digital ebook readers face the doorways of many of the retailers we’re headed for before the holidays. Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Samsung, are on television with their devices.

And more people are asking about converting their books to ebooks. New projects are starting off with an eye to being sold online anyway.

Going for a Walk on the Other Side of Town

I took a stroll over to the Kindle store to do some browsing in the granddaddy of the ebook stores. Looking through the “Top 100” it’s remarkable how many different forces are at work in presenting ebooks. I picked out a bunch of covers to take a closer look at.

Some of these clearly are winners—they’ve made the leap to a different format successfully, and do a great job of selling their books. Others . . . not so much. Take a look.

Samples from the Top 100

You see these covers in two formats, like the rest of Amazon’s displays. A page of search results will show very small thumbnails—60 x 90 pixels—that are extremely challenging to carry off as any kind of good design.

When you go to the product detail page, you’ll get a larger—300 pixels high—image which makes it a lot easier to see the covers. In some cases, I have both versions for you to look at.

This title exhibits the most common failing of ebook covers I saw in the Kindle store: complete fidelity to the print book covers. You’ll see more below, but no matter how lovely this cover is in print, it fails even at legibility in the small preview size.

On the other hand, here’s a book that sticks with the design of the printed work for a good reason: the book is widely know and the cover design is instantly recognizable.

Another book in the same category. This series is world-famous, and a publisher would be nuts to change the cover now.

It seems like the thriller writers have the easiest time making the transition to ebooks. Here, the design is so graphic, simplified and typographically distinct that the book works at every size.

Another thriller with a similar design showing just how effective this is even at the tiny size of the search results images.

This cover has a couple of interesting things going on. Even though the delicate type, placed low on the cover is a disaster and pretty much disappears in the small preview, the cover still works to some extent because it relies so heavily on the illustration of the woman. This one, dominant object of focus carries the book. This is a big lesson for new designers and self-publishers.

But doesn’t it look “wrong” to you? This cover appears to have been distorted when it went from print to digital. Clearly the aspect ratio has been shifted, and the cover is stretched horizontally. This type of thing happens when you are converting dozens or hundreds of books at a time.

Here’s an atmospheric cover with typography and a scene that become unreadable at small sizes.

Another common error. The jackets relied on the gold stamped type on the cover to stand out and draw attention. But what happens to a little digitized picture of the gold stamping? Unfortunately, not much.

Another, similar set of problems.

And one more.

Here’s a book that’s delightfully delicate and effective in print, but never should have just been dumped onto an ebook cover, at least if you care whether people can read it.

Another wrinkle of the Kindle store is that games and “adventure texts” get lumped in with books in these lists. You can see that behind the simplicity of this graphic, unconstrained by any pre-existing book cover or any other “real” object, is a great communication. Forget books, it grabs your attention and packs a lot of “information” into a small space.

Here’s an example of a great print book cover that fails as an ebook preview. In the small size the distinctive typography just about disappears into illegibility, and the most valuable real estate on the cover—the top half—is just a black rectangle. In the larger image, enough detail is restored so you can see the cover well. Works in one size, not in the other.

Here’s a cover that works wonderfully in both print and ebook, and for good reason. Balanced, strong typography and graphics that clearly signal both the subject matter and tone of the book.

And one last book that works really well online. The light touch, clear color scheme, simplified graphic messaging all work to create a recognizable and attractive “book” cover.

I think even this short tour of the Kindle store shows me that the most common mistake publishers are making is simply dumping the cover of the print books into a tiny file to use online. It’s easy to see how some of these covers could have been rescued, doing much better duty as product packaging for their authors and publishers.

Perhaps as more books move to “straight to digital” we’ll start seeing covers specifically designed for this environment. The books that seem to translate best are ones with simple shapes, typography and colors, although the ability to design these covers is not so simple.

It makes it more important than ever to know in advance what your plans are for your book, so you can create the best path to publication for all the effort you’ve put into your project.

Perhaps designers will start to experiment, even breaking free of the “book cover” confines that rule the print world. That would make for some interesting covers.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. ndemi

    Great tips there but they not only apply for eBooks but for printed ones as well.

  2. Eric

    This is a great article. Many people don’t realize that a person makes a decision to buy a Kindle book in an fraction of a second, often just by looking at the cover.

    People really do judge a book by its cover.

    It’s only after that that they read its description, etc.

  3. George

    Great points. For an E-book, most of the sales happens from a great cover design. A good cover design should reveal what readers can except inside. The design invokes an impulse buying every time.

  4. frank

    Thank you so much for your informative article. You helped me know how I will design and self publish my thesis on Amazon.

  5. Tam Frager

    This is great information – wish I’d found it earlier, but I’m bookmarking it, now so I can reference it in the future.

    I’m actually trying to narrow down book covers right now. If you have a couple of minutes, I’d love it if you left your feedback. There are five I’m looking at. Changes can be made, so if you do take a look and see a change that would make one (or more) of them work better, I’d love to know. Obviously, the “shutterstock” logo won’t be on the final.


  6. Delilah

    I have been poring over your blog, these past few days. Very informative and authoritative. You got a fan!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Nice concept, Kate, and I like the fresh look of the art. All the pieces seem to be “floating” a bit though, and the treatment of the author name is so similar and so close to the title, they both lose emphasis. Good first try, though.

      • kate

        Thanks for the feedback, Joel.
        I can see what you mean about the titles. How can I avoid this next time? Should they be in different fonts, or perhaps title in caps. Maybe a change of color would help. I’m an illustrator, not a graphic designer, so any links to articles about designing text for book covers would be useful.

        • Joel Friedlander

          kate, each of those might work. Gaining a feel for typography takes time and a lot of experimentation. Try each out and see what the results are, let your artist’s sensibility guide you and I’ll be you’ll come to a good outcome.

  7. Milton Gray

    Hi, as hobbyists I’m not sure how much we can bring to the table (we’ve no aspirations about being more – it’s just fun – and so we don’t expect to be able to measure success in terms of sales) but the issue of cover design is one that we’ve been tackling. We decided from the outset to try and design with the thumbnail sizes in mind and came to the decision that the only title element we would put on the cover was the series title as a banner along the left edge – and this was only to provide some branding. This means that much of the cover is left free for a bold image to catch the shopper’s eye, relying on distinct images to individuate the volumes visually. We didn’t feel the need to post the title of individual volumes or even my name as author as this is listed next to the thumbnail. I found this site while looking for other ideas now that we are working to get a second book ready for print and to see if we can improve the first at all – I do look forward to reading it in more detail over the weekend, there’s a wealth of ideas here and I think that we both wish we had found it sooner!

  8. Cheap Ebook

    Useful information. Lucky me I found your web site accidentally, and I’m stunned why this coincidence didn’t happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

  9. Gilles Lacroix

    Wow, I am glad I read this…I was just about to make a huge mistake on my first book…I just uploaded the book cover I had done to amazon kindle to have a look…and to my horror it looks just “gross” awful. So back at the drawing board with your tips and picture in mind. Thanks for sharing..


  10. Adan Lerma

    definitely interesting & informative, thank you joel, great pointers

  11. Peter


    Totally agree with all the examples.
    I’d like to leave my biz card here as a support to authors who wish to have there cover designed by someone who has been doing great ebook covers and print too. Works fast, reliable, great customer service, offers 100% satisfaction guarantee, proven track record with a cover hitting best seller in Kindle UK and great value for money.


    thank you

      • Peter

        Thanks Joel : )

  12. Irk

    The Pillars of the Earth practically has a cropping hint on its print cover! The smaller rectangle border looks ideal for containing the relevant data, and then text could have been adjusted for maximum readability. That’s a sad loss just because it seems so obvious.

  13. Christa Polkinhorn

    Very informative and interesting article. I am a self-published author and am in the process of experimenting with ebook and paperback covers together with a designer friend of mine. We decided to try out different covers for the ebook and the paper version. I don’t see why they have to be the same. You often see the same book published by different publishers or in different countries with a different cover, depending on who publishes it or where.
    The same could be done with ebook and paperback version of the same book. This would give you the freedom to concentrate on different aspects for the different media rather than try to find a common cover that fits both versions.
    Just a thought.

  14. David Pitts

    Thank you very much for your helpful tips. Because I read this, I saved myself a lot of hassles and created a much better cover! Thanks again for sharing your expertise :)

  15. Russell Brooks

    Thanks, Joel.

    I’m glad that you like it and I’m happy that I stumbled onto this post before my graphic designer worked on it. I believe that it made a huge difference. The paperback version is coming this spring and we’re using the same cover. I thought the distressed typeface was suitable to convey the type of novel that I wrote.

    Russell Brooks
    Author of Pandora’s Succession.

    • Joel Friedlander


      Nice, it’s very atmospheric and has a nice balance. It looks like we won’t be escaping the “distressed” typefaces anytime soon, will we?

      Thanks for posting this, Russell!


  16. colehaan

    great article tips.. make kindle owner have another idea

  17. James Moushon

    Great post. As one of the leading bloggers in this area, your advice and ideas should be recognized by publishers. I think sometimes publishers take the easy road on the cover the same way they do in scanning the paper book and dumping it on the ebook market.
    I don’t think there is any reason why there cannot be two covers here or better yet design a cover that works in both environments. Once the publishers realize the paper book and the ebook are two different products, some of the problems we see maybe addressed.
    I am in the middle of my own study on ebook covers from a different point of view. I will contact you directly to get your ideas. The start of my study can be viewed on my blog:

    • Joel Friedlander

      James, thanks for your thoughts. Since ebooks have only accounted for a very small percentage of sales until very recently, it’s understandable that publishers have given them little thought or attention. However, with the growth of market share I’m sure this will start to change. With new products there will be new conventions, and it will be interesting to see just how long the ebook will slavishly imitate its print predecessors. Your study looks very interesting, thanks for the link.

  18. Russell Brooks

    Excellent and informative article. Thanks for sharing. Ironically I’m getting my book cover redone. I’m sharing this article with my graphic designer.

    Russell Brooks
    Author of Pandora’s Succession.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Glad it helped, Russell. You might ask your designer to improve the readability of your title, as well. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Russell Brooks

        Thanks. I forwarded this article to my graphic artist and she really enjoyed it and found it very informative. She’s almost done with the cover and took all of your suggestions into account. I’m even going to launch the print version of my novel at the same time. Both of them translate well.

        Russell Brooks
        Author of Pandora’s Succession.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Russell, that’s terrific, I’m glad you shared this with your designer. I’d love to see the final cover when it’s ready, and I wish you all the best with the launch of your new book.

  19. Michael

    Great article! I made a print cover recently that didn’t come through the web thumbnail test well. Looks very dark in spite of the larger version not giving off that impression. Wish I could go in and fix it but the client doesn’t want to bother with the change.

    One correction: the thumb for A Gift of Grace is the same aspect ratio as the larger image. You can confirm this by blowing it up to the same size. (As I’ve done here, using preserve aspect ratio: https://imgur.com/5Dx6c.jpg )

    I believe what’s happening in this one is that the human mind is very sensitive to faces, and the thumbnail loses enough of what makes this face special that it feels off.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael, thanks for your comment. Sorry I didn’t communicate the problem with A Gift of Grace clearly enough. Your demonstration shows that the Kindle versions—large and small previews—are identical, which is true. The problem is that both of these are distortions of the original print cover, which had the same illustration in a different aspect ratio. If you compare the two, I think you’ll see it’s quite obvious (and a little embarrassing, if you ask me). Here’s a link to the print version: Gift of Grace paperback

      • Michael

        Thanks, Joel. I should have read more closely. You’re right, the correct aspect ratio definitely got lost in the Kindle version. It’s a shame publishers don’t pay more mind to such details. An extra minute of attention would’ve made the difference between great and odd.

        • Michael

          I should have said ‘some publishers’. There are those who go the extra mile with their e-books, and as I’ve started buying some titles digitally I’ve really come to appreciate that.

  20. Patricia Benesh


    Excellent article on book cover design for ebooks–what works or doesn’t work and why.

    Another good source: “The 25 Best Book Covers 2010”

    I’ve incorporated a number of ideas you and your responders mention in a recent basic article:

    I will update the article with reference to your blog.

    Thanks again for sharing your expertise.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Trish, thanks for the link to a great collection of covers. These designs remind us that cover design, although it’s a commercial practice, can reach the level of “art” when practiced by skilled professionals.

      On the other hand, it’s interesting in light of this article to note that virtually all of them are designed exclusively for print, and would be a disaster if they appeared in the tiny online listings format I looked at here.

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

  21. Robert Nagle

    Great resource. One issue you didn’t really address is the importance of text and font for ebook covers. What elements need to be visible in the reduced size?

    You are probably dealing with covers intended for both print and digital, but I have to deal with digital only publications.

    The tom clancy cover works because it’s Tom Clancy. The author has become a brand, and really, that’s all that matters. So really all you’re doing is emphasizing the text of the name.

    But with an unknown author, what do you do? for a long title, what do you do? The cover I’m designing is for an author whose name is 15 characters, with a title of 17 characters (The first title word is a number, so that makes things easier).

    I think we need to ask again what is the purpose of a cover; what are the contexts in which the reader/consumer will encounter it? Also, will it be seen in the reader’s first encounter with the sale page? I still haven’t resolved my design issue, but I think I’ll be happy with a cover which truncates the text in favor of more graphics. On the other hand, post-purchase when the ebook cover is on the software’s bookshelf, will it be readily identifiable if it doesn’t contain the full title and name?

    • Derek Oscarson

      My advice is to try some condensed fonts. Perhaps take the font size down to the threshold of legibility? Or both.

      OR, you could get a little radical and forgo the type altogether. You could use an icon or a photo that represents the content. Especially if you know that the cover will always be accompanied by the title of the book in html. If that’s the case, the title/author in the thumbnail would actually be a little redundant anyway. Basically, take the same approach as a CD cover. It works for albums, why not books?

      I think if you keep things simple(!) and practice a decent amount, designing for such small dimensions will become easier.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Derek, I think your suggestions point out that there is a huge amount of creativity that can be brought to bear on the design of ebook covers. The slavish imitation of print book formats and practices can sometimes be profitably thrown aside to solve the different problems that ebooks present. Thanks for your input.

  22. Christopher Smith

    Thanks for mentioning FIFTH AVENUE, Michael. We worked hard on that cover!


    • Christopher Smith

      Sorry, Joel–I had just finished reading Michael’s post when I wrote that! Thank YOU for the post.


      • Joel Friedlander

        Okay, Christopher, you’re such a good designer, I’ll let you off for that one LoL. Thanks for stopping by.

  23. Simon Royle

    Thanks Michael, very interesting link.

    I especially liked this comment:

    “They’re like carnival barkers,” Mendelsund said. “Someone comes into a bookstore and all the books are shouting, you know, ‘READ ME!’ ‘READ ME!’
    “And you hope that yours either shouts the loudest or entices in the most intriguing way!”

    I can see the day, in the near distance, when that will literally be true. Except I think that it would be a boorish, rather crass book designer of the day who would do it by shouting. I would prefer mine to whisper, in a tone suited for the prospective reader, “Psst, hi are you having a good day? Do you have thirty secs to spare? You do? That’s great, come a little closer, I want to share a secret with you. I know we’ve just met, but I really do feel as if I know you well. Michael, I know you liked…”

  24. Ned Hoste

    Fascinating post – having been a book cover and book designer for 26 years – I think this is a tremendously exciting new challenge. Designing a cover which will work at the tiny preview sizes – that can also ha the potential to transfer to being a satisfying and not too simplistic cover when seen at standard print sizes.

    I have recently had the great privilege of working with Simon Royle on the cover for his book TAG. During the concept stages I kept getting messages with smaller and smaller preview sizes to try. From my point of view the challenge was made much easier by having such a short punchy title. The ebook version is now available and we are working on the print version as well. Markus Summerer’s fantastic image also makes the transition from eBook to print version that much easier with the amazing colour range – which work while small and yet when blown up for the print version you realise that the image has so much more to give.

    The way I would hope things will develop as eBooks become properly established as an independent format is that they will develop their own visual language and differential – much as hardback and paperback editions have done, sometimes taking elements from the hardback to create the paperback – or starting with a whole new concept.

    Indie publishers already seemed to have embraced the format and are in the unusual position of leading the way in setting the visual language which, as all languages, will keep developing. The mainstream publishers will soon see that the indies covers/previews are more effective and realise that just shrinking down the print cover will just not do the job.

    I think the core of any book cover design is the organisation of information, image and style to create a resonance with the potential reader. The fascinating challenge is that with a totally new format all the traditions are thrown away and my challenge as a designer is to start new traditions and to introduce them to entirely new audience. What an opportunity!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ned, thanks for your thoughtful comment. It does seem that your cover for Tag meets all the requirements for a successful cover.

      I think the day isn’t far off when ebook covers may break away from the whole “book” visual metaphor.

      Looking at the Slingo “cover” for instance, why can’t a “book” be shown with a square placard for a cover? Why not create a mini advertisement, rather than a cover, and use that?

      When the walls begin to fall, there is really no way to guess what will come pouring in, what will change, where we will end up. I find that exciting—as long as print books maintain their commercial viability so it’s not one or the other, but both.

  25. Simon Royle

    With the cover for my novel, Tag, we started with the electronic version and then worked back to print.

    One thing I did to check the effectiveness of the cover was to build a small 60 x 90 “gallery” of covers and drop “test covers” into that gallery.

    • Derek Oscarson


      If your main focus is the ebook, I think that approach is fine. But if you’re going to print the book as well, I strongly suggest at least creating the image in high resolution. In fact, often I try to think ahead and create the base graphics in high-res even if it’s mainly a web job, just because you never know if you will need something print-ready to accompany your web graphic.


      • Simon Royle

        Thanks Derek. Yes, as you can read below in Ned’s reply I put the cover in his capable hands and Ned has delivered a fantastic high-res print ready version. The print version will be 6 x 9 so looking forward to seeing that.

        But very good advice for anyone not working with a professional designer. One decision I made early on was to hire a pro – the best I could afford – after putting so much effort into writing a 130K word novel anything less seemed dumb.

      • Joel Friedlander

        That’s really good foresight that more designers and publishers might take not of, Derek. Although it might take a bit longer in production, you could save a huge amount of time, even the viability of a project, later on. Thanks.

    • Joel Friedlander

      I love the idea of the “gallery” and it would help enormously to avoid these kinds of mistakes. Thanks!

  26. Derek Oscarson


    What about creating a separate version for the thumbnail? I feel like trying to design for both sizes and resolutions is almost an impossible task. You risk underdesigning the print cover or falling into the traps above.

    Treat the design as a branding/marketing campaign and I think people will still get it. The print cover is going to be what is marketed, not the ebook thumbnail. It’s what the author is going to be using to promote and sell at signings, on tv shows and appearances.

    Despite the momentum towards ebooks, I still feel that the print cover design has a ton of value in terms of marketing. I would still continue making the print cover the centerpiece and then just rework the design into the smaller format. If you come up with a design that works in both formats, great but let’s not throw out beautiful type and design just because we need to sell ebooks too. Think in terms of a campaign and not just a design and all formats will win.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Derek, I think you’ve hit it exactly. There is simply no way to just reduce a beautiful, textured and intricate print design to a postage stamp and expect it to do as good a job.

      And the idea of “campaign” is where designers should be looking. Every one of the “failed” ebook covers is easily identifiable through typography and graphics. It doesn’t seem like a big project to re-work a cover design, keeping the key elements that help to identify it, and create a small file perfect for online use.

      Thanks for your expert commentary.

  27. bettymingliu

    joel, thnx so much for taking the time to upload all the images of the book covers. just another example of why your blog is such a labor of love. as a reader, i really appreciate having these visual references to help me understand the issue. i thoroughly enjoy these posts that school us on graphics! ~betty.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Bettty, I appreciate it. I’m thinking of doing more posts like this because they are so “real world” that it’s easier to see the concepts in action.

  28. J. Tillman

    Thanks for this visual essay on what works. It makes me wonder about some things though.

    Is the era of the complicated, intricate book cover over? That’s a little bit sad. Is poster-ish too strong of a description for the new era? I appreciate the beauty of the woman in the blue sky on Danielle Steel’s book and the intricacy on Ken Follett’s book.

    Is no one redesigning their cover for the ebook? After all, you have to submit a separate file, don’t you? It would seem that, relatively easily, the covers of “Torn” and “The Imperfectionist” could be reworked to be better at small sizes.

    On “A Gift of Grace”, you said that the big graphic saves it, making it recognizable. So which is better, big graphic or big letters?

    Shorter book names seem to work best. This conflicts with the truism, for non-fiction books, that a descriptive title and longer subtitle are best. What do you think?

    A question about fonts. Although every book cover (and font) is different, are you seeing that display fonts are okay for ebook, or are display fonts too thin for this. To my eye, it looks like the successful covers above are the thicker text fonts.

    Final comment… Slingo, what a great name, for almost anything.

    • J. Tillman

      Are we ready for the animated ebook covers? I’m thinking about your design of the cover for “Pentecost”. There could be volcano-like flames shooting up, and the word Pentecost could be smoldering away like a Yule log. Is there a Christmas marketing campaign here? What do you think?

      • Joel Friedlander

        J., I’ve already seen some animated ebook covers, and I’m not very fond of them. Maybe I’m old-fashioned.

        I don’t think you can categorically say that some fonts are good and others bad for this use, so much depends on the rest of the design and how they are used.

        As you’ll see in the other comments, you’ve put your finger on the solution: adapt the print cover for your ebook, and get the best of both versions.

        • Glenn Dixon

          Konrath’s most recent post included 3 examples of animated book covers. VERY effective! Also a potential train wreck if every Amazon search result were a page full of those. Imagine dozens of blinking, neon thumbnails…

  29. Michael N. Marcus

    Traditionally, experts urged that book covers be optimized for viewing from about three feet away as shoppers strolled down the aisles of a Borders store or peered into the window of a B&N.

    It’s a nice test, but is utterly inappropriate for an eBook that’s sold only online and is never on a shelf.

    A beautiful illustration that would be a powerful eye-grabber under the spotlight in a bookstore may become a tiny incomprehensible blob when displayed on a website. Subtle color combinations that win awards in art school may not have adequate contrast to allow potential customers to separate the text from the background on computer monitors. Thin type strokes that are graceful and gorgeous when a book is held in a hand may be invisible on a monitor or smart phone.

    The necessity of designing appropriate covers for the increasing number of eBooks may also push designers to produce covers of pBooks that work well in thumbnail views online — and that’s a good thing.

    When a book cover’s height is reduced from nine inches to 90 or 115 pixels, readability is much more important than beauty (but there’s no excuse for an ugly cover).

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750



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