Book Cover Design Symposium in Your Inbox

by | Mar 8, 2011

Every month I get an email from Goodreads. Do you have an account there? Goodreads is a very popular and successful social network for book lovers who like to read and share their reading with their friends. Here’s what they have to say:

Goodreads is a free website for book lovers. Imagine it as a large library that you can wander through and see everyone’s bookshelves, their reviews, and their ratings. You can also post your own reviews and catalog what you have read, are currently reading, and plan to read in the future. Don’t stop there – join a discussion group, start a book club, contact an author, and even post your own writing.

Here’s what’s interesting: The monthly email, which highlights new releases, consists of 60 book cover images arranged by genre.

This is a goldmine each month. If you’re interested in what’s going on in cover design trends, but you don’t have a lot of time to cruise categories on Amazon or other online retailers, you can get a pretty good idea right in your inbox.

Some Assembly Required

Take a look and you’ll see what I mean. Here is the young adult category:

Goodreads young adult cover design

Now it seems to me that if 3 of the top releases for the month in any genre are showing similar design elements, you can consider that a strong trend. It’s clear here that if you publish in this genre, and you want your book to be one of the top releases, you are going to have a single female character very much alone on your cover. Right?

Here’s the children’s selection:

Goodreads children book cover design

Obviously, if your book is for small children, you want animals. How about romance?

book cover design

One thing that’s interesting about these covers is that they highlight one part of the body, often in close up. Also note that four of the five have two-word titles. Must be a trend. Next is historical fiction:

book cover design

You can see it’s an iron law: historical fiction will require a full-cover illustration, preferably of a woman in period clothing. Nothing else will do. How about history?

book cover design

When you see the genre look, it also makes it obvious when a book breaks with that look, like the Sarah Vowell cover on the left.

Here is the mystery and thriller selection:

book cover design

What’s most striking here is the typography. Apparently you can only use sans serif typefaces, they are allowed to completely take over the cover, and it’s fine to run the author’s name—assuming they have fans who will buy anything they write—much larger than the title.

Last, here are the nonfiction books:
book cover design

One thing four of these covers have in common is making sure you can easily read the title. This wasn’t the case with any of the other genres, and that’s interesting in itself.

Lessons Learned

It looks like all of these books are from major publishers, although I haven’t checked every one. It’s unlikely that your book or mine will be on the shelf of a bookstore next to them.

But online, we are all pretty much equal. Conventions in book cover design, like those apparent on the Goodread’s list, are important to know about. There’s no reason a book can’t be a success without following conventions. But readers, whether they are aware of these conventions or not, are likely to be influenced by them.

This gives you an important piece of information. If you want your book to look “right” and fit in, make sure you know what the conventions are in your genre. Whether you choose to follow them, adapt them, or flaunt them, at least you’ll be making an informed decision.

Photo by K David Clark

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Lisa Annesley

    As far as Goodreads, you can also go to your Recommendations page at any time to see examples of covers in your chosen genres.

  2. Gregory C. Randall

    As always I have a tough time selecting the title out of the richness of the artwork for many of these titles. And the titles you posted are a tad bigger than B&N and Amazon – you can’t stand out if your title can’t be read, much of this looks to be the work of “publishing houses” that see safety first. And yes, I like garish covers for my O’Mara books, they must grab you, she’s a tough broad.
    I admire and read your posts everyday and I have you on my blog – I get a lot of feedback from people who are Indies and SP’s who don’t know you and now really like your work. Keep it up. Sorry I missed you at SF Writers.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Greg, glad you’re getting something out of it, and I really appreciate you pointing other people here. The most powerful thing you can do is get educated about your choices. Good luck with your new book!

  3. Derek Oscarson

    How about showing some of your readers’ attempts at designing their own covers? I’d be happy to give some constructive criticism to help.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey, Derek that’s a great idea. Perhaps we could convene a panel of designers to help self-publishers by pointing out ways they could improve their cover designs. Any interest in this?

          • Joel Friedlander

            Thanks, guys. We’ll see where this goes, but it could be pretty useful to DIY self-publishers.

      • Ron Lair

        Sign me up!
        BTW Joel, has your cover critique over at Self-Publishing Review died out? I was going to submit my cover but there hasn’t been anything going on in that thread for quite some time.

      • MM Justus

        Please! And how did you set up that Goodreads email?

  4. Milt Simpson

    Joel, thank you for another great post. Some of your readers may be interested in checking out the annual “AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers” entries—a good source for some very creative solutions. What are your thoughts about standing out in a crowd?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Milt. For readers interested in the AIGA program that Milt referenced, check out the design archives here:
      AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers Design Archive

      I think whenever you go against the conventions of your genre, you have a great chance of standing out. The only problem comes when readers fail to recognize the book as one in which they might have an interest. With a lot of book cover design stuck in “me too” ideas, it’s always worth trying to find one element that can be used to create attention. The most recent example I’m thinking of is the new Seth Godin book Poke the Box which has an old-fashioned line drawing on the cover and no type at all. It does stop you and make you wonder what the book is about.

      This is a subject of almost endless debate and fascination, isn’t it?

    • Amit

      I have the lightest the shade: 002 Vanilla. I love this foudantion, it’s just perfect! It really depends on your skin type. I don’t have oily or dry skin. My skin is just sensitive and this is amazing. For me it was $11.35 I usually wouldn’t pay that much, but this foudantion just lasts forever! LOVE IT.

  5. Adam iwritereadrate

    Hi Joel. This is a really useful post for me – I’m presently designing a cover for my ebook to go on our website. Good to see some examples of what’s going on in the cover design world.




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