Book Cover Success and Failure Explained

POSTED ON Jun 9, 2014

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Design, Cover Design, Self-Publishing > Book Cover Success and Failure Explained

Not that long ago I was asked to create a presentation that would help authors when it came time to design a book cover.

I know that there are lots of do-it-yourselfers who are self-publishers, and there are also authors who are buying services from professionals. I wanted to create a presentation that would give both kinds of authors useful information.

Since I’ve been judging book covers for a long time (and hundreds more in the monthly Ebook Cover Design Awards) I know how difficult it can be for an author to see her book cover objectively.

Especially for first-time authors, it can be a real and difficult challenge to step back and try to see your book cover as a selling vehicle for your book, and not as an extension of your own identity. Here’s what we’ll cover in this article, to guide you toward a book cover you not only love, but that actually helps your book sell:

Your Book Cover Has a Job to Do (or Maybe 5)

Let’s face it, there are hundreds of different genres, different kinds of books, and different ways to solve the problem presented by the need to create a cover—a brand, an image, an exemplar, an avatar—for your book.

Taking that vast variety into account, and confining myself to books that their authors hope to sell commercially, it seemed like there were 5 separate tasks your book cover has to accomplish:

1. Announce Its Genre

Clearly, many book buyers search for books by category, niche, or genre, so this instant identification with where your book belongs is a critical task.

2. Telegraph Its Tone

Although more subtle, it’s also important to imply the tone of a work, especially fiction. Is it a brash, over-the-top page turner, or a subtle character study?

3. Explain Its Scope

More common to nonfiction, readers need to know what’s included in your book and what’s not—in terms of subject matter, time periods, geography, skill levels, or any other guide that will give potential buyers this information.

4. Generate Excitement

Effective book covers have a “hook”—something that intrigues, grabs you by the throat, makes a promise—something that will attract and hold a reader’s attention and make them want to know more.

5. Establish a market position

Your book cover design can help browsers by letting them know where your book fits in with other, similar books they are already familiar with. More encyclopedic? With vampires? And tons of resources?

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Book Covers Often Fail These Tasks

Looking at the books that did not meet these criteria, I was able to identify 4 main reasons for their failure:

1. They are Illegible

Although it seems that the least we can expect of a book cover is to be able to read it—both the type and any images used—many covers were either unreadable or just plain hard to make out.

2. They Disregard Their Genre or Niche

Maybe you’re publishing a thriller, and want to attract readers who enjoy thrillers. If you put a cover on your book that makes it look more like a history or an academic paper, won’t it be harder to interest those readers? Many book covers fail this test.

3. There’s No “Hook”

Maybe that “sunset on the ocean” was incredibly meaningful for the author, or connected to a crucial scene in the story, but we don’t know that, do we? These books present no particular reason to even pick up the book to find out more. In a word, they are boring.

4. They are Graphically or Typographically Incompetent

This is the biggest challenge for novice book cover designers. It’s not that easy to learn typography, or how to composite images in an image editing program. Too many books show the results: incomprehensible images, inappropriate fonts, and tortured special effects, all filling the vacuum left by the absence of any real design.

Some Concepts to Analyze and Cure Book Cover Failures

You can solve these problems, and in reviewing my work to this point, I realized that the answers usually came from just 3 places.

1. Focus

Successful book covers have a specific point of view and are dedicated to communicating a very clear message. This takes focus and knowing what’s of interest to your readers. It can also mean using design skills to control the readers “eyepath” as they look at the cover, so you are focusing them on the information you want to communicate.

2. Contrast

Book covers without contrast can be monotone in color, weak in the fonts chosen and how they are used, or have very busy backgrounds that distract attention from the main communication. Using contrast wisely with colors, fonts, and combined elements will clarify your message.

3. Positioning

Your need to indicate the genre and tone of your book, while also letting readers know what they can expect from the book, come together to help place your book in context with other books. Establishing this position makes your book understandable to more of your readers and lets them know what your book is all about.

There’s More to a Great Cover

This analysis of what makes book covers succeed or fail is a way to look at covers you’re creating, or designs someone else is proposing to you.

But of course, a lot more goes into a great cover. No matter what category, niche, or genre your book is, you’ll also need:

  • A great title (and subtitle), especially for nonfiction books where keywords will help draw prospects
  • To make sure your cover fits your printer’s specifications. More on that below.
  • Back cover copy that’s finely crafted marketing copy.
  • Targeted testimonials, ones that will be meaningful to your readers, and which will help convince people to buy.
  • Your book available in as many formats as possible, depending on the individual book.

Technical Book Cover Construction

The one place DIY authors seem to need help, especially if they don’t know professional layout software like Adobe InDesign, is with properly laying out their cover.

In order to do this, you’ll need to account for things like:

  • changing your spine width depending on your printer, paper, and page count
  • establishing “safe zones” of .25 inches to keep critical type and images away from the trim and fold edges
  • creating .25 “bleed” areas extending off the edges of the cover while maintaining the proper final trim size

At least with these technical requirements, help is a little easier to come by, and later this week I’ll tell you exactly what I mean.

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If you’ve tried creating your own book covers—especially in Microsoft Word—what obstacles did you encounter? Let us know in the comments.


Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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