Book Cover Success and Failure Explained

by | Jun 9, 2014

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.

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 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?

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.

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


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Drayton Alan

    Thanks, this is one of the best articles I have seen on the topic of book covers. Usually, articles like this end up being a list of “don’ts”, and those are fine but not really very helpful for making an excellent cover. However, your comments were focused on the real underlying job covers should be doing. This is so important I will use it as a check list for my own covers. Making a cover is part of my process for writing my book. I have even made animated versions.
    I have made my own covers and received mostly positive feedback. However, it’s difficult to get reliable critiques. Friends don’t know or won’t tell you if they are good or bad. Professionals are looking to sell you their services so it’s difficult to know if their opinion is a matter of taste or an attempt to promote their work. I have had some success in FB writer’s groups, but other authors might not be the best feedback either.
    It would be great if there was a reliable way to have your covers critiqued without bias or a sales pitch.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Drayton, glad you found it of use.

      A couple of sources of critiques:

      My monthly Ebook Cover Design Awards which features hundreds of covers with very short critiques. Free to enter.

      You can also try sites like Cover Critics, and some designers will give you a quick critique, too, if you ask nicely.

      Good luck!

  2. Syneca

    A someone who makes a large portion of her income from designing book covers, I must say I enjoyed this article. I know a lot of authors who have created their own and some were quite nice – others were not. Regardless of whether you pay to work with a professional or do it yourself, a book cover has to accomplish one goal — get a reader to the blurb. If it attracts their attention enough to do that then it has fulfilled its objective and it’s up to the blurb to “reel in the reader” to hit the ‘buy’ button.

  3. Donna K. Fitch

    Joel, I really like your book covers for the Quick and Easy series. Did you do those, or who was the designer?

  4. Kristen Steele

    This is why it’s worthwhile to hire a professional- it’s a lot of information to digest! Think of it as an investment that will be returned. It’s unfortunate to see a great book not get the attention it deserves because the cover is lacking.

  5. Emma Mills

    I am just in the process of designing a cover for my new YA novel and I’m on the 4th draft with a different font! Initially I used the font that I used for my 4 book series which everyone loved, but for some reason that font did not translate and I got lots of comments on my fb page that it didn’t work! I find as a DIY writer/publisher getting the design to look as professional as possible is the hardest thing. I use GIMP and my latest font download was called Hero I think.

  6. Heidi Peterson

    Great tips. I’d like to add that since about 95% of books are sold on Amazon for authors to stay away from white book covers. These really blend into the background on Amazon and don’t let your book stand out and get noticed.

  7. Jerrie Brock

    I did my own covers but I wondered about one thing. Using red in the background, the silhouette seems to bleed into it but only for the one used on Amazon. On the printed cover or in full size it doesn’t do it, or when I have done covers in any other colors. The dpi didn’t seem to make any difference, even when I went back to sharpen the edges of the smaller one submitted. Any idea what I did wrong? I use Paintshop.

  8. Laura Sheridan

    Thanks for this valuable information. Didn’t realise how important the cover was. I’ll have to go back to my Kindle books and re-design one or two.

    • L. E. Fraser

      I used a professional designer for my novel, because the cover image, fonts and colours all dovetailed into the branding. It’s important to keep marketing in mind. Will the cover be easy to use as a consistent image with your promotion plan? Can you commit to the fonts and colours? I write a mystery series and they are dark, so the cover works well. However, it’s caused challenges with branding. Next time, I’ll consider complementary colours and ability to detect all aspects when the image is shrunk. How does it look as a thumbnail? If this image is on a promo card or bookmark, can you see the text clearly?

      Honestly, I don’t know how you could design in Word. It doesn’t like large picture files and tends to crash, as Nowick said above. I’m interested to see your strategy, Joel.

  9. Erik Istrup

    Thank you for the insights, Joel. As stated in the article, the tone is more subtle. It’s about the feeling you get, when you see the cover. It is what starts your feeling into the book, and ultimately what makes you choose the book; maybe not the first time, but when you see the cover again. – This “feeling into” might be more a female thing, although we all use our feelings as the main actor in choosing what we do in our lives. –

    As for making covers in Word: I had no problem with that (using Word for many years), but since I make covers for printed books (and use them for the e-books as well) and need pdf, I use Adobe InDesign for both book block and cover.

  10. Danielle

    I can’t imagine doing a cover in Word. I’m interested in seeing how that’s done. I used Adobe Photoshop CC to do mine. I studied this site and the ebook cover awards for months. I did a Photoshop tutorial and looked at a lot of photos from iStockPhoto and others. I also browsed covers on Amazon and the books on my own bookshelf. I did the cover last year, but made changes before self-pub in January. I had a designer (Deborah, of TugBoat Design) tweak the cover last month. You can see the before/after on my website. I’m glad she got rid of that band! I was thinking about doing it, but couldn’t make up my mind on what else to do instead. Deborah made it more streamlined.

    • Joel Friedlander

      That’s a great “tweak” Danielle, and getting rid of the band really helped. Good luck with the book.

  11. Nowick Gray

    Interesting that you asked about obstacles in MS Word… I’ve tried a few times, spent hours wrestling with it and fruitlessly seeking solutions online. I do like some of the features, like WordArt. The problem comes in saving to a graphic format at the right size and resolution and with text intact. Grouping/ ungrouping, “Save as Picture” greyed out, picture saved without text or at the wrong size or resolution… In the end I settled for composing in Word and then transferring the elements to a proper graphics program (Fireworks)–where I could have done it all, but I like Word for the text options.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Nowick, watch for my announcement later this week, it will help solve those problems you’re having with Word.

      • Nowick Gray

        Wonderful, glad someone is taking this on! And who better… ;)

  12. Linda Austin

    I have a bit of an artistic eye and created my own cover using MSWord with the help of a graphic designer for a copy shop. It was okay, but she was not a book cover designer and neither am I and it showed – compared to the second edition of my book using an experienced cover designer. What an eye-opening huge difference, even in a simple cover! I’ve seen too many DIY covers, besides my own, where the layout looks amateur, particularly with fonts and image manipulation and placement, so do not recommend it. Another graphic designer did my second book’s simple cover, to cut costs since it’s such a niche genre, and while she did a great job, I walked her through it with what I had learned and using my first book’s (pro) cover as a model. My pro cover designer did not cost that much and was worth every penny. So much more to cover design than the untrained person can imagine.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ah, the wisdom of experience! Thanks for that, Linda.

  13. David Seid

    Thanks a lot for posting this!! I was just thinking last night that I needed a tract like this to help customers understand the importance of quality cover design!! This is a great summary!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks David, and thanks for your phone message, too. I’ll reply as soon as I can.

  14. Alan Drabke

    We desperately need a tutorial on the how to of building a book cover in the pdf file format at 300 dots per inch (Create Space and Lightning Source rules and regs) . Don’t forget, the background images you download from places like Pixabay are usually at 72 dots per inch.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good idea, Alan, and something I think I can help with. Also keep in mind that the “native” resolution of images isn’t as important as the “effective” resolution, and that depends on the DPI at the final reproduction size.

      • Alan Drabke

        You hit the thumbtack dead center. As long as you don’t ‘stretch’ your background image to fit, you do have a good chance of a crisp image after converting it to the pdf format.

  15. Connie B. Dowell

    I did my own cover using Illustrator and InDesign. It’s not something I would recommend to most authors because of the time it takes to learn basic design skills. Plus, cover artists should be as passionate about their work as authors are about their writing, so to do both, you need to be dually passionate.

    The biggest challenge I ran into doing my own cover was actually not a part of the design process at all. Just like every author wonders “If I had tweaked the manuscript this way, would it be better?” even long after publication, cover artists envision tweaks to their designs. The biggest challenge is looking at my already published book and thinking “If I had just made this one element slightly bigger…” and then resisting the urge to fiddle. The book is published. The cover is done. I can’t allow myself to make changes unless there’s something egregiously wrong. Otherwise, it would never end. I don’t think I would be so critical about a cover designed by someone else.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, designers are, in my experience, tweakers. Always one more adjustment, and that’s not so different for authors, is it? At some point, you have to decide “it’s finished” or we’d never get anything out the door.

  16. Lexi Revellian

    I enjoy designing my own covers in Adobe Photoshop 0.7, and I’ve also done a few for writer friends. And I find creating their covers much easier – perhaps because I’m not so involved, perhaps because the authors’ suggestions add to the end result.

    (Or just possibly because they are much better than I am at sticking to a genre…)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Interesting, Lexi. I suspect the distance helps you “see” their work more objectively. I use Photoshop for image manipulation, but prefer then moving everything to InDesign for layout.



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