Why You Should Judge a Book By Its Cover

by | Jan 25, 2013

by Nick Thacker (@nickthacker)

I first met Nick through his excellent LiveHacked.com blog, where he writes about writing as well as the many tasks the modern writer takes on as a digital entrepreneur. Nick also practices what he preaches, and his background in internet marketing sets him apart. Today he addresses the importance of your book cover and how indie authors can get it right.

Why You Should Judge a Book By Its Cover…

…Because everyone else does.

We’ve all heard the proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover,” meaning that we shouldn’t let first appearances become our judgement.

The saying, of course, applies to much more than just books, but as this is a blog that focuses only on books, I’m taking issue with the literal meaning of the old adage.

People judge books by their covers.

It’s the truth; it’s just the way it is.

Imagine browsing the countless rows and columns of books available for sale on Amazon’s website — no doubt you’ve done this recently. You can picture a few key attributes of the books listed there: title, price, availability information, shipping options.

Above all, though, you’ll notice the cover.

Whether it’s a “Big 6”-published super-seller or an obscure text used for an advanced science class, Amazon — and any other online bookstore — displays book covers prominently.

Covers matter

Whether you choose to believe it or not, the opinion you have of the last book purchase you made was a result of observing these attributes — to a certain extent. Even if you bought your nephew’s latest self-published fantasy novel solely for posterity and brownie points, you at least noticed what the cover looked like.

And most people will let that opinion — subconscious or not — creep into their overall judgement of the book.

The cover of your book matters. It can lead to more sales (or fewer), it can allow you to price it higher by conveying a message of quality, and it can lend credibility to you as an expert on your topic. By investing in a great cover design, you’re alleviating yourself from many possible “buyer dilemmas,” examined below (Please note: these are possible dilemmas, and they’re just illustrations. I’m sure none of you would ever think this about a real book!):

  • “This book seems pretty low-budget. I’d like to spend my money on something that took more effort.”
  • “This book seems unprofessional. I wonder if the author’s as ‘expert’ as he says he is.”
  • “This book doesn’t look like what I’d expect a [thriller|mystery|literary|etc.] book to look like.”

Believe it or not, your potential readers might be thinking these things about your book.

Instead, remove these three options from your customer’s mind — allow them only one possible judgement: “I don’t like the cover design, but that’s just me.”

Let the subjectivity of a “great” design be the only possible caveat for your readers.

Nonfiction and Fiction Covers

Take a look at your favorite professionally-produced books, and notice their covers. What do you see?

Most likely, they “fit” within the genre:

  • Nonfiction advice or self-help books often display a picture of the author-as-expert, surrounded by a blocky title font.
  • Literary novels often feature a whimsical, decorated, or cursive-stylized title font, with soft shades of color and possibly a contemplative picture or imagery.
  • Romance novel covers usually have a man or woman (or both), no doubt locked in a close embrace, passionate gaze, or another “love” position…
  • Thrillers or action/adventure covers display the author’s name and title in big, bold lettering, superimposed on a graphical representation of a main story element.

Of course there are exceptions — for every novel you’ll find that fits the above criteria, I’m sure you can find one that doesn’t. The point is, there are certain inherent “expectations” readers have when browsing for a book to satiate their reading preferences, and it all starts with the cover.

If you know that, generally, most books in your genre feature a mysterious or creepy silhouette and a scared young protagonist, why would you purposefully design something that doesn’t fit within that archetype?

You’re not playing copycat here, you’re just trying to remove any obstacles to getting the sale as you can. We all know it’s hard enough to convince people to buy your book as opposed to a competing one.

The point of all this “cover talk”

This argument isn’t meant to convince you that the only thing that matters is your cover — far from it. A great cover design is just one out of many variables that go into a great book launch and continued sales.

It just so happens that a book’s cover is one of the first (and possibly only) things a potential reader might review before making a decision. By investing in a great design, you’re helping them stick around your sales page a bit longer.

So the question remains: should you attempt to design a cover yourself, or should you shell out a bit of money for top-notch, professionally-designed cover?

While I can’t definitively answer that for each and every one of you, I can say with much certainty, “it’s probably best to pay for one.” Here’s why:

  • It’s going to help to have an objective set of eyes on your book. Just because you think a certain element from your story needs to manifest itself on the cover, your reader might not.
  • A professional is just that — a professional. That means you’re entitled — within reason — to hold them accountable for designing a fantastic cover that fits your expectations. It’s easy to get out of hand and become a client from hell, but it’s just as easy to get back the cover of your dreams, with no hassle.
  • Professionals have “been there” before. They’ve worked with other authors, and they know intuitively what will be attractive for your genre’s audience. You might know what works in a story arc for that genre, but they know what font and color will work.
  • It saves a lot of time. Maybe you’re a world-class designer, but how much is your time worth? Could you be planning the launch, rewriting a section, or doing one more self-edit instead of designing the cover?
  • It saves money. Believe it or not, one of the least expensive elements of professional book design (compared to editing, layout/formatting, proofreading, etc.) can be cover design. I’ve seen great covers that cost less than $200, and while you can spend way more than that, there’s usually no reason to go broke getting it done.

It seems to me that most of the time a self-published author chooses to “go it alone” and design their own cover is not that they’re truly interested in the DIY nature of self-publishing, but that they’re interested in getting their book out as fast as possible.

There’s nothing bad about that — many self-published authors (myself included) chose that route over the “traditional” publishing route because of the speed of getting their book out into the world. But instead of becoming more efficient, they sacrifice quality.

Getting a great cover designed can take some time — sending proofs and changes back and forth, processing payments, waiting for a response — but this time “waiting around” could also be spent honing your book into the best possible version of itself.

What do you think?

Have you had experience designing your own covers, or paid someone else to do it? Why did you choose the option you did, and what was the result?

Leave a comment and jump into the discussion!

nick-thacker-2012Nick Thacker is a self-declared “life hacker” and writer. He loves to blog, read, and create awesome things, and has written a thriller as well as several ebooks for authors. If you want free novel-writing tips, check out his free 20-week novel-writing course. You can find out more at his blog and resource site www.LiveHacked.com.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Mojisola

    Hi Nick, I really do love this article and I will like to seek your permission to repost it on my company’s blog. Thanks as I anticipate your response.

    • Nick

      Hi Mojisola! Thanks — I’m flattered. I spoke to the folks here, and their only request is that you link back to this original post on their site. I’d prefer as well that you keep my byline intact, but change “livehacked” to “writehacked.”


  2. Sherry Fiester

    My first book was non-fiction historical research, “Enemy of the Truth: Myths Forensics and the Kennedy Assassination.” I designed the cover, and have gotten good feed back from it. I am now working on my second non-fiction book and realize I just got lucky with the first cover (see it at https://sherryfiester.com). I have since learned color, font type and size, text placement, and graphics all send a silent message about the book to potential readers. Having an equally compelling back cover is also important. Although I have a great idea for a cover for my current work, I plan on getting professional help. Great advice, hope all authors take note.

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Sherry!

      Thanks for sharing a little of your story — glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Nick Thacker

    Thanks for the comment, Carl! Great points, and glad you liked the post!

  4. Carl V. Anderson

    I couldn’t agree more, a good cover may be the ONLY thing that determines whether an author’s book gets the chance to later stand on the merit of the writing or not. If people aren’t reading your book it doesn’t matter how potentially brilliant it is. We are a visual species and whether in a bookstore or online we are inundated with images and your book needs to stand out in some way, and that way needs to be appealing. I have passed up on the opportunity to read many a book because inferior cover art has given me the impression, most likely wrong, that the story contained therein is not worth picking up.

    I always judge books by their cover. I may not like certain cover designs or specific cover art but I can recognize and acknowledge when something is professionally done and just doesn’t appeal to my taste vs. being unprofessional and poorly rendered.

    Self-published and small press writers/publishers need to invest in good cover art/design. As readers become more and more choosey with the ease of buying less expensive ebooks, an eye-catching cover is your best hope for getting readers to take you seriously and try out your work in the first place.

  5. Sheila

    Chip Kidd has a *great* piece on TEDtalks about Book Covers. I highly recommend watching it. Classic communication, simple, concrete, unexpected, storytelling= sticky ideas. Covers you don’t forget. Quality to aim for and be inspired by.

    http://www.ted.com (search Chip Kidd and it should pop up.) “Designing Books Is No Laughing Matter. Okay It Is.”

    • Nick Thacker

      Yes Sheila, I highly recommend Chip Kidd’s talk on TED. It’s hilarious but at the same time intriguing. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. Michael

    Nice piece. Couldn’t agree more. I trust my covers to an insanely talented artist. I even blogged about their (2 eBooks) evolution. I’ll go one further and bet I’m not alone: As a total wine novice, choosing between 2 unknowns …. yep, you know where this is going … label design! (Same principle).

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Michael!

      Thanks for commenting––that’s a pretty good analogy, and it’s totally what I do when I’m shopping for wine (actually, I pretty much just look for the largest volume of wine I can buy it for the lowest price)!

  7. Rosanne Dingli

    That kind of information belongs in the front matter, chris. But you can do what you like really – what you want to achieve is a cover that does not scream “Amateur!” so stick to the unspoken rules as much as possible. How many books do you have on your shelves at home have that kind of information on them… and why do you think it would be a selling point?

    Having said that, I do feel that the so-called rules are being bent and stretched, so what we agree upon this week might very well seem strange at Eastertime!!

    • J.M. Ney-Grimm

      My copy of Gaia’s Garden has “Second Edition” on the cover. I think it is intended to distinguish it from the first edition, which seems still to be in print. I gather the second edition has a lot of new and additional material. When I purchased my copy, I wanted to be sure I was getting the right book, so it was reassuring to have the edition info on the cover.

  8. chris

    Speaking of book covers, here is a question for you…my current ebook is in PDF format (i know, i know). I’m creating a second edition (more content, revisions, changes, etc.) that will be in official Kindle/iBook/Self-pub formats. Can I put “Second Edition” on the cover?

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Chris;

      Thanks for the comment––congrats on coming out with the book! To answer your question, I think things like “second edition” are usually used by the publisher to clarify that there is something new about this edition. In your case, I think it would be fine to advertise that fact on the front cover. It is, of course, up to you!

  9. Val Andrews

    As a book judge, I can attest to the “judging a book by its cover” rule. As for designing your own cover: would you hire a plumber to remove your brain tumor? Then why would you “hire” a writer to create design? If you want folks to buy your book – and shelf appeal IS a big deal – invest in a good designer who will help sell it! (P.S. Skip all those tedious testimonials on the cover. They add clutter without appeal. Don’t put too much on front OR back, especially type.)

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Val — great insights. The plumber/brain tumor analogy is hilarious, and very true!

      As for your comment about skipping the testimonials: sure, there’s no reason to include 50 of them. But don’t think in terms of a “book cover judge,” think in terms of a “book buyer.” Is there a certain testimonial that will lend enough credibility to the book that someone might buy it?

  10. Nick Thacker

    Hey JS!

    That’s true––and a good point as well. In fact, one of the things I coach people on in the self-publishing process is in testing the different cover designs and artwork they use. Leaving everything else the same but changing a cover once every few months can help to give an idea about which ones “work” the best.

    And I totally agree about your point about fonts as well––I’m a font junkie, and spend most of the cover design process selecting the fonts that work the best.

    Thanks for the comment, and for stopping by!

  11. J S

    Don’t get too hung up on covers. Do an image search on a book like Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and there are around fifteen different covers. Publishers changed it a lot to see if sales could go up.
    Since it only takes a few hours to update an ebook cover don’t sweat changing it.
    Spend time selecting fonts. Many times the image is basically fine but Designers/focus groups/crowdsourcing/etc always focus on this or that picture. But start updating the fonts and text placement and see the impact on sales.

  12. Nick Thacker

    Hi vyiha!

    I do agree with Laura and her “placeholders” argument––it’s just one of many failsafes that we can put in place before hiring a professional designer. I also agree with your comments about making sure the first few pages of the book are consistent and formatted well, but that all goes into a pot I like to call “making sure your book is awesome!”

    It would certainly be different if the first thing potential buyers saw was the first 10% of the interior of the book, but it remains that the cover, title, author, and possibly a short book description of the first things our eyes will come across. For that reason, again, I stress that having a fantastic book cover up goes a long way toward getting people to open up the book in the first place!

    Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you commented here––I think all this discussion is great for new and established writers alike!

  13. vyiha

    While I tend to agree with the whole buying process described by Nick here, one should not forget that readers today may be indeed attracted at first by a book cover but most of them will eventually spend time in checking the first pages of the book as well.
    When they do so, elements such as consistency of the expectations set by the cover and the actual content (in terms of style, formatting, story per se) also play a fundamental role in the buying process.

    My experience tells us that, while it is important to have an attractive cover that catch the eye, an ebook should always be able to reflect that attractiveness in its first pages (all pages, if we are talking about a printed book) so that to keep the interest of the potential reader set by the cover high.

    With this in mind, having somebody to design a cover for you (regardless of cost considerations that may eventually affect significantly a new author stream of revenues) may be dangerous because, while the final product may be great in its design, it may not fit with the content per se.

    I tend to believe that, if authors decide to go in this direction, having clear “placeholders”, as Laura says here, should be considered the starting point in the cover design process in order to get the consistency that a potential reader would always expect from a book in its entirety.

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi vyiha!

      I do agree with Laura and her “placeholders” argument––it’s just one of many failsafes that we can put in place before hiring a professional designer. I also agree with your comments about making sure the first few pages of the book are consistent and formatted well, but that all goes into a pot I like to call “making sure your book is awesome!”

      It would certainly be different if the first thing potential buyers saw was the first 10% of the interior of the book, but it remains that the cover, title, author, and possibly a short book description of the first things our eyes will come across. For that reason, again, I stress that having a fantastic book cover up goes a long way toward getting people to open up the book in the first place!

      Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you commented here––I think all this discussion is great for new and established writers alike!

  14. Laura Roberts

    My typical approach is usually to design my own “placeholder” cover to start, as something I want to work from, and then see if I can find a designer to help improve upon that theme. This seems to work pretty well, since I can convey what I want graphically, and then get professionals to help tweak it with input on fonts and cover images. Plus, I can post it on social media and get additional input from friends and fans, i.e. potential readers, to see what grabs them.

    I would have to disagree with the point about “all __ genre titles look like this.” Yes, there are definite genre trends, but does that mean you should follow them? My opinion is no, because you want to stand out! If you have the same “romance” cover of a guy and gal locked in a swoon that everyone else has, what signals the reader that they should buy YOUR romance? A little more creativity is a good thing, so I think playing on genre elements without necessarily using the tired book cover clichés draws more readers.

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Laura– thanks for reading and commenting. I love your approach of designing a “place holder” cover, and it’s something I usually do as well. Doing that and then using a service like 99designs.com is a great way to knock out a design project on the cheap!

      I hear where you’re coming from with your second point, but again I must stress that designing a book cover solely for the purpose of “standing out,” especially if it’s in a particular genre that uses certain design elements over and over again can be a recipe for low sales. You aren’t wrong in wanting to create something that captures attention, but my purpose in writing that in the post was to dissuade people from designing their book cover themselves AND trying to do it in a way that seems attention-grabbing. 9 out of 10 these designs just end up looking abysmal…

      If, however, you’re pretty well-versed in the particular cover designs of your genre (and I would think that most writers in most genres should be!), this issue becomes more about acknowledging the rules and then breaking them rather than breaking them just to seem different.

      Hope that makes sense––again, great comment and thanks for your input!

  15. chris

    A great cover definitely can make or break a book. I’ve seen a lot of self-pub books where I immediately dismissed them because of the cover.

    After looking at the cover and deciding if it’s worth looking at further, when I’m at the store or a conference, I’ll flip the book over and look at the back cover.

    Where I’d love some help is in writing the content for the BACK COVER of the book. Writing non-fiction, I know some of the stuff to do by copying others but I’d definitely love to read about common mistakes/what not to do.

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Chris–yep, I’ve been there before! There’s nothing more disappointing to my marketing brain then finding a book that sounds like it would be a great read, only to discover that the cover design is absolutely horrendous!

      And I know where you’re coming from as far as back cover content––it’s probably third on the list of most important things to include on a physical book, and more than once it has made or broken my trust in what’s inside!

      Maybe Joel has some great advice for that…

  16. Jo Michaels

    I’m with J.M. and design my own covers. I got a degree in graphic design with the intention of becoming a book cover designer. Now I get to write my books and design the covers, too! I love it. I’ve found that when I ask my readers to choose a favorite amongst my three mockups, there’s always a clear choice of one they like most. It helps me build my fan base because they get to help choose what they look at. I also get amazing insight into what makes them tick or draws their eye to my work. Books always have, and always will be, judged by their covers; just like people are. Great article.


    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Jo!

      Wow! That sounds like a pretty awesome idea––if I do the cover for my upcoming book itself, I may have to borrow that concept and let my readers choose which one they like! I know Jeff Goins did that for his book, Wrecked, and it seemed like a pretty fun process for everyone involved!

      Thanks for commenting!

  17. Marcie Lovett

    I agree with you, Nick, that people pass over a book, without even opening it, if the cover doesn’t grab them. After getting input from a publicist, I hired a graphic artist to design my book cover. She clearly didn’t “get” the message in the book, because the initial design was off. After I searched stock photo sites for the right picture, she relented and I got the cover I wanted. I get tremendous feedback on the cover, which I hope makes prospective buyers choose it from all the other books on the shelf.

    • Nick Thacker

      Awesome! Yes, I’ve had that happen before too and been disappointed in the outcome. Seems like someone who works on a book––especially on the marketing end––would think to read through it at least once, but that’s unfortunately not always the case.

      Sounds like you did the right thing in finding a specific stock photo and having the designer take another crack at it. That’s a good mix of input and allowing the artist to do their job as well!

  18. Yvonne Hertzberger

    Current wisdom tells us that we have from one to three seconds to make a first impression. When it comes to books that precious time goes to the cover. If it doesn’t meet the expectation of what the customer expects the book will, in all likelihood, be passed over. I paid for my cover designs, but I also had input into the ideas for them. I think it does need to be a team effort as a designer may not be in tune with the genre or subject matter of the book.

    • Nick Thacker

      Yes, I’ve heard that as well––doesn’t give us much time to attract a reader then, does it?

      And I think it is crucial that even when paying someone else to design the cover, that the author has at least some control over what gets in the final design. Again, no one knows your story like you do!

  19. Beth Tobin

    The timing of this article is uncanny. Amazon recent posted a new collection of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories. The picture chosen for the cover is literally an offense to long time fans who are the best potential customers. They’re the ones most likely to purchase a copy as a gift in order to share their love of this character.

    Clearly the no one involved in the preparation of this title considered the market.

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Beth!

      Ouch––that is a disappointment! I think you’ve pointed out though the other side of the coin––namely, that hiring a professional cover designer who is NOT familiar with the story can be even worse than just doing a so/so job yourself.

  20. Rosanne Dingli

    I must have missed my calling … or perhaps not. I love all the stages of publishing my own book, because I’ve been in some sort of publishing for 25 years and I’ve worked with outfits from university presses, to lifestyle and interior design magazines, to local newspapers, to state papers, to literary journals. I also trained for a while as a graphic artist, and helped in my uncle’s printing press way back in the 60s (yes, I can read backwards).
    I am also an artist who has exhibited and sold a number of paintings. My tertiary education was in an art school. I did history of art and architecture… and I have written more than just a handful of books, almost all fiction.
    Does this qualify me? Only in a way. I have to work hard at learning – the curve is steep. Putting a book together used to be the work of at least two TEAMS. I know – I’ve watched the process.
    Knowing all I know makes me realize how much I must still learn. And it’s possible to track my progress by looking at my book covers. I’m proud of each one, and have changed and tweaked them all. By August of this year, they should all be as improved as those of my three novels.
    Sometimes, the worst ones (in my view) sell better than the ones I think are the most professional. Sometimes, I out-do myself, and everything WORKS. Yay.

    I have only been doing this since publishing was blown open around 2009-2010. My novels were in the hands of a publisher, but I have taken over. I think I am doing amazing work in such a short time, and the proof is in the numbers of colleagues who come to me for help.

    I still make more money editing, formatting and typesetting, designing interiors and covers than I do from selling my own books, but that might change in the next 18 months or so. I am seeing improvements and let’s face it … I have never studied marketing and promotions, so THAT curve is the steepest of all.

    So yeah – I’m one of those who thinks they can do it, but I’m not always confident, I know I don’t know everything, and I’m certainly not too arrogant to learn more.

    This was a good article – thank you, Nick.

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Rosanne––thanks for your great comment. Like I said above, sometimes hiring another professional set of eyes is a great idea––it not only frees you up to do the other work, but it can be reassuring to hear what they have to say about your self-designed cover.

      On the other hand, they’ll be able to spot things you can’t––it’s the “too close to your own work” syndrome.

      Thanks again Rosanne––and good luck!

  21. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    I’m one “truly interested in the DIY nature of self-publishing.” I was an art director in a previous life, loved it, and find cover design to be part of the fun of the indie world. So I design my own covers. That said, my training was in architecture, not graphic design. There are things I don’t know. Maybe I should hire the work out. So far, I can’t bear to give up the fun!

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi JM!

      Thanks for stopping by––I think that if you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in the design world, designing your own covers is hard NOT to do! It still might be worthwhile to hire a cover designer in those cases, if for no other reason then to get a second professional opinion. For example, my upcoming thriller release has a cover that was designed by a professional graphic designer, though for many of my nonfiction books I did the cover myself.

      It seems like the most benefit we get as cover designers isn’t in designing our own book cover, it’s in knowing what looks good and what doesn’t!


  22. Ernie Zelinski

    No doubt a great cover can add to the value of a book.

    But what makes a great cover can be a subject of great debate, even amongst professional cover designers.

    Second, I think I would take a book with a great title and a poor cover instead of a great cover and a poor title.

    I offer the example of “Assholes Finish First”. In my opinion, the book has a lousy cover but a great title. My research shows that the book has sold over 300,000 copies. This shows that a book with a lousy cover and a great title can be a great success. With the Amazon reviewers giving the book an average of 3.5 stars out of 5, the book doesn’t even appear to have that great content.

    Now if I could only come up with a great title, a lousy cover, and mediocre content with the likihood that the book would sell 300,000 copies, I just may go for it. Then I would spend the money on a great cover design for for my next book regardless of its content and its title.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 175,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Nick Thacker

      Hi Ernie!

      Thanks for the comment––I do agree that title is certainly important, as in most cases it carries equal weight with the cover design itself in attracting/distracting people to the book.

      In your example above, I agree that it has a great title (at least one that is attention-grabbing), but I think that particular book succeeded more from the efforts of its marketing team than anything else. Check out this post over on Tim Ferris’ blog: https://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2012/07/18/ryan-holiday/

      Aside from that, I’m not all too sure that I hate the cover design anyway. Sure, it’s simple, but I kind of like it!

      Thanks again for commenting Ernie––glad you enjoyed the post!

      • Adrijus G.

        That’s a great cover. Title is brilliant as it polarizes people and they even get visceral reactions to it (I’ve seen it on forums, they wouldn’t even read it because of title.. so bizzare..).

        Good post overall, I would argue that you should break standards of the cover genre but it works when you don’t so pointless argument probably.



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