You CAN Tell an (e)Book by Its Cover

by | Aug 29, 2019

By David Kudler

While the truism “You can’t tell a book by its cover” holds true in most of our lives, one place where it doesn’t, ironically, is in publishing.

Oh, it’s still true — the cover doesn’t necessarily communicate what’s inside (though it should). But potential readers ignore it almost universally — especially when it comes to ebooks.

The cover is the first and (in many cases) most important piece of information those readers get about a title. This time out, I’m going to look at what should go into designing a cover that works for, rather than against, your ebook.

The Cover’s Job

Whatever format a book is in (print, audio, or ebook), the cover has a very important job — apart from and in addition to being visually attractive. As readers of TheBookDesigner.com probably already know, that job falls into several very important parts. It must communicate:

  • The genre/subgenre of the book
  • The tone of the book
  • The subject matter of the book

A cover makes a promise. It tells the reader very clearly — through words, but also through design — exactly what they’re going to read.

Genre

There’s no mistaking a Harlequin Romance book. The covers regularly feature virile, bare-chested men and beautiful women, themselves often less than fully clothed. Harlequin’s Historical imprint features similar characters, but with clothing from the English Regency, the Middle Ages, or Hollywood’s Golden Era. The colors will be bright and running toward the warm side of the color wheel.

It’s easy for non-fans (and non-authors) to make fun of such covers, but they’re an important part of Harlequin’s huge success. They communicate to the potential reader with great efficiency exactly what kind of book it is they’re going to be getting if they purchase it. The promise they’re making is extremely clear.

Now, if I’m looking for a space opera novel in which romance isn’t a primary plot theme, those covers won’t make a promise I’m interested in. Instead, I’ll be looking for a cover with stars and space ships or possibly characters (human and non-) holding futuristic weapons. The color scheme is likely to be dark and cool.

We could make the same kinds of observations about a thriller, a business non-fiction book, an inspirational title — each genre and subgenre has certain tropes (characteristic elements) that identify it. Even literary fiction!

If you aren’t sure what the tropes for your subgenre are, go to a bookstore — online or in person — and spend an hour looking at every single book that matches your book’s narrow category.

  • Are there design elements that repeat?
  • Are there ways that the cover designers let readers know, for example, that a book is urban rather than epic fantasy, say, or police procedural rather than gumshoe detective or cozy whodunit?
  • Inspirational books for children as opposed to for their parents?

Educate yourself as to the design tropes and clichés for your subgenre.

You don’t have to follow all of those clichés in your own design — and probably shouldn’t. But they’re clichés for a reason. You need to know them before you choose to discard them.

Tone

A cover should let the reader know what sort of tone to expect. This is just as important as communicating genre. In the covers that you were looking at above, did the designs promise:

  • quirky humor?
  • brooding, steamy romance?
  • blood-chilling terror?

How did the cover manage that?

There’s probably some combination of artwork, font choice, and color that works to promise the reader a particular tone.

The book had sure better deliver on that promise!

There’s nothing worse than picking up a book with an amusing cover and finding that you’ve purchased a grim drama — or vice versa.

You know what tone dominates your book. Make sure that the cover communicates that.

Subject Matter

It can be important for the cover to let the reader know what the book is about — literally. This is separate from genre or even tone.

In this case, the cover actually tells the reader this is a book about time management or this is a book where there are gun fights or this is a kissing book, (as the grandson in the film of The Princess Bride would say). If the subject matter is central to your reader’s choice whether or not to buy the book, then definitely make sure that the cover communicates that subject.

However, please don’t feel as if the cover needs to tell the story of the book — or illustrate a scene from the book. Remember, they’re looking at the cover before they’ve read it. You don’t have to overdo it. But just as you would follow the dictum show, don’t tell in your writing, it’s good to give your reader a clue as to what they’re going to find once they crack the book open.

Ebook vs. Print Covers

Up to this point, everything that I’ve had to say pertains to all book covers — print, audiobook, or ebook.

There is one major distinction between ebook and print covers, however, that you really should bear in mind as you are creating your own cover (whether you are the designer yourself, or you’ve hired someone else to do the work for you). It’s kind of an obvious distinction, but it’s an important one, nonetheless.

Print covers are designed to be seen person on a book shelf or table — whether at a book store, a library, or a friend’s living room.

They are designed to be seen at full size, up close. Whether it’s a 6″x9″ trade paperback or a 8″x10″ picture book, it’s meant to be picked up and examined in detail.

Ebook covers, on the other hand, are largely seen at thumbnail size in a list of other ebooks, or at best at fairly small scale.

Here’s a listing of the results on Amazon for the search word kunoichi:

That’s the size that matters — what is known as thumbnail size, maybe an inch or so wide by an inch and a half tall. If the details of the cover don’t communicate at that scale — if the cover can’t communicate its promise — what do you think the odds are that a potential reader will be drawn to click through to see the cover at a (slightly) larger size?

Not very high.

If you look at the first two titles in that list, they read very clearly at this scale. (Yes, the second one is my novel Risuko. Shh.)

How about the third book, The Ninja Girl? Can you tell anything about that book’s genre, tone, or subject matter? It’s dark, so I wouldn’t expect a lighthearted comedy, but aside from that, I can’t see a thing.

If I were to click through… I’d see this:

Okay. So that’s a little bit better — I can (if I look closely) see a woman’s back with a snake tattoo; she’s wearing a conical Asian hat and a sword. So that tells me something. But it’s still not much.1

This isn’t a terrible cover — if this were a print book.

Tell me, the white box on the upper-left edge — can you read it even zoomed in? It’s the series/imprint logo. Which is nice, but not particularly helpful, and at the scale that Amazon shows, even on the product screen for the book not particularly legible.

Now, here’s the page for the ebook edition of my novel:

James Egan of Bookfly Design created that cover for me, and I’m pretty comfortable in saying he did a fabulous job.2

It clearly communicates the genre (YA historical adventure set in Asia), it communicates the tone I was looking for (mysterious), and it communicates subject matter — a girl with a sword.

When James sent me his initial design, the central figure was somewhat smaller and there was text down the left-hand side — the series title.

However, one of the things we noticed when we looked at that cover at thumbnail size was that you couldn’t see the sword. It just looked like a girl’s silhouette. So we deleted the series and expanded the whole central circle. Problem averted!

However, this is the ebook cover.

Here’s the print cover:

Notice anything different?

There are two major differences

First, the height-to-width ratio is different. Where the ebook is 1.6 times as tall as it is wide, the 6″x9″ paperback is 1.5 times as tall as it is wide. That’s pretty minor, but means that I had to stretch the circle a bit.

But second, because this version was meant to be purchased at bookstores (and conventions, and…), I felt comfortable adding a blurb below my name. See that red text at the bottom there? Here’s a closeup:

Okay, sure, I’m pretty pleased with that blurb — but notice, you can’t read that on the Amazon product page. If anything, it just muddies the design. But if you pick up the physical book, it’s right there, promising you a good read.

I don’t bother putting that on the ebook cover. Why bother, when the first time someone’s going to see it is when it’s loaded onto their ereader — after they’ve already bought it?

So, an ebook cover should be clean, attractive and easy to read at thumbnail size. Even at that small scale, it should promise the correct genre, tone, and subject matter, so your reader won’t be disappointed.

You may decide to use higher contrast (though I think that might help sell your print book as well). To fit the online bookstores’ thumbnail image slot, its dimensions should be 1.6:1, with a long side of at least 2400 pixels — which means that an ideal size would be 1500 pixels by 2400 pixels (or larger).

Want to educate yourself? Check out the Ebook Cover Design Awards they’ve been giving out monthly (with incredibly helpful comments on what does and doesn’t work about particular designs) at TheBookDesigner.com!

Next time, we’re going to be talking about how to make your ebook’s description field work hard to sell your book.


1 And the description gives me almost nothing more than the little that the cover already promises.
2 I feel comfortable saying that for a couple of reasons. First of all, people have told me many times that it’s a gorgeous cover. And second, it won an award in TheBookDesigner.com’s monthly ebook cover design contest.
 
Photo: BigStockPhoto

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16 Comments

  1. Vivienne Sang

    This is an interesting post. I hadn’t thought about different covers for physical books and ebooks, but what you say makes sense.

    Reply
  2. Sonia Frontera

    Thanks, David, for sharing your personal cover-design journey. This is something indie authors struggle with and it’s very helpful to hear how experienced authors deal with this sensitive topic. Great article, great cover!

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Thanks, Sonia! Glad you enjoyed this.

      Reply
  3. Eric

    David, how does one tell from your Risuku cover that it’s a YA book? Is The Kunoichi also YA? Is there some “tell” that I’m missing?

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Great question, Eric, and…

      Okay, there are usually tells: the ages of the characters, their clothing…

      Obviously those aren’t visible in the cover.

      I do know, however, that it’s a YA cover — because I did a targeted poll. My intended audience (female, 13-18, likes anime/manga and fantasy) loved the cover we ended up with. The cover I had designed (https://www.facebook.com/risuko.books/photos/a.979061958828254/979062098828240/?type=1&theater) was much more popular… with 30-50-year-olds who liked historical romance. Good cover — wrong promise!

      Reply
  4. Harald

    oops… this should have gone under the “It would have been so nice…” thread.

    Reply
  5. Harald Johnson

    I’m with David on this. He’s able to point to specific things he considered in creating his cover. That can only be done as he did it. It’s a good article.

    Reply
  6. Sandra Beckwith

    Great article, David. Thanks! I’m going to share it with my author networks. Many who self-publish and therefore have control over their cover design think they can make their own rules. Nope. You need to stick with the genre norms or readers will be confused. And that’s when you lose them.

    Thanks again!

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Thanks, Sandra! I glad you found this post useful.

      The thing about genre norms/tropes is that, yes, you really should stick to them — unless you REALLY know what you’re doing. Some of my favorite covers push the boundaries, but they still manage to make the reader a promise that the book can keep.

      The point is to start by knowing what your reader is looking for — and only surprise them when it’s for a very good reason.

      Reply
  7. Pamela Cummins

    Thank you, David Kudler, this is one of the best blog posts I’ve seen on the subject of book covers. Personally, I enjoyed the examples you used as it really got the point across – even if one of them was your book.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Thanks so much, Pamela! I’m glad that you found this post useful.

      Reply
  8. VJ WAKS

    It would be so nice if so many of these articles by authors– purportedly to impart information, or provide timely advice– did NOT PLUG/PUSH TRAFFIC TO/ATTEMPT TO MARKET the contributors own work.

    Reply
    • Will

      Agreed.

      Reply
    • David Kudler

      I’m sorry you thought I was plugging my own book here. I can only sincerely assure that I wasn’t — at the very least, the readership for this site is distinctly not the target demographic for my book. (In an early draft of this article, I compared two different cover designs for this title and showed why the one I originally put together wasn’t the right one, precisely because, while it was a nice cover, it appealed to the wrong readership.)

      I chose to use the cover for my own title because I felt that I could knowledgeably discuss all of the design considerations that went into it and how those considerations affected the final design, something that wouldn’t have been true if I’d plucked a cover off of the virtual bookshelf. I thought that that exploration would be a useful exercise for the readers. My apologies if it wasn’t for you.

      Reply
      • Roland

        I agree with using your own work. How else are we supposed to know the thought process of the artist? The other choice is to analyze (and possibly criticize) the work of others? How is that better?

        Reply

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