Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’ve all heard the famous saying about judging book covers but how many people actually take its advice? The answer is not many and your cover may be the biggest deciding factor on whether or not your book gets read.
As the first thing a potential reader sees, your cover is the salesman for your book. If the blurb lets you down then the first few pages could save you, but if your cover turns people off, they won’t look any further.
So how do you avoid alienating potential readers and grab the demographic you’re after? The answer is to appreciate all the different kinds of information readers will be looking for in your cover.
What does your cover tell the reader?
Covers are made up of an image, a title, an author’s name and possibly a tagline or recommendation from another author. How these elements interact on the cover and how they’re positioned can communicate a surprising amount of information.
What you have to appreciate is that the majority of people will see your book cover while ‘scanning’ a physical or digital shelf. The range of literature available to today’s reader means that they can afford to browse until something grabs their attention.
To some, this might suggest that your cover should be as eye-grabbing as possible but this is a short-sighted approach. Most potential readers aren’t browsing for ‘something surprising’, they’re browsing with specific criteria in mind. The most important of which is…
Different genres tend to intermingle, especially in online bookstores. Sections often aren’t as specialized as physical bookstores and there are no staff to help sort through the masses. If you’re selling on this kind of platform, and you should be, then you need to help readers find what they need.
Communicating your genre is incredibly easy. Each genre has accepted visual cues that act as a shorthand for the reader. For example, young adult fantasy fiction aimed at a female readership often features a simply dressed girl facing bleak but simplistic surroundings.
The surroundings lend a challenging, lost feel that communicates the tone of that kind of narrative and the girl, central but without identity, allows the intended reader to project themselves into the situation.
The downside to communicating genre is the risk of being indistinguishable from similar novels. Though the settings of Rapture and Dark Companion (above) are very different, their near identical color palettes mean they appear incredibly similar on first glance.
While this isn’t ideal, it’s not the problem it first appears. Checking out a book’s blurb online is incredibly easy and your cover’s job is to get potential readers that far. There’s no reason readers won’t check out similar looking books, after all they both caught their attention.
To find the particular visual cues that define your genre take a look at other books that have done well in bookstores.
Of course it’s ideal if you can establish genre and stand out from the crowd.
Everyone wants an individual cover but sadly this can often go against its purpose as a salesman. The cover is not a piece of art to accompany the story; it’s an advert for the type of story that can be found inside. Communicating the book’s genre and intended audience is far more important than chasing the satisfied feeling of a unique cover.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be individual, just that you should try and be individual within your genre. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel and don’t swap ‘recognizable’ for ‘unique’. Doing so is akin to trading your car’s engine for a paint job: it might look great but it isn’t going to get you where you need to go.
Visual genre cues are popular for a reason.
The current trend in thriller covers is much mocked. A dark figure pictured walking away from the reader, dwarfed by wintery surroundings. Yet it’s important to remember that to most readers this image, overused though it may be, screams thriller. The books below may all look the same, but they also all sold:
Ironically, where individuality is most useful is in creating its own genre. Books such as Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! are partly about transgressing genre and telling a story which is difficult to define. While both do belong to recognized genres, they’re geared more towards a curious readership looking for something different and so it makes sense for them to shun convention.
If your book is already selling then designing an arty cover is fine. Your sales will make the book visible and the unique cover will get people interested. For authors trying to get off the ground, unique covers are usually missed opportunities to communicate ‘this is what you’re looking for’ to a reader.
In fact, changing your cover for future releases is often a good move, helping you to target readers you missed the first time. It can also be useful to adjust the cover if the readership turns out to be a different demographic than you expected. This isn’t the mark of an amateur author: even the biggest series have relied on this trick to boost their readership.
Communicating the intended audience of your novel is different for ebooks than it is for physical copies. Physical copies have always had to deal with how readers felt about being seen with a certain cover. When the Harry Potter books took off, they were quickly re-released with ‘adult’ covers.
Other fantasy series followed suit, redesigning their covers in the hope that readers would feel less self-conscious when picking them up.
While this worked for certain series, it’s important to take two facts into account:
- These series were already famous within their genre.
- The same rules don’t apply for ebooks.
Obviously, the only thing an ereader or Kindle shows is the back of the device, so there’s less need to help secretive readers save face. Staying true to communicating genre is better: even if a conservative cover persuades someone to choose a book they wouldn’t usually read, the gain doesn’t make up for the genre fans who didn’t glance at the book while browsing.
Where indicating the intended audience is most useful is with younger readers, who have a far wider range of literature they won’t enjoy. Safe with the anonymity of an electronic device, most adults will choose whatever they feel like reading but younger readers will be on the lookout for content designed for them.
As mentioned earlier, fiction for certain age groups and genders tends towards common images just like genre covers. It’s easy to mix genre and audience communication into a whole that advertises both. The best way to find out what works is to look at popular examples and work from there.
One thing that will help you reach potential readers no matter what your genre or audience is a cover recommendation.
4. Quotes and recommendations
It’s a strange but true fact that the source of a quote won’t hurt the perception of your book. Recommendations are a rare ‘win only’ feature of book covers. If people like the source they’ll take notice, if they don’t they’ll just ignore it.
Many feel that Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is diametrically opposed to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
Yet The Hunger Games was launched with a quote from Meyer on the cover and clearly wasn’t harmed by the association. Fans of Twilight were thrilled to have a new series to devour and fans of The Hunger Games who complain about Meyer’s work clearly weren’t put off by the recommendation.
Obviously the more reputable your source, the better (and the bigger the audience who will take note) but don’t worry about putting readers off by associating yourself with a controversial source.
If your cover looks like you made it on Microsoft Word then readers will give you a wide berth, assuming your writing is similarly ramshackle. Of course this isn’t fair, writers aren’t digital artists, but it’s the truth and one you’ll have to deal with it.
Taking the time, or spending the money, to get a professional cover is essential. Few things will drive potential readers off faster than a font they recognize from a local noticeboard.
Amateurish page arrangements and clipart quality pictures will have a similar effect. There are a glut of services who’ll produce professional covers to your requirements or, at the very least, you should attempt to mimic the look of professionally made covers that work.
Cover to cover
Above all remember the one key fact: your cover is a salesman. Its job is to get people interested enough to read the blurb and that’s it. Don’t depend on it too heavily and don’t expect too much.
Authors are frequently disappointed by their cover because they don’t appreciate its purpose. A professional looking cover which communicates genre and perhaps stands out from the crowd a little, is the most you should expect. We all want remarkable, distinctive covers but save that for your third or fourth reissue when you’ve already gathered a readership.
The best indication of what will work is to look at other book covers, something which can be done free and easily on the net. Write down common features and see which suit your style best. Also take the time to solicit cover quotes from sources you respect. Anything is better than nothing, so if authors aren’t returning your calls, contact bloggers or even the local paper.
Your cover is a promotional tool, and as long as you keep that in mind you’ll create an effective one. Tell your readers what they want to know and help them find a novel you’re confident they’ll love.
To explore the different options for selling your book try Is Amazon’s KDP Select the right choice for you? and Should authors have a paid or a free iBooks publisher account? Or if you’re more interested in promotion check out Bookbub vs. Bookgorilla vs. The Fussy Librarian for a rundown of which service is best for you.
What are your thoughts on the role of book covers? Please let me know in the comments box below.