They say not to judge a book by its cover and for most of my life, that's how I've approached books. I don't really care what the cover has on it, only what the story is. The blurb on the back or inside jacket mattered more to me than the cover, so I never paid them much attention.
I'm like that though. I've never bought a product because of an advertisement. I get hungry when I see good food ads, but not filled with a desire to buy that food. I tend to resent and respond poorly to attempts at manipulation and advertisement, being naturally suspicious and cynical, I suppose.
But that's not how most people are. Companies advertise because it works. Book covers are carefully crafted because that advice about covers isn't heeded.
Especially these days when you shop online for books and can't pick one up to flip through it or read a bit, buyers are much more reliant on covers. And those covers have to be easy to understand and recognize at smaller sizes because they're going to be listed in thumbnail size, not full size.
This is where my books are at their weakest. Lacking the funds to hire an artist to make me a nifty cover, I had to make do with my own skills and available tools. The problem is, designing a cover is a set of skills that is different from my artistic strength in illustration.
What works well in an image doesn't necessarily work well in a cover. So when I showed off my Old Habits cover, one person said "I didn't notice the title at first." Another noted that the font was wrong for the story of a thief in a fantasy setting. There were a lot of little things, but nothing major. And I decided to make an analytical, detailed study of cover design and what works.
I've come up with a list of some rules, but I'm still not there yet. I want the rules and concepts to be so familiar and comfortable I don't have to think about them; so that the design of a cover is something almost instinctive. So far the rules look like this:
- The focus of the cover is the title, not the image.
- The cover needs to be easily recognizable and clear in thumbnail size.
- The title should be unique looking but easily readable.
- The author and title should be in different, but related fonts.
- Unless you're Steven King, the title should be significantly more prominent than the author's name.
- The cover needs depth, so you feel pulled in and attracted to it .
- Bright colors and contrasts draw attention well.
- The cover gives a hint to genre and should not contrast with it.
- The reader's eye should move from title to author.
This means composition is distinct from illustration in many key ways. It also means that the key to a good book cover is actually almost nothing about the actual images, and everything about layout. Images matter; number 8 especially requires a particular sort of image, but its less important than the rest.
For example, this cover has a beautiful image, one I'd love to have as a poster. But its a poor cover, despite being such a wonderful work of art.
This gives a nice fantasy genre feel, but the problem is you almost don't really notice the title. The image is so compelling and has so much movement away from the title that your eyes don't grab it yet. The boxing helps, by pulling your mind away from the picture which otherwise would draw it deep within, but still it doesn't work well.
Ideally your cover needs to draw attention through your title, down to your name, and feels like it has depth to pull attention toward it. This kind of cover works well at this task:
Its asymmetrical, which means the eye is not pulled to a central point of the image, but instead down the image toward the title. The contrast of black and white draws attention without being distracting, and the image gives a sense of a burglar or assassin perched high on a castle or cathedral. The birds give a different sense of peace or promise. Overall it works very well telling the reader something about the book without specifics.
So the quest goes on, to find the ideal cover. I'm getting better at it, and analyzing covers regularly, discussing them with fellow writers. Hopefully soon I'll be able to craft truly great covers for my books because I'm certain its hurting sales to have the ones I currently do: