About a year ago I wrote a piece about book covers in which I thought about a few concepts regarding a good book cover and how important it is. In the time since then I've continued to study and consider this topic and have learned more.
Book covers are the only real way you have to reach out to readers. You can hope for word of mouth, you can pay to advertise, you can make a "book trailer" video and post it, you can give away copies, but ultimately, with over six billion potential customers around the world living on 57,000,000 square miles of land, you're not going to reach them all.
What you can do is make a compelling, intriguing, and effective book cover so that when people look for something to read, they will notice and become interested in your work. In fact, I would argue that your book cover matters more now with modern online purchasing habits, more than it ever has in the past.
Book stores tend not to show book covers on most of their shelves, because books store better spine out than cover out - you can put much more variety on a shelf that way. Titles, buzz, reviews, and author names were how people tended to shop. Covers could often be fairly awful, yet manage to sell because once you have a book in your hands, you can look at the blurb, flip through it, and even talk to an employee or friend about it.
Now, people look at your cover, usually on a page with many covers, and if you don't catch their eye quickly, they move on. Click on, choose another tab, and never look back. So your cover has to be your sales representative and grab a potential reader immediately.
So what makes for a good cover? There is a lot of debate about this. Some books sell with virtually nothing on the cover; consider the 50 Shades of Gray book cover:
If you didn't know what that book was, would you buy it, or look twice? Perhaps - but what is it about? The font looks kind of simplistic, you have a tie and... well nothing. Its not even gray, its blue. Other covers have terrible designs but sell. We'll get more into that in a moment.
These are the basic characteristics of what a cover needs which I've developed over time:
- 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 are often in different, but related fonts or sizes.
- 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, but one strong theme color draws attention better than multiple colors.
- For genre books the cover gives a hint to genre and should not contrast with it.
- The reader's eye should move from title to author, across the design.
You can get away with breaking these rules, of course. The 50 Shades cover, or the most recent Harper Lee book Go Set a Watchman:
But these books work not because of their cover - they don't even need a cover except to give someone something to buy them by - rather because of their fame and publicity. Go Set a Watchman is a pretty poor cover; the To Kill a Mockingbird title in there is confusing, but that doesn't matter. The book got months of publicity and Harper Lee is a beloved and well known author. Chances are, you are not and you didn't have every news outlet around the globe talking about your upcoming book release for weeks. You need a cover to help sales.
Now, considering the rules, lets look at a more conventional cover to a book that's selling well right now. This is Alert, the top selling overall book according to the NYT Best Seller list for July 2015:
So we have the title larger than the author names - despite Patterson being a big name author (that's why he's on top and first seen by most viewers).
-The title and author names are in different fonts, but related (sans serif simple fonts).
-The book has a strong, bright contrasting color theme: grayish like smoke over reds and oranges like blood in the water or smoke, even evoking fire.
-The author name moves your eyes down toward the title, which then moves you down toward the second author's name. Top left where English language readers begin, moving rightward and down, then back to the left in a "Z" pattern - this is common and very effective, because its how western eyes read line to line.
-The cover gives a feel for some kind of trouble or concern, and the title helps move you psychologically to sense the reddish parts as dangerous. You get a sense of thriller or suspense. Red is kind of cheating because it attracts the eye more than other colors, but its effective here because it gives a sense of anger, alarm, and trouble.
-The cover image has depth, layers of smokey things that pull your eye in (cleverly toward the "A Michael Bennett Novel" subtitle).
Consider how well this image shows up and is not only recognizable but easily understood even in small size. Overall, this is a winning cover on a very well-selling book.
All that from a very simple cover design: words and vague, abstract colors. The Alert book gives you an idea what you need in a cover.
Here's what I came up with for my book. The book on the right is my original simple cover, with the one on the left being the more recent, updated, and complex cover.
As you can see, the image became significantly more complex and many elements changed. I put a lot of work into making the elements blend in better and the title more significant. I think it works well and I'm comfortable with it, even though I'm not a professional graphic artist or book designer.
The cover has grown and gotten much better: the gems and black velvet are part of the image and not stacked on top. Each element interacts with the others. The hand reaching gives a feel of thievery, which helps give a sense of the book's genre and contents. The colors are bright but overall the theme is black, and the larger font is much easier to spot and read. The result is a better cover, which has helped me with sales, slightly.
It is expensive to get a good cover done. You'll easily pay $200-$400 for a quality product. But if you do it yourself, chances are you will end up with, well, my first lousy effort that looks like some idiot with MS Paint slapped things together. But the effort and money is well worth it to have a quality book cover that attracts attention.