We say to never judge a book by its cover, but in reality it’s one of first things we do judge! The cover is an author’s first (and most important) arsenal in marketing a book. For a book to be successful, it must attract the right readers. How does a book cover accomplish this? There’s no scientific formula for designing a successful cover, but there are certainly things to take into account that will help.
1) Appeal to the Audience (elicit some kind of emotion and pique interest)
This seems pretty obvious, but that doesn’t make it less important. There are a lot of options out there for readers, and if the cover doesn’t speak to someone, he/she won’t pick it up. “Appealing” doesn’t necessarily mean pretty or cute; disturbing, striking, and mysterious covers are appealing as well. The cover just has to elicit some kind of emotion and pique interest.
In order to appeal to the audience, authors and publishers need to first clearly define who this target audience is. When you define your audience, you can then think about what they specifically will find appealing. Will they prefer pretty and cute, or will they gravitate toward disturbing, thrilling, and mysterious? Knowing your audience is key.
Example: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Design by Maria Carella
Simple yet striking. The bright color makes this book easy to spot on the shelf. After looking at the book more closely, a reader might wonder why the dog is upside down, and why are all the titles lowercase? A curious incident indeed…curious enough to pique a reader’s interest to open the book and read.
2) Fit into Genre…
When readers look at a book cover, they make assumptions about the book itself. And, they expect to be able to make relatively correct assumptions. The cover should convey a general sense of the genre to which it belongs. Is this book fantasy, science fiction, nonfiction, young adult?
Example: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Design by Laura Duffy
Can you tell which genre this book fits into?
3) …But Stand Out
Your cover should fit into its genre, but not be generic! Don’t let your epic adventure be just one wave in a sea of fantasy. Use your style, imagery, type, and color to set your cover apart and make readers notice it (this does not mean it has to be neon pink). If you were looking at a shelf in a bookstore, would you notice your book? A few ways to achieve outstanding, genre-appropriate covers are to…(keep reading)
Example: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Design by Katy Riegel
Freakishly original, and now iconic.
4) Use Colors That Engage Your Target Audience
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all make associations with different colors. Red is passion, blue is calm, green is natural, etc. Sometimes there are significant cultural differences in color association that you should be aware of. For instance, in most western cultures white is associated with weddings, but red fills that role in many eastern traditions. Make your color selection appeal to the people who should be reading it. Maybe cheerful pastels aren’t the best choice for a biography of Genghis Kahn.
Example: The Martian by Andy Weir
Design by Eric White
Very appropriately red…
5) The Same Goes for Type
Typefaces also carry strong connotations. If the title of a nonfiction study of physics is written in Comic Sans, there had better be a good reason. Otherwise it feels incongruous with the topic and detracts from the credibility. Use fonts that reflect your tone, content, and audience. And use Papyrus only with great care.
Example: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Design by Jaya Miceli
6) Be Readable as a Thumbnail Image
We’ve already mentioned that you want your book to stand out on a shelf at a bookstore, but many people don’t shop for books in physical stores anymore. A lot of book selection takes place online. The cover that your audience sees could likely be a small thumbnail image on a screen. Covers whose type and visuals maintain their integrity and impact at small sizes are more likely to succeed in our world of digital scrutiny.
Example: The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Design by Ellen Granter
7) Elicit the Right Emotions
Readers often buy or choose which books to read based on the emotion the cover elicits. Use type, imagery, and color that reflect the tone and mood of your book. If a reader is looking for an uplifting book and chooses one with playful font, bright colors, and a butterfly on the front for that reason, he/she may react negatively upon discovering it’s a dark, dystopian tale. Covers that contradict the tone of the book can be very powerful, but only when executed with intention.
Example: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott-Fitzgerald
Design by Francis Cugat
8) Demonstrate Good Design
“Good design” is subjective, of course. There are rules, though, that guide design to create balance and harmony. Successful covers can be ornate and colorful, minimalistic and monochromatic, representative or abstract. But they should all look intentional and professional. If the cover doesn’t demonstrate care and craftsmanship, why should the reader assume the content will be better?
Example: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Design by Connie Gabbert
If you’re interested in learning more about the craft of book design, you might be interested in 5 Must-Read Books for Book Designers.