Book covers are probably more important than you think.
It doesn’t matter if you are publishing a book, an ebook, or just a PDF that you plan to give away on your website, the cover will often determine how many sales or downloads you will end up getting. Why?
Because whether it’s fair or not, virtually all of us judge the quality of a book by its cover. It turns out the cover of a book is far more than simple window dressing, it is the first vital step in the book buying process.
It all starts with the cover, and if the cover sucks, we don’t move on in the process.
Notice that actually opening the book and reading what’s inside is usually the last thing most of us do when deciding whether or not to buy a book.
So if the cover of a book is so important, why do so many of us authors keep screwing it up again and again?
Part of the problem is that there seems to be a lot of bad information out there. Some of this is due to the misinformed ramblings of the internet, but it’s partly the fact that so many of the things we believe about book covers, seem to make perfect sense (but they’re wrong).
That’s why we’re going to look at some common book cover mistakes that may be secretly sabotaging your sales. . .
Let’s be honest. When it comes down to it, book covers are about selling books, not creativity.
A book cover’s primary job is to attract the reader’s attention and then encourage them to pick up (or click on) your book to find out more. However, it’s not just about shouting to get attention. A book cover also has to attract the right audience and fit their expectations. In other words, a thriller has to look like a thriller, and a romance title has to look like a romance title. Each genre has its own unique look that any (at least successful) author will have to adopt.
A good book cover has to match the reader’s expectations. A great book cover, however, will also remind them of a book in that genre they already like
Just because you may be a good writer, that doesn’t mean that you are a good book cover designer.
This is a lesson that I had to learn the hard way.
For my first book, I spent weeks attempting to design my book cover. At the time, I thought that it was simply part of the self-publishing process. After all, I’m the one who wrote the book, so who would possibly be better qualified to design the cover for it? Well, as it turns out, pretty much anyone.
I think this is all part of the bootstrapping mentality that comes from being a self-published author. You fall into this mindset that you have to do everything yourself, and try to save every penny that you can in the process.
The problem is that writing and graphic design are two very different skill sets. Just because you can do one of them, doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do the other. Even if I got lucky and somehow cobbled together a decent looking cover (which I didn’t), I still had no clue about the design conventions of my genre or the expectations of my target audience. Fortunately, I eventually came to my senses and found myself a professional book cover designer.
Looking back now, I realize that any money I would have possibly saved on creating a cover myself was more than made up for by all of the sales I would have lost if my original crappy cover had ever seen the light of day.
Even though we would all like to think of ourselves as enlightened beings who can look past the superficial beauty is only skin deep kind of thing, the truth is that virtually all of us make assumptions about a book based on the quality of its cover.
I think most of us have seen these amateur looking book covers on Amazon and not given them a second look. Why? Because we assume that any book that has a mediocre cover probably has mediocre writing inside. In other words, if the author didn’t care enough to create a quality cover for their book, we assume they most likely didn’t care about editing or proofreading the content of their book either.
Unfortunately, no one is probably going to tell you that your cover sucks, they will simply ignore it. They won’t buy it or leave a negative review, they will simply move on to someone else’s book.
You might think that most book promotion sites are only interested in making money, so they will be more than happy to take your cash to promote your book even if it has an amateur looking cover.
The problem with this theory, however, is that most of these sites know from experience that even if they end up taking your money and promoting your book, nobody is going to click on a book with a crappy looking cover even if it’s only $.99
Not only that, but at least the more reputable book promotion sites want to protect their reputation by only offering their subscribers quality books. They know that if they continue to promote books that aren’t up to a certain standard, they are going to start losing valuable subscribers, which is why having an amateur looking book cover will often prevent you from getting a listing on many of the better book promotion sites.
This one kind of surprised me because, honestly, it’s not something that I had really thought about back when I was scurrying around trying to get my first book published. I wasn’t thinking about how the paperback version of the cover might be different from the ebook version of the book.
However, as I’ve talked to other authors since then, I’ve noticed that there seems to be this perception out there that ebook covers don’t have to have the same quality as paperback book covers.
Even though an ebook cover is in some ways simpler than a paperback cover because you don’t have to worry about the spine width dimensions or the back cover matter, the impact and attractiveness of your overall cover design is (or at least should be) exactly the same.
The theory goes that because ebooks are typically cheaper, your audience won’t expect the same level of quality on the cover. While that may or may not have been true five years ago when ebooks were still a novelty, these days the ebook market is competitive enough that Kindle, Nook, and iBook covers really need to have the same high level of quality as their physical paperback cousins.
When authors are told how competitive the ebook market has become, they sometimes look for ways to differentiate themselves and their book covers from the crowd. Often this means breaking with a genre’s traditions or using bright obnoxious colors to attract the eye of the book buyer.
However, being eye-catching doesn’t mean that your book cover should try to be different in order to capture someone’s attention. It’s kind of like high school. Ideally, you want your book to stand out while still fitting in.
If people are confused by your cover, or what genre it represents, they probably aren’t going to spend too much time trying to figure it out. They are simply going to move on to a different book. This is why there are so many covers out there look the same.
Don’t worry about your book cover being a cliché or looking the same as all of the other books in your genre. There’s a reason that so many books in a certain genre look the same—these particular designs and conventions are what people have come to expect and (more importantly) it’s what sells the most books. It is also a subtle psychological signal that if you enjoyed this particular book, you will probably enjoy this one that looks similar as well.
This is one mistake that I see new authors make all the time. They try to summarize their entire story on their book cover, which not only is difficult to do, but it can also confuse the reader when too much information is crammed on the cover. When it comes to selecting images for your book cover, less is often more.
Your book cover shouldn’t be seen as a SparkNotes summary of your entire story, but it should provide some clues to what’s inside. Your book cover should focus on capturing the emotional feel of your story, without trying to tell the story itself.
Also, when designing your book cover, don’t worry if the people pictured on your cover look like the characters inside. Instead, focus on finding genre appropriate, eye-catching images that relate to your story. A powerful image is far more important than having an accurate portrait of your characters.
Some authors believe that everything on their book cover should be clearly legible when reduced to a smaller-sized image. While it’s true that some ebook covers may be difficult to read when they are reduced to thumbnail size, we forget that Amazon and other online booksellers often display your book cover at several different sizes depending on the specific page and context.
Now, of course, everything else being equal, it’s better if the book browser is able to recognize the cover image and read the title, but not at the expense of the overall design. Remember that if your cover is eye-catching and interesting enough, people will almost always click on it to find out more about your book.
You can hire the best cover designer in the world, but you’ll never really know how your target readers are going to react to your cover until you release the book and see how it does.
The good news is that unlike traditional publishing where you are essentially stuck with the cover you have until the initial print run sells through, with an ebook, changing your book cover is as easy as uploading a new image file.
It’s not just small self-publishers who test and change their book covers. Even the big publishing house will continually test and adjust a book cover of a bestselling book in order to appeal to a particular demographic or adapt to different tastes of national or even regional audiences. For example, George Orwell’s classic book 1984 has had over 42 different covers over the years.
So do your research, test out a few different options on your intended audience and then just run with it while understanding that you can always change it down the road.
Whether it’s right or wrong, your potential readers will judge the quality and content of your book by the cover that you choose to use. It doesn’t matter if it is a novel, non-fiction, or simply a PDF that you are giving away on your website. People are going to be making assumptions about your book before they even read a word of what you have written inside. Simply by avoiding these common mistakes, you’ll be able to get more downloads and increase your book sales.
P.S. If you would like to find out more, I’ve put together a free guide that will give you some more information about designing your book cover—along with online resources where you can find all the tips, tools, software, and recommended book cover designers to help you to design your next bestselling cover!
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.