Your book cover has one purpose: to get a potential buyer to pick up the book. Even if they decide not to purchase it, the cover has done its job if it made someone curious enough to look closer—to read the synopsis, flip through the pages or read reviews. So how do you ensure that the cover is doing its job?
Adhere to Genre-Specific Design
Each genre has its own set of design components so what works for business non-fiction won’t work for a mystery, and what works for romance won’t work for a children’s book. Begin by looking at the covers of New York Times or USA Today bestsellers in your genre, at association websites or amazon’s bestsellers:
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/
A business book such as Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, for example, appears far different from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.
Study the Colors
Check out this article on the effective use of color: http://thenovelbusiness.com/the-power-of-color/ and when you locate bestselling books in your genre, study the colors used. The Girl from Ballymor by Kathleen McGurl provides a glimpse into its Irish theme through the setting and colors, while John Grisham’s The Reckoning has a more sinister presence. Consider the mood as well as the genre when deciding on colors.
Some cover designers will caution against using more than two colors, preferring to use an image with hues of one color and text with a contrasting color, such as David Lewman’s Jurassic World: Survival Guide. But the number of colors varies widely; Michael Crichton’s bestseller Jurassic Park uses three—white, black and red. John Sandford’s Holy Ghost takes the image colors and continues them through the text in a way that causes both to stand out. And a book such as Rachel Renee Russell’s Dork Diaries uses more than four colors in various hues. As you study each of these colors, it is apparent what mood each is attempting to evoke.
Study the Fonts
In addition to evoking a mood, fonts call attention to the text. Some books can be sold on the author’s name alone, which is why John Grisham’s name is so large on The Reckoning. The same can be said for Debbie Macomber’s Alaskan Holiday, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff or any of Tom Clancy’s books, including The Hunt for Red October. Any time the author’s name is as large or larger than the book title or it precedes the book title, it is generally a good indication that the author’s name sells the book, which reminds me of the reviewer that once said Tom Clancy could write down his grocery list and it would become a bestseller.
In business, one or two font styles might be used on a cover, such as Statistical Techniques in Business and Economics by Lind-Marchal-Wathen. (Notice also the much smaller size of the author’s names; the reader of this book is more concerned with the subject matter than the author.)
Some designers will caution against using more than two fonts, but again that depends largely on the genre. Nicholas Sparks’ Every Breath uses three fonts and three separate font colors while Santa Montefiore’s Secrets of the Lighthouse uses four, and some bestsellers use as many as five. The key is to blend the fonts so they flow seamlessly, rather than cause the cover to appear too busy.
You will also notice that an author’s name may remain in a separate font than the title or other text, and it remains consistent throughout all their books. This is a result of branding; a glance at Mario Puzo’s books, for example, shows the same style used throughout. In fact, it is the occasional book that does not use the same font that stands out as if something is wrong.
The key is to study covers in your genre; compare the bestsellers to those that sell poorly. Do you see differences in the fonts selected, the placement of the titles and the colors used? What works and what does not?
Study the Images
Fashions change and so do book covers. A good example of this is in romance, where designers differ widely in the use of faces. Some stop at the neck, leaving the reader to conjure the image that will be most pleasing to them, as in Madison Faye’s Sofa King Hard or Jennifer Youngblood’s The Orchard Warrior. Compare those to Jenna Brandt’s Waiting on the Billionaire, which uses a different philosophy of depicting the entire face. In the last example, it is assumed that the face will help to entice the reader to pick up the book. It is also the reason that book covers often change after they have been made into a movie; the same actor that helps sell movie tickets can also help to sell the book. Often both versions will remain on the market while marketers compare sales between those featuring the actor and those without the movie reference.
There should be one central image on the cover that depicts the mood, providing a glimpse inside the book without using any words. Jurassic Park does this well. An intriguing cover design is J. R. Ward’s Consumed, in which the designer used his daughter’s hair on a copy machine to symbolize flames. Compare that to Sebastian Junger’s Fire, which utilizes an actual photograph of fire.
Ghost stories, haunted houses and the paranormal often depict images that instantly spark apprehension, such as The Haunting of Ashburn House by Darcy Coates or The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. Compare those to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Christmas in the Big Woods or Classics for Christmas by Louisa May Alcott and others, and you’ll see a very different mood.
What’s Right and What’s Wrong?
While all of these cover designs vary widely, they all:
- Use one central image
- Use the image and the fonts to create an intended mood
- Provide clues as to the genre
- The image, fonts and text are tied together to create compatibility
Things you will want to avoid include:
- The use of multiple graphics
- Fonts that compete with one another or with the image
- Font colors that fade into the image
- Images and/or fonts that are not compatible with the genre
- Too many colors that compete with one another for the reader’s attention