Go ahead … Judge a book by its cover!

There are many mistakes that authors make when publishing a book (especially if it’s their first book), but few mistakes are as fatal as publishing a book with a bad cover. In our work with authors, we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of book cover design. We’ve had authors who are publishing under our imprint who have no vision for their book cover and are willing to settle for something “simple and quick” (luckily, we won’t let them). We’ve had authors publishing with Top 10 publishing firms, for whom we do marketing and publicity consulting, show us book designs from their publishers that would have been the death knell of their book had we not intervened to design or suggest something more strategic and compelling. And we’ve acquired book titles from other publishing companies that had cover designs that made us cringe.

There’s no such thing as a great book with a mediocre cover. And, no – it’s not about a cover that’s simply “pretty.” Great covers are so much more.

Here are six tried-and-true tips to keep in mind when working with a designer on the cover for your next book:

  1. See your book cover as the packaging for a hot new product. No matter how compelling the book is or how well written the book description on Amazon, it’s vital you never forget that online shoppers are choosing a “picture” of a product based on intellectual and emotional hunches that they might enjoy owning and reading that book. If anything about the design is jarring, confusing, or less-than-professional, they’ll click away rather than making a 1-click order. You have perhaps 1-3 seconds for your book cover image on Amazon (or on your own website, on Barnes & Noble, or elsewhere) to leave a first impression. Don’t blow it.
  2. Your book cover must make sense and never mislead. If your cover design is interesting from an aesthetic standpoint but doesn’t work very clearly with your title and subtitle to tell the prospective reader what the book is about, go back to the drawing board. Don’t assume people will flip to the back cover to get the details. Once confused, most prospective buyers are lost for good.
  3. Check your ego at the door. Just because it’s your book doesn’t mean people want to see a photograph of you on the cover. Too many unknown authors give themselves an ego boost by putting a photo of themselves on the cover, to the detriment of book sales. If you’re Suze Orman or Barack Obama, go for it. For the rest of us, professional photography and thoughtful illustrations will take you a lot further than an image of your smiling face. If your face doesn’t mean something to the reader, it doesn’t belong on your book cover.
  4. Fonts and typesetting matter. If the cover design looks like something you could have mocked up in Microsoft Word or in PowerPoint, run as quickly as you can to a graphic designer who can rescue you. We live in an era in which wonderful books are being published by small publishing firms and even by authors themselves, but that’s no reason a book should look small, self-published or amateur.
  5. Trust your designer when it comes to choosing colors. Choose a color palette that conveys the industry, concepts, and feelings that should be associated with your book. Making your cover pink just because you like the color pink does nothing to serve a strategy.
  6. A great book cover serves an overarching strategy. Before you meet with your designer about your cover design, be sure you’ve got a sound, defensible strategy.  Try an exercise like this. Fill in the blanks: “I want the cover of my book to convey a sense that _______, and perhaps we can show that with images of _______ or a drawing of _________. I want readers to immediately understand ______, _________ and ___________, and I don’t want to confuse them into thinking _______. As for colors, I’d love for them to elicit a feeling of _________ [and if applicable] and it’s important that we give a nod to my company’s brand, which has a logo that contains _______ colors. And here’s how I want to think about connecting the title and the subtitle in a meaningful way: ___________.”

Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish with your book cover, you’re ready to talk to the graphic designer to make it happen.

There are few milestones in the book publishing journey more important than taking the time to design a book cover (front, back and spine!) that serves a strategy, rises up to meet the needs of readers, and is timeless and memorable. Because, in the end, everyone judges a book by its cover: the readers, the reviewers, the librarians, the clients, the media, the book fairs, and the buyers who decide whether to stock your book in their stores.

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