Promote Your Book

Judging A Book By Its Cover

self publishing design


Whether your book is in e-format on Smashwords or Amazon, or in print at your neighborhood bookshop, or even in an audio version, one consistent piece of advice you will get is this: Make sure your book has a strong and attractive cover.

What makes it strong and attractive?

For the moment, we'll bypass the details of designing a cover, since our first piece of advice is to find a professional designer to help you. They're not hard to find. The BookWorks reference section lists more than 30 book designers with extensive background in book covers. Visit several (even if just on line), and check in with authors who have used them.

That done, the question remains: How do you know whether this cover is the right one?

There's no perfect answer, and there are exceptions to rules. But here are some general principles that should help you assess your prospective cover.

Does it work in all sizes? Some book covers seem compelling in print at full size, but not in postage stamp size online. Test the design to see of it's as clear and strong at one level as at the other. The words of your title should be large in size – it should be large and stand out. Can you read it from four or five feet away? Color contrast is important: huge type won't help if it fades into the background.

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Kathleen Higgins, a graphic designer from Hansville, Washington, suggests also looking at it in a mirror (what it looks like reversed can be illuminating) … and putting your cover on the floor, surrounded by other book covers, and observing at it from a standing posture, to see how yours compares and whether it grabs you from that angle.

Does your cover make its point in a single second, two at the most? A book cover should not try to do too many things; apply the concept of “simply, simplify.” In one second your cover should convey what sort of book this is.

Does one strong image dominate? Many authors seem to be drawn toward collage covers, but these seldom work, at best bouncing a reader's attention from one underdeveloped image to another.

Does your image, photo or drawing fit with the subject and tone of your book? You shouldn't mislead with a cover image that suggests, say, a thriller, when your book is about deep sea fishing. Think in terms of an image that works as a metaphor.

If you're using a photo, does it twist your expectations in some way? Graphic designer C.L. Smith said in one blog post on cover design, “Literal pictures should be avoided at all costs. So, you want to use a photo, but don't want to be literal - what can you do? It's simple use the image to set the mood. Make it abstract. Take a step sideways – as a writer you should already have these skills in your toolbox – the simile and the metaphor. Use these to come up with a good metaphoric or abstracted cover.”


You don't necessarily need an image at all. Plenty of bestsellers place only type on the cover – albeit, in many cases, type managed in a creative way. But don't consider this a way to avoid the issue. A text-only cover also needs to make a strong graphic statement.

Does your cover, the text or imagery, lack clarity? The book's title, and maybe a few other words, should be immediately easy to read. If a reader has to work to figure out what words those unusual fonts are trying to convey, the cover has failed. Use an established font; newly-created or messed-with fonts are more likely than not to look amateurish. Book designer Joel Friedlander said in one article on book design, “There’s no sense using a font that’s unreadable when it’s radically reduced. Particularly watch out for script typefaces, the kind that look lacy and elegant at full size. They often disappear when small.”

Does it create an emotional reaction? George Foster of Foster Covers in Fairfield, Iowa, suggests asking, “Does the cover create a desire for the book or does it just decorate it? Adding perceived value to the book is the goal and effects generated by graphics software alone do not accomplish this. Real imagination is required, along with awareness of what other books look like in your category. Compare your cover to them.”

Comparing to other covers is a useful exercise, but: Does it look too much like other covers – and does it use an image that's become cliche? Among the images some designers have suggested avoiding: handshakes, clouds (unless you're writing about meteorology), puzzle pieces, sun rises or sunsets.

One more thought: Get more opinions by crowdsourcing it online, in forums like the BookWorks discussion forum or on other self-publishing discussion groups. A range of opinions will almost always be helpful.

Readers & Writers: I look forward to your feedback, comments and critiques, and please use BookWorks as your resource to learn more about preparing, publishing and promoting self-published books. My blogs appear bi-weekly on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of each month.

One thought on “Judging A Book By Its Cover”

  1. vigabo says:

    I think a strong book cover should be one of the most important decisions we make about our books. I had a photo in mind for mine but when I ran it past an very well known author friend who mentors me, she reminded me my book was about the sexual abuse of a child and said my cover photo should convey that. She also pointed out that when she’s book shopping, a photo of a person, in a book about a topic like mine, would catch her eye far more quickly than what I had in mind (a photo of a dragonfly snared in a spider web). So I followed her advice, put the child on the front and the snagged dragonfly on the back, and going by feedback, one of the things that makes readers look at my book is that cover of a faceless child on the front. Just thought I’d share that here.

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