Over the last seven years, I’ve been running a monthly design competition on my blog at TheBookDesigner.com. During that time I’ve examined and critiqued thousands of book covers designed both by amateur and professional cover designers.
From these covers, I’ve extracted these five goals your book cover should aim to achieve. Each is accompanied by covers that either reach these goals or, alas, fall short:
1: Announce Its Genre—This is very important for genre fiction, but it’s equally important for any book to clearly announce exactly what kind of book it is. This is the first concern of the cover designer, to let readers know “What kind of book is this?”
2: Telegraph Its Tone—Particularly important for fiction and literary fiction, where the whole effect of the book rests on the skill of the writer. A cover can give you an idea of the writer’s voice in many subtle ways.
3: Explain Its Scope—Mostly for nonfiction. Understanding the extent of the book’s subject helps to define its target market.
4: Generate Excitement (the “hook”)—Let’s face it, book covers are a subspecies of advertising design, and they can be powerful sales tools. But if nothing about the cover stops people, or evokes instant interest, fascination or curiosity, it can’t accomplish its aims.
5: Establish a Market Position—This is almost the sum of all the other goals listed here. Taken together, they establish the exact space we see the book occupying amongst all the other books that address the same topic or which are in the same genre.
Book Covers from Real Life
These tasks really come home when you see how some designers have met the challenge with their book cover designs, while others have missed the mark.
Let’s take a look at examples in each category:
Announce Its Genre
Everything about this cover, including the type treatment and color selections, tells us it’s an action-packed thriller, and just to leave no room for doubt, it’s identified right there as “A Thriller.”
Telegraph Its Tone (Mostly for Fiction)
Explain Its Scope (Mostly for Nonfiction)
Here, a common phrase and generic image don’t give us much information about this book, until you get into the tiny type of the subtitle. Notice how some books make sure to give you critical information, while others skip this requirement.
Particularly for novels, having a “hook” into the action in the book can exert a powerful pull on readers. Here, the woman is about to spring into action, and the designer has captured that pregnant moment to heighten our interest in the story.This cover ignores its genre (vampire romance), but it also has absolutely nothing exciting about it. There’s no trace of the story, no characters, no incipient moment, nothing but some flowers in a natural setting, more than likely the author’s backyard.
[Note: The author of the above example wisely corrected this in the redesign you'll see if you click the image.]
Establish a Market Position
These two book covers show us something about using your cover to help “position” your book in the marketplace. They are both excellent, and both books are romances. Clearly, one is signaling that it is a historical romance, with period settings and other cues, while the other is a contemporary, urban romance, quite a different spot on the romance shelf.
How about your cover? Does it clearly announce its genre or category? Tell you about its tone or scope? Is it exciting? Book covers that can answer “Yes!” to these questions put themselves in the best position to be successful.