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Elements of a successful book: cover design

If you think no one is judging books by their covers, then you’d be wrong about this oft-underutilized aspect of book marketing.

The book cover and spine or the book cover thumbnail will be the first aspects of your book that catch a potential reader’s attention. It’s pivotal that your book cover is professional and that the cover image file is sized appropriately. The last thing you want, before you even consider all of the other implications for book cover design, is a grainy or fuzzy image or one that looks like it has been stitched together in an amateurish way.

Besides professional creation with high quality images, your book cover should play four important functions:

  1. Speak to the book’s intended reader

  2. Portray design choices that are consistent with the genre and category

  3. Accurately portray the book’s plot, mood, or theme

  4. Meet reader expectations

Let’s dive into these roles more deeply by taking a look at Sabriel, one of my favorite YA fantasy novels, which was published in 1995. Garth Nix’s story about a young woman who must take on the responsibility of fighting the undead powers of her world is riveting, and at times, downright spooky. It has magical bells, swords, visits to the afterlife, dead creatures, and of course, a quest to defeat the greatest evil of them all.

Cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon

Sabriel was traditionally published by HarperCollins. While it may seem like there are significant differences in book cover trends between traditional and self-published books, the functions of a well-made book cover remain the same. After all, a traditionally published book doesn’t magically sell itself.

Speak to the books intended reader

By the time you’ve finished your book, are completing edits, and are beginning to think about your book cover, you’ll have a clear idea of who you want to pick up your book and read it. And the cover design—colors, layout, images, illustration style, and typography—will communicate to potential readers whether they might be a potential match for your book.

Think of your book as a flashing sign created just for your type of readership. As they’re perusing books in a bookstore or scrolling through thumbnail images on the site of their favorite online retailer, they’ll be looking for book covers that pop out to them and say, “I’m the kind of book for you!”

Looking at Sabriel, we can piece together a picture of the target audience easily. There’s the title character on the front who is a young woman, but we shouldn’t be led to think that the book is only for teenage girls. She’s not just a woman, she’s a warrior with a sword in her hand. That broadens her appeal. And she’s clearly brave (or maybe a bit foolhardy) as she stands with her back to the creepy black shape with glowing yellow eyes coming up behind her.

The bells are a point of intrigue. What’s she going to do with them? What could they possibly do to the creature behind her? The bells, her armored outfit, and the sword give the cover a medieval feeling. With a single glance we know this is a YA book for readers of fantasy who enjoy high fantasy and, perhaps, horror elements.

Portray design choices that are consistent with the genre and category

Pinning down genre and category expectations is a tricky process because they aren't evergreen, but for the most part, readers and authors can rely on trends to stay the same long enough that their book won't look dated too quickly. (And don't forget, you can always commission a new cover and release a new edition in the future!)

For Sabriel, the layout is simple with the frame forcing the reader to focus on the image of Sabriel who is the titular character. The illustration style is fairly neutral, if not classical. The colors are muted and dark. Nothing in particular pops off the page other than, perhaps, the wave that seems to (strangely) appear to be coming from Sabriel’s armor in the bottom corner. Even the creature’s eyes are purposefully the same pale yellow as the background.

Take a look at other YA fantasy books from this time, and you’ll see similar design choices. The Golden Compass, Ella Enchanted, and the Redwall series all come to mind. Search a local bookstore or search your book’s category online and gather ideas of what other book covers look like for your genre. I suggest this with a bit of a caveat.

I recently went to a Barnes & Noble to look through the young adult fantasy section. I wanted to see what the trends were for interior book design and cover art. Unfortunately, I think the desire to have your book fit into the genre expectations has gone a bit awry. As I searched through hundreds of books packed on shelves, I was struck by how eerily similar all of them were—both in their design and titles (more on that in the next blog post). Therefore, no particular books stood out to me!

So proceed with caution. Take inspiration from success, and do your homework, but don’t do it so well that your book disappears into the sea of lookalikes.

Accurately portray the book’s plot, mood, or theme

Just like knowing your audience, by the time you're thinking about cover design, you’ll also know your plot backward and forward, along with the stories mood and themes.

The plot may determine who or what appears on the cover and where they or it is located. If your book takes place in a different time period, the cover will convey that. If there are particular moods or emotions you want your reader to feel when the see your book, the colors and images should push them in that direction. Themes will likely be presented through the images or illustrations directly.

There is an element of darkness to the Sabriel cover. It does not look like she’s about to go on a light-hearted romp with her sword and bells in hand. However, the cover isn’t completely dark. There’s that pale yellow, like a sunrise or a sunset, in the background. This could be ominous, or it could be hopeful. Sabriel herself looks resolute, readying herself to face a foe with (notably!) the smallest bell in her hand. The reader doesn’t know anything about those bells yet, but it seems significant that she’s holding the smallest. Perhaps this is the story of an underdog, an unexpected hero, one who rises up from lowly origins and defeats great evil.

Meet reader expectations

Reader expectations go hand in hand with implementing design choices that are consistent with genre expectations. You could understand them as two sides of the same coin. Avid readers of particular genres will have expectations for book cover design. There is a reason that the romance books or the YA fantasy books all have a similar look and feel—designers know that if they design with reader expectations in mind, their book will have a place among the successful books of that genre.

Your book doesn’t have to look just like all the other books on the shelf, but it should share some of their characteristics. In basic terms, don’t include images, colors, or styles that are typical for another genre.

There’s a reason that Sabriel isn’t hot pink with a cartoonish woman and creature and loopy cursive title font. We're not reading romance! It would look pretty strange as well if the sword, bells, and creature were left off entirely. There wouldn’t be much to tell us the book is fantasy; we could even mistake it for historical fiction. So know what readers are going to look for when they go looking for your book!

Wrapping it up

It can be helpful to work through the following questions to gather your thoughts as you consider the cover design for your book:

  • Who is your intended audience? (Gender, age, background, etc., but also, what do they like to read? Will they know that your book is something they might like just by looking at it?)

  • What are other books in your genre doing in their cover design, considering layout, images/illustrations, typography, colors, etc.?

  • What plot elements, mood, or themes do you want to portray on your cover? Will those elements contribute to the genre and reader expectations?

  • Do the elements that make up your book cover meet the expectations of readers of the genre? Is there anything about your cover that could cause readers to be confused?


Elements of a Successful Book Blog Series



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