Your Indie Book Cover: The Case for Blending In

Many of us decide what to read next based on an intriguing book cover (I’ll let you insert your own cliche about judgements here). But do you know what the cover of your book is really telling your reader? Today we will look at book covers in a few different genres to understand the subtle cues that tell a reader what you write about, what type of story to expect, and how much to trust you as the author.

Before we get started with the specifics, there is a general point here that may make me the least popular girl in the room (sorry, not sorry). Now here’s the truth: Your book is not the only one like it. There are potentially hundreds of other books with similar characters, settings, or readerships. And that is a good thing. Readers don’t choose one book in their lifetime, read it, and give up (hopefully). Instead, they choose a new book every so often based on their interests, moods, and the things they have read before. So while you may want to treat your book like a unique and beautiful snowflake, that strategy should not be extended to your book cover. To appeal to a readership that already knows what they like and what they want, your cover needs to look like others in the genre they want to read. This gives readers the visual cues necessary to decide that your book is “their kind” of book. So, when designing your book cover, it is actually in your interest to blend in. This can be done in a few different ways, which (now that I’ve got the unpopular viewpoint out of the way) we can now discuss.

Do you write paranormal romance, textbooks for children, heavily-researched historical fiction? Obviously, these books will all have vastly different covers. When designing your own cover, it can help to look at the top 10 (or 25, or 100) covers in your genre and subcategory to get a good sense of the competition. Again, your goal here is not to be different. Your book can have it’s own flair, but it also needs to look similar to others so that the reader feels it is in the same “family”.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. Here is a selection of 15 books in “Alien Invasion Science Fiction” listed on Amazon.

As you might expect, this category is going to focus on lots of action, space, and aliens. I notice a lot of “blocky”, all capital titles in light colors (the font even looks the same for a lot of these). We’ve largely got titles at the top, an image in the middle, and the author’s name at the bottom. There are lots of saturated colors, “light effects” (like lasers, lightning, suns, and stars), and of course space ships. All of the covers convey movement and action, and many include a space ship.

Contrast this with 15 books in the “Contemporary Romance” category:

I don’t think I have to describe the common thread here. But suffice to say, if you lack a half-naked man on your romance cover, you may be missing out. On sales, of course. And probably a really fun photo shoot. The titles on these ones are largely at the bottom of the cover with the author name (to better leave room for the abs, I’m sure), and there is usually a mix of block lettering and script. The backgrounds are usually dark, and the men are….well lit.

Ok, last set of examples. Here are 15 titles in the “Young Adult Science Fiction & Fantasy” category:

This category is all about the reader feeling like they are in the story. The reader demographic is largely young women, so you’ll see a lot of strong female protagonists featured on the covers. There is a lot of darkness, with some source of light on the cover. We often don’t see her face (likely so that the reader can imagine the character as herself). There is a lot of decoration (swirls, filigree, etc.) around the titles, and almost all of the titles are in a serif font.

So what does this mean for your genre? While you may not be publishing in one of these categories, you can still take some lessons from the covers. The important thread here is visual cues. Covers give an idea what to expect, so make sure to include cues for your genre. Do you need to focus on the character? Put a person in there. Is there some element of mystery? These usually include some dark or hidden aspect on the cover. Is there a lot of action? Make sure the scene conveys movement. The only way you will know what the norms are for your genre is to look at many covers in your category. There are also some general tips that will apply to most books and genres:

  • Don’t bury the lead. Your cover should convey something about the main point of your book. Don’t make readers guess! (unless it’s a mystery…)
  • Make sure the font and image are readable from a distance. Most people will only see a thumbnail image of your book, so it needs to have visual impact even when sized very small.
  • Use high-contrast images. That means lots of difference between the light colors and highlights and the dark colors. In general, you’re looking for a light title on a dark background or a dark title on a light background.
  • Don’t use stock photography. Or, I should say, use at your own risk. While you’ve bought the rights to the image, so have hundreds of other people. Make sure to edit the image to fit the coloring, brand, and subject matter that you’re trying to portray.
  • Maintain a consistent brand. Your covers don’t need to be twins, but they should look like siblings. You can do this through consistent fonts, color schemes, or objects on the cover.
  • Establish trust. Especially if you’re writing non-fiction, readers need to understand that you are the right person to tell this story. That means including qualifications, social proof, and testimonials right on the cover.
  • If you’re not a designer, invest in getting a professional to design your cover. You can save some money by having a great idea of what you want ahead of time, but the value of a professional cannot be overstated here.

At the end of the day, the cover is simply a hook to get readers interested in your work. So make sure it is visually appealing, conveys something about the story, and looks like others from your genre. Then you’re well on your way to finding readers who are excited to get beyond the cover!

Are your book covers similar to others in your category? How did you decide what to include? Let us know in the comments!