5 ways to design a cover that sells books

To understand how seriously a book cover design can fail you need only wander over to Lousy Book Covers. There, in stunning four-color schlock, are examples of books doomed to remainder tables, wallflower status in the obsessed-over Amazon sales rankings, and boxes piled high in the garages or basements of worried authors.

Yes, this is scary and — we’re guessing — not in the way the author intended.

Each cover, every clunky typeface and image search gone wrong, is evidence of someone’s decision to forgo using a professional book cover designer. Maybe the author has a friend whose high schooler knows a little Photoshop. Perhaps “cheap book cover designer” was googled along the way.

We get it. Who doesn’t like a deal?

Still, the decision to save money on book cover design is typically a risky play. “Self-published authors often want to save money so they learn to do book design by themselves,” writes publisher Brooke Warner, in Greenlight Your Book. “If I were to put a number on how often this is successful, I’d throw out 5 percent of the time.”

But hiring a good designer is only part of the answer. We asked the professional book designers we know and love best to weigh in.

Set in 1879 when Apaches wore wedding bands — if anything! — and settlers artfully slashed their jeans.

Knowing Adobe does not a good designer make. Once upon a time in publishing only designers created book covers. Now almost anyone can throw one together, which is a shame. “While there may be any number of design solutions there are very few right ones,” says Daniel Horowitz, a fine artist and award-winning book cover designer in New York City. “Book cover design is really an art form. I wish everyone saw it that way.”

Takeaway: Hire a pro with serious cred, which means one schooled in design with experience creating great book covers.

Think tiny, as in thumbnail-size. Why? Amazon. Google. Facebook. Twitter. In sum, marketing campaigns depend on book covers that look compelling online. “We tend to print out cover options at 100% actual size, pin them on a wall, sit back and contemplate,” says designer Katie Craig, who works out of Florence, Massachusetts. And that’s no way to judge a cover. “Even in a printed catalogue covers are pretty tiny so it has to grab you at that size — again and again and really fast.”

Takeaway: Your book cover is a product thumbnail. A good designer will give you two or three in this size to consider. Decide which one jumps out at you, and take it from there.

No. It’s not.

A cover’s one and only job is to sell your book. This sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many authors let their personal tastes dictate book cover design. “Often authors want the cover to speak to who they are or communicate their personality,” says Craig. Step aside — and find a designer who can channel your audience for you.

Takeaway: A good designer will ask you to describe your book, your message, the competitive landscape, and your audience. You want art that’s both “striking and embodies the spirit of the book,” says Horowitz.

Tease the reader. Just because the title is Ice Princess doesn’t mean the cover has to display one. “That’s just a waste of space,” says Craig. “You want the image to tease the reader.”

Takeaway: Simply put, if the image is a literal rendering of the title you’re basically quashing the reader’s interest in finding out more about the book.

Test, test, test. It’s not enough for you to like the cover. Ask your friends what they think. Find people in your target audience to give you feedback. “If one person doesn’t get it that represents a potentially vast number of people who won’t get it either,” says Craig.

Takeaway: Vet your cover until you’re sure your book design prompts an emotional response. “What you don’t want,” says Craig, “is for prospective readers to feel nothing.”

-Clare Ellis, Director of Stone Pier Productions

In an upcoming story we’ll look beyond art to the elements every book cover must have to be successful.