Investing in professional book cover design is non-negotiable for indie authors who want to make a living with their writing. Readers DO judge a book by its cover, and they won't read your blurb, download a sample or buy now without connecting to your cover somehow. In short, you're unlikely to sell many books unless you have a great cover design.
In this article, JD Smith outlines her tips for book cover design. Her new book is The Importance of Book Cover Design and Formatting for Self-Published Authors. Jane is also my book cover designer and I highly recommend her.
There’s a constant debate about the relevance and importance of cover design, whether you’re a self-published author, part of a collective group of authors, an independent press, or even a large publishing house. If you are publishing your book to give away as Christmas presents, or you only expect a few members of your family to buy them, then the cover is as important as you consider it to be.
But if you are a professional writer and you intend to earn a living or be taken seriously in the literary world, then the book cover is as important as the copy editing, the proofreading, the story and the characters.
It is a part of your marketing … and it’s there to attract the right kind of readers.
So let’s assume you already deem a book cover to be important and I don’t need to convert you. How can you make your cover work for you and sell more books?
(1) Target your audience
Your book cover MUST be targeted at the right audience. How do you find out who that audience is?
Check out the bestselling lists in your genre, whether that’s crime fiction, women’s fiction, young adult etc. Pick out books by authors who you feel write similarly to you, whose readers you know will enjoy the genre you write in, your style, tone, characters.
This is really important. Do you write like Mark Billingham? Then you want to attract his fans. Do you write like Philippa Gregory? Then you want to attract her fans. That’s not to say you want to copy their covers, but you need to have a similar feel, and to present your book with visual clues that scream ‘you enjoyed this bestselling author’s book so you’ll enjoy mine’.
Here are examples of different genres and their respective covers. Let’s take Thursdays in the Park. Having read and watched Game of Thrones, I wouldn't expect Hilary Boyd’s cover to be on the front of a George RR Martin book, would you? That’s an extreme example, but a valid one.
If you’re not targeting the right audience then you’re not only going to miss out on your readership, but you’ll end up targeting readers (if any) who aren’t enthusiastic about your writing, and this will lead to disappointment and negative reviews.
(2) Make sure your cover shouts ‘pick me up and read me'
Bookshops display books with their covers facing the reader. It’s the first thing a reader sees and the reason a customer picks up the book. This can be done with fonts, colors and imagery.
Check out which covers jump out at you in the supermarket or as you’re browsing on Amazon. Take note of what it is about them that makes you want to read them. Is it the image content, or is it the use of vibrant reds and yellows?
(3) Be professional
The expense of editing, proofreading, formatting, cover design, PR and marketing can be all too daunting for an author, particularly someone who is new to independent publishing, whether they have been traditionally published before or not. I won’t tell you that you have to have professional cover design, only that you must take it seriously if you are serious about becoming a professional author and earning a living from your writing.
Below are examples of book covers that have been commissioned by self-published authors, with various budgets, but all below $500/£350.
Can an author have a cover as good as a professional without costing the earth? Yes you can!
Here’s an example of two book covers, one of which was designed by a self-published author, the other by a large publishing house. Can you guess which is which? No? Tawny Stokes is the self-published author.
Finding a good cover designer is obviously key, but there are many out there who can design professional book covers.
(4) Trust your instincts
One mistake I see authors make time and again is designing by committee.
Friends and family are great, they are supportive and keen and want you to be happy and fulfilled in your writing career. They are even excited that you’re publishing a new book. But they aren’t the right people to ask for an opinion unless they are your target market.
You need to ask people who read the kind of books that you write. I wouldn’t dream of asking my husband or my brother what they thought of a bunch of steamy romance novel covers. What appeals to one fan base, won’t appeal to another.
When you ask your readership which cover they prefer, generally speaking they will look long and hard at your cover and critique it. They’ll have an opinion on the model you’ve used, the font size, or the colors. Their opinion isn’t a true test of the power of impulse buying.
Other writers are also a natural source of opinion, however there are a lot of ‘experts’ out there. People who have ‘been in the industry for so many years’, etc. That’s great, and sometimes those people will have very valid opinions, but other times they’ll just regurgitate general industry opinion, such as ‘the title must be as large as possible, until it’s filled the entire cover and you can’t see anything but the title’ – an exaggeration, but you get the idea. The principles behind what they are saying are usually sound, but don’t necessarily apply to every genre, or trend, or what will actually work and sell your book. They just want to sound like they know what they’re talking about.
Trust your own opinion.
In theory you already read widely in the genre you’re writing so you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. If you’re unsure, change the author name on your cover so it’s not your own, then put it alongside some traditionally published book covers, and ask a group of readers in the genre which covers they like best and why. You’ll soon see a pattern emerge if your cover is never mentioned.
(5) Straplines, quotes and thumbnails
But they won’t be seen in thumbnail, I hear people chorus. No, probably not. So why have them? ‘It needs to work in thumbnail’ is one of the most overused phrases in publishing these days. It’s also one of the least understood.
Not everything on the cover has to be visible when your book is postage stamp size.
This actually depends on your genre and market. Not all markets lean toward the title and author name as being important, for example. You generally need to be able to make out something, whether that’s the image, the title or the author. You’ll rarely be able to make them all out, and you definitely won’t be able to make out a strapline or quote.
So what’s the point of having one? Well for starters, it will be visible if not legible, so a reader will know it’s there. Lots of traditional books have one or the other or both, and so your book can appear more professional. It also gives a subtle indicator that you’ve been endorsed by a big name author, or that the strapline might state that you are a NY Times Bestseller.
(6) Think of the future for your brand
Once you have established a readership you need to keep that readership. Make it easy for readers to find your books when browsing. Ensure the style of each cover in a series is similar, so that readers easily identify with the next release. You as an author can be recognised not just by your name on a cover, but by the way it’s typeset and the overall look and feel of your covers. Make sure marketing materials tie in well and are sympathetic to your cover design so that everything works as one to build your brand.
Only when a reader has picked up the book do they actually read anything, and that includes the back cover blurb that you will have spent hours and hours honing. If the blurb was worth all that effort, then the cover is equally if not more deserving.