Readers do judge a book by its cover. Whether they are wandering through a physical bookstore or scrolling through an online shop or Instagram channel, a well-targeted, genre-specific cover will catch their eye.
In today's article, Tim Hawken gives some tips for compelling cover design.
The importance of helping your readers in the age of attention saturation.
We live in a world where attention is measured in blinks. Social media is weaponised to grab eyes and feed people information as quickly as possible.
In this rapidly changing landscape, it’s more important than ever to help people assess what they should click on (or pick up) without resorting to sensationalised options. A picture speaks a thousand words and a title tells a story.
Combine these on a book cover and you should be able to signal to prospective readers what genre to expect, hint at the plot and perhaps give some insight into the style of writing as well.
The whole idea is having people think at a glance “this looks like my kind of read!”
Let's look at some examples
You can also tell that it’s a revenge plot, likely full of violence in a medieval setting. There is probably some royal court intrigue in there. Perhaps this ‘prince’ is an orphan that will fight for his right to the throne.
I haven’t read this book, so if I’ve made a few mistakes please forgive me. What I’m trying to illustrate is that if you’re a fan of this kind of story, the cover will entice you to at least pick it up and flip to the blurb to read more. Job done.
When looking to put together your own cover, it’s worth digging into as much research as you can.
- What do your genre’s covers normally look like?
- What do they signal to the reader?
- How can you somehow flip those themes to stand out, without losing the heart of the message?
Here is an example of what I mean when looking at the thriller genre. Remember, step one is to see what the best-selling titles out there look like. You’re likely to find something like this…
Best-Selling Thriller Covers
So what are the patterns? And what are the images telling you?
First, you’ll see there’s a single figure on each one, often running away from (or is it towards?) something. This hints at being hunted, or hunting for answers, as often is the case with crime thrillers.
There’s also a solid sense of place: frightening cold, country fields, Washington State. You know where the story is going to be placed and also get an idea of whether there’s suspense through isolation, a small-town mystery turned to murder, or political intrigue involved.
Fonts are often harsh or augmented with blood, or both.
Quotes are often urgent, using emotive language to reflect the intense page-turning quality of the story.
Given those patterns in the thriller genre, how can you twist these clear signals for your own story, without losing the heart of the message?
This is a great cover. You can clearly see the visceral image of the figures running. Note there are two people, not one. This is a clever twist, generating a sense of partnership (and maybe a hint of romance?).
It oozes ticking-clock urgency. You can see clearly it’s set in Rome at the Vatican, hinting that this could be along the same lines as one of the greatest thrillers of all time — The Da Vinci Code. That makes me think there might be international travel involved as well.
The story summary on the cover “A Power Kept Secret For 2000 Years” reinforces this. Conspiracy, political intrigue, perhaps some supernatural elements.
If I was a thriller fan, I’d be at the very least picking this up to read the back.
This might work for thrillers, I hear you say. But will it work for my genre?
I recently went through this same process for my latest novel. It was the first time was I doing a pure love story and the first time going it alone without a publisher. I was very nervous about stuffing things up. So, I dove into research, which tends to calm my nerves.
Here’s what I found…
Best-Selling Love Story Book Covers
A lot of love stories have a people kissing on the cover. Kind of obvious really. It’s an easy signal.
There is often flowing script to suggest a sense of softness and poetry in the writing.
I also really like the sharp story summary on the cover for One Day. It simply says: “Twenty years. Two People.” Brilliant! You get a sense of what to expect right away: a love story set over time, with ups and downs and heartache and, hopefully, a happy ending.
So, how could I take these cues and twist them to keep things compelling without losing the message?
For my novel, If Kisses Cured Cancer, the cover designer and I made the decision to stay true to the overall style, but tweak the image. Instead of lovers kissing, we had them holding hands with their backs turned to the camera.
Putting the lead woman in a hospital gown was also something to have people double take and look a bit closer at the image.
The title, combined with the hospital gown should show that it’s a love story with a battle for life thrown in. The short story summary down the bottom is a quick overview to help further establish setting, plot and the quirky nature of the tale.
Failing that, there’s always the ‘praise’ quote from a fellow author who likes the book (which I put that on the back cover this time around).
If you’re still wondering what to do for your own cover, please do yourself a favour and look into the genre first to see how you can use that information to your advantage.
Your action steps:
1. Research the covers in your genre and pick out consistent themes in the imagery, quotes and story summaries on display.
2. What are these images/words telling you about the book? How do they make you want to pick it up? How do they make you feel?
3. Find a way you can twist those themes to keep your cover interesting, without losing the message? This really key. When it comes to attention, a sea of sameness will never create waves. Mix things up as much as possible to engage, entice and most of all inform the reader.
4. Think REALLY hard about your title. The title can speak volumes all on its own. My initial title for If Kisses Cured Cancer was Over The Edge Of Eternity. What does that tell you? Not much. Make the title a story all of its own.
5. Ask a fellow author for a cover quote to provide credibility. Reviewers are also great for this. Remember, you can always update your cover with these as great new review quotes come out.
6. If you’re not a designer, find a good one. There are two things I’ll always pay good money for — editing and cover design. Here is a link to Joanna’s resource for finding and working with a designer. Well worth a read.
[From Joanna: You can find a list of recommended book cover designers here. Thanks!]
With that, I wish you luck. Remember, aim to be helpful to the reader and give clear signals about the story first, then be original second.
If you can get someone to pick up your book for a closer inspection, a large battle has been won already. Attention is hard won these days. Do the hard work and research, analyse, create.
Have you done research about covers in your genre? What patterns do you see that you might apply to your books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Tim Hawken is an award-winning author of 4 novels and numerous short stories. His latest book, If Kisses Cured Cancer is available now on Amazon.
You can also sign up here to get a free copy of Tim’s first novel, Hellbound. It’s a thrill ride through the depths of Hell with Satan as your guide.