Front and Center: The Importance of a Well Designed Cover

About a year ago I talked about the importance of decent book cover design and I think it’s time to revisit the subject.  There is a wide range of styles and approaches to book cover design and being a graphic designer myself, I find some are more successful than others. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that the cover is not important.

A well designed cover is vital. There are millions of authors and seemingly billions of books all competing for the consumer’s hard earned cash. Your cover is your first impression, your initial pitch, that buyers are going to rely on to make a snap decision. Will they pick it up or pass it by?  Does it deserve a gander on the inside or will it stay there on the shelf.  The principle is generally the same in a bricks-and-mortar store or a virtual one with maybe one exception that I will address later.

There is a trend today towards illustrations or the use of photography to mimic the painterly feel that predominates a majority of cover designs.  Take a look at Lee Child’s, James Patterson’s, David Baldacci’s or John Grisham’s catalog of titles.  If I were able to remove the title and author’s name from all of those covers I would put money on it that you would be unable to tell one book from another.

Cover samples

There is a lot of black, red, and green out there.  A central subject (a silhouetted figure or a US flag for instance) is generally spotlighted against a deep red or dark green background that gradates to black shadows towards the edges.  The author’s name is emblazoned in 144 point condensed type face across the top or bottom third of the book in embossed gold foil and the title gets similar treatment filling another third of the cover leaving very little room for the cover illustration to peek through from behind all that lettering.

The job of a good cover is to make your title to stand out from the sea of other books screaming, “Pick me up! Buy me!” A unique and well conceived design can mean the difference between “a good buy” and a “good bye.”  I have to admit that I am little conflicted on which direction to urge you in. On one hand if you have written a high-octane thriller or a steamy romance novel your audience probably expects to see a certain type of cover.  This would explain why the dozen covers above all look so similar.  Publishers must think that that sort of design helps to sell books.


In some cases you may be able to straddle that line of fitting in or standing out.  Take for instance the cover for Thomas Mullen’s The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.  I haven’t read it nor do I know what it is about but I would assume from the cover art (and bullet holes) that it is a gangster story (for I do believe that a cover should give a clue about what lies beneath it).  Many of the same elements can be found on this cover that were used in the Baldacci, Child, Grisham covers: silhouetted figure, red and black color scheme, fade to black.  But it is done in such a way that it serves as a contrast.  Take a look. I replaced one of the 12 books with the Firefly Brothers.  Does it stand out a little more stylistically, yet still look comfortable among books of a similar genre? I think this is a comfortable compromise that you might strive for.

Cover samples B

The designer in me is always drawn in by a unique cover and I don’t think I am alone in that respect.  A bold graphic approach will always catch my eye.  I don’t buy a book based on a cover but I do stop and inspect it based on a cover design.  If a publisher or author was bold enough to stand up for a design that breaks with convention then I might be able to expect the same on the inside. Getting a book into the hands of a prospective buyer is half the battle and an arresting cover design can help make that happen.  The rest is up to how well the author did his or her job.  Below are a couple of cover designs that I happened across.  I have not read any of them and cannot speak to the content but I would definitely stop and pick up any of these:

unique-book-designsclick to enlarge

At the top of this post I stated that design considerations are pretty much the same for traditionally printed books and e-books. There is one thing that you need to be aware of as you (or your designer) are creating covers for e-books.  The market place for e-books is the web and instead of tables or shelves filled with books that you can pick up and inspect, the e-book is at a little bit of a disadvantage in that the cover is in almost all circumstances displayed as a small thumbnail.  You might be able to click on it and look at an enlarged image of the cover but the first experience a shopper has of e-books is of a postage stamp sized cover.  Keep that in mind as you design. A cover can look great at the 6 x 9 inch size but when it is reduced down to an inch high it may become absolutely indecipherable. So do just that, reduce it down and gang it up with bunch of other cover images from the same genre, like I have done above.  How does your design hold up? is your eye drawn to it? If not, send it back to your designer.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. That may very well be true but you can sell a book by its cover if you do a good job.

Question: what are your thoughts on Cover Design? Is it better to fit in with the rest of the crowd or do you feel it is important to be different from the pack?


14 comments on “Front and Center: The Importance of a Well Designed Cover

  1. It is quite disappointing how similar many of the book covers are nowadays, especially of genre fiction. And I always find it interesting to compare covers for the US and UK editions – huge variations sometimes, to account for local tastes I suppose!

    • I agree. a lot of the paperbacks here in the US are very formulaic as you can see from the samples I pulled together. Book cover art used to be something to really marvel at as a designer and I suppose there is still good design out there somewhere but I see less and less of it which saddens me as a designer any way. At least Music CDs still have interesting and unique covers.

  2. There is some truth as a principle in the whole judging a book by its cover thing, but in life thats a bit of a grey area I think.
    We have to teach ourselves that a cover/first impression (of anything) does not neccesarily mean thats all there is to it, though that can be the case, and we need to keep an open mind till we know better.
    As far as books are concerned though, I think there is a definite lack of creativity in creating a cover, its more about what leaves a desired impression and there is a certain conformist/comfortable/whatever system that is more prevelant (not just in books) that is a bit scary. Do you recall when almost every 2nd movie poster had that blue/gold thing with an action shot of some kind?
    Personally, I think every story should have a cover made for it that shows what it is in some fashion and is intended to be unique in some way unless specifically meant to be otherwise for a reason – like a clever homage or something.
    That Firefly Brothers cover is a good choice of doing something different I’d say, even amidst the lot it still stands out in its own way.
    This is why I love old editions and covers of a lot of books and why I love comics (not all of them, some have a similar multiplicity problem).

    • Spider– Thanks for your comments. I think that every industry goes through this. movie posters, book covers, magazines, houses, cars, fashion. After awhile, everything starts to look the same. I don’t think that a good cover design is the only thing that sells a book but it begins the decision process. If a good design gets the book in your hands then there is a chance that book is purchased. If the cover doesn’t do its job and the book stays on the shelf, then the battle has been lost. You have zero chance of a sell. Obviously the subject and the writing have to make a connection with the prospective buyer but he or she has to pick it up first. I contend a unique design that piques the intrest enhances the chance of a sell. Thanks as always for stopping by and offering your views!

  3. I’m always drawn to interesting or unique covers. I wouldn’t even glance twice at any book with a cover like the Patterson/Baldacci ones cos I associate them with that genre, which is one I don’t enjoy.

    Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a very interesting design. I would be interested enough to pick that up.

    I also put a lot of emphasis on titles. The title needs to grab me, along with the cover; otherwise, no dice 🙂

    I’ve also been known to buy books strictly for the cover :p http://lalammar.net/2012/12/10/buying-a-book-for-its-cover/

    Great Post!

    • As a graphic designer I am heartened to hear that there are people out there to whom design matters. A good title will pull me in as well. I’m glad to hear that we are not alone! thanks for stopping by and for your continued support!

  4. I love the cover of the Hugo book with its wrap around picture of his face. I enjoyed the book also before it became a movie.

  5. I agree about the sheer monotony and lack of imagination in the covers you chose. Even the titles are pretty blah. But you’re overlooking an important point. Those are all best selling authors, and the publishers are pushing name recognition. Those writers’ fans would probably buy the newest novel even if there was no graphic at all, just the title and author’s name on a plain background. For us unknowns, that wouldn’t work, and we do need to make our covers more distinctive.

  6. As a writer who trained in art, I agree with you – I love good design, and a book cover is so important. It should tell you about the book – it certainly affects the way I choose them. One – ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes – I would never have bought, simply because the cover said ‘chick-lit’ But it was chosen my my book group – I read it and it was the best book of 2012 for me. Was it chick-lit? No, it wasn’t – it was a highly original novel with so much to say about life, love and death. But sadly, the cover suggested none of that.

    • Great point. we focus so much on how important it is to take advantage of good cover design to get your book in the hands of readers, but we don’t focus on all of those books that get passed by, not because they have poorly designed covers, but because they send the wrong message. I’ll have to check out Me Before You as well. Thanks so much for stopping by, us artsy types need to stick together!

  7. Spot on with this write-up, I truly believe that this website needs much more attention.

    I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the information!

  8. […] Black presents Front and Center: The Importance of a Well Designed Cover posted at Andy’s Words and Pictures, saying, “Don’t scrimp on your cover design. […]

  9. Makasih atas infonya , Aerith

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