Top 10 Tips: People do Judge a Book by its Cover

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Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

It’s no secret that a book cover has a very specific and tightly focused purpose…to get a reader to stop and take notice of the book. Book covers are actually much more akin to posters than any other art form. And as a poster, a book cover has a specific, utilitarian function to perform – to catch the reader’s eye. First impressions are important and just like a badly written description, if the cover is confusing or amateurish, the potential reader may well give your book a pass.

Book covers are often confused with book illustrations–but they are not the same thing at all. There is no requirement that the cover of a book must accurately depict any particular scene or event. In fact, many if not most book covers don’t even try. Once again, this is because the purpose of a cover is not to illustrate the book but to sell it. Out of the several hundred covers I’ve created for traditional publishers, probably less than 10% have depicted an actual scene from a novel.

One of the hardest things a DIY cover designer needs to overcome is subjectivity. When you are creating the cover for your own book, it can be very difficult to remember that while you know everything about what goes on in the story your potential reader is not privy to this information. I’ve often used the example of the author who put a pastoral photo of a stone bridge on the cover of his fantasy adventure novel. It looked like the cover of a travel guide. When asked what in the world the photo had to do with a fantasy adventure he replied, “Why, that’s the bridge the troll lives under.”

Miles Errant by Lois McMaster Bujold

One of the biggest mistakes I see most often in author-designed covers is treating the cover art and the typography as though they are two separate issues. For instance, I’ll see cover art that makes no provision for the placement of type, with the result that the title either covers up the most attractive parts of the art or, even worse, the title and author’s name are crowded into the margins to avoid covering up any of the art.
It’s vitally important to consider both art and type together when designing a cover. They need to work together and enhance one another. If you are creating a cover image yourself or are having one done for you, be sure to leave room for the inclusion of the type. Professional cover artists leave at least 1/3 of the art open for the placement of the title and author’s name. This doesn’t mean that the art is simply blank in that area, just that there is nothing important in that space or anything that would compete with the type. Here is an example of this by Stephen Hickman.

In fact, the typography of a book cover is so important that hundreds of effective covers have been created using nothing but type–or type and some small graphic. Take a look at the original cover of The Godfather, for instance.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

By the way, speaking of type, just because you have design software that came preloaded with 275 fonts, you are not compelled to use all of them. Pick one–at most two–for your cover. And since there are thousands of fonts available, try to choose one that is appropriate for your book. Comic sans rarely works for an urban vampire story. By the same token, try to avoid fonts that are massively overused, such as Papyrus, Mistral or, God forbid, Bleeding Cowboy.

Using stock art presents another potential problem in that a great many other people may be using the very same image on the covers of their books. I have seen this occur too many times. One of the things a book cover needs to do is make your book look distinctive, make it stand out from the thousands of competing titles. If your cover image also appears on a dozen other books, you risk diluting that impact. If you are using a stock image, then do whatever you can to make the image unique.

Stephen King may today be able to sell a book with nothing on the cover but his name and the title…but when he started out his novels needed the help of strong cover designs.

Author Bio: Ron Miller

In addition to the books he has published with Lulu, Ron Miller is the author/illustrator of more than fifty commercially published books. These have received numerous commendations and awards, including a Hugo, the IAF Manuscript Award, the Booklist Editor’s Award and the American Institute of Physics Award of Excellence. Several of his books have been Book-of-the-Month Club feature selections. In addition to the artwork he does for his own books, Miller provides illustrations for magazines such as Scientific American, Astronomy and Discover. Specializing in science fiction and fantasy, he has also created several hundred book covers for publishers such as Tor, Baen, Berkley/Ace, Warner, Easton Press, Subterranean Press, and many others.

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