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How do you judge a book? By its cover, of course.

Making sure your book has a good cover is like making sure you are neatly dressed and well groomed when going on a job interview. We’re judged by our appearance. Just like we judge a book by its cover.

Although everyone says you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, this really doesn’t apply to books themselves. In fact, the cover is one of the most important parts of a book. It’s the first thing anyone will ever see and for that reason, it needs to make a good impression. If a cover is unreadable, looks amateurish, or misrepresents a book, the potential reader may give it a pass and move on to the next book in a catalog or bookshelf.

There are no hard and fast rules in book cover design. Even if you are not an artist or designer, you can still make a cover that – while perhaps not as artistic or inventive as some of these covers – can still be attractive and effective.

Judging a book by its cover rules

  • The most important thing on a book cover is the book’s title.
  • Keep things simple typographically. You may own a thousand fonts, but there is no need to feel compelled to use them all. Especially avoid fancy, decorative fonts or using a lot of Photoshop effects on the title. If no one can read the title of your book, you may as well not have it on the cover at all.
  • Likewise, keep your artwork simple. Try to limit yourself to just one image that best represents the book’s genre or what it is about. Avoid the temptation to create a “kitchen sink” cover, where you try to cram in everything you think is important.
  • Another reason for simplicity is that a cover needs to work at all sizes—and even in B&W. Most people will first see your cover as a thumbnail image on a webpage. Therefore, it needs to be as readable at a postage stamp size as it is on the actual printed book.

Having read these suggestions, go back to the Indie Cover page and see how many of those covers reflect these ideas.

How to make a cover worth judging

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. Readers can and will judge a book by it’s cover.

Book covers often are 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 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.”

Dos and Don’ts

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 placing type, so 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 to include the type. Professional cover artists leave at least 1/3 of the art open for placing the title and author’s name. This doesn’t mean that the art is 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. Look at the original cover of The Godfather, for instance.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

The Godfather by Mario Puzo Cover Image

Speaking of type, just because you have design software that came preloaded with 275 fonts, it does not compel you to use all of them. Pick one or 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 overused, such as Papyrus, Mistral or, God forbid, Bleeding Cowboy. Just like a poor image or graphic, readers will judge a book based on the type.

Using stock art presents another potential problem in that many other people may use the same image on the covers of their books. I have seen this occur too many times. One thing 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.

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Ron Miller

Besides the books he has published with Lulu, Ron Miller is the author/illustrator of over fifty commercially published books. These have received many 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.

2 thoughts on “How do you judge a book? By its cover, of course.”

  1. I’m a beginner. I’ve written two large volume fantasy books (C1800) that I may have to break down into a series for each. One is called “Storm Warrior” and the other is called “Hunt-U.S. Marshal”. I am interested in book covers for each. I’m thinking of 6×9 paperbacks? It sounds like you have alot of experience, what do you charge for book cover design? Do you have advise or offer help to beginners? Thanks Ron for taking time to read my post. Wally Cox

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