The idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” may be true when applied metaphorically to the worth or value of certain people, objects, and situations, but, sadly, when it comes to books, the exact opposite is often the case.
Readers judge books by their covers all the time. Don’t lie—you do it too!
As a self-published author, the decisions you make regarding your cover art are even more monumentally significant since you don’t have the benefits that traditionally published authors have—knowledgeable art directors, talented graphic designers, publicity departments, etc.
So, before you release your novel, here are a few things to consider:
1. Reader Expectation
This is huge. Who is your target audience? What do comparable covers in your category (science fiction, romance, thriller, mainstream fiction, etc.) look like? I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about how storylines need to be familiar but unique to succeed and the same principle holds true here. Your cover art needs to be familiar enough to appeal to your audience but unique enough to differentiate itself. It needs some kind of a hook, be it a visually appealing character or characters, an eye-catching symbol or object, etc.
Tracey R. Newman’s cover of Rehoboam is a perfect example. The wounded, scimitar-wielding character standing in front of a presumably Late Bronze Age city on the cover gives readers enough clues to know that this is a historical fiction or historical fantasy novel. The savvy use of complementary font only strengthens that perception. The intensity of the cover—the character looks as if he is screaming out to his god—was also a masterful decision as the author could’ve easily gone with a more passive, posed posture. The intensity of the character tells me as a potential buyer what to expect—a powerful historical fiction story.
This cover is a win. It quickly conveys the general category to readers and appeals to that audience with a bloodied and obviously intense main character.
The most visually appealing covers generally have a strong, memorable focal point. This is important when considering how your readers will be discovering your novel—most will be on Amazon, BN.com, Goodreads, etc. Depending on the device that you use, your cover art could be shrunk down to less than an inch. Think about that for a moment. With that in mind, it’s important to (if possible) have a focal point that translates well when minimized to a thumbnail.
A great example of this is Defender of the Texas Frontier: A Historical Novel by David R. Gross. Not only does the savvy cover design communicate to the reader what to expect (historical western adventure) but the focal point of the cover—a Texas Ranger on a horse in front of a glorious sunset—works very well as a thumbnail. The image is still clear and memorable. That’s a win.
Susan Wakeford Angard’s On Wings of a Lion — a suspense novel set in 1978 Iran—is another excellent example of a cover that has a strong focal point and translates well as a thumbnail.
A word of caution here: Be aware that dark covers, when minimized even a little, basically become black blobs. I’ve seen numerous covers—good covers—that, because of the dark artwork, become all but invisible on retail sites. Dark covers are very risky, and I would advise extreme caution…
3. Purpose. We already know how many books are self-published every day—approximately 5,000. Think about this: how long did you spend writing your book? A year? Five years? A decade? Why would you spend so much time and effort crafting a novel and then slap cover art on that is all but meaningless to the novel? I see this all the time and I just don’t understand it. I’ve seen landscapes on covers that are never mentioned in the novel, I’ve seen characters featured on covers that aren’t even in the novel, and I’ve seen covers that are simply a title and an author with nothing else.
Your cover art needs to have a purpose! It’s an opportunity for you to let your readers know what to expect.
Eli Shaw’s cover of If I Die Before I Wake: A Caregiver’s Journey features a powerfully simple image that has a clear purpose.
If your cover art has no purpose, you need to rethink your plans before publishing.
This only applies to those writers who are writing series—but it’s important. Just as we binge-watch Netflix shows, we also binge-read series that we love. There’s serious money to be made in series. By using the same artistic vision throughout a series—design philosophy, font placement, etc.—you make it exponentially easier for readers to identify your saga and buy ALL the books. Shelley Adina is an author who has found success both as a traditionally published and indie author. She writes, under various pseudonyms, Amish women’s fiction, historical romance, and steampunk. She is a great writer—but she’s also a brilliant marketer. Her Magnificent Devices steampunk saga sells very well, and the continuity of her cover art definitely plays a part. Check out the covers to see how she does it:
These covers are terrific. There’s a clear indication of reader expectation, there’s strong focal points and purpose, and the continuity of the cover art and design connects them all together.
If you’re writing a series, make sure that your titles are all connected through cover design!
5. The quality of the cover design and artwork often reflects the quality of the book.
This is another big one. People, please. Don’t have a friend or family member do your cover art and design (unless of course they’re a graphic designer) just to save a few bucks. There are countless designers out there who specialize in book covers. You want your book to look as professional as possible. Hire a pro and do it right. The investment will pay off in book sales.
Take a moment and look at the book covers in BlueInk’s review section. The vast majority of them look like they’ve been created by professional designers. If your book cover was done with crayons and/or markers—and, yes, I have seriously seen this—you may want to reconsider your future path as an indie writer.
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program. Readers of this blog are offered a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the “key code” Allen. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)