By Paul Goat Allen
As someone who has been in the self-publishing business for decades—from purchasing titles for a national book chain to reviewing thousands of self-published titles for Kirkus, BlueInk, etc. to interviewing countless self-published authors for various sites—I’ve seen cover art quality for self-published titles increase exponentially over the last few decades (although, yes, there are still some absolutely terrible covers being released all the time).
Readers used to be able to identify a self-published title by cover art alone but those days are largely over. I’ve seen cover art for self-published releases that is so professionally done, it rivals cover art designed by Big Five publishing companies (Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, Penguin Random House, Macmillan).
Cover art philosophy varies from category to category, of course—a business book, for example, will have a much different look than a romance novel or a middle grade book—and I’ve seen some beautifully crafted self-published/indie cover art across all categories in recent years that brilliantly targets its potential reading audience:
Women Wise: The Essential Guide to Financial and Lifestyle Decisions as We Age by Eleanor Blayney and Marjorie L. Fox has a cover that is simple, eye-catching, and symbolically perfect for its targeted audience.
The Certainty of Chance by Jacquelyn Middleton is another perfect cover with an appealing scene that immediately conveys the category (romance) and the (heartrending and heartwarming) storyline featured within.
The philosophy behind Jonathan Edward Durham’s genre-blending novel Winterset Hollow is brilliant in its simplicity—a visually stunning image and a blurb from Diana Gabaldon. Nothing else is needed here!
Vengeance, the fifth installment of Jennifer Foehner Wells’ Confluence saga, is another example of well-designed and perfectly targeted cover art. Readers instantly know what they’re getting when they lay eyes on this cover—a grand-scale science fiction adventure.
But self-published authors need to understand something here. The days of wandering around in a bookstore and finding a book that catches your eye are long gone. According to market research done a few years ago, Amazon accounts for more than 65% of all retail book sales and more than 80% of all e-book sales.
So, understanding that a big percentage of your book sales will happen online, consider this: instead of potential book buyers picking up your book in a brick-and-mortar store—where your book cover art can be as big as 6” x 9.5”—most readers will only see your cover art as a thumbnail, which can be smaller than an inch on some sites.
The four aforementioned covers work so well not only because the covers are so well designed and eye-catching but also—and arguably more importantly—they stand out as thumbnails. Look at Women Wise and Winterset Hollow, for example, as thumbnails. They still pop!
One of the biggest mistakes self-published authors are making regarding cover art is making their covers too dark. I see it all the time—a strong cover that literally disappears when you see it as a thumbnail on Amazon or some other site.
Take a moment and scroll down the book reviews featured on this site. Many of the titles have covers that are just too dark—they don’t work as thumbnails. If I was a potential book buyer browsing through covers looking for my next read, I would skip over these covers without a second thought. They are simply boring blocks of shadows.
So before you set your self-published work free into the world, do yourself a favor and make sure that your cover art is not only visually appealing to your target audience but also that it doesn’t became a blackhole when shrunken down to a thumbnail.
While there are obviously many other elements at play when it comes to selling self-published books—social media presence, strength of title, pre-press promotion, reader reviews, etc.—savvy cover art cannot be understated. I’ve seen truly terrible books sell well because of a strong cover and, conversely, absolute masterworks that come and go in the night because of ill-conceived cover art. Think about that before you publish!
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.