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Cover Design Essentials

With nearly 200 thousand new titles published each year, bookstores have books featured everywhere—stacked on the floor, standing on end caps and sitting on tables, not to mention the rows of shelves. This mass of inventory provides a wonderful selection if you’re a book buyer, but if you’re an author, this book-laden landscape proves to be highly competitive as each product vies for the browser’s attention and investment.

In the few seconds they have to catch the eye of a potential reader, authors are leveraging the power of an engaging cover design to help the book stand out and rise above the competition. Even if you can spin a story as suspenseful as the best of the literary greats, your book must have an attractive exterior. If not, readers are likely to pass it by without giving a second glance. Great covers are strategically designed to catch the eye of a book buyer. 

Browse through our top book cover design tips for some expert advice:

Capturing Your Audience with an Engaging Cover

Importance of an Engaging Cover
Your Cover Should...
The Shifting Cover Paradigm
The Process of Creating a High-Quality Cover

Forming Your Ideas into a Marketable Cover

The Psychology of Color and Branding
Ockham’s Razor


Content that Captures the Essence of Your Book

Front Cover Elements
Spine Elements
Back Cover Elements


 

Capturing Your Audience with an Engaging Cover


Importance of an Engaging Cover


Five Reasons why your book needs a great cover:

1. Garner a second glance. Your book will only have seconds to attract a browsing reader’s attention. An engaging cover ensures readers take a second look at your product.

2. Dress the part. Consumers first gauge books based on their visual appeal, so a well-designed cover appears to have more value for a consumer. If you plan to sell your book at a price competing with bestselling authors, your cover must be able to compete.

3. First impressions count. Your book’s cover design is usually a potential reader’s first interaction with your content and writing style. A well-crafted cover will expose readers to your story and pique their interest in your book.

4. Opinions are formed in a snapshot. In just a few minutes, readers will shape an opinion of your story and writing based on the content of your cover. Make sure your book puts its best foot forward with a well-designed cover.

5. People take your book more seriously if it's professional. If you plan to have your book professionally reviewed, you must have a polished cover that will compare to other reviewed materials.

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Your Cover Should:

1.  Fall within the norms for your genre but visually stand out among other books.

2.  Appeal to readers and convince them to take a closer look at your book with a strong visual presence.

3.  Reflect the content of your book and expose readers to your writing style.

4.  Convince a potential reader to invest in a literary journey with your story.

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The Shifting Cover Paradigm

Computers have revolutionized design-oriented industries like architecture and packaging and have changed the world of book covers as well. In the 1980's, publishers favored art departments that produced covers that sell, enforcing tight restrictions on individualism. Pre-press work required hours to create printing plates, which were then used for offset print runs. In the last fifteen years, however, computer-driven graphic design has opened up the range of options for unique cover designs. Intensive artwork that only ten years ago was reserved to elite pre-press print houses is now possible on your designer’s desktop computer. 

With the advent of desktop publishing and digital printing, pre-press work is now completed within the constraints of digital assets. Now, when your designer is finished with his or her file, your cover is ready to be printed.

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The Process of Creating a High-Quality Cover

In traditional publishing houses, authors have little direct involvement with their books once the manuscript leaves their desks, but with iUniverse, authors have a high level of involvement and interaction. The best book design involves initial creative input from the author and his or her feedback to the creative team. This unique author-designer relationship allows book covers to move away from the rudimentary application of title and pen name and rise to an art form. 

Although a cover may take less time to complete than the text of a book, the cover is usually the central visual representation of the book. The cover presents an image that combines the artistry and thoughtfulness of the text with elements necessary to sell the book, such as the title, author biography or reviews. Designers select the perfect layout of symbols to bridge the divide between art and commerce. 

The symbolic meaning of a well-designed cover will inherently change as the reader delves deeper into the story. These symbols may appear opaque at first glance, but as the reader turns each page the interrelated metaphors embedded in the cover gradually become more obvious and meaningful. The book’s message is only complete once the reader has finished the story and, with one last look at the cover, fully understands the complementary relationship between the text and cover.

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Forming Your Ideas into a Marketable Cover


Cover design is crucial. Though we have been told since childhood not to judge a book by its cover, your cover forms the reader’s first impression of the book’s content and your writing style. A successful front cover attracts a browser’s attention, while back cover content assures the reader a book is worth investing time and money in the literary journey. Your cover design is the front line of advertising for your book, a key marketing tool to sell your product. Think of your front cover as a movie poster and the back cover as the 30-second preview. Your front cover should attract attention and leave your viewers wanting more. The back cover content should compel your audience to invest in the experience your book has to offer.

In the same way you have written your story for a specific audience, create your cover so that your target audience will immediately identify with the work. What images or designs would attract the kind of people who would enjoy your story? A book detailing a bicycle journey across the country might attract readers with an image of a road through wide-open rugged landscape. A book about the latest trends in market investing could attract readers with a sleek design around endorsements and testimonials. 

If you are planning a wide marketing and promotional campaign for your book, your cover image will be the crux of all your marketing materials. The image will be incorporated into bookmarks, posters and postcards as a central design element - just one more reason why your cover should receive significant thought and resources. 

If you’re searching for cover ideas, start by spending some time relaxing in a bookstore. Notice how customers interact with books. Which positions, displays and colors tend to attract specific demographics? Look at other books in your genre that target similar demographics or sell at a similar price. What makes one cover stand out more than another? What type of cover attracts browsers to pick up a book and read the back cover?

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The Psychology of Color and Branding

Color can impact shoppers and influence their feelings about products. When making decisions about your cover design, consider the psychological responses certain colors evoke. Traditionally “warm colors” in the spectrum, including red, orange and yellow tend to be high-arousal colors that cause feelings of warmth and stimulate the senses. 

 

  • Warm colors tend to appear closer to the viewer and can attract attention from across a room. 
  • “Cool colors” of the spectrum, including blue, green and purple, are low-arousal colors and tend to cause feelings of relaxation, calmness and tranquility. 

 

Like any other product’s design, a book’s design can effectively create a brand for an author. Bob Shumaker, author of The Schmooney Trilogies, created a brand around his series, starting with his book covers. The book covers are easily identifiable with the same subtitle bar at the top of the front covers, similar font for each title and mystical environments in the background. Designers not only attract consumers to buy books with eye-catching covers, but also generate a degree of brand loyalty with instantly recognizable elements. Take this point into careful consideration if you plan to turn your book into a series.

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Ockham’s Razor

The idea of “simplicity” in design isn’t new. The principle of simplicity is also referred to as Ockham’s Razor, a concept stating simplicity is preferred to complexity. The main thesis of Ockham’s Razor is that unnecessary elements will decrease the overall efficiency and aesthetic appeal of a design. It can be a good indicator of why one design may succeed and another one will not. A good writer will spend hour after hour editing and re-editing their book, cutting words, paragraphs and so forth until it is “clean.” The cover designer's method is not much different, other than it is a visual process rather than a written one. 

Respecting Ockham’s Razor can assist you to strip away any unhelpful design elements and achieve a cover that balances simplicity of theme and detail of design to appeal to readers and reflect the author’s vision.

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Content that Captures the Essence of Your Book


An appealing cover design is a delicate combination of imagery and text. The difference between an average cover and an exceptional cover lies in the balance of the overall layout: the placement of text in relation to images, the psychological effect of the colors, and the equilibrium between simplicity of theme and detail of the design.

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Front Cover Elements


The publishing industry relies on visual stimuli to sell books to readers, and consequently, the cover can have a huge impact on book sales. If customers arrive at a bookstore without a particular book in mind, there are three elements that play a role in attracting book buyers: position within the store, merchandising (how the book is displayed) and cover art. Since bookstores usually determine the location and position of a book within their stores, the cover is the best resource within the author’s control to attract buyers. Even in the best retail circumstances, if a book does not visually stand out from the books around it, it is usually overlooked. 

Books from first-time authors require an especially attractive cover, relying on their good looks rather than name recognition to attract readers browsing the aisles. Many books contain the title and the author’s name on the front cover, as well as a short sales pitch of a few words. In his latest book, Zen Millionaire, CBS MarketWatch columnist Paul B. Farrell incorporated the line, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul,” across the top of the cover. The phrase complements the book’s title and gives the reader insight into the book’s content, as well as balancing the author’s name at the bottom of the design.

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Spine Elements


If your book doesn’t happen to sit face-out on a shelf, the spine text and design will be the only immediately visible aspect of your book. Many of the best book covers are designed to wrap around the spine so when the book is completely open, it presents one coherent design. The spine text should always include the book title, as well as the author’s name near the base of the spine. The title is usually displayed in the same font as the title on the front cover, unless the spine is too thin or heavily stylized. Additional information and designs can be incorporated to make your book stand out. For example, Abel Sanchez, author of Van Halen 101, had legendary Queen guitarist Brian May write his foreword so he featured “Foreword by Brian May” on his spine to attract readers.

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Back Cover Elements

 If you’ve gained a reader’s attention with your front cover, they will most likely turn to the back cover to gain more details and make a decision about purchasing the book. 

 

  • Nonfiction books usually feature a few paragraphs about the book’s topic and may use bullet points or a list to cover specific subjects in the book. 
  • Fiction books usually feature an excerpt of the text and a brief plot synopsis. This text is the best opportunity for an author to convince shoppers to purchase their book. It deserves careful thought and attention. 

 

An author’s bio is also included on the back cover, especially in nonfiction books. In many fiction books an author’s photo and biography are reserved for the inside flap text or an about the author page near the end of the book. The author’s bio is a great place to list accomplishments, honors, credentials and other impressive or unique details of a writer’s journey. If you have spent years spinning a thrilling story inside your book, spend time and carefully consider the words you’ll be placing on the outside of the book as the reader’s first introduction to your writing.

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