What Makes a Good Book Cover?
The Five Things that Make the Magic Happen
WRITTEN BY: Ian
July 27th, 2021
First off, art—any art—is subjective in its success and appeal. The same applies to book cover art. A book's success rarely hinges on its cover in as meaningful a way, or as clear and apparent way, as we hope it to be. Some covers are artistically beautiful but fail to convey anything relevant about the content of a book. This can happen for fiction as well as nonfiction. This may be a bad thing or a good thing depending on how it is used—the context. Ambiguity and abstraction in design can create a sense of vagueness and interest. A good designer knows when to use such "tricks" to do the ultimate job of a book cover: Draw the reader in.
While an overall nice composition, this cover for a poetry book, at a distance, does not clearly show what the image is meant to be. Is it a tunnel? Is it books? Some type of hole? Perhaps a well? A view through a portal or window into space?
In contrast, the final cover for this book of poems plays with imagery by using the familiar image of a dandelion filament blowing away, and then you realize it's made of books. This is appropriate for a book of selected poetry readings. Using familiar and relatable objects is a great way to draw a reader in. Finding a creative way to join two ideas (in this case the transient nature of a blowing dandelion and a book) has the added effect of an "ah ha!" moment. The delicate and elegant treatment of the title is clear and visible even at a smaller size.
Ultimately, good designers are what make a good book cover. Typically, such a person has worked in the field of publication and editorial design in some capacity for a number of years, has worked on at least a dozen successful books, and is well rounded in their approach to book design. Book designers should understand what the purpose is of the book they are designing. Sometimes this requires reading the book in question or at least having a very clear and vivid picture of the book's general content. A good designer knows how to research well. They will spend time getting versed in the content of the book and explore other similar books to see what has been done before as well as make sure they are not treading in the same visual territory. They will be versed in typography—the science of letter forms, fonts, typographic features, treatments, combinations, and even history. Ultimately, they should be knowledgeable about design principles and when and how to use them.
Designers use the above principles of design to create covers every day. They are versed in knowing the best and most effective ways to use such visual strategies to best convey your book's message. As magical as the book cover design process may appear to be, it is always dependent on these principles. You can pretty much deconstruct any successful cover and see that at applies at least one of these approaches. All of the covers featured on our website utilize at least one of these approaches. Take a look at some of our covers and see if you can tell which one of these design principles are at work. Knowing when to use these principles, in what combination and concept and context is a matter of talent, experience and skill. Even a novice designer can produce an otherwise successful cover if they apply these principles.
Composition is based on breaking up your visual space into thirds and effectively using that space to your advantage to convey your covers key elements: The title, the subtitle, the authors name, any other supplementary text, a possible image or some sort of color, texture or visual element to bring focus to. When you don't follow these basic rules of composition your design starts to lack cohesiveness and visual hierarchy. The reader will be left searching for the information they need, rather than seeing it at-a-glance.
The design brief: A key step in creating a good book cover
In most cases, as book designers, we are either provided a design brief by a publisher or author, or we ask a series of questions to get a better picture of the scope of the book. These discussions and design briefs contain useful information for us to get started, such as:
1. Trim size (your book's physical size), title, subtitle, author name, bylines, quotes, and callouts to be featured on the cover. This allows a designer to immediately visualize how much text and actual readable information needs to fit on a cover (a cover is generally 6x9 inches or thereabout).
2. A synopsis. A good synopsis covers the general trajectory of the story and key ideas/takeaways/moments.
3. Character descriptions. If applicable in terms of genre, characters that may need to appear on the cover should be described in detail or at least in specific scenes that the publisher/author hopes to capture on the cover.
4. Genre. It should be clear what genre the book is: a memoir, business, self-help, literary fiction, genre fiction (i.e. suspense, mystery, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.), young adult, humor, history, etc.
5. Target audience. Who is the book for? Adults aged 20-65? Women? People interested in historical fiction? Teens? Mothers? Men going through a midlife crisis? Managers? People who may be confused about their sexuality? You get the idea. Knowing your target audience and being clear about it is helpful to designers.
6. Competitive titles. What are some books already out there (preferably successful) that your book is similar to? We all like to think of our book as "unique," but chances are there are similar books and it's very useful to know your competition. At least, it's good to know the general vibe and style your book is likely to sit on a shelf with. It's a way of reading the room and knowing what company you will likely be in once your book is "out there" in the wild.
7. Book covers you are attracted to. This is important to give your designer a sense of what you are likely to respond to from a design perspective. Designers look at covers like film students watch films. We notice things that you might take for granted but it gives us a clear idea of a flavor you're likely to enjoy. It is not going to "influence" us, but rather, it will inform us of your sensibility and what you consider attractive and well-designed, which can save us time in the long run.
There are millions of badly designed books. From confusing to downright ugly, the internet abounds in examples. You might think this only refers to amateur publications and unfortunate indie authors who don't have thousands to spend on good design. Alas, it happens to big publishing houses and famous authors alike. No one is immune to bad design. Generally, we all can agree that a book cover matters to a book's ability to make a good first impression. That said, there are many successful books and well-received books that sell like hotcakes but have poor covers. Why is that? And does a book cover matter in the end?
As we move into the digital era where we increasingly avoid bookstores and do most of our reading on tablets and phones, we nearly always interact with a cover at a small size. Naturally, this has dramatically affected book cover design and what is acceptable for most publishers and authors if they at least want to be attractive at a small size in a sea of other covers. If you want your cover to be highly visible, the title needs to be readable at a very small size.
So what makes a great book cover?
As an author, you have spent time conceiving an idea for a book, researching, writing, editing, and finalizing a manuscript. Logic dictates your road to success must include a marketable cover that stands the test of time and also stands up to the competition. A tall order, but one that is important and can be achieved by following some basic rules. Here are five main things we strive for in our journey to create a compelling, successful cover design:
1. Appropriateness: (You need a book cover example for this first point.) The legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli stated that design should be "semantically correct and syntactically consistent." Without getting too brainy, what this means is that it needs to be appropriate for the application. A book about fixing computers requires a different approach and solution for a cover than a book about a gangster who falls in love with a nun. That's why a good design brief is a very important stepping stone to a good cover. It spells out all the necessary components a designer must familiarize themselves with to understand what a book is truly about.
A book needs to "fit in" with the genre, but also attempt to be visually distinct. The ability to fit in yet be distinct enough is subtle. Like dressing up for a cocktail party but selecting a special pair of cufflinks. It's usually something small that distinguishes you.
As you can see with the above cover, there is little mistaking what this book is about, who it is for, and where it fits on the shelf. While this is a straightforward example of a book of Medieval history, it spells things out clearly to the reader what they are about to read. It still makes use of an interesting image crop, elegant font, and typographic treatment reminiscent of medieval manuscripts. All the content is highly visible and appropriately fits the topic. If this cover used a brighter color palette or a more modern font, it perhaps would be misunderstood as a novel or something else.
2. Clear visual hierarchy: As mentioned, books have a lot of work to do these days to remain visible and readable in small sizes. A good book cover makes sure that the font used for the title is helping in that regard and not making it more difficult. Making sure there is a proper order and logic to how you want your readers to see your cover message. Is the title competing with an image? Is the color not contrasting? Is it hard to make out the subtitle? What do you want your reader to see first? Do you want to draw them in with the image/art? Or the title? Often you cannot have both.
Likewise, you cannot expect a cover to say everything. Think of a cover as a mini-poster or sign. It points you in the right direction and gives a hint, a general idea of the book's mood, vibe, tone, and content. It does not try, nor is it beneficial, to say everything.
In this example, we have a bold, vivid, and very readable title. We chose a font that has a hand-drawn quality to convey an uneasy feeling. The color red is contrasted with black to add to the criminal tone of the story. A lonely red cabin on the water is juxtaposed with erratic and violent splashes of water. What more can be said? Suffice it to say the book deals with some sort of crime that took place in some house by the water. That's enough for the average reader browsing for a new murder mystery to be hooked and interested. All of these components are effectively working together to say just enough but not too much. This cover could have very easily featured a character, or a more refined and classic font treatment. You can always add more to a cover—the question is, is it actually adding anything to the overall appeal or is it making it less clear? More is not more. Less is more. You'll have way more success with a cover by focusing on simplicity than complexity.
We have often had authors want to include a host of elements on a cover thinking it is going to help readers understand what the book is about: “I want a helicopter with an army below and a mountain in the background and three men jumping out of the helicopter wearing a red suit, a blue suit and a purple suit and one is holding a pineapple. There should be a planet in the distance and a dragon with metallic headgear flying toward them breathing fire…” You can imagine a scene like this, along with a title, can get cumbersome visually. Your average reader will gloss over all the details. However, if you can showcase a dramatic alien landscape and a futuristic helicopter coming at the reader and have a nice bold, modern font for the large title—you are more likely to convey all that is needed to draw a reader in.
3. Express the book's message, tone, and vibe: As mentioned above, a successful cover needs to traverse the shortest possible distance to the reader in conveying the general feeling of the content of the book. There is a reason why most cookbooks feature a single image of a nicely arranged photograph of a meal. Showing many small dishes starts to become visually complex and lose clarity.
This cover clearly spells out that it's a cookbook. The title is readable and the image is attractive and showcases a main dish the restaurant is famous for. Overall, it fits the category nicely while still expressing uniqueness with the font choice that hints at an exotic, retro-themed dining experience. The color palette also goes a long way to give a nod to the eclectic, colorful energy of the restaurant.
While visually attractive and interesting, this cookbook cover does not convey at-a-glance that it's a cookbook. It does convey a vibe and tone, but it lacks clarity of message. What is this book about? An approach like this may be more successful for a novel about Hawaii in the 1950s—which it's not. And even though the title is pretty clear, the overall package does not convey "cookbook." This may be a good approach at times to "stand out" on the shelf in the company of other cookbooks that all feature food on the cover. And that is why we tried it as an alternate concept, but in the end, the client chose the first option and for good reason.
A coming-of-age novel about a young girl who has a bad reaction to the metal braces she wears is going to convey that very clearly by focusing on just that aspect of the story, rather than trying to create an exacting image of the girl or show some specific scene in the book that ends up obscuring the focus of the book’s general vibe and message.
Clarity of focus, simplicity, hierarchy, appropriateness—the hallmarks of a strong cover. Here we see a cover that clearly conveys that it’s a book for young adults. It has a strong hierarchy with a highly visible title, color palette, and central image that lets you know right away that there is a character with braces in the story. You immediately want to know what the deal is. What is this book about? Why are the braces so prominent? Ultimately you have a cover that is doing its job: drawing the reader in and making them want to know more.
4. Connects with your target audience: Pick up a book you're reading right now. Look at the cover. Do you feel it's designed with you in mind as the target audience? As an author and a publisher, knowing who you hope to sell your book to is paramount to how you approach the design. The wrong font, color scheme, illustration style or historical reference can make or break even a good-looking cover. Imagine a novel about WWII French fighter pilots. Using an American fighter jet on the cover will leave you with a mile-long string of negative reviews on Amazon letting you know just that. You can imagine any number of such scenarios. Your audience is savvy. They notice.
What's the age range of your average reader? Are they men, women, teens, or kids? Thinking about your target audience and knowing who that is goes a long way in designing your book. That's not to say you can't break the rules and try to expand your book’s appeal to diverse demographics.
This historical account of a Chicago con artist in 1920s Chicago needed to appeal to readers of true crime and history books. Using appropriate 1920's style art deco fonts for the title and pairing it with a deco-inspired frame, we featured the wealthy high-life the con man swindled out of their fortunes. A somber color palette hints at the era and conveys the seriousness and authenticity of the account. Right away, the target audience is able to make quick associations: the title conveys there is some deception going on. Where is the crime happening? In affluent, turn of the century Chicago. BAM! You have a successful cover that says all it needs to say and appeals to the average reader of such books: male, aged 24+, readers of true crime and historical non-fiction. Could a teenager read this book? Could a new mother of twins read this book? Sure, they could, but the publisher knows that they are less likely to buy this book. If they were, this design would be quite different.
Same book, different smell… This rejected concept for the same book is a lot more busy. It's nice, it's playful, it still conveys the general era and has things about it that work well. But ultimately, it's a tad too playful and cheeky with all the little eyes and shapes and overlapping elements. The color green is notoriously vilified in the publishing world (though with no clear reason). Too much emphasis is given to the author’s name. The subtitle is difficult to read.
Again, while a fun design for the book, this concept is too playful. While the con artist in the book does wear round glasses and a bow tie as part of his "look," it tells us very little of the setting, time period and other vital aspects that the target audience would be looking for. The intended reader of this book wants to read a book about 1920s Chicago con artists. This cover does little to sell that dream to him. Maybe if a version of this book was written for a younger audience (teens who like reading about historic true crime) then this cover would work better to reach them.
5. Create an "ah-ha" moment: This is a perk. A bonus. The hope with any good cover is that it leaves the reader intrigued and aching to find out more. In the old days, it would make them want to read the flap copy, crack the spine and get reading before they even pull out their wallet. Nowadays, we hope it makes them click on the image and press the checkout button.
The coveted "ah-ha!" moment is when your cover has a clever aspect to it that makes the potential reader feel smart for noticing it or connecting the dots. It's an added depth to the overall concept. Suffice it to say that people love being entertained and amused. If you can make them feel that they have noticed something that others have not or that they "get" something, it's that much more likely they will want to pick up a book and read it. And that's ultimately what a good book cover does.
Above we see a simple example of the "ah-ha!" moment. A title composed of the various materials man has used throughout history.
Well, did he? We may never know. But we do know that red and yellow are a great combination of colors and noticing that a necklace with a cross forms a "?"… Priceless.
Do you see what I see? The fact is, this optical illusion has been done a million times on book covers. The other fact is that it never gets old.
Here we see a familiar image used with a clever twist.
Light bulbs are probably as cliché as you can get for a book cover. Until you find a new way to feature one. Capitalizing on imagery that is recognizable and instantly conveys a concept is a great way to get into people’s heads very quickly. The art of knowing symbolism/iconography and the power of simplicity is a key skill every good book designer needs to know.
What do mix-tapes and snakes have in common? You will find out because you want to read this book…
A Global History of Prohibition reads the subtitle. Yup…
All in all we’re just another gear in the machine… or was it brick in the wall? Anyway…
I gotta hand it to this cover designer—they really captured the spirit of this sci-fi classic. Give ‘em a round of applause.
Happy Birthday Mr. President…
Behind every monumental book cover there is a designer who has dived deep into the design process…
I'm feelin' adventurous this morning…
Well, there you have it. You can judge a book by its cover… or, at least you can judge its designer.
On that note, there is no single thing that a good book cover is made of. What makes a good pie? There are many ingredients that make a good pie. But a great pie has a special something that you will remember for a long time.