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Great covers sell books, but what makes for a great cover?

February 1, 2017

Tags: book jackets, cover art

Updated 8-25-17. What about the best book covers makes us look at the book? We can see them from afar as well as in thumbnails. They ask a question rather than provide the answer. They elicit an emotional response.They're not too cluttered with copy and information and backstory. They make clear what genre the book is. They don't look like all the other covers -- and even the spine (the only thing we may see in a bookstore) sells us. It's immediately apparent that they are part of a series we love. What else? Check out the insights and examples (of good and bad cover design) in these online articles:

20 Creative Book Cover Designs to Inspire Your Next Project (Karl Cook, Hubspot, 10-3-16). Shows the covers, often explains how they came about, and explains why they work
Reedsy Live Chat runs live cover critiques. Learn from them! Here's Cover Critique #2 with Jake Clark
Joel Friedlander's e-Book Cover Design Awards. Click around to find brief critiques of lots of covers and the most useful comments are probably about the covers that don't win.
The Subtle Genius of Elena Ferrante’s Bad Book Covers (Emily Harnett, The Atlantic, 7-3-16) 'Ferrante’s U.S. paperbacks look a lot like “chick-lit,” the favored slight for disparaging commercial, female-authored fiction. Authors are right to complain about (most of them) having little say in cover design. Readers complain about the imagery that adorns the author's highbrow novels. But while Ferrante’s covers are trite, there’s little about them that’s actually patronizing. An interesting piece. (And who can argue with success?)
#Coverdesign on Twitter. Most of these are promoting particular covers but occasionally you see good advice: "8. Ask yourself, is the cover physically identifiable from afar AND does it work as a thumbnail on the web?"~@saltpublishing (see them all at Cover design tips, pits and pratfalls @saltpublishing
Writing on the outside: Maximising the function of cover text (Ryan Ashcroft, Book Machine, 1-27-16) More good advice, including "In some ways the tagline, if used, can be more important than the title because it tells people why the book is worth reading. Taglines are best kept under 10 words. Blurbs should be no more than approximately 175 words maximum for a standard 8” x 5” book.
Kid gloves: handling a sensitive cover (Mark Ecob, Book Machine, 2-13-16) Advice for when your book covers a sensitive subject. For example, "Don’t do the copy for the front cover at the last minute. A designer needs the title and shout line at the start."
5 Ways a Book Cover Could Hurt Sales — And How to Fix It (Johnny B. Truant, BookBub, 8-16-17) Truant compares successful and unsuccessful covers for the same few books, explaining what's effective and what's not. It really does help understand what works or not.
Book Cover Success and Failure Explained (Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer, 6-9-14) Your book cover has to announce its genre, telegraph its tone, explain its scope, etc. JF explains why book covers often fail at these tasks (e.g., "there's no hook" or they are "graphically or typographically incompetent"--a big problem with novice designers). Must-read for beginning book designers or self-publishers looking to hire same.
What Makes for a Brilliant Book Cover? A Master Explains (Kyle Vanhemert, Wired, 9-29-14) Peter Mendelsund, who designed the cover for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, shares his wisdom (including what went into designing that cover). He "prefers an ugly cover to a cliche one, and looking at his body of work, the thing that holds it together is that nearly all of his jackets have something weird going on, in one way or another." Also: "A truly great jacket is one that captures the book inside it in some fundamental and perhaps unforeseen way. As Mendelsund describes it, his job is finding that unique textual detail that…can support the metaphoric weight of the entire book.' That, of course, requires actually reading a manuscript closely enough to A) determine the metaphoric weight of the book and B) find a handful of relevant details within it."
10 Tips for Effective Book Covers (Writers Digest, 2-11-11). What not to do may be as important as what TO do.
The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover (Tim Kreider, The New Yorker, 7-16-13) The "covers of most contemporary books all look disturbingly the same, as if inbred....“I wouldn’t mind being seduced by sensuous appeal again every once in a while. Even if you love your wife for who she is as a person, it’s still nice when she breaks out a sexy new outfit.”
Judge This: The Power of First Impressions (Chip Kidd, Medium, June 2015) The "two most effective and fascinating aspects of first impressions ... are at opposite ends of the spectrum: Clarity and Mystery. After over thirty years as a practicing designer, I continue to be amazed by how these two components work, and what happens when they get mixed up or misused." Chip Kidd's book cover designs for Knopf helped create a revolution in the art of American book packaging. This is an excerpt from his book Judge This, about the importance of first impressions.
Why We Don't Stretch Type (Chris Beesley)
Cover design for self-publishers: series (Susanna Shore, Susanna Writes, 1-16-17)
"Hack the Cover" (Craig Mod, @craigmod, May 2012) “And so we don’t want the cover to disappear. And yet the cover as we have known it is disappearing, rather quickly (nearly eradicated on hardware Kindles).” "We buy books online. Almost all of them. And yet, on Amazon.com the cover is nearly an afterthought....the cover is no longer the marketing tool it once was." "The cover as we know it really is - gasp - ‘dead.' But it's dead because the way we touch digital books is different than the way we touch print books: Book Covers See Yellow to Attract Online Shoppers (Lucy Feldman, WSJ, 5-24-16) To stand out online, publishers push book designers for brighter, bolder covers. The hot color of the moment? Yellow.Color contrast makes a cover pop, but the highest-contrast combination—black and white—can be a turnoff for publishers, who worry that without color, the book won’t stand out. White covers in particular recede against the white backgrounds of Amazon and other online retailers.
What can we learn from poor book cover design? (Tina, Trip Fiction). The type on this post is hard to read. Don't do that on a book cover.
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Comments

  1. August 24, 2017 12:02 PM EDT
    I was surprisingly impressed with this little how-to video, which Joel Friedlander promoted: Ed Lewis's 5 Minute Covers. He's talking about covers for eBooks, which are just as important as book covers for print books, but aren't usually considered to be. What I like about the cover is that the title and the author's name are VISIBLE and there's a great and simple image. All that can show up even in a thumbprint image, which is all the potential reader may see.
    - PM