As the merchandiser for KWL eBooks at Kobo, my job is to judge books by their covers. Okay, that’s not my whole job, but you might be surprised at how much of my day is spent scrutinizing, arguing about, praising, sifting through, staring at, and judging self-published book covers.
Book cover design is an immensely important part of the digital self-publishing process. A professional book cover will get your book the attention it needs and will make it more likely to be awarded merchandising space on our website, in email newsletters, and in promotions. An amateur book cover, on the other hand, will do exactly the opposite. That your book’s success depends so heavily on something that has nothing to do with its contents might be a hard nut to swallow, but it’s a reality that can’t be ignored. So, before you sit down to make your next book cover using a photo you took last summer of your friend Matt’s cottage, let me share with you my list of Dos and Don’ts of digital book cover design.
DO Your Research
Every genre has its book cover hallmarks. While you don’t want your cover to blend in with the rest so completely that it gets lost, you also don’t want to create a cover that is so different from the other books in the genre that it confuses the reader. The book cover, even more so than the title, is the thing that’s going to sell your book. You need to make sure the reader can tell, at a glance, what kind of story you’re telling.
The easiest way to make sure you don’t mislead the reader is to check out other books in your genre, both self-published and traditional, to get a feel for the kind of cover you want for your book.
New Adult Romance covers tend to feature couples and cursive fonts:
But not always:
The covers of Thrillers are known to have weapons, buildings or vehicles, and apparently orange is a popular colour. Faces are less important:
Sometimes just author and title is enough:
Whichever genre you’re writing in, you should incorporate at least some of these familiar elements into your cover to ensure the reader is getting what they expect.
DON’T Make It Yourself
Unless you’re a graphic designer by trade, and therefore know what you’re doing, do not make your book cover yourself. This is where so many authors go wrong. In order to save costs, because of a false sense of their artistic ability, or just due to a misguided belief that book covers are easy to design, so many authors end up designing their own covers, often with disastrous results.
I’ll admit, I did this myself back in 2010. Here’s the cover I originally made for my first novel, Home:
I still like a lot of things about this cover. I like the image and the colour scheme. I like the font I found for the title, and the way I was able to fit it between the branches. But this is, very obviously, an amateur attempt at book cover design. Nothing says “I don’t know what I’m doing” like using Times New Roman font for the author name. The novel is a historical fantasy for young adults, which isn’t at all clear from looking at the cover. This cover is a good effort for a first try, but it is definitely not professional. It just isn’t good enough.
Here’s another example of the type of cover I come across all the time:
There are many things very, very wrong with this cover. To begin with, the dimensions are wrong. The image is obviously a personal photo taken while on vacation. It’s a beautiful photo, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to make a beautiful book cover. The title is in some weird font meant to mimic handwriting. Points are awarded for not choosing Times New Roman and for the nice centering, but that’s about it. The colour of the author name makes it unreadable and it’s also placed way too close to the edge of the cover. And then there’s the cut and pasted dog.
I would never merchandize this book.
You want your cover to represent the brilliant book you’ve written, to draw in customers who might not have considered reading your stuff otherwise, to wow the merchandiser. If you’re considering designing your own cover, ask yourself if whatever you might create will have this kind of power. An adequate cover isn’t good enough for your book. You want your cover to be the BEST!
I’ll say it again: Don’t Make It Yourself. Hire a professional book cover designer.
DON’T Put It On Repeat
If you’re writing a series, it’s a great idea to use the book covers to link the titles in the series together. When looking at a list of your books on the retail site, you want the reader to be able to tell right away which three of your five books are a part of your series, especially since not all readers check if a series name is listed. Similar images, colour schemes and font choices on the covers can do this job quite well.
H. M. Ward (who, incidentally, creates her own covers, proving that there’s always an exception to the rule) achieves this quite nicely with her The Arrangement series:
What I don’t recommend is getting one cover professionally made and then using it for every title in the series by changing the book title only. I’ve seen many authors do this, and I believe it causes confusion with the reader and makes for ugly merchandising. If the series number (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, etc.) isn’t clear enough the customer can end up purchasing the wrong title. It also implies that you didn’t care enough about your book to get a new cover made.
Though repeat covers are by no means a deal breaker—they are far too common for me to exclude them from merchandising entirely—I feel that series covers pack the most punch if they are similar but distinct.
DO Reserve The Right To Change Your Mind
One of the great things about self-publishing is that the author has complete control over the book cover, which is certainly not the case with traditional publishing. Not only can you decide what your cover will be, but you can also change that cover whenever you wish.
Naturally, you don’t want to confuse your readers by putting up a new cover every other week, but if you feel your current cover isn’t working, why not try something different?
Do your readers continually mention that they were expecting your book to be more of a romantic suspense, when it’s actually a straight contemporary romance? Are you getting a lot of returns? Have you noticed that it’s hard to read the title when you’re looking at your cover on the retail site?
All of these problems could possibly be solved by changing up your book cover. Even better, if you don’t like the resulting sales of the new cover, you can always change it back! Such is the freedom of digital self-publishing.