How to Design a Killer Book Cover That Sells
The saying “your book cover sells your book” is true. While your front cover doesn’t do all the selling, it is key to getting noticed. Many authors think of their cover as an extension of their book, as a piece of art. A nice concept, this is not going to sell your book. If you want your book cover to get your story noticed and into the hands and hearts of your readers, you need to think like a reader and a marketer.
Covers Are All About Emotion
When a reader sees your book cover, they should feel something. They should feel curious, inspired, thrilled, hopeful, or worried. Emotion is what makes a reader pick up a book. Every piece of your cover should work to create an emotion. Each time you make a decision about an element of your cover like a specific image or color, ask yourself if that decision is building the emotion you’re going for or taking away from it.
Colors: Mood, Tone, and Emotion
There is a whole science built around the emotional effect of colors: Color Theory. When choosing the color palate and featured colors of you cover, think about the feelings and societal biases associated with your colors and how you can use those to convey your message. Red is hunger, rage, and power. Blue is calm, sad, and lonely. What emotion are you trying to convey?
Having one or two main colors helps your cover look cohesive and clear. Too many can make a cover appear muddled. Use colors to enhance the contrast between your text, images, and background, so each element of your cover is easy to distinguish.
Graphics: Images Capture Attention
Do not get stuck symbolizing your story through your cover images. Your graphics are about capturing a potential reader’s eye, so they pick up your book. There are three general styles for cover graphics: minimalistic items, central figures, and landscapes/scenes. Regardless of which style you choose, look for a human element to covey emotion.
Minimalistic covers tend to have a single item featured on a white or black background. Sometimes it is a silhouette on a solid color background. This style is particularly popular in nonfiction, where the titles are longer and take up a lot of cover space, and is frequently used in fiction.
When going minimalistic, make sure the shape you choose is related to the emotion you want your cover to convey and the themes of your story. Don’t pick a random image you think is pretty or cool. For Jesus Calling: 50 Devotions for Encouragement, author Sarah Young chose a white dove with text across its body as her image. The dove is a well-known symbol of hope among Christians, so it immediately conveys genre and emotion. A dove might not appear in the book, but the image leaps off the shelf and communicates hope.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a science fiction take on Cinderella as a cyborg. The red shoe on the cover provides a pop of color and hints at the fairy tale inspiration, and the metal bones of the foot show the genre. When walking through the young adult section of a bookstore, this cover draws the wandering reader’s eye.
If you’re considering a minimalistic cover, make a list of potential images you could use to convey the emotion of your story on your cover. Then think about which 1-2 colors will drive that feeling home and pop among other books in your genre.
Covers with central figures represent everything from historical fiction to teen urban fantasy. People’s eyes are drawn to people, especially faces. These covers capitalize on that. Plus, they are an impactful representation of your character. One of the most common places central figures are used is in memoir, autobiography, and biography. Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story by Nancy Sprowell Geise features a black and white picture of Rubinstein today. Looking away from the camera, he seems to be looking into the past and is not smiling. This image conveys emotions of survival and devastation.
In fiction, covers with central figures tend to use stock photography, which has its pros and cons. Stock photos are cheap, readily available, and high quality, but they can be used on other authors’ covers as well. Generally, readers won’t notice unless your covers are side by side. A skilled cover designer can make small alterations to stock photos, so they seem different.
The cover of Moon Called by Patricia Briggs features a Native America woman who looks like she can handle whatever will be thrown at her. Because the character in the novel has the wolf paw tattoo, the tattoos were likely added to the stock photo used. Also, the main character is a mechanic, so the shirt’s mechanic label could have been added. Those are the little touches that can make a stock photo your own.
If you’re thinking about using a central figure, think about what poses and styles are common in your genre and how you can tweak your figure to make them standout. Then look at the emotion of the stock photo to make sure it aligns with the feeling you want to convey.
The presentation of a landscape or scene cover is essential to its success. A castle could be epic fantasy or historical nonfiction. The way the building is presented and the other elements of the cover determine which reader will pick up your book. The muted, aged color palate of The Haunted Heart of America by Logan Corelli lets a reader know this is not any historical book. It is one that focuses on the darker events of America’s past and could possibly include ghost stories.
Landscapes and scenes do better when is a person, even a tiny one, is present, and it is essential that these images convey a distinct emotion. Tiny people on covers of epic stories represent the massive nature of the adventure. The man's silhouette is tiny compared to the magical battle featured on the cover of A Mage’s Stand: Empire State by Andy Hyland.
If you are thinking about using a landscape, seriously consider adding some sort of small figure. This could be as subtle as a hidden silhouette or the hint of a face. When you add a hint of humanity, you strengthen and personify the emotion your cover coveys, making it more attractive to potential readers.
A Note on Illustrated Covers
Most of the cover designers I know tell writers to be leery of illustrated covers. Getting an amazing illustration is very expensive, and certain genres’ readers don’t seem to respond to them. Before I was a writer, I avoided illustrated fantasy covers because I thought those books were old (meaning not interesting to a teenager).
That said, walking through a bookstore, you will see lots of illustrated covers. Illustrations do well on middle grade and children’s books and cozy mysteries. If you’re considering an illustrated cover, look at what’s common in your genre and subgenre. You want to look like you belong on that shelf, but still stand out, and expect to pay significantly more for your cover.
An Editor’s Cautions for Front Book Covers
The cover can be the death of a book. Nothing leads to a bad cover faster than a writer’s stubborn insistence on using too many elements or a specific scene. While those elements or scene might be a masterful representation of your story, your potential readers don’t know that and most never will. Readers don’t go back and examine a book cover after they read it. They aren’t going to get the significance of the dagger, flower, hidden face, and brick wall. They don’t know that’s a literal scene from your novel when they are deciding whether or not to buy. This is why outside eyes are essential.
If you are not a graphic designer, please higher one to design your book cover. They are worth the price. Understanding the different aspects of covers will help you communicate your vision to them.
The best front covers are both beautiful and functional. They make potential readers pause, pick them up, and read the back. Think about that when designing yours. Pick colors and images that will make your readers’ curious and Ignite Your Cover.
What are your favorite covers and why? Share them in the comments below. For more articles helping you reach your readers and a timeline showing when you should start your cover design, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.