Friday, June 24, 2011

What Your Cover Should Not Do

Like many of us, your book cover works best if it has one job to do—and only one job. Book covers do not multi-task well. A successful book cover delegates everything that will not significantly contribute to book sales to another part of the book. Here are a few things you should not ask your book cover to do:

1. Promote someone else’s business.
Your book cover is not the place to reference your designer, illustrator, editor, or publisher unless doing so will directly contribute to sales. A successful book cover is something like a spoiled child shouting, “Me! Me! Me!” It needs to be. Credit where credit is due is wonderful—on the Book Information page (where Library of Congress information appears, if that’s relevant to your book), on a separate thank-you page in the front or back, as a footnote somewhere—there are all kinds of tasteful ways to provide a business “bump” to those who have contributed to your book’s visual and verbal excellence. But the cover isn’t the place for it unless that information will increase your book sales.

2. Tell the whole story.

A one- or two-line “teaser” on the cover is fine, provided you have room for it. A plot summary is not. Likewise, your book cover is not the place to cite whole reviews, no matter how glowing. Summarize. Less is more. “Ranked #1 by Publisher’s Weekly” is better than recounting the entire review. If you’ve gotten a review like that, of course, definitely include it inside, or in an excerpted form on the back cover. Reviews are great—just not on the cover.

3. Act as a “thank you” note.
Those go inside, along with dedications and “credit where credit is due” information—in the front matter or the back matter. Thank yous will sell maybe one or two books. Use that all-important cover real estate to catch readers’ eyes and convey information that will encourage them to buy your book.

4. Stroke your ego.
Unless your photo is directly relevant to your book’s subject matter or will help sell your book, put your photo on the back cover, or inside on an “about the author” page in the back matter. Likewise your bio. Unless it directly contributes to your book’s credibility—and sales appeal—don’t provide biographical information on the front. For instance, a small tagline noting that James Herriot , author of All Creatures Great and Small, was a practicing veterinarian belonged on the cover. Had his book been about Renaissance music his career as a vet would be not only irrelevant, but counter-productive. Your book cover needs to be about your book, not you.

In short, every single thing on your book cover needs to pass a simple test. Ask, "How will this image, text, or information help sell my book?" If you can't come up with a clear, convincing answer, leave it off. Tomorrow we'll take a look at how all of this plays out in a real-world design project--we'll take a look behind the scenes at the designing of the cover for N.R. Williams' fantasy novel, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design, ask her about designing your book cover, or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.


  1. Good points Sherry. Nancy's cover is a good one to use as an example. It's clean and beautiful.

  2. Sherry, you know how I feel about artist signatures on anything but fine art (and even then it better not be noticeable). It's a sign of an amateur, in my professional view. Too many years making a living in the arts world, I guess. It's a bit like writing "edited by" on the cover. I guess that's fine on an anthology cover, but not on a novel. Who needs to know who your editor is - leave that for the acknowledgments.

  3. Ah yes, the front door to the marketing realm ... the dark and scary place in which I wander aimlessly.

  4. Interesting post. The only one I've noticed myself is #1. I've seen kind of a trend for smaller publishers to put the publisher name on the cover.

    While they may be good publishers, I don't understand that decision and can't see how that would help anyone involved. Does anyone actually buy a book because 'publisher xyz' published it?

  5. Love your posts on design, Sherry. It is so easy for novelists, in particular, to drown in word count and lose their objectives. A clearly stated post like this is a breath of fresh air!

  6. One other thing to consider if you're going to be selling books through the e-bookstores. They're only going to be thumbnail sized, so avoid clutter, have good contrast, and make sure title and author names are big enough to be readable.

    (Oh, and the Kindle store sticks the Kindle icon in the lower right, so make sure it won't cover anything important.)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. Thanks. This is all very timely as I'm trying to make a cover for my next book on Lulu before their deal on proof copies runs out.

  8. Dani--
    The question of whom to credit and when is a bit tricky, but I have to say I agree that generally speaking knowing who edited the book isn't crucial info for readers--unless the editor's name will lend credibility and help sell books. That's what it really comes down to--the book cover is an important sales tool, and that's how it needs to be treated.

  9. Christopher--
    Don't we all wander in the dark and strange land of marketing to some degree? I've never understood why it is that I can write marketing copy for others--and I do--and yet I can't do it successfully for myself. So it winds up being a sad case of "the cobbler's children have no shoes" around here--I market others' books, but marketing my own is a challenge.

  10. Good point, E.C.--I can't think of a single book I ever bought because it was published by a specific publisher. That info goes on the back and the spine, not the front.

  11. Kathryn--
    You raise an interesting point--authors tend to think about their books in terms of words, and so when they think of their book covers it's natural that they would want to crowd as many words on there as possible. Designers and advertisers, on the other hand, want lots of white space, as well as space for graphics, space to make nice big headlines, and so forth. Many times book covers end up being a sort of uneasy compromise.

  12. Good point, Terry--those icons are tiny. A good e-book cover makes maximum use of the space allotment. See if you can sweet talk your cover designer into producing a cover tailor for the e-book market. It's worth it.

    Another market that requires specialized covers is the audio book market. Those covers have different dimensions completely, and the cover art needs to be adjusted to work within radically different proportions.

  13. Thanks, Helen--I like Nancy's cover a lot. Since Nancy plans a series, we left extra space to add series info without losing the "set" feel. It'll be interesting to see how the cover morphs as books are published.

  14. Good luck, Sheila--if you have any questions feel free to shoot on over to my blog and send me an email. I do love to talk.

  15. Thanks for the great info and salient points.
    Donna V.

  16. Excellent points. There are many things to consider in producing a good book!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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