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.