It may be a clichéd phrase, but we all judge books by their covers. We have to. If we didn’t, we’d all be wandering hopelessly around the bookstore, reading the back of each and every single book in the place. Big publishers spend serious money on artists and cover designers, not only to make their book attractive to readers, but also to attract the right kind of readers.
If your book isn't selling - try changing the cover
Author R.L. Mathewson got 5 star reviews from almost everybody who had read her books, but she was only selling a limited number of copies per day. After a cover revamp on all of her books, her sales skyrocketed and she hit the N.Y. Times bestseller list for the first time in her writing career.
The ultimate test - how to know if you have a great cover
Cover design has become a kind of language, and the best way to learn it is to look at what other authors do. If you truly want to see what visual style is trending in your genre, go and have a look on Amazon. Which images jump out from all the rest, enticing you to click on it and read more? That is the effect you want to achieve with your cover.
A great cover creates anticipation and promises the reader a specific feeling when reading the book. Which is why it is so important that your cover suits your genre. When you strip away your author name and the title from your book, the cover image needs to portray a feeling of suspense for a thriller, a creepy, something-is-very-wrong feeling for horror and the passion of first love for a romance novel. Your readers process images much easier than words - you just need to learn to speak their visual language.
Speaking the Language: Visual Cues That Work
As humans, we’re intensely visual creatures. It’s through our eyes that we primarily experience the world, and we’re evolutionarily set up to pay more attention to certain visual stimuli. Bright colors, particularly red – as in fire, as in blood – will always draw the eye. We’re drawn to faces, too, as anyone who’s laid in the grass and seen shapes in the clouds above will tell you. Human or humanoid figures instantly attract our attention (especially faces and eyes), so does high contrast between light and dark or opposite colors. Have a look at these two covers:
Which one attracts the eye more? Unless you’re really interested in geographic information systems, most people would go for the bold colors, interesting fonts and human figures of ‘The Sisters Brothers’ every time.
Attracting the right kind of attention
OK, you’ve got the reader’s attention; but is it the right kind of attention? Are you attracting the attention of people who might actually read your book?
Both of these covers have got it right in the sense that they both attract attention. The bold colors, the high contrast, the human figures on the front – they’re both using the same tricks to appeal to readers, but in very different ways. These books are aimed at different audiences, and their covers make that clear.
The language of book covers is not hard to learn; in fact, it’s a language you already know. It’s just that maybe you don’t know that you know it. Visual tricks are designed to work on an almost subconscious level, thereby bypassing your more intellectual decision-making process. You have a very limited time frame to attract a reader's attention. If the cover isn’t appealing, most people won’t even look at the back of the book to see what it’s about, let alone read the book itself.
To this end, a kind of standard look has started to emerge within different genres in the book trade. As mentioned before - go to Goodreads or Amazon and search for your genre to see what works for the genre. You don't need to go and reinvent the wheel, you just need to be unique enough to attract attention while giving readers exactly the visual cues they are expecting. By just looking at the covers of the following books, can you identify which genres they belong to?
The Elements of a Cover - How They Work Together
Covers usually have a background color, image or texture. Plain colors are often a bit dull, unless you are using a very bold illustration on top of it. It is important that the background you use blends well with the rest of the images, but also creates a strong enough contrast with the typography to make the title pop.
Some book covers don't require an image if the background and type work together well enough, but for certain genres an image is a must. An image has the ability to add feeling and emotion to a book's cover, and is often essential to help get the message across. You can go for a photo or an illustration, but never settle for a quick snapshot or a clipart if you want to look professional. Stock image libraries such as iStockPhoto, ShutterStock and Gettyimages can provide a wealth of visual options that you can play around with. For a more custom look, consider hiring a photographer or illustrator to get the image exactly the way you want it.
The art of typography is not something that is easy to master and having a title that really stands out is often the secret to a book's success. The type must be clearly readable at the smallest scale and, most importantly, suit the book's genre. Romance novels usually have florid fonts, while thrillers typically have more strong, contemporary fonts. Fiction books usually only have the title and the author's name on the book, while non-fiction often need a sub-title to explain exactly what the book is about.
Cover Creation Options: DIY Or Artist?
If you are self publishing on a very tight budget, it may be tempting to try your hand at creating your own cover. But unless you are some creative artist and Photoshop guru, this is not recommended. Readers will spot it from a mile away if a cover does not look professional. There are however some other options that shouldn't break the bank:
Using a design template - Some Gimp and Photoshop templates make it easier to combine all of the design elements to create a cover and the results can be fairly satisfying. However, a lot of people use these templates, which means that your book may not stand out from the crowd.
- Getting a $5 cover - There are artists on Fiverr that sell their skills for only five dollars. You can get a cheap cover from there - just make sure that they are not also using a template.
- Hiring a designer - You can head to places like Upwork and Elance and hire a designer to create the cover for you for anything between $20 and $100. Sites like AuthorSupport and Book Cover Machine, The Cover Collection, Creative Paramita, The Book Cover Designer and Selfpub Book Covers offer cover design services.
- Crowdsourcing your cover - This option might be the most attractive, depending on your budget, as you get to choose between the designs of a whole group of different designers. You can host a competition on 99designs where designers get to submit their designs and you choose the best one. Prices may range between $200 and $500.
Split Testing Your Cover
Whether you create a cover yourself, or you appoint an artist to do it, you need more than one version for split testing.
As with everything else, the best way to see whether your cover is working, is to test its effect on people. Yes, you can ask a couple of friends what they think of the cover - but that is not necessarily going to give you real-life, honest results. You need to test it on a broader audience and there are several ways you can go about this:
- Split testing on Amazon - you could put up a cover on Amazon or Goodreads and change it with a different one in a couple of weeks' time to see if it affects your sales. This is however not a very reliable method, as you are not testing both at the same time and the numbers of hits may be too small to draw any definite conclusions from.
- Split testing on Manybooks - if you list your book on Manybooks, you could load two images at the same time. The service will then display both images to an equal amount of visitors to the site in the same time period. This should give you a better, real indication than Amazon because you are testing two images at exactly the same time. Manybooks will indicate how many clickthroughs each image has had, along with other helpful statistics.
- Split testing on Facebook- this method will enable you to both split test the impact of your cover over a large audience and drive traffic to your book. Through Facebook, you can run ad campaigns where you pay per click and have the option to target a very specific demographic. This means that you can identify your audience by age, behavior and likes and target your prospective readers directly. Facebook also offers the option to load different cover images that will run simultaneously during your campaign. The image that gets the most clicks is also the one you should use for your cover to maximize its impact. Read our article on How to Set Up a Facebook Campaign for more tips on exactly how to do it and reach your audience without it costing you too much.
Your cover design is of utmost importance as it is often the single deciding factor before readers click on your book to read more about it. It is not something that should be rushed or skimped on. If at all possible, hire a competent designer to do the cover for you. It might even be a good idea to hire the same designer who did the cover for a bestseller in your genre.