The Art of the Good Cover: Rules for good covers

Art of Foil FencingEarlier this year we revamped The Art of Foil Fencing with a new cover because the original was, well, terrible. So what are the ‘rules’ for good covers?

This is so difficult. For every rule you try to set, you can point to a hugely successful cover design that breaks it, be it wacky colour schemes, collages, font-cuts with the image behind a plain foreground, wild typography. But those are the exceptions, produced by people with years of experience and multiple failures behind them. This is a heady mix of art and science and we refer back to Derek Murphy’s breakdown of good cover design.

Here’s a small handful of general rules:

    1. Keep the cover simple. Covers can be ruined by trying to cram too much onto the cover.
      • At best, a single striking image, bold title and the author’s name. The ‘name’ author might be in larger print than the title if they have a track record of best sellers. Maybe a single tag line describing what the book is about.
      • Perhaps a principal image with a complimentary second image. You find this a lot with genre fiction where the protagonist and a secondary character appear on the cover. Perhaps it’s a the protagonist and a landscape or location.
      • The more elements you add to the cover, the more difficult it is to lay out and the more you sacrifice impact. It’s not a book cover, but the poster for Avengers: Endgame is a horrible mess because the studio tried to jam all the characters on one poster.
      • Restrict the different font faces, styles and sizes in use. Go easy on colours, drop-shadows, italics and other effects as it;s easy for the cover to look like the clown-troupe’s dressing room. A deadly serious finance book won’t sell with Comic Sans on the cover. It might if it’s a light, ‘For Dummies’ type beginners’ instructional.
      • Restrict the amount of extraneous content, those seals of approval from various sources; prize bages, nomination badges, book list badges (Oprah, Ellen, Richard and Judy…), testimonial quotes from critiques or influential authors (Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and those only under advisement). It is easy to overload the cover with badges and quotes and lose focus.
    2. Resize the finished design to the size it will appear on the search results pages at online retailers – Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith, Tesco. Is the cover still recognisable and readable?
    3. Consider print and e-books as separate formats. The covers don’t have to be identical. Share the ‘branding’ from the high resolution print edition but simplify the cover if necessary for the e-book.
    4. Look at your candidate cover alongside that best-seller list to compare it with the successful covers out there. If it doesn’t look like it belongs, then it probably doesn’t. Re-think and try again.

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