You need to know The Rules of Good Covers. ‘Never judge a book by its cover,’ the saying goes. Truth is, everyone judges a book by its cover. And I have a whole series to design…
I’m sacrificing a lot in design for the sake of the thumbnail in a listings page. There are covers I love at full size which just don’t work as thumbnails. Find your favourite book cover on your shelf, then go to Amazon, Waterstones or whichever online bookshop. Does the cover still work? Do the genre cues disappear? Does the typography become illegible? Is the illustration blurry and indistinct? Those are the things you have to retain at the size of a postage stamp.
The fancier the lettering, the more detailed the illustration, the wackier the concept, the less is works on a sales page.
Make a Promise
The cover is the first component of the book to make promises on what the book is; the genre, tone, plot and maybe characters. To the casual book-buyer who knows nothing of the book or author, the cover has to make certain promises.
Know your Genre
What does a genre cover look like? Within every genre lies a range of covers, some broad, some highly defined. But the execution must reflect reader expectations in some way. Don’t put a male torso on a philosophical literary-fiction drama. Epic Fantasy readers expect dragons, wizards, swords, armour, castles, potions, other-worldly plants and glyphs. Urban fantasy readers want all that with a background of glittering skyscrapers or a litter-strewn alley with dumpsters and tenement fire-escapes.
Genre is why every thriller novel on the planet has the running man (usually in silhouette) and the massive Sans-Serif slab of a title. Preferably in white. These are recognisable clear across airport departure lounges and in online listings.
Unity of design
The cover elements have to match. The typography needs to sit with the graphic elements, be those dragons, wizards, swords, etc. They also need to sit alongside other titles within the genre. It’s no good having a fantastic cover idea that just doesn’t sit among the genre titles, it just looks like the designer hasn’t a clue.
Unity of design also goes for book series. All the books in a series need to carry a recognisable design concept or brand. That means unified typography and graphic elements. The graphics might be a single object like a weapon, or a dragon, or characters styled for the genre.
Publishers are dedicated followers of fashion. What’s ‘on trend’ right now? What’s ‘hot’ in cover design? Certain fonts, illustration styles or abstract designs take off with the ‘me too’ genre novels. Publishers love a bandwagon.
Fantasy trends swing regularly between characters in scenes and abstract designs. There’s a limit to the number of characters. It’s a book cover, not a movie poster. Love the Avengers movies, but there are too many characters on the poster. The same goes for books.
It’s easy to overdo the design. The more intricate the design, the more it breaks down as a thumbnail (see above). Some of the Romantasy titles disappear among various thorns, roses, vines, leaves and other flora.
The character cover is a banker; simply put your protagonist on the front of the book. As long as the illustration is ‘good.’ This is a subjective judgement. The reader gets to decide. A poor character illustration pushes readers away. See 30% of fantasy covers. In the 1980’s, it was worse. Way worse.
Here’s a seeming-contradiction with character covers. A good cover doesn’t try to deliver the characters exactly as described. Rather, a good cover is eye catching and attractive. A successful cover sacrifices verisimilitude for marketing pizazz. Readers forget the cover illustration once they arrive at their own mental picture of the protagonist. That may be a million miles from the author or illustrator’s version.
Font faces and typography
The font and layout of text has to be genre appropriate. This is easy in the action and thriller genre; big, slab-fronted titles. Romance fonts are a little more delicate, with swirly, cursive fonts. Fantasy builds appeal with elegant serifed fonts. The wrong choice of font can be so jarring, readers just browse right past the cover.
You don’t want to lie to your reader with the cover. If there’s a dragon on the cover, there better be a dragon in the story. Don’t put a shirtless, muscled male torso on there unless there’s some steamy romance. Don’t put guns and helicopters on cozy mystery. It doesn’t serve the book or the author to get one-star reviews because of an outright lie.
Fit in, But Stand Out
This may be the hardest to achieve. The cover has to look like it belongs, but also scream ‘pick me,’ like a desperate contestant on a dating show. It has to stand out for the right reasons. It can’t look worse than it’s peers. But it can’t be a me-too clone, with a cookie-cutter cover, the same as every other in the listings. There’s an inherent contradiction here. Just how do you fit in and stand out at the same time? Answers on a postcard, please.
Not Just Guidelines
Unlike most of my other posts, I’ll say these really are rules, not just guidelines. There are good covers and bad covers; in all genres, among all authors, trad-pub and indie. Ignore the rules or try to bend them too far, the book will fail.