Book covers – First Fit In, Then Stand Out

“The cover may very well be the single biggest piece of marketing that book will receive. For first time authors and writers that have not yet built up a big following, the cover may be the only thing that gets a reader (or reviewer, for that matter) to physically pick the book up.”
Paul Buckley, Vice President Executive Creative Director at Penguin Group USA.

There are only 2 reasons why a book cover is created.

Firstly, and this only applies to print covers, a book cover is used as packaging to hold the interior pages together. Secondly, and this is clearly more important, a book cover is created to help sell the book. That’s it. A book cover is not required to tell a story or highlight a plot point or deliver a message. If a book cover does not help sell the book, it has failed in its primary task. So, how do we make that happen?

It’s pretty straightforward. First fit in, then stand out.

A good book cover needs to ensure the book visually FITS IN to the relevant genre. A book’s potential readers are already conditioned to look for particular genre indicators through a book’s cover. A customer that subconsciously (or consciously) sees those genre identifiers tells themselves “I’ve read a book that looked similar to this book and I enjoyed that book. Therefore, I’m likely to enjoy this book as well”. Remember that a reader browsing through books will only glance at any particular cover for two or three seconds before choosing to find out more or move on to the next option. Any good book cover design will ensure those genre identifiers are clearly visible on a book’s cover. We know they work, and we know they help the book cover sell. A book cover design that strays from those genre identifiers by being too “clever” or too “abstract” runs the risk of being discarded by potential readers for being too unfamiliar.

Those identifiers are obviously different for every genre, but they are a crucial part of an effective book cover. There are thousands of bestselling books that make use of these genre identifiers, whether it’s particular typefaces, font styles, color palettes, lighting choices, image types or layout styles. Here are some examples of fantasy covers. You’ll notice the darker lighting effects, richer color palette and more ornate fonts. There are often (but not always) major characters on these covers. The idea is to draw readers in, not explain the entire story on the cover:


Similarly, these samples of effective contemporary romance are lighter, brighter and more informal – all indicators of this genre:

Finally, non-fiction covers need to look like non-fiction covers. Clean, neat and focused.


Once we are sure the cover design fits in to the genre the book is written for, the next step is to make sure it STANDS OUT from its competitors. As much as it’s crucial for a book to look like it belongs with others in the genre, it needs to me memorable and unique enough that it doesn’t get lost in the crowd or blend in too much with the competition. That’s where experience and high quality book cover design becomes important. A book cover designer’s job is to ensure the book cover stands out without scaring off the target market. That goal is not necessarily achieved through clever design or unique ideas. It’s achieved mainly through emotion. An effective cover needs to (1) fit into the genre, and (2) stand out through the feeling that is evoked in a potential reader as soon as they look at it – whether that feeling is lust, confidence, adventure, excitement, fear, strength or passion.

“The cover telegraphs the story – when you see the title, you should have a flash of intuition; you should have a sense of an impending story. As soon as that happens, you’re engaged. The beauty or distinctiveness of the cover is actually secondary, or could actually prohibit book sales. Gorgeous isn’t what the bookbuyer’s looking for – they don’t want a pretty cover, they want a visual that pulls them in.”
Peter Hildick-Smith, Founder and CEO of The Codex Group (http://codexgroup.net/)

That’s the reason many adult romance covers have a half-naked couple on the cover. It’s not unique, but it’s very effective. It fits into the genre, as well as grabs the author with the emotion. And it sells books.