The book cover is the only part of an indie author’s marketing campaign that every potential buyer has to see before purchasing the book. No wonder cover design is critical toward having a highly successful book.
“Hey there!” Just like that, the cover aims to grab attention, but in a positive way. Once it claims attention, it must be appealing, look professional, be clear, reveal the book’s content, and ultimately persuade the potential buyer to “pick me.”
There are many ingredients to a great cover, and just one flaw can turn a potentially great cover into a lousy one. Here are some common mistakes that indie authors make:
- Text is hard to read. It seems intuitive to look for a fancy font, but the purpose of the text is to send a clear message. Rather than struggle to make out what the title or other text says, the prospective reader is more likely to look for a different cover that makes this task easy. Some text, like Comic Sans, even tends to evoke negative reactions from readers. Research which fonts are appropriate for cover design and for your genre. Wikipedia even provides statistics for how readers react to various fonts.
- Poor image quality. Blurry, jagged, and pixelated images are quite common. So are tiny stray marks around text and images. Find sharp, focused images and clean up any quality issues to make the best impression. Photos should be touched up (e.g. no red-eye), well-lit, and precisely cropped. Use images with sufficient resolution (300 DPI for printed covers). Don’t distort the aspect ratio by changing the shape of an image (models with stretched out faces, for example, don’t sell books). If the cover image or text is poor, people will wonder if the content also has quality issues. Customers looking for professional content prefer professional-looking covers.
- Emphasizing the wrong words in a title. It should seem logical to emphasize – through larger text or some text effects – a few key words in the title, which relate to the text. Yet it’s a common mistake to make short, meaningless words (like “the”) larger and long, meaningful words smaller – simply because the longer words had to be smaller in order to fit on the cover. But the most important words need to be the largest. The title must be larger than the subtitle. The author should be smaller than the title or subtitle – it’s just a minor ingredient to the cover (except for celebrities and popular authors). If there are several words in the title (bestsellers often have three or fewer), emphasize a few key words over the other words in the title.
- The cover is too busy. It’s intuitive for indie authors and illustrators alike to feel the need to fill every void on a piece of paper. Especially, artists who have a gift for artistic detail want to show this talent off. But a great cover isn’t about the art itself. It’s about grabbing attention and conveying an idea – this book is about that. One image and a few words can convey this image effectively. Extra images distract the reader from the central concept, and require the customer to invest more time and effort to determine what your book is about. Look, there are thousands of books to choose from and customers are browsing through hundreds – they are likely to pass on those that don’t send a clear, quick signal.
- Poor color choices. A great cover often utilizes three main colors. A primary color (60%) will create good contrast with a secondary color (30%), and include an accent color (10%) which complements either the primary or secondary. The two main colors shouldn’t clash; all three colors should coordinate well together. The text color and main image should stand out very well against the background.
- Something looks unnatural or out of place. It’s a common mistake to place an extra image in a cover that just doesn’t seem to belong there. The indie author is trying to add an additional image that relates to the content, without realizing that the distraction isn’t worth this. An image in the foreground that ruins an otherwise nice cover is said to be photobombing the cover. Look out for potential photobombs. Use of a transparent foreground image can also result in a distracting background object. For example, if a small image in the background happens to be inside the head of a model in the foreground, this will ruin the cover.
- Text arranged in a way that is difficult to read. It’s not easy to read text that is arranged vertically – either one word above another or, even worse, one letter above another. At the very least, don’t create special effects like this for every word in the title. When customers are browsing through hundreds of covers, they tend to skip the ones that don’t send quick, clear messages.
- Hand drawings that aren’t expertly done. Crayon and colored pencils create a poor impression. Even handmade art that is fairly well done has a tough time competing against the amazing possibilities of graphic arts. It’s a much greater challenge to make a cover appear professional when images are made by hand. Let the customers see any slight fault in the cover and you’ve given them a reason to pass on the book.
- Title and cover don’t relate to the content or genre. If the cover attracts the wrong audience, nobody will purchase the book. The cover and title both need to signify the precise audience (e.g. adult romance should not be confused with erotica or young adult romance), and should relate to the content of the book. Research the covers of top-selling books in your genre to see what those readers are accustomed to seeing. Which cover designs, color schemes, and font styles tend to work well in this genre?
I’m a self-published author myself and I enjoy designing my own covers. But I didn’t write this article with my own design skills in mind. Rather, I’m also an avid reader, and I know which covers tend to attract my attention, what mistakes I have seen when browsing through books, and what aspects of cover design tend to work for me or turn me off when I’m shopping for a book. I’ve also done some research to learn more about cover design. I’ve come across some very professional indie covers out there, and seen some amazing designs from graphic artists. I do enjoy designing my own covers, and have experienced many of these challenges firsthand (and also experienced a few of these mistakes, such as making a cover that’s too busy). If you’re an indie author, may you learn from and avoid some mistakes that others have made. 🙂
Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers
Check out lousybookcovers.tumble.com for a fine assortment of such mistakes.
We are all told not to judge a book by its cover, but, when in the bookstore (online or real), it is very easy to forget that advice. A bad book cover can really hurt you. Great tips.