What Does a Good Cover Do?

Cover designed by Melissa Stevens at http://www.theillustratedauthor.net

What a good book cover should do depends on your primary objective. For example,

  • If your main goal is to interest relevant readers in your book, then the cover is effective if it attracts your target audience.
  • If your main goal is to create fashion for your book, then the cover is effective if readers appreciate its style.
  • If your main goal is to please your family, then your cover should be geared to them.

I will focus on cover design geared toward attracting the target audience. This is what most authors and publishers strive to achieve.

The Importance of Cover Design

100% of readers see your book’s cover before they open the book. Some won’t open the book unless it looks inviting.

There are several ways that an effective cover may help to inspire interest or deter sales:

  • Customers see thumbnails in search results. Most covers have just a few seconds to catch the shopper’s attention and appeal to the shopper’s interests.
  • People see your cover in your various marketing endeavors. Your cover is a big part of your branding process.
  • Your cover makes the first impression on a buyer. You only get one chance to make a good first impression.
  • Books are read on airplanes, in trains, on park benches, and left on coffee tables. The cover is a marketing opportunity.
  • A readers will set the book down periodically. A good cover helps to renew interest in the story.

Designing the Cover

Focus on attracting the target audience:

  • It’s not just to grab attention. It needs to appeal to the specific target audience.
  • It needs to clearly signify the genre and content. Three seconds or no deal.
  • The cover must look professional. Buyers expect it to reflect the quality of the content.
  • The text must be easy to read. Key words should be especially clear.
  • The colors need to work well together.

How to Do It

Here are some tips:

  • Research and study the covers of top-selling books similar to yours, especially those which aren’t selling because of the author’s or publisher’s name recognition. This is what your target audience is accustomed to seeing. When they see covers like these, they ‘know’ (in three seconds) that these books are a good fit.
  • The main image (and cover as a whole) must attract the target audience and signify the genre and content. This image can make or break the sale. If your book has highly marketable content, it’s well worth the extra time or reasonable expense to find the ‘right’ image.
  • Don’t make the cover too busy. One central image sends a quicker, clearer signal.
  • Placing the main image according to the rule of thirds may attract more interest than placing it in the center of the front cover.
  • Many top covers follow the three-color rule: 60% primary, 30% secondary, 10% accent. Study color coordination (there are many free online resources) to find colors that work well together. If designing a paperback cover, note that colors often print much darker than they appear on the screen.
  • Select a font that fits the cover, genre, and content well. The font style plays a more pivotal role than most people realize. Buyers themselves often pass up a book based on font without even realizing it.
  • Get feedback from your target audience. This may also help you create a little buzz for your book.

When your cover is finished, remember your main objective. What matters most is whether or not it will attract the target audience.


Look at the thumbnail that I included with this post. It’s for Cursive Handwriting Practice Workbook for Teens by Julie Harper; the cover was designed by Melissa Stevens (www.theillustratedauthor.net).

I’ll admit that when I first saw this book, I wondered if the artist and author had taken a risk with this cover. Then I realized that I’m not in the target audience. I think the art does appeal to teens. Especially, if you consider what typical educational resources look like, this might be a ‘cool’ alternative. The cursive element might be a little subtle: You see this with the first word in the title, a few words of the title written in cursive, and less obvious in the background. Most handwriting workbooks emphasize the handwriting element with a few very large handwritten letters or words. This cover went against the grain, which generally can be a risk. But the most important thing is if the book appeals to the specific target audience. This book does a good job of saying, effectively, “If you’re looking for a handwriting workbook that isn’t geared toward small children, check me out.”

Let me emphasize that this cover wasn’t designed (that’s my impression) to go against the grain. It was designed to attract the specific target audience. Focus on this element of cover design. It might also break a couple of the ‘rules’ of cover design. Remember, what matters most is how the cover appeals to the target audience and signifies the proper genre and content. Everything else is just a guideline.

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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13 comments on “What Does a Good Cover Do?

  1. Excellent article Chris. It’s what I had in mind when I bought the pic to use for my latest novella. A lot of people like it and it fits the genre and even characters within the story perfectly. 🙂

  2. I know how important a cover can be for a book; it needs to invite a potential reader to better look inside at it than merely the book’s title, which is important in getting that reader’s attention in the first place to take the book off the shelf it’s on. I had the cover for my first YA Paranormal/Time Travel/First Kiss romance novel entitled “I Kissed a Ghost.” designed by CreateSpace. To me the cover fits the storyline quite well of a young girl having to move because her father has gotten a promotion and finds she has a ghost, about her age, already living there.
    Here is the link for my book so you can see my book’s cover, and tell me whether it fits the bill for the purpose of a book’s cover. This is NOT a request for anyone to buy the book.

    • The cover seems to reflect the concept of kissing a ghost well. The ghost is a cool effect. 🙂

      You said Young Adult, but I’m thinking maybe it’s more tweenish given the ages of the characters portrayed on the cover and the fact that you describe it as First Kiss. (Tweens actually need more books to read, I feel, and I read an article suggesting this demand recently.)

      The cover portrays the First Kiss romantic element well; if that’s the audience you’re aiming for, I think it will help to create interest (but when you say Young Adult, something older comes to my mind). I wouldn’t have guessed the Paranormal > Time Travel part from looking at the cover, but since the cover and title seem to be aiming at the first kiss romantic aspect, I would focus the blurb on reinforcing this instead of confusing the buyer with other genres. Good luck with your book. 🙂

  3. Great tips! I’d like to add that the cover should also accurately represent the image of the characters in the book. If the main character is presented as chubby or full figured, then there shouldn’t be size zero model on the cover. It’s a good idea to give the cover artist as much information about the characters as possible to find the best look for the book cover.

    • That’s a good point. A cover should help the reader find the kind of story and characters that appeal to the reader, so the cover should represent the content well. Cover designers usually don’t read the book before creating the cover, so it would be wise for the author to relate all the pertinent info; great tip. 🙂

  4. I have seen many, many sad book covers. i have beta read many good books out there only to have the author put a pathetic cover on it. It’s sad really. I used them as inspiration for my cover- kinda like a ‘what not to do’. I am keeping this post to advise them and hopefully give them a better chance out there.
    I had the perfect cover in mind for my book. I knew it would bother people but the subject of the book bothers people. Your advice is exactly why I had my cover professionally done. I didn’t want to buy an image on the internet where another author could use the same picture. So I found my model- in Walmart of all places. She looks exactly like my main character. I spent good money getting my cover perfect. It worked because i got a 1 star review on my cover only! The reviewer didn’t read the book but the cover bothered him sooooo much that he gave me a 1 star. — here’s his review. —

    1.0 out of 5 stars
    Just Wrong — Someone Needs to Say it Here, November 8, 2013
    By M. Jensen “Hard SF and History Buff”
    This review is from: My Beautiful Suicide (Kindle Edition)


    Please note that he didn’t read the novel, nor is it a YA book for teenage girls. If he read the description— Well i could go into it but that’s not what this blog post it about. The fact of the matter is that all of the advice above about covers is SPOT ON! My cover does exactly what it’s supposed to do.– now it’s up to me to get it in front of readers– that’s the hard part.

    • That’s a good point about stock images. There are a few stock images that are really popular, as you see the same people on many covers. When the avid readers in the genre begin to recognize the image from different books, it may deter sales rather than benefit from the recognition.

      I agree that the perfect cover will appeal to the target audience and depict the content instantly, but may not appeal to everyone. It’s a shame that you received a 1-star review over just the cover, although if you must have a bad review, one that doesn’t criticize the content might have a silver lining. Good luck with your book. 🙂

  5. Thanks, I’d rather have a 1 star on the cover and not the content. It is a silver lining, that review has gotten lots of attention. Now to turn that attention into sales. — that should be a blog post — how to turn attention into sales — please advise

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