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

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

How to Find and Hire a Cover Artist

This Love

Cover image copyright 2013 Melissa Stevens.


There are many talented cover designers out there. How do you find a good one at an affordable price?

The first step is to find a variety of cover designers to choose from. One way is to simply use a search engine. Another is to browse for book covers you like; some of the professionally designed indie covers and small publisher covers will feature more affordable designers. Interact with the indie author community here at WordPress and over the course of a few months, you’ll discover a variety of cover designers.

Charles Yallowitz offered a creative suggestion: Contact a local art department. You may find an art student with graphic design experience looking for such an opportunity.

Another option is cover design help through CreateSpace or crowdSPRING, for example. Personal interaction with a single artist provides many benefits, but finding a variety of talent in one place has its own advantage.


Finding several designers is easy. The challenge is picking the right one for your book and your budget.

You can find premade covers for $10 and up, but chances are that this approach will result in a cover that doesn’t quite fit your book – and ‘not quite’ can make a significant difference. It doesn’t hurt to browse them, though; maybe you’ll get lucky. Or, if it just needs a small change to fit your cover, perhaps the designer will be willing to revise it for a small fee; it doesn’t hurt to ask.

It’s possible to find custom cover design for under $100, but many professionally designed covers run from $300 to $1500 (and up). Although I’ve made most of my covers myself, this year I have invested in a few covers at around the $300 price point.

I hired Melissa Stevens to design a few covers, and was very pleased both with the process and the results.


Cover image copyright 2013 Melissa Stevens.


Here are some ideas to help you narrow your search:

  • Visit the cover designer’s website. How professional is it?
  • Explore the artist’s portfolio. Do any of the images or techniques seem to be a good fit for your cover?
  • Check the designer’s previous covers out. Do any of these grab your attention? Do they follow the ‘rules’ of cover design (a good cover may break a rule, but as the author, you need some means of judging)?
  • Find some of these covers on Amazon. If the book is new, look at the sales rank; if the book isn’t new, the reviews may be more revealing of its prior sales rank (since this can change significantly over time). How much do you feel that the cover may have stimulated sales, if at all?
  • Note that books published by top publishers usually only mention the cover designer in small print on the back cover and on the copyright page, and not on the front cover.
  • What do your friends, family, and acquaintances think about the artist’s portfolio and previous covers?

When you’re ready to contact a potential cover designer, you should be prepared to exchange a few emails. This interaction will help you gauge the artist’s character, expertise, interest in your book, patience, etc. Here are some points to consider (first check the artist’s website, which may answer some of these questions for you):

  • Inquire about the artist’s background and experience (unless this information is posted on the website).
  • What techniques does the artist use? Graphic design usually looks much more professional on a cover; even though colored pencils, chalk, or paint can look good hanging on a wall, it usually makes a cover look amateurish.
  • Ask if the artist will use any clipart or stock images, and, if so, ask about copyright issues. You’d hate to invest money in cover design and then get sued for copyright infringement over any of the images used.
  • What use of the cover design will you be granted? This should be stated on the contract. If you have multiple editions (paperback, eBook), you want to clarify this. You probably want to post your cover on your website, may want to solicit feedback about it on your blog, etc. Generally, posting your cover on your websites should be good advertising for the designer, but you want to get permission first.
  • Will the artist display the cover on the artist’s website? This may not generate sales for you, but helps your branding slightly. When the artist features your cover on his/her website, it demonstrates the artist is proud of the cover.
  • You want to know to what extent you will be involved in the process. You may have a vision; even if not, you may still want to suggest revisions throughout the design. Realize that it takes a lot of work to design a cover, and much more work to make multiple revisions. Thus, many artists place a limit on the number of changes you can make for the price paid, and charge extra for additional revisions. You want to have this clarified up front.
  • Before you sign the contract, you’d like to have some idea of what you’re going to get. Perhaps the designer can describe his/her vision for your cover. Even better, request a partial mock-up showing something.
  • How long will the design take? The wise thing is for you to provide ample time for the cover to be made. I don’t believe in rushing art. Personally, I would prefer for the artist to put the idea on hold until the perfect idea comes.
  • How will the payments be arranged? It may be a good compromise for the author to pay a deposit up front and the rest when the cover is delivered; half and half is common. This way, the artist is compensated for his/her time, work, and effort even if the author changes his/her mind (which happens). You want the contract to include a provision for opting out; probably, the deposit (which may be half) will be nonrefundable, but if you’re dissatisfied with the result, you can walk away and not pay the remainder.
  • Note that some cover designers offer contracts and expect a hefty deposit, but not all designers do. This may depend in part on the process. If the designer does much of the work by hand, he/she is more likely to present a contract and expect a hefty deposit; but if the designer works mostly with stock images, he/she may be less formal.
  • You can try to negotiate a little. An artist might take a chance that once you fall in love with one cover, you might use the same artist for many covers. Instead of price, you might ask for something else, like a matching website banner. What I recommend is asking if you can receive a few of the images from the cover to help decorate the inside of your book, or maybe getting a few simple designs to help with the interior décor; such touches can help make the interior of your book (especially, the Look Inside) make a good impression, too. However, some illustrators won’t negotiate on price; but it may not hurt to try.
  • Of course, if you have any legal questions about the contract, you should consult with an attorney.

Get feedback from family, friends, acquaintances, and especially members of your target audience at various stages of the cover design. This will help you receive valuable feedback so that you can suggest possible revisions while at the same time helping to create a little buzz for your upcoming book.

Communication is very important. The artist is trying to carry out your vision, but can’t see inside your head. You must communicate your ideas clearly with the artist. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. Be honest. If there is something you don’t like, say so. Don’t fear hurting the artist’s feelings. (Well, have some tact. Don’t say, “That stinks.” Try something like, “I was hoping that image could look a little more…,” or, “I’m not a big fan of that…” Also, take the time to make encouraging and supportive remarks about the elements that you do like.) Communication and honesty are the keys to helping the artist pull of your vision.

There is one more thing to keep in mind: While it’s your cover, the artist wants to be happy with the cover design, too. If the author insists on some cover design element that the artist feels makes the cover look unprofessional, the artist may not want to showcase the cover on his/her website and may not want to have his/her name mentioned as the cover designer.

Finally, behave professionally in your interactions with potential cover designers. Your author image is a very important part of your branding.

From a marketing perspective, the two most important features of your cover are:

  • The cover makes it clear which genre the book belongs to. If your cover design fails to meet this goal, then most of the people who click on your book probably won’t be buying it.
  • The cover grabs the attention of your target audience. Not just making the genre clear, but attracting the target audience’s attention.

It’s also desirable for the title font to be clear in the cover. You can find various ‘rules’ of cover design and mistakes to avoid (for example, in the link below), and see if the ‘final’ cover meets this criteria (if not, at least have a good reason for not doing so).


For you, the author, there is one very important feature to keep in mind:

  • Ensure that the product is better than what you could have done yourself (unless you happen to have all the skills, but just didn’t want to invest the time).

Let me credit Melissa Stevens for reading my draft of this blog post and offering a few suggestions. She mentioned the importance of honesty from the author, the idea that communication between the author and artist is the key to successful cover design, and the point about cover designers who work primarily with stock images. The cover figures in this post were used by permission of Melissa Stevens.

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

Cover Design Checklist

Cover Problems Pic

Check for these possible issues when designing a cover:

  • Random imagery. There isn’t an obvious connection (to someone who knows nothing about the book – i.e. the customer browsing search results) between the images. Sending a unified message with a clear signal (i.e. clear in about three seconds) tends to be more effective.
  • Imperfect images. The cover concept is clear, but it doesn’t quite work with the images used. Would a great movie be the same with lousy acting? Finding the right images can make a difference.
  • Photobombing or transparency. An image seems out of place – instead of being a natural part of the scene – or you can see through an image (other than a ghost). This can be quite distracting. Strive for unity.
  • Facial expressions. The model may show the wrong facial expression for the occasion or wear a look of disinterest. A model’s disinterest may carry into the customer. This is a very important element that is often overlooked. Do you see looks of disinterest on popular magazine covers or commercials? Will those models display the wrong emotions?
  • Instamatic. A cover is not merely a snapshot – especially, an ordinary looking snapshot. A fantastic cover doesn’t get the buyer thinking, “Gee, I could have done that.”
  • Refrigerator art. Most hand-drawn images – especially, pencils and crayons – give the impression that the author wished to feature his or her child’s artwork. This may be harsh, the art may be quite good, it may be paid for, it might not be drawn by a child, and the artist might not be related to the author. But it’s the impression that counts. It’s not the quality of the art that’s at stake. Your cover doesn’t need a Picasso. It’s the age of graphic arts. This technology has many amazing possibilities and can help your cover look professional.
  • Bulletin board. Two or more images are put together as if stuck on a bulletin board with thumbtacks. That is, it has this layout, even if it doesn’t look like a bulletin board and there are no thumbtacks. How will such detail show on the thumbnail? One main image will be easier to see, send a more unified message (which is more effective), and aid in recall (part of branding).
  • Photography mistakes. Perspective problem, inconsistent lighting or shadows, red-eye, and blurriness, for example. Don’t distract the buyer.
  • Boring. Bored shoppers don’t buy. Grab the attention of your target audience.
  • Busy. Too much going on. For one, it’s distracting. Also, a single unified message tends to work better. One main image helps with unity and branding.
  • Alignment. An image is off-center, but visually seems like it should be centered. One more distraction to avoid.
  • PhotoShop issues. Aspect ratio, filter issues, too many layers, and pixilation, for example.
  • Cut and paste. Looks like the images were simply found and thrown together, perhaps like a collage. A natural looking scene is less distracting and helps send a more unified message.
  • Deformed creatures. Humans, animals, aliens, or other creatures don’t look quite right. This includes mannequins, avatars, and drawn imagery, for example. This distracts the buyer.
  • Huh? Concept isn’t immediately clear. An effective cover quickly attracts the target audience and sends a brief unified message about what to expect.
  • Sexy. On a cover where this isn’t expected in the genre, or where the appeal is stronger than expected. This appeal may backfire where it’s not expected. Who is your specific target audience? That’s who you want the cover to attract. When a cover attracts the wrong audience, it greatly deters sales.
  • Color clash. The colors don’t coordinate well together. It’s ideal to use three main colors that work very well together: primary 60%, secondary 30%, and accent 10%.
  • Readability. The font is hard to read. A nonstandard word or name is hard to read. Text reads vertically or is otherwise oriented in a hard-to-read way. Wrong words are emphasized (like “the”). L-e-t-t-e-r-s appear individually such that it slows the reading. Text is too small. Buyers browsing search results may decide whether or not to click in just a few seconds. Make it easy to figure out what the text says.
  • Too much text. The text dominates the front cover. In the thumbnail, a few keywords from the title and the author’s name (although this can be smaller than the title, unless you’re famous) should be easily visible, while a main image should dominate the cover. A single main image is your best chance of grabbing attention, signifying the genre and content quickly, and aiding in recall (“I’ve seen this before,” is a key part of branding).
  • Poor font choice. Boring (plain font), doesn’t suit the genre or content, upsets many readers (like Comic Sans), hard to read, or too many different fonts used. One or two fonts that fit the genre and content help to send a unified message. A font that creates interest, yet is easily readable, helps the cover as a whole grab attention. This is a very tough balancing act, and more important than often realized.
  • Mismatch. Cover signifies the wrong genre or subgenre and doesn’t obviously relate to the content (i.e. to a potential buyer who knows absolutely nothing about the book – and won’t read the description to find out because the cover failed to grab his or her attention). This is a very important point, but is also a common mistake.
  • Typo. Spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistake. Oops! A mistake on a title certainly doesn’t bode well for a book with tens of thousands of words.
  • Credit placement. Traditionally published covers often give credit to the cover designer on the back cover with a small font (name and website) as well as on the copyright page (so people who like the cover and blurb will find it on the Look Inside). This is common among professional cover design. What’s common on self-published covers is for this acknowledgment to appear on the front cover in a large font. If the cover looks professional, this will be obvious at a glance; it won’t be necessary to declare this on the front cover.
  • By. Using the word “by” prior to the author’s name. It’s obvious who the author is, so this is superfluous. Some customers perceive this as amateurish. Avoid possible distractions.

It’s far easier to criticize a cover than to design a perfect cover.

There are so many mistakes to make that a few are almost inevitable.

But the best covers tend to avoid almost all of these mistakes.

I’ve made some of these mistakes myself. I certainly didn’t have all this in mind when I designed my first cover.

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

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

The Benefits of a Fantastic Cover: Worth the Cost?

Other Benefits of a Fantastic Cover Pic

Which is more important – the content or the cover?

Yeah, yeah, you’d rather read a great book with a lousy cover than a lousy book with an incredible cover.

But that’s not the choice buyers face.

Buyers see tens of millions of books to choose from. Tens of thousands of them are good books with fantastic covers.

If nobody discovers your book, the content won’t matter at all.

Maybe you think the content is so good that once a few people read it, word will spread. Then you have another problem to consider. There are thousands of excellent books, and many of them have fantastic covers. Why should your book sell as well as those other excellent books that also have great covers?

Credibility, for one. If it doesn’t look like much time and effort were put into the cover, why should readers expect that such time and effort were put into the content? Reviews might suggest that the book is good, but the cover might reflect a lack of effort. A poor cover casts doubt in the buyer’s mind.

Recommendations, for another. Many people are more likely to recommend a book that looks good.

And a host of other reasons (see below).

I’m happy to help other authors strive to improve their books. When new authors approach me for help, the most common question I receive is, “How can I improve my book?” Most of the time, my answer involves revising the cover.

Not all of my own covers are perfect. It’s easier to criticize a cover than it is to perfect a cover; there are numerous pitfalls to avoid during cover design. And it’s not always worth investing in a great cover.

There is also the issue of cost versus benefit. Let’s first examine the benefits, and then return to the issue of cost.

There are many possible benefits that can be derived from a fantastic cover:

  • Grabbing attention. People can’t read books that they don’t discover. Your thumbnail is one of dozens on pages of search results. Get your book noticed with a great cover.
  • Shows effort. Customers believe that a book is more likely to be professional inside when the cover looks professional.
  • Proper packaging. The cover has to look like it belongs in that genre. Otherwise, the people attracted to the cover aren’t buying the book, which means no sales. This is one of the most common sales deterrents among self-published books.
  • Fashion is important. The reader wants a book that he or she can see him- or herself holding in his or her hands. Does your cover appeal to your target audience? People don’t wear shirts that don’t appeal to them, and they also tend not to buy books that don’t appeal to their sense of style.
  • Credibility. Customers often don’t realize that books are self-published when the cover looks amazing. (Even if you use an imprint, if the cover doesn’t look professional, customers will suspect that it was self-published.)
  • Review potential. Blog reviewers, newspapers, etc. are more likely to show interest in reviewing your book, interviewing you, or announcing promotions or events if the book looks professional. They certainly don’t want to feature a lousy cover on their websites, in their papers, etc.
  • Recommendations. People are more likely to recommend your book to others – by word of mouth or otherwise – if the cover looks splendid. If the story is good, but the cover is so-so, they are less likely to recommend it. But if the cover is awesome, they might just say, “Check out this incredible cover.”
  • Visual reminder. Once people buy your book, it might just sit on a table, shelf, or Kindle for a while. Every time they see your book, a great cover helps to renew their interest in reading it. This improves the chances that it will get read, and may help to speed things up a bit. The more people who read your book, the better the prospects for reviews, referrals, etc.
  • Branding. The image of your book is a vital part of an author’s branding. A fantastic cover makes a huge difference. If the cover follows the three-color rule, features just one image, and clearly signifies the genre and content, this helps people recall the image – so they recognize your book from your previous marketing efforts the next time they see it. (If the cover is lousy, instead they think, “Ugh,” every time they see it, and the branding detracts from the book’s potential.)
  • Art. It’s not just the content that matters. People also love art for art’s sake. People buy prints of artwork or photos that they like. If your cover art is appealing, the cover has its own merit. Coffee table books are decorative and also make for conversation pieces. A great cover serves a similar purpose when people are reading your book in public, like on a bus ride.
  • Judgment. Maybe people shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but people do. A great cover is sample of what to expect. It’s a small demonstration of what kind of effort the author (or publisher) is capable of expending.
  • Mood. A fantastic cover helps put the reader in a good frame of mind when beginning your book. A reader who starts out with a positive outlook is more likely to enjoy the book. A reader who is doubtful that the book will turn out to be good is constantly looking for details to criticize. This way, a cover can actually influence reviews, on average.
  • You. The cover isn’t just to help sales and fit the reader. It’s also about you. You need to be happy with your cover. It’s your book, so you should love your own cover. Put a great cover on the book for you. It has to suit your style. The cover, including how professional it looks, reflects on the author.

Although a great cover carries many potential benefits, it may not be cost-effective.

A fantastic cover doesn’t guarantee a single sale. But a lousy cover definitely deters sales.

You must weigh the benefits against the costs.

Some authors are able to buy nice covers for $100 or less. But you can also find covers for $1000 and up. You have to shop around and shop wisely to get a great cover at an affordable price.

There is no guarantee that spending money will result in a great cover. Unfortunately, some authors invest money in covers and the result is poor. And sometimes the author and cover designer don’t realize what’s wrong. Sometimes, the problem is subtle, but a big sales deterrent. There are many possible pitfalls that one must avoid in cover design.

Spending $1000 on a cover may not result in a better cover than spending $300. It may, and it may not. You have to shop wisely to improve your chances. You also have to decide what you can afford, assess your book’s prospects for recovering the investment, and spend time shopping for help in your price range.

A premade cover isn’t likely to be a good fit for your book.

You may be able to design a good cover yourself, but then you must single-handedly avoid those aforementioned pitfalls. (I’ll outline these in a separate post, and I also have a post coming in the future regarding how to find a capable cover designer.) You can find stock images, yet it’s still a challenge to put everything together professionally. If you have experience with graphic design, Photoshop, or visual marketing, these may help.

A major problem is the author who gets an idea for a cover and insists on sticking to this idea no matter how poorly the result turns out. Wise cover designers scrap the ideas that don’t pan out well, and start over with something else.

Once you determine what it would cost to make a great cover, you must weigh that against the benefits.

Here are some reasons for which it may not be worthwhile to invest in a cover:

  • There isn’t an audience for your book. You have to research this beforehand.
  • The book isn’t good. This will show in critical reviews, affect word-of-mouth referrals, etc. How much do you believe in your book? Have you received feedback from neutral members of your target audience?
  • Your book doesn’t fit into an existing category. Effective marketing can help people find your book. But if they don’t find your book, the cover isn’t going to help.
  • You don’t plan to do any marketing and you have a book that will only get discovered through marketing. Most of the books out there require marketing in order to sell fairly well. There are a few exceptions, such as technical nonfiction. Are you willing to learn about marketing and work hard at it? (For the rare author who has a gift for marketing, investing in a great cover is a no-brainer.)
  • The book will sell because it provides nonfiction expertise that people are looking for. If, for example, the book says Calculus Workbook in large letters in the thumbnail, the cover doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective. But, on second thought, there are also many calculus workbooks on the market. If two technical books are otherwise equal in merit, the one with the better cover will win.
  • You expect to sell most of the books in person following presentations, and almost none otherwise. If you tour the country giving seminars, for example, this could be the case. Still, the cover has to appeal to the customer when you put the book in his or her hands. This can impact the impulsive decision to buy it now. And if people might also buy your book online, the cover becomes more important.
  • It’s not the first book in a series. The first book is the most important; that’s the one that hooks the reader. But the second book also has to appeal to the reader, so the cover is still important. And the covers all need to match. So it might still be worth the investment.

It really comes down to how much you believe in your book.

If you have a lousy cover, you’ll always wonder how well it might have sold with a great cover. If you have a great cover, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you gave your book the best chance of success (at least, as far as cover choices are concerned).

A good book with a fantastic cover and killer blurb has very good potential for at least mild success. Especially, if there is an audience for it who will be able to discover it.

But a fantastic cover isn’t going to achieve long-term success for a lousy book.

If you believe you have a good book, take a chance on it. You are anyway, just by getting it out there, so why not go all out and give it a great cover, too?

My own covers may not be the best examples. What I mean by this is that my better selling books have relatively plain covers, and the books with the better covers that I’m most fond of aren’t among my better sellers.

But there is a reason for this. First, I write nonfiction. There is a need for my math and science books, and many sell for my expertise. It’s much easier to make an ‘image’ for an algebra workbook, for example, than for a science fiction novel, and the image (just an equation, in my case) is far less important for the algebra workbook. If you write technical nonfiction, putting together a satisfactory cover is easier to do yourself, and can be much less critical.

Covers 1

My nicer covers are not on books for which there is as much need (and I didn’t compensate with loads of marketing; I do marketing, just not for all of my books). Well, some seasons the need is greater than others. Workbooks tends to sell better in January and June, for example, while it’s always interesting to sell a Christmas book in July.

Covers 2

I have sought cover design help recently. I enjoy designing my own covers, but I have also realized that the right designer can produce eye-catching visual effects that I wouldn’t have been able to create on my own. It’s worth seeing what you can achieve by yourself to help you see if a potential designer is improving on what you can do, and to what extent. It’s also worth shopping around even if you’re set on doing it yourself, to see and understand any limitations that your own design skills may have.

Covers tend to be very important for fictional works. Not all fictional works, but especially novels where there is an audience that can discover it (zombies, romance, mystery – sure, some genres have more competition among books, but this is compensated for by having more readers), and where the book is pretty good. A great cover can’t compensate for a lousy book, but it can really help a great, complete, well-written (and formatted), and nicely characterized story.

I recommend exploring the covers of top selling books in your genre. Ask yourself questions such as these:

  • Do these covers look like they belong in this genre?
  • Do they follow the ‘rules’ of cover design?
  • Do you find them appealing?
  • Are there any top sellers that don’t have big-name authors or publishers? If so, a little research might give you ideas that they used to become successful.
  • Can you spot important distinctions between different types of books? Like teen romance, clean romance, not-so-clean romance, historical romance, and erotica. If you can see these differences, that will help you design a book that attracts your specific target audience. If you fail to achieve such specific packaging, it can be a huge sales deterrent.

Studying the covers of top sellers in your genre will help you understand what your prospective readers tend to expect when browsing for thumbnails.

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

The Importance of Color in Cover Design


First of all, some colors complement one another well while some colors clash.

For example, blue and yellow usually provide nice contrast next to one another, but orange and red beside one another are hard to distinguish.

Text absolutely needs to contrast well with anything that is behind it. When text clashes with any part of the background, the result is illegible, especially in the thumbnail. For example, imagine navy blue text on a brown background.

Colors that don’t contrast well can appear beside one another in images, but not when one part of the image needs to stand out against an adjacent part. For example, if a girl is eating a red apple, the apple should clearly stand out, so there shouldn’t be colors that clash with red adjacent to the apple.

Two exceptions are color blends, like a gradient from pink to red, or accents. Blends and accents can have colors that don’t contrast near one another. A fiery picture may include blends of red and orange, for example.

Bear in mind that there are differences in hues, tints, shades, and tones. Not all reds look the same. So while red often contrasts well with black, there are many variations of red and black that don’t contrast well. A dark red doesn’t contrast well with black, for example. Will purple and pink contrast well? It all depends on which purple and which pink you’re talking about.

Color Chart

Another issue is how many colors to use. A good rule of thumb is to use three main colors. If the central image is a photo with several colors, the three-color rule might not seem feasible, but often the photo will have two or three main colors. If there is a main image, the other colors need to coordinate well with this.

Three colors won’t all contrast well with one another. The primary and secondary colors should provide excellent contrast, while the third color should be an accent that complements either the primary or secondary color. Different tints and shades of these three colors can be used when the design requires additional colors.

Black, white, and red can work well with one another. But, again, it all depends on which hues, tints, shades, and tones are used. Many other combinations can work well, if done right, like purple, yellow, and pink. There are several free design programs available online that help you choose sets of colors and see how well they work together.

How much of each color should you use? Another good rule of thumb is 60% for the primary, 30% for the secondary, and 10% for the accent.

It’s not just a matter of finding three colors that work well together.

For one, the use of color helps readers who are browsing through thumbnails find the types of books that they are looking for. Red is more likely to attract romance readers, for example. Pink is common among feminine books. A cover is ineffective when it attracts the wrong audience.

Browse the top-selling books similar to yours to see what color schemes are popular in that genre. This is what those readers are accustomed to seeing. While you’re there, see how many of those books followed these ‘rules.’

Color is not just aesthetic, it’s powerful. Colors evoke emotion.

For example, blue symbolizes trust, so many financial books feature a deep blue, while yellow is associated with happiness or intellect. Use colors that fit the content.

Colors can even have specific effects. When red is used against a background that it contrasts well with, it may help stand out and call attention to the book. Green is a relaxing color. Use blue for knowledge, white for simplicity, purple for luxury, gold for prestige, and navy blue for cheap.

Bright thumbnails tend to stand out better in search results. Yellows and oranges work well as highlighters against dark backgrounds.

Check that your color scheme agrees with the audience that you’re trying to attract. Don’t use pink or yellow for masculinity, for example.

Color Emotions

Note that there is also a difference between the cmyk (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) color subtraction scheme used to print a cover and the rgb (reg, green, blue) color addition scheme used to produce an image on the monitor. If you’re designing a paperback cover, the printed cover will probably look significantly darker than what you see on the monitor, and colors that work well on the screen may not look well in print. Out-of-gamut colors are likely to look much different. Solid regions of one color may not look smooth. The best thing is to print a few tests before putting too much effort and commitment into the cover (keeping in mind that any single printing may suffer from possible variations, as 100 printed covers won’t all look identical).

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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Cover Art Critics

Cover Critics

The self-publishing revolution has brought forth a generation of cover art critics. It seems that there are many more cover art critics than there are art critics.

To be fair, they also criticize traditionally published covers, and a few of the best covers out there are actually on self-published books. However, the reality is that the vast majority of lousy covers are on self-published books.

Anyone can be a cover art critic. No talent for cover design is needed to form an opinion.

But that’s the point. Don’t create a cover to satisfy the critics. Instead, create a cover that will please potential readers. Back to the point: All potential readers are cover art critics! Complaints that are common among the cover art critics tend to deter sales because many readers feel the same way.

Here are some common complaints:

(1) Can’t tell what the book is about!

(2) Text is illegible!

(3) Colors don’t work well together!

(4) People look deformed!

(5) Used crayons or colored pencils!

(6) Photo-bombing image!

(7) Used Comic Sans for font!

(8) Aspect ratio is distorted!

(9) Illustrator’s name appears on a lousy cover!

(10) Image appears blurry or pixelated!

(11) Cover is too busy!

(12) Fonts are boring!

(13) Hard to read fonts!

(14) Wrong words emphasized in title!

(15) Three different fonts used!

(16) Images have nothing in common!

(17) Settled for image that doesn’t quite work!

(18) Doesn’t look good both full-size and as thumbnail!

(19) Red-eye!

(20) Typo in title!

(21) Poor drawing skills!

(22) Poor photography skills!

People do judge books by their covers. As they should! At least to the extent that buying a book where the author or publisher didn’t put much effort into the cover is a risk: If little effort was put into the cover, there isn’t any reason to expect that greater effort was put into writing, editing, and formatting.

The cover is a marketing tool. Customers do browse for books in search results and click on thumbnails that interest them. Trying to avoid common cover design mistakes may pay off. It’s challenging to design a perfect cover, and any cover – no matter how good – can still be criticized. It’s much easier to find fault in a cover than to make a cover without fault. (No wonder there are more cover art critics than there are great covers.) But the cover is very important, so striving to design a great cover is worth the effort.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volume 2 now available)

What’s the Deal with Mannequin Covers?

A growing number of indie covers are featuring mannequins. Is this good or bad?

It’s a challenge to design a great cover. Indie authors don’t have the luxury of a cover design team or much money to invest in professional help, yet covers can be very important for the success of a book. Thus, many authors who are inexperienced artists are suddenly faced with the task of putting a great image together for the thumbnail and front cover.

This is no easy task, and the cover art critics are fierce:

  • Anything hand-drawn is deemed fit for a refrigerator, but not for a book.
  • Any photo in the foreground of a nice background is deemed a photobomber.
  • Highly detailed artwork is said to make the cover too busy.
  • Deformities in fingers, hands, limbs, or faces are ridiculed.
  • When the aspect ratio is tweaked slightly to fit the cover, it’s cursed for distortion.
  • If a person happens to strike an odd pose, even this is pointed out.
  • The photos must be cleaned up and professional, else the technique will be criticized.
  • Indie authors are supposed to know to use just three colors in a ratio of 60-30-10.
  • Colors must work well together, with the title large and easy to read.
  • You also need to watch out for the font police, who can be very picky.
  • But if the images don’t relate to the content, that’s a serious violation.

Drawings pose an instant problem. Taking your own photos requires professional skill. There are many stock photos available, but not always in the pose or colors that you want. To top this off, you must find images that signify the genre and relate to the content.

So what’s the solution? Maybe this is why more indies are featuring mannequins on their covers. It’s much easier to manipulate a mannequin with a graphic arts program. They are easy to adjust, clothe, maneuver, touch up, and preserve proper shape and size. Some of these mannequin covers are very well done, so much so that I didn’t realize that they were mannequins at first.

But now I see the cover art critics blasting indie covers that feature mannequins. For example, are there mannequins on the cover because it’s a romance between mannequins?

I actually hired an illustrator to design a cover for an upcoming fictional book, for which I was completely stumped on the cover. The result looks great, but the main image does look a little like a mannequin. I’m going to keep it, for better or for worse.

What’s your opinion? I’d love to hear your take on these mannequin covers. Is it good, is it bad? If you made it to the end of this post, please feel free to take a minute to express your opinion. Your opinion is welcome (encouraged even), and won’t likely offend me or the mannequins. 🙂

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

Indie Cover Mistakes

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

Book Fashion – Judging a Book’s Clothing

Would you show up to an interview wearing sandals, a Hawaiian button-down shirt, and sunglasses? Would you go to the beach in a tuxedo?

The answers to these questions might seem pretty obvious, yet several books are actually dressed for the wrong occasion. The cover and title are the book’s packaging.

If you’re shopping for cereal, you’re far more likely to pick up a box that catches your eye if it has a picture of cereal in a bowl and includes the word CEREAL somewhere on the box. If you see a box in the cereal aisle that has a picture of a breakfast bar on it, or if it has the word BAR in large letters, you’re probably not going to pick this up if you really want cereal.

When an action thriller has a cover that looks like a romance or the title sounds like a whodunit, it’s like trying to sell cereal inside a box of oatmeal.

It probably still seems pretty obvious, yet it’s also pretty common for the title or cover not to reflect the true nature of the book. Many indie authors, especially, tend to make this mistake. It’s an easy mistake to make. It’s not as obvious as putting cereal in an oatmeal box, but the effect is roughly the same.

How do you know what the package is supposed to look like? Check out the bestsellers in a given genre. Those are the types of covers that readers are accustomed to seeing. Putting the right outfit on the book doesn’t mean copying the cover concept from another book. It does, however, mean taking the time to do some research to explore what features are indicative of the genre.

A couple on a cover often signifies romance, for example. Yet even here it gets a little tricky. A romance author who wants to use sex appeal on the cover has to be careful not to make the cover look like erotica. On the other side, a young adult romance cover will look somewhat different from an adult romance cover.

The title should also be appropriate for the genre. If the cover says, “I’m a mystery, come solve my puzzle,” while the title says, “I’m a romance, let me add some spice to your life,” this mixed message can greatly deter sales.

Once the packaging makes you pick up a product, you start to explore the details. You might check out the ingredients or read the product description, for example. The table of contents specifies the book’s ingredients, the blurb is the product description, and the Look Inside offers a sample.

The blurb and Look Inside must reinforce what the cover and title suggest the book is about. Otherwise, it’s like wearing flip flops and a suit together.

Don’t confuse your potential readers. Don’t settle for a cover just because it looks nice, or a title just because it sounds good.

Print out your cover, hide the title, and show it to different people who have no idea that you wrote a book. Ask them what type of book they think it is.

Show people your title (nothing else – so these can’t be the same people who saw your cover) and ask them what they expect the book to be about.

Now get new people to read your description all by itself, and see what they say.

If you’re getting mixed messages, this may have a very significant impact on sales.

It’s not the fashion police you should be worried about if your book is caught wearing the wrong outfit, if the colors clash, or if your book doesn’t accessorize properly. It’s the potential sales that you may lose that should get your attention.

I could have titled this blog post, “All about Bikinis.” This blog may have had many more views if I had done that, but then nobody would have ever reached the end of this blog (except those few who may have been so desperate to find the product that had been advertised).

Chris McMullen

— A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Formatting Pages for Publishing on Amazon with CreateSpace

Attention All Book Zombies: Time to Snap out of It!

You could be a book zombie without realizing it.  Maybe you didn’t know there was such a thing.  How do you know if you are one?  Is it bad?  If so, is there a cure for it?

If you find yourself wondering about these questions, then you’ve come to the right place.  This article will help you determine if you’re a book zombie, and, if you are, how to return to the world of the book living.

It’s time to take the book zombie quiz.  (What?  Nobody told me there would be a quiz!)  Relax:  You don’t have to study for it.

(1) When you see a list of search results, do you prefer a book with a title that is short and catchy or long and detailed?

(2) Which color combination do you think would look nicer on a book cover:  navy blue, baby blue, and plain white or dark purple, dark red, and bright orange?

(3) Would you rather have the book description be short and sound very interesting or be long and highly informative?

(4) Do you want the beginning of a story to invoke emotions within you or to let you read passively?

(5) After you finish reading a book that you like, would you like to see recommendations of other books from others who enjoyed that book?

Time’s up.  Make sure that your name is at the top of the page and pass it forward.

You’re probably ready to go over the answers now.  But the book zombie quiz isn’t about the answers; it’s about the questions.  (Aren’t you glad that you didn’t study for it?)

Most people don’t like it when a telemarketer calls during dinner, when a salesman interrupts a walk through the park, or when a commercial comes on just before the good part of a movie.  As such, most people would say that they don’t like advertisements.  On the other hand, many people wear t-shirts or hats with their favorite brand names written across them, and when deciding which detergent to buy in the grocery store often select the brand that they have heard before.  There are many subtle forms of marketing employed in the sale of commercial products.  A customer who chooses one product over another ─ or impulsively purchases something that he or she really doesn’t need ─ without realizing that the choice was due to subtle marketing schemes is a shopping zombie.

Similar subtle schemes are applied in book marketing.  A book zombie chooses one book over another ─ or impulsively buys a book that he or she really doesn’t need ─ without being conscious of the marketing that affected the decision.

Have you ever purchased a book that looked nice or seemed interesting, but where you still haven’t gotten around to reading it?  Have you ever bought a book that you were convinced would be very good ─ because you trusted the brand of the publisher, believed the testimonials on the first page, or the blurb sounded great ─ only to be disappointed later?  If you consider your past book-buying decisions carefully, you might find that you have occasionally exhibited some book zombie symptoms.

The big publishing houses take advantage of much marketing and psychological research that has gone into cover design, word selection, and blurb preparation.  Many adept small publishers and indie authors also take time to learn about and apply these marketing secrets.

Traditional publishers often pour a significant amount of money into cover design because it is so important in catching your attention.  Their covers often use just two or three main colors, just one font style, and one to three striking images that relate to the theme of the book.  Color theory tells them which colors work best together.  Color psychology dictates which colors to use to evoke which types of emotions or to suit which audience.  Even the style of font is very important.  Not only must the key words from the title be legible in a thumbnail, research actually shows that people are more likely to feel agreeable when reading some fonts and disagreeable when reading others.  Careful word selection also plays a critical role.

Many marketing strategies are geared around a five-second rule.  First, the cover has to catch your eye.  You probably notice a particular image or contrasting colors initially.  Five seconds later, if you like the cover, you read the title and inspect the cover more closely.  A short, catchy title helps to get you to click on the book to learn more about it.  Five more seconds pass as you begin to read the blurb.  The description has to grab your attention immediately to keep from losing a potential sale.  Every five seconds through the blurb, your attention must be held.  The blurb’s job is to touch you emotionally because emotional buyers are more impulsive.  The description closes by trying to pique your curiosity so that you will want to read the book.  When you look inside the book, you may find testimonials telling you just how awesome the book is.  Like the blurb, the beginning of the book must catch your interest and stir emotions within you.

Research shows that many people are book zombies to some extent.  Publishers’ tactics are geared toward our natural tendencies.

Snapping out of it doesn’t mean to look for ugly covers and horrible blurbs.  Rather, a lousy cover may be an indication that the content of the book didn’t merit much effort.  Similarly, if one or two paragraphs of a book’s description include mistakes, are not clear, or don’t hold your interest, that doesn’t bode well for a few hundred pages of writing.

You can wake up from being a book zombie and return to the world of the book living with less drastic measures.  You can be mindful of the various marketing tactics that may be used to try to influence you to make emotional or impulsive decisions.  When you discover a new book, you can make a conscious effort to wait until you’ve had a good night’s sleep before you buy it.  This provides an opportunity for your emotions to settle down and for logic to kick in.  You can invest a little more time toward learning more about a book in order to help you judge whether or not it will be a good fit for you.  A few more minutes now might prevent you from regretting your decision many hours later.  When available, you can read a longer sample of the book before you commit to purchasing it.  Very often, you might still wind up reading the same book, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you did so consciously with careful consideration.

Keep in mind that just drawing you into the book isn’t satisfactory from the publisher’s or author’s standpoint.  The book also has to be good enough for you to read it all the way through, and must be very good in order to get you to spread word of it to your friends and acquaintances.  Wise publishers and authors aren’t trying to sucker you into buying lousy books; but they are using marketing techniques to entice you into buying more of their books (which they believe not to be lousy).

Now take the book zombie quiz a second time.  See if you can understand each question and how it relates to the theme of this article.

Why did you read this blog?  Did the title catch your interest?  Did the beginning sound interesting?  I would also ask if the blog was good enough for you to reach the end, but it seems like kind of a moot point now.  But I do hope that you enjoyed it.  🙂

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