The cover is the truest introduction to a book. It’s your book's packaging, your book's branding, and a big part of your book's marketing. It plays so many influential roles, so it’s important to consider them in detail to maximize the impact of your book’s cover.
Even an author that has no or minimal understanding of design can’t help but notice when patterns emerge in research, learning the subtleties of what makes a good cover “good” and a bad cover “bad.” If you don’t take your book’s cover design with the utmost seriousness—if you don’t sweat the details or test thoroughly—you’re making a mistake that will ripple through every book-marketing initiative you undertake, from efforts to garner public relations to evoking excitement in distribution partners and beyond. Avoid this avoidable mistake.
Though it’s clear that some books have overcome mediocre, or even bad, covers and gone on to become best sellers, those titles would have, most certainly, done even better with great covers. You don’t want to overcome your cover; you want to ride its success.
The Function of a Great Cover
When devising a cover, the most important question you need to consider is: “What do I need my cover to do? Specifically, what is it I’m trying to accomplish?” It’s a crucial question, but you’d be surprised by how many industry veterans have difficulty answering this question or aren’t able to provide a complete answer.
A great cover does a number of things: it stands out, entices people to buy, positively influences the reading experience, and attracts media attention.
Your cover should stand out—it needs to “pop!” And that’s not speaking exclusively to on bookstore shelves. Of course, that’s important, but it also needs to stand out in peoples’ minds when they see it at a friend’s place, in a TV interview, online, or even in their hands at the time of purchase. A great cover will make an impression, intuitively marked in memory.
Obviously, the biggest of the cover’s roles is to entice people to want to actually buy the book, but authors sometimes forget this during the design process. The myopic idea of making art, or something beautiful or unique or powerful, can often become the goal. Now, there is nothing wrong with an artistic pursuit, so long as it helps accomplish the goal of convincing people to buy the book. You must always keep this end goal in mind.
One of the less noticeable effects of a great cover, which is much bigger than most people realize, is the unconscious bias that can influence the reader to be more likely to enjoy the book. A great cover can prime the reader and begin to fill in gaps that are otherwise filled in with the variability of imagination. The cover can establish the atmosphere and tone in your favour.
A great cover can also increase the odds that media members will give the book, or you as the author, coverage. Developing a professional and appealing package for your book implies equally high quality and intriguing content behind the cover. Let your book make an immediate impression, articulating why a media audience should be interested.
You may ask, “Can a cover actually do ALL that?” And the answer is absolutely. Your book cover should do all those things, while also being consistent with the brand you’ve developed and, ideally, the tone and personality of your book’s writing.
The Influence of Title & Subtitle
When industry professionals are asked, “What is, without a doubt, the most important design element of a successful front cover?” you’d be surprised by the variety of answers they give. Answers range from flow to font choice to color combinations to “keeping it simple,” and the most common response: “It’s a trick question. There is no one most important element; it’s how they all work together.” The latter sure sounds logical, but it, too, is wrong. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most important element of your front cover—what contributes the most to your book’s sales—is the title and subtitle combination.
If you give a professional cover designer a great title and subtitle combination, they will give you back a well-designed and effective cover. If you give them a weak title and subtitle combination, they will give you back a well-designed but ineffective cover. To achieve a strong book cover—one that gets readers’ attention, pushes potential buyers towards a sale, positively biases readers, and excites the media—you must start with a great title and subtitle combination.
When titles test well on their own, they consistently test well on every design concept tried . . . even ones that are not so good. Sure, they test better with some designs over others, as the elements and flow of various cover designs DO matter, but they all test well regardless. Titles that test poorly on their own cannot be rescued, even by a team made up of Joel Friedlander, Don Draper, and Michelangelo. They’ll come up with great designs, but it won’t hit your objectives for a cover.
“What’s in it for me?” the potential buyer wants to know.
“What’s in it for my audience?” the media wants to know.
The title/subtitle partnership has, by far, the loudest voice when answering those questions. It’s not the colours on the cover, not fancy graphics, not even some award announcement that really matters. You need a great title and subtitle working together with all the other design elements to help that duo shine. The book’s title and cover design should compliment each other and not compete with each other, as we see all too often.
Designing a great cover requires that you understand its possibilities, and most importantly, what it should accomplish for your book. A well-designed book cover stands out in the minds of potential readers, entices buyers, actually influences the enjoyment of the reading experience, and garners media attention. Remember that in order to produce a cover that achieves such feats, you need to begin with a solid title and subtitle pairing. Otherwise (as testing demonstrates), no cover, no matter how artistic and visually appealing, will match the effectiveness of an articulate, sales-driven title.
Always refer back to the question, “What do I want my cover to accomplish?” If you’re focused on ensuring that answer is consistently applied, and don’t allow your design to stray, you can begin to develop a cover that will surely maximize its potential. Don’t overcome your cover; leverage its possibilities.