4 Book Cover Design Rules That Authors Have To Respect

Seeing your naked book be taken away to be clothed can be a harrowing experience for an author. No matter how many times your Grandma tells you otherwise, people do judge books by their covers.

We judge books by their covers because it works so well in so many other areas of life. Do you judge people by the clothes that they wear? If those clothes are Adidas snap pants teamed with a denim vest, then yes. Yes you do.

You’re at your local grocer. You’re bagging up a few Granny Smiths. But if you see a bruise on the apple’s cover, or ‘skin’, don’t tell me you’re not judging that piece of fruit.

Judging covers is a part of life. Fact.

Authors will usually understand that a designer’s experience, knowledge and skill will result in a cover that will do the work justice.

Other authors, however, perhaps in the knowledge of how ‘do or die’ a cover can be, will be somewhat overeager in their input. This can make a designer’s already difficult job – encapsulating a masterwork into an overtly simple combination of image and text – into one that is nigh-on impossible.

From one humble cover designer to all the spectacularly passionate and devoted authors out there, here are 4 cover design rules that you need to understand in order for your book to be jacketed in the best design possible.

  • Endeavour to Limit Personal Attachment

This is your book, and it follows that it should be your right to display whatever image you’d like on the cover.

That is indeed your right. But whether your choice will be best for the prospects of the book is an entirely different story.

Authors that hope to display a friend or family member’s artwork on their cover often get blinded to the fact that it may not be what speaks to prospective buyers. The desire to feature something that means a lot to them can override the fact that it may derail the sales of the book.

This also often happens with memoirs, with the author hoping to use photos that have huge sentimental value to them. It needs to be remembered that this sentimental value will mean nothing to the unfamiliar reader. They are simply looking for something eye-catching.

That photo of your last family holiday at the beach may bring up all sorts of emotions for you personally, but all a shopper sees is a whole heap of wet people in towels.

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  • It Needs To Make For a Good Thumbnail

Designers are now super aware of this, but many authors are not. Your cover needs to look good at thumbnail size. When shoppers are browsing Amazon, they need to be drawn to that little picture. It needs to pop.

You may think a cover designer has gone too basic or too minimalist. The thumbnail factor may well be the reason for going down this path.

Try it for yourself – shrink any presented designs down to the size that they will be shown on Amazon, and see how they look. Are you likely to click on them?

  • Try Not To Re-Imagine a Designer’s Work

So, a designer has brought you 3 or 4 different drafts, and asks you what you think. The appropriate way to go about it is to give honest and clear feedback on each of their designs. The inappropriate way to go about it is to say ‘I like this bit from this design, this bit from this one, and this bit from this one. Can you make something up like that?’

Sometimes creating a composite out of the best features of different things can make something beautiful, like turducken. In book cover terms, though, it is usually a recipe for disaster.

A designer will have very good reasons for keeping certain design elements separate. By combining them, you’ll usually lose that spark that you saw in the original drafts.

  • Your Readers Will Appreciate Subtlety

They aren’t idiots. They don’t need to be spoon-fed mashed peas. That means you’ll be doing both them and the book a disservice if you go too literal.

Wolf SmallA classic story, as told by decorated cover designer Chip Kidd in his wonderful TED talk, is that of his first graphic design class. A teacher writes the word ‘APPLE’ on the chalkboard, underneath a picture of an apple. Then he says that when it comes to a book cover, it’s one or the other. Write the word or draw the picture. Never both.

It may never be that blatant, but it does happen in cover design all the time. And I’m not just talking about ‘Spot goes to the park’.

Give your readers credit. Let them fill in the blanks. It needn’t be a New York Times crossword puzzle, but a hint of subtlety and intrigue in a cover will go a long way.

As designers, we appreciate that you’re entrusting us with your newborn (or not yet born?) child. We know that you have far more of a vested interest in what it is wrapped in than we do. But by remembering these rules, both the design process and the result could be far better than you’d ever imagine.

We all judge books by their covers. But don’t judge a designer for trying to do their job.

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