Thursday, April 28, 2016

Three Thoughts about Book Covers

Three Thoughts about Book Covers
By Brad R. Cook

Some book covers are artistic, some are photographic, some are horrific… but the cover is as important as the words inside. The classic cover, leather bound, gold embossed, with the cool ribbing along the spine put the focus on the material. The words almost didn’t matter. They were just there to let you know what was inside. With the switch to paper covers, we lost the cool look of the tome, but the importance of the cover image became the focus.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I wish it were true, but the reality is that everyone will judge your book by its cover. Readers want a cool cover, something that draws them in, bookstores want a professional cover to match the stock on their shelves, and publishers want an interesting cover that will stand out from the crowd. A good cover can elevate an okay book, and vault great books into mega-sales. It can make a reader spend two to three times or more the cost of a book just to snatch up the must have cover for a book with multiple editions.

A bad book cover can be a death nail to a book, killing sales, and giving the publishing house, and the author a bad reputation. There is a game, that myself, and a few other writers like to play when we’re in bookstores… Spot the Cover. It’s easy, as you pass through the shelves, spot the truly beautiful covers, and the absolutely horrible covers. Bad covers are usually blurry, have clashing colors, unidentifiable images, or are so basic that they look amateurish.

I’ve been a cover designer for a couple of years now, sure my covers for The Scribe, the monthly literary magazine published by St. Louis Writers Guild, are kind of simple, but keeping them interesting is still important. As I move into novel covers, I find that keeping up a level of high quality is the biggest challenge. So here are some of my thoughts about book covers.

1 – Depth and Layering
One of the most important things a cover can have is depth. Flat covers appear basic. They push the eye away. A cover with many layers draws the eye in. There should be a central image to hold the reader’s attention, and then images layered behind so the eye can move around. A simple image isn’t bad, bold colors can make a great cover, but the image still needs layers, or maybe a gradient for the background, to give the illusion of three dimensions. One of the worst things to happen to cover is pixilation of the images. Every layer needs to have a high dpi (dots per inch) to ensure the highest quality.

2 – Readable Names
After the central image, the two most important aspects of the cover are the title and the author’s name. They need to be easy to read both from a distance and in the thumbnail image as well. Having the right font is important. It needs to be big enough, clear enough, and thick enough to read. The lettering can be a script, or blocky, but it should mesh with the rest of the images. A thin script can get lost in a busy background, and a blocky font, if too squished together can be difficult to read. Focusing on the spacing, size, and color of the font will ensure that it can be read from a thumbnail to a poster.

3 – Consistency is Key
Covers should match the novel’s genre. A non-fiction historical novel with a flowing-haired, buff romance cover model, might give the wrong impression about what the book is about. It is also important the covers match, or at least hold a similar theme for a series of books. It will help readers know that each book is part of the series and will look good sitting on the shelf. Using the same font is one way to achieve this affect, as is using a similar theme for the cover images. Having the same artist create each cover is a good way to ensure this consistency.

There are millions of book covers on the shelf, meaning there are plenty of covers to study. So make your next book cover the best it can be.  Identify what you like and what you don’t like, and suggest those ideas for the next book. Here are a few covers I really like to get your started.

One of those gorgeous older covers...

The abstract cover for The Alchemist.

One of the most iconic covers in history...

 Harry Potter has had several covers - this is the US version. 

One of my favorite covers.... it has so many layers and was done by noted illustrator Keith Thompson. He did a gorgeous map inside too. This edition is now highly sought after by collectors.

Brad R. Cook, author of the YA steampunk series, The Iron Chronicles. Iron Horsemen - and Iron Zulu -  A member of SCBWI, he currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more at, on Twitter @bradrcook, or on his blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr

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