Judging a Book by its Cover: The Art and Science of Cover Art

A glorious shelf of books (found on Google Images)
A glorious shelf of books (found on Google Images)

You’ve labored over the entire contents of your novel and you’ve agonized over the title, but you’re not finished yet. Perhaps one of the most important decisions when it comes to your book is the cover.

Thousands of books are published every year. Hardcover, paperback, e-books. Readers have a plethora of options when it comes to voice, genre, subject and story. How do you make yourself stand out from the crowd? How do publishers do it?

Well, I’m not a publisher, but I am an avid reader and an aspiring author myself, plus I like to research things. There may not be a science to book cover design, but it is absolutely an art! There are so many things to take into consideration when you are choosing a book cover: the narrative itself, the voice, the time period, the audience and more! And nowadays in the world of self-publishing, there are hundreds of people around the world selling their own original cover designs to self-publishing authors.

Here are some pieces of advice I picked up from experts around the web of things you may want to consider when you start to think about the cover of your book. Each link will take you to the article from which the quote originates. There is a lot more info in most of the articles beyond what I’ve quoted, so if something catches your eye, be sure to follow the link.

  1. “A truly great jacket is one that captures the book inside it in some fundamental and perhaps unforeseen way.” — Wired.com
  2. “A book cover’s paramount job is to communicate the book’s content and convey information concerning both what the book is about and what the book is like”The Horn Book
  3. “While a book cover’s primary relationship is with the book it introduces, it also exists in relationship to all of the other covers on the shelf. — The Horn Book
  4. “A book cover is a sales tool, intended to get you to pick up the book, so some of the best covers are the attention-grabbing.” — Jezebel
  5. “The main principles of design—in books, appliances, cars, clothing, everything—are:
    1. Your product must be bold and eye-catching and conspicuously different from everyone else’s, but
    2. Not too much!” — The New Yorker
  6. “A book’s cover offers an interpretation of its contents – some inflection, if only by its typeface or colour. And yet its effect on the reader is mostly subliminal. Book designers are the ultimate hidden persuaders.” — The Telegraph

What attracts me personally to a book? An interesting title will trump a book cover for me every time. But, that doesn’t mean that book covers haven’t swayed me in the past. There’s a certain look that signals to me that a book is of the variety that I prefer.

My personal preference as a reader and a writer is historical fiction and/or magical realism and it’s usually a combo of the two that really piques my interest.

Photo Credit: Google images.
Photo Credit: Google images.

One of my favorite book covers is the one created for The Night Circus. So much is conveyed in the cover. The spine of the book is striped, as are the endpapers, and I love the use of black and white and red, all of which are significant once you get into the actual story itself. You see a silhouette of the two main characters. Plus, you get that feel of magic which pervades through the tale.

Photo Credit: Google images.
Photo Credit: Google images.

The cover of The Shadow of the Wind fits well and suggests to me that it is precisely the genre I’m looking for. Plus the title is just to die for. If you’ve never read Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I highly recommend him. He is one of my favorite living authors and I hope he publishes something new soon.

So what makes a bad book cover? I’m not sure that I’m qualified to stake a claim regarding this. But I can tell you about a book cover that deterred me from reading it for more than a decade. The classic cover of The Giver features an older, gruff-looking man with a beard. You know the one I’m talking about. For whatever reason, I found this cover to be very off-putting and I convinced myself as a child that I would never like that book and that it was weird because of the cover. Needless to say, I was very wrong about this. I didn’t actually pick up the book to read it until I was about 30 years old. And when I finally did, I loved it. Additionally, after reading the book, you see the significance of the elderly man with the scraggly beard and it makes sense why he was chosen for the cover. So, I can’t exactly declare that this is a bad cover, but it’s certainly one that deterred this reader at a young age.

Photo Credit: Google Images
This is the one. Photo Credit: Google Images

Clearly book covers play a significant role in the selling of a book, whether it is obvious or subliminal. Even the spines get design work of some kind because most books are placed spine forward when stacked on a shelf. When it comes to books, it’s the whole package. And the tiniest change can make the difference for a sale.

What book covers have influenced you and why?