What are the three best things you can do if you want to learn how to write?
Read, read, and read some more.
The three most important things you can do if you want to learn how to design a book cover are similar: look at lots and lots and lots of book covers.
But don’t just glance at them like you have until now. Analyze them. Take them apart. Figure out what makes them work—or not work —and why.
But you're a writer, not a cover designer, so why do you need to do this?
If you’re a writer working with a publisher, the truth is you don’t. Most traditionally published writers have no say in what their book's cover will look like. You just have to trust that the publisher's art director or cover designer will make the right choices. They know a lot about design, after all, and their goal is the same as yours: to get readers to buy your book.
If, however, you’re planning on indie publishing, you need to know a little about how readers look at covers and what kind of covers make readers want to buy books. You have to learn to think like a designer, even if you aren't going to be designing your own cover.
Of course, if you are an indie publisher and you don’t have a design background, you’ll almost certainly be better off hiring a professional designer to create your cover. But how are you going to choose the right designer for you if you don’t know what to look for in that designer’s portfolio?
There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about how book covers are supposed to look, and that has led to thousands of badly designed indie published books.
It’s time to break down the assumptions so that you can have a better understanding of what will or won’t help you sell your book.
We’re going to be looking at the covers of the several popular fiction series: the Twilight saga, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games, the Wimpy Kid books, and Heather Brewer’s Chronicles of Vladimir Tod. These are all books with great covers, covers that have connected with readers and have probably helped these books sell well. (Perhaps in a future post, we’ll look at nonfiction covers too.)
Let’s start with the books from the Twilight saga:
Notice the beautiful use of black, white and red.
The red pops off the cover.
Red has several meanings in Western culture. It symbolizes passion, love, life, and of course, blood—all of which comes to play in the Twilight saga. Notice how the falling petal on the New Moon cover looks like a drop of blood. The red apple symbolizes forbidden fruit and the end of innocence. White symbolizes purity and innocence too. Black symbolizes mystery and the night. All of these things are a part of the story too.
There’s one thing that’s noticeably absent in these covers, and that’s anything that screams “vampire.” There’s no mouth with fangs.
There’s also nothing that screams “romance”: no pretty girl, no embracing or kissing couple, not even a seductive face. All those things that are assumed to go on the covers or YA romance or vampire novels—or romantic YA vampire novels—are absent. These covers break the assumptions, and that makes them stand out.
Great covers usually aren’t obvious. Great covers stand out, because they present something in a surprising way.
Yes, blood is implied, but it’s not obvious. Keeping things implied means the reader will have to open the book to start reading in order to find out if what’s implied is really there. And that, of course, is your ultimate goal as a writer, to get the reader to open the book and start reading.
A cover is a promise to the reader that the story delivers on.
Too many cover designers forget this, which leads to far too many covers with fangs, blood, sexy men or women, or couples kissing or embracing. That’s fine for a company like Harlequin Romance. Their readers want all their novels to be the same. They want a predicable formula. Their books are all designed to fulfill the same promise and provide the same value. They are the McDonald’s hamburgers of romance fiction.
But if your novel isn’t published with a company with a reputation for delivering exactly what a specific audience expects, standing out is a good thing. You can’t compete with Harlequin Romance for their readers, so don’t. Instead, get a cover that appeals to a different audience, one that might like to try something . . . different.
The title on the first four Twilight books is small, which doesn’t work quite as well when shrunk down to the size it would appear in Amazon’s search engine (something to consider nowadays if you’re planning to sell your book on Kindle).
The text type is unique and has fangs in the l and h of Twilight. Again, these are implied, not obvious. There are also girly curves in the w and g, which works well for a YA romance. I highly recommend getting a unique text type, because it will stand out and help define your brand as being different from others.
These are, in short, perfect covers.
So you might be thinking, “If they’re so great, why not just copy what works for these books?”
Unfortunately, too many people have already thought that.
The market is saturated with way too many copycat covers that utilize a red element—like a rose—on a black and white backdrop. The first person who does something stands out, but you can’t stand out by copying that person. It just doesn’t work.
Now here’s the cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:
This is the cover I think works best, again because it doesn’t go with the obvious. The book is, after all, called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The obvious thing would be to put a girl with a dragon tattoo on the cover. And that has been done. Here’s another cover for the same book:
In my opinion, this cover is okay but not as great as the one above. Why? Because the illustration is redundant. We already know this book is about a girl with a dragon tattoo. That’s in the title. We don’t need to see it on the cover.
It also defeats one of the greatest joys of reading. When we read, we participate in the creation of the story, because our imagination fills in the blanks. Readers don’t want a cover illustration telling them how to see the character. (And, in fact, this is not the way many have pictured her, as this movie poster shows.)
This is a great movie poster, but showing a picture of the girl works for the movie, because movies are visual experiences. Books—with the exception of illustrated books—are not. Books use words to create a framework for what the reader will see his mind’s eye —but it’s the mind’s eye that will determine what that image will be.
The first cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is all about the title. It pretty much lets the title speak for itself, which is great, because it’s a great title.
While the font isn’t unique, it’s a classic, and it’s broken in a unique way that implies the violence in the book. (I also used something similar with the cover for Toren the Teller’s Tale, where I put slashes in Toren’s name to imply that she was a “torn” girl. Some have said it looks like a dragon’s claws have gone through it, which works very well for the story.) I like the way the word “girl” is the only complete one in the title, which implies that the girl has a certain strength. She stands strong while those around her are damaged. There seem to be only two font choices on that cover, and they’re compatible, which is great. One of the biggest mistakes that amateur cover designers make is using too many fonts or fonts that don’t work well together.
I also love that this cover didn’t go with the obvious color choices of black for mystery and red for violence. The cover, I think, works really well for the intended audience. It says literary and mystery at the same time. It’s another enigma for the reader to unravel. Who is the girl with the dragon tattoo? The reader will have to read the book to find out.
This cover is brilliant in how it eschews the obvious and lets the title do the work.
Now let’s move onto The Hunger Games, and I think with this one you’ll start to see a surprising pattern:
The first thing that stands out is the golden emblem on the cover. All the covers in this series are emblematic. There are no faces, so you get to imagine what Katniss, Peeta, and the other characters look like. And here’s the trend you can see with these covers: the most successful books these days do not show characters on the cover.
This trend makes it easier for the reader to put him or herself into the story. Without a face, the main character could be anyone, even you.
Of course, the emblem works particularly well here, because it looks like a medal that might be awarded to a soldier. That combined with the strong, boxy, almost militaristic font and the word “hunger” belies the playfulness of the word “games.” Only one letter doesn’t fit the same blocky style, and it’s the “s” at the end of games. I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but it reminds me of the “s” in Star Wars (although less dated), which could make it a clever reference to a classic sci-fi series.
Intentional or not, there’s something about it that I think says “sci-fi.”
Black is a natural color for a dystopian novel like The Hunger Games, so that works.
The arrow in the bird’s beak and the stylized targets give a hint as to what’s inside. Once again, the reader will have to open the book to find out if his or her hunch was right. Violence, though, is certainly implied, and the little bits of red add to that impression. The cover makes promises to the reader, and the story delivers on those promises.
These are all serious books for teens and adults. What about novels for younger kids? And what about humorous fiction?
Children’s books are designed for an audience that might not get subtlety. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is a fun, funny, illustrated children’s book series, and the covers make that obvious.
A book cover has to fit its intended audience’s needs, and children need clarity.
A book cover also has to promise something the intended audience wants. (And of course the book must then deliver on that promise.)
The typical reader of Diary of a Wimpy Kid doesn’t want mystery, romance, violence, or even something that will make him think. Nope, the typical reader of Diary of a Wimpy Kid just wants to laugh with—and at—a kid who is probably a lot like the reader or like someone the reader knows.
Subtlety also works better for mystery and suspense than it does for comedy, but that's truer still when it comes to comedy for children. Woody Allen is funny, but his movies—particularly his later ones—appeal mostly to a sophisticated audience. Kids aren’t that sophisticated. They find the exploits of Captain Underpants a hoot. The covers of the Wimpy Kid books, with their utter lack of subtlety and sophistication, are perfect for their intended audience.
There’s a drawing of the main character on the cover. It says right there on the cover that this is “a novel in cartoons,” and the drawing makes it clear what kind of cartoons we’re talking about. These aren’t sophisticated New Yorker cartoons. These are the cartoons a kid draws in his notebook when he’s supposed to be writing down the day’s homework assignment.
It’s an honest self-portrait. He isn’t handsome, cute, or strong. He isn’t happy. He can’t even stand up straight under the weight of his backpack. He is the reader, or at least a kid the reader knows. He doodles on lined notebook paper, maybe dreaming of bigger and better things. He has a diary, but he doesn’t really like it, so he stuck one of his own drawings on it to make it more his own.
One of my favorite parts of this cover is the shiny “tape” that holds the ripped piece of notebook paper down. It feels like you can pick the tape off, like a real kid stuck real tape on it. The word “diary” is written in a font that might be used on a real diary, but the other text is cartoony and looks hand drawn. The cover tells you exactly what you’re going to get, and the story—the novel in cartoons—delivers exactly that.
Lastly, I’d like to discuss a brilliant cover you might not have seen.
These are the books in the Vladimir Tod series by Heather Brewer:
Like the Twilight covers, these covers use black and white to make the single color element on each book pop. However—and this what makes these covers so brilliant—the single color element that pops is a smiley face with ironic fangs. That exact same smiley face with fangs is on the cover of all the books in the series, which raises its status from being a simple design element to a logo.
Why is this a big deal?
Because logos are instantly recognizable.
When we see a logo we’ve seen before, it brings to mind experiences we’ve had with that brand. In other words, if you like the first book in this series, you’ll like the other books in the series, too, and you’ll instantly be able to recognize them by that fanged smiley face. Even if you haven’t read the books and have only seen one cover, chances are you’re going to know this series is familiar to you the next time you see one of these covers, even if it isn’t the same cover.
That’s brand recognition, and that is huge. Not only will it work for your books, but it will work for your book promotions, including things like bookmarks and t-shirts. Think of the potential for merchandising! Not only can you sell those things, but those things will help sell your books.
Of course, the logo has to fit the series, and it this case it does. While Vladimir Tod is a vampire, he’s also a regular teenage boy just trying to survive. The fanged smiley face works perfectly to capture the darkly humorous (or humorously dark) mood of this series.
You might also notice how the title on these covers have almost disappeared. They aren’t as important as those logos, although they are great titles. Here’s a different cover for the first book in the series.
While the title is nice and clear, and it plays with the two meanings of the word "bites," there’s nothing particularly humorous or ironic about the cover's design. This cover is a very good cover, but it misses the point. It doesn't make the promise the book delivers on. Instead it makes a promise that might appeal more to Twilight fans. It aims for a similar audience, but not the exact right audience. The deliciously ironic fanged smiley face, though, more accurately promises what the book delivers. It captures exactly the right audience. Which proves that sometimes a clear title works, and sometimes something else works even better.
Speaking of books that don’t have clear titles on the cover, I thought I’d throw in just one more:
Do you see the title? No? That's because it's not there.
But can you still figure out what the title is? It takes a little bit of thought, but you can work it out. There’s a star and then a girl. So the cover of the book is...?
If you guessed Star Girl, you are correct.
Star Girl by Jerry Spinelli is about a girl who’s different, a girl who stands out. Doesn’t it make sense to give it a cover that stands out too? And a cover without a title does just that.
SO WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
- Study the covers of books that appeal to your intended audience. What works? What doesn't? Why does it work or not work? What’s been overdone? Is there a look you would consider dated? Is there a classic look? If so, what differentiates one from the other?
- How can your book stand out from the crowd? Do you have a strong visual in the title? If you do, does the cover need to show that visual or would that be redundant? Is your book illustrated? If so, do you think an illustration should be on the cover to show the reader what's inside?
- What does your book give the reader? How does that align with what your intended audience wants? How can the cover promise to give the reader what the reader wants and what your book delivers?
- How can you make the font stand out in a way that fits your book? And how can you make your fonts work in harmony to appeal to your book's audience and deliver your message?
- How many colors are on the most successful books in your genre? What are those colors? Are they overdone? If so, how can you shake it up to make your book look different?
Of course, this is only a very brief overview of some elements of book cover design; but if you're an indie author, you don't need to know everything about how to design a cover. You only need to understand why designers make the choices they do. In the end, it's all about the designer using his or her expertise to help you sell more books. In a future blog post, I intend to go into how to choose and work with the right designer for your book.
What about you? There are so many books with wonderful covers. What are some of your favorites? Try looking at them while asking yourself the questions above. What do you think makes them great and why? Are your favorite covers dated, current, or timeless? What makes them that way?