Covers are the first bit of customer-facing marketing that your reader will ever see. They’re a shortcut—telling the reader in shorthand that they’ll like this book, that it’s in the genre they love to read, and that the person who wrote it is someone they can trust with their valuable (often limited) reading time. That’s a lot of information to pack into one image, and still make it effective. So what’s the secret psychology behind choosing a good cover?
And choosing … there’s a reason we’re describing covers as a choice the author makes, rather than harping on the idea of do-it-yourself versus hire-someone cover design (at least for the moment—we’ll get to this later).
Regardless of how you come to the cover, you’re going to make a few choices before your book goes live. So it’s a good idea to have as much preparation as you can get, to work out exactly what you should be looking for in a good cover design, and exactly what to avoid.
Image is everything
There are a couple of image-related philosophies that we need to look into, and one of them won’t be much of a surprise.
Humans are lazy. We’re constantly looking for ways to shortcut the decision-making process, and that includes looking for anything useful in helping us decide what we should read next.
Sometimes we make our reading choices based on factors such as the authors we already like, the books our friends are reading, the next book in a series, and on and on. But what about those times when we’re looking for something new? How do we discover a new work, from an author we’ve never heard of, and whom our friends have yet to discover?
There’s a reason people like to browse the shelves at book stores, or scan the best seller pages online. We’re looking for a book that has the right look for the mood we’re in, and for the sort of story we’re wanting to read.
And we’re good at this. We can scan an entire digital page or an entire physical display of books, and in seconds we’ll spot the one or two that make us feel that little twinge of excitement. Something about the cover—the tone of it, the action and drama, the artistic style—gets us to pick it up or click on it, and learn more.
So the first job of the cover image is to resonate with a particular reader. It needs to be exciting to them. It needs to tell its own story, and make its own promise about what the book will be about.
For fiction, readers want a hint of the action they’re about to experience. They want to be treated to a story before they ever crack open the cover.
NOTE: This does not mean that your cover needs to be a faithful reproduction of a scene from within the book. The image you use on a cover needs to be able to stand on its own, presenting the will-be reader with something thrilling that makes them want to learn more. If it helps, you can think of the cover as a ‘prequel’ to the story of the book, and the book itself as a ‘sequel.’
For non-fiction, you want to connect to your will-be reader on both an emotional and intellectual level. This is one of the few times when it’s appropriate to build visual puns and metaphors into your covers. An image related to your topic is the way to go, but there’s nothing that says you can’t push the symbolism a little.
Just remember to keep things clean—the non-fiction covers that perform best are nearly always simple in design, with all of the reader’s attention focused on the title and subtitle. Remember that the purpose of a non-fiction book is solving a problem (even if it’s entertaining in the process). So the imagery of your cover needs to funnel the reader’s attention to the problem you are solving.
Go Pro or Go Home
The second philosophy to bear in mind for cover imagery is professionalism. The image needs to tell the reader that A) you have the resources and the means to do this work at a standard above the hobby level, and B) you have the kind of respect for your readers that empowers, enables, and compels you to give them your best.
You’ve likely heard the advice a million times: “Hire a professional to do your cover. Don’t use cheap art, cheap titles, cheap layout.”
What you may not have heard, and thus never quite connected, is the psychology behind that advice:
Your cover is its own story, and readers are looking at it as a way to help them make a purchasing and reading decision.
If your goal is to attract new readers, you need to embrace this psychology, and have a strategy that plays to it. Choose art that tells its own independent story—related to your book’s story, for certain, but in no way trying to ‘tell your book’s story’ in a single panel.
Take a look at the comic book industry. These are stories told with both text and images, and each comic has its own unique cover. The cover is designed to entice the reader, to get them to pick up the book. But it doesn’t tell the story in and of itself. It provides a scene—a hero in jeopardy, or performing some heroic act, or simply surprised by some off-screen revelation. That cover is there to get the reader to pick up the book and open it, and the story inside takes care of the rest.
Make It Genre Appropriate (Know Your Reader)
No self-respecting science fiction reader is going to buy a space opera story with a cover depicting a long-haired, shirtless man wearing pirate pants and standing on the prow of a wooden sailing ship, holding a buxom young beauty at his side as the waves crash around them. It doesn’t matter how many spaceships you put in the background.
Or they might … You know, people can be weird and funny.
But the odds are that readers of space operas aren’t looking for a cover that looks like a romance novel.And the opposite also holds true.
You already know this, instinctively. And the above example is an extreme, so it would be easy to spot. More subtle, however, and therefore more deadly (for book sales at least) are covers that seem close to being genre appropriate, but skew aside just enough to tank sales.
For example, you have your space opera cover, with two starships colliding in combat, lasers everywhere. But the font used for the title is Comic Sans or Papyrus. Sure … these fonts are wicked awesome. But they don’t exactly scream “quality science fiction.” And worse, they don’t meet the expectations of the potential reader.
People gravitate toward the familiar. The more familiar something (or someone) is, the better the chances of attraction. When readers are looking for something new to add to their shelves, they want to know that it will be something similar enough to what they’re used to, and already enjoy, that it will fit with the books they already love.
Big Title, Easy Read
There’s a separate psychology to book titles, which we’ll get to in a future blog post. But assuming you have a good one, and it’s capable of doing the job of grabbing reader attention and evoking a sense of curiosity and intrigue, there’s a bit of design philosophy that will help make your cover stand out and gain more positive attention.
And positive attention is good—because it could so easily go the other way.
Nothing wrecks a pretty picture faster than a title.
Fortunately for us, we’re not here just to sell pretty pictures—we’re trying to sell all those beautiful words wedged between the front and back cover of our book. And for that, a title can help carry some of the design load.
For starters, thinking back to the ‘Z’ layout we mentioned above, a title can help create weight and motion on the page, guiding the reader in the direction we choose, and helping their eye flow the way we need it to.
Titles are written—and we read from left to right. So titles usually need to be in a left-to-right position in our ‘Z’. For example, if you put the title at the top of the book, it’s the top of the ‘Z.’ And the bottom of the book—well, you get the idea.
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