Yes, We Really Do Judge Books by Their Covers

With self-publishing settling into the mainstream, fierce competition has upped the ante for indie authors. The finest books boast strong, well-written stories. But to rise to the top, to gain traction with readers, even the best book needs a dynamic cover. Recognizing this, savvy indies invest time and energy into creating striking cover designs. As a result, it’s becoming nearly impossible to differentiate between self- and traditionally published books.

“I’m blown away by the great covers on books by indie authors,” says Smashwords founder Mark Coker. “The quality of cover design today is head and shoulders above what it was just a few years ago.”

A book’s cover is the first thing a potential reader sees and it can make a lasting impression. “Our brains are wired to process images faster than words,” Coker explains. “When we see an image, it makes us feel something.” A great cover, he says, can “help the reader instantly recognize that this book is for them.”

If a great design has gut-level emotional appeal and the power to entice readers, a poorly designed cover can be a real turn-off. A book’s description is the “first and foremost concern” of the blogger and book reviewer known as “The Picky Girl.” Still, she thinks twice before accepting or buying a book with a bad (or cheap looking) cover. “I wonder what other areas lack quality and refinement,” she says.

Like Picky Girl, Naomi Blackburn, one of the world’s top Goodreads reviewers, founder of the group The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, and author of the business advice column The Author CEO, selects books based primarily on their description. But Blackburn, too, passes on books with bad covers. “If the cover seems to be nothing more than a catalog photograph with block lettering, I bypass it,” she says. “If the author didn’t care enough to dedicate time/effort to their cover, I wonder how much time they put into the book itself.”

According to Coker, there’s a clear connection between great covers and great sales. “In addition to promising what a book will deliver, the [cover] image also promises (or fails to promise) that the author is a professional, and that the book will honor the reader’s time.” Over the last five years, at Smashwords, they’ve seen numerous examples of a simple cover change causing the author’s sales to break out. As Coker documents in his free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, R.L. Mathewson, a romance writer, went from selling five or six copies a day of her novel, Playing for Keeps, to over 1,000 a day simply by updating her cover image.

An outstanding cover may also attract the attention of retail merchandising managers, which can translate into a boon for sales. “When ebook retailers select books for special merchandising features, cover design is paramount,” Coker says. “A great cover combined with great reader reviews is a killer combination.”

A great cover also makes a book easier to market, says Diane Saarinen, publicist for the Saima Agency, a PR and author-services company. The agency offers blog tours among their various marketing services. “Bloggers are inundated with pitches. You need an edge like that [a professionally produced cover] to stand out.”

For authors, cover choices create and affect perceptions of their brand. “Readers remember book covers,” Saarinen says. “They tend to remember them much more clearly than, say, an author’s website.” The right font can have a major impact on brand image, in Picky Girl’s opinion: “When you think of any brand you know and like, you’re also identifying them with a particular font (think McDonald’s, Disney). Similarly, the Harry Potter font is instantly distinguishable and an example of a font fitting its book well.”

Kris Miller, the designer for the Saima Agency, has been designing books for the past two decades for clients, including major New York publishers such as Random House and Penguin Books. When designing their covers Miller encourages authors to think a few books ahead. “Even if a book isn’t part of a series, there should be a continuity that communicates who the author is to potential readers,” she says.

Occasionally, Miller comes across an indie author, with no prior design experience, who thinks a computer application like Adobe Photoshop can turn book design into a do-it-yourself project. “I try to educate them that Photoshop, like a paint brush or a pencil, is only a tool—what’s important is who wields it. A designer with over two decades of professional experience is going to do a far better job designing your cover than your well-meaning friend who happens to have Photoshop Elements on their laptop. It’s an old adage, but you get what you pay for.” 

Author Patti Davis, who recently published her first indie book with Amazon KDP and Createspace, worked closely with her designer, Donna Casey (Digital Donna) to create the striking cover for her well-received novel Till Human Voices Wake Us. The novel begins with the drowning of a child. In an early scene, the protagonist remembers dancing on the beach with her mother when she (the protagonist) was a girl. The scene comes back later in the book. For Davis, this image—the rainy day, the muted colors of the sky and the sea, the poignant image of a mother and daughter dancing—communicates the essence of the story, a quality she considers important. When collaborating with her designer, Davis described in detail the image she had in mind, right down to the length and color of the mother’s hair. The cover Casey produced is even more beautiful, Davis says, than she had imagined.

The Elements of a Great Cover Design

Readers, marketers, and merchandisers know a great cover when they see one, but what exactly are the elements?

“The most important aspect is intangible,” Miller says: the book cover should look professional. Clear author branding and great cover art are among the variables Miller cites as contributing to excellence in cover design: “No awkward Photoshop montages or generic stock art.” Quality book covers are easily read and have distinctive typography. “Most importantly,” Miller says, “there is harmonious cohesion between design elements and market. The art shouldn’t fight the typography. A romance novel shouldn’t look like a thriller or visa versa.”

According to Coker, the elements that give a book the greatest visibility on online retail shelves include simplicity, a clear promise, a professional design with layers and smart use of color, readable text, and appropriate targeting: “If you strip away the words, the image needs to make a promise to the reader. It should promise, ‘this is the book you’re looking for to experience [the feeling of first love for contemporary romance; fear for horror; edge of your seat suspense for thrillers; knowledge for a non-fiction how-to; the liberating feeling of financial freedom for a personal finance book; an inspiring story of personal journey for a memoir, etc.]”

Remember, Miller says, the cover image will be reproduced in both small and large sizes. “For that reason, a strong, simple image will usually ‘pop’ better and be remembered by readers.” The cover image is especially important for e-books, says Coker. “On an iPhone, the front jacket cover will be merchandised at a size of ½” wide by about ¾” tall. When people refer to this as a thumbnail-size image, it really is.”

No doubt, a fine cover gives the author an advantage, Coker says: “A poor cover creates unnecessary friction that prevents a reader from clicking to sample or purchase a book. Great covers eliminate friction.” Turns out, the old bromide was wrong: readers really do judge books by their covers.


16 replies
  1. avatar
    Bronwyn Hemus says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with all the points mentioned in your article. The power of a book cover is not to be underestimated as it is your first chance to connect with potential readers. It creates an impression, stirs emotions and conveys the promise of what you book offers.

    An effective book cover also utilizes and develops existing rules and conventions. For example, readers expect horror novels to have covers with deep colors and jarring images. You would never use pastels or flowery fonts on the cover of a horror novel. When designing a book cover, it is important to be mindful of these conventions so that your book meets the expectations of readers.

  2. avatar
    Michel Sauret says:

    I personally cringe when authors resort to really cheap, self-made or childish covers. I do believe that the cover (though not a reflection of the book’s quality) is a representation of the author’s desire to promote and be proud of his work. A book better have won an award or two and have really great reviews if I’m expected to overlook a cover’s poor presentation.

  3. avatar
    Richard Sutton (@RichardLSutton) says:

    Thanks for this post. Writing may be art, but when a book is published it becomes a consumer product to be launched, subject to exactly the same kinds of considerations that package designers have been refining for generations. A book’s cover is packaging, designed (hopefully…) to motivate the desired market segment. No manufacturer would ever launch a product with a package that someone thought had a gnarly illustration, or a pretty flower alone. There’s more to it than just putting pictures on a 6 x 9 white page.

  4. avatar
    Kenton Kilgore says:

    I’m amazed at the number of amateur covers I seen on indie books. Getting a pro to do your cover is a must. I heartily recommend my cover artist, James Arnold, who did the covers for my “Dragontamer’s Daughter’s” books. You can see the covers at my website (

    James recently accepted the position of Director of Visual Arts at Washington College in Chestertown, MD, and you can find more samples of his work at

    • avatar
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Congratulations on your new position, Kenton! Very cool graphics on your site–it’s obvious why the hired you!

      As one commenter pointed out, many indies have little discretionary income, so I understand the motivation to design one’s own cover. I agree with you, though–for the vast majority of us, hiring a pro is a must.

  5. avatar
    Terri Giuliano Long says:

    Thank you so much, Bronwyn! Great point about adhering to conventions! As I tell students, we can break the rules, but we need to be fully aware of the risk. It’s always a calculus, I think. We need to ask ourselves if breaking the rule is worth the result–i.e., not meeting reader expectations and possibly turning people off.

  6. avatar says:

    Terri, nice post with good insight from books pros. As a book publicist I tell me clients their book cover is like a highway billboard. How’s that? It’s simple. Just as people are driving past a billboard at 70 MPH, shoppers in a book store are walking by your book sitting on a table at the same relevant speed. Like a billboard, if you first don’t catch their attention you’ll never deliver the message.

    That’s one reason billboards use images to get the attention and then the words to make the sale. What are common images? Attractive women, followed by muscular and attractive men. They don’t call romance books bodice rippers for nothing and the photos or illustrations on books in that genre leave no doubt in your mind about what’s inside. But that can’t be said about most other books. That’s why that image is important real estate that must be used to convey to the potential buyer just what’s in that book.

    What is the correct image? One that does not need any explanation. If your image needs an introduction… then it’s not the right choice. How can you find out? Just show it to people. Ask them what they think the book is about by looking at the cover image. Ideally the image does the talking by itself.

    Choose your title carefully. The best highway billboards are 5-7 words in total because motorists are flying by and cannot comprehend too much information. The human mind cannot comprehend words at a glance so why fight it? Putting too many words in the title is the equivalent of trying to take a drink out of a fire hose! If you want to have a fighting chance give them a short sweet title and subtitle. Be brief.

    I cannot caution authors enough – do not underestimate the importance of a book cover’s design. Not only do potential book buyers judge a book by its cover but so do members of the media. Many reporters receive dozens of books every day! Do you really think they read the book flap and your pitch? Ha!

    Here are some important items to consider when making decisions on book cover design:

    Use a subhead to create more description. If you have a 10-word title, you have not properly named the book in the first place.

    Check with Google on the words that are most searched on your topic. To do this, type in the word that best describes your book in the search box and then see what the next most important or popular words are in that list. That ranking is very relevant marketing- wise so try to use those words in your title or subtitle.

    Visit book stores and look at the covers of all types of books. What catches your eye? Look at the book face and look at the spines. Which ones are readable and why?

    Will it play on Amazon? Go to,, com and search on competitive books in your space. Notice the book covers that catch your eye and the ones that do not. If your cover does not show up well in an Amazon thumbnail then you are going to lose sales.

    Contrast. Don’t let your graphic designer get started without keeping contrast in mind. The reason black ink works so well on white paper is because it produces the best contrast possible. Yellow ink on green paper in a small font simply does not work.

    How does your book look in black and white? Not every publication will be printing it in color.

    Font size. Many designers are young with great eyesight. But your buyer may not be able to read the tiny font some designers insist upon using. Be practical.

    The spine. Can you read it from five feet away? If not, neither can browsers in a book store.

    Blurbs. Keep them relevant and short. Consider including a mention on the cover of a foreword written by a famous person or author. “Foreword by J.K. Rowling” or “Foreword by Oprah Winfrey” or “Foreword by Best Selling Author Tom Clancy.”

    Do not overlook creating content on the back inside flaps because consumers pick up a book after looking at the spine, front cover and back and then open the book to find the price or more information.

    Print your cover out on a laser printer. Don’t just review your cover on a computer screen which will make it look considerably better. Print it out actual size and make a determination using that printed version.

    Pictures are worth 1000 words. Use photos and illustrations to describe what would take too long to explain.

    When choosing a book design ask yourself how the cover will look on your website home page. Branding is important so you’ll want to use the same design elements on your website that you do on your book cover

    Show your cover designs to as many people in your target group of potential readers. Get their reactions and opinions. It costs you nothing and you’ll likely find out something you did not realize before.

    I have more tips on my website along with a list of 30 book cover designers. Authors should embrace this process, its as important as writing the book in the first place.

  7. avatar
    David P Perlmutter says:

    Great post and totally agree that a book needs a cover that will draw readers to look inside and eventually buy the book, whether a paperback or kindle.

    Thankfully, I am lucky that my brother is a designer and designed both my covers for my books, which have had many compliments.

    Now to twist his arm again to design the cover of my third book!


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