A book cover checklist for authors

[This article was written by Sandra Poirier Smith, President of Smith Publicity.]

Each week, Smith Publicity receives over 100 inquiries from authors and publishers looking for our help, support, and ideas on how to get their books featured on television and radio shows, in newspapers or magazines, and/or online/blog outlets. In evaluating if we are a good fit for a project and if we believe we have a good chance of securing positive media attention, we review many factors including the outside or overall look of a book.

A book’s cover, back cover, title, sub-title, author photo, etc. need to be professionally executed. In some cases, we see these details are not given enough attention. Here is a book cover check list to help understand what we, and the media, look for in the look of a book:

1. Is the cover professionally designed?

Hire a graphic designer who specializes in creating book covers (not a friend’s daughter who took a graphics class in high school). Book design is a true art form, with knowledge needed in trends in imagery, colors, and typography, and expertise in print production and/or e-book presentation.

A cover sets the tone for the book. Find a professional who will work to creatively represent the book. Please note: Most book designers do not write or edit copy, which is a completely different skill set. Make sure the cover works at a thumbnail size (the size you see on Amazon and other online retail outlet search results) as this may be the only way readers view your cover.

Here are some examples of bad book covers (Huffington Post) and good book covers (NYTimes). Read here for more information on book design from award winning designer Joel Friedlander.

From a publicity perspective, if a book cover is of inferior quality, the media will likely ignore the book even if it is beautifully written by a highly credentialed author.

2. Does the title reflect the essence of the book?

Selecting a title is a combination of creativity and market research. Creatively, does the title help differentiate the book? This is especially important for a non-fiction work where immediately describing the book’s content—what problem does this book solve—is critical. Fiction titles have a bit more creative leeway. Based on the title, is the tone and genre of the book evident to target buyers? For example, can you tell from the title if the book is serious, humorous, playful, or a self-help, chick lit, children’s book, or a murder mystery?

From a market research perspective, review competitive titles on Amazon. What makes this book different? Is this difference evident in the title? What Amazon key terms are people using to find books on similar topics, and can these words be incorporated into the title/sub-title? Is the book part of a series? If so, keep this in mind as you design the series’ brand. Vague, lengthy, confusing, or misleading titles simply detract from a project.

From a publicity perspective, as we present books to producers, editors, and bloggers, there are only a few seconds for a book and its title to capture interest for further consideration.

3. Does your non-fiction book have a sub-title?

Not having a sub-title for a non-fiction book is a huge mistake. A sub-title helps the reader understand what the reader will learn, and why this information is important. It takes time to get this right! For example, there is a book with the title Quiet. Without a sub-title, could this book be a listening skills book, a parenting book, or even a meditation book? Its sub-title is key to define the book, which is: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Another example is the title: Clean Slate. Without a sub-title, this could be for a person starting out again after battling addiction or jail time, dating after divorce, or perhaps home decorating advice. However, the subtitle: A Cookbook and Guide: Reset Your Health, Detox Your Body, and Feel Your Best clearly defines the content.

From a publicity perspective, media professionals need to quickly understand what your book is about and the problems it can solve.

4. Does the back cover give a solid book summary, author bio, professional headshot and “blurbs?”

Some books come to us with no back cover copy. Blank. This is a huge mistake, even if a book is only sold online. If blank, media (and book buyers) will know the book was not professionally published. Back cover copy should nicely summarize the book. Another mistake we often see in novels is when the author gives too much of the plot away. The goal is to entice people to want to read the book. For non-fiction books, the author’s credentials are essential. As with the entire book, hire a professional editor to help with this important text. If using a photograph, make sure it is a high resolution, professional image that matches the book’s tone and genre. We’ve seen blurry author photos, photos with other people and body parts cropped out, old, dated photos, and even one with a bride in the background (obviously taken at someone’s wedding).

If you have reviews from industry experts, book reviewers, or people with impressive and relevant titles, consider adding these to the front or back cover. Do not put a review from an anonymous “Amazon reviewer.” We even received a book with a glowing review attributed to the author’s mother, and sadly, it was not meant to be funny.

From a publicity perspective, professionally presented back covers help media quickly understand a book’s tone, message, and genre, why the author is qualified to write it, and its intended audience.

Does the book have the title, author name, and publisher on the spine?

We’ve seen no text on a spine, the text facing the wrong way (the bottom of the letters should be pointing left or if wide enough, across the spine), and even seen a book with the text like this:

G

H

O

S

T

Please don’t do this unless there is a specific reason. A solidly designed spine—with the book’s title, author’s name, and if appropriate, publisher name/logo—is critical to a book’s overall presentation. Think what happens if someone shelves your book with no title on the spine (lost forever?).

From a publicity perspective, having no text on the spine or a spine that does not “fit” the design readers expect will make it stand out to the media in a negative way.

One final note

For book cover inspiration, I always recommend visiting a bookstore and see where the book would be shelved. Look on Amazon too. How does the book look compared to the competition? Does the size, shape, color scheme, tone, text, and images quickly and clearly define your book to its targeted buyer? Does it have all the attributes other books have, including pricing, age range (for a children’s book), and bar code with ISBN?

This information just scratches the surface on the marketing and design process needed to create the “outside” of a book. With the number of choices producers, editors and bloggers have when selecting a book for potential coverage, the book’s cover design and copy are essential to the first step in generating interest.

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About the author: Sandra Poirier Smith is the president of Smith Publicity, Inc. Since 1997, Smith Publicity has launched thousands of experts, books and authors—from New York Times bestsellers to first time, self-published projects. Smith Publicity thrives on making good things happen for authors by helping them build exposure of their work through exposure in print, broadcast and online media. To learn more or sign up for their book publicity newsletter, visit: www.SmithPublicity.com, email info@SmithPublicity.com, or call 856-489-8654 x309.

How To Guide for Authors

Image via Shutterstock.com.

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26 thoughts on “Judging a Book by Its Cover: What Book Publicists—and Media—Want to See on the Outside of a Book

  1. rodney burke says:

    SPEAKING OF THE SPINE, SHOULD I AS THE AUTHOR, specify what color the entire cover should be in the background or is that the purvey of the book cover designer? I have the specifics of the FRONT cover, now I am not sure what colors are appropriate for the spine and the back cover. If I were to publish through Book baby, would that be on the spine as the publisher? Things that another publishing medium didn’t talk to me about? I assume with that $1198 they would include them in the cover design but then again….

  2. carolyn says:

    Are you sure you didn’t get the best and worst book covers mixed up a little? I didn’t like any of the ‘best’ and thought some of the other were better. :-\

    1. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

      Carolyn: I posted a comment several months ago (which does not seem to appear here anymore) which matches yours in sentiment. I found most of those “best” bookcovers of 2014 either dreadful or incomprehensible (and some of them both), lacking exactly what these pointers say should be there. Who picks these out, anyway? What kind of qualifications must one have to decide the best or worst of anything?

    2. Roger says:

      I agree with Carolyn . . . The covers touted as the best would not translate anything to a prospective buyer when reduced to thumbnail size. Bottom line, a book cover is a sales presentation. It’s sole purpose is to draw and hold the attention of a prospective buyer long enough to complete a purchase. While these “best” covers may represent a more avant-garde approach to design, they appear to be more of a collection of covers illustrating a momentary pendulum swing toward trendy simplicity, and unfortunately, are going to leave a lot of readers wondering what the book is about.

    3. Sharon says:

      I’m with you Carolyn. The best looked so unattractive and quite puzzling.

  3. Obi Amos says:

    A good write up critical for a writers. I loved and enjoyed it indeed. Thanks you for your writeup.

  4. karencrider says:

    A lot of children’s books are soft covered, and so thin they have no spine. How do these books fare compared to those that have a spine? Are they even defined as a book? Thanks.

  5. Linda Marchman says:

    None of the “best” book covers would inspire me to buy the book, much less open it to see what it was about. They were impersonal and sparse in my opinion. Who designed them anyway? A first year contemporary art student?

    1. Mary A. Berger says:

      I have to agree with Linda (and nearly all the others): the “best” book covers were hardly inspirational. “Impersonal and sparse” nails it, Linda.

  6. Scott says:

    I must agree with the logic that the good and bad covers are reversed. Under bad covers, there are two book titles that a part of two different series, one being book 2 of its series and the other being book 3 of its series.

    It is doubtful that the followers of these two perspective series would fail to purchase the book due to their traditional covers. In fact, if the books did not have traditional covers, the readers would likely not recognize the authors work and therefore not purchase the next book in the series.

    It appears to me, that the criteria that was used to determine which books have a bad cover is based solely on whether the book cover is one of a traditional design, and those that are within the list of good covers are those that do not have a traditional design.

    This is merely someones judgment that “change is good” but that statement has never been true nor valid. Change is good only when the change being made is truly, indeed and in fact better than that which was being done or used before.

    If “change is good” is a truism, then when a law abiding citizen decides to break the law, that change to unlawfulness is deemed good; It however, is never good when a person chooses to break the law and victimize those who he chooses to victimize.

    Change for the sake of change is never good. In most cases, the change, which is always declared to be better, is most often not better, but worse than that which was replaced in the change. This is most likely the reason so many of the covers on the bad list are in fact both traditional and good while those on the good list are both non traditional and bad failing the standard that this article puts forth.

    Scott A. Tovey

  7. Thanks for re-posting Ms Smith’s informative article. Although they wouldn’t work in all circumstances, I liked the minimalist styles of the examples of good book covers. The sea of new releases whose covers are cluttered with praise and testimonials are, in my opinion, atrocious. They’re unfortunate and mutilated victims of our hyper-competitive capitalist society, giving bookstores the seizure-inducing confetti look of impulse checkout aisles at supermarkets. Often the author’s name is larger than the title itself these days, in an overflowing of narcissism. And must all novels now come with the subtitle “A Novel”? Plus there are stickers for Oprah’s Book Club and review blurbs right on the front, sometimes nearly on top of the title. Now the first several pages inside the book are filled with more praise that wouldn’t fit on the embossed color-saturated cover!

    Simple designs are better. It’s interesting to look back to old books, thirty years ago, sixty years ago, a century, to see how much the appearance of them has changed.

    I’m certain they will change a lot more in the decades to come as physical books become less important (although nevertheless still cherished by folks like me).

  8. Chris Phipps says:

    I agree that the “best” book covers were dreadful. Some of the bad ones were better. What these critics may have forgotten is that the READER is going to judge the book by the cover, too, and as an avid reader, I wouldn’t even pick up one of these books. It’s unfortunate and disheartening, if critics use this method to determine which books are worth reviewing.

    1. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

      Did anyone check out the “best book covers of 2013” for which there is a link with the “good book covers”? On one of them, the cover doesn’t even have a title, just a picture of three computer button icons. What is THAT supposed to communicate to me?

      One thing that these “good” examples do is encourage the author to design (or have designed) cover art that can’t help but be vastly superior to anything offered here. Most toddlers come up with more creative stuff using fingerpaints.

      What about contracting that elephant who paints? She’s in a zoo somewhere in the world – I don’t remember where – and she has a remarkable eye for color and composition. The zoo sells her paintings to help finance running the zoo.

  9. Charles says:

    Those “good” book cover examples, if those were professionally designed, just convinced me not to go with a professional. I’ve done the one cover I needed so far, and it is better than any of those. Really?

  10. rodney burke says:

    You tell me, I have a book cover with an apple sitting on top of some textbooks with the Title of The Ragdoll and the President” Does that scene cover the title? Or does it seem amateurish? I have 14 months left on a two year publishing contract. Opinions?

  11. David North says:

    Unfortunately, in the age of trending, metric, branding and platform, we have self-appointed gatekeepers who determine what is currently “good” and anything that does not fit the trend becomes, “not good” — even if it actually is good.

    I’d point out that no publisher has hit “the” formula for knowing absolutely what will be a hit, what will go viral etc. and that many of their best guesses are nothing more than thumbnail guidelines that don’t always apply.

    Analyzing creativity with statistics, algorithms and trending rules is of limited value. Following these sorts of guidelines religiously is what has given u so much crappy media in film and television. For a long while (and still some today) putting in a laugh track was thought essential to a comedy. It’s actually better to write funny scenes than to get a triggered laugh with an audio trick.

    I liked the article but the good/ bad examples were without context or explanation. In what way were they successful (or not)? Who determined they were?

    Frankly, in the good examples what I primarily saw was the current publisher’s push to have a simple cover with one or two stylish elements pointing to the name of the work and author. Lots of white space works in advertising but then again, sometimes detailed panel is better. Trying to fit simple, inflexible rules into predicting what is best is not going to be successful in assessing creative works. Give it a week and some author will break the rule and his or her book will sell anyway. Then we’ll have another new trend and another ‘what you must do”.

    1. Edwina says:

      “…we have self-appointed gatekeepers who determine what is currently “good” and anything that does not fit the trend becomes, “not good” — even if it actually is good.”
      When I read this in your comments, it immediately reminded me of that scene in Ayn Rand’s novel, ATLAS SHRUGGED, where everyone (it’s been a while since I read it the last time) either goes to a play or reads a book and it’s pure nonsense; no one understands it, but the critics brainwash them that it is a wonderful book (or play) and thus the sheeple (modern term not in novel) rave about how wonderful it is, though they do not like it and they do not understand it. They are afraid to say so because they fear they will be thought ignorant for not liking it. There is a huge difference between quality and mediocrity (and less than that). I first read that novel at age 13 and it made such an indelible impression on me, setting my standards for original thinking, and thinking for myself, that I not only read it periodically thereafter but demanded any man I dated to read it before I would take him seriously. I needed to know that he understood. Leading to…judge for yourself what you feel is a good cover or a bad cover. That said, if you are not a trained graphic designer (and I do not mean taking a single course or learning some computer programs), then you are better off conveying what you want to a designer. You can even go online and find free or $1 photos to “assemble” and show your designer what you have in mind. I am a graphic designer and copywriter, and while I have definite ideas about the cover of my book, there is more to it than that. Can you also design the interior of your book? Make your decision based on your own skills and ideas and a designer whose work you truly like. Think for yourself but also be open to professional opinion.

  12. K L Boekhaus says:

    I find it interesting that many of the “Best” book covers violate the recommendations in the article. Loved the article. Hated the best and worst lists.

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