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On Cover Design. Because It Matters.

31 October 2016

From The Dust Lounge:

I love covers.

I really love covers.

. . . .

I’m talking about book covers.

And if you turn around and tell me you don’t judge a book by its cover, then that’s damn great. But a little badger in the back of my mind doesn’t believe you. The cover is what makes a book stand out on the shelf, or on the screen. It’s the glint that catches your eye and won’t let go.

Of course, some covers are bad. They might be misleading. They might be hard to read. They might be photoshoppery disasters.

. . . .

And making a cover is hard.

But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not important. These days, we’re not just talking about browsing through shelves at the local bookshop. No, now we’re talking about miniature thumbnail covers that have to stand out in the vast sea of books competing for your attention. Which means it’s time to get all LOOK-AT-ME-LOOK-AT-ME, but in the right way.

. . . .


  • Stay simple. Clutter the cover too much, especially on the online thumbnail, and you ain’t gonna have a clue what it’s supposed to be.
  • Use an easy to read font. That font that looks so pretty when you’re zoomed in on screen could be illegible when shrunken down. Don’t make people work too hard to know what your book’s called.
  • Stay on trend. Written a horror book? What do the bestsellers look like? Are they pink and fluffy with pictures of high heels? Are they pastel images of someone running through fields of dandelions? Know what your market likes, and play to it.
  • Get striking. Go vibrant, go bright, go graphical. Make it pop.

. . . .


  • Finish without sleeping on it. This rule applies to everything. But then, I do really like sleeping. Also, there’s a lot to be said for letting fresh eyes have a peek.
  • Settle for something you hate. You’re going to have to market this book. This is your word-baby, so make sure you like the packaging.

Link to the rest at The Dust Lounge and thanks to Sal for the tip.


38 Comments to “On Cover Design. Because It Matters.”

  1. ‘Staying on trend’ has little to do with what readers like, and a great deal to do with what Big Publishing’s art directors are not yet bored with this week. It is at best an unreliable guide.

    Remember, virtually all those Big Pub books you see out there were shovelled out with zero market research. The design is probably an imitation of the last big seller in the genre, a feeble cargo-cult attempt to capture and recycle some of its money-making mojo.

  2. I do my best with covers in spite of a limited budget. Get over it.

  3. “Stay on trend”

    But I’m a tend setter, so this must be bad advise.

    “Get striking” make their eyes bleed!

    But you said “Stay simple” and “Use an easy to read font” so not too striking then?

  4. Funny thing: an article about book covers that doesn’t even hint that a cover should reflect the story it is trying to sell. Would’ve thought that would be job one.

    The old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words is applicable to covers, especially in the genres. The best covers I’ve seen are striking and artistically designed but, more importantly, they say something relevant to the story, the title, or the blurb.

    Most of the worn to death tradpub cover tropes are failures not just because they’re generic but also because they don’t say anything about the story they’re trying to sell. A generic cover says the story is generic.

    Here’s a classic example of a cover that sells the story:j


    Study the image and then read the blurb.
    Perfect alignment between the title, the image, the blurb.
    And what the cover promises, the story delivers.

    That one is a rarity, though.
    Follow-the-trend generic covers are far from a new phenomenon.

    • Loved the Giant’s Star books!

    • I agree about that cover. I prefer covers that either illustrate a scene, or show the spirit of what the book is about (while communicating genre, obviously). That’s why I like being indie, because I can tell my cover artists to make such covers for me.

      — To anyone who clicks that link is all irritated that the book is out of print and not in Kindle — it is in Kindle, it’s just called “The Two Moons (Giants Star Book 1)” which has “Inherit the Stars” and the sequel paired together. Going on my read-when-I-take-a-vacation-list.

  5. Here are some absolutely horrible covers.

    You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but these new Penguin Galaxy hardcovers make it really hard. The publishing company ditched its iconic “classic” covers for more futuristic and playful typeface layouts in this rather expensive but beautiful boxed set of six classic science fiction and fantasy books.

    Most people probably wouldn’t buy this set just to read the books, though. What you’re actually purchasing is the iconic designs of cover artist Alex Trochut and the jewel-box lucite showcase that comes with the set.

    • Ouch.
      My poor eyeballs.

      • Yeah, really.

        On top of which, it hardly signals SFF, now does it?

        Make the title and authors hard to read, make the genre an enigma, and then stand back and wait for the money to roll in.

        Sure is pretty, in an eyebleed sort of way, though.

        • A strange/different critter or a ship/suit warns you’re most likely not on Earth anymore, a hint/warning of SFF without even saying a word.

          (Just don’t put space helmets on cowboys and their horses!)

    • Oh wow. Is someone punking Penguin? I have to decipher what several of these titles are saying. And to be frank, if I have to figure out what the title is, I’m unlikely read the book.

      Those covers are alienating, and honestly they look like one of those oh-so-precious works of literacha** that have all the pretty prose but empty characters and a non-existent story. Mind you, I’ve read “Dune” (my favorite) and “Left Hand of Darkness.”

      Why would anyone think this Alex Trochut person is a draw and not the authors and the stories they’re telling?

      Seriously? I know cover artists *back in the day* could draw eyes — someone in the comments mentioned Michael Whelan; and I think Boris Vallejo and Julie Dillon could be added to the list. I’m probably forgetting a few. But I’m skeptical this Trochut will join them. Maybe it’s just me.

      I agree that title, cover art, and logline/synopsis need to work in harmony. When one of them falls down, the other two must do the heavy lifting. But when there’s no art and you can’t read the title, how likely is someone to even bother to see what the book is about?

      … in this rather expensive but beautiful boxed set

      If I was going to covet an expensive edition of Dune it would probably the one from the Folio society. Or one with a leather cover and gilt edges. I might indulge if I could be sure the text was a readable size. But the Trochut version? Nope. Not even.

      **Jane Austen is literature. I like literature. I despise “literacha.”

      • In 2015 Lois McMaster Bujold commissioned a set of new covers for her Vorkosigan series with an eye to online thumbnail visibility. They are stylized and catchy and mostly follow a common style. They also fit the individual stories… retroactively. They are… interesting…


        • “Interesting.” Yes. That’s the … that’s how I’ll put it. Interesting.

          • They’re not bad. But they are very different from what we’re used to. I’ve seen people love them, I’ve seen people hate them. Not much in between.

          • They don’t signal SFF. That makes them a “fail” as far as I’m concerned.

            Reader says “looking for a new SFF to read… let’s browse some selections…oh, look, these must be filed in the wrong place, I’ll just ignore them.”

            What the covers are implicitly saying is “AUTHORNAME is a better signal of SFF genre than anything else, so I can go to “cool” for the imagery”. Unfortunately, many more would-be readers would recognize “spaceship = SFF” than “Lois McMaster Bujold = SFF”.

            Their loss, no doubt. But also hers, as a seller.

            I love those books (except the most recent one), but I’m glad not to have those covers on them.

            • And another thing…

              Most of those covers remind me of thrillers. What do I think of when I think of these books? Warm, deep, humorous human relationships. Which is not what thrillers are all about.

              So it’s also a fail (for me) in terms of suggesting the consistent mood of this series.

              • Actually, most of the covers have very specific SF cues. Nothing generic. That is why I said “retroactively”. If you’ve read the books the cues leap out.

                Most of her work revolves around bioscience, so cloning, genetic engineering, cryogenics, bionic enhancement, terraforming, are all over the covers. And she does draw strongly from thriller storytelling techniques.

                As for the warm, deep, humorous human aspects? Yup. That is exactly the message the covers are supposed to deliver because that is exactly the kind of stories she writes.

                Your take is the very message she wanted to deliver. 🙂

                Her SF is quirky and unique and her new covers fit her works to a t. She definitely chose not to stay on trend so as to be faithful to her stories.

                No generic rockets in there but those aren’t generic stories. Which is why I brought them up.

                • Seems to me you completely mis-read my comment. 🙂 (or I have a really deaf ear for sarcasm tonight.)

                  1) Thrillers are renowned for action not character. (What thrillers are all about warm relationships, eh?) Book covers which suggest thrillers do not therefore suggest warm relationships. Her actual books are all about warm character relationships. It’s true that they also have thriller characteristics. But they are not actual thrillers, they are actual SFF.

                  If those covers suggest warm human relationships to you, then I will slowly ease back a few steps lest you decide to reveal your murderous pychopathic intent upon my steaming corpse. 🙂

                  2) I didn’t say her covers were arbitrary — yes, I can see where the images come from — I just said they don’t suggest SFF, and they don’t. To say that after you read them they make sense is a complete inversion of what covers are for — to make you want to read the book in the first place.

              • I originally read Karen as saying the covers are warm, but I think she means the opposite.

                The covers leave me cold, because they *don’t* convey the warmth and charm that makes Bujold one of my favorites. I agree they’re an inside joke, but I’m not sure they would invite in people who aren’t in on the joke — well, maybe the one with what’s probably a Cordelia puppet holding the scissors, and the one with bug and the flowers.

                But mainly they remind me of 90’s era mysteries, and I would think of these covers as suitable for science-oriented mysteries, not science fiction. And the thing is, I love the mysteries Bujold includes in her stories. When I first discovered her I liked the reassurance that a writer could mix those genres and get published.

                For these covers, though, the titles are doing the heavy lifting to convey they’re science fiction. To be fair, I’m not that into stick figures or silhouettes. I always figured the XKCD guy wanted to be a cartoonist but didn’t know how to draw.

                • You’re right, Jamie — perhaps I phrased my comment clumsily.

                  Bujold is certainly a mix of genres, no doubt. But we know she is fundamentally writing SFF. How do we know that?

                  Because if you gave her books to a thriller reader, a romance reader, and a SFF reader, only the last of those will not feel disappointed.

                  Even when genres are mixed, there is a fundamental one whose assumptions are followed (else disappointed readers who expect genre standards).

                  It’s not the futurism per se that makes it SFF. (The rocket ship). It’s the thrill in new knowledge, in the meeting of alien-ish cultures, in the perils of new technology, in the limitations of ecosystems, etc.

            • Absolutely. They don’t clearly signal genre, so they fail. Worse yet, the designs borrow heavily from literary, and look pretentious, and so will actively repel a reader looking for SF.

              She’ll get no new readers from these covers.

        • Oh gees … who off Earth convinced her those were what she needed?

          If they’d had those covers to begin with I may never have bought and read them.

          Another one that makes my silly DAZ cover look good.


          And since I’m such an ‘unknown writer’ I can’t rely on simply my name to sell my tall tales.

          • Each cover has comments attached.
            Mostly they are her ideas.
            They really are “in joke” covers; once you’ve finished the book, you “get” the cover. Different approach.
            She can afford it.

            • That last lines tells all.

              “She can afford it.”

              As a ‘name’, yeah, she can get away with it. Not so much those with less name recognition.

              • Uh-huh.
                She has a strong brand coming in so she doesn’t need generic genre cues in her covers. What she wanted was a style that was striking and consistent across all the titles. She got that much.
                The road less traveled might even work for her: A cover is an ad and the ad business regularly pulls successes out of the strangest places.

                I’m not saying I would rush to copy that style but it is interesting.

        • I was wondering if someone was going to bring up Bujold.

          Bujold does what Bujold wants. She’s Bujold!

          They are a bit cryptic for a noob though. Hard to see what genre the covers are for.

    • I love those covers on their books! Really, I do.

      It makes mine look so much better. 😉


      No wonder this piece, if they fired all their cover artist and are doing this instead.

    • Thank you, Gordon, for giving me a new basis for comparison.

      I used to reference the bad-acid-trip covers of the 70s as the very bottom of the scale.

      I am amazed that someone managed to outdo those horrible things, actually…

  6. Looking at this cold-bloodedly, the cover’s primary job is to signal genre (first) and quality (second). If the potential buyer can’t recognize that the cover is for a work in a genre that they enjoy, they won’t get any further with their evaluation.

    After that, feel free to indulge your idiosyncracies and cool factor, and your illustrations of something the book’s about.

    If you lead with cool (“cuz I ain’t no trend follower”) you may attract a lot of eyes, but if they don’t care about your genre, it’s wasted. The coolest cover in the world won’t make me buy in genres I detest.

    And if you lead with “what the book’s about literally” you’re hoping that someone who likes the genre will notice your books are in that genre in the first place. Remember, they see (and reject on) the image long before they read the blurb. If you can get them as far as the blurb, then the cover image has done its job.

    It’s a classic funnel. Once they reach the blurb and other details, then the judgments are made on wider merits. Don’t filter them out before they get that far.

    • A funnel, huh?
      Cover to blurb to sample.
      Cover to catch their attention.
      Blurb to catch their interest.
      Sample to close the deal.

      …As long as the three align.

  7. I’ve designed some book covers professionally for some big companies. There is one simple rule: The best book cover you can get should look like the covers of the most successful books in your genre, and just a little bit better.

    • I agree here, with the rule.

      People are trained to know what a book is about by the cover, and they are trained by the popular book covers in the field.

      If you want to communicate you gotta speak the language. The language has already been invented, and readers know it.

      Don’t take this as me knowing how to make good covers. I do just alright. You can check my page if you want to see.

      • I like the graphics on the SF covers. The choice of fonts could be improved though IMO. Thanks for the suggestion to look at your page. I downloaded Moral High Ground from Amazon. It looks interesting!

    • Is that why I see so many BPH mystery/thriller covers that look like Tana French’s?

  8. i think I would like to put a cover of a flamingo on a sci fi book not about flamingos. I really dont pay attn 2 what is trending. Never have, and have done more than ok. Design and/or art direct my own covers.

    Agree there is a set of tropes and I know DWS teaches about those in his genre classes. Prob is sometimes at groggery store, all the sci fi and all the romance and all the mystery covers kinda look alike but w diff titles. Id like to see some off the wall covers for genres

  9. I’ve never bought a book because of its cover. But I’ve rejected many.

    If your cover is some pathetic mess of schlock that looks like it was farmed out to someone’s child, if it has more fonts than a ransom note, if it’s in clashing colors that sear my eyes, if it looks like nobody even tried… that tells me your editorial staff (or the author, if indy) thought so little about the book’s quality and chances in the market that they wasted no effort.

    A solid color and the text in block print is an order of magnitude better than some of the “artistic” covers I’ve seen.

    Really, people. “When in doubt, don’t.”

    I’ve seen some reprints of books that had decent covers, where the reprints had incredibly bad, usually cartoony covers. I have *no* idea what’s up with that, unless some editor’s middle schooler needed a project…

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