You CAN Tell an (e)Book by Its Cover

From The Book Designer:

While the truism “You can’t tell a book by its cover” holds true in most of our lives, one place where it doesn’t, ironically, is in publishing.

Oh, it’s still true — the cover doesn’t necessarily communicate what’s inside (though it should). But potential readers ignore it almost universally — especially when it comes to ebooks.

The cover is the first and (in many cases) most important piece of information those readers get about a title. This time out, I’m going to look at what should go into designing a cover that works for, rather than against, your ebook.

. . . .

Whatever format a book is in (print, audio, or ebook), the cover has a very important job — apart from and in addition to being visually attractive. As readers of probably already know, that job falls into several very important parts. It must communicate:

  • The genre/subgenre of the book
  • The tone of the book
  • The subject matter of the book

A cover makes a promise. It tells the reader very clearly — through words, but also through design — exactly what they’re going to read.

. . . .

There’s no mistaking a Harlequin Romance book. The covers regularly feature virile, bare-chested men and beautiful women, themselves often less than fully clothed. Harlequin’s Historical imprint features similar characters, but with clothing from the English Regency, the Middle Ages, or Hollywood’s Golden Era. The colors will be bright and running toward the warm side of the color wheel.

It’s easy for non-fans (and non-authors) to make fun of such covers, but they’re an important part of Harlequin’s huge success. They communicate to the potential reader with great efficiency exactly what kind of book it is they’re going to be getting if they purchase it. The promise they’re making is extremely clear.

. . . .

There is one major distinction between ebook and print covers, however, that you really should bear in mind as you are creating your own cover (whether you are the designer yourself, or you’ve hired someone else to do the work for you). It’s kind of an obvious distinction, but it’s an important one, nonetheless.

Print covers are designed to be seen person on a book shelf or table — whether at a book store, a library, or a friend’s living room.

They are designed to be seen at full size, up close. Whether it’s a 6″x9″ trade paperback or a 8″x10″ picture book, it’s meant to be picked up and examined in detail.

Ebook covers, on the other hand, are largely seen at thumbnail size in a list of other ebooks, or at best at fairly small scale.

. . . .

So, an ebook cover should be clean, attractive and easy to read at thumbnail size. Even at that small scale, it should promise the correct genre, tone, and subject matter, so your reader won’t be disappointed.

You may decide to use higher contrast (though I think that might help sell your print book as well). To fit the online bookstores’ thumbnail image slot, its dimensions should be 1.6:1, with a long side of at least 2400 pixels — which means that an ideal size would be 1500 pixels by 2400 pixels (or larger).

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

The OP includes good illustrations of the difference between the design of the ebook cover and the pbook cover of the same title.


25 thoughts on “You CAN Tell an (e)Book by Its Cover”

  1. > 1500 pixels by 2400 pixels

    That’s more pixels than you’ll get on an average 24″ monitor, and about what you’d get on a 27″. And it’d take up a lot of space on a 4K monitor.

    So they have this giant wallpaper image, and what’s that going to look like crunched down to 150×240 pixels, or even smaller? Just another “bug splat” on the page.

    These graphic arts people don’t live in the same universe I do.

  2. K.I.S.S.

    Keep It Simple Stupid. As in a lot of detail gets turned into a pixel smeared mess as a thumbnail.

    And TRX is right about the OP’s 1500 x 2400 being a joke.

    Checking my own and a few others on Amazon, anything you send in will get scaled down to 500 vertical on the ‘buy me’ page. The thumbnails? 160 vertical on the larger thumbnails, 94 on the small ones.

    So a few large details with an uncluttered background if an image will tell the viewer what they’re getting into.

    MYMV and they take a gander. 😉

    • KISS is right. What I dislike most is the title or author name being unreadable in the thumbnail and this is mostly down to “clever” fonts and insufficient contrast between word and backing image.

      However, I’m not sure about TRX’s objection to 1500×2400. My typical interaction with an e-book at point of sale is thumbnail, then Amazon product page (bigger but still small) and then the monitor screen is filled when I look inside. Too few pixels and the last may look like crap.

      And Felix’s comment has convinced me that I should get a new 4K monitor to go with my planned new PC.

      • I’m thinking about it myself…
        Only thing holding me back is I prefer 4×3 or at least 16×10 aspect so I can use them in portrait. Those are harder to get and not as cheap.

  3. Have you seen the Kindle guidelines for cover art? It’s in section 4:

    Kindle books must have a marketing cover image provided for use on the website detail page. This is provided separately from the eBook file. The preferred format for the marketing cover is an image of at least 2560 pixels on the longest side and at least 1600 pixels on the shortest side with 300 ppi to ensure image clarity on Kindle HDX devices. The image file size should be 50MB or smaller.

    If the marketing cover image size is smaller than the 2560 x 1600 recommendation, a reminder message is displayed at time of upload. Covers with less than 500 pixels on the shortest side are not displayed on the website.

    If your cover image is smaller than the recommended size, Amazon strongly recommends that you create a new image that meets the size requirements. Do not stretch the image to meet the size requirements, because this may lower the image quality.

    Notice Amazon is concerned about how the cover will look on retina devices. I’m not sure why you “skeptics” 🙂 — think it will look like a bug splat, since on the web, all you have to do is code the image to fit a smaller space (the thumbnail).

    If you inspect the code — via the developer tools for whatever browser you use — and examine the thumbnails at the Kunoichi page the OP suggests, you can see that the thumbnails are 136 x 218 pixels (intrinsic 204 x 327). The space Amazon allots for the images is 218px high, and so as long as an image fits that 1.6:1 ratio the OP mentions, they can shrink into that space.

    Inspect the image’s code, and you’ll see Amazon is serving up the same thumbnail image at different sizes for different screens; the largest size being 409 x 654 (1.6 again).

    On the book’s page, Amazon’s code again checks for screen sizes, and the initial image displayed is smaller than the actual image. Using the look inside feature, the image is larger still, 1054 x 1687.

    The huge size is best accounted for at the time you’re making the art. You, or your cover artist, needs to check what size Amazon (and Apple, just for giggles) are looking for at HD res, and go from there.

    It’s always better with digital images to start large and go small, it looks ugly very quickly to go in the opposite direction. My Photoshop skills are only mildly eccentric, as opposed to the mad skillz an actual artist would have, but it’s trivially easy to tell Photoshop (or whatever program you use) to start a new document with that pixel size, for one thing.

    Test the images on a retina iPad or other HD device and you’ll see what Amazon (and Joel’s guestblogger) are getting at. This is actually an old issue; I remember Elizabeth Castro and others in the web community discussing how to compress HD images to keep the file sizes small enough for ebooks. Castro writes books on web design and epublishing. I’ll see if I can dig up the link.

    Bottom line, the dimensions fit within the guidelines set by Amazon, and the OP is recommending them for the same reasons Amazon is recommending them. The point of the OP is that the art has to look good when you view it at a smaller size; it’s not either/or.

      • About what?

        BTW, 1600×2400 is something of an ebook cover convention.

        Amazon Kindle ebook cover dimensions
        width: 1563 pixels
        height: 2500 pixels

        Apple ebook cover dimensions
        width: 1600 pixels
        height: 2400 pixels

        Barnes & Noble ebook cover dimensions
        width: 1333 pixels
        height: 2000 pixels

        Smashwords ebook cover dimensions
        width: 1600 pixels
        height: 2400 pixels

        Kobo ebook cover dimensions
        width: 1600 pixels
        height: 2400 pixels

        Book Baby ebook cover dimensions
        width: 1400 pixels
        height: 2100 pixels

        • I wrote an article about compressing images for ebooks on a few years back:

          You really shouldn’t over-compress the cover art JPG you upload — but you should compress the heck out of all the images embedded in any ebook you upload to KDP, or you’ll be charged for it ($0.15/MB per download). I usually downsize the cover to 800×1280 as well as shrinking it to the smallest possible filesize before embedding it in the ebook

          • Good point.
            With cover images the pixel count is a measure of available information and the higher the compression the less data the resizing algorithm has to work with.

            There’s a reason photography pros prefer RAW.

            I learned that lesson while first archiving my DVD collection for inhouse streaming. The mp4 and WMVs took up less space but the mpeg originals looked noticeably better when upscaled to HD. The “redundant” data removed by high compression isn’t useless.

            Plus using a bigger HD is cheaper than buying the show again on BD. 🙂

        • “Sorry” because for a brief second I forget to close the link tag, so the entire comment became a massive hyperlink. WordPress jinxed me on editing and I had to do a workaround at ninja-speed.

          I did know the different sizes, but I lost my one-stop shopping link that had them all. My notes closet at hand just had Amazon and Apple (at my old paper, we included Apple).

          @David Kudler, thanks for the alternative source for an image compression tutorial. Especially for the strong advice about making sure to use a copy, not the original file.

          @Anonymous — if you’re doing design/art type work, you definitely want to use the tools of the pros! I outsource that stuff for the most part, because I don’t have the color calibration software, and my 24″ IPS monitor isn’t all that fancy. At some point, I follow the Miles Vorkosigan rule that you shouldn’t do yourself what you can get an expert to do for you 😉 But yeah, if you’re going to become “the expert” in question, get their tools 🙂

    • 2560 x 1600? That’ll sure point out my amateur hour goofs!

      And yeah on needing to get a higher res screen. 😉

  4. Many here are missing the point… the OP is saying to design at full scale BUT keeping in mind that things can go to hell when reduced to thumbnails. And so you look at the thumbnail size to see how you’re doing but you design at full scale.

    Personally, I use 1563 x 2500 for my Kindle covers. And you should disregard Amazon’s guideline about 300ppi. PPI has no bearing on ebooks; that’s for Print. Pixel dimensions should be the only concern for ebks. (I’ve gone round and round with KDP about this to change their guideline but they still don’t get it)

    • Things like cover blurbs might end up as indicia on a thumbnail and fine detail blurred.

      I like the idea of doing two versions, each tuned for a different format.

      Useful piece.

      • Yep. Although not sure what you mean by two “versions.” KDP Ebk is: 5×8 (1.6:1); KDP Pbk is whatever the trim size is (I use 5.5 x 8.5″).

  5. “Things like cover blurbs might end up as indicia on a thumbnail and fine detail blurred.”

    Referring to what? PPI? If so, it makes no difference. If not, sorry.

    “I like the idea of doing two versions, each tuned for a different format.”

    You mean like: Ebk vs Pbk? If so, then yeah, for sure.

    • Readability.
      A witty cover blurb on a full size image will be just a line or scribble on a thumbnail. Pbook yes, ebook no.

    • Well, you need two versions anyway – pbook is front, back, and spine.

      Your marketing image for the pbook, though, is the one that works for the ebook. For the ebook cover, that is also the marketing image for the pbook – NO text other than the title and author(s). (Usually.)

  6. you need to have your cover image look good no matter what resolution you use.

    if it’s coming up on a high res tablet, you don’t want it to be blocky

    but you also don’t want it to be unviewable in a 150 pixel thumbnail

    and similarly, you don’t want to to be garbage if viewed on an e-ink display without color

    or for that matter, you don’t want critical details to disappear if the viewer is color blind.

    No, people aren’t going to fill a 27″ 4K screen with your cover, but they may see it on their 9-13″ tablet, which is the same pixel count as that 4k screen

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