I originally wrote this article for Writer’s Weekly in 2003. It can be seen in its original form on their website.
As both an author and the owner of a (very) independent bookstore, I have a different perspective on book covers. Despite the old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” people have done exactly that since the first bookshoppe opened its doors centuries ago. Whether browsing the shelves of their neighborhood bookstore or paging through search results online, our customers’ eyes are drawn to book covers, and they make snap judgments based on those covers.
Good covers sell. Bad covers not only don’t attract customers, but can actively annoy the very people you count on to hand-sell your books. Authors who self-publish or go through a print-on-demand (POD) house often think that brick-and-mortar bookstores won’t sell their books. Granted, it takes some work to get in the door, but there are some POD books that sell well in my store. Sometimes, though, a mere look at the cover is enough to make me not want to carry a book, whether you designed the cover yourself or had it done by a large traditional publishing house.
Here are some of the cover design errors that drive me (and other booksellers) nuts:
Not leaving room for stickers
There’s a reason booksellers put stickers on book covers: they help to sell books. If you’re trying to make your book stand out from the thousands of others with which it shares shelf space, it’s tempting to make the title and author’s name gigantic. Fill the entire cover! Leave no space unused! As attractive as this idea may be, remember one of the first lessons of graphic design: white space is your friend. If you’re lucky, booksellers may want to put your book face out on the shelf, with stickers proudly proclaiming “Local Author” or “Autographed Copy.” If you’re really lucky, they may need stickers saying “Award Winner” or “Staff Pick” or even “Bestseller” (but hopefully not “Clearance” or “40% off”). If there’s no clear space on the cover, you miss out on the promotional opportunity, and some other book is placed face-out with stickers on it.
Ignoring the spine
Even though the vast majority of books in any store are destined to rest spine-out on the shelves, the idea may have crossed your mind to leave your spine blank, or at least unlabeled. “Then the booksellers will have to put my book face-out,” you think to yourself. Alas, it is not so. Your book will still probably end up spine-out, and the undecorated spine will not encourage customers to pull the book out and look at it.
Forgetting the genre
There’s a reason that so many fiction books have the words, “a novel,” on the front cover. Booksellers need to know where to shelve things. You may think that it’s blatantly obvious whether your book is a biography or a mystery; history or historical fiction; nature or poetry. You may think there’s no need to label the spine or top-left corner of the back cover with the genre or include a descriptive subtitle. It may not, however, be obvious to me or my employees. We just love having to run to the computer and look up each book before shelving it.
Let’s see, if every romance novel (or massage book, or dating how-to…) on the shelf has a cover picture with a shirtless hunk and a wispily-clad damsel, how can you make yours stand out? Maybe you could cross that line they don’t seem to want to cross. Make the title explicit! Pull that dress all the way down! Show how hunky that guy really is! You certainly can go that route, but you’d better be prepared to do all your sales from your own web site. Most booksellers won’t display books with explicit covers, many POD publishers won’t print them, and even major book websites may refuse them.
Movie tie-in covers
Here’s a little secret for you: booksellers don’t like movie tie-in covers. Wal-Mart customers may be drawn to book covers with movie stars on them, but people who frequent bookstores are usually more interested in the book itself.
Me, me, me!
Let’s just say that if your name and/or picture are the most prominent things on the book’s cover, then people had better know who you are.
Prioritizing art over readability
All that matters on the cover is its artistic appeal, right? So why not go ahead and use a trippy orange font on a red background? Why not hide part of the text behind part of the picture (why buy Photoshop if you’re not going to use it?). Why not use an illegible signature instead of printing the author’s name? A hint for you: if people have no idea what the title of the book is or who wrote it, they won’t really want to pick it up and look at it.
Messing with the barcode
Oh, those ugly black EAN barcodes on white backgrounds! They really do detract from artistic back covers. You might be tempted to make the barcode red, shrink it down really small, or leave off the white background and tuck it inconspicuously over part of the picture. What happens then? The flaky old barcode scanner at the checkout counter won’t read the barcode, and the clerk will have the joy of trying to read and type a 13-digit ISBN while a line of customers waits impatiently. Your back cover will look cool, but booksellers won’t love you for it.
Making series covers random
As a bookseller, I love it when series books have a number on the spine, and the front cover says something like, “Twitching Tails: #4 in the Space Squirrel series.” It saves me having to run to the computer when someone says, “I read the first three books in the Space Squirrel series, which one is next?” It’s also a big help if all of the books in the series have a common look or theme to the covers. And for goodness’ sake, if you have two different series going at once, make it obvious which books go in which series!
Making ‘em all alike
To carry that to an extreme, why not make the covers look almost identical? After all, it’s not you that has to deal with a customer who accidentally bought another copy of book one when they meant to buy book two. There are a lot of ways to keep a “look,” but make each book unique. Use the same font and similar pictures on each book, but change the predominant color. Or use a single color scheme throughout the series, and the same title font or logo, but change out the picture each time. Either way, you can make it clear that the books are different, but still part of the same series.
And, finally, misspelling the title
If your name is Stephen King, then by all means name a book Pet Sematary. Otherwise, your cute and/or clever misspelling is just going to make it difficult for people to find your book. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you that customers and booksellers alike count on using online searches to find books. But generally speaking, if they don’t find it in the first couple of searches, they’re going to give up.