Friday, July 5, 2013

Beware of Book Covers with Pretty Faces!

Why Graphic Designers Can Be Your Worse Nightmare!

There is no doubt about it: cover art design is very important because a bad design can kill book sales. However, the best designed cover, even one that has won awards for the artist, can also kill book sales. 

The lesson here is that you should not turn over your marketing to artists or designers.


Excellent: what you see
 is what you get cover.

Artists worry about ‘the look’. Marketing people worry about the selling power of the cover art. Artists may put type where it is almost impossible to read -- if it looks good. Artists will sometimes fight putting graphic elements in a cover that while they will sell the book  will also lessen the aesthetic appeal of the artwork. Many artists want to create covers that look great, win awards, and enhance their portfolios. That’s very good for them but not necessarily good for their clients. (I’m speaking with decades of experience here.)

How to Look at a Book Cover.

I believe it is best to view a book cover as a gestalt ‘moving picture’. The reader sees the cover in stages.

First, there is the instant initial impression. What is the cover about? Does the cover attract the right prospects – those are the readers who are most likely to buy and read the book? Or does the cover drive the best prospects away? A cover can do that. Even a beautiful award winning cover can drive away the best prospects while attracting non buyers. Does the cover create a favorable impression or a negative one? All this is happening in the reader’s mind in just a few seconds.  

Second: in what order is the copy read? The reader is most likely to read the biggest type first – that is, unless a clever artist has hidden the biggest type in the overall graphic design. Ideally, you want the reader to read the type in the preferred order. For example: small type above a large type newspaper headline is often never read at all by readers of that story. Thus type is not always read from top to bottom in the order it appears.The order in which the reader is going to read the type should be the order which best conveys your selling message. This is intelligent design.
Excellent: what you see
is what you get cover.



Readers See in Stages.

Readers see the cover art in stages. If you are a big name author, like Nora Roberts, you want your name to stand out and be read first.  A plain red cover with just the words “Nora Robert’s New Book” set in very large type would probably sell very well. A very famous author is the brand. If you are lesser known author, then what kind of book it is should stand out at once. The cover should  scream: “This is a book for you reader!!! This is just the kind of book you love reading!”

As far as reasonable, the artwork should put ‘the goodies’ on the table for the reader to see at once. If the book is a romance, it should look like a romance. If it is in a beautiful location that readers would love to visit, then that location should be on the cover. If the story features a garden and two little kids, that garden and those kids need to be on the cover. Perhaps there even needs to be a sailboat and lighthouse in the background. What you are doing here is ‘showing’ the reader that the elements that she likes to see in this kind of story are indeed in this particular book.   

Test Your Book Cover Art!  

It is a wise procedure to test your covers on typical readers. Here’s how: 

Show the cover to the reader for just three seconds. Then take the cover away and ask these questions:  

1. What do  you know about this book from what you just saw? Can you tell me its genre? Is it a contemporary or historical?  Is it Christian fiction?

2. Where is the setting for this book? 

3. Who wrote the book? Do you know the author? Did you even notice the author’s name?  

4. What is the title? From the title can you tell what the book is about?  

5. From what you just saw in those few seconds, would you spend more time looking at the cover to learn more about the book or would you move on and look at a different book?  

The Cover Art is About Marketing and Not Art Per se.  

The job of a book cover is to get your selling message across in just a few seconds. Being beautiful is wonderful if the cover does that but to a marketing person cover art is ugly to the extent it does not do that.
Excellent: what you see
 is what you get cover.
The key to making cover art sell books is creating a design that instantly attracts the favorable attention of those prospects who are most likely to buy the book -- if they knew of the book’s existence -- and do this in a way that graphical lays the most ‘goodies’ (marketing vitamins) on display -- while at the same time being consistent with the graphic limitations of the medium.  Sometimes you can't do everything you'd like to do.

Important: When you do your cover art test show the artwork in the same size and format as it will see when it is in use. In other words, don’t show  the reader a 8”10” blowup of the cover art for the test.   

I’ve had to battle artists for years, decades even, and sometimes I have to remind them that commercial art is not beautiful or creative unless it sells the product.    

Well Designed Covers That Told Me Little   

I recently saw a series of well designed book covers that told me very little about what the books were about. For example, I could not tell what genre the books were. I could not tell if the books were mainstream, mystery, suspense, woman’s fiction or romance. I could also not tell if they were contemporary or if they took place in the 1930’s. One of the covers had a ‘cinema noir’ look which made me think it was a period mystery but I don’t know if that was the case.
Excellent: what you see
is what you get cover.

The thing here is that there was nothing graphically wrong with these covers – (except that some of the type was obscured by the artwork.) The artwork was very good which makes the book look professional and thus likely to have been well edited. However there was very little marketing directed at attracting the attention of the best prospects for these books. (At least none I could see.)  

Artists will tell you: “As long as the cover is creative and attractive, people will pick it up and read the back blurb to find out more about the book. That’s why there are back blurbs.”  

And some people will do just this because the cover did strike their fancy. Many of these will read the back blurb and decide it is not a book for them. In the meantime many good prospects for the book will have passed the cover by because they 'know' what they are looking for and when they see a cover that offers them  that, they go right to it.  As an author you want your book to be the one that the best prospects go directly to when they see many different books displayed in a bookstore or on a website.

In marketing today you really can’t afford to let the best prospects, who would most likely buy your product if they knew it existed, fail to notice your product for what it is when they are looking right at it.  

I’d like to leave you with my favorite slogan from the Leo Burnett advertising agency:

“It’s not creative if it doesn’t sell.”



  1. I'm curious what you think of my new cover. It's definitely not a stock photo manipulation!

  2. Hi Valerie:

    I am going to send you my comments as a Facebook message. At least I think I am. Anyway, look for a Facebook message or email or whatever. I'm not sure how to do either.


  3. Hi Vince,
    I'm blushing. I really liked my cover, thought it did what it was supposed to do, but validation from somebody I trust and knows his stuff is simply awesome.
    Thank you
    L.A. Sartor

  4. Hi LA:

    I appreciate your comments. I learned from many years of teaching that it is easy to pick the A+ papers. You cover is A+ and it also has a look that, as far as I can tell, you own. Not many authors can do this as many have no choice in covers and others use stock photos. If the public can tell your books at a distance simply by the look…that’s a marketing grand slam homerun.