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Your book cover is the most important element of your book marketing.
We’ve talked about the ten elements every good book cover needs. If you hope to see any measure of success, you need a good cover.
A bad cover can ruin all other marketing efforts, but many authors, especially indie authors, make serious book cover mistakes.
But you can avoid these mistakes once you know what to look for.
When authors ask me why their book isn’t selling, I often have to tell them it’s because of the cover. It’s a difficult truth to hear. Sometimes, there’s nothing an author can do about their cover. If the author is traditionally published, the publisher may have given them a bad cover. If the book is already printed, they may have 5,000 copies with a bad cover.
Avoiding book cover mistakes will save you money and heartbreak.
Mistake #1: Designing It Yourself
Designing a book cover is incredibly complex. It’s a combination of art, design, and packaging. Graphic designers study the elements of design and typography in college, so designing a book cover is not a skill you can master over the weekend.
I’ve worked with many graphic designers in my web design company and at publishing houses. Working with a great designer is much different than working with a good designer. Professional designers work faster and understand the psychology and motivations of readers and customers.
If you have a great designer, they’ll already know how to avoid these mistakes.
Be careful when giving your designer feedback. You may undermine the design and make it worse by offering too much feedback. The more control you have over the design, the worse the design will likely be.
You wouldn’t tell an electrician how to wire your home, and you probably shouldn’t tell your book cover designer how to design your book. Let a professional designer lead you through the process.
Avoid the pitfalls of giving too much feedback by listening to the episode on how to avoid having a cover designed by a committee.
Mistake #2: Including the Word “By”
When we talk about books, we often say, “I read Rooms by James L. Rubart.” You’d write it that way in a book review too. But in cover design, you do not include the word “by.”
Instead, your designer will use typography to designate the author’s name.
Mistake #3: Saying Award-Winning AND Bestselling
On your book cover, you can have the words “Award-winning” or “bestselling,” but do not use both on the cover. Pick one.
Bestselling is usually the better choice. Depending on your level of bestseller status, it will have a bigger impact on readers.
If you choose to use “award-winning” on the cover, make sure it’s an award your readers recognize. An obscure award won’t have much impact on your reader. Unless your book has won the Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize for literature, you’re probably better off using the word “bestseller” on your cover.
When you use the word “bestseller,” you don’t necessarily have to designate which list it appeared on. However, I wouldn’t recommend calling your book a “bestseller” if your status came from a few hours as an Amazon category bestseller. Readers feel cheated if they find out your “bestseller” was only at the top of an obscure category for a few hours due to a promotion you ran.
Mistake #4: Not Adding Shelving Instructions Above the ISBN Bar Code
Indie authors often forget to add shelving instructions above the bar code. Readers might not be able to tell what’s missing, but if you don’t put the category above your barcode, your book will not look professional.
Mistake #5: Imagery is Too “On the Nose”
For example, on James L. Rubart’s book Rooms, the cover image is not a room. That would be too “on the nose.” When your imagery is too “on the nose,” your readers may feel insulted.
Your cover should not tell the story of your book or give away too many clues. It should provoke the reader to wonder what the story is about. Don’t spoil your book by putting spoilers on your cover.
I can sometimes tell when an author has been too involved in their cover design because the cover tells too much of the story.
In a famous TED talk by one of the world’s best cover designers, he says you can use the word “apple” or show an apple, but you must not do both.
Mistake #6: Too Many Design Elements
Technically, you only need two elements on your front cover. You need the title and the author’s name. Some New York Times bestsellers only include those two elements, and it can work for some authors.
In the indie publishing world, I often see book covers with too many elements. The covers are cluttered with too many things to look at. Busy covers don’t reduce well, so when I see a thumbnail image of the cover on Amazon, I can’t tell what it’s communicating at all.
If your cover is too complex, unfocused, or unclear, readers will be confused and won’t give your book a second look.
Most designers will choose a single visual symbol for your cover design. For examples, see this post on Effective Book Cover Design, where I interviewed a professional cover designer.
Mistake #7: Too Clever
If I can’t immediately figure out what your book cover is communicating, you’ve lost my attention. While you spend hours thinking about your cover, scrutinizing every element, your readers will only spend a few seconds looking at your cover.
If your cover is trying to say too many things, or if the symbol is too clever, your potential readers will be confused.
A simple, clear cover will be most effective.
Mistake #8: Poor Typography
Thirty years ago, only designers understood fonts and typography because they studied them in college. Graphic designers spend entire semesters studying fonts and their history. They learn which emotions various fonts evoke and how to provoke certain psychological responses with fonts. It’s a fascinating study.
Today, everyone is familiar with the different fonts available in Microsoft Word, and most people have a rudimentary understanding of how they’re used.
But amateur designers still don’t have the required knowledge about fonts. For example, did you know script fonts will kill your book, especially if you’re targeting a younger audience?
Traditional publishers are moving away from using script fonts on covers because young people don’t learn cursive anymore. If a reader doesn’t know cursive, they will have a hard time reading a title in a script font.
Even older readers are used to reading typed text. If you want your cover to work as a one-inch thumbnail image on someone’s phone, the font must be easy to read.
Many romance writers want to use script fonts to allude to love letters their characters have written, but good designers can use other fonts to evoke that same romantic feel.
The two fonts you should never, ever use are comic sans and papyrus. Both are considered jokes in the design world. Using comic sans or papyrus in your cover design is a sure sign that your cover has not been professionally designed.
Other typography mistakes are
- Using too many fonts: Limit to one or two.
- Having no visual hierarchy: Hierarchy uses typographical cues to give readers a sense of how to read the cover from start to finish.
- Low contrast: Don’t use typography color that’s too close to the background color.
Mistake #9: Overuse of Stock Photos
Traditionally published books are moving away from using stock photos. In nonfiction, the trend is toward typographical covers.
Indie authors are tempted to grab a stock photo, throw some text on it, and call it done, but stock photos are not always the answer. If you use stock photos, be careful not to use more than one per design.
A few years ago, you could find different books that were using the same stock photo. To avoid the reuse of stock photos, check to see if anyone else is using a stock photo by performing a reverse image search on Google.
You can also buy certain stock photos under terms that ensure you are the only one who can use the image.
Traditional publishing houses will hire actors and photographers and do their own photoshoots for the cover, but that’s very expensive.
Mistake #10: Design by Committee
One drawback of an episode like this is that authors become so committed to getting a good cover that they ask for feedback from too many people.
When the author tries to implement too many changes, hoping their cover will please everyone, it becomes the disaster known as “design by committee.”
But a good cover will always elicit a bad response from some people. There are always some people who will hate a good cover, and that’s natural. Your book is not for everyone. It’s for a specific target audience.
When people give you feedback, don’t listen to what they tell you to do. Listen for the problem they’re describing.
If they say, “Change the font,” ask why. If they say, “It’s hard to read,” then you’ll have good information for your designer.
You’ll say, “I’m getting feedback that the title is hard to read.” Your designer can make that font more readable in a variety of ways without changing the font.
Listen for the problem, take the problem to your designer, and let your designer solve the problem.
The best way to get unbiased feedback is to use data from an A/B test, which you can perform through Facebook advertising. In an A/B test, you’re not asking for feedback. You’re simply testing which cover receives the most clicks.
The A/B testing experiment is much closer to the real-world experience of your future readers. They’ll glance at your cover in a bookstore, and if it catches their attention, they’ll pick it up. They won’t be scrutinizing it the way fellow authors from your critique group would.
Mistake #11: Using Your Own Artwork
Many authors have a variety of creative talents, such as photography and painting. You might want to design your cover with a photo you took yourself. But artists don’t typically have a good perspective on their own art.
Years ago, James L. Rubart visited an art gallery and noticed they didn’t have any photographs for sale. When he asked the curator why not, she said, “Are you a photographer?”
Jim said, “Yes. I’m an amateur photographer, and I have some amazing shots.”
The curator replied, “Everybody thinks they have amazing photos. You won’t buy a photo because you think yours are just as good.”
That was his wake-up call to realize he didn’t have the right perspective on his own art, and he wasn’t as good as he thought he was.
You are not as good as you think you are either. You’re also too close to your own creative work. Your photo will likely need to be changed in order to work for a book cover.
As the photographer, you’ll have a hard time making unwanted changes to your art.
When James L. Rubart wrote Rooms, his publisher asked if he had any photos of the setting. He did, and they ended up using one of his photos but only because the designer had the freedom to adjust the contrast and alter the image to fit the book.
The book cover image turned out vastly different from the original image Jim took, but it worked because the designer applied his skill to Jim’s photo.
But what about…
You may be able to find covers that break each of these “rules.” Designers understand these rules, but they also know when and why to break them.
Consider this analogy. It is illegal to cut people open with knives. That’s the rule. However, if you are a surgeon, you get paid to “break” the rule and cut people open with knives. The difference is skill and expertise.
Trust a professional designer with your book cover, and let them do the job they’re trained to do.
Hi Jim and Thomas,
I’m curious about Mistake #4. I’m a children’s book author (the Sophie Topfeather series, published by a very small British publisher), and a public elementary school librarian. After hearing that books should have the genre above the bar code, I looked at my book and then lots of recently published books in my library, and not one had the genre above the bar code. Is that a difference between books published for adults and kids, or did I not look at enough books?
I don’t know about children’s books. In general, they follow an entirely separate set of rules. For instance, I don’t know if they really have sub-genres.