Book Cover Design An Important Marketing Tool

Book covers are important marketing tools for publishers. It’s difficult to gauge actual sales made on cover design alone, but there have been numerous anecdotal stories from major publishers that clearly demonstrate the impact a strong cover design can have.

Penguin discovered the power of the cover in the late ’90s when the company hired several graphic artists to design new covers for its Modern Classics series. The experiment proved a huge success with the under 25 demographic. Sales soared.

In the March, 2006, meeting of the Association of American Publishers, Marcella Smith, director of small press relations for Barnes and Noble, discussed how coordinating marketing and cover design can help sell a book. She used the redesign of The Little Book That Beats the Market (Wiley, 2005), as an example.

As reported in the March 24, issue of Publisher’s Weekly Daily, Smith described the original book jacket as pale blue with a dollar sign. After the publisher discussed the cover with buyers, Smith says, the book jacket was redesigned to a more classic dark blue with white lettering, better suited to its traditional business audience. The book became a hit and the jacket was credited with being an essential element in its popularity.

Independent publishers might do well to take note of what these larger companies with big budgets have demonstrated. The lesson is not just that good covers equal more sales, but that flexibility can increase sales.

Self-publishers often believe too strongly that covers have to be a form of branding. This is not the case. Certainly it can be, if there are plans to produce spin-off items, or CDs or to publish a series, but getting too bogged down with the idea of cover branding can restrict the design focus so much the covers falls short of its potential. There are other options for branding, such as a logo or title style that can be carried from one book to another. The Harry Potter series does this for the most part.

And there’s no reason to stick with a cover that isn’t really working. Many books have been published with different covers throughout the years; A Clockwork Orange and Lolita both come to mind. Some books have been released simultaneously in different regions with different covers, including the Harry Potter books. The first book in that series even had a different title in Canada.

While many people will overlook the fact that a self-published book looks less than professional, they really shouldn’t. While larger publishers have dozens of books to produce, and no invested interest in one over the other, independent publishers have only one project in most cases, and know more about the book, and hopefully the target market, than anyone else. Few project managers are so well informed about a product.

Independent publishers also have access to the same caliber of designers, and can license the same images as the major publishing houses. Despite reports to the contrary, many well-known publishers are using royalty-free images that are available to anyone.

Even so, these assets don’t always translate into a strong cover design. One of the biggest complaints about self-published books is that they have amateur-looking layout and design. Many book stores will pass on books that don’t look competitive and Barnes and Noble’s small press division won’t hesitate to reject a book if it has a poorly designed cover.

Why would books using the same images and designers with the same skill levels have covers of different quality? The difference could be experience. Not the experience of the designer, but of the project manager, “the boss,” whoever the designer must please. An unskilled project manager can turn a great cover into a mediocre cover with a few small changes. Even an award-winning image can fall flat if it’s paired with a poor font choice, or manipulated in such a way it detracts from the design.

While one of the attractions of self-publishing or managing your own publishing business is that you get to make the final decisions, it’s always a good idea to know what it is you do not know. Sometimes, being a good manager means hiring the right people for the job and knowing when to back off.

Keeping an open mind, considering all ideas and being familiar with what is currently selling in your genre, are all important elements that will ensure you end up with a book cover that does its job.

  • Hello Cathi. This is a very interesting and well-written piece, though I should tell you right off the bat that I disagree with your position. I’m sort of like the resident contrarian here on SPR these days, so please don’t take it personally! 🙂

    Regardless of how it might help or hurt sales (tough to say either way), my number one concern where covers are concerned is that they must be appropriate to the book they cover. Before I’d let anyone touch my book’s cover, I’d have to insist that they first read it and engage me in a lengthy discussion of its plot, characters, and overarching themes. How else could I be sure that they even got what I was going for?

    Because while chances are they’d be able to provide me with a much snazzier design either way, as a writer who believes in artistic integrity above all else, I’d much rather have a proper (if underwhelming) cover than one blatantly copying the bestsellers currently on the market. This is one reason why, for my latest cover, I decided to go with plain black type on plain white paper – eschewing all other detail out of principle. Now, this probably won’t attract prospective readers half as readily as some more lavish designs, but at least when people judge Non/Fictions by its cover (which they will), at least they’ll have no choice but to judge it fairly. Trust me – there’s nothing inside it but plain black type on plain white paper either!

    I don’t know what your Book Cover Express services cost (they are not listed on the website), but instead of citing the examples used in your post, it might be more helpful to provide full disclosure on what you do, and give a few of your own customer testimonials as well. Will I recoup the money spent on your redesigned cover through the additional sales it will supposedly generate? What are the average returns authors can expect after submitting their personal creations to your makeover? I hope you’ll forgive my chiding here and understand that I am probably not the only independent author weighing that consideration….

    I’ll admit right now that my books don’t sell as well as I’d like them to, but I just have a hard time believing that you or anyone else can make their covers empirically “better” – and that skepticism only increases with the price tag on the redesign. I wonder… What else you might say to try and convince someone as apparently stubborn as me?

  • Thank you for your well-written response, Arthur. It’s nice to know someone read my article.

    I believe my profile here does disclose that I am a cover designer, and there is no intent to disguise that fact, but having said that, I am not here seeking work, so I won’t promote my own covers or add links to stories unless it’s completely necessary I do so.

    I am also a writer (worked for eight years with a major newspaper) and sometimes my love of writing overlaps my love of design, particularly when I’m writing about something I know and just want to write for the sake of writing.

    Cover design is subjective, and I myself have said a good book will sell in a plain brown wrapper. I’m not convinced anyone buys a book based only on the cover (aside from collectors in the fantasy and romance genres), but I do believe a well-designed cover will encourage people to pick up or click the book when it’s in a sea of other covers.

    I appreciate you have to love your cover, but from a “project manager” point of view, it’s more important your audience accept the cover, they’re the ones you’re selling to. Sometimes the right cover for the book isn’t the fanciest or the prettiest, but it is the one that will work best in a particular market. The Little Book That Beats The Market is a good example of what I mean.

    But, as every designer knows, we have to please the bosses. Sure, we can offer suggestions or provide alternative designs, but at the end of the day, it’s your decision.

  • A refreshingly civil rebuke, Cathi. I didn’t mean to suggest that you were up to anything underhanded 🙂

    I may just stick to my guns where cover design is concerned, but ultimately it’s a good thing that folks like you provide these services for those who so desire them. I guess this just goes to show that there is more than one valid way to go about things! Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • I totally agree covers are very important and most fall short. There is no substitute for a first class designer, but that is not always enough. In my experience, the stronger the brief you give a designer, the better the output. At the same time, I know self-published authors who have put a cover design out to tender and chosen the worst design full of the most basic errors. If you are commissioning a designer, you have to know what you want and recognise it when you get it. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

    There is a further question that might not be best answered by either author or designer – how is this book going to be marketed? What way of presenting it will capture the potential reader’s eye? Is there a concept for the cover that expresses the book perfectly? These are not simple matters, and if you are not sure, get advice.

    For the self-publisher, for the sake of credibility a professionally produced but uninspired design is probably preferable to an inspired but amateurishly executed one – unless you’re following a punk aesthetic and roughness is part of the charm.

  • The self-publisher is also the project manager. It’s a difficult, complex and often thankless job that many authors don’t even know exists.

  • I have definately NOT bought books based on a bad cover. Often making sure I have a version with the alternate cover if it has been redesign. I am vain. 🙁

    The cover does sell the book. often the cover and a brief synopsis is all booksellers have for months (and months) before the book is written. Self-publishers are more and more using the cover design beyond the cover itself… it becomes the website design, the collatoral pieces, it dictates trailers ALL before content is available.

    There are certain content genres that will always transcend the cover design. I’m thinking of topical non-fiction primarily. Homerun book projects are frankly are multifaceted… timely content, motivated audience, design and feel that fits the mood and voice of the book to that audience and good pr/marketing. MHO.

  • This is a good discussion. I admit to not knowing the difference between a good cover and a bad one, but sometimes I have to wonder how many other independent publishers are floating around in the same leaky boat I’m in. I’m often pointed in the direction of covers that look as if they belong on a comic book. For the serious, realistic fiction I write? I just don’t think so. Cathi, I very much agree with your point about the self-publisher being the project manager, as well as your description of that job.

  • The cover sells the book to bookstore owners who do buy based only on cover in the instance Jerry has described, but quite often author name, will also. They will order the next Stephen King without looking at the cover, or liking it.

    Also, those advance covers often change (many times) before the publishing date.

    Self-publishers usually aren’t marketing to bookstores that far in advance though, so the cover’s job description is a little different. Self-publishers are often selling online, directly to the consumer. The consumer market is far more tolerable of a bad design than a bookstore owner or reviewer (although, keep in mind reviewers used to only have white-covered ARCs to work with in many cases).

    The key is to stand out online and avoid “UNselling your book,” while being competitive. If the book beside you has a fantastic cover, well, it’s only common sense the consumer will head in that direction. And, while a bookstore-destined book has 6 x 9 or so glorious inches to impress you, you’re lucky if you get 1 x 2 inches at thumbnail.

    So, those wonderful, artistic covers that are held up as what to strive for, which often have small, hand-written style titles, or very discreet titles, can’t do their job as well at thumbnail, so they might be the best cover design-wise, but not the most marketable for the venue and not the best choice for the book.

    Likewise, details like that certain shade of gold dagger are going to be completely lost, optimization will kill the color and the size will make small details impossible to see.

    In these cases, the synopsis is carrying the weight. It’s better if the cover is helping to get that attention, though.

    Not all online sales venues offer a click-though with a larger image.

    • Question: What about originality? Clearly there is market data that gives at least SOME concrete measure of what’s selling and what’s not (Did you know that green is an “aversion” color? I sure as Hell didn’t until Cathi told me!), but what about all the untried approaches that haven’t been researched to death by business gurus? What a shame it would be for an author to forgo a unique design that COULD’VE been a huge seller in favor of the “safer” bets touted by marketing experts…. And surely I needn’t remind you that many time-tested winners were once bold innovations themselves….

      I’m not trying to heckle or detract from the seriousness of this discussion. I don’t think Cathi or anyone else present is trying to say that there is one right way to design a cover. It’s just that I, well… Let me give you a personal example:

      One thing that really bothers me about book covers in general is how UNORIGINAL most of them tend to be (IMO), especially when broken down by genre. Of course, this is only my personal pet peeve here, and yeah yeah, genre readers like to see familiar imaging on their book covers, but there’s just something about the level of homogenization apparent on bookshelves in stores around the world that REALLY turns me off…. And as if THAT weren’t bad enough, here I’ve just outed myself as a book bigot – Judging so harshly by exterior appearance!

      Anyway, I still respect the right of individual authors to put whatever they want on their covers, and I’m not about to steer this debate any further into what = good and what = bad where cover design choices are concerned. But anyone who’s ever seen a book by Arthur Graham knows that he greatly favors the simple to the ornate where his covers are concerned. For a good example of what I’m talking about, please see the 6 book covers currently on display over at Piotr Kowalczyk’s website:


      Guess which one is mine!

      Now, I’m not about to knock any of the other 5 books displayed here, especially since all of them probably outsell mine to such a ridiculous degree that I have to wonder how they even ended up alongside each other…. But notice how out of place Editorial seems in comparison to the books with more detailed cover designs…. Is “out of place” a bad thing in this case? Or does this simplicity actually work to draw attention away from the more similarly designed covers it’s juxtaposed with?

      I didn’t see anyone here coming out AGAINST simpler covers per se, so I’m not getting defensive or anything. I just thought I’d point out an example of where going against convention might actually work to an author’s advantage. 🙂

      • I like your cover, Arthur. it’s simple, original but it also looks professional.

        A lot of the other covers immediately have associations with a certain sort of genre novel, which may be exactly what they want, but they put me off.

        Some of us should look out of place because that’s what we are. Proudly.

        • Funny you should say that, Roland — I had one reviewer compliment Editorial’s cover by acknowledging that I “must have spent at least ten minutes designing” it! Somehow I doubt he shares your tastes….

          Either way I appreciate the vote of confidence. For what it’s worth, I rather dig the cover of TBBTP as well. We’ve already heard the story of my ten minutes effort — How did you happen by your cover?

          In any case, Cathi is correct that “good doesn’t necessarily mean marketable”, but the disparity between your reaction to my cover and the reviewer’s reaction to my cover calls the whole notion of “good” (which we can take to mean “professional-looking” in this context) into question now as well, doesn’t it?

          I think this discussion just got a little more complicated, if anyone still has the stomach for it….

          • I knocked up the cover for The Beach Beneath The Pavement myself in Photoshop, which is why (to my mind) it looks a little amateurish. At the time I didn’t have a designer on hand who I could afford or trust – I have a few friends who are illustrators but they all have very specific styles and wouldn’t have given me what I wanted.
            It is partly inspired by an old and obscure British ad for childrens shoes http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6745419/start_rite_far_to_go.jpg (which is obliqely referenced in the book). With hindsight, I wish I had worked with a designer, but as I said, I didn’t have anyone on hand to deliver what I wanted in the timescale. I also wanted to avoid paying for something and then not using it.

            • This is how the cover ended up.

              • There’s something very poignant in the imagery of a golden, idyllic lane leading straight into the heart of a nuclear explosion…. This is a picture that speaks to me on many levels, and though I’ve yet to read my copy of TBBTP, its cover promises to fill my heart with dystopian glee. The film “Brazil” comes to mind as well.

                As long as we stick to marketing our covers to each other, maybe we’ll do alright!

  • But this is the difference between a “artist’s vision” (writer, designer, illustrator)and a project manager. Money is tight, not everyone has the money to experiment, so from a business point of view it pays to play it safe.

    I can think of no book that blew it’s competition out of the water based only on an original cover. Again, the exceptions could be some genres of fiction.

    Original doesn’t necessarily mean good and good doesn’t necessarily mean marketable.

  • Hmmm, what I wouldn’t give for an edit button right now: “an” not “a”….”its” not “it’s”…I’ll let you do the rest yourselves.

    I have a guy here fixing my roof and my dogs want to eat him, so I’m a bit distracted running back and forth.

  • Rebecca

    As a consumer, I have to say that for fiction books the cover makes no difference at all. I have never made a purchasing decision based on the quality of the cover. Once I’ve chosen a title to peruse, then I will look at the cover to determine the genre, especially if the title doesn’t make it clear. or to garner a little more info. on what the book is about.
    Though I must say that I never thought about the unconscious decisions we may make based on color choices. When I used to browse print bookstores the most I saw I was the spine, whether I was drawn to certain colors or not I can’t say, but I wouldn’t doubt it. I will say that now that I shop e-book stores it’s all about the title. If the title intrigues me or signifies my favorite genre, then I will look at the cover. But I do not browse books by cover.
    However, for non-fiction titles the cover would make all the difference in the world. Then I definitely want to see a professional cover because I’m looking for reliable information and that would be a signal that it was done by a professional.

    • I will admit that while I never made the decision to buy a book of or not based on its cover, I have made the decision not to buy based on the cover. I don’t buy books because they are pretty, but I won’t buy ugly either. A subtle difference, perhaps, but some marketing departments seem determined to take a serious, well-written book and turn it into a juvenile farce, and sorry, I feel that authors should be able to sway design and make it reflect accurately the work within.

  • Book covers matter. They do more than help you stand out while readers browse endless lists of covers (which they do). They create an expectation & build excitement for what’s inside. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” is a saying because everyone does just that. Do you NEED a book cover? Of course not. Does having a great cover guarantee success? Not if your story is terrible.

    But, a great cover WILL get you noticed and gain you the extra seconds of eyeball time necessary for you to make your pitch as to why they should buy your book.

    All the marketing reasons aside though, a great book cover is a cool, fun-to-look-at piece of art that interprets the story you spent so much time working on. It’s a collaboration with another artist that further manifests the crazy ideas that popped in your head at 3am and made you run to write them down. It’s part of a tradition, people! What’s wrong with you?! Covers are awesome! 😛

    Hasn’t everyone at one point in their lives seen a book cover, or even a movie poster, and thought “wow, that looks neat. I gotta check that out.” I want my cover to create that moment in a reader. It’s part of the experience for me. A little welcome mat you leave at the doorway to a hallway of terrors (if you’re a horror writer like me). 🙂

    But, to each their own! Good luck! 😛


    • Oops. “its” not “it’s”. It’s been a busy day. 😛

  • Weird, I just submitted another cover-related post before this one caught my eye.

    Of course book covers matter. And of course we’re all prone to judging a yadda yadda blah. As an author, I’m thrilled that self-publishing allows me ultimate control over cover art. As a guy who really wants people to buy his book, however, I agonized over the cover image for my novella, and an image more directly relatable to the genre (horror) probably would’ve translated to higher sales. I’m down with leaving it, as Dustin says, “to each their own.” There’s no right answer, there’s only what you love and what you want. It’s like Fat Tony says when the mob guy asks him if he wants Homer Simpson to be shot gangland style, or execution style:

    “Listen to your heart.”