Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 3, 2015

Designing a Book Cover That Tells

Christopher Lentz

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a storyteller. That’s part “story” and part “teller.” So what do your book covers tell potential readers?

First confession: I may be new to the self-publishing world, but I’m not a newcomer to the universe of design and marketing. Since the launch of my novel, Blossom, I continue to be amazed by how many people are attracted to and comment about the book’s cover.

Though trends in romance cover designs come and go, timeless and tested truisms of marketing contributed to Blossom’s cover design. Here are five things I applied while designing what’s proving to be an impactful, engaging cover.

Second confession: If you’re looking for a guaranteed how-to list of tips for designing covers that will propel you to the heights of The New York Times bestsellers list, this isn’t it. If you find one, let me know! What you’ll find here are some useful concepts to consider for your upcoming releases.

This is a hands-on blog discussion. You’ll need to have a book cover in front of you (printed or on a screen). Now sit back and ponder the following five points.

1. Sprinkling breadcrumbs in a backward “6” trail

Marketing studies show that the human eye scans things in a backward “6” pattern. That’s how we glance at a magazine cover in a grocery-store checkout line or the front page of newspaper on a Sunday morning (yes, some people still get ink smudges on their fingertips from reading a paper).

Take a moment and test it out. Look at your book cover. Scan it. If you’re like most people (I know, I know, you’re special), you’ll start in the upper left corner, slide down the right edge, cruise along the bottom moving to the left and end moving to the right. It’s like a backward numeral “6.”

Does the cover you’re looking at deliver something of interest at the “Start Here” spot in the upper left section and pay off the journey in the right part of the lower third of the cover?

2. Delivering between the covers

No one appreciates a bait-and-switch trick. We all want to get what we think we’re paying for.

Are the elements of your book’s cover telegraphing the story’s key themes and messages in its images, colors and fonts? Does the cover instantly communicate an accurate and intriguing pitch?

3. Seeing it as a billboard and a postage stamp

The attributes of a well-executed billboard hold true to a book on a store’s shelf. As you speed down the highway (unless you live in Southern California where speeding is impossible), there are precious few seconds to grab someone’s attention and deliver a message. Does the cover you’re looking at do that?

And with online retailing, the thumbnail version of a book cover must communicate even more powerfully. In a space smaller than a postage stamp, the cover should attract attention and evoke an emotion … and it better do it a lightning speed.

4. Squinting at it

Your optometrist won’t like this, but do it anyway. Squint at your book cover. What pops forward? What fades back? Is there enough light and dark contrast? Is the book’s title the most prominent element? Is the author’s name the strongest element?

What pops should be a deliberate outcome of the key message and goal for the cover. You’ll make different choices if you’re an established author/brand or trying to set a visual context for your story. Your story and your standing in the marketplace should drive these decisions.

5. Tinkering and testing

We’ve all heard about Thomas Edison and the overwhelming number of failures he endured. But he had to tweak and test to get his inventions right. And so do you and your cover designer. Try different options and show them to people whose opinions you value. Be sure to include some published authors.

Below are four approaches that were considered for my recent book. It’s been described as “Titanic on land.” It’s a scandalous love triangle set against the devastating 1906 Great Quake in San Francisco. Which cover gives you the greatest sense of the story that sits behind that cover?

Which one creates an instant conflict of an exotic beauty with a beast of a disaster looming? Which one has tension? The winning choice was the one with the burning cityscape.

book cover5_blue     book-cover8_black-lace

Blossom_large 8.14.13     Beauty

I hope these time-tested marketing principles will help you publish book covers that tell and sell. And the next time you look at a book cover, I dare you not to squint and scan it in a backward “6” pattern!

Do you agree that the cover with the burning cityscape is the best choice? Does it pass the backward “6”test? What other clues about the story do you think are part of the cover’s design? What about the girl’s eye? The fan?

 *  *  *  *  *  *

About Christopher


Christopher Lentz is a man who writes romances, a self-starter who self-publishes and a dreamer who thought growing old would take longer. He truly believes love changes everything. As a journalist, a corporate marketer and now a romance writer, his career has been all about storytelling. His first romance novel, Blossom, is now available and it is the first book of the Blossom Trilogy. For more information, visit christopherlentz.org and blossomtrilogy.com.


44 comments on “Designing a Book Cover That Tells”

  1. Loved #3, but I see now, why the last one is better. I'd never heard about the reverse '6', but it's true! Thanks for the education, Chris - best with the book!

    1. Thanks, Laura! You've taught me SO SO SO much ... and so have the bright bloggers at Writers In The Storm. I lived with and loved #3 for a very long time ... until it was clear that it lacked conflict and tension. So fire was added. Problem solved!

  2. I'll be using Christopher's five points as a litmus test for future covers. His background in marketing brings a new perspective to how to choose the right design. The winning cover for Blossom proves it. Thanks!

    1. Anne, I'm glad you found this information useful. We work so hard to create what's between the covers ... it would be a shame if the cover itself didn't draw readers to it!

  3. Yes Christopher, by far the winner is the one with the burning building. And the one eye holds a secret her fan uses to hide. Well that's my take. And while the other covers are pretty the one you went with is the story in one image. If a picture says a thousand words, the cover of a book says thousands more. Thanks for the great post 🙂

  4. I don't have a cover for my WIP but I grabbed a bunch of books and scanned their covers. The ones that popped followed the backward 6 pattern. Great post, Chris! I'm keeping this for future reference (not too distant, I hope.)

  5. I agree, the 4th one fits best, it says there are layers to this book The blue cover says "boring" a possible historical fiction. Top right has a black and white picture which fades into the background and doesn't add to the cover, still not sure what the message is, possibly a dark romance. Bottom left says oriental tale with secrets. A very useful lesson.

    1. Rosie, I agree with you ... and you should see some of the other design approaches we tinkered with. Yikes! And "tinkering" is the key word. It's so important to tweak and test in order to be certain the final version grabs the potential reader's attention and sells (literally and figuratively) your story!

  6. Dianne Marie Andre

    They are all beautiful, but #4 is best. I like how Rosie explains why it is best: says there are layers to this book. Now, I'm going to test myself every time I'm waiting in line at the checkout counter to see if I scan in a backwards 6. 🙂

  7. I agree that #4 is the best choice. Now I'm off to look at all my covers. I was happy that my cover designer came up with a 'brand' across my series, but I might have to send him this article for the next book.

    1. Terry, I had to think this through a lot with my designer because the "template" that was created for Blossom needs to be applied to the 3 books in the trilogy and 2 novellas that I'm planning. I think we landed on a winning and unifying approach. Time will tell! Best wishes for your upcoming projects!!!

  8. I'd never heard of the backward 6 either. A great lesson! A question for you: For self-published authors, do you think it's best to stick with one book cover or should you occasionally change the cover to add visual interest? I'm thinking that might be confusing for readers, but I'd love your opinion. I suspect you would stay with whatever sells best.

    1. Debbie, it's really a matter of the type of books you're writing (or really, the variety of them) and your author brand. Clearly, a murder mystery and a sweet romance should have different looks to help communicate the story you're presenting to the reader. If you stay in one genre, a unifying look could work to your advantage, as well as create a signature look for you as an author. And that unifying look could include how your name appears (font, placement, size), similar photos (like girls in gorgeous gowns of different colors) or iconic images (think of the 50 Shades covers). I hope that's helpful! Good luck with your books ... and their covers!

  9. What great tips! I, too, have never heard of the backwards 6 before. I can't wait to share this with my writing group and explore lots of covers! Thanks for sharing!

    1. You're very welcome, Marie. Please let us know what the members of your writing group think. The more rich this conversation about cover design becomes, the more we'll all learn!

  10. I like four, but would like it even better if the burning skyline were behind the girl and not a separate image. That would unify the image and also underscore the fact that the earthquake/fire is the backdrop for the story of the girl, not a competing element.

    1. Rich, good point. I'll ensure the elements blend and integrate as effectively as possible when I work with my designer on future applications of this template. Take care.

  11. #3 is the best choice. The beautiful woman's gaze is frank, full, provocative and brings the attention to the character. Half a face invokes distrust, less engaging.

    1. I hear what you're saying, Howard. Everyone loved #3 ... especially me ... until #4 was born. It happened because one of my beta readers looked at cover #3 and said something like, "But where's the tension? The book is literally a countdown to a massive disaster ... I don't get that from looking at the cover." I didn't want to hear that, but I NEEDED to hear that.

      I had to do some soul searching, just like I did when a wise mentor told me to kill the original first chapter of Blossom and start with the action in the second chapter. She was so RIGHT! Ultimately, adding the blaze to the cover conveyed more of the story's essential parts. And when I tested it out with people, a clear majority felt more connected to #4 than the beauty and serenity of #3.

      In my heart of hearts, there will always be a special place for #3. Thanks for sharing your insights, Howard!

    2. To Howard's point, had the burning city scene been put in the background, over the girl's shoulder, her full face could have been kept, although it would have to be reduced in scale. The contrasts in tone between the two images--the low key, soft, alluring female image and the high key, hot, dangerous fire--would provide the tension desired. I would darken the fire somewhat. This would tend to make it look more distant and reinforce its secondary importance to the story. Sandwiching the images would add the compositional element of depth and eliminate the "slide show" nature of the cover: "here's a lovely lady, and oh! Frisco is burning!" Raising the fan (almost to the eyes) would increase the sense of mystery; lowering it (to reveal some of the mouth) would have the opposite effect. Changing from a full-frontal to an angular view would add mystery or aloofness. One of my most successful portraits had half the subject's face hidden by a raised collar. The viewer had no choice but to focus on the girl's eyes, which were evocative. This is a very thought-provoking post and thank you for sharing it.

      1. Howard, we're in the same camp. My designer and I tried to keep the full face, but she was getting lost ... and her face, specifically her eye(s) and the word "Blossom" needed to be the most dominant features on the cover. I'm a HUGE fan of eyes ... so telling, so expressive. I'd love to see the photo you described ... I bet it's a winner! Thanks.

  12. Interesting article. When I first scanned the images, I thought I was seeing the covers of the series. As I don't have my own book to view, I pulled one from my recently read stack - one of my favorite historical authors. It, coincidentally, is from a series. In the upper left space is a man's bare chest. (I'm tempted to pull the series to examine the entirety, but I remember the first story had a single woman, cloaked, in an empty street.)

    Looking back at your cover choices, I might have picked number 2, but I see why the best choice is number 4. The second one evokes more of a historical memoir and the last is more immediate, giving the reader an expectancy of experiencing the story as it happens rather than a recollection of events.

    Thanks for sharing these pointers and good luck on your series.

    1. Debbie, I love hearing how people react to Blossom's cover. When I'm doing a signing or simply handing out promotional bookmarks like I did at an antique store today, I'll ask people what they see in the cover before I give them the elevator pitch for the storyline. It's incredible what people see and interpret. And sometimes people see things ... or connect things ... that I didn't intend, but what they see is powerful. I truly appreciate your comments.

  13. Jean, thanks a bunch for sharing my post with your readers! I just visited your site and there's a ton of great information. I'll be back for more real soon!

  14. Great blog, Christopher. I jumped to #4 immediately. Backward 6 is a cool concept. I just checked my covers and think they measured up quite nicely. (I can't take credit for them. I hired a professional, Kim Killion.)

    I think you should submit your book cover to the monthly book cover evaluati/competition by Joel Friedlander. I have learned a great deal from him about cover design & fonts that helped me to know what I wanted when I had my covers created. http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2011/08/monthly-e-book-cover-design-awards/

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