Everyone judges a book by its cover, and that judgment happens in two seconds or less on the internet these days. That’s it. In two seconds your cover icon must grab the reader and hook them into wanting to learn more by clicking. That’s a lot of heavy lifting in a very small space.
What that means is all the tiny details in your artwork mean absolutely nothing. They won’t even be noticed, and that’s a good thing! You can stop sweating the small stuff and instead focus on the important bits that will get the right reader to click on your cover.
Before you get busy designing, or hiring a designer, keep in mind these tips for what makes a good cover.
1. A representation of every plot point in the story.
In fact, there’s no need to represent any of the plot points. The plot of the story doesn’t matter. The type of story (genre…get specific) and tone of the story do.
2. A factual representation of how the main characters actually look.
Unless the fact that the girl has blonde hair is integral to the plot (only blondes get to be President, let's say), it really doesn’t matter if the model on the cover has the specific shade you envision. Most people won’t notice or remember what was pictured on the cover once they start reading.
3. A chance to show off every subplot in graphic form.
There is no need to put the safe from chapter one, the gun from chapter three, the ladder from chapter twelve, the three love interests, the main character, a winding road and a full moon with a hint of cloud, and a dozen trees with signs on them onto the cover. Something like that tells the reader that this author does not know how to edit. If the cover looks that convoluted, how could the story possibly be good?
1. A hook.
A good cover is an attractive tease that entices the reader to click and find out more. Simple is key here. When you look at the cover at icon size, the genre (Romance, Mystery, Fantasy) should be immediately clear. Ideally, your name will be legible. If done right, the title will be visible, but it’s not vital. It’s the overall image that will get them to click, not the words.
A side note about the genre: Pick one. Just one. This story will have to go on a digital shelf. If you can’t focus on one genre, then you don’t know your customer well enough yet. Go back and think about how and where they look for books like yours. Study what keywords they type in, what aisle in the bookstore they linger over. The story can’t be all things to all people. It must be the right thing for the right person.
2. A promise.
A good cover is a contract with the reader that this story fits in the genre they’re looking for.
If you’re writing a thriller, the cover should broadcast that. Don’t put a couple staring longingly into each other’s eyes on the cover if it’s not a romance. If you do, you’ll get romance readers picking up the book and then throwing it at the wall when they discover you lied to them. This is why narrowing in on the exact genre is so important.
3. A marketing tool.
A good cover is an icon that will drive all of your marketing efforts going forward. When you step into the wild world of advertising, you’ll use the cover and the background art of the cover on everything from your website to Facebook Ads to BookBub Featured Deals (if you’re lucky). It’s important that the cover connect with the right reader…the one who would love your story.
There’s nothing like making a few mistakes to teach you what works and what doesn’t. For example, let’s take a look at the first cover I designed for my book Stronger Than Magic.
At first glance, this cover gives the impression of high fantasy because of the title and the use of a large symbol over a moody background. The problem is, Stronger Than Magic is urban fantasy, not high fantasy. So what should it have looked like? After taking a casual stroll around the internet, the urban fantasy genre features covers like this:
Most urban fantasy has the protagonist on the cover. Usually the mood is darker in color and tone, the texture is rich, and there’s a hint of magic (special effects such as sparkles, glowing swords, spooky fog, that sort of thing).
My first cover didn’t have any of that really. Sure, it was pretty. But it set the expectation of an epic hero’s journey in an archaic land filled with magic runes and such (because of the symbol). Instead, my story has a protagonist from our modern day who loves to hang out at a coffee shop in Philadelphia and who wields elemental power, but not a wand or sword. Hers is not an epic hero’s journey--it’s a coming to grips with magic in our modern world story.
It doesn’t do me any good to have artwork that stands out from the rest in the wrong way. It needs to fit within my genre tropes in order for it to be a successful marketing tool.
Here’s the new cover, with all the previous points in mind:
Now the high fantasy reader will know right away this story is not for them, while the urban fantasy reader will, hopefully, click. It has a city in the background to tell you this is modern, not archaic. It has a protagonist on the cover, obviously controlling the element of water. I kept the symbol, but it’s a background, not center stage. It does make the cover stand out, but overall it’s more in line with all the other covers in the urban fantasy genre.
Obviously, every genre has its standard tropes for cover art, but once you do a little bit of investigating it’s easy enough to see what those are. The smart marketer uses those tropes to their advantage. No matter who actually designs your cover, keep these tips in mind and you’ll have a great marketing tool.
Melinda VanLone writes urban fantasy, freelances as a graphic designer, and dabbles in photography. She currently lives in Florida with her husband and furbabies. When she's not playing with her imaginary friends, you can find Melinda playing World of Warcraft, wandering aimlessly through the streets taking photos, or hovered over coffee in Starbucks.
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