Writers in the Storm

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August 12, 2019

Book Covers 101: The Cover Two-Step

Melinda VanLone

As I’ve pointed out a few (thousand) times before, your book cover is a marketing tool ... the most vital one you have in your marketing toolbox. It exists for one reason, and no, it’s not to contain printed pages—you could do that with a shopping bag if that’s all you needed. The reason it exists is to sell the book. Period. Full Stop.

Photo credit: Pexels by Canva

It’s the packaging for the product. The peel to the banana. The billboard. The movie poster. It’s a piece of commerce, all wrapped up in one tiny image.

For it to work, and by work I mean generate sales, the book cover must tell the reader exactly what kind of book they’re buying. It should be immediately obvious what genre it is, and it should be so clear that the reader doesn’t even have to think about it.

In fact, if you make the reader wonder about what genre your book is, you have the wrong cover. They won’t be intrigued, they’ll be confused. Confused readers don’t buy, or if they do, they resent the bait and switch and leave bad reviews. Readers know the genre they like to read and they’re actively looking for it. The goal is to not disappoint them.

How do you go about getting it right? It all boils down to a two step process.

Step One: Determine What Shelf This Story Will Occupy

To make sure you have the right cover for your book, first be honest with yourself about the story you’ve written. For example, my upcoming series Raegan Reid, Rifter for Hire is, in my heart, a science fiction/urban fantasy detective mashup set in the future. The problem is there’s no shelf in the bookstore for that kind of story. There’s not even a category on Amazon that encapsulates exactly that. I have to acknowledge that no matter what mashup I think I wrote, in order to sell it I must choose one shelf ... one genre. I must target the right reader.

The best way to find the right genre and therefore the right reader is to go on a field trip to a bricks and mortar book store. ANY store will work.  I usually go to Barnes and Noble.

Wander the store not with the idea that you want to buy a book but with a critical eye for exactly how the store is arranged. What labels are on the shelves? Where do they physically put the various categories of books? Are the mysteries up front? Can you find the urban fantasies? (hint: there is no shelf for urban fantasy; they’re most often lumped together with science fiction and just plain old fantasy of all types).

Now zero in on the shelf where your story best fits. Be honest. Did you really write a romance? Or did you write a mystery with romantic elements? Forget subgenres, mashups, and crossovers. We’re looking for the overall broad category.

For my new series, even though it’s a mashup of science fiction and urban fantasy elements, I know at the heart of it that it’s most like urban/contemporary fantasy, rather than hard-core science fiction. Therefore, my book in the physical bookstore would be shelved in the SF/Fantasy section, and for online retailers I’ll target urban fantasy as the category. My cover, therefore, needs to appeal to urban fantasy readers, rather than pure science fiction readers.

Step Two: Make Sure the Cover Art Fits the Genre

Once you nail down the shelf or category, take a much slower stroll along those aisles and pick up books similar to your story. It’s vital that you do this physically, in person, at a real bookstore, and not a library (you want current trends). You want to do your research in a place where people actually spend money.

Don’t do this research online.

If you research on Amazon, the results will be full of fluff and spit, stuffed with Kindle Unlimited attempts to make money without effort. Most of those covers are slapped together with little thought and no expertise, with the hope of tricking people to read even ten pages. Your story is worth more effort, and more thought, than that.

Once you have four or five examples in your hands, make a note of who wrote them, and notice the actual wording of the titles. Notice ... really see ... what those covers look like. Examine the background image with a critical eye. Is it dark? Light? A photograph? Drawn illustration? What mood does it convey? Where did they put the title vs the author’s name? Is there a human on the cover? What pose are they in? The more you look, the more you’ll see. Make notes. Take pictures of the ones that you like, especially the ones that strike you as perfect for the story they are selling (yes, I’ve done this standing in the bookstore).

When it’s time to work on your own cover, whether you do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you, use what you learned as a design guide. You want your story to fit in with the examples you found. If those examples were in the bookstore and in your hands ... they sell. That’s the goal, to be just like them!

And while the story itself can challenge exceptions, the cover should not. Let go of the notion that you need to have a unique, artistic cover. You don’t. The cover should be almost a cliché. It should fit the reader’s expectations for the genre they’re looking for. That’s what makes readers go from browsing to buying. First the cover tells them "here’s a mystery thriller." Then the story inside fulfills that promise.

It’s a two-step dance that, if you master it, will lead to book sales and a career.

Do you have a question about cover design? The best colors to use for a cover? What book cover have you seen recently that made you want to buy?

About Melinda

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.

Her elementary fantasy series, House of Xannon, begins with Stronger Than Magic. And for more information on covers, visit BookCoverCorner.com.

15 comments on “Book Covers 101: The Cover Two-Step”

  1. Good advice (although I don't bother with bookstore searches, since 98% of my sales are digital). Finding the right "shelf" in the e-stores is a challenge, but at least you can choose more than 1 category with keywords and search terms. I've just finished redoing 3 of my covers to better reflect they've got romance in them in conjunction with the 4th book coming out. At least if you're indie, you can do that! My first publisher had terrible covers; nothing to connect or brand the books, and that's the first thing I changed when I got my rights back. Then, once I admitted covers are a marketing tool and require a different skill set than writing, I changed the covers on that series as well.

    1. It really is one of the many awesome things about being Indie...the ability to pivot when needed. I hope the new covers do well!

  2. Your first point is such fantastic advice—advice I wish I'd followed with a recent series that we're already revamping covers for. Alas, live and learn! Though I hope others will attend to your professional advice here and resist the temptation to capture more than one genre with their cover. Much better to specialize and then just pitch your book elsewhere for crossovers. Thanks, Melinda!

    1. Sometimes the learning process is a little curvier than other times. But you'll get it in the end. 🙂 And to be fair the trad pubs don't always get it right the first time either.

  3. Very timely as I just compiled a bunch of covers to compare and see what came up as top sellers in my genre. But I will get to B&N this week even though I'll be digital.

    1. It's truly eye opening! And it makes it easier to get past all the fluff online. Even digital only books have to compete with those on the shelves at BnN. (Virtually but still). Enjoy the research!

  4. After all the anguish and effort writers put into the words that live on their pages, I'm amazed at how little some authors put into their covers. The way I see it is this: it's like getting dressed. Am I going on a picnic? Am I going to meet a lawyer downtown? Am I going to a wedding? The clothes you pick--like a book cover--send a loud-and-clear signal about who you are and what you might expect if we had a conversation. It's a truth-in-advertising sort of thing. Provocative? Sure. Intriguing? Absolutely. Thanks for helping the WITS community think longer and deeper about product packaging in the future!

    PS: Melinda formatted my latest release. It was a bear of project (a biography with 130+ photos), and she demonstrated her wizardry to make it all come together. If you're looking for a partner for your next project, she's the one.

    PSS: No, she didn't pay me to say that. And it's probably against the WITS rules to promote someone...but I'll risk it for Melinda!!!

    1. Awww! Thank you so much! I really enjoyed working on your book! And I think your cover is perfect for it. Non fiction is often a little easier to pinpoint, just because the subject matter really helps point the way.

      1. That's very kind, Laura. Can't wait for you...and the world...to see the cover of my WIP (Girls in Pearls). Being an author is such an amazing blessing!!! A curse too, at times, but I'll choose to focus on the blessing part. Thanks for being an important part of my journey, my friend.

  5. wonderful advice.

    I've been in a few anthologies, and for one in particular, I couldn't believe the cover. I had no voice in it, and it was awful.


  6. The two-step sounds so easy, but of course it's not. Thank you so much for this detailed information. I sooo can't wait until I get to this step.

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