Writers in the Storm

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April 12, 2021

Book Cover 101: Design Pitfalls to Avoid on Your Way to Bestseller

by Melinda VanLone

Whether you’re designing your own covers or hiring someone to do it for you, it’s easy to fall prey to some common traps along the way. Here are five pitfalls to avoid as you navigate the wild world of cover design.

Genre Misfire

A great-looking piece of art that doesn’t represent your genre won’t help you in the long run. If it tricks the wrong reader into thinking they’ve just picked up the romance of the century, only to find it’s a thriller inside, they won’t be happy no matter how pretty you make the cover. And it will lead to bad reviews. If you’re hiring someone to design your cover, make sure they understand your story’s genre.  

DON’T DO THIS: Can you tell what genre this cover is trying to convey? This one is actually an example of both genre misfire and our next pitfall - Image Overload. The book is actually a horror novel, but the image has a romance vibe if you don’t look close enough. And if you do look close enough you’ll see six different images, making it a muddy mess. 

Image Overload

A picture is worth a thousand words, but it shouldn’t try to represent all the plot points of your novel. In fact, it shouldn’t represent any actual plot points at all. An overload of different images on a cover lets the reader know that the story will be just as convoluted. Less is more. Keep it simple. One main focal point will grab the reader and pull them into the story far better than a cover with five people, two dogs, and a fish.

DON’T DO THIS: This cover is clearly filled with every major plot point from the story, a problem because the reader has no idea what the plot is and these items don’t look related, much less inviting. 

Shy Author Syndrome

They say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. The same applies to your cover. First time authors tend to place their names in small letters huddled at the top or bottom of the page, almost as if they’re embarrassed. If the book is ready for a cover, you are about to be a Published Author. The reader can’t tell if you’re a Big Name or a Small Name unless you show them that by hiding. Be brave. Be bold. Put your name big enough to read in icon size. You are branding you, not the book. You want the reader to remember your name.

DON’T DO THIS: Notice how I’ve hidden my name in the lower right hand corner? It’s almost like it’s trying to crawl off the page. Nobody will ever find me again if I keep it that way. I’m not saying the name has to be so big it obliterates everything else, but don’t be afraid to let it shine. 

Special Snowflake Disorder

Your cover does not have to be a unique one of a kind piece of art. Instead, it should look very, very similar to the other covers in your genre.

Embrace the cliches. Those tropes you see over and over again on covers are the reason readers sigh with happy pleasure when they find your book. Ah, they say, pastel beach scene…here’s the sweet romance I’ve been looking for! If you wander too far outside the genre tropes, they not only won’t say that, they won’t buy your book. Your story is unique. Your name is unique. Your artwork should play nice with the other covers in the schoolyard.

DO THIS: You tell me…do you know what genre this story belongs to? Did you even have to think about it? Probably not. Neither will the reader. That’s a good thing.

Suspicious Source Sickness

Make sure the images used on your cover are purchased from legitimate stock photography sites. Whether you design your cover or you hire it done, it's your name is on the final product and you can be held liable for copyright infringement (even if you had no idea the image was stolen). Professional designers will produce a proof of purchase and/or license agreement on request.

DON’T DO THIS: While I won’t give you a live example here because that would violate copyright (irony, right?), I will simply reiterate the point: Do not use an image that has a watermark on it, a clear sign it’s been stolen. Do not use any great image you find on Google. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean you have the right to steal it. 

Final Thoughts

Now that you know what to look out for it should be easier to navigate the cover infested waters. Know your genre tropes and use them to your advantage. Keep the image simple and your name bold. Use ethically sourced images. Do these things and you’ll be well on your way to a great cover.

What are your image pet peeves, or must-buys? Also, if you have questions or suggestions for a future article, please let me know in the comments!

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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. For more information on covers, visit BookCoverCorner.com.

24 comments on “Book Cover 101: Design Pitfalls to Avoid on Your Way to Bestseller”

  1. Excellent points! I had to learn the hard way - HIRE a good cover designer - don't try to do it yourself...it's like critting, you're too close to the story to be able to see it objectively!

    1. This is absolutely true! I tell every author I work with--do not DIY your cover. There are wonderful designers who will do a great job for you. It is worth the investment in your work. Unless you are the rare writer who knows as much about design as you do writing, you need help with this. I have a list of cover designers I refer people to. Readers DO judge books by their covers. A good book cover designer will know the key principles, and will help you sell your work.

      1. That's always my first advice as well...unless your background is in graphics, hire it done. It's worth the money to put the best possible face on your story that you can, since that's the first thing the reader will see.

  2. My first publisher had no clue about tying a series together, or branding via the cover. When I got the rights back, I made changes, but even later, I realized that much as I might dislike genre tropes on covers, people were leaving negative reviews because they didn't bother reading the book description to see they were romantic suspense, so I redid them again. With a cover artist. I've only done one cover myself, because it was a stand alone, and even then, I had help from my son the photographer.

    1. The dirty secret of the industry is that Trad Pub sometimes gets it wrong, too. 😉 A load of negative reviews is often the first signal you get that the cover is a mismatch. Lucky for Indie Authors, we can change the cover when we want!

  3. Thanks for sharing your insights, Melinda! I think of book covers as highway billboards. Readers are going to drive by -- whether on a laptop screen or a bookstore shelf or social media posting. We have a second or two to hook a reader/buyer with an uncluttered message and mood. Like it or not, authors have to accept that people really do judge books by their covers. So the goal is to write the very best story we can write and then wrap it like the most enticing Christmas present ever. This is a business...a creative business, lucky for us...but a business. And we better embrace that if we want our stories to take flight.

    PS: For those of you who are looking for a super-duper partner for your next release, Melinda is a go-to resource. She helped me with my most recent book (a complicated, image-heavy biography). She's magical. Truly.

  4. Excellent information here, Melinda! Thank you so much. I'll need to remember this when the time comes to publish my college memoir. All best to you!

  5. Fantastic blog, Melinda! I will definitely be sharing this with my authors who need to understand cover design. The copyright issue is so critical, too!

    1. I enjoy putting together Melinda's posts because they have such a visual impact, and will keep her in mind for a project I'm noodling on for this summer 🙂

      Putting the book design, layout, and such into the hands of a professional takes stress from the author, too. It makes sense to invest in this part of the book process and increase your chances of hooking the best readers for your work!

  6. Good advice, Melinda. I made a mistake w/ my first two books...wanted them to be understated, not showy...didn't exactly fit the thriller/suspense genre. Wish I'd read your post first!

    1. It's never too late to rethink a cover! If you think the current ones aren't working as well as they should, don't hesitate to put a new one on it. It'll be worth the effort in the long run.

  7. Another thing to consider: how does the cover show up in a small size, like the reader will see on social media? You want a strong image that doesn't get lost or wiped out when reduced to thumbnail size. Put your anticipated cover into a word document and reduce the % to 25% and see if you can still clearly read the important information. That's how it will look on a phone

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