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What Makes a Good Book Cover

There are a million book covers out there—some amazing, some not so much. What separates the heroes from the zeroes and how can you create a book cover that achieves its goals and gets people talking? In this post, I’ll explain what makes a compelling book cover and how you can improve your cover illustration game.

A good book cover generates sales

In order to make a good book cover, it’s important to first understand its purpose. A cover exists primarily to entice potential readers to buy the book. It’s a sales tool. It has to relay information about the book in a way that grabs potential readers and inspires them to investigate further. It doesn’t have to tell everything about the story or provide the illustrator’s unique viewpoint like an editorial illustration. It simply must represent the story in a way that generates interest and curiosity and ultimately leads to sales. If the book cover doesn’t do that—no matter how beautiful it may be—it’s failed on a very significant level and is doomed to be repackaged later.

It communicates a variety of things

A good book cover gets across a lot of information quickly. To be successful, it must communicate:

The genre

Is it fantasy? Crime? Coming-of-age? Etc. The cover has to convey the genre so the marketplace understands immediately.

The audience

Who is the book aimed at? Whether it’s boys ages nine to fourteen or women over fifty who are into My Little Pony, the cover must address and be appropriate for its intended audience.

The tone

How does the book feel? Is the story edgy and hip? Suspenseful? Laugh-out-loud funny? Whatever the tone, a great cover must convey it.

What the book is about

While a book cover doesn’t need to be entirely specific (sometimes it’s better to be mysterious), it has to at least allude to the story to come in some significant way.

Immediacy

A successful book cover grabs people on a first look. It’s competing against thousands of other covers in an overcrowded marketplace and only has seconds to capture a potential reader’s attention before they’ve moved on to another title. To do this, a cover must focus on one main compelling idea rather than trying to squeeze in every little detail. And it must be able to hold up at very small sizes. After all, since most books are shelved spine-out in stores, the majority of covers are seen as online thumbnails on sites like Amazon or IndieBound. If you’ve failed there, you’ve lost a huge part of your audience.

Uniqueness

A good book cover stands apart from the other books in its category. While it shouldn’t be entirely out of left field for the audience (remember, you have to appeal to buyers with expectations and preconceived notions of the genre), it needs to establish itself as something unique on the shelves. This can be achieved through style and technique but it can also be achieved by playing up the “hook” of the book on the cover. By “hook”, I’m referring to the thing that makes this book different. For instance, there may be a billion detective stories in the world, but if yours is the only one about a drug-addicted clown who’s attempting to solve the murder of his magician best friend, that definitely seems like something that should be played up.

Integration of type and art

A good book cover is also a harmonious marriage of art and type. They must be planned and work together to fully complement each other and form strong cohesion. They shouldn’t create a disconnect (unless intentional) or be repetitive. After all, art that simply mirrors the words in the title may not add any information and may end up feeling boring, uninspired, or on-the-nose.

Would you pick this up?

Finally, it’s always important to ask yourself the question, “Would I pick this book up?” That doesn’t necessarily mean that the subject matter needs to appeal to you, but it does mean that you’ve made a compelling enough cover that—even if you weren’t interested in the genre—you’d gravitate towards it in a book store. This may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many of us forget about this in the haste to please our clients or give them what we think they want.

Final words

Creating a successful book cover takes a lot of work. But if you can approach it from a buyer’s perspective that will help immensely. After all, the cover is ultimately a sales tool. By remembering it’s goal, addressing the audience, and crafting something unique and immediate that stands apart in the marketplace, you can greatly improve your covers.

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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