How to Judge Your Own Book by Its Cover

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

by Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson), The Hot Sheet
One of the things we like to remind authors at The Hot Sheet is that self-publishing does not always mean doing it yourself. And—next to genuinely professional editing—cover design can be one of the hardest things for an author to tackle. Not your fault! You’re the writer, you’re not supposed to be a commercial graphic artist.

In interviewing Poland’s top-selling writer, Zygmunt Miłoszewski and his translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, I was reminded of how powerful a good book cover can be.

Miloszewski’s imprint carefully considered the original Polish book cover of Miłoszewski’s Gniew (“Wrath”) and created something similar but even stronger for its English translation, recently released as Rage.


Notice how the U.S. cover dispenses with the idyllic town and lake of the Polish cover and focuses simply on the broken-glass impact of anger. What’s more, there’s an impressive restraint in both these covers: grays, red and white, that’s it. And the most important factor here, and in all cover designs, is specificity. While big-lettered titles are familiar in the book world, the volatility implied in both these treatments is pointed and apt: the book has a lot to do with domestic abuse and what’s being subtly communicated here is that violence itself is questioned in the course of the novel.

Basic Criteria for Judging Your Book Cover

Mick Rooney at The Independent Publishing Magazine, carried a guest post from Joshua Jadon, a book cover designer for New York Times and internationally bestselling authors of all genres, with a handy set of do’s and don’ts about cover design. I’m going to cherry pick a bit from Jadon’s list and put them in a somewhat different order

    1. To my mind, the most important point Jadon touches on for a good book cover is “Don’t Be Afraid To Hire a Pro.” I’d simply change that to say, “Don’t Fail To Hire a Pro.” Cover art and design are different skills and talent-sets from writing. Too many authors think they can cobble together something themselves. After spending months, maybe years, on your book, you’re going to slap in some clip art and call that cover “good enough”? Wrong. If your book is “good enough” for your readers to buy, it’s good enough for you to give it a genuine chance in our oh-so-visual world today and get a bona fide top-flight cover that makes your book’s cover “pop” both as an online thumbnail and on a bookstore shelf.
      I suggest you check in with Michele DeFilippo’s 1106 Design, which is a recommended provider with IngramSpark for good reason. Probably the best element of DeFilippo’s approach is your direct contact with a pro who’s guiding your project. Some authors do use other less personalized services that offer competitive designs to choose from: the “online design marketplace” 99Designs is probably the best known.
    2. Jadon’s second most important point is “Make It Relate.” This is probably Jadon’s trickiest suggestion, and something I’ll return to in another post—there’s a pitfall in working too hard to send general signals to your readers in cover art, but more to come on that. If you possibly can, try to get your designer to read your book, or at least a substantial sample. This doesn’t always happen. Many in-house designers at publishing houses work from questionnaires that the editors provide them about books they’re designing, not from the books’ actual texts. Don’t leave any more to chance than necessary. Consider what a sales advantage a really great cover carries in such iconic designs as S. Neil Fujita’s cover for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather; Joseph Hirsch’s design for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; and Spanish artist Francis Cugat’s artwork for The Great Gatsby. These and other great covers are sharply specific to their material. They live on as integral parts of these books in our minds. 
Cover With Color
  1. “Make It Colorful” is another of Jadon’s suggestions. I’d add, “Up To a Point.” While in the most general way I agree—color may well draw the eye of a reader looking to buy—I’d again keep specificity above color in importance. It’s not always so much that a cover is colorful but that two colors, dark gray and sharp red for example, are working in intense opposition. “Colorful” need not mean many colors, just the right colors. 
  2. “Make them Think” is a great note from Jadon. An unexpected element can be arresting. 
  3. “Don’t Go Too Over the Top” is right, too. Simple designs normally carry more impact because they don’t cause various components to compete with each other. 

James Wolcott once said, “Book-jacket design may become a lost art, like album-cover design, without which late-20th-century iconography would have been pauperized.” And he has a point.

Once the province of highly prized art departments and staffers in major publishing houses, book cover art and design now is being “democratized” right along with digital publishing. While that’s good in its new accessibility to so many of us, it doesn’t mean that a slapdash book cover is any more appropriate than a slapdash job of writing.

Your book cover is your hard work’s face to the world. Once your book enters the marketplace, a reader will judge it by its cover. Make sure you do all you can to capture that consumer’s interest—just as you’ve done all you can with your writing to hold that reader to ‘The End.’

Porter Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in book publishing. Formerly with CNN, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media, he is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, founded by the German Book Office New York, the magazine for the international publishing industry. With Jane Friedman, he produces The Hot Sheet publishing-industry newsletter, providing expert analysis and interpretation in a private subscriptionemail newsletter, expressly devised to give authors the news insights they need, free of agenda and bias. Anderson also writes the #MusicForWriters series on contemporary composers for Thought Catalog.

Recommended Articles