Books are packaging, just like other items that sell in the stores. The cover of your book may be the single most important thing that sells it. What colors, images, and packaging will force a reader to grab your book from the shelf, or capture their attention on Amazon, etc. Even the colors that are used on your cover have meaning to the reader, marketing research proves it.
A successful package has generally three elements working for it:
- It should be associated with positive feelings about the product.
- It should be attractive, to catch the consumer’s attention.
- It should be unique and distinctive.
Product researchers outside the book industry have performed studies that apply to books, as well – strapping headsets onto prospective buyers, for example – to track how people look at covers. (Apparently most readers hone in on the upper left of the package, then spiral clockwise into the center.) So book cover design is a science. If we can harness the science, then all we need to do is to be sure that each cover reflects the cutting edge of market research.
As every publishing professional will tell you, books often defy science – they evoke emotion, memory, and they tell stories. Creating the cover is unique, there is an art to it.
It often takes years of experience to really develop the instincts to know what works and what doesn’t, in order to design such a cover. Great designers use “visual thinking” – a vocabulary and skillset made up of images, titles, and how they interact. Designers are plugged into pop culture, history, music, film, art, and politics, for instance, and use that host of visual cues (image, color, font, and so forth) in order to figure out and articulate the essence of the book. Books with flowers on them, for example, will appeal to women, but most men will steer clear. Adding the color red may evoke passion, heat, or intensity – but it can also look cheap and unappealing. Blue, on the other hand, will be calmer and more relaxing. White can disappear on a shelf. Golden retrievers are always crowd pleasers. Small type is hard to read, especially at a distance.
Once you know the rules, you then have to design a cover that readers want to pick up. After all, if the reader doesn’t know the author – as is often the case in a first novel – and if the book can’t catch the reader’s eye, the reader doesn’t pick the book up. Game over.
How, though, to get that reader to pick up that book is still the subject of debate; publishers and designers have a lot of different types of criteria for how it happens. The experts seemed to whittle it down to three interconnected and overlapping qualities:
You want to signal the genre of the book first. Then you want to attempt to draw new readers to the genre. Thrillers are generally darker, use large type, and depict shadowy men. Red adds suspense; red and black made the white and yellow stand out; the sickle and hammer image nods to the novel’s setting in Stalinist Russia. In total, the cover works within the rules but breaks out of them. People know it’s a thriller but the man without a face and the spying eyes reach out to intrigue the reader.
Books that tend to stretch boundaries and bend genres are often looking for an unusual cover: cover designs that don’t look like other books, that a reader will pick up because they’re intrigued. An example is The Red & Restless, where the cover focuses on the author, her disability, and her motivation to write her unusual poetry. You will have to read to uncover that mystery…
No matter the genre, though, distinctiveness can often be a critical element in making the reader pick up the book. It is by no means the only element, though – some books with distinctive covers still don’t leap off the shelves.
Besides distinctiveness, many publishing professionals refer to clarity as a guiding principle. A person has three to five seconds to look at a book – you want to help him find it. If the image and the title don’t match, don’t clearly identify the book and the market, if they leave the reader confused, they just don’t work. But you can use an assortment of images to convey a message that will be both clear and evocative. More and more, there needs to be a reason for the book to occupy the retail space – packaging is more important than it’s ever been. So a book with a muddled message may be a book with a very short shelf-life.
Distinctiveness and clarity are useful terms, but a third contingent says that both are part of a much bigger issue: that of emotional engagement – the same criteria as for magazine covers. The book must connect, immediately, with the reader’s emotions.
One of the first steps to determine how to connect emotionally with the reader is to figure out what that reader is looking for. 40% of book purchase is based on subject matter), specific story-lines, or themes.
Once the reader finds the shelf they’re looking for – paranormal suspense, or new literary fiction, and so forth – something speaks to them, piques their interest, engages them. It may be the “distinctiveness” factor, but quite often you find that the chosen covers aren’t as distinctive as their counterparts.
Keep in mind that most readers go to the bookstore looking for some kind of benefit. For nonfiction readers, the benefit is often educational . Novel readers, on the other hand, are often looking for an emotional benefit – they buy the book to be emotionally moved, so an emotional hook – an image, a typeface, a color, or more likely all three – will answer the expectation: the cover engages the reader emotionally, and once that happens, everything is set in motion.
The cover telegraphs the story – when you see the title, you should have a flash of intuition; you should have a sense of an impending story, and as soon as that happens, you’re engaged. The beauty or distinctiveness of the cover is actually secondary, or could actually prohibit book sales: book-buyer’s don’t want a pretty cover, they want a visual that pulls them in.
Readers bring their own intuition and passions into each read. Part of a book’s appeal is the unstated promise that a book will exercise the reader’s own imagination. It is different from seeing a movie, reading is much more subjective and intuitive, so part of what makes a cover really work for a book-buyer is its ability to lure the reader in – to connect. There’s a story here, the cover tells you. Something secret, something that perhaps you should have already known or read or guessed.
For the book itself everything comes down to the reader, and that moment in front of the bookshelf – and sometimes, it turns out, the author and/or publisher and/or designer didn’t quite have it right. By overdoing connectedness you can actually turn readers away, they want an air of mystery, they don’t necessarily want the story thrown in their face.
So when you see that book cover for the first time, don’t think about whether you love it, or whether you think it’s beautiful. Before you even look at it, prepare yourself. Think:
- Will this stand out on a crowded shelf? [i.e., is it distinctive?]
- Is the cover’s message clear?
- Does this engage me emotionally?
When you first pick up a book, in a very short space of time, the design of the cover, whatever associations you have with the author’s name, and the first few sentences … all generated an impression. That first impression created a flurry of responses. The response wasn’t “I like this cover” or “This cover is beautiful” – but a lightening strike of emotion, of connection. The cover was distinct enough for you to pick it up; its message was clear enough for you to understand; and you could engage on an emotional level with the cover treatment in front of you.
The cover is your first, and best, chance of connecting with your reader.