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Readers Judge Books By Their Covers (Before You Self Publish, Part 4)

We’re continuing the Before You Self Publish series. Don’t miss Part 1, Think Like a CEO; Part 2, Don’t Publish Too Soon; and Part 3, Publish in Print.

Long before I worked in book publishing, a friend introduced me to a twist on the classic cliché:

If you can’t judge a book by its cover, then someone’s not doing their job.

First impressions matter, especially in books, where readers have so many options. A person browsing in a bookstore (either physical or online) looks at the book cover and decides in less than 8 seconds if it’s appealing to them. If so, and ONLY if so, they’ll pick up the book, turn it over and read the back cover copy (or, if they’re online, read the product description).

If THAT’S not interesting to them, the reader moves on without ever opening the book to see the writing itself.

Says one popular reviewer: “If the author didn’t care enough to dedicate time/effort to their cover, I wonder how much time they put into the book itself.”

A successful self publishing author can’t afford to skimp on the book cover or cover copy, and shouldn’t put them off until the last minute.

Which of these self published books is a memoir about Mexico? A Young Adult martial arts fantasy? A steamy romance? A professional guide? Historical fiction? If the cover’s doing its job, the answers are obvious.


What makes a great cover?

Book cover design requires a balance of art and marketing knowledge. It’s about finding a great central image, sure. But it’s also about balancing colors, and font, and space. It’s about making multiple pieces work to convey the right emotion. And it’s about recognizing the current trends, and designing a cover that feels fresh and contemporary.

I should be able to look at a book cover and know if it’s a mystery or a romance, or if a memoir is set in the 1960s or 2016.

It takes a long time to get good at this.

So please take my word on this: unless you are a professional graphic designer with book cover experience, DO NOT try to illustrate or design your own cover.

And do not ask someone who has never designed a book cover before, just because they’re a friend and have some design experience. Your college roommate or your daughter’s best friend who makes brochures for the local community center doesn’t necessarily have the skills to balance the colors, fonts, and layout for this specific kind of product.

You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to get a good book cover design. But if even a few hundred dollars is out of your price range, you can buy a pre-designed template for not much money—or with some print on demand houses like CreateSpace, they’re even free.

On my Resources page, I have a number of recommendations for fantastic professional designers, as well as respectable Do It Yourself tools and templates.

(Want to see the opposite of a great self-published book cover? Check out Lousy Book Covers.)


What’s on the back of a cover matters as much as what’s on the front.

The Back Cover Copy

Once you have a design that you’re proud of, turn the book over and make sure that the description of your book reflects your project well, too.

A book browser will spend no more than 20 seconds reading the description of your book. That’s why a good book description is less than 200 words.

That’s not a lot of space, but it’s plenty if you cut the empty clichés and all of the unnecessary details, and focus on what sets your story in motion, if it’s fiction, or on what problem you’re solving in your nonfiction book.

Go to a bookstore and find the shelf where you would want your book to be someday. Study the jackets of the most popular books there. Look for patterns and popular language, and use those when you write your own text. What you’ll find is that good novel descriptions focus on the primary characters and the inciting incident that sets the primary plot in motion. They don’t try to explain, or even hint, at all of the things that happen, and they definitely don’t give away the ending.

Good nonfiction book descriptions focus on the burning question that the reader is asking, and then promise to solve it. (So good cover copy promises that a book contains 6 steps to a happier home life, but doesn’t tell the reader what the steps are; to get that much detail, they’ll have to buy the book.)

You can hire someone, usually a developmental editor or publishing consultant like me, to write your back cover copy, or you can tackle it yourself. If you write your own, be sure to share it with a few friends or acquaintances, preferably people who haven’t read your book, and ask for feedback. What about this description interests them, and why? What confuses them?

Does it leave them wanting to know more?

It may be frustrating to add in extra time and expenses at the end of the publishing process, when you just want to get the book out, but in the end, the first impression you make here will make or break the book you care about so much.


For more information:
8 Cover Design Secrets Publishers Use

7 Tips for Writing Great Back Cover Copy

A Professional Cover Designer Tours a Bookstore and Describes What He Sees


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