Ten Things Not to Do to Your Book Cover

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After years of pouring your soul into your book, the last thing you want to do is flub the landing. Of course, we all judge books by their covers (otherwise they wouldn’t exist!), so it’s crucial that you achieve a cover that’s as elegant and effective as the book it advertises. Here are ten things to keep in mind when working toward that cover.

 
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1. Don’t use too many typefaces.

A good approach to any design is to limit yourself to two typefaces. Some covers may require a third; others can shine with just one. Very rarely will four typefaces produce anything but confusion. This cover’s composition is strong—the eye is drawn to the center of the hero image—but my god, those fonts. Look at them all, competing for attention, obliterating any hope for visual cohesion. The title’s mix of gothic and transitional serif makes it difficult to read and robs it of any identity, like a minivan with spinner rims.

 
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2. Don’t overload your cover with ideas.

A book cover is an elevator pitch—you’ve got about three seconds to convince a potential reader. And if you can’t boil your book down to one central concept, you’re in trouble. What, in god’s name, is this book about? Ninjas? Fire? Robots? Multicolored rings in space? Gang signs? All these things get virtually equal billing here, and, worse, no effort is made to integrate them in one central image. Figure out what your book is about, and find one—one—image that represents that theme.

 
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3. Don’t skimp on an illustrator.

If your book requires a custom image—a robotic ninja flying through flaming multicolored space rings, for example—seek out a talented professional and be prepared to pay them for their services. Custom illustration isn’t cheap, but nothing kills a cover like a bad illustration. This cover started out strong—the typography is on its way to being effective—but whatever gave this guy that bad case of the blurries is not the sort of thing you want potential readers wondering about.

 
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4. Don’t rely on Photoshop for imagery.

A common workaround for people who don’t want to pay for custom illustration is to rely on Photoshop to create a custom collage. This almost never ends well (see also: #3). Some work has been done to integrate these images, but our eyes are extremely savvy when it comes to inconsistencies in lighting and scale. These legs were clearly photographed indoors (the lighting is flat), and they’re also about five times too big for that path. A similar image (be flexible!) is probably available at a stock agency. If not, hire a photographer or an illustrator. Nobody’s fooled here.

 
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5. Don’t depict a character.

You no doubt have a crystal-clear idea of what your protagonist looks like. And what better subject to grace the cover of your book than its most important character, right? Well, no. More than any other art form, reading inspires and requires imagination. Readers like to picture themselves as the heroine, their boorish boss as the villain. Depicting a specific person on your cover curtails this possibility for any reader who isn’t that person. (It’s also unlikely you’re going to find a perfect image of your protagonist—let alone a second one for when the sequel rolls around!)

 
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6. Don’t rely on trends.

Nothing is more popular in contemporary design than handwritten text. When done right, the approach can yield a cover that’s elegant, unique, and refreshingly analog. That said, it’s difficult to pull off, and almost certainly requires a professional calligrapher. I doubt this cover used one; its lettering is stuck somewhere between elegant and childish, between “shabby chic” and, well, messy. This trend may work for your book, but don’t be afraid to buck the trend and blaze your own trail.

 
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7. Don’t be afraid to break a few rules.

Sometimes, when blazing a trail, a rule or two needs to be ignored. These covers all push the limits of the most important tenet of cover design—legibility—and are bolder and more intriguing for it. There’s a delicate balance, though, and the deciding factor must be that the typographic play draws a reader in rather than keeping them out. A cover is an invitation, not a code to be deciphered. (Incidentally, to harken back to #1, note that these covers each use only one typeface.)

 
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8. That said, don’t get clever.

The covers shown in #7 all obscure, distort, or even omit words in order to create an interesting visual effect (often analog or tactile). Here, the designer resorts to “clever” typographic play, wherein an “A” is shared between two words. The result is simple confusion. Is that a lower-case “t”? Or, no, wait, I think it’s a cross. Or, no—ah, okay, it’s an “A”! Alright, I see. Vampire Academy. Remember the elevator pitch rule: you’ve got three seconds. If it takes a reader seventeen just to decipher your title, forget it.

 
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9. Don’t overdo it with the copy.

You’re asking a lot of a reader when inviting them to spend an entire book with you, so don’t exhaust them before they even crack the spine. There are so many words on this cover I don’t know start (see also: #2). Yes, a foreword by Tony Robbins bears mentioning. But do we need another twelve words explaining who Robbins is? Tony gets another mention below (along with five other names), the fifteen-word subtitle is all banal commercialese, and . . . well, et cetera. Decide what’s most important—i.e., what’s going to draw readers in—and put the rest inside.

 
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10. Don’t use a template.

In a world of DIY and automated app-driven services, a cover template may seem like a reasonable solution to the difficult task of creating an effective book cover. But book covers aren’t created—they’re designed—and doesn’t your book, which itself doesn’t fit into any predetermined mold, deserve its own custom design? And what happens when someone else publishes their book using that same cover template? If the success of your book is important to you, there’s only one thing to do: hire a designer.