All day long at my job at the library I watch people pick out books. Step one: the cover or the author’s name (if they’ve read them previously or heard something about them) catches their eye. Step two: they pick up the book and read the cover blurb to find out what the book is about.
The cover blurb process is for another blog or even a workshop, but I have a few observations about book covers. With the exception of literary fiction, which always seems to have very bland covers, covers can absolutely make or break a book. And I’m observing people choosing print books, where they can pick up the book and examine it closely. When you’re talking about the thumbnail-sized e-book cover, the science/art of book covers becomes even more crucial.
The first thing a good cover does is catch the eye. It shouldn’t have too many elements because that makes it look cluttered. Colors are important, as some colors are more striking/appealing than others. Also, certain colors subconsciously signal certain moods, and having the mood match the mood of the book is essential.
We have several shelves of paperbacks that are organized by narrower genre classifications than our general fiction collection. A lot of the time I’ll order a book that could fit into any number of these genres. For example, we have thriller-type books shelved in suspense, in romance, in mystery, in adventure and in general fiction. So, how do I decide?
If I’m familiar with the author and what they usually write, that makes it easy. Otherwise I start with the blurb: Is the focus on the romance? Is there a lot of action? Is there a clear puzzle/mystery at the core? Is the focus on nail-biting suspense, but not necessarily a lot of action? Is the book about an apocalyptic battle/struggle to save the world, or a more sedate courtroom drama?
When I can’t decide for sure where a book belongs, or it could fit into two or more categories, I often go by the cover. Is it dark and moody? Probably fits better in suspense. Does it show a couple? It will probably check out better in romance. Does it show a hot, half-naked, tattooed man on the cover? We’ll call it paranormal romance and put it on the romance rack. Does it show a hot, half-naked, tattooed woman on the cover? That signals urban fantasy, so I'll put it in the sci fi/fantasy section.
Colors are almost as important as the cover content. You don’t want dark/muddy colors on a romance, unless it’s a edgy romantic suspense. You don’t want pastels on an action-oriented book, a western or even a legal thriller. For mysteries, the covers should clearly signal whether they are cozies (with lighter, brighter colors like green, yellow and pastel blue), while darker stories use dark blues, blacks, grays and maybe a touch of red.
I said earlier that the cover shouldn’t be cluttered, and one of the most common mistakes I see is that the author will try to have the cover accurately reflect the plot, and hence include a lot of elements. They want to show it’s a romance and a time travel and so they show the couple and the elements that make the setting in the past clear. Or they show too many characters and images. Sometimes it works, but usually not. Simpler and subtler is almost always better.
Ultimately, you should rely on the experts. Which is the art department of your publisher, or your cover artist, if you are indie-publishing. And most important, remember that your vision of the book cover may be all wrong. I loved the cover of my first book designed by my current small publisher. It had all the elements I thought should be in my story: handsome, bare-chested barbarian type hero with a modern skyline in the background, perfectly capturing the time travel/fantasy romance plot.
But the book sold dismally, and I’m sure a lot of it was because of the cover. It didn’t reduce down well to a thumbnail, and it was too dark, much darker than mood of the story. And the bare-chested guy who I thought captured the look of the dark-age Irish prince didn’t seem to do anything for readers. He looked more scary than hot, and that’s the opposite of his persona in the book. There were other things wrong with the book and they way it was marketed, but I’m still pretty certain the cover was in large share to blame for the poor sales.
The final thing is the cover should not look amateurish. Which is to say that the art isn’t interesting, or of good quality and/or the elements don’t flow well together. I meet a lot of indie-published authors who want me to add their book to the library's collection. (And we’re talking free here, not books I’m spending library funds on.) If the cover looks amateurish, I’m probably going to say no right away. Because even if I put that book on the new book shelf, which gets a lot of traffic, no one’s going to pick it up. It might be a great novel, but it’s never going to have a chance with a bad cover.
There are lots of blogs and articles on the internet regarding the "science" of book covers. It’s probably worth your time to do some research. Maybe a lot of research. After all, this is your baby, and if nobody notices it, your baby is never going to get the love it deserves.