Judging a book by its cover

Hello SErs! Harmony here 🙂 I hope this finds you all well.

Today, I wanted to move away from my usual focus on words and look at, instead, book covers.

I have taken a liberty and used something I wrote for a magazine a while ago. I hope you’ll bear with me both on the recycling and the wordiness on this one. However, I thought that it might be a useful topic.

Even if we are not particularly artistic, everyday vision affects our decisions more than we might credit. The well-known adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, is one we all routinely ignore. At least in the initial purchasing stage. Once we have read the book, the saying becomes so very true, as the cover no longer has the same bearing on how we feel about the book.

However, if we get the cover wrong, it can drastically affect our book sales. Does our cover raise the degrees celcius to scorching hot, or leave the potential reader down at minus fifty degrees?—Cold and uninterested, or even repulsed. What is it that makes a good book cover?

First and foremost, any book cover has to work well at thumbnail size. This is the single most important point in any book cover design, and one that is often overlooked. Is it eye-catching at this small size? Can the title be read easily at this small size? The font style you choose might look stunning at a large resolution, but end up indecipherable when reduced down to the tiny thumbnail-size used by lots of online book retailers.

The cover needs to say something about the book, about its content, and indicate what a reader can expect from it. Many a reviewer has commented that they were initially put off by the cover, because it looked too ‘cartoony’ or whatever, and then go on to say that they ended up loving the story. Clearly, these kinds of covers are not doing their jobs.

The phrase not to judge a book by its cover comes from an age when books didn’t have beautiful jacket illustrations, and may well have a plain red or black board cover instead. If it had been well loved, it might even be creased and stained from much handling. So, one could well judge this book to be unattractive and thus dismiss it, but in actuality it is a great book.

Obviously, in our modern day and age, with graphics and computer illustrations readily available and easily used, we have an abundance of different and beautiful book covers, and there is no need for them to be poorly presented. The 3D graphic at the top of this post took me minutes to make, and even though it is simple, it has a certain attraction to it. Sometimes, covers can be too complicated, which actually detracts from their appeal to a potential reader.

You don’t need to be an artist to make your own book cover. I’m not that great at drawing. I have my moments, but it’s a slow and laborious process for me, and hit-and-miss at best. I have image manipulation software that I use to make digital images, and sometimes to enhance something I have drawn. It certainly helps if you have an eye for the visual, but by adhering to a few simple points, you can come up with something fairly effective.

There are some websites out there that give you the option of premade templates, and while they might do in a pinch, if you can at all avoid this avenue, do. The last thing you want is for your masterpiece of a book to look like all the rest. You don’t want it to blend in, but to stand out. The cover needs to entice a reader to buy your book, instead of the one listed next to it.

I mentioned that there are some simple points you can use to come up with a good book cover. What are those simple points?

  1. Choose a font readily readable at small sizes
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Rule of thirds
  4. Don’t fall into clichéd cover designs for your genre

By ‘rule of thirds’, I mean visualising your graphic area split into three sections. As a rule of thumb, it isn’t best to centre your images, but to have them at certain points. See the example below …

and the grid this is based on:

Note the ‘intersection’ points in red. These are where you would place your ‘points of interest’ on the images you work with. You have four areas that offer useful positions at which to place elements. As well as nine sections to work within. To go into this in depth is beyond the scope of this post, but if you do a web search, you will come up with lots of helpful websites and tutorials on the rule of thirds. I first came across this rule as a beginning homemade greetings card maker, and it has since stood me in good stead for making book covers.

When I talk about keeping it simple, I mean that you need to avoid clutter. While the cover wants to say something about the essence of the book, it doesn’t want to attempt to tell the whole story. It needs to be readily identifiable at first glance … at least enough to grab one’s attention. There are some clever covers I’ve seen that do reveal themselves the more you look at them, but they are still designed in such a way as to grab your immediate attention as you browse down a list of thumbnails.

Book covers are billboards meant to lure in potential readers. That is the long and the short of it. A truly great cover is one that captures the essence of the book in a fundamental way. You don’t have to use pictures, necessarily … you could go for the abstract … your imagination is your only limit.

If you hire a cover designer, instead of creating your own, then they absolutely must be willing to read your book in order to do a good job. If they haven’t read it, how can they accurately capture it? Cheap usually isn’t better. I have seen numerous folks on Twitter advertising $5 book covers, but I would feel sceptical about using these. Firstly, are they offering a choice of fixed templates at that price, or is it truly a unique design? Secondly, how personal is the service going to be at that price? Are they really going to spend the time to read your novel and tailor a design especially for it? More likely, you will end up with ‘something like’, and not likely anything special.

Anna Lewis of Publishing Talk offers four steps to creating a good cover for yourself (my additions appear in italics) …

  1. Create a mood board (gather fonts you like, images that express your ideas and book/etc.). [Of course, this can be a folder on your computer, instead of an actual board.]
  2. Research other covers of books in a similar genre. [See what works and what doesn’t. This will help you avoid just being more of the same, too.]
  3. Obtain good quality images. [There are plenty of royalty free and low priced or free options out there.] Image resolution for book covers needs to be higher than the standard screen resolution of computers.
  4. Consider the different formats you need. [That is, you need an e-book cover and a paperback cover, and the spread for these is different.]

Before you put your cover ‘out there’, you absolutely must proofread it. You’d be amazed how many authors overlook this aspect of cover design. A spelling mistake or punctuation gaffe on your cover will put off most potential readers, not to mention looking sloppy and unprofessional. Proofread everything: the title, the author name, any other info on there, and most of all, the blurb on the back cover.

When searching for images to use, you must keep an eye out for copyright, and usage permissions. Some images have a licence for free use as long as it is not a commercial project, and this would—of course—rule out using it on your book. Others are available for commercial use and so you would be fine to use these. There are paid options such as ‘Shutterstock’ and ‘Dreamstime’ for photos and some graphics. ‘Deviant Art’ is a website full of artists and photographers who will often sell you their images for not too much outlay, and some offer their images for free. And an excellent free image resource online is ‘Pixabay’. Again, be sure to check the usage restrictions, ask for permission where you need to, and always, always give credit at the front of your book, even if permission isn’t required. It’s always good to acknowledge the artist’s hard work and generosity.

To make your own book cover, good image software is essential, and worth putting some money into. I use Photoshop, and was lucky enough to purchase this before Adobe brought out the monthly licence thing. There are others out there, some of them even free, but you need something easy to use and as versatile as you can get it. At the very least, you need a program that will allow you to work in layers. This is because you build your cover from the bottom up. That is, the background up to the topmost image or text. It is much easier if you are able to isolate layers and work on them independently of the others, especially when you find you need to tweak just one thing. If you have everything all together, a simple adjustment can turn into a nightmare of a job.

Don’t forget about the back cover (for paperbacks), and the spine. These are just as important as the front cover. On paperbacks, the spine is often what a reader will see when browsing shelves in a bookshop. The very thing they do once they have pulled it off the shelf and glanced at the front, is to flip to the back and read the blurb. So, the whole thing needs to be balanced, and the three elements (back, spine, front) should flow one into the other.

The dimensions of your paperback design depend upon the page count of your book. Print-on-demand publishers (such as Createspace, for example) offer templates that you can generate for your particular page count and download to design your book cover around. That way, your spine and all the rest is exactly where you need it and at the right thickness for the finished binding. Do remember to allow for ‘cutting’ and ‘bleeding’ in the printing and assembly process of your book. Again, the templates offered by the main print-on-demand services show these areas, so you know to avoid putting anything important (such as text) in that area. You also need to decide upon the size of your book before you put your book cover together. The most universally accepted size is 6X9 inches, but of course, the choice is yours.

For most platforms, you will need jpeg and PDF versions of your cover for uploading purposes, and if you intend to do cover reveals then these (and perhaps PNGs) will be helpful for uploading to blogs, etc.

The 3D cover graphic I made earlier was done in Photoshop, using ‘actions’ that I downloaded for free from PSDCovers.com. They have lots and lots of actions to choose from, and (at the time of writing this) were generous enough to offer these for free.

These kinds of 3D mock-ups can prove useful for making pre-release book images for marketing purposes, which includes having a ‘book’ to display on your book movie trailer before you actually have a book printed! I have even made a coffee mug with my book cover ‘wrapped’ around the body of the mug.

So, these days, I’d beware of the saying, ‘Seeing is believing’, because quite obviously this isn’t the case 🙂

We have a book that looks like a book, but isn’t a book. What it is, is a vision.


With the right graphics software and plugins, this is the kind of stuff we can make with ease on our computers. I made this mug for one of my blog posts, and again, it took me just minutes. It even comes with shadows and reflections of light. With 3D imaging being this easy, you can see how easy it will be to make a simple, one-dimensional book cover. So, bring your vision to life, and crank up the ‘degrees celcius’ on your book sales. Happy creating!

Harmony Kent

@harmony_kent / Harmony Kent Author Pages: Facebook / Amazon


44 thoughts on “Judging a book by its cover

  1. Great post, Harmony. I know that I’m influenced by covers. I’ll start with the front cover, go to the blurb, and then to the first chapter. I’ve had the experience as an author too. When I upgraded my homemade covers to professional covers, my sales responded instantly. They definitely matter. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A cover is the first impression readers have of you and your work and as such it’s crucial to give it the attention it deserves. One thing I’ve learned over time is to focus more on the mood of my book than the actual storyline, which can end up disappointing readers because the vision you have of your characters are not necessarily the same as they come away with.
    Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I readily admit I judge books by their covers–if I don’t know the author. If it’s an established author I regularly read, the book cover doesn’t matter so much. But if I’m browsing, looking for new books, the cover is what draws me. With so many choices out there, I sometimes think of book covers as fishing bait—catch someone and reel them in with your snazzy cover. Once the cover draws me, then I check out the blurb.

    Great post, Harmony!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is so wonderful that you have a good cover artist, Carrie. Are you able to give us his name? 😃 Good luck with your books!


  4. Great post. I’m actually going to be looking for a new cover artist next year, so I got a lot to think about from this post. Especially since I’ve been considering trying to do my own bundle covers, but haven’t been able to figure out how. Need to go hunting for templates, I guess.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. A good cover is essential. And I have judged books by their cover. Sometimes I’ve found great content behind a bad cover and vice-versa, but I’m not likely to read if the cover is done poorly. Thanks for the informative post.

    Liked by 3 people

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