Indie Guest Post: How To Judge A Book By Its Cover -Tips On Cover Design

One of the first things that we all judge upon when we lay our hands on a book, or even before, is its cover. Despite whatever proverbs we may be used to we definitely are cover obsessed and most of us on instagram depend on their beauty. I even posted a bunch of weird book covers for fun a while ago.

As an indie author it is critical to choose the best cover for your book. This we have Rob discussing about this topic with us. 

Say hello to Rob!

Rob Keeley was born in Wirral, Merseyside, UK. Writing his first story aged seven, his first short play aged eleven and first being published at fifteen, he wrote for several magazines before his first book for children, The Alien in the Garage and Other Stories, was published in 2011.

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He has since written two more collections of children’s stories, one of which, The Dinner Club and Other Stories, was longlisted for the International Rubery Book Award. He has now published all five novels in his Spirits series, the first of which, Childish Spirits, gained him a Distinction for his MA in Creative Writing before being longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award and nominated for the People’s Book Prize in 2015.

He has recently studied Screenwriting and Filmmaking, has been a judge for the IGGY and Litro Young Writers’ Prize and is a Patron of the Children’s Media Foundation. His books have been used in schools, libraries and at literary festivals and he is in demand for his author workshops, which one teacher even described as “inspirational”!

Let’s get on with it shall we?

“Never judge a book by its cover”. That has to be up there with “The camera never lies” as one of those old adages that doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. Everyone judges a book by its cover, metaphorically and in the literal (and literary) sense.

When readers shop for books, whether in bricks and mortar bookshops or online, the first thing that catches the eye is the front cover. Even if it’s a book or series title they know, they’ll be relying on the cover to entice them, to draw them in, to promise a thrilling reading journey, destination unknown. 

And if you need proof, look at those empty boxes on websites where the cover isn’t available yet or hasn’t yet been uploaded. How bland and uninviting do those book entries look? Which is why it’s so important for every author, and especially the indie author in creative control of their book, to get the cover right.

Working with what we have

It’s not easy, for the indie author. We can be completely on our own, uploading our books directly to the Internet, with only limited numbers of templates or fonts at our disposal. Even those of us who work with a designer or an indie publishing company – and there are some brilliant, talented ones out there – can’t necessarily afford (or access) an illustrator and have to work with what software options are available.

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Of all my books for children, only my picture book My Favourite People has so far had the luxury of an illustrator. My novels and short story collections all made use of stock photos from the Net, which have to be bought and licensed by the author or by the designer acting on their behalf. And finding the right picture to illustrate your work isn’t always easy.

I discovered this with The Dinner Club and Other Stories, when I spent a whole afternoon looking at stock photos of fish and chips, in order to find one that reflected a child’s home dinner with his grandmother. And what did everyone, but everyone (even the judges who longlisted it for an award!) later say to me? It looks like a cookbook! Young readers thought otherwise, however – as will be seen below.

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So we have to work within our budgets, and with whatever we can get. But perhaps this forces us to be all the more creative. It can even feed back into the text of our books. With The (Fairly) Magic Show I changed the card found by a child in the title story from the King of Clubs to the King of Spades, simply because we’d found a brilliant photo of a pile of cards with this on top.

Sometimes a talented designer can change an ordinary stock photo into something magical and memorable. The graveyard of The Spirit of London became this, simply by adding a sunlight effect. On High Spirits, the one that won the award by the way, we changed a stock Grim Reaper hooded spirit into the Doppelganger of the book simply by adding some smoke and a few energy beams to reflect the climax of the novel. 

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The imagination is the only barrier to being creative with what we have. Ask any child who builds entire worlds from building bricks or cardboard boxes. And in my case, they’re my readers.

What does the reader want to see?

With all communication, the fundamental question to ask yourself is: who is my target audience? And going on from that, what do they want to see, read or hear? With my novels and short stories, I always visualise the intelligent 9-12 year old, reading a book at school or home, or having it read to them, wanting to be informed, inspired, but above all, entertained!

And therefore, the cover has to reflect this, being as colourful, exciting and intriguing as possible. It’s not a bad ground rule for novels for adults, either. The image should complement the title and reinforce it, while both perhaps pose questions that the reader will want answered. Anything and everything to make them want to read. 

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Sometimes the meaning of the cover and its image won’t become clear until the book is read – as with the ruined world on the cover of The Sword of the Spirit, or the door on The Alien in the Garage. And an added complication these days is that the cover has to be easily adaptable to different formats – paperback, ebook or audiobook. Childish Spirits, the first Spirits novel, is currently being recorded as an audiobook, which has meant reformatting its cover from portrait to square – the shape traditionally used for CDs.

As we’ve seen, we can start with the everyday and make something extraordinary out of it. Sometimes the reaction from the young reader can surprise even the author. The Dinner Club, following its “cookbook” criticisms, went on to inspire reluctant readers I worked with at one school to create their own Dinner Club, with the help of their teachers, in which they were granted an early lunch, ate fish and chips and discussed books and their writing. A cover image did that. Not even the book – its cover. This shows the importance of getting the cover right and tailoring it to its target audience.

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Children’s authors should also remember that it isn’t necessarily about doing a “wacky” or “kiddie” cover. I’ve had criticisms – from adults, always from adults – that my covers look “too grown up”. Childish Spirits was one such novel, with its spooky abandoned nursery and ghostly portrait, yet in one school workshop a group of children solemnly claimed they could see extra ghosts in the doorway and next to the curtain. (Have a look. Can you?)

None of them seemed to think that this book wasn’t for them. And all of them were engaged and stimulated as readers by what they saw. No one ever said that children’s books were just for children, either. It’s worth remembering that Harry Potter was published with children’s and adult covers – and that it’s adults who are frequently the buyers of children’s literature.

How do we design a good cover?

I’m sure that whole books could be devoted to this alone, but here are a few pointers I’ve picked up along the way:

  • Keep your target audience in mind constantly. What do they want to see – and read?
  • Basic background colour is important. You know your text better than anyone – what “colour” is it? A dark fantasy story could call for black. A light-hearted romance might benefit from white. White can also be sinister – especially if some blood appears. Children are attracted by bright colours. And so on.
  • Choose the best possible image from the best source available on your budget. It should be something that captures the essence of your story and/or characters, perhaps obviously, perhaps less so until the book is read.
  • Choose a font that reflects the style of your story, its title and what your audience wants to see. A computerised, businesslike font might look good on a business studies book but less so on your middle-grade fantasy novel.
  • Lay everything out clearly, attractively and don’t clutter your front cover.
  • If you have review quotes from previous books, or an advance review for this one, try and get at least one quote on the cover, if this can be done comfortably without cluttering. Give the source, and make it clear which book it refers to – e.g. “On High Spirits:”. And of course, make sure you’re authorised to reproduce this material! Check with the reviewer if there’s any doubt. Reviews might show up better on printed covers than electronic-only. And if you can’t fit a review on the printed front cover – there’s always the back!
  • The finished front cover should ideally be adaptable to different formats and media. You might get the chance at paperback, ebook and audiobook – as I now have. A good designer can advise you here.

So, a suitably intriguing and attention-grabbing cover can engage the reader, young or old. It simply has to be right for the story, for the characters, and above all, for your audience. And once you get them past the cover? Then you, as the author, can work your magic.

Thank you, Rob

And I am back to thank him for taking time off his busy schedule to write us a guest post. You can follow and contact Rob through these links. 

Twitter | Blog |

If you have something to add to Rob’s story, drop a comment here or send him a word of thanks on the social media. Both of us would love that.Also, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the independent publishing community, write to me right away. I am still accepting guest post submissions.

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Let us chat

As a reader, what kinda covers put you off a book? As an author, what are the things that you look out when you chose your book cover? Tell us about your experience with choosing your book covers. Let us talk.

26 responses to “Indie Guest Post: How To Judge A Book By Its Cover -Tips On Cover Design”

  1. The cover is the first thing that catches my attention when I searching for books, especially if I am not familiar with the author.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful post. I’m known for buying books because of pretty covers. But I’m also drawn to simple ones. The one thing I find most important is that the cover design does, even in a small way. tell something about the the story inside.

  3. This is awesome!! I try not to judge books by their covers. So many times, I’ve HATED a cover, but LOVED the book! I am always going to be a sucker for a book that has a great cover design though! 🙂 My biggest irks are when they put the book club icon on the cover. Not just the sticker, when it’s actually printed in the cover design. I also can’t stand when quotes from reviews for the authors OTHER books on the back. Like, I want to learn about THIS book, not the others yet.

    • Good points, Erica! Re previous book review quotes… the problem is, as I’m sure you know, that book covers are needed well in advance of publication to begin pre-selling the book, especially online. So often previous book quotes are all that is available! This applies to trad as well as indie publishing. Occasionally you can be lucky enough to get an advance review from the proofs – as I did for my latest novel for kids, The Coming of the Spirits. But front covers in particular can have been designed before the finished text proof is even approved! The important thing is to make it clear which book is being referred to. Rob 🙂

  4. I love learning how this is done. I try not to judge books by their covers. However, there are really some covers that do not appeal to me and I have to make myself read the blurb a bit mor.

  5. What a fascinating post! I’m always interested in cover design since I’m a graphic designer. I think beauty is a real draw to at least checking to see what a book is about. The target audience though is of course supreme, cause you want them to actually read it too and not just buy it!

  6. I think that if you are in a physical bookshop then you are more likely to pick up a striking cover to read the synopsis.

  7. I am definitely guilty of judging a book by its cover. One of the biggest things I want to see in a cover is that it actually reflects the book inside. I’ve seen some covers that are absolutely gorgeous and when I went to read the book, they had nothing to do with the story itself!

    Great guest post 🙂

  8. Im a sucker for pretty covers. That’s how Tahereh Mafi catch my attention on her Shatter me series. Those eyes in the cover made me fall in love. Great article by the way.

  9. I love Robs books. He’s also a lovely person too. I have to admit that covers are often the first thing that puts me off reading a book. I do read the synopsis and if it’s a physical book a page inside first before making my mind up.

    Some books I’ve read have been superb but they’ve had shockingly bad covers. I did once suggest to an author who was struggling selling his book which I gave five stars to change his cover. He did and he started getting more sales, he wrote to say thank you for the advice.

    There’s a book recently that someone asked if I’d review and the synopsis sounded good, a real thriller, exciting plot with plenty of drama. Their cover though looks like a chick lit book, all pastel colours and flowers on it and a drawing of a woman in a floaty dress running on the front. I actually turned the book down in the end because if the cover was anything to go by the plot was going to be watered down and not the thriller plot I would be expecting.

  10. I love the Spirits of London cover! It’s just lovely. I find I’m more likely to buy books with pretty covers just because. Haha. And sadly, I’ve avoided books for having covers I didn’t like… I passed over reading RA Salvatore’s Drizzt series for years because I hated the covers. They were 80s style fantasy :/ A friend got me to read them and I am in love with the series. I adore the new artwork for them too! Finally, good artwork!

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