Judge a Book by Its Cover: How to SPARC Great Cover Design

by Carol Van Den Hende
published in Community

Welcome to the Author Marketing Toolkit, where you can learn from 20+ years of time-tested marketing and insights expertise, translated for authors. I’m Carol Van Den Hende, an MBA and strategist who’s known for bringing chocolate when I speak at conferences (surely, we’ll get back to in-person events one day!).

I’m thrilled to be joining you here at DIY MFA to share actionable insights.

Last time, we discussed author brand as a promise to readers and how a brand framework can help you articulate yours. Next is translating the brand promise into a visual identity. Book cover design is a critical aspect of this, so today we’ll cover five tips to spark great design.

Why Design?

When we consider storytelling, we usually think of the written or spoken words that make up the tale. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of book covers to evoke emotion and spark interest in a story. After all, humans are visual creatures. Vision activates more than 50% of the brain’s cortex!1 Think about how you feel when you see an image of a cub versus a fierce lion, or a contrast of colors compared to a harmonious palette.

As a brand marketer, I witnessed firsthand the impact of visuals on packaged good purchase decisions. Red and yellow can be paired to interrupt a package design and scream “discount.” Green is often used to connote environmental sustainability. Certain shades of blue can be calming and rational, which is useful to communicate efficacy.

The power of design applies to books too. It’s a critical element in a publisher or author’s toolset to break through and convey meaning. Let’s examine each of these concepts, and five tips to spark great cover design (which can be described using the mnemonic “SPARC”). Note: these tips are for authors who have a collaborative role in the design briefing and assessment process and may be less actionable for others.

Break through is the ability to stand out in a cluttered environment. This is necessary because your book is competing in bookstores that carry thousands of titles or online marketplaces with millions of options. To navigate this sea of choice, readers rely on various means to pick a book, such as credible sources (bestseller/best of lists, awards, news outlets and other media), friend/library/bookstore/Goodreads recommendations, or simply by browsing and picking up a book that “catches attention.”

Catching attention can come from a title that grabs, well-written copy, an enticing endorsement blurb, or a known author. All of that together, what the cover communicates to the reader, is what we call “meaning.”

Tip #1: Simplicity breaks through, so don’t try to stuff everything onto the cover. Rather, focus!

It’s hard enough to summarize our full-length books into a publisher synopsis, back cover blurb, log line, or title. It’s that same intensity of focus that’s needed to determine what key aspect of the book will most motivate a reader on the cover. That single-minded insight can be shared with designers in a creative brief, sometimes called an author questionnaire. For instance, I briefed my publisher that Goodbye, Orchid’s central tension was the emotional and physical shattering of the main characters, Phoenix and Orchid. That tension is captured through the image of shattered orchids on the cover.

James Patterson Cover Design

Tip #2: Prioritize your communications hierarchy.

To focus, it can help to determine what you’d like your reader to notice first, second, and third (recalling that tip #1 exhorts simplicity, we likely shouldn’t have more than 3-5 priorities). We call this prioritization a “communications hierarchy.” For example, the prominence of James Patterson’s name on his covers indicates that his team prioritizes his author name fairly high in the hierarchy. Smart, since his well-known name will break-through and motivate readers.

As a debut author, I prioritized: 

  1. The shattering image and title,
  2. My author name and subtitle, and finally 
  3. My front cover blurb and award, just below those other important elements. 

You can see the resulting cover here:

cover design

Tip #3: Assess cover designs against the brief, not personal taste.

Once you’ve done all the hard work to write and communicate a single-minded brief, it’s more powerful to assess your designs versus the brief, not based on personal taste. So, rather than telling designers “I like this” or “I don’t like that,” it’s more helpful to share which designs (or parts of designs) communicate the single-minded insight, and whether the communications hierarchy is delivered. Don’t fall into the trap of telling the designer what to change (that’s their expertise) but rather, what you’re trying to achieve! This will help make you a great collaborator and that collaboration is what contributes to great designs.

Tip #4: Real-life: assess cover design in situ.

Be sure to assess design not only at full-size, but as a thumbnail, next to other covers from the same genre. It’s tempting to view your cover oversized on your screen, and to nitpick about the little details. But especially for titles that primarily sell as ebooks, it’s more important to see them in a real-life situation. After all, thumbnails are often all online shoppers first see of your cover. So shrink them to real-life screen size and assess the title legibility, whether the cover will be distinctive and easily recognizable, as well as whether it can “pop” versus other books in your genre. Designers have a bevy of strategies to achieve this break-through, including the contrast of colors, font weight, and mix of serif and sans serif fonts. Here’s an example of an online Amazon “shelf”:

cover design

If your book will be in physical distribution, pay attention to the spine, as that may be all readers see of your cover design in bookstores or libraries. Check to see if the title and author name are legible at a glance. Take a look at these spines, many of which are simple and clean:

cover design

Source: Instagram @the_unwined (used with permission)

Tip #5 Consistency, consistency, consistency.

After you have designs in hand, consistency is king.

The truth is, the path to purchase is rarely linear. Because most of our lives are busy and full, research has found that it can take two to seven exposures for a new product or item to break its way into our consciousness. As authors, that means it benefits us to stack our impressions, be relevant in content and placement, and be visually consistent. This helps break through because human brains naturally scan for patterns and once readers have seen your cover(s) multiple times, they will be more quickly recognized next time. Readers have told me that because my publisher has consistently used a specific font for my title, and shattered orchids in my graphics, they’ve come to associate my cover and orchids with Goodbye, Orchid. See an example banner here:

cover design

In summary, design is important because in crowded physical or digital spaces, a book may only have seconds to catch a reader’s attention. Good book cover design can break through. Mediocre design can get lost. So remember the five tips to “SPARC” great design:

  1. Simplicity breaks through, so don’t try to stuff everything onto the cover. Rather, focus!
  2. Prioritize your communications hierarchy.
  3. Assess designs against the brief, not personal taste
  4. Real-life: assess design in situ
  5. Consistency, consistency, consistency

Please let me know the ways in which these concepts helped clarify your visual identity thinking. I’ll look forward to chatting more next time, when we’ll dive into more marketing concepts. Meanwhile, connect with me on any of these social media sites https://linktr.ee/cvdh and let me know what else you’d love to learn about marketing and brand strategy.

Wishing you peace, meaning and orchids of course. Happy writing!

Carol Van Den Hende, MBA

Award-winning author of Goodbye, Orchid

1 University of Rochester https://www.rochester.edu/pr/Review/V74N4/0402_brainscience.html

Carol Van Den Hende is the award-winning author of Goodbye, Orchid, a public speaker, and MBA with 20+ years’ experience in marketing, strategy and insights. Carol is passionate about simplifying marketing concepts into actionable steps that authors need for publishing success. Please sign up for Carol’s newsletter at https://carolvandenhende.com/contact or linktr.ee/cvdh

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