The Importance of Book Covers

JD Smith, graphic designer, editor and writer, has written a series of articles for us on cover design – first up, she explores the importance of a strong and professional-looking cover design.

The importance of cover design for self-published authors, collaborative groups and independent press has become less of an argument as the competition and potential sales revenue from book sales has become obvious. Many writers now take seriously the need to package and market their books professionally, and pro covers are no longer considered ‘nice to have’; they are considered essential in the ever more competitive world of book selling.

Bookshops display books with their covers facing the reader. It’s the first thing a reader sees. It is the reason a customer picks up the book, particularly in a supermarket setting where every book is front facing. Even the author can be recognised not only by the letters spelled out, but by the font, the style of cover, composition, the look of a series.

Only when a reader has picked up the book do they actually read anything, and that includes the back cover blurb that you will have spent hours and hours honing – and if the blurb was worth all that effort, then the cover is equally if not more deserving. Of course reviews, recommendations and building an audience are also important, but I’m talking about a package, and that shouldn’t be compromised by any one element.

Not that long ago there was a general theory that book covers were less important for ebooks because the item wasn’t a physical book. But the rules that apply to bookshops are true of online retailers. You can search, or you can be emailed newsletters, but the first thing you will be presented with is a cover, or a series of covers, and instead of picking up the book to read the blurb, you click on a cover instead.

Even when, on Amazon and other online retailers, books are displayed as a list, the main thing your eye is drawn to is the cover, because the list of titles and authors are all presented in the same font, size, and colour. The new cliché today is ‘Does it work at thumbnail size?’ as online sales rise.

Because a book’s cover is its face, it generates expectation. If a reader sees an amateur cover on a book, they will expect the novel itself to be amateur. If it looks cheaply produced, then they will expect the inside quality to be cheap also, and that there has been little or no editing, proofreading, and that it contains bad prose. And if a reader sees a cover and has that expectation, why should they buy it? And it’s not just about someone buying a book, but about them investing their time reading it. A book takes a good number of hours to read. I make a decision to read a book less lightly than choosing a film or a TV programme to watch. My time is precious, and the more dubious the quality of material that is out there, the more discerning readers will become.

Big publishers spend thousands to ensure a cover is right, commissioning illustration and photography. It’s normal for big publishers to have 50 + covers designed for a single book so they get it ‘just right’. It’s the reason publishers design different book covers for different countries, different markets and so on.

That doesn’t mean to say that self-published authors and collaborative groups and so on can’t have covers that are equally as professional as those produced by major publishers. A close working relationship between author and designer can produce some intimate and spectacular results. The wrong designer and you can end up with something that will do more harm than good.


JD Smith (Jane) lives and works in the English Lake District. Having worked as a graphic designer since the age of 17, her passion for books and everything literary took over and she now works predominantly on book cover design and typesetting. She is the editor of the writing magazine Words with JAM, and the author of Tristan and Iseult and The Rise of Zenobia, the Overlord series, published with the Triskele Books collective.




June 14, 2020