All-Too-Common Cover-Design Mistakes
by Michele DeFilippo
Book distributors, book retailers, and book reviewers use common benchmarks to determine whether a book is ready for prime time. As it happens, these are the same criteria used by the judges in book-design contests nationwide, and the same ones prospective buyers use when they look at a cover, without necessarily being aware of them on a conscious level.
Judging by the number of counterproductive covers I’ve seen, many publishers either don’t know about these criteria or don’t care about them, because the same mistakes show up time and again.
Here’s an annotated list of the 10 most common cover-design mistakes to help you and your designer stay on the right track. When you’ve read through the list, you may want to visit your favorite online bookseller to look at full-color versions of the covers below, which show what can happen when all these mistakes are avoided.
Mistake #1: The book cover design does not fit its genre. Buyers, distributors, and retailers favor books that clearly belong in their genre. A history book should have a look that is different from the look of a cookbook or a spiritual book. A book cover should be created with knowledge of the market and designed to emulate the look of current bestsellers in its category.
Mistake #2: The book cover design is not appropriate for the target audience. A book cover should be designed to appeal to those most likely to buy the book. A calculus textbook should look entirely different than a Las Vegas getaway guide.
Mistake #3: The book-cover elements are poorly organized. A book cover is like a billboard. It must communicate its message to prospective buyers quickly and efficiently—in less than seven seconds, in fact. A cover that contains too many elements can confuse the prospective buyer and fail to communicate any message at all. To prevent this unhappy consequence, the elements should be arranged so that the buyer’s eye moves logically from the most important to the least important information, and so that the buyer doesn’t have to work to grasp the message.
Mistake #4: The book title and/or images do not tell what the book is about. You know all about your book. But the prospective buyer doesn’t know anything . . . yet. The cover has to tell the buyer, in an instant, what the book is about, so the title and graphic should work together to tell the story of the book at one quick glance.
Mistake #5: The colors used on the cover are not appropriate for the subject matter. Colors communicate subliminal messages to the buyer. Blues and purples convey a sense of peace, stability, honesty, royalty, and devotion. Reds and oranges convey power, energy, and love. Greens evoke nature, growth, and life. Yellows convey happiness, cheerfulness, and warmth. It’s not enough to use colors that you like. Colors must support the content of the book and create an emotional first impression that is consistent with that content.
Mistake #6: The fonts are not well chosen, or the typography is not skillfully executed. Fonts, like colors, send messages to prospective buyers. Serif fonts are serious and authoritative. Sans serif fonts are more casual, yet still easy to read. Scripts and other decorative fonts convey formality, levity, or a host of other emotions. Like colors, the typography on the cover should evoke the same emotions as the text inside, and it must be skillfully rendered with great attention paid to kerning and word spacing so that the spacing between letters, words, and lines assists rather than impedes comprehension. Special effects may be fun to use, but the message they send may be “Amateur at work here.”
Mistake #7: The cover design is not visible from a distance. A cover should be clearly visible from a display table or a shelf to attract attention. A book cover that fades into the background is a sales opportunity lost forever. You can test visibility by printing your cover at full size and standing 15 feet away. It’s not necessary to be able to read the title from that distance, but you should be able to see the overall design.
Mistake #8: The cover design has too little contrast to be visible in small sizes online or in black and white in catalogs and ads. Colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel are most visible in any design. But care is necessary to make sure the chosen colors are still visible when the cover is converted to black and white or reduced for online display. The best way to test is to print your cover at 25 percent or less of its full size in both color and black and white. One example: A red title on a black background will look very dramatic on the book but disappear in smaller sizes or black and white.
Mistake #9: The spine is poorly designed and will not stand out when the book is displayed spine out on a shelf. Sometimes the spine of a book is so small that there’s very little space in which to create an eye-catching design. But if your book doesn’t fall into that category, then adding visual elements to the title and author’s name on the spine will go a long way toward helping the book stand out when it’s shelved with only its spine showing, alongside many other books.
Mistake #10: The back cover does not contain the essential elements needed by prospective readers and the book trade. The back-cover text should be as short as possible, preferably with bullet points that quickly summarize the content. Buyers are busy, and we have all been trained by the Web to expect our information in small portions. Back covers that contain too much text, or text that doesn’t quickly get to the point, will simply not be read.
In addition to the text, every back cover should contain a bar code, ISBN, and sales price in U.S. dollars (and in other currencies if applicable), as well as the publisher’s name.
The back cover should also contain at least one subject heading from the latest BISAC Subject Headings List, available via the Book Industry Study Group site—bisg.org—so that bookstore employees will know where to shelve your book. Inventing your own headings is definitely not recommended.
Creating Better Covers
By keeping the most common cover-design mistakes in mind during the design process, you’ll be able to see where your cover designs are strong and where they may need improvement. When you’ve done your analysis and acted on it, your book covers will be more likely to meet the challenges of today’s book business.
Michele DeFilippo is the owner of 1106 Design. In addition to editorial services, cover design, and typesetting, 1106 Design offers comprehensive cover design evaluations at covers.1106design.com.