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Three Surefire Ways to Fail at E-book Cover Design

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by Joel Friedlander, Book Designer

Joel Friedlander

The growth of the e-book market has brought with it a new challenge for those who design these e-book covers, whether they are amateurs or professionals. More than anything else, designers and do-it-yourself publishers have to address the challenges of this relatively new format in a way that helps them sell books.

Since 2011, I’ve judged thousands of e-book covers for the popular monthly e-Book Cover Design Awards I run on my blog (The Book Designer), and I see the same mistakes over and over again. Which covers fail the test of helping to market the books they are attached to? From my experience, there are three main ways these covers fail, ways that are specific to e-books and distinct from their print book counterparts.

Overly Complicated

Simplicity is one of the chief virtues of successful e-book cover design. Designers who try to shoehorn too many images into the cover—including many significant or emblematic moments from the book, or a whole cast of characters or important scenes—are actually doing themselves a disservice.

If you are adapting a print book cover to your e-book, remove elements that won’t be legible at a small size. Limit the cover to the title, author name, and one graphic that instantly communicates something about the tone or genre of the book.

And remember, no matter how cool you think your cover is, if a browser can’t read the title, or can’t easily decipher the image you’ve used, you’ve already lost the sale.

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Disregard of Scale

Did you know that a six inches-by-nine inches print book cover has 54 square inches of space in which to do its job? E-book covers do not have anything near this space. When you do a search for e-books on an online retailer’s site, you’re going to see a list of tiny images about 120 by 180 pixels. This could be the most important image your potential readers will see. If your cover doesn’t capture their attention, they will never click through to the book’s detail page where a (slightly) larger image is shown.

Your book will be shown in several ways on sites like Amazon, Smashwords, and iBooks store. This means that you really need to design for the smallest size of all, because that’s the size that’s going to show up in search results.

People who already know about your book are going to head straight for it anyway. It’s the others—people looking for something but not sure exactly what—who should be your primary focus. Maybe they are searching within a favorite genre, or in titles related to a favorite writer.

If your cover disappears in this view, or it’s unreadable, or you can’t possibly tell what the image on the cover is, it’s much more likely that browsers will skim right over it to the next, and your chance of making an impression on that person is gone, literally in a second or two.

When you have a design you like, get one of those Amazon or BN.com search results pages up on your screen, reduce your cover to the same size, and see how it looks compared to other books in your genre. There’s no better test than this to see if your concept is going to work.

Lack of Strategic Benefit

Your e-book cover has important work to do in terms of branding and positioning. E-book covers fail when they don’t take a publishing strategy into account, from the ground up. Authors simply don’t realize that positioning their books can be important to their books’ sales. Or even worse, many amateur e-book cover designs ignore the conventions of their genre, category, or niche. Thriller covers that look like romances, contemporary fiction covers with no “hook” or anything to pique browsers interest, science-fiction books with covers that look like legal textbooks—I’ve seen them all.

These covers fail for the obvious reason that even avid readers in these genres will completely miss the book because there’s no visual signal of what kind of book it is. It’s crucial for your readers to be able to recognize exactly what kind of e-book it is instantly.

And don’t forget series. Books in a series need to display their membership in that series right away—that’s part of your series’ branding and part of your author branding too.

Positioning has a lot to do with how your book compares to other books in its niche or genre. Is it the deluxe version of a beginning carpentry book? The quick guide to fixing your Volkswagen? Advice for love-struck teens?

The design of your e-book cover has to reflect these differences between related books to give potential buyers the information they need to make a purchase decision. While a tiny cover image can’t do that all by itself, it is a part of your overall positioning strategy, and should coordinate with it.

So, to sum up, treat your e-book covers as related to, but not identical to your print book covers. Keep them simple, legible, and recognizable, and you’ll give yourself and your books a big leg up when it comes time to release them into the world.

Joel Friedlander is an author, an award-winning book designer, a blogger, and the creator of programs that train authors to achieve the impact their work deserves.

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