Judge a Book By Its Cover

How many times have you heard the old adage:

Never judge a book by its cover.

Well today, my lovelies, I’m here to tell you that if you’re an author that’s a load of bantha poodoo.  Everyone will judge your book by its cover.  Granted what’s in between that cover should be the gold bomb diggety, but repel potential readers you will if you don’t put at least one-quarter the energy you put into writing the book into creating the cover.

litandscribbles gold diggety jae

Your work should explode into awesomeness every time the reader opens it.

This doesn’t mean you need to design the cover yourself, and unless you’re a graphic designer or artist, please hand that task off to someone else.

I do graphic design among other things for a living.  No, I’m not the greatest graphic designer in the world.  That title belongs to Paul Rand or Milton Glaser.  But I do know horrible when I see it, and unfortunately I see a lot of that in self-pub covers.

But all is not lost!  You can have a good cover, possibly even a great cover if you only take into consideration a few things when pulling it together.
Remember, your book cover is your initial sales pitch to your readers.

These tips will apply mostly to self-pubbers but traditional route authors will also want to take note.  Both of you may work with a designer, and the more direction you can give them the better your cover will likely turn out.

Let’s begin at the core.


As I said previously, your book cover is your initial sales pitch to a potential reader.  You want it to be eye-catching, alluring, intriguing—but to the right audience.  Let’s start with two books as examples: Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Twilight.

These are both well-designed book covers, brought to you thanks to the $$$ the publishing houses had to pay a good designer.  But why are they good covers?  What do they convey?  Even if you’re not consciously thinking it, when you look at a cover, it’s sending you all sorts of messages.  Let’s start with Diary of a Wimpy Kid and you can see what I mean.

diary of a wimpy kidBright, vibrant colors.  This tells us this book is probably for kids, but also promises to be something fun.  It’s fashioned like a real diary with modifications, re-emphasizing this will be the journal entries of some kid.  The font itself looks more hand-written, like a comic.  And you have a picture from the comics inside, torn out and taped on the front, probably the way a kid would design this book.  Then we get a picture of the kid himself, and yep, he does look wimpy—all hunched over and frowning.

TwilightNow compare that with Twilight.  Black background, light or white text.  The arms are pale.  The only color they do use is red, like blood, but still quite muted.  If you knew nothing about Twilight, looking at this cover you would still know it’s a story about something dark.  The apple suggests temptation.  The title has a sort of fantastical/magic look to it.  Some kind of dark temptation involving something magical.  These are things we notice and process—probably subconsciously for most of us.

But let’s take it one step further so you can understand the big difference between these two approaches.  If we were to switch them up, you can easily see why choosing the appropriate colors and moods for your book cover conveys a lot about what kind of story you’ve got.

diary of a vampy kid

moldy cheese jeff kinney

I hope you’re beginning to see how different designs make things funny or creepy or whatever you’re intending.  You’ve just got to put the right elements together (or rather the designer does) and you can have an intriguing cover that tells you something about the book.  It honestly doesn’t even have to be that complex.

outliers malcolm gladwellTake this book cover for example.  Simple, but effective.  It’s white, kind of sterile, like it’s all business.  It has some beads on it, one is separate, closer to the title Outliers—purposely conveying the concept of being an outlier.  Granted this particular design it probably more suited to non-fiction, but my point is you can have a good design that isn’t as complex as one of the American covers for the Harry Potter series.

This makes for a good introduction to book covers, and hopefully you’re beginning to understand a little better what kind of thought should go into your cover—whether you’re doing it yourself or not.  You’ve got to think about who your biggest audience is, what kind of story you’ve got and the best way to convey that, and most importantly of all the cover should be something that says, “I put more than 5 seconds worth of thought into this cover.

This is turning into a longer post than I had anticipated, so let’s continue in the following sections:

I’ll share some examples of self-pub authors who did it right, and do my best to recreate some of the less than good covers I’ve seen floating around the Twitterverse.  See you tomorrow with Colors, Fonts, & Photos!

Staying On the Right Track

My beautiful sponge… ruined!

I’m feeling a bit inspired/vindicated coming from Kristen Lamb’s latest blog post, The Five Mistakes Killing Self-Published Authors.  I don’t know that I intend to self-publish in the end, but I certainly don’t want to pull the cake from the oven too early.

If you’ve followed my recent updates, then you know I’m in the midst of major rewrites coming back from the Backspace Writers Conference in NYC.  It was there I learned I still have quite a lot to learn.  And even though I’d taken my manuscript to a higher level, I discovered I still had quite a bit higher to climb.  Discouraging?  Yes, at first.  It’s a hard thing to face, realizing despite how much you’ve grown you’ve still got a little higher to go before you’ve arrived at presentable.

As a writer you’ll reach the point where your circle of friends (the non-writer ones) won’t have much more to say to you for improvement.  They can’t write the story for you.  So while it may be clear enough to read, the tension, the voice, the pacing, the scenes, everything that takes you from mediocre to masterpiece isn’t something most of them can typically communicate.  They come at it with reader’s eyes, and readers are far more forgiving than an agent or editor will be.

That’s where the writing community can come in strong, if you’ll let it, if you’ll open yourself up to it.  I disliked so much the false sense of mastery I thought I’d attained before feeling like a flop at my conference that I was determined from then on out to seek people who could tell me the truth.  I scoured the advice I’d received from agents and I had new writer friends give me the cold, hard truth.

It is cold AND hard, but I knew if I wanted to be a great writer I’d have to face those flaws holding me back and be willing to conquer them.

So that’s where Kristen’s post comes in.  Often we desperately are ready to trade what we want now (being published) for what we most want (being published successfully).  It’s easy to self-publish, but the easy path isn’t always the right one.  I suppose if we’re content to sell maybe a dozen or so copies of our books on Amazon then by all means dump it on there right away.

But if we’re looking for real, lasting success, it’s going to take grueling, patient, exhausting, frustrating, angry work to get there.  Reading her post reaffirmed to me that at least for now I’m on the right track to the success I’m seeking and that it’s okay to take my time to get it right.

How about you?  Do you find rewrites, edits, revisions difficult?  Have you learned anything from it?  What did you think of Kristen’s post?  Tell us your experience in the comments below.

Self-Publishing (Maria Murnane)

If you do choose to go the self-publishing route, Maria Murnane had a few tips from her own experience.

How to tell if you’re dealing with a dodgy publishing company:

  • they guarantee or tell you you’ll be successful
  • they are in a publishing partnership or co-publishing
  • they make you buy your own book in order to publish with them (vs. choosing the amount you buy if any)
  • they tell you that you’ll be on a list for Barnes & Noble (if you have an ISBN, you’ll be on that list anyway)

Read the contract carefully.  Some companies will have you sign your rights away for $1.  Make sure that you retain your rights in case later an agent or bigger publishing house likes what you’ve done and wants to sign you.  She also advises typing in a Google search and seeing what predictive text comes up.  If “scam” is first on the list you’re best to steer clear.  Some websites you can use to help you identify who is a scammer and who is not:

Preditors & Editors

When deciding on which place to self-publish with, ask for samples of what they’ve printed.  If they’re legit, they’ll happily do this.  (In my day job as a graphic designer, we always get samples from companies we work with.  It would be strange if they didn’t have samples they could send you.)  Make sure the manuscript has been scoured thoroughly for errors.  Fixes can be quite costly.  Always confirm the trim size.  This is what the printer will cut the book down to.  Go to a bookstore and pick up several different sizes of books.  Decide which size is best with it physically in your hand, then decide that’s the size for you (not just measuring a paper or guessing from a ruler).  Also, if you don’t do this and have to change the size, the typesetter will likely have to go in and change each page.  Don’t cost yourself extra money (or time if you’re doing it yourself) for no reason.  Plan everything out to the tiniest detail.

Don’t have spelling or grammar errors (she couldn’t emphasize this enough).  Don’t have a weird layout.  I’m guessing she meant something like triple spacing, strange, hard to read font, etc.  Times New Roman is a standard font for a reason.  Also, don’t start numbering pages on the very first page.  It looks unprofessional, and it may be that by the time you get to the story page you could be on page 5.  (Most books in my own personal library either start on 1 or 3.)

She recommended hiring a professional.

Much like I’ve said before, just because you can use a program, like InDesign, doesn’t mean you’re qualified to do it for your book.  If you’re tight on cash, look around at your circle of friends.  Is there a graphic designer among them?  Maybe one of their cousins, husbands, etc?  If any of them are in college, offer to edit papers for them.  Do you have any other skills you can barter to lower the price?  Even babysitting their kids counts as a skill.  But remember, this is your baby, this novel of yours.  You want to present it in the best light possible.  Spending that little extra to make it more appealing may be the difference between success and failure.  Yes, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we do.

The companies she’s had the best experiences with are:


You can follow Maria on Twitter or at MariaMurnane.com