Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

If you consider yourself a creative person, you probably HATE following rules. You might want your book design to “stand out” or “be unique.” You’re also likely to spend far too much time playing around with your book design until you create something you love.

Unfortunately, this is the main reason why most authors screw up their book design, and its also the reason so few authors actually make a living with their books.

I’ll explain why in a second, but first, let me tell you a story. Recently we were living in Saigon, and we lived next to one of the best-rated restaurants in town, called Noir.

What made the restaurant unique was that food was served in pitch-black conditions – you couldn’t see your own hand. You had to guess what you were eating based on the taste and texture. One evening we met up with a friend who’d just eaten at Noir, and discussed how strange it was that our own senses could be fooled based on expectation. For example, in psychology studies, people could be given chocolate pudding and told it was strawberry… when they couldn’t see what they were eating, most of them would accept what they were told and actually taste strawberry!

Right now I’m reading Presuasion by Robert Cialdini, and the main point of the book is that our behaviors and opinions can be subconsciously swayed by seemingly unrelated conditions.

Can I lick your book cover?

95% of the time, your first and only impression on a potential reader will be your book cover – it’s the first thing they’ll see. Professional book design will communicate trust and value. Colors and images convey mood and emotion, and fonts and typography dictate genre. For fiction, your book cover makes an emotional promise that’s fulfilled in the reading experience. For nonfiction, keywords and benefits, often combined with a strong hook or surprising image, capture imagination.

I used to say the book cover’s ONLY job is to “sell the book” – but I’ve since learned better. The book cover’s job is to get the right people to read the description. There’s not enough space on the cover to actually sell the book; trying to add too much would weaken the effect. The cover needs to attract the right readers by being clear and obvious about genre while also being attractive to readers who like that genre. If the book cover is good enough, the right readers will recognize that it’s the kind of book they like to read, and then read the description to find out more. If the description is good and the book has enough positive reviews, they’ll buy.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad information out there about the real purpose of book design, and there are articles complaining about the use of book cover tropes or cliches – which take a bunch of book covers in the same genre and show how similar they are. The implication is that this is bad and that you should try to do something unique or original instead.

That’s a terrible idea.

Book covers use genre conventions so that readers can look at them and know exactly what genre they fit into. If you avoid those rules and make something “unique” – readers won’t be able to glance at it and know whether it’s something they might like to read or not. (Readers will not stare at your book cover for minutes trying to “figure it out.”) That means, in most cases, your readers will skip your book without even ever reading the description and learning what it’s about!

On the flip side, it’s possible – though difficult – to have a cover that’s so beautiful or incredible that people “oneclick”: which means readers add it to their cart without even bothering to read the description, because the cover alone incited purchasing desire. They bought it for the cover, not the content. Readers refer to covers like this as “yummy” or “lickable.” But they aren’t made by defying genre conventions, they’re made by superceding them. Which means, a vampire romance book should look just like the archetype of all vampire romance books, the epitome of all the best covers readers already recognize and love, similar to, but somehow better than them all.

Book design is not art

The #1 thing authors get wrong with their book design is approaching it like a blank canvas, and doing whatever they think looks good, or trying to be different or original. These design misconceptions are worsened by articles featuring examples of “best” book cover design – which are usually for trad published literary fiction, or rebrands of classic literature (famous books with heavy marketing behind them). If you’re self-published and need to fight for every reader, you NEED your book cover to do most of the work, because you’re never going to have the chance to explain what your cover means to readers or why you made the choices you did.

Book design SHOULD be beautiful and visually stunning, but should also match publishing conventions readers are familiar with and used to. It should absolutely not be mysterious or confusion. Your book should look just as good as the other bestsellers in your genre or category (it should fit in, not stand out.)

How many books do you want to sell?

A famous author with a big platform can take risks with their cover or do something new, because their readers will buy it anyway. But if you’re just starting out, you want the cover to do all the work, and make your job easy. A nice, obvious cover will eliminate common barriers and make your book marketing so much easier. It should be clear, not clever; it should immediately communicate genre (with appropriate fonts and colors), and attract readers who enjoy that genre. It should be professional enough to pass the “first-glance” test. If it looks homemade or unprofessional, readers will never even read the description to find out what the book is about!

The BOOK is the art. The cover is packaging.

Unfortunately, the #1 reason authors screw up their book design is not because they lack the design skills or technical ability. It’s because their beliefs about what a book cover is for, and what it needs to do, are fueled by preconceived notions and misconceptions.


The hidden costs of a cheap cover.

Getting your cover wrong has serious consequences. First, there’s the opportunity cost: all that time you spent writing the book, and all the time you’ll spend marketing it. Time you’re not getting paid for (unless the book earns). But the average author also spends around $2K publishing and marketing their book, and most authors never sell more than 100 copies… which means that’s $2K down the drain (which means, your “cheap” DIY cover could actually be very expensive. I hate seeing authors throw money at book promotion when their cover is the real problem.

I’m not saying don’t design your own covers, after all I’ve spent years and over $10,000 of my own money building tools and resources. My cover design and formatting templates will HELP avoid common mistakes and errors, but if you’re designing your own book, I’d recommend spending a couple hours learning as much as you can about book design.

 

Here are a few of my most popular articles.

 

Sometimes it’s useful to “see” the difference between amateur and professional design, so you may want to check out this page of book cover makeovers. This isn’t my best work – sometimes I offer to help authors out by quickly redoing their covers. I’ve done dozens of case-studies and proven that, almost always, I can double sales just by redoing the cover design. That’s why people pay me so much for custom covers, not necessary because I’m “the best” but because I focus on making covers that sell and get results.

I’m also constantly improving. Here are a few examples, including the evolution of my fiction covers as well as some non-fiction makeovers. Sometimes it takes several covers to figure out what works, but in general – fiction covers need to make an immediate emotional impact, and nonfiction have to be clear with obvious benefits.

 

I get it wrong sometimes though – in the Shearwater covers up above, the 2nd cover on the left is everyone’s preferred favorite, but I still thought I could do better with the 3rd cover. When that didn’t work, I started over with the 4th. One of the easiest and most effective ways to sell more books is to test or switch to a new cover. That’s hard when you’re paying for each cover, but if you learn to DIY, I’d definitely recommend testing or changing covers whenever sales slow down or if you’re having trouble getting traction.

In case you don’t end up reading Cover Design Secrets or watching the videos tutorials, here are my TOP TEN TIPS on book cover design that will help you create your own bestselling book covers designs while avoiding rookie design mistakes.

TOP 10 TIPS ON BOOK COVER DESIGN


Derek Murphy
Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a cover designing indie author enthusiast, finishing a PhD in Literature and shopping for a castle in Europe.

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