I’m James, the designer of over 10,000 pre-made books covers at GoOnWrite.com. I’ve been in the game for many years and I enjoy it immensely and now it’s time for me to share my thoughts on book cover design with you in this weekly blog. This blog is aimed at everyone; whether you’re a budding cover designer, an author designing your own covers or authors who commission designers and want to know what to look for. Get regular updates by either following me on WordPress here, Twitter @humblenations or by signing up for my mailing here.
Book Cover Design Functionality
Before we get into the real meat of my guide as to what makes good cover design, want I want to do is start at the beginning and give you a solid foundation with regards to design in general, to work from, before you even decide what you want on your book cover. To achieve that I’m going to have to (probably) change your mind as to what design actually is.
Of course, you know what design is, you’ll be saying to yourself at this point. Okay. What’s good design? Stop reading a moment and give yourself to think.
Right done that?
Okay, you’ve probably said to yourself something along the lines of “Good design something that looks good / pretty / beautiful.”
That’s not what design is. What something looks like is a by-product of something that is professionally designed but it’s not the design itself. This is probably sounding a little odd to you here. So let me try and explain.
Let’s take the design of a chair. What’s the point of a chair. It’s something to sit on. So what makes good chair design?
You may say to yourself, “oh, I know that, a well-designed chair should be comfortable.” But is that really the case? What happens if I’m designing chairs for a fast food restaurant maybe I want a fast turn-over of customers, so I require the complete opposite of your ‘comfy’ concept. Uncomfortable seating is good design for our fast-food restaurant. Or I’m fitting seats in a football stadium, then I need to design something where I can fit as many as possible in the given space and the durability is important. These are the functions that the design needs to fulfil.
But why all this talk of chair when we’re talking about book covers?
The answer is simple, I’m illustrating that good design is less to do with its aesthetic qualities and has a greater grounding in the function of what design is trying to achieve. If it better fulfils the function for which it is intended then by definition it is a superior design. Whether it’s getting bums on seats, bums off seats or squeezing in as many bums as you can into a space.
This is the first step in understand what good book cover design is, by taking apart the functions it needs to achieve. And that, and that along should be your starting point for thinking about what you want on your cover and how you’re going to design the cover.
Function. Function. Function. Function. Function. Nothing else.
But you say, the function of a book cover is simply to look good. We need to erase that concept from your way of thinking and we’ll start from the ground up. And as you’ll see from the first few weeks of this guide, there are more things to consider. Merely looking good doesn’t cut it. And it’s the wrong way of thinking about it.
And by way of showing you’re wrong when you say “looking good is the function of good book cover design” let me show you some good examples of ugly covers that have wonderful designs because they fulfils their function pretty well:
So it’s not all about having pretty pretty designs. That’s not what good design. I see I’m going to have my work cut out with this concept here but over the space of the next five weeks I’m going to cover the five most important functions of what good book cover design should be.
- Author Branding;
- Catch the Eye;
- Reflect Quality;
- Set-up Reader Expectancy; and
- Confound and Intrigue.
Let’s make a start this week:
Function 1: Author Branding
It’s nice to start here because as a book cover designer it really winds me up when it’s not considered an important function by authors. To me as a design I feel it’s vital. If I’m being honest her with you I can’t stand it when an author comes to me for a new cover and they change their author branding from one book to the next. So their shelf of books they’re offering ends up looking something like this.
Rather than a nicely matched version like this:
Although a book cover is no more than an advert for selling the contents of the book, the real art is your writing, and with that in mind let me ask you a question: how often does a big successful brands change their logo? Are their adverts all different? And the way they present themselves? Nike? McDonalds? Apple?
“They never change their logo,” I’ll here you say, “it’s always that swoosh, the gold arches, the apple with the bite out of it.”
Well done you!
They look like this:
You’re right of course, or you are to a certain extent, if we’re being pedantic, those swooshes, the arches and the apple have been slightly altered over the years. But this proves one really important point here. They never do a complete rebrand, maybe some subtle evolution. Nothing really changes when it comes to these brands. The swoosh, the arches and the apple are all instantly recognisable simple symbols that are just there everywhere.
Big business knows the psychology of this and the importance of brand awareness. You see the swoosh on the trainers and tops, the apple on backs of laptops, phones and tablet and those crappy arches advertising crappy burgers everywhere, and on all the packaging. It’s like Chinese water torture for the eyes, simple shapes trying to submit the consumer. And it works.
Now, you’ll be saying to yourself, “But I’m not in the business of big business, I’m just a writer.” Why should this matter to me? It should matter because it’s a crowded market place. And it’s simply a numbers game. Let’s do some fun maths to show you what I mean.
A Little Game for You
Imagine there are five writers that have written five books each and let’s hypothetically say that out of the five writers only one of them has branded all their books the same and all the other four writers have completely different covers. Who has the written the most books? You’re going to say all people have written the same amount of books. Five. But really is that the way a potential reader see it? Look for yourself at an example.
And if someone keeps coming across the same standard form on a cover what will happen is that the author’s branding will start to go into a potential reader’s brain. And then we’re in the land of confirmation bias, because I see that style of book a lot, and the memory can recall them all, then it must be good – because why would have the brain remembered it. Or that’s the way the psychology works. It seems as though that author is everywhere and really good we’re tricked into thinking.
Now of course when we’re talking about ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million people all writing books for Kindle you’ll say that it doesn’t make a difference. But why not give yourself the best chance of people locking onto your brand by doing this. By saying … this is ME! This is always ME!
Not Just Books
And when it comes to reinforcing your author branding it also doesn’t just mean your books themselves, this should also include your social media, your blogs, other things that potential readers might see. Once you’re doing this you’re starting to ingrain who you are in people minds with just simple shapes or a house style in the form of standard fonts and colour palette you use for all your work.
It’s a good way to reinforce your author brand before you have a big well-heard-of name, because people remember shapes and colours better than they remember names.
MYTH BUSTING: Author Branding Only for a Series
So at this point I’m going to have some authors reading this saying to themselves, “yes it makes if all the books are in a series. What if I have different sets of books in different series? I write erotica, I write thriller, I write some paranormal romance. These all need to be be different.”
To that I simply say: poppycock.
Are you saying that you don’t want people to remember you and you want to defragment and dilute your ‘numbers game’ presence out there? You don’t want your readers to read your different genres of book? How dare my erotica following read my thriller novels! They should know you for the author that you are and should see that.
So if our, now infamous, ‘Mark Dale’ start writing a more Cozy Mystery instead of his more hard line thriller he should change his branding. Nah.
This is what it would look like.
Or, if he was smart he’d keep his house style … yes the books look different but it’s his font and his placement on this new series. He’s still using his brand. And this the way it should be done.
This is Odd: The Branding Inverse
Now big publishing house understand Author Branding all too well. Which is why you’ll see book after book all with the same branding of an author. But something else curious happens when it comes to bestselling authors. You’ll get, what I’ll call “the new book design cycle” when all the covers are redesigned together again. Which is why you see so many books with different covers. Personally I’m a massive fan of this and all authors should do the same, because that would give me a loads of work … ha!
Here are some good examples from a couple of my favourite authors. Will Self when releasing The Butt got a nice make over from his publisher on many of his books:
And the ever popular Murakami seems to get lots of make overs and they’re always lovely (they’re not a series … they’re just his novels):
So why do publishing houses go through expensive exercise of doing this? Well that’s pretty simple really, humans like order. We tend to feel a great amount of satisfaction when we have everything neatly lined up and matching.
So when a new books comes out, it’s reviewed in the press, the author does the rounds of book signings, it will be advertised everywhere, and people who get into this author for the first time will see the book they’re been hearing all the good things about, go out and buy that book. But what’s this here on the shelf right next to it. A whole stack of other books that look same. Interesting. They look that same, they must be as good as this book I’ve been hearing about. They have to be. Look they’re in the same style of cover. How nicely they’ll look together on my shelves. And I bet they’re as good as each other. I’ll buy a couple more.
Believe me I’ve done it before with the Murakami books. And I’m one of those annoying sort of people that think they don’t fall for marketing gimmicks. But wait a minute I did!
Even if we’re talking kindle books the same thing happens. Readers love to look through their library and see that all the books are linked together in some way.
Do as I Say, and as I Do
If you don’t believe I take Author Branding deadly seriously, and that I think author branding is utterly vital (if you’re writing more than one book), then just take a look at the branding on my books (I write myself too). I have my own branding style, my own font I used all the time, I have a strong playful palette and the name is always in the same place in the same font, like a logo.
And it’s not just fiction, there’s a memoir in there, a comedy self-help book and there is a non-fiction book (the one that this blog will be turned into). I don’t really care that the style doesn’t fit the accepted norm of what that genre of book should look like. What’s more important for people to know that they all came from me. And my style of writing is playful and whimsical in all my books. So I try and embody that in the ‘Reader Expectancy’ of my brand’s style. I prize this function of good cover design probably higher than any other, but that’s just me. I mean look my covers are hardly masterpieces but they are functional from a branding point of view.
And if you think that branding is a cynical marketing way of approaching getting other people to experience your art and you feel that all the pieces of art you create (i.e. your books) are all different, let me put it this way: were all of Picasso’s or Van Gogh’s painting different pieces of art work? No, you exactly know who made their art. It’s right there on the cover (i.e. the painting itself)! If you don’t brand yourself as an author you’re killing your sideways selling. Imagine if Picasso painted just one cubist painting?
Do you think he would have sold more or less works of art, or become as famous? Take a hint from the masters of the twentieth century and reinforce the style you develop.
A Final Word: Have You Noticed Someone Whilst Reading This?
It’s no coincidence that I’ve been using the same completely made up author throughout this article. Can you remember his name? Maybe, maybe not. But through repetition you start to know exactly what his Author Branding is for all his books. Close your eyes and I bet you can see his style. Go on, do it. That’s what branding is. Our little piece of Chinese water torture. And you should be doing it.
Next week … Function 2: Catching the Eye.
Take Action: With Me
If you want me to brand all your covers the same I can do that. There is something called a ‘Brand Lock’ on my Design Extras page. If you’ve already got covers from and you already have lots of non-branded covers from GoOnWrite I can apply this retrospectively to all your old covers and re-brand them in a single style for you for the same price. And if you’ve never used my services for cover design, you can always start to do so, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit my website: