Continuing the Story…

Cover design is important. Although we’re told not to judge a book by its cover, the truth is, we do. Just last night, a friend sent me a link to a collection of hilariously bad book covers (my favourite is probably Kim. Or Little Women. It’s hard to decide…)

I’ve already done a series on book cover designs here on the blog – but that message – and the fact that I have a new book coming out on August 30, 2021 – prompted me to continue the story with an update on the importance of cover design.

Derek Murphy estimates that a new cover design can double a book’s sales, while Mark Coker goes as far as to say triple. He explains that while it takes just 13 milliseconds to recognise an image, it takes 200 milliseconds – or more than fifteen times as long – to unpack the meaning of a word.

In other words, a reader glancing at the cover of my first novel, Number Eight Crispy Chicken, might take almost an entire second to take in those four words, but will have already formed an opinion about the book based on its cover images. And of course, most books don’t just have the title on the front…

Seven seconds

Take the current bestselling novel It Ends With Us as an example. Add the endorsement, the author’s name, the text indicating that this is ‘a novel’ and the text indicating that Colleen Hoover is a ‘#1 New York Times Bestselling Author’, you don’t just have four words to parse, but thirty-one.

That’s 6.2 seconds to process.

According to James Scott Bell, it takes seven seconds to form a first impression of someone you’ve just met – and the same is true of a book cover. Yet, Steven Spatz goes one further, recommending a book pass the two second rule. That is, a potential reader should be able to guess what it’s about at a glance. The imagery should convey the ‘vibe’ of the work. And – an especially important consideration for indie authors – the cover should appear professional, as if it would be at home on the shelf at a Barnes and Noble. (Or whatever bookshop you have locally, if you’re lucky enough to live in one of those parts of the world that still have bookshops).

No matter how riveting your title, unless your cover’s imagery is striking, someone scrolling through bookstagram posts may not read it at all.

And boy, does Hoover’s novel have a striking cover image – a shattered orchid that partially obscures the text. The fragility, beauty, violence, and strength conveyed by this image is far more evocative than the text alone.

Grab your reader with a great cover

While the vast majority of ebook purchases are inspired by some form of word-of-mouth (including via social media) the second most important method of discovery is browsing, with a cover that ‘grabs’ the reader ranking most highly in the Smashwords survey.

A great cover is one that:

  • Makes readers want to read the blurb.
  • Is more clear than clever, fitting your genre – promising romance or a scare, depending on your genre.
  • Uses strong colours and contrasting or complimentary colours, but still looks good in black and white on an ereader.
  • Looks good in thumbnail size – not just for Kindle previews, but for social media.
  • Use simple, clean fonts with lots of space.
  • The image says it all: this is more important that title/author name.

A quick look at the most recommended books on TikTok shows just how often blockbuster books follow these rules:

Large, dramatic fonts for the titles– often in white. Simple, evocative images to convey the book’s overall emotional impact.

Continuing the visual story

When Number Eight Crispy Chicken was in production, I wrote a trilogy of posts about cover design. One on each of front, spine, and back cover designs.

A good spine should showcase the book’s title, author name, and possibly a publisher logo. A good back cover should include the book’s blurb, tagline, endorsements, and a bio.

Yet, in addition to these elements, designer Patrick Knowles says the most important task of the back cover is to continue the visual story of the front cover. This makes sense, given the importance of the cover’s visual impact on the reader.

Isn’t it all about the front?

It’s true that ebooks don’t need back covers or spines. But the pandemic has seen a resurgence in the popularity of print books. Since lockdowns and social distancing have meant more readers are turning to online shopping rather than the shelves of their local library, friends, or bookstores, it’s tempting to think that back covers and spines don’t matter. Yet, as BookFly points out, while a great back cover may not attract you to a book, a bad one can certainly drive readers away. Badly designed or inconsistent spines can drive readers crazy too, as the Ephemerist attests – making spines especially important for writers of series, or those who want their fans to buy all of their books.

Ultimately, you don’t just want your readers to buy everything you produce. You also want them to share your book with other readers – including, or perhaps these days, especially, via social media. And while front covers are the most likely to be shared, spines don’t do badly either. A quarter of the top 100 #bookstagram posts on Instagram I examined today (in late July, 2021) feature either spines, or front covers + spines.

Furthermore, even digital promotions often include the spines. I love Derek Murphy’s free online book mockup maker. Check out my Instagram for an example.

So how do we ensure our entire covers tell a coherent story?

How do we ensure our books’ spines look great on the shelf or in social media, or that our back covers don’t scare readers off?

One way is to think of a book’s cover as a single piece of art. Sometimes this can be hard to keep in mind, since so many designers sell pre-made front covers, and charge extra for spines and back covers, designed separately. But ultimately, these must all be uploaded as a single file, and all printed on the same sheet of card. When a reader holds a three-dimensional book in their hands, and when someone else sees them reading it, they take in all three elements simultaneously – front and back covers, plus the backbone of the whole operation, the spine.

In addition to the aesthetic advantages of a cover that continues from the front to the back, there’s a practical advantage, too: errors in printing or binding won’t be as obvious if the colour and design of your spine are a continuation of the front and back covers, rather than a contrast.

Award-Winning Design

I could not have been more thrilled with the wraparound cover Neono design (@ts_lem) came up with for Number Eight Crispy Chicken. In fact, the book was honoured with a “Best cover and most promising humorous social commentary” award by the talented Lawrence Jay Switzer (the creative force behind Sayville Tales and other impeccably designed books).

It uses simple, bold airport iconography and a simple, bold colour scheme using the exact shades of yellow and blue employed on airport signage to create a wraparound cover inspired by an airport board. Pretty fitting for a book about a guy trapped in an airport!

For my forthcoming second novel, Propaganda Wars, I was after a cover inspired by, obviously, propaganda. And once again, I wanted a spine and back cover that continued the story begun by the front. Something that looked as if it could be a poster, or a flag. We discussed a design that would convey both the physical and political divide between the Noreast and Souwest (depicted in by their national colours, blue and red), and which would capture the Souwest’s rampant consumerism, and the Noreast’s conspicuous censorship. A tall order indeed – but one which I think we achieved.

My research saw me trawling through the shelves of my local library and my local bookstores (who am I kidding? Big box stores that happen to sell books), looking for examples of covers with a seamless transition from back to front.

And they were surprisingly difficult to find.

Wraparound Covers

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad has a different coloured back and front (a good thing, as reading text against that amount of red would probably be quite challenging). But the simple colour scheme and the railroad track running across the back, over the spine, into the front, ties it all together.

Conversely, Graham Norton’s Home Stretch is an example of a cover that could have carried the city skyline on the front and spine over onto the back cover beautifully – but instead, ends abruptly.

Tony Parson’s Catching the Sun has a white border around the front and back covers that sets them apart from the spine (mercifully, or it would have been quite the overwhelming sea of blue). But the way the title and author name is set into a circle surrounded by rays on the front, and the blurb is similarly set into a circle on the back, with a similar design on the spine, not only ties the imagery to the book’s title, but makes the back and front feel like a complete story.

Conversely, Kim Lock’s The Other Side of Beautiful has a gorgeous front and back, but aside from the rather distinctive peach colour, I would not have realised this back belonged to this front, were they shown to me separately.

Good things come in small – and impeccably designed – packages

As it turns out, I didn’t have to go out and look for examples of great covers – there was one on its way to me: Wesley Parker’s Headphones and Heartaches. Wesley is an outstanding author who combines humour and deep human interest, and I was honoured to have him write an endorsement for Propaganda Wars. His powerful second novel, Headphones and Heartaches has a cover that ticks all the boxes: simple colour scheme, bold and easy to read title, and a powerful image that conveys the book’s emotion to the reader: a pair of headphones, the cord twisted into a heart – with a break and frayed ends. And, satisfying everything I’ve been going on about in this post, the cord doesn’t just end abruptly at the edge of the book, but continues, literally leading the reader around the corner to check out the back cover. Bravo!

The grand reveal

Here’s the cover we came up with for Propaganda Wars – or at least a draft of it.

What do you think? Let me know your feedback in the comments!

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