The Seven Elements of Book Cover Design

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(Check out the vlog version of this post)

Your book’s cover is the most powerful marketing tool at your disposal.

Whether we like it or not, we all judge books by their covers.

In traditional publishing, professional designers are responsible for creating a book’s cover. Sometimes the publisher will ask the author for input and sometimes the publisher will present the author with several mock-ups and ask for their opinion. Most of the time, however, these decisions are made in-house.

There are seven basic elements that inform a book cover’s design. They are:

  • The country it’s being published in
  • Design trends
  • The novel’s theme, plot and characters
  • Genre
  • Whether it is a stand-alone or part of a series
  • The target audience
  • The author’s brand

Different Covers for Different Countries

Have you noticed that many popular books have different covers in different countries?

The US, UK and Australian versions of any one book often have very different styles.

This happens because the publisher’s US, UK or Australian division have tasked a ‘local’ in-house designer with creating a cover that will appeal to that specific country’s readership. What appeals to an American horror reader differs from one based in the UK or Australia … apparently.

Self-published/indie authors tend to use the same cover for every country. Though it is easier than ever to get your self-published book into bricks and mortar stores, the truth is that the bulk of sales occur online through print by demand distributors. This system makes it nearly impossible to create country-specific book covers and most indie authors would struggle to find the funds for such adventures anyway. That being said, many indie authors experience plentiful sales across multiple countries using the same cover design.

Trends

Trends have a huge impact on a cover’s design. You have already noticed that bold colours, large or hand-drawn typography and illustrations are the current trend. This handcrafted style is a push against technology and digitisation while simultaneously acknowledging the cultural rise of artesian craftsmanship such as boutique wineries, cheesemakers and rocking-horse makers, etc.

Theme, Plot or Character

The most common factors that influence a book’s cover are its themes, plot and characters. Often, the significance of these elements isn’t clear until after the book has been read. However, the cover should be striking enough to intrigue potential readers. If the protagonist has long blonde hair, a woman with a similar appearance may appear on the cover. If the plot is driven by the protagonist’s duty to protect a mysterious ancient talisman, the protagonist may be depicted as holding the talisman while looking over her shoulder. Repeated imagery, metaphors or symbols may also work their way onto the cover depending on their significance to the overall plot and aesthetic appeal.

Genre

The book’s genre will also influence its design. As you’ve no doubt noticed, romance books have very different covers to horror and science fiction books, historical novels differ from crime novels and chick-lit differs from fantasy. Non-fiction books have very different covers to literary and genre novels, because the tropes, mood and purpose of these respective categories are very different.

Non-fiction books typically seek to entertain, inspire or inform their readers. Genre books are driven by story/plot and each specific genre has its own unique tropes. Literary novels are driven by ideas; the story isn’t about the story, it’s a metaphor for something else.

Stand-alone or Part of a Series

There is a continuity between book series’ covers so that fans of that series can easily identify which books belong to the series. This is particularly important if an author has multiple series under their name. Though each series may fall under the same genre, each series will have its own distinct look.

Target Audience

A book’s target audience has a huge influence over a book cover’s design. The reader’s age, gender, occupation and interests are just a few of the qualities a designer may consider when creating a cover. Some of the questions a designer will consider are: Who is this book for? A mother is her mid-forties? A teenage boy? An elderly gardening enthusiast? For example, a novel aimed at male video game players in their early twenties won’t have a pastel green cover dotted in pink flowers, but one aimed at an elderly gardening enthusiast might.

Author Brand

The last thing to consider is the author’s brand. Author branding is not a new concept, but the rise of the internet, social media and self-publishing have certainly increased our awareness of it. An author’s brand is essentially how they present themselves to their audience.

A brand is a promise an author makes to their audience so that readers know what to expect from them and their fiction.

Branding includes the visual images that appear on an author’s website and social media pages in the form of banners, layout, photography and even typography. If the author publishes non-fiction books, then their online aesthetic may influence their book cover’s design. This is rarely the case with indie and traditionally published fiction authors. Instead, a continuity may exist across all the author’s covers so that fans can easily identify works written by that particular author.

You may have noticed that some books and series are re-branded every five to ten years. As previously mentioned, a book’s cover is the most powerful marketing tool available to both authors and publishers. Book covers are often up-dated/re-branded in response to changing trends and reader feedback. A book’s target audience doesn’t change, but the members of that audience do. Readers grow older and their interests and reading preferences shift. Publishers and indie author’s update their book covers in order to appeal to current members of the target audience.

Covers contain a lot of embedded information and they are our first impression of a book. A great book cover should make a reader feel something, and if that reader does feel something, they are far more likely to pick the book off the shelf, turn it over and read the blurb. (Or, click on the image and read the description).

A book contains many thousands of words, but a picture, as the saying goes, contains only one thousand—and that is why you must make it count.


If you like this post, consider checking out this related article by David Coen: The 100 Most Creative Book Cover Ideas 

Interview with Crime Writer Gregory James

I first met Greg three years ago when we enrolled in the same Creative Writing course. Though our writing paths have since taken different directions, our mutual obsession for reading and writing crime fiction has remained the same. I had the good fortunate of reading an early draft of Bordertown when Greg enlisted me as one of his beta-readers. A good plot is an essential element to every crime novel, but it was Detective Robert “Bo” Campbell that kept me turning the pages.

Bordertown follows Detective Bo after he accidentally shoots and kills his best friend and partner during a bungled inner-city drug raid. Exiled to a remote post on the border until his troubles blow over, Bo finds himself in the middle of a cover-up as the corrupt police force conceal the fact that half a dozen indigenous women have gone missing. Bo has to ask himself whether he is willing to risk everything in order to save this broken border community.

  1. Was your earlier career as a Detective the reason why you chose to write a crime novel or were you always a fan of the genre?

Not necessarily, but obviously I have an interest (even now) in crime. I still love watching it, reading about it and even listening to it (podcasts) even though I’ve lived it for the last 25 odd years! Back in my teenage years, I loved an author by the name of Robert G Barrett. His protagonist, Les Norton, was an anti-hero and was largely on the other side of the law. These days, I can’t get enough of Michael Connelly and his character Harry Bosch.

  1. Did your experience as a Detective make writing Bo’s story easier or harder because you are so familiar with this job? Did you find that you needed to do much research?

I think that it made it easier in a sense because I knew the police procedure. I have a pretty good idea of how things work, obviously, and how things are generally done. This is an area where some crime fiction writers can get it wrong. I always tell those authors to visit their local detective. You might need to get past the grumpy ones and find one that will help! But Bordertown is set in the early 1980s, a time when I was still at school. So, yes, I had to do quite a bit of research about what was happening in those days; the uniforms, appointments, vehicles and the like were all different. The political climate was different. In my view, it’s important to get these things right.

  1. How long did it take you to write Bordertown and how does the finished novel compare to your initial ideas/drafts?

I started Bordertown in 2013 when I was in the process of learning the craft of fiction writing. And, it is a craft. I often hear people say that they’d “like to write a book” and “should write a book” which is great. But one has to learn the craft of formulating a novel. You’d be a freak if you could just do it without any knowledge! I know that I spend many years doing courses (online and in class), going to conferences, talking to published authors and reading/researching the craft of writing. I learnt along the way, and the result was the first draft of Bordertown. Not much of a novel at that point, but a draft nonetheless.

The finished product is quite different from early drafts, although the basic premise is the same. A large amount was cut, at least one major character was deleted completely (on the advice of a publisher) and many, many changes made. This was the hardest part of the process for me. Re-writing and re-writing. Moulding and massaging the story. Changing dialogue, tightening the plot and changing direction. Looking back on it, writing the first draft was definitely the easy part!

I launched Bordertown in March 2019, so six years from start to finish is a good estimate. But being an author, much time was spent on other projects, work and life and the story sat idle for some time. I also spent at least 18 months trying to get a publisher.

Greg 1

  1. Do you have a writing routine, if so, can you tell us about it?

The short answer is no. When Bordertown was crafted I had a fair bit of time on my hands, not so much anymore. I used to write when I got into the “zone” and keep writing. Into the future, I hope to dedicate a day to a day and half a week on the next novel. I don’t write every day like the guru’s recommend. I’d love to, but it’s not practical.

  1. What do you know now about writing a novel that you wish you had known in the beginning?

Just how bloody hard it was going to be! But how proud I am of myself to see my written work in print, and to have people enjoy the story. Again though, if you want to write a good novel you need to know how. There are plenty of courses out there to help you.

  1. What advice do you have for other writers interested in self-publishing specifically or publishing in general?

These days, anyone can write a book and self-publish it. My advice is; just do it! Get that book written first though, and get it to a standard that is the same as published books. It’s not going to be cheap, but it will be worth it. Editing (structural and line editing), book design and printing cost a lot of money, but the end result will be something you are proud of. There are also quite a few people to hold your hand through the process (at a price of course). You need to decide whether you need this or will go it alone. In any case, get advice.

One last piece of advice: write the story you want to write. Not what might sell. Not what is popular. Not what publishing agencies are suggesting. Write a story you want to read. You’ll find others want to as well.

~*~

To order a copy of Bordertown, or to find out more about Greg, please visit the links below:

Bordertown Purchase Link

Website: https://gregoryjamesauthor.com

Twitter: @GJames_Author

Facebook: @gjamesauthor