What Book Covers Attract Readers

Don’t you LOVE awesome book covers?

I admit that I picked up any book that had an image drawn by Thomas Canty on the cover during my teenage years. That is all it took for me to check out a fantasy paperback, read the blurb, maybe a few pages, and then walk out the store with it.

A good cover means that much.

The publishers know it and Indie authors are taking covers a LOT more seriously too. Back in the good ole wild west days of ebooks (2008 – 2015), just about anything would work as a cover. Your niece could draw a unicorn and rainbows with half the letters in your name backwards and you’d get sales. It was an AMAZING time.

Okay, I feel like I’m showing my age. lol!

Things are different now. Some of the covers out there are phenomenal and stun the artist in me while making the author side go green with envy (and then flip to my books to compare). And then there are still the dozens and dozens of covers that … well, frankly need help.

Authors, you MUST do better!

Back far longer than I want to admit, I started a series on book covers, delving into my geeky side and discussing fonts. I even did a 15 Minute Fantasy Writer on the same subject!

Fonts and Book Covers

Why start with fonts? Besides the fact I’m just really strange and know the difference between a serif and non-serif font and have lists saved on My Fonts of favorites. Let’s not talk about my use of “What the Font?”. I started with fonts because it is one of the biggest mistakes that authors make. They choose incredibly boring fonts that are waaaayyyy too small for the title or author name instead of saying something about the book: like genre. Yes, fonts can clue readers into genre. It is really cool. You should absolutely check out that post and video!

But fonts are just one part of 5 essential cover elements. And it is time to move on to something big and what most people think of first: the image!

There is so much going on when choosing an image for your book cover. So lets break it down to topics you can tackle!

Author Cover Hang Ups

I’m going to start with some big hang ups for writers. We just want SOOO much on that cover once we start thinking about it. And who can blames us?

A book cover is our number one marketing image.

We will put it on EVERYTHING from book swag to promotional posts. It becomes part of our brand, who we are as authors, and what we can deliver to readers. Nothing pivotal so no pressure… yeah right!

The number one problem writers bring to their covers is they want a scene from their book rendered in exact detail. Why is this an issue? Well…

First of all, from a writer perspective, that is insanely expensive. It usually means original artwork along with a lot of back and forth between writer and artist. You should have a very concrete image in mind and at the same time be highly flexible to what your cover artist can deliver. Otherwise, you’ll either be really disappointed or deeply in debt.

And secondly, the reader looking at the cover has no idea if or if not the cover is a scene from the book or how perfectly rendered it is or isn’t.

Let me type that again: the reader has no clue if the cover shows a character, scene, or anything related to the book. They will assume it will have relevance. But, honestly, how many times have you been in the middle of a book and been reading to come to a scene and thought “Oh my! That is the book cover!?!” and flipped to the cover of the book, especially an ebook, to stare at it in awe?

book covers

All of these covers portray scenes from the story and, compared to examples below, fall short of being truly fantastic covers. There is too much going on when a more focused scene could have been better. I didn’t see the arrow or the castle on the middle cover at first. My favorite is the right-hand image which seems to have more a going on the longer you look. But how long do readers stare deeply at a cover? What you want is the instant attraction.

I never have. And I’m an artist as well as an author. I might ogle a paperback cover, but I don’t think I’ve ever double checked an ebook to see the character hair color or the exact moment depicted on the cover. Once I buy the book, I really don’t think about it again. And I certainly don’t read the book breathlessly waiting for the scene depicted on the cover to materialize.

Instead, I know the cover image holds the promise of things that MIGHT happen in the book. It is a mashup like a movie poster and shows bits of all the elements that will unfold over 100k words. Knowing that as an author, you should take a big sigh of relief and, hopefully, find a sense of freedom.

The book cover does not have to depict your story 100%. And even if it did, it will depict only what you see. A reader will have their own idea and it might not fit yours. That is just the magic of what happens when someone reads what you’ve written. Accept it and, when it comes to covers, embrace it!

What to do instead

So instead of focusing on the detail, you need to step back from your book and look at it not as an author but as a reader and as a marketer.

Consider the overall mood of the book and the genre, because the cover should tell the genre with no title or tagline. If it doesn’t, that is a huge mistake.

If the mood is dark and you are writing dark fantasy, a dark or gritty image will work well – just make sure it is visible as something other than a dark blob at a thumbnail size! If the book holds magic and excitement, pick glowing colors and bright bursts that pop. And if the story is noblebright, you want that glowy image with dark shadows to contrast with heroes that will overcome all odds.

It doesn’t matter what the image is, but you want those aspects on the cover.

These 3 covers have different mood from tense and dangerous on the left, to threatening and power in the middle, to a sense of hope and struggle on the right.

Seriously, the actual image is only part of the piece. First you really need to figure out what you want the colors and scene to convey. That is how a marketer would look at things. Start with what you want to tell the reader about your book – not a scene but the promise of what the reader will feel when s/he reads the story.

Great, so you have mood down. Now what?

Let’s talk about the actual image

When I was growing up, all the covers were hand drawn. Such skill! It was at least equivalent to the work that went into writing the book. Now, photorealistic is really catching on.

In this, there is no wrong answer. Check your subgenre and see what books look like in the top 50. Are they all drawn or all photorealistic? I’m betting you’ll find a mix. You want something that matches the genre as much as stands out from the crowd. Original artwork is going to cost more, but a custom cover by a pro can just as easily cost $500 and up, so it isn’t like photo imagery is cheap! And with digital media, both photos and artwork can just as easily be resold hundreds of times so that you’ll see books with similar or the same image.

So don’t get hung up on the fact your cover artist is using stock photography. It can be adjusted and changed to become something original and is often easier to manipulate than altering a painted cover.

Instead, focus on what the cover image contains.

There are really 4 options:

  • A fully visible character
  • A hidden (or silhouetted) character
  • A symbol
  • Landscape

A person, errr… we are talking about fantasy so I’ll say a human-like character (elf, troll, ogre, angel, etc) on the character attracts people. Hey, we like looking at things like us. We’re social, so a person on the cover catches our eye.

I like how Derek Murphy puts it in his post about 8 Cover Design Secrets Publishers Use to Manipulate Readers into Buying Books, that people (characters!) add interest and intrigue. Readers are drawn visually to a cover with a character. It is just that much more enticing.

A fully visible character is very normal for fantasy books, where many other genres tend to hide the main character. Instead, if you want your reader to know you have a feisty heroine who keeps her travel mates a swords length away, you can show that with the right image. Bold and in your face characters do well being front and center on a cover.

These three covers show the characters and create a sense of strength and purpose by doing so.

But fantasy also loves mystery – and readers do too! A character hidden under a dark cowl, a well done silhouette showing off armaments but not a face, or a carefully cropped photo revealing just a peek of who is featured can be alluring to readers. They give hints of who or what the main character is without the full reveal. It is a great way to go if your story does hold a bit of mystery to it, like if magic is supposed to be hidden or the main character is a spy and pretending to be something s/he is not.

Four covers all with partially hidden characters yet each creates a different effect to lure you in to seeing what is going on.

A symbol can also be effective too! A cover with a solid cover, some scroll work, a glow, and a gorgeous symbol can land you in the top tier of authors. Look at the original covers to Games of Thrones (sword hilt), the cover to Hunger Games (mocking jay pin), best seller Arcane (sphere with reflection), and the subtly complex yet basic premise to Jordan Rivet’s amazing book Duel of Fire (fencing sword).

These covers work for me! Yet none are overly complicated, but I can tell the genre and get a sense of the story mood. Perfect!

A landscape also works for a fantasy cover, but … you can do so much better. Take a look at the examples below. Now look at the symbols, hidden characters, or characters above. Which makes you feel excited to pick up the book? While I think the images on the landscape covers are beautiful, they also nearly put me to sleep. I have no feel for the story, no sense of excitement or journey or tension. It is a lost opportunity to hook a reader!

Compared to the covers above, what do these tell you about the story they cover? Nothing exciting…? Would you feel differently if there were a character to give the image context?

Bottom line: simple sells so stop getting so hung up on the perfect image.

Go for the cover that not only fits your book, but SELLS your book. One that tells the reader the genre and the mood. Don’t worry if the spire of the castle is in the wrong place. Honestly, only you will ever notice. The reader will, hopefully, be lost in the story you’ve built.

What about you? What are your cover favorites or pet-peeves! Let me know in the comments!

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn (also known as Weifarer) is an indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently on the road in North America in a Four Wheel Camper along with her husband, Adam, and Cairn terrier, Ayashe.

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2 Comments

  1. Jan Hawke

    I’m a font geek as well – and part of the excitement of going to an actual bookstore is all about the ‘gallery’ experience for me. Alas, I’m in an online rut for book-buying these days so don’t do ‘browsing’ acquisitions too much these days, but I do still ogle great covers on-screen, even if I’m focused on what I’m looking for! 😀

    • Autumn

      I admit that I spend most of my book browsing time looking at covers and blurbs for research more than to actually purchase. Though occasionally I can’t play one up because it is that good. Lol!

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