There are certain elements that are traditionally included in cover design, and those elements each have a different level of weight for the reader. Imagine yourself at a bookstore, or even online, scanning books that might catch your eye and prompt you to pick them up to read the back. What are you looking for? There are certain styles and trends that can be specific to each genre: color, font style, image style, etc. That’s not what I want to talk about. The design of the cover of a book is a much broader subject and is very subjective. I want to break down the objective elements that each book cover needs to be noticed on the shelf or website.
- Author name
That’s it. Most readers just want to know what the book is called and who wrote it, or in some cases, who wrote the book and what it’s called. That’s called hierarchy, which element is noticed first. If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you’ll look for covers that have a giant “Stephen King” sprawled across the whole top half of the cover. It doesn’t matter much what the book is called to those types of fans, as long as it’s in the style they like and they haven’t read it yet, it’s in the bag.
Most authors don’t have that brand recognition yet. Yes, it’s a brand. Your author name is the brand of the book, not the imprint, or the world setting that you’re writing under (though it could be argued that fanfic books are branded under that world primarily). You want people to see your name and understand that that book is written in the style of the others they’ve read and they’ll pick it up on that reference.
The title is your product name. If your brand is your name, your title is your product. That, generally is the most important element of any cover design. Readers will read the title and get an immediate idea (based on their preconceptions) of what the book is about. I won’t go into naming the book here, I assume that every author has spent hours toying with their titles and is very protective of what they’ve settled on.
Then there are secondary elements to consider on your cover:
- Imprint/publisher branding
Your subtitle is what you want readers to read third, after the title and author name. It is what gives the reader a more detailed idea of what the story is about. This can also include or be replaced by the number of the book in the series if it’s a part of one.
The World or Setting of your story is not a common thing to see on most front covers. Sometimes it’s included on the back if it’s important. If you’ve created a vast world for your various stories to take place in and you want to let readers know that this story is set in that world, but isn’t a part of the primary series that also is, it’s important to let them know. The important point is “primary” here. If the book in question is the first book in the world, you don’t need to let readers know it’s in this world. They’ll know that when they read the story. Letting them know on the cover is pointless because they don’t know anything about the world yet. So, if you’ve written a trilogy (for example) and set it in the world of ‘Numenandra’ (or whatever you’ve called it), but there are more stories to be told that aren’t connected to that primary trilogy, those stories are where you let your fans know that they’re connected.
Fanfic is the exception to this rule. Those worlds are already widely established and recognized (conceivably), and readers are interested in reading more stories in those worlds, often despite who wrote them or what they’re about. In these cases, the fanfic world should appear more prominently on the cover than the third down the list. You may want to put across the top, above the author’s name something like “A Wizarding World Tale” or “Adventures in Dinotopia” to let people know that your story shares the same universe as those established stories.
Regarding imprint branding. As I’m writing this mainly for indie authors, this element can be a point of contention. If you’re self-publishing your story, that means that you’re the publisher. As I stated earlier, your name is your brand. Some authors have multiple pen names that they use for different genres. In this case, those names are the imprints for those books. Inventing an imprint and logo to go on the bottom (as the last thing you want your reader to see) is largely an unnecessary step to take as an indie author. I’m guilty of this as are many of my fellow authors. It makes the book look like it has been traditionally published when it hasn’t, and as fun as it is to design different logos to associate with your books, it’s not exactly above board.
Lastly, there are a couple of other things that might appear on a cover:
- A review quote
- A badge of some sort
If you’ve been lucky enough to get your beta readers to actually review your book, or your ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) readers to provide a pithy quote, you may want to include this on your cover. It shouldn’t take up too much room, and is generally near the top of the design. The purpose of these quotes is less about what they say (though they should be positive), and more about what they tell the reader. “Someone read this book and liked it”, but more importantly, “Someone who I recognize as being a popular author or reviewer read this and liked it.” If you put a quote from your mother on the cover (especially if you share a last name), readers won’t take it seriously, no matter how un-biased she might be.
Badges are fun, but they must be relevant and hold importance for your reader. These are most commonly elements that inform the reader that the story has won an award (or at least made it high in the rankings). If you’ve won an award, definitely let the readers know. That can be more important than a quote from an established author. Consider though what award it won though… If the story is a hard science fiction space opera that features sweeping religious and cultural conflicts across millennia (for example), slapping a badge that you won first place in the “Hoboken kindergarten teacher’s book club competition” may not have the weight you’re looking for.
The other type of badge that you may want to consider is one informing your readers of a value-add to the story. Recently, artificial intelligence (midjourney and other image generators) and LLMs (large language models) have been the point of much strife within the artist and writer communities. As an author, if you haven’t used Ai in the creation of your text or cover design, you may want to let your readers know. It is important to some (though probably not most unfortunately), and it expresses your dedication to ethical creativity. I designed one such badge, which you’ll find for free in a previous post. You’re welcome to use it or to design one of your own if you want. Something like that lets your readers and fellow authors know where you stand.
Any other things you may want to put on the cover (typographically) should probably be either included on the back (blurb, quote from the text, author bio, etc.) or in the description of the book online (if it’s a digital book). You don’t want to have too much on the front cover because you only have the reader’s attention for a split second before they walk or scroll past. You want them to pause and look closer or click it and read more.
- Cross your eyes (or just unfocus them). This will let you see your cover in low-quality. If any element fades out or isn’t immediately recognizable, readers will miss it when it’s a small thumbnail online.
- Limit yourself to one or two font choices. Yes, I know there are a lot of options and it’s hard to choose, but don’t choose them all. Find something that matches the genre and style for the title of your story, then something simpler for the rest.
Here are a few typographical layouts that you might want to consider to get the creative juices flowing. Don’t pay attention to the font, just the sizes and positioning of the different elements. That’s the hierarchy, what you read first, second, third, etc.