3 Steps to e-Book Cover Design Success

Guest Expert: Joel Friedlander

The move to e-books has brought with it a new challenge for book cover designers, amateur and professional.

The first challenge, of course, if you’ve been designing book covers for any time, is to understand exactly what an e-book cover really is.

Unlike print books, which we can pick up and examine, e-books don’t exist in any physical reality other than as a computer file. So how can they have a cover?

And since an e-book is simply a computer file with text that will reflow to the form and shape of the reader into which it is loaded, e-books can’t be said to have any particular shape.

So when it comes time to design a cover for your e-book, it’s important to realize that the little rectangles we’re used to seeing that represent the cover of printed books are simply a convention. There’s no particular reason an e-book cover needs to be a tall rectangle, other than to announce to the potential reader that it is, in fact, a “book” of some kind.

Some retailers have even tried to mandate that e-book covers conform to the tall rectangle, which is a bit silly considering that printed books come in many shapes and sizes.

But more than anything else, designers and do-it-yourself self-publishers have to address the challenges of this new form in a way that helps them sell books.

Over the past few months I’ve been looking at hundreds of e-book covers, and I’ve found that there are ways you can succeed at this task. I’ve boiled the keys to success down to just three, and here they are:

3 Keys to e-Book Cover Design Success

1. Simple– This is the most important key of all. While a 6″ x 9″ printed book has 54 square inches of space to play with, an area large enough for a pretty decent painting or illustration, maybe 40 to 100 words of copy for nonfiction books, awards, blurbs, subtitles, tag lines, series logos as well as the required title and author, e-book covers do not.

The overriding fact to remember about e-book covers is the very small size they will be viewed in by people searching on the sites of e-retailers.

So simplicity becomes one of the chief virtues of successful e-book cover design. Especially if you are adapting a print book cover to your e-book, take out any elements that won’t be legible or readable at this small size. I know it’s hard, but just toss them, you’ll be happier in the end.

Keep the cover to the title, author name and one graphic that instantly communicates something about the tone or genre of the book.

2. Small– This one is super important, and makes sure that all the work you’ve put into your cover is going to pay off.

Your book will be shown in several ways on sites like Amazon, Smashwords and iBookstore. I think you really need to design for the smallest size of all, and here’s why. That size is the one that your book is displayed in when you do a search.

People who already know about your book are going to head straight for it anyway, those aren’t the people we should be concerned about. It’s the others, people looking for something but not sure exactly what, that should be our primary focus.

And that’s where the search results page comes in. If you look at a page of search results on Amazon, for instance, you’ll be presented with a screenful of tiny images and links via the book titles.

If your cover disappears in this view, or it’s unreadable, or you can’t possibly tell what the image on the cover is, it’s much more likely that browsers will skim right over it to the next and the next, and your chance at making an impression on that person is gone, literally in a second or two.

When you have a design you like, get one of those Amazon or BN.com search results pages up on your screen, reduce your cover to the same size, and see how it looks compared to other books in your genre. There’s no better test than this to see if your concept is going to work.

3. Strategic– Even though your cover is going to be viewed in a small format, and even though I’ve just advised you to keep it simple, your e-book cover also has other important work to do for you in terms of branding and positioning.

This is just as true for novelists as it is for nonfiction writers, by the way. Many of the novelists who have had a lot of success with e-books are writing series of books, or several series of books, a great strategy to keep the attention of readers and build a great base of fans for each release.

It’s important for your readers to be able to recognize the books in a series right away, that’s part of your series’ branding, and part of your author branding too.

In print book design, we usually consider the combination of the graphic elements on a cover with the typography of the title as making up the basic “brand” of the book. This is also true with e-books but, because we have to simplify them for online display, they have to do this work even more efficiently than their print book counterparts.

Sometimes branding can be as simple as color-coordinated covers or design elements. At other times a simple logo can be used to brand books, or a distinctive stripe along the top or bottom of the cover can bring together different looks into a branded series.

Positioning has a lot to do with how your book compares to other books in its niche or genre. Is it the deluxe version of a beginning carpentry book? The quick guide to fixing your Volkswagen? Advice for love-struck teens?

The design of your e-book cover has to reflect these differences between related books to give potential buyers the information they need to make a purchase decision. While a tiny cover image can’t do that all by itself, it is a part of your positioning strategy overall, and should coordinate with it.

So there you have it, 3 ways to make sure your e-book cover design gets off on the right foot, helps you achieve your publishing goals, and is kind to readers and browsers.

Bonus tip: Every month there’s a competition for e-book cover designs and the posts from this competition are almost a class in what works on e-book covers and what doesn’t. There are hundreds of e-book covers to check out, and each one credits the designer, so it’s kind of a shopping mall for people looking to hire a designer as well. If you’d like to check it out, here’s a link to a recent competition: e-Book Cover Design Awards, October 2011


Joel Friedlander is the proprietor of Marin Bookworks in San Rafael, California, a publishing services company where he’s helped launch many self-published authors. He blogs about book design, writing and self-publishing at www.TheBookDesigner.com. Joel is also the author of the newly-published A Self-Publisher’s Companion: Expert Advice for Authors Who Want to Publish.
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  1. mark.binwood@gmail.com'Mark

    That is a very good article, however it leaves out some prectical ways of crafting a book cover. There several paths depending on your budget and I would like to briefly point each one out.

    1. You can hire an illustrator on Elance, HireAnIllustrator.com, IllustrationMundo.com and others. This will probably be expensive.

    2. If you’re budget is very tight, go with something like CreateSpace, which offers free book cover templates.

    3. Finally you can find an image that fits you book using keywords search on of the stock sites, most notable of which in terms of book covers is http://getbookcover.com – it even allows you to put title and other text on the cover right in the browser, so no Photoshop skills needed.

  2. jfbookman@gmail.com'Joel Friedlander

    Mark,

    Great tips. The article is intended to present strategic, rather than practical guidance, so thanks for offering more options for readers.