Cover Design Checklist

Cover Problems Pic

Check for these possible issues when designing a cover:

  • Random imagery. There isn’t an obvious connection (to someone who knows nothing about the book – i.e. the customer browsing search results) between the images. Sending a unified message with a clear signal (i.e. clear in about three seconds) tends to be more effective.
  • Imperfect images. The cover concept is clear, but it doesn’t quite work with the images used. Would a great movie be the same with lousy acting? Finding the right images can make a difference.
  • Photobombing or transparency. An image seems out of place – instead of being a natural part of the scene – or you can see through an image (other than a ghost). This can be quite distracting. Strive for unity.
  • Facial expressions. The model may show the wrong facial expression for the occasion or wear a look of disinterest. A model’s disinterest may carry into the customer. This is a very important element that is often overlooked. Do you see looks of disinterest on popular magazine covers or commercials? Will those models display the wrong emotions?
  • Instamatic. A cover is not merely a snapshot – especially, an ordinary looking snapshot. A fantastic cover doesn’t get the buyer thinking, “Gee, I could have done that.”
  • Refrigerator art. Most hand-drawn images – especially, pencils and crayons – give the impression that the author wished to feature his or her child’s artwork. This may be harsh, the art may be quite good, it may be paid for, it might not be drawn by a child, and the artist might not be related to the author. But it’s the impression that counts. It’s not the quality of the art that’s at stake. Your cover doesn’t need a Picasso. It’s the age of graphic arts. This technology has many amazing possibilities and can help your cover look professional.
  • Bulletin board. Two or more images are put together as if stuck on a bulletin board with thumbtacks. That is, it has this layout, even if it doesn’t look like a bulletin board and there are no thumbtacks. How will such detail show on the thumbnail? One main image will be easier to see, send a more unified message (which is more effective), and aid in recall (part of branding).
  • Photography mistakes. Perspective problem, inconsistent lighting or shadows, red-eye, and blurriness, for example. Don’t distract the buyer.
  • Boring. Bored shoppers don’t buy. Grab the attention of your target audience.
  • Busy. Too much going on. For one, it’s distracting. Also, a single unified message tends to work better. One main image helps with unity and branding.
  • Alignment. An image is off-center, but visually seems like it should be centered. One more distraction to avoid.
  • PhotoShop issues. Aspect ratio, filter issues, too many layers, and pixilation, for example.
  • Cut and paste. Looks like the images were simply found and thrown together, perhaps like a collage. A natural looking scene is less distracting and helps send a more unified message.
  • Deformed creatures. Humans, animals, aliens, or other creatures don’t look quite right. This includes mannequins, avatars, and drawn imagery, for example. This distracts the buyer.
  • Huh? Concept isn’t immediately clear. An effective cover quickly attracts the target audience and sends a brief unified message about what to expect.
  • Sexy. On a cover where this isn’t expected in the genre, or where the appeal is stronger than expected. This appeal may backfire where it’s not expected. Who is your specific target audience? That’s who you want the cover to attract. When a cover attracts the wrong audience, it greatly deters sales.
  • Color clash. The colors don’t coordinate well together. It’s ideal to use three main colors that work very well together: primary 60%, secondary 30%, and accent 10%.
  • Readability. The font is hard to read. A nonstandard word or name is hard to read. Text reads vertically or is otherwise oriented in a hard-to-read way. Wrong words are emphasized (like “the”). L-e-t-t-e-r-s appear individually such that it slows the reading. Text is too small. Buyers browsing search results may decide whether or not to click in just a few seconds. Make it easy to figure out what the text says.
  • Too much text. The text dominates the front cover. In the thumbnail, a few keywords from the title and the author’s name (although this can be smaller than the title, unless you’re famous) should be easily visible, while a main image should dominate the cover. A single main image is your best chance of grabbing attention, signifying the genre and content quickly, and aiding in recall (“I’ve seen this before,” is a key part of branding).
  • Poor font choice. Boring (plain font), doesn’t suit the genre or content, upsets many readers (like Comic Sans), hard to read, or too many different fonts used. One or two fonts that fit the genre and content help to send a unified message. A font that creates interest, yet is easily readable, helps the cover as a whole grab attention. This is a very tough balancing act, and more important than often realized.
  • Mismatch. Cover signifies the wrong genre or subgenre and doesn’t obviously relate to the content (i.e. to a potential buyer who knows absolutely nothing about the book – and won’t read the description to find out because the cover failed to grab his or her attention). This is a very important point, but is also a common mistake.
  • Typo. Spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistake. Oops! A mistake on a title certainly doesn’t bode well for a book with tens of thousands of words.
  • Credit placement. Traditionally published covers often give credit to the cover designer on the back cover with a small font (name and website) as well as on the copyright page (so people who like the cover and blurb will find it on the Look Inside). This is common among professional cover design. What’s common on self-published covers is for this acknowledgment to appear on the front cover in a large font. If the cover looks professional, this will be obvious at a glance; it won’t be necessary to declare this on the front cover.
  • By. Using the word “by” prior to the author’s name. It’s obvious who the author is, so this is superfluous. Some customers perceive this as amateurish. Avoid possible distractions.

It’s far easier to criticize a cover than to design a perfect cover.

There are so many mistakes to make that a few are almost inevitable.

But the best covers tend to avoid almost all of these mistakes.

I’ve made some of these mistakes myself. I certainly didn’t have all this in mind when I designed my first cover.

Publishing Resources

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Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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6 comments on “Cover Design Checklist

  1. Great checklist. I have a question for you about cover art with the plan that I had for my fantasy series. I was going to go with a character portrait for each cover, including villains and a few important secondary characters. I’ve never found a series that did this, so I was hoping to get an opinion on if this is a sensible tactic.

    • My first thought is if you do something that’s not common among popular books in the genre… Well, those books show you what this audience expects to see when they browse. Can you do this in such a way that it still looks like the kinds of books they are shopping for, signifies the precise genre, and briefly suggests what to expect? If so, I don’t see a problem.

      If you have the same character on all of the covers of the series, this can help readers find other books in the series quickly and can help to brand the image of the character. If you’re using different characters for each cover, but the covers look similar in design, it will still help with the first point.

      The last issue is how much you hope to sell through discovery in search results versus other ways. The less such discovery matters for your approach, the more you can get away with other things. Good luck with your books.🙂

      • Thanks. I’m going the different character route. I have 6 main heroes, 4 big villains, and several essential supporting cast that I can use. My cover artist is very good at the single character portraits with great scenery, so it feels like the strong way to go.

  2. Pingback: How to Find and Hire a Cover Artist | chrismcmullen

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