Dissection of a Book Cover

I was surprised how much I love this cover
(one of my favorites). The mix of bright and
black is both eye catching and evocative. I
also like the diagonal font because it jars me.

Yesterday MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I took a road trip to Barnes & Noble. I know what you’re thinking… a road trip to a bookstore? This is a big deal?

Sad but true, it is a big deal. Maine has only one large bookstore in the entire state—an hour from where we live—and for this particular mission I needed a large volume of books. Lest you get up in arms about me ignoring the indie bookstores in our area, I’ve already been to the two in my neck of the woods.

Anyway, I digress. This trip was not a pleasure trip (although it could hardly be called torture). I was going specifically for one purpose: to check out book covers of mystery novels.

This has been one of my biggest qualms as an aspiring indie author: picking out an appropriate cover for my book. I envy authors who have an agent, editor, publishing house to give opinions—even to force a certain cover. It’s all on me. That little online thumbnail is stress enough. But then I think about having a book launch at my local library or sitting at a table at a book fair. Not only does the cover need to represent the book, but it has to represent me, too, so it has to be something I’m proud of.

And I’m picky about book covers.

MEH kindly agreed to be my wingman. My job was to identify covers I liked and take photos of them, and his job was to measure the books and take notes about who designed what cover. Despite an initial speed bump when MEH realized (as we pulled into a parking space after driving for an hour) that we didn’t have the tape measure with us, fortunately there was a Michaels Craft Store right next door, and we were able to buy one.

There were no more speed bumps. We spent two hours perusing the mysteries. I saw about five covers I loved. And I came away with some very good ideas. I also broke some of the misconceptions I had about what I liked. For instance, I knew without any doubt, before going in, that I wanted a matte cover for my book. But guess what? I liked the glossy covers more. What really surprised me most, however, was that I was drawn more to the brighter colors than to the muted (this has not been the case in the past).

That’s not to say I don’t still have qualms and stresses. I want the book cover to portray the contents of the book—and there are certain secret rules, of this I feel certain: more lighthearted mysteries (like mine) should have these colors, more graphic and heavier mysteries, others. But I’m not totally sure what they are—and believe me, I’ve put in hoursof research. And, let’s be frank here, we all know that to some extent we all judge a book by its cover or at least analyze them.

I like the more traditional feel of this cover
but, I miss the brighter colors (like the
red cover behind).

Writer friend, Melissa Crytzer Fry, recently posted a blog about just this thing from a reader’s and writer’s point of view. Her post, Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, came at a perfect time for me. In it, Melissa poses this question:

Do I put too much stock into cover art? Maybe. Or is it just human nature to (literally) judge a book by its cover? Artwork – colors, photos, drawings, font size, graphic treatment – creates mood, doesn’t it? A cover tells its own story, right? It’s a huge marketing tool for the sale of books…

If you haven’t read her post, I highly recommend it; it provided an excellent analysis of several covers and addressed many of my concerns. The discussion in comments is informative and excellent as well.

Finally, once I decide what I want the cover to look like, I still need to find a designer who can carry out my vision. For this, I’ve again combed the web, asked other indie authors I know, and—yes—have even gotten names off book jackets. But I haven’t settled on anyone or anything yet, so the search is still on.

Stay tuned.

I’m interested in what you think…would you (like me) be stressing over this? Do you have preconceived ideas of which genres should have what kind of covers? Colors? Shiny or matte? Are you self published and were particularly pleased (or disappointed) in your cover? Can you recommend a designer? Or web service? Have you heard of 99designs? Know anyone who’s ever used it?




  1. Check out Jon Clinch’s efforts on The Thief of Auschwitz. He self-published that book and the cover looks like it came out of a publishing house.

    Maybe peruse self-published mystery covers. Now that you see what you love—make a list of what you do not love. What you do not want.

    Sometimes that is key. I never knew what i wanted for my cover, and while I’m with a publisher, I did know what I did not want and expressed that to my editor and my cover designer.

    Good luck!! And can’t wait to see.

    • Thank you for the pointer to Jon Clinch’s book! And that’s a great idea to make a list of what I don’t love so much, too — I already have some very specific DISlikes. That will be a great list to pass along to a designer. Thanks for your ideas, Amy, but mostly for helping me feel like I’m not so alone!

  2. amber says:

    I have several author friend’s whose covers I think look great who used this girl: http://www.bookbeautiful.com/

  3. I would totally be stressing over it. I must admit I’ve gotten sort of jaded by bad indy book covers. It’s clear that to some it is a mere after thought. If the author doesn’t have the time or interest to make it look professional, I’m guessing they felt the same about the prose. Sorry I don’t have any recommendations regarding designers. There was a thread about this on the WU page a while back, and several people gave links to designers. Maybe if you searched the page for book covers, it would point you to it.

    I think you are on the right track, Julia. It is very important, IMO. Good luck!

    • You echoed all my fears, Vaughn. Exactly! I appreciate the pointer to the WU thread, and I will check it out. Thank you for your support and encouragement; it really helps to have others express the same sentiments. It makes me know I should stick to my guns!

  4. It’s a crucial decision, but I know your research will pay off and you’ll have a cover worthy of your book. Can’t wait to see what you choose.

  5. Oh, Julia… Your trip sounds like so much FUN (but I obviously totally get the undercurrents of apprehension you suffered). This is your BABY. You want its best little feet forward, so yes … anxiety, I would think, is part of the package. When I was the editor of various collegiate magazines, I was kind of a pain in the butt to the designers, because I DID know what I wanted/didn’t want. But many times, they surprised me so much with their creative wisdom. I hope you can find someone who, as Amy says above, LISTENS to what you don’t like so that he/she can bring to play what fits the genre, what you DO like, and also something creative and eye-catching that you might not have considered.I think you’re so wise to do your homework and really, really ponder what you want.

    I, for one, am SO excited to see what you come up with! So excited to be along for the ride.

    • It was a lot of fun, I admit, but yes, “undercurrents of apprehension” describes it pretty much to a T! You captured very much what I’m expecting/hoping will happen with a designer, because like you I do know what I want but I am really looking forward to the creative wisdom I know I’ll get — if I pick the right designer. Maybe that’s why I’m searching so carefully for THAT person. It has to be a give and take. Thank you for your support and vote of confidence that I’m on the right track. I really appreciate it!

  6. I had very definite ideas about what I wanted for the cover of BABY GRAND. Some of those ideas made it to the actual cover. And there were some concessions I made during discussions with my cover designer. But I’m thrilled with the end-product. I think you can’t underestimate the importance of your book cover. Other than the title of your book, the book cover is what helps draw the reader to check out your book blurb and reviews. I know, as a reader, if I don’t find a cover of a book appealing — particularly if I just stumbled upon it and I wasn’t searching for said book — I will pass, rightly or wrongly. Therefore, as an author, you need to make the most of this opportunity to pull that reader in. Good luck, Julia!!

    • I remember you going through this, Dina — and you did so well along with your designer. I love your cover, too. As you say, I can’t underestimate the importance of the cover! Thank you for your good wishes… here’s hoping I’ll do as good a job as you did!

  7. I totally understand this, and I think it’s a wise thing to do if you’re going the indie route. I think that authors, especially genre ones, are the mercy of a publisher’s sale or marketing department, so it would be absolutely terrible to have a cover you hated. I think you know best what you want, and what you respond the most strongly to will be the right choice. Looking forward to what you choose!

    • Thank you for your validation that I’m on the right path, Mahesh. It really helps me to know I’m doing this right when I get the support and encouragement of writer friends! Thank you so much!

  8. Barb Riley says:

    Of course I’d be stressing over this, too. I am a very visual person, so covers are important to me. But I can even up the writer’s neuroses a notch: what about fonts? Since I read a lot of library books, the spines are the first thing I see when I go hunting for a new novel, and boy, do I (unwillingly) have some strong opinions about what font the title is in. For example, I will almost always pick up anything that resembles typewriter letters or cursive. But there are some fonts that just scream “this is not your taste” as I scan them (like the big letters for horror books or political thrillers).

    It’s all exciting, whatever you should end up with. I love to hear this step in the process though, so I hope you’ll be updating us. I enjoyed seeing which covers you liked, too. Do you think it’s slightly easier for you when you know your story is within the mystery genre? Otherwise, the choices are wiiide open, and I think that would paralyze me.

    • I’m so glad you brought up fonts, Barb. Yes, a stressor for me as well. Not just spines or covers, but the interior. That’s ANOTHER thing I need to find… an interior book designer. Who even knew there was such a thing? Yes, you can count on updates (and perhaps even votes… we’ll see). Unfortunately I don’t think it’s easier with mystery because apparently different colors and styles of cover connote different types of mysteries, and I haven’t yet mastered the secret handshake. Hopefully I won’t project the wrong mysterious image!

  9. Julie Luek says:

    You are putting so much careful thought into this. A cover seems like a resume–it’s the first impression so it better be good. I’ll be awaiting your final decision with great anticipation!

  10. I love this . . . one step more in your journey. I think covers very important. I gravitate to certain bottles of wine because of their label and I know that magazines keep track of which covers sold best. Not to say if I hear that a book’s a great book I wouldn’t pick it up regardless of the cover, same if I saw an article in a magazine I want to read, I’d probably buy it. But in the sea of books out there you want people to gravitate to yours. That the line about forgetting the tape measure made me laugh out loud. j

    • I’m so glad you can relate, Jamie! And like you, I too buy wine based on the labels (isn’t it absolutely incredible how many there are???)… I should say I often buy the label MEH likes (Red Truck Wine). “…in the sea of books out there you want people to gravitate to yours…” EXACTLY! (p.s. glad you enjoyed the tape measure line… is it not such an everyday type of married-couple conversation?)

  11. I am absolutely crazy about book covers! I love to peruse bookstores just to study the spines, so I understand how important this process is to you. From what I’ve seen, mysteries have a mixture of bold colors contrasted with dark and the title in a square font. I know you’ll do great, Julia. I can’t wait to see the finished product!

    • I’m crazy about them too! You really nailed it, Jolina. Mysteries do have a combination of bold colors contrasting with dark — and that’s just it, the color combinations are some kind of code for type of mystery. I’m working hard to crack the code and follow the rules. Thank you for your vote of confidence, Jolina… I promise to share the finished product as soon as I can!

  12. I think you’re already doing so much right! I love that you and MEH went to B&N with a plan–beyond browsing titles, you documented so many things we often overlook (but that make a difference), and I think it’s this attention to detail that’s going to make your cover stand out. I absolutely cannot wait to see what you come up with, Julia!

    • The B&N trip was a blast — and I guess I don’t know how to do these kinds of things without a plan. I hope this analytical side pays off in a better book cover. So happy you enjoyed the post and are looking forward to the result! (I can’t wait to see your cover, too!)

  13. You are completely in the right to obsess about your book covers. Actually, I am thinking about rebranding my series and getting new covers done myself, so it is a topic I have been tossing around in my head a lot. It also depends what genre the book is because although we all want to be individuals, certain genre novels look a certain way or at least have to connote it.

    • It really is a tough nut to crack, isn’t it Karen? I’ve read the same thing–that the genre of the book and even the subgenre should look a certain way or connote a certain mood, etc. I really meant it when I said I thought there were certain secret rules! Hopefully if I can find a good book designer, I’ll get clued in! Here’s to both of us being successful in our quests.

  14. Annie says:

    I absolutely *would* be stressing about this too, Julia. In fact… I already am, and I don’t even have a book coming out. I think that good book covers are such a powerful marketing tool, and that weak ones create a marketing obstacle. Not to add to your pressure, but I think it actually is something worth stressing over. Although you’re doing it in a smart way, by doing research and gathering data. Much more productive than wringing your hands. Very best of luck to you with it!

    • Believe me, you can’t make me more stressed than I already am about this, unfortunately. It’s a 24-hour-a-day obsession (not just the book covers, just in general). But the book covers in general are, I agree, a powerful marketing tool and a branding of sorts. I’m especially wary knowing this is going to be a series and I want it adaptable to future books. Even more, something I can use for other marketing tools (like bookmarks, business cards, postcards, etc.). Thank you for saying I’m doing it the smart way. I hope it will be productive! I appreciate your support and encouragement!

  15. Judy says:

    I just went through this and was extremely indecisive. I used 99 designs on the advice of my agency (I’m publishing through the ebook division at Trident Media Group)and had to rely on someone I know with a strong sense of design to help me. I am happy with the results and am getting great feedback.

    • Oh! So glad to meet someone who used 99 designs! That’s great that you’re happy with the results! Thank you so much for your comment and for your visit to my blog; so happy to meet another writer going through this process.

  16. I would/am for sure stress about the cover. It’s so important and I think, yes, of course we judge a book by it! I suppose it makes our job harder than a painter’s, but it also gives us an extra chance to lure a reader. Interesting, I also “think” I favor matte but I haven’t looked at covers in the store with that specific question in mind yet.
    I’m a different genre from you, but I recently learned of http://dedecummingsdesigns.com/book-covers/ and like their portfolio.

    • Thank you so much for the pointer to that portfolio. I will definitely check it out. It really is so stressful… and time consuming! I was so surprised about liking glossy more… it may also have to do with being in a bookstore vs. receiving it at home from an online sale? So much seems subjective at every moment! Here’s to some clarity soon… thanks for your support and help, Jess!

  17. My advice is to not overthink it. If you see an image or color or photo that immediately speaks to you, then there’s a reason for it. And enjoy the process – it’s a celebration of a huge accomplishment. I can’t wait to read it!!

    • Thank you, Lori! I really need to focus more on the fun and celebtation and enjoyment of the accomplishment. Sometimes that’s hard to do with all the nut and bolt kind of activities I need to complete, but I need to do it nonetheless! Thank you for the important reminder of that and to trust myself, too.

  18. I have also gleaned that all your books should follow the same kind of look, so they are recognizably your style, so that puts extra pressure to make certain it’s a good choice, and that you really like it.

    That’s so cool that you’ve decided to definitely self publish, Julia! Mystery’s do well in the self publish market, so it’s a good choice, I think.

    • YES!! Cynthia, you hit another important point — that this is a series and I want each book to be easily recognizable as such and to reflect my style, too. As you say, it’s pressure that it’s a good choice but also that I like it (since I’ll hopefully be using it for a while!). Thank you so much for your support and encouragement, Cynthia!

    • Great point, Cynthia! That’s author branding. 🙂

  19. Julia – I was reading this blog post during the power outage that stopped the Superbowl – that’s how riveting it was! I have a lot of conversations in my workaday life about covers and how they help “sell” the book. A “bad” cover in my opinion is one that doesn’t give the reader a feel for the content. Readers should have an emotional connection to the book before they even open the cover.

    I love your outing to the bookstore. What an excellent idea to understand the common themes in your genre and what you like.

    Have you seen the TED talk given by Chip Kidd? He’s a superstar art director who will make you laugh — and make you think what makes a good cover.

    I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

    • I watched Chip’s TED talk after you posted it on Melissa’s blog — it was great, thank you! But after watching it and reading all these comments, I feel perhaps even more worried about making the right choice. It seems that even if I know (or think I know) what I want, and I’m willing to take guidance from a designer, the next question is: how do I find that person? Is Chip a personal friend of yours? Might he be interested 😉

      p.s. Wow, I’m so happy my blog post kept your interest!! Woohoo, wait til you read the book!

  20. Erika Marks says:

    Oooo!! I’ve been so anxious to hear news of this part of the process for you, Julia. It IS daunting, isn’t it? Because you’re so right–and Melissa’s post was so on the mark too–that we do judge by covers, we can’t help it! So how to dissect the words we are so attached to and find a way to compile all that plot and emotion and protectiveness into one flash of imagery–such a huge undertaking. For my first two covers, the image that resulted was nothing like what I had imagined–but of course it wouldn’t be because they had a certain distance that I couldn’t have.

    So that said, do you think you will seek out a designer? I hope you’ll feel free to use your friends as sounding boards–I know we don’t know the story–YET!!:)–but we certainly can offer some thoughts!:)

    • Erika! I just found your comment (for some reason Blogger isn’t notifying me of them, grrrr!). It’s interesting what you say that the covers of your books weren’t what you would’ve imagined, because of the distance the designers had from the words. I didn’t think of that — but it’s one more important reason for me to use a designer… to answer your question, yes, I will be using a designer. And I’m sure I’ll be asking for thoughts, too 🙂 Thank you for offering!

  21. I think we’re all in agreement that we can’t wait to see what you pick!

    P.S. Only one large bookstore in the entire STATE???!!!

    • Amanda, thank you for your comment! As I told Erika, Blogger seems to have stopped notifying me when they come in… so I just found yours too! I will be SO excited to reveal the cover (assuming I can decide what I want and it is designed, of course, LOL). And yes, only one large bookstore in the entire state. Sigh.

  22. CMSmith says:

    You’re doing so good, researching book covers and all. I guess I did make a quick trip to the memoir aisle at B&N before I finalized Dancing in Heaven, but mostly I just let my daughter have the run of the show. (Of course, based on my meager sales, I’m not a good act to follow.) I’m sure I will learn a lot from you.

    It’s fun watching your journey.

    I hope this message “takes.” I’ve left two or three other messages on other posts and they haven’t shown up so far.

    • I’m so indebted to you, Christine, because you’re the first writer I watched go through the self publishing journey, and I learned SO much from you. Thank you for being a trailblazer for me! You’re lucky you had your daughter’s help, too. I’m glad you’re enjoying the journey with me, because it’s certainly more fun with you along!

      p.s. Blogger is having major issues with comments — so I’m not surprised it looked like your ocmments didn’t take. They came through fine. Sorry for the lack of clarity and thank you for being persistent!!

  23. Lisa Ahn says:

    I would be intimidated by this too! Kudos to you for doing the research and diving in. I know that Rabia Gale self-publishes (and I LOVE her books). I also love her covers. She doesn’t write the same genre, but what I like about her covers is the way the designer matches the content, tone, style, etc. of the text to the cover. Check them out on her site (writer at play)and see what you think.

    • Thank you so much for the name of another designer, Lisa! I’m pretty intimidated by the process, I admit, but it really helps to have good writer friends weighing in on the subject. It makes me feel not quite as all alone.

  24. Comingeast says:

    Wow, Julia! I never would have thought about the importance of the cover, if you hadn’t brought it up. So many things to consider when you self-publish! I couldn’t care less about the cover for an ebook, but I guess I do grab a book sometimes by an attractive cover. At least, that’s what gets me to pick it up in the first place, though I might not buy it or take it our of the library if I don’t like what is written on the back cover or on the flyleafs.

    • I’m so glad you weighed in, Susan! I always wonder if other people look at e-book thumbnails (I rarely do, either)… but it’s huge visibility issue on amazon! As for books themselves, yes, I do grab them sometimes on how much a cover appeals. Glad you enjoyed the post, Susan!

  25. I remember doing the same thing, walking into the book store and scouring over covers in order to plan out the cover for my book (luckily my big book store is only 5 minute walk from my house…I feel for you). My first cover I tried to go with what was popular in my genre (YA fiction) and ended up with a cover that was far too romance for my brutal story.

    So I redid the cover and ended up with this:


    Anyhoo I had fun doing my own covers (though it took some time and practice). If you’re looking for some professional covers, check out this place:



    Good luck with the cover! Possibly the most important decision you’ll make for your book =)

    • Thank you so much for the links! I really appreciate it! And I appreciate hearing about your journey! This made me gulp, though: “Possibly the most important decision you’ll make for your book…” I definitely feel that way… Thank you for your comment and for your visit to my blog!