Judge A Book By Its Cover? Bad Designs Means More Judging, and For Good Reason

Judge A Book By Its Cover? Bad Designs Means More Judging, and For Good Reason

By Jesse Savage



Picture this: you walk past your local bookstore and see a display of books in the window. On one of the covers, you see pixelated moon, and a wolf that looks as though it’s been copied and pasted underneath it. On another cover, you can’t quite make out the title because the font is so strange. The third book looks as though someone pasted their child’s pencil crayon drawing to the front. Do you go inside the store? Probably not.

Covers are one of the most important elements of a book — second only to the content of the book itself. If a cover isn’t enticing or intriguing enough, or if the image or cover text leads to more questions and confusion than answers, it is unlikely the book will reach its intended potential audience. According to Writer Unboxed, who reviewed a recent study, “70 percent of people make up their minds about a product within a 90 second span. The colour and aesthetics of the product’s packaging are largely responsible for swaying potential buyers in one direction or the other” [1]. In my personal book browsing experience, the time it takes for me to decide if I pick up a book is even less — between five and ten seconds, on average. It could be said that I browse based on intuition, and the “vibe” I get looking at a book cover. Indeed, Kevin Tumlinson of Draft 2 Digital confirms: “We’re looking for a book that has the right look for the mood we’re in, and for the sort of story we’re wanting to read” [2]. One of the most important jobs of a book cover is to set the mood, preparing the reader for the story they’re about to immerse themselves in. It can easily be argued that a book cover is the first visual component that champions the story itself. A good book cover should represent the book, and give some indication of the genera or specific type of story (for example, horror, or romance).

No matter whether the cover is for a gardening how-to, or the latest vampire/zombie romance, there are many elements that go into designing a good book cover, such as image, font, and layout, but not everyone can pull those elements together in ways necessary to create an appropriate cover. According to contributors in Psychology of Design: Creating Consumer Appeal, “today, much of design is done through the intuition, instincts, and insights of the designers, honed by years of practice, training, and mentoring” [3]. The skills needed in cover design are part science and part art, and should not be attempted by just anyone who happens to have Photoshop on their laptop.

Unfortunately, self-published authors, and those authors with small independent publishers, seem to be at the greatest risk for terrible covers. According to Nathan Shumate at Huffington Post, “with the explosion of self-publishing (or “indie publishing”) in the last few years, more and more authors are undertaking the tasks they usually outsourced to a publisher in the process of bringing their book to its audience. Among other things, these authors have taken upon themselves the task of procuring a cover for their books — hiring out, getting a favor from a friend, or doing it themselves” [4]. This delegation is not really surprising: self- or independent publishers do not have the same budgets as large publishing houses with design departments, and they do not always have the best network of people who are schooled in design. However, there is still a set of basic design rules that can be followed. iUniverse outlines the following four steps to a productive book cover [5]:


A Cover Should:


  1. Fall within the norms for your genre but visually stand out among other books.


  1. Appeal to readers and convince them to take a closer look at your book with a strong visual presence.


  1. Reflect the content of your book and expose readers to your writing style.


  1. Convince a potential reader to invest in a literary journey with your story.


Retrieved From www.huffingtonpost.com

The following book cover seems to fall short of these rules. The murder mystery Impact for Murder, by Cherri Galbiati, published in 2010 by L&L Publishing, depicts an angry Earth, and a dog lounging in what appears to be a construction site [6].

Going through iUniverse’s points to remember for cover design, this book is not necessarily representative of its genre. Books like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The DaVinci Code, and 4.50 From Paddington all are classed as murder mysteries, yet this cover does not have the intense, dramatic feel of a “standard” book from the same genera. It was only after reading the description that I inferred the genera. While this cover may catch the attention of dog-lovers, it may not be appealing enough for the average book browser to pick up and flip through. Personally, I may not be inclined to pick up a book in which the Earth appears to be frowning at me (perhaps that’s just my guilty conscious about not recycling as much as I should). The cover certainly does not reflect much content about the book, but according to one reviewer on GoodReads, the writing style lacks professionalism. “It hasn’t been properly proofread,” says Lynda Kelly, rating it a meager one star. “For starters I’d no idea what Shop Smith was so had to Google it only to see it was written wrong and should’ve been Shopsmith anyway!! That was irritating right off the bat. Then Ida was inexplicably written as Ids, speechmarks were dropped and tic was spelt as tick. I’d only made it 5% in and seen enough, I’m afraid” [7]. It is important for self-publishers and independent publishing houses to remember that just because they are independent, the process of publishing a book does not have to be entirely DIY. There are still things independent publishers can do to ensure their book gets their dream cover. The Creative Penn offers suggestions such as “Make sure you pick the right designer,” “Remember that the cover is there to sell the book,” and “Endeavour to limit your personal attachment” [8].


Retrieved From lousybookcovers.tumblr.com

    Images aren’t the only thing to take into consideration when designing a book cover. Questionable font choices are also a concern. Irula’s Apprentice (featured on lousybookcovers.tumbler.com) [9] features not just a bad copy/paste image, but poor font to the extend that it makes the title difficult to read. ‘R’s look more like ‘B’s, and ‘U’s more like ‘V’s. The title becomes “IBVLA’s APPBENTiCE”.

When it comes to a book’s cover, font is one of the most important elements. If a potential buyer cannot decipher the title or the author’s name, he or she may decide to pass it by. If a potential reader is curious about the book at a later date, he or she may have difficulty finding the book if the title or author is not easy to remember or difficult to spell.

It would not be fair to claim that self-published authors are the only ones who make poor design choices when it comes to book covers. Design departments at large publishing firms can be at just as much risk of breaking basic design rules, such as this edition of The Princess Bride, published by Ballantine Books [10].

Retrieved From www.theguardian.com

Despite the book having many details and asides left out of the movie adaptation, such as those about love, wrestling, and drunkenness, there is no mention of any character wearing an eagle headdress or being surrounded by snakes and skulls. This is certainly not a cover that reflects the content of the book, no matter how abstractly one might interpret its fantastical scenes [11].

It appears some designers (or sometimes, “designers”) struggle with balancing taking the subject matter too literally (such as Galbiati’s interpretation of an ‘angry Earth,’ or are so vague one could never even guess what the book was about (such as the original The Princess Bride cover). That is if anyone read the book at all, such as this “someone had to have accidentally swapped photos” edition of Anne of Green Gables [12].

Retrieved From flavorwire.com

     The cover, which features an alluring blonde twenty-something, is a far cry from the Canadian icon with red hair and freckles. Published via CreateSpace, a self-publishing subsidiary of Amazon, the cover received so much backlash from audiences it was featured on CTV News Atlantic in 2013 [13]. One reviewer commented, “The books are wonderful and do not deserve this disgrace of a cover.” While these comments are made by people already familiar with the main character’s attributes, it is fair to say that new readers of Anne of Green Gables may be confused, and either wonder who the strange red-head is, or when they’re going to eventually meet the blonde co-ed. Confusion should never be the goal when it comes to cover design.

Good book cover design relies not only on intuition, but also an understanding of the audience and how and why they buy books. Are they looking for a specific genera, author, or character? Will the recognition of familiar elements draw them towards the story? Will they be able to recognize elements of the story featured on the cover? Will the cover help them visualize a specific character from the story? These are all questions to consider when designing a good cover. Guest writer Taylor, of Written Word Media, lists symmetry, simplicity, colour, and contrast as aesthetic factors to also keep in mind [14]. They suggest the following two covers as ones that check off every factor of a well designed cover: All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and The Martian, by Andy Weir.

Retrieved From www.writtenwordmedia.com

Retrieved From www.writtenwordmedia.com

In the first cover, the information is clear, legible, and fonts have been chosen that are pleasing to the eye, and are contrasted enough to be easily read. There is symmetry and simplicity in the layout, the colour is pleasing to the eye, and helps set the tone of the novel. The Martian takes the simplicity one step further in limiting the blurbs on the front cover. The white text and image of the astronaut stand out against the red background, and the audience knows there is a good likelyhood the story takes place on Mars, and there may be some dramatic scenes. In short, the reader can feel confident that the subject matter is reflected on the cover.

They can also feel confident carrying a well designed book around, or sharing it with other people. According to Angus Phillips of Oxford Brookes University, with regards to Agatha Christie novels, “Focus groups were shown the new [cover] design alongside the old versions, and the results were a strong endorsement for the new approach. The old design had been deterring readers and consumers said they would be ‘embarrassed to read Agatha Christie on the bus…because of what it said about them’. The new covers offered a ‘more upmarket, grown-up’ feel” [15]. If audiences feel uncomfortable taking such a well-known author out in public on account of just the cover image, one can only wonder how they may feel taking out a poorly designed book by a new author. If they fear the book will be judged, and by association they will be judged as well for reading it, there may be no stronger deterrent when it comes to choosing a book.

Once and a while, book covers really don’t matter, and that’s where the fun comes in. Blind Date With a Book began in Australia and has since become popular around the world. Books are wrapped in brown paper and labeled with 5-6 key words about the subject matter. For example, one book could be labeled with “Cuban spies; Thriller; Humour; Tourism; Vacuum cleaners.”. While the label may conjure up images reminiscent of a Tarantino film, there is no other visual element indicating what the book might be about. The rules of design can be thrown out the window — no colour choices, no symmetry, no contrast, no font choice…nothing but the black typewriter font in the corner of some brown paper wrapping. But this is still an intentional design choice. And, it seems, a successful one. Blind Date With a Book has been featured in Vogue, and even got a shout-out from Oprah. The limited cover information creates an incitement of its own, making people curious and eager to find out more — just what is that book really all about? Which is what any book cover should do, instead of instigating confusion, unease, or discontent. So, it seems, even the lack of a traditional cover can still be a good cover after all.

It should be noted that while I was unable to find sales information for the books listed here, based on their minimal reviews and online following, I inferred that they were at the lower end of successful. There were many other examples of poorly designed covers but I was unable to find information on Amazon or GoodReads (or anywhere else), so I chose not to discuss those covers due to their potential of being fake, or mock-ups. Further quantitative research would be needed to confirm the claim that bad book covers run the risk of throwing potential readers away from the book. In the case of The Princess Bride, there are over a dozen covers (not counting the movie tie-ins), so it should not be assumed that the cover mentioned was solely responsible for the book’s success.

The topic of book covers vast, and one that could never be covered entirely in an essay — indeed whole books have been written on the subject. But one thing remains true: people judge books by their covers, and they have every right to. As readers we want to know what we are getting ourselves into when we pick up a book. Will we laugh? Cry? Go on an adventure? In the same way we try to make the best first impression at a job interview by wearing professional clothes, a book must make its best first impression to its audience by having a professional cover. That is not to say only professional designers can produce a balanced, enticing cover, but it occasionally helps. All it takes is a sense of professionalism, a basic understanding of design rules, and as much time and investment in the cover as in the story itself, rather than just ‘whipping something up.’ Whether the author is self-published, or on the Best Seller list every year, their books deserve covers that represent the stories and gives them the best chance to be recognized by the audience.



[1] Guest. “The Psychology Behind Good Book Cover Design.” Writer Unboxed. September 17, 2017. http://writerunboxed.com/2017/09/17/the-psychology-behind-good-book-cover-design/.

[2] Tumlinson, Kevin. 2016. “The Psychology of a Good Book Cover.” Draft 2 Digital. https://www.draft2digital.com/blog/the-psychology-of-a-good-book-cover/.

[3] Batra, Rajeev, Colleen Seifert, and Diann Brei. 2015. The Psychology of Design: Creating Consumer Appeal. 1st ed. Routledge.

[4] Shumate, Nathan. 2013. “Self-Publishing’s Worst Covers.” Huffpost. November 1. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-shumate/selfpublishings-worst-cov_b_2457689.html.

[5] “Cover Design Essentials.” n.d. IUniverse. https://www.iuniverse.com/Resources/Publishing-Distribution/CoverDesignEssentials.aspx.

[6] Shumate, Nathan. 2013. “10 Lousy Book Covers.” Huffpost. March 13. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-shumate/selfpublishings-worst-cov_b_2457689.html?slideshow=true#gallery/274253/6.

[7] Kelly, Lynda. 2015. GoodReads. October 13. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19076486-impact-for-murder.

[8] Penn, Joanna. 2017. “9 Ways To Get The Very Best Out Of Your Book Cover Designer.” The Creative Penn. July 19. https://www.thecreativepenn.com/tag/book-cover-design/.

[9] “Lousy Book Covers.” 2017. Web log. Tumblr. October 24. http://lousybookcovers.tumblr.com/page/2.

[10] Cain, Sian. 2014. “Five Worst Book Covers Ever.” The Guardian. August 7. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/aug/07/five-worst-book-covers-ever.

[11] Inglis-Arkell, Esther. 2012. “The Princess Bride’s bizarrely NSFW cover from the 1970s.” io9. March 23. https://io9.gizmodo.com/5894777/the-princess-brides-confounding-book-cover-and-other-ways-it-differed-from-the-movie.

[12] Temple, Emily. 2013. “20 Embarrassingly Bad Book Covers for Classic Novels.” Flavorwire. March 20. http://flavorwire.com/378513/20-embarrassingly-bad-book-covers-for-classic-novels/13.

[13] McQuigge, Michelle. 2013. “Don’t mess with Anne! Canadians angry at heroine’s makeover.” Atlantic CTV, February 7, 2013. http://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/don-t-mess-with-anne-canadians-angry-at-heroine-s-makeover-1.1146800.

[14] Taylor. 2015. “4 Ways to Hack Your Book Cover Design (With Science).” Written Word Media. September 30. https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/2015/09/30/4-ways-hack-book-cover-design-science/.

[15] Phillips, Angus. 2007. “How Books Are Positioned in the Market: Reading the Cover.” Essay. In Judging a Book by Its Cover: Fans, Publishers, Designers, and the Marketing of Fiction, 28. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

One Response to Judge A Book By Its Cover? Bad Designs Means More Judging, and For Good Reason

  1. gkabeya says:

    Thank you for this interesting read. At first glance, I agree with the point you raise; that books should be judged based on their covers. They are our first point of contact and should be able to captivate us within seconds to ensure that we make that final purchase (we as “average” readers). Upon further reflection, however, I have no choice but to play devil’s advocate as there are many issues with this line of thinking. You state that “self-published authors, and those authors with small independent publishers, seem to be at the greatest risk for terrible covers” and this is because of their small budgets as well as smaller design teams? Is this not capitalism at its finest and does this not expose the longstanding elitism in publishing? Traditional publishers view themselves as gatekeepers but to what extent do the “norms” they set such as industry standard design principles, exclude the “little man” from entering the industry. Self-publishers with “bad covers” are shunned for not sticking to the industry’s rather formulaic standard. This stunts creativity.
    Look at the dark backgrounds in thrillers such as ‘Gone Girl’, ‘Girl on The Train’ and every subsequent book with the word ‘Girl’ in the title – they have become predictable. Publishing has become predictable and maybe an influx of new design ideas is needed. I therefore have to disagree with the statement that cover design should not be “attempted by just anyone who happens to have Photoshop” because this implies that there is a hierarchy to uphold in the industry.
    In July, I met a self-published author, her covers do not align with iUniverse’s advice but her readership is wide and her sales are high. The content of her books override the cover design. People hear about her books through word of mouth and alternatively it does not matter what the covers look like as long as the content lives up to expectation. Other examples of this are ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky and ‘The Golden Compass’ by Phillip Pullman, known as “bad covers” but still highly successful with film tie-ins. In their cases, the content preceded the covers.
    Which brings me to my next point; because most self-published books are bought online, covers might not hold as much weight as they do when we browse for books in brick and mortar stores. For one, when online we are likely to base our book purchases on the description, reviews, what we have heard about the book and not only on the covers. In brick and mortar stores, covers are really all you see first. In my personal experience, when putting books on my e-Reader, I am less concerned with the cover and more the actual PDF file. I believe that standard design principles are somewhat lost in the online world.
    Lastly, beauty is subjective. Yes, “Taylor, of Written Word Media, lists symmetry, simplicity, colour, and contrast as aesthetic [ally pleasing] factors” but this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Like you I am not a big fan of Donald Jacob’s Irula’s Apprentice or the cover of Impact for Murder but I do think that self-published authors should continue to express themselves in an industry that tells them that they need to fulfill certain conditions to be successful. We definitely need more quantitative data to come to a conclusion and I hope we can continue this discussion further:)

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