Readers Will Judge Your Book By Its Cover

Nat RussoPublishing 20 Comments

Admit it. You’ve judged a book by its cover in the past. No, you may not have put the book down and refused to buy it, but I’m willing to bet you picked one up and read the back because the cover caught your attention.

Am I wrong?

A bad cover may not hurt your sales, but a good cover will improve them. Human beings are visual creatures, and as writers/publishers we need to take advantage of this whenever possible. So how do we make sure we’re producing the best possible cover?


This can’t be overstated. Every genre will have its own set of expectations on what a “good” cover looks like. Even within genres those expectations may vary by a huge margin. For example, in my genre (Fantasy), you see covers ranging from the abstract/conceptual to covers that depict a scene from the book. I’ve always gravitated toward the latter as a fantasy reader, so I decided early on that this was the type of cover I wanted for my own book.
Just keep in mind that if your audience is looking for a cloaked figure with a dagger, and you give them Fabio with a beautiful, scantily-clad woman in his arms, you’re probably going to alienate a large part of your core audience. And vice-versa for you romance writers who are playing around with the idea of putting nothing more than a king’s crown on your cover.


Your primary goal, as an independent author at this stage of the publication process, should be to produce an end product that is virtually indistinguishable from the big publishing houses. If a reader can hold your book in one hand, and a book published by Simon and Schuster in the other, and see the difference immediately, you have failed. Remember, you’re trying to remove the obstacles between your reader and the checkout stand (virtual or otherwise). The cover is the first indication of the quality within, whether you abhor that statement or not. Look, I’m not telling you how the buying public should behave. I’m telling you how they do behave. And if your cover smacks of unprofessional quality, don’t be surprised when the reader buys the Simon and Schuster book instead.
For now, start studying professional-quality covers in your genre and see how the big boys do it. I’m not suggesting we start producing copy-cat cliche covers. But I am suggesting that we have a duty to produce covers that meet or exceed the quality of the big publishing houses. We owe this to our readers. We owe it to our own sense of professionalism.


This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend a king’s ransom on a cover. But unless you’re a professional cover designer with some mad artistic ability, you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re producing professional quality covers by throwing together some composite stock images. Keep in mind that artistic ability and the ability to design a book cover are not the same skill set. You may know how to draw a great logo, or create scenes worthy of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but unless you know something about composition in the context of a book cover, the art may work against rather than for you.

In the process of producing the cover for Necromancer Awakening, I discovered a wonderful service called Elance. This is a web-based service that connects freelancers with hiring managers. All you have to do is create a free account and post a job announcement. Voila! You’re a hiring manager! You set the date range on how long you’ll accept “proposals”, and then you sit back and watch the bidding war begin. You can state a price range on what you’re willing to pay for the work so that artists don’t waste their time on a bid that has no chance from the get go. But since this was my first attempt at hiring a professional artist, I had no idea what a reasonable price would be, so I didn’t supply a price range. I wanted to see what people would bid, given the detailed description I offered in the job announcement. The bids came back from as low as $50 to as high as $2000.

And I noticed something interesting.

The $2000 artists were no qualitatively better than the $50 artists. Yes, some outliers on both ends of the spectrum demonstrated their cost-to-ability ratio, but this was the exception and not the rule. Ultimately I settled on a wonderful artist who charged me $200 for the work, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome or the experience of working with her. For that price I received front, back, and spine images, and she allowed me as many revisions as I wished prior to final approval.

An additional word about Elance: It’s written in their terms of service that as soon as you approve the work and pay the artist, all intellectual property rights to the work are transferred to you.


Elance makes this easy. When an artist submits a proposal, they include a link to their portfolio, some of which are managed by Elance, and others link to external sites that host their images. Whether using Elance or not, make sure the artist you’re considering has a style that speaks to you. Remember, if the cover doesn’t conjure an emotion in you, then how do you expect it to do so in a member of your core audience? Also—and I can’t stress this enough—make sure the artist you’re considering has experience designing a cover. If you know a lot about cover design and feel as if you can mentor a cover design “newbie” through the process, then go for it. Only you know if you’re capable of doing that. But if you don’t have the knowledge and experience to do so, you’ll be far better off hiring an artist who does.


Just because you’re not a professional cover designer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have some idea of what you want to see on your cover. Your artist isn’t a mind reader. You need to do your homework up front and be prepared to hit the ground running when you hire an artist who catches your eye. While sorting through job proposals, I developed something called a “design brief”, which is nothing more than a document I can hand off to the artist to answer basic questions and give them general guidance. The design brief included the following bits of information (in order):
  1. Title of Book
  2. Subtitle
  3. Description (the entire back cover copy)
  4. Short description of the emotions I wish to invoke in the reader/viewer
  5. Specifications (a general list of “must haves”. e.g. “Title must be legible as thumbnail.” “Image must look good in gray scale”, etc.)
  6. Entire Elance job description.
A note about #6: I spent a couple of hours hand-crafting the job description before I posted it. It was a painfully detailed description of the scene I wanted illustrated. I did this because, as I mentioned above, I had no idea what the “going price” was for this kind of work. I wanted the potential job candidates to have as much information up front as possible, so that I’d have no nasty surprises after hiring someone (I didn’t want to hear “Whoa! I had no idea you wanted THAT much! I need to either drop out or ask you for more money.”) Had I not written such a detailed Elance job description, then I would have included that painfully detailed description in the #6 slot above. I strongly recommend you do the work up front, however, to avoid any surprises down the road.
Above all else, make sure you’re happy with the cover before you give final approval. Your target audience is you. If you don’t like your cover, neither will your target audience!
Happy cover designing!

[UPDATE 5/10/2014] I’m happier than ever with my decision to hire a professional to develop my cover. Though there were naysayers when my cover was first revealed (primarily by other cover designers), the cover I went with for Necromancer Awakening is routinely complimented by critics. Necromancer Awakening is now an Amazon bestseller, and I’d like to think the cover had something to do with that. 

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 20

  1. Having done artwork freelancing before, I must strongly agree with the need for a very detailed design brief. A lot of very experienced freelancers will skip right over vague or simple requests. It’s common that when people don’t know what they want, what you’ll give them isn’t going to be what they want. It results in a lot of wasted time due to rejections and redrafts. Clients who can’t express their views quickly and accurately are often a burden, and freelancers are looking for the path of least resistance to paying their rent.

    Repeatedly running into “That, but cooler.” is why I don’t do artwork freelancing anymore. I can’t find the “make cooler” button. The artist can chase back with 20 questions for the definition of cool, but that time would be better spent in an easier paycheck. For example, one that comes from just filling in a checklist that a good design brief would provide. Being able to drop in art and polish it without investing time in interpretation reduces the overall burden of the project, and that keeps the quote down.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experience in this, Mike. It’s very interesting to hear this from the artist’s perspective!

      In my day job (software engineering), I simply cannot work without a well-defined set of requirements. Let me re-state that: I cannot deliver a product that the customer will be satisfied with without a solid set of requirements going into the project.

      I think many indie authors feel that working without a publisher excuses them from some of the professional duties of their chosen craft. This is unfortunate, because it ultimately reflects on us all.

  2. My personal experience with Fifty Shades of Gray ties into what you were saying in the introduction: I distinctly remember walking a bookshop and picking it, reading it, then putting it back down. Then, the next time, I walked into a book shop, picked it up, read the back, and put it back down, thinking, “Haven’t I done this before?” Third or forth time around I was consciously aware of the impulse, and I had seen it at least several times before I actively reminded myself, “YOU’VE PICKED UP THAT BOOK BEFORE. STOP IT.” It was definitely the cover that made me keep grabbing it.

    (If you’re wondering, what made me put it down was its contemporary non-magical setting, and I do not cotton to that!)

    1. You’ve highlighted the power of a good cover! It can practically COMPEL a person to pick it up. After that, the back cover copy and first few pages do the rest of the heavy lifting.

  3. I self-published my first book Help Me Learn Music for children with Xlibris. They did a beautiful cover, back and spine for a package including hard cover, paper back and ebook. Also advertised in Amazon along with many others such as Book Depository etc. The cover matters a lot. You go for the looks first- even with people.

    1. Don’t worry, JM, it could be a lot worse. You could be one of the masses who takes my #HorribleWriteTip tweets seriously 🙂

  4. I would prefer to see an article about How to Design a Cover. This list was the useful part of your article.

    “must haves”. e.g. “Title must be legible as thumbnail.” “Image must look good in gray scale”, etc
    This gave me some actual information I could use in evaluating my design and considering changes.

    I have been to school for Desktop Publishing/Graphics. I have done ads, newsletters etc. It is a point of pride to me that I should not have to hire others to do my own designing. I have designed my own cover and will do all my interior formatting.

    I have seen way too many confidence-destroying blogs that try to convince writers that “you are not good enough to do this & this” and so you should spend hundreds of dollars to hire other people to do it. How about some real advice on How to Do It Correctly?

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      Laura, I truly see where you’re coming from, but I have good reason to disagree. I can point to something you said in your comment that highlights this. Two somethings, actually. Please correct me if I’m reading this the wrong way:

      1. “I would prefer to see an article about How to Design a Cover.”
      2. “I have been to school for Desktop Publishing/Graphics. I have done ads, newsletters etc. It is a point of pride to me that I should not have to hire others to do my own designing.”

      This highlights the very point I’m trying to make. Book Cover Design is a special form of art that you are not guaranteed to be an expert on simply because you’ve studied graphic design. It requires, as Liam Neeson’s character so eloquently stated, “a particular set of skills.” I strongly recommend AGAINST acquiring these skills on a cover you intend to sell. In my mind, that’s akin to a writer publishing a first draft before his/her skills are honed. It won’t end well, and the public will call you on it.

      Simply stated, I’m not going to write an article on *how* to create a book cover design, because I’m not a book cover design expert. And doing so would be leading my audience down the wrong path. They should not be designing their own covers until they acquire the skills to do so. As I am not a book cover design expert, I’m not the one they should turn to for instruction in those skills.

    2. Nat, but I have to disagree with you on this one. I have seen some really crappy covers by professional artists, and have seen some really beautiful covers by novices. You’re right on 1 point that people are visual and will judge a book by it’s cover. Let’s be honest here, just because you are not a designer shouldn’t dissuade anyone from doing it themselves. I’ve learned from experience that it takes time to have that kind of skill, and if people would follow the advice of those that create their own covers, taking their time, and do about 5 of them they should be able to come up with something that looks almost professional. Another point is, some people can’t afford that kind of money to pay an artist. There are ways around that if a person doesn’t feel comfortable with graphic design, they just need to do their research. There are plenty of websites that can provide this information on how to have the cover done practically for free.

    3. Post

      I think the most important step, if a writer is determined to create their own cover, is to share their creation with as many objective third parties as possible. We all have access to people who can be brutally honest. And brutal honesty is what we need when it comes to judging our creations, because we’re too close to them to do so ourselves.

  5. “Readers Will Judge Your Book By Its Cover” Very important think to keep in a mind as writer/publisher .
    I remember in childhood in school days how we maintain the book and as well as book cover because the examiner always give as extra marks for neat and clean book,handwriting,book-cover and book conditions.
    Does the cover can be Informative??

    1. Post

      I would say it definitely can (and perhaps *should*) be informative, depending on your genre. If I were looking for a non-fiction book, for example, I would gravitate toward covers that pulled me in based on what I was going to learn from the book.

  6. Pingback: Platform Building Primer - A Writer's Journey

    1. Post

      Thanks so much, Melissa. I’ve *always* gravitated toward fantasy novels whose covers depict a scene from the story. Always. That’s why those are the covers I tend to commission. I might take a different approach in another genre, but for fantasy, I want to see a scene from the book. 🙂

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