A Book by Its Cover

Posted July 1, 2015, under Gee Whillickers!

Books are easier to publish than ever. On-demand printing, the rise of the e-reader and tablet, and basic word processing software in the hands of virtually everyone in the free world have combined to democratize the publishing process. Self-publishing is no longer a mere “vanity project”; careers and livelihoods — some dramatically successful — have been built by finding a readership niche and filling it with words.

Those words aren’t always strung together in the best ways — no one is going to claim E.L. James’ work is Great Literature, but no one can deny the success of that work, either. The key for success at any business or creative endeavor is to find your audience and, in the publishing world, they have never been more accessible.

Oh, and it helps not to have a cover that sucks.


It’s ironic that despite the old admonishment to not “judge a book by its cover,” books absolutely get judged by their covers. Book covers are also their advertising; they are packaging and part of the product, all at once. A poorly done cover tells a prospective reader to expect the same of the contents, without ever picking it up off the shelf.

The only reason we’d buy this book is out of morbid curiosity. If it were free. (Source)

That’s not to say that an excellent cover will mean the same of the story — but the reader’s odds are considered much improved.

Now, we don’t want to punch down at these writers — who are, after all, probably not graphic artists, and just want to see their vision realized on a limited budget. We can sympathize. That doesn’t change the fact that proper book design is vital — starting with the cover.

But it’s not just indie publishers who mess this up. Below are cover designs from major publishers. They are terrible. Let’s take a moment to discuss why these very polished and no doubt expensive covers fail.

We see what they’re going for with the cover series for Cormac McCarthy’s books. We’ve got the old-timey lead type look; they all look like Old West newspapers or flyers, where the aesthetic was to cram in as much information as possible. Well, guess what? That’s old-fashioned for a reason: It’s a bitch to read. The covers are also completely useless in telling us what the books are about, so putting in the effort to read them is a waste of time.

I mean, come on. We wouldn’t buy these books unless we were already really big Cormac McCarthy fans. We’re not sure anyone is a “ten nihilistic books all in a row” level of fan.

This series has a similar problem but from a different angle:

Lovely typography; beautiful, rich colors. But the covers don’t sell the book — unless you have already read or heard of these books, we would have no idea why we should pick them up. The titles are compelling, sure — but the author’s name is the biggest thing on each cover.

Quick, ask around your office. Has anyone heard of Peter F. Hamilton? We’re betting this was the reaction:

Look, we’ve read the series pictured, and while it’s long, it’s really good if you like science fiction. But that doesn’t mean he has the name recognition yet to get away with those covers.

The Beauty of Books

More than any other advertising format, book covers have the capability to do nearly anything. Each cover its its own little masterpiece, after all. Die cuts, embosses, fancy paper, and many other flourishes can be and often are employed to not only make that book stand out from its peers, but also to artistically convey at least a basic concept of the book itself.

Just don’t make one of those flourishes a liberal use of a font made of cats.

So as not to end on a sour note, here are some examples of book covers that leapt out at us while browsing the Book Cover Archive (click to embiggen).

Did you know Rigney Graphics also designs books? We can even help you set it up for print and ebook formats, the way we did for this Vietnam veteran’s memoir (which you can buy here).If you have a book you’d like to publish, give us a call and find out how we can help you make your book look good!

Rigney Graphics is a Pasadena graphic arts company that can help you create an impact with design and marketing solutions for print and web.