I know your Mom told you not to judge a book by its cover, but frankly that’s absurd. If someone’s browsing for a book to buy, the cover is the first thing they see. If you can’t intrigue a potential reader during the nanosecond he or she devotes to your cover, you’ve lost a sale. Clunk. Done.
So, how can you make sure your cover works? Start by saving this list of suggestions and then try using them. Just remember, all of this is rule of thumb; it ain’t gospel. You might be able to get away with ignoring an item or two, but chances are you’ll have a better cover if you don’t.
1 — Try to find a single idea from your story to portray on the cover, then make it as compelling as possible. Give it the majority of space and importance. Don’t try to drop clues about other things that happen along the way. No extra photos, no floating props, no insider messages. Stick to the main point. (I think the point of Flightless Angels is that some people are seriously stupid.)
You’ve got very little reader consideration time to work with, so your cover has to be powerful enough to instantly convey the genre, the primary focus, and the tone of your story. Is it a mystery? An epic fantasy? A memoir? A textbook? Whatever you’ve written, the cover needs to make it obvious.
2 — Chances are, you won’t ever find the perfect graphic, the one that absolutely nails what you’re trying to get across. But, if you’re intent on using an image of some kind, find one that doesn’t obscure your message. Look for a cover graphic that captures the feel of the story, whether it’s bright, gloomy or something in between.
3 — Don’t overwhelm the cover with colors. Stick with a limited color palette. There are a variety of them online. Take the time to review them if you aren’t sure what colors work best together.
4 — Your reader shouldn’t have to guess at the title. Use large, easy-to-read letters and a font that fits the character of the work for your title. (Never use Comic Sans, as in the first example’s byline.)
5 — If you can’t read the title on a thumbnail, make the title bigger. That thumbnail could be the only way your potential reader ever sees your book.
6 — Avoid using more than two fonts, and don’t put anything in all caps. You want to positively influence your potential reader. All caps means shouting. Do yourself a favor; don’t shout at potential readers.
7 — Using homegrown artwork on your cover is generally a bad idea. Avoid the temptation. Cheap clip art is not an acceptable substitute! Spend a couple bucks on good art. You won’t regret it. The internet will open the door to an endless array of stock photo sellers, and most of them share a great deal of the same material.
8 — Your best bet may be to pay a professional to design your cover. The do-it-yourself variety tend to be pretty obvious, and that’s not the image you want to project.
[Note: the covers shown here are for non-existent works. I made ’em up as examples of bad covers. I can’t help it if some readers might actually want to read whatever might be inside of them, but the thought makes me shudder. –Josh]