Best of the Blog: Designing Ebook Covers

Editor’s note: Here at Book View Cafe, we’re always talking about what works best for ebook covers. Dave Smeds has spent a lot of time considering this issue. This post from last March covers the important points.

leathjacAs soon as people start talking about ebook cover design, someone is bound to say, “First rule: The cover needs to be legible at thumbnail size.”

Therein lies the trap.

It is a fact that most potential customers for any particular ebook will first encounter the cover image as a thumbnail. With that in mind, cover designers have trended toward simple art, toward large type size rendered in straightforward fonts. Cover illustrations have been demoted to lesser importance. Graphic considerations reign.

This is understandable. Covers used to be what sold books. Customers discovered authors and titles by browsing in a bookstore. A cover would catch their eye. They’d pick up the book. Maybe they’d buy it and maybe they wouldn’t, but once it was in their hands, there was a chance. Put a bad cover on a book and no one would pick it up. No sale.

Unfortunately, far too many ebook designers are still thinking like print book designers. The only difference is they have applied the rule of making covers that are legible at thumbnail size. They’re repeating that mantra until they throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In the ebook era, a cover is not likely to be what draws the attention of a customer to a book. Sure, there is a small chance someone will see an image down among the “People Who Liked This Book Also Liked…” banners on Amazon and decide to click on the link. For every customer who finds a book that way, there are two dozen others who have learned about the book before they’ve ever seen the cover image. That discovery comes by word-of-mouth, through reviews, by reading something else by the same author, or by plugging parameters into a search engine.

Covers aren’t what get ebook customers on the hook. They can, however, have an effect on reeling them in.

I have in mind a book I went searching for recently. It was an anthology. I had loved it when I read a library copy back in the Twentieth Century. Having heard that it had become available as an ebook, I decided I would buy it. Ebooks are cheap. I could finally own a copy and re-read it at my leisure.

I went to Amazon and found the Kindle edition. And then I saw the cover. It hurt my eyes.

The mass-market print edition had been beautiful, not just in the sense that it featured a beautiful painting, but in the way it provided a correct impression of what sort of written content filled the pages. But the ebook edition? It was a black-and-white abstract photo with a pastel stripe across it with the words rendered atop that in black block letters. And the jpg was so highly compressed I could see all manner of pixel smear.

When I had logged on to Amazon, I was about as close to a pre-sold customer as the book could have had. But I didn’t want something with a cover that ugly residing on my Kindle. I closed the browser without making a purchase.

The cover had lost a sale.

I’m not posting a jpg here of the cover I’m referring to. I don’t want to embarrass colleagues. I know the book’s editor. I know the acquisitions editor who purchased the ebook rights. I know nearly every one of the many contributors. I know design money was spent on that cover. Let me just say I hope the designer gave them a refund.

To be fair, most designers aren’t that clueless. They don’t create ugly covers. But they do too often create boring covers. They do this because they feel image detail and sophistication will be pointless. No one will see the details at thumbnail size. They choose to make the title and byline huge so that the words can be read even at the smallest sizes, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for the art.

The result is a cover that works at thumbnail, but there is no reward for the customer when they see the sized-up version. The large version turns out to be the same as the thumbnail version, except bigger. Well, screw that. As a reader and customer, I want a cover that pleasantly surprises me. I want one that will make me glad I went in search of the book. I want a cover that will make me proud to own it.

LaDesperada_ThumbnailAn ebook cover does not need to be legible at the smallest sizes. Covers do not sit there in a browser in the midst of an otherwise black screen. All one has to do in order to read the title and author’s name is look next to the image. An ebook cover just has to look interesting at thumbnail. If it generates appeal at that size, the potential customer will click on the “Look Inside” link and view it at large size. If the magnification reveals additional virtues, a feast for the eyes, the person may think, “Oh, yes, I have to have that book.” They will be satisfied after they’ve bought it, too, which increases the likelihood they will buy other titles by that author and that they will recommend the book to others.

It would be unfair of me not to offer an example of what I mean. Since my perspective on my own covers is understandably biased, let me offer a fine example from one of my Book View Café colleagues, Patricia Burroughs. The cover of La Desperada is a prime example of what I mean. Even when the image is viewed at small size, you still know what type of book it is. The title and the revolver reveal it to be a Western. The woman’s attractiveness and her pose tell you it’s also a romance. You won’t be able to make out the review quote or the “award winning” blurb. You might even find it a little hard to read the byline. But you know there is a quote, a blurb, and a byline. They are arranged nicely. At a glance, the design looks professional. This is what matters. You now know whether or not the book is your cup of tea in terms of content, and you have been reassured the standard of quality is high.

But then when you magnify the image, you are rewarded. You see the spots of blush in the upper right and lower left are roses. The quote is now legible, and you see that it’s a good one. You see the lady is untying her corset. Isn’t it better to be able to take credit for discovering these virties by dint of your own effort, rather than having blatant elements shoved in your face?

My advice? Don’t worry too much about design rules. Give the customer something interesting to look at. You owe it to them.

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  1. Pingback: Discover how Amazon changed book cover design and why authors need to pay attention | Lloyd Lofthouse