Guidelines for a Good Book Cover

The Dictionary of Film Quotations cover

Figuring out what art to put on a book’s cover is a process fraught with more perils than those faced by Jason Bourne in one of Robert Ludlum’s books.

But as random as the cover creation process may seem, there are some basic guidelines that you cannot ignore.

1. Your art choice must work in a very small space. Most commercial books are 6 x 9 inches. When you take out the spaced needed for the title, subtitle, and author’s name, that doesn’t leave you a whole lot of acreage. You’ll note that designers who use fine art work on a front cover most often use a detail from a painting, not the whole piece. There’s a reason for that.

2. Understand your book’s target market. Who will read your book? What do they expect to see on a book cover? If they like mystery novels, is there some representation of blood? If they like biographies, do you have a picture of your book’s subject on the cover? If they like novels set in Italy, how do you convey that without words?

3. Keep it clean and simple. Unnecessary verbiage and imagery on a cover kills its potential impact.

4. Pay close attention to your book’s spine. Be sure your font and color choices can be clearly seen from ten feet away. In a bookstore, potential readers will see your book’s spine before its cover.

5. Blurbs or back cover copy? This is an endless debate in the book publishing world—whether to put blurbs on a back cover or information about the book’s content.

My advice is this: if you have a very short, extra-special blurb by someone well-known in the field covered by your book, see if you can find a way to put it on the front. That way, when your cover is seen online, the blurb will be right in your reader’s face.

As for the back cover, personally, I like to know what a book is about, not what someone else thought about it. But you may be attracted by good blurbs. Bottom line: author’s choice.

I put an example of a cover that obeys these guidelines at the top of this post, The Dictionary of Film Quotations compiled by Melinda Corey and George Ochoa. Here’s why this cover works.

It uses only a portion of a Clark Gable image (arguably one of the best-known faces among film buffs) in the top right corner. The image is slightly fuzzy so it does not dominate the title.

The title is large, in white against a darker background. This is maximum contrast for maximum visibility.

The designer put enlarged quotation marks in red in the top left and bottom right of the title and subtitle, framing the text and emphasizing the utility of this book.

You’ll have to take my word for the spine and back cover, both of which are printed in white on a black background, again for readability. There are no blurbs on the back but there are four short paragraphs explaining what the book contains. The language of the back cover copy is direct, no nonsense, cut-to-the-chase, suitable for a reference book.

Since I’m a film buff, and have a tendency to collect good quotes for different occasions, I represent this book’s potential market. Does the cover do its job? I bought it, didn’t I?

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.