The 3 most common mistakes on book covers

I know it sounds harsh, but there are a few mistakes on book covers that drive me up the wall. I adore book covers and never get tired of admiring them (and reaching out to feel the paper…) in bookstores, but every once in a while, I see a cover gone wrong.

So today let’s also talk about the ways book cover design can go awry, because I think we always have to edit out the bad before we can get to the good. (Can I get an amen from every writer who’s ever edited that terrible first draft?)

common mistakes on book covers

It’s a cold, hard truth of publishing that people judge a book by its cover. This is engraved on a tablet on a mountaintop somewhere in midtown Manhattan, where the other strictures of publishing are recorded, like, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s advance, and Thou shalt not order anything but a salad at an editor lunch, unless the other person does first, or you’re just really, really hungry and don’t care anymore. But yes, the cover is the first thing a reader will see of your work; it’s how they’ll judge your book; and it’s your most important marketing tool.

Think of a book cover like the package of any other item (and by “package” I mean the overall look or style of a product, not its removable wrapping). A MacBook Pro might have a super-fast processor and long battery life, but it’s the elegant design that draws us in. A BMW might have great horsepower and a fuel-efficient engine, but the sleek lines are what catches your eye on the road. In a crowded marketplace, looks matter.

Yet, there are a lot of rough book covers out there. I see them most often in the self-published world, but I’ve also seen a few clunkers come from the art departments of top publishers. And I see the same mistakes, over and over. Just like with author websites and blogs (which need to have these 7 features to make a strong impression), I can usually tell right away whether a book cover was professionally designed.

So here are the 3 most common mistakes that plague book covers, and what you can do about them:

1. Basic Fonts

This is an easy one to spot. The reality is that professional book designers rarely, if ever, use common typefaces like the ones found in Microsoft Word. Instead, book designers have a huge archive of premium fonts—some of which they downloaded for free, some of which they bought directly from foundries, and some of which were commissioned specifically for a book. (This is more common now that hand-lettered fonts are so trendy.)

So when a book cover has the title in Comic Sans and the author’s name in Helvetica? It immediately looks amateur-ish. Even though the average book buyer wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly what in the design makes it look unprofessional, they still register it. And the last thing you want is an amateur-ish cover on the book you worked so hard on.

The Fix:

Start by gathering 5 book covers that you love and want to emulate. What makes them great? What tone is the font conveying? If you don’t know what typefaces are used, try downloading a plugin like Fount so you can identify similar fonts online and start building a list of fonts you love. From there, you can search free sites like Google FontsDa Font, and Font Space to find similar fonts.

If you can’t find exactly what you want, search for typefaces you have to buy, or talk to an illustrator or typeface designer about creating a custom look. (Just make sure you purchase a commercial license, so you can use it on your cover, author website, or blog.) You can usually find stunning fonts in the $20-$50 range, and this is one of the best investments you can make in your book. A bold, eye-catching font can make the difference between a reader scrolling past your book or clicking through to learn more.

2. Too-Tight Margins

This is another mistake that immediately sends the bells dinging in my head. It’s a simple one: professional book covers always have a wide margin between the text and the edge of the cover. This is done for both practical and aesthetic purposes. If the text is too close to the edge, it can be accidentally cut when the cover is printed and trimmed. And text that is near an edge pulls the eye away from the center of the cover, and eliminates the white space that makes a composition look balanced.

The Fix:

Luckily, this is an easy fix. You’ll want to start by looking at a few professionally designed book covers that you like and noting the layout of the text on the page. Then make sure your cover has similar margins all the way around, on both the front and back cover. If this means you have to cut text, do it. Readers won’t pick up your book from a display if the front cover looks poorly composed, and they’re not likely to open the book if the back cover is crammed with text. If you ever hear William Zinsser’s voice telling you “simplify, simplify” as you write, then I hope you’ll hear me whispering “space, space” as you work on your book cover.

3. Low-Quality Images:

It seems like a given that any image used on a book cover should be of professional quality, but I still see so many rough images on book covers. I see it most often on self-published memoirs, when authors are dead-set on using an old family photo as the cover image. If your book is only meant to be a keepsake for your family and future generations, then this is a fabulous idea. But if you want to appeal to a wider audience, one which won’t have the same attachment to that old photo of Uncle Jim, then it’s critically important to choose a professional, genre-appropriate image for your book.

The Fix:

Again, it’s all about identifying what works on other covers, then recreating that look. Pull together a collection of covers from other successful books in your genre and notice the common themes and tropes. Your image should immediately tell the reader what genre your book falls into, without being too cliché.

For instance, a romance might have an image of a couple, while a diet book might have a photo of the fit-and-toned author. Once you have a few ideas in mind, start searching stock photo sites for the right image—I know many professional book designers who use sites like Big Stock Photo, 123RF, or IStockPhoto. Many stock sites have free images, but if you fall in love with a certain image that works in every way for your book, then don’t let the price tag dissuade you. A powerful image on your book cover can make the difference between a click on the “Buy” button or a click on the “Back” button.

Are there any other things on book covers that drive you up the wall? I’d love to hear what your pet peeves are, and we can all kvetch together!

What I’m Reading This Week:

Gorilla Marketing (Seth Godin): “Today, because noise is everywhere, we’re all surrounded by a screaming horde, an open-outcry marketplace of ideas where the race to be heard appears to be the only race that matters. And so subtlety flies out the window, along with a desire to engage for the long haul. Just a troop of gorillas, all arguing over the last remaining banana. It turns out that there’s a useful response… to ignore them. To stick to the work, to the smallest possible audience, to building something worth talking about. What actually works in a noisy environment isn’t more noise—it’s the challenging work of earning the benefit of people telling people. We don’t need more hustle. We need more care and generosity.”

Thinking About Writing for a Content Mill? Proceed With Caution (Danielle Corcione on The Write Life): Remember, not all writing experience will make you a better writer, and some writing experiences might make you a grumpier person.

10 Handy Conversation Starters for Introverted Writers (Lisa Rowan on The Write Life): “Anyone who thrives in the solitary act of writing probably has some difficulty networking. Once you finally come out of your focus tunnel for air, it can be hard to articulate what you’re working on and what it means for your overall career. It’s even worse if you’re a full-time something-elser and a freelance writer on the side. Not only are you hustling nearly nonstop; you also probably lack the time to get to writing-related events in your community. When you finally do make it to a reading or a happy hour, the pressure makes you clam up — and maybe use your phone as a crutch to avoid conversation altogether.”

6 Summer Tips for Unwinding, Recharging, and Taking Care of Yourself (Henrik Edberg, The Positivity Blog): The first tip in this piece is “Just watch the clouds go by.” That sounds impossible and amazing, and I think we should all fight for some do-nothing time this summer, even if it’s just an afternoon on the weekend! 

What We’re Eating This Week:

I’m up in NYC for most of this week, which means editor and author lunches every day and not a drop of cooking. But for the sake of posterity, here is a true and accurate accounting of what I ate:

Monday: I’m home on Monday, so we cook the Fork-and-Knife Burgers from SkinnyTaste: Fast and Slow that we were supposed to make last Friday. And which we didn’t make, because instead we went out for gigantic, double-decker burgers at FlatTop. Because, YOLO?

Tuesday: Rice and beans and sautéed Brazilian-style beef and salad at my Yaya’s!

Wednesday: I take my dad out to dinner for Father’s Day, and we end up at a little Italian spot in Montclair.

Thursday: A sad-sack dinner at my desk or on the train, or maybe just 3 KIND bars because I hate the Amtrak dining car and it hates me back.

Friday: Our friends Anjali and Christophe are hosting us for dinner at their place, and I’m a little too excited to eat homemade food and not have to cook it. I live a life of luxury.


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