Cover Design: Why Genre Readers Rule

by Joel Friedlander

It's not that difficult to create a workable cover for your self-published book. On the other hand, there seem to be many, many ways to get it wrong. 

Recently, I talked to an author who is getting ready to publish a business book. He asked me to take a look at some cover designs and I was happy to oblige. 

When I opened the file of samples, however, I was dismayed. Not because the covers weren't good; they were very professional and obviously the work of an experienced designer. Not because they didn't follow the new guidelines that help you format covers which will work for both print and e-book editions. 

No, there was only one problem with all these covers: not one of them looked like a business book. 

What Does a [Fill In the Blank] Book Look Like? 

Some of these designs would have been great on a book of philosophy, while others seemed appropriate for a science textbook. But business? No way. 

To understand what's going on here and to keep yourself from falling into the same trap, you have to put yourself into the mind of the book buyer. Although people buy many general-interest books, buyers are very commonly interested in or searching for a specific kind of book.

For instance, you might enjoy mountain biking, baking cookies and typography. Humans are, after all, pretty diverse characters with lots of interests. 

But when you go looking for a cookbook, you become a cookbook buyer. When you're looking for a book of trail rides you can take with your family, you're a bike adventure book buyer. And if you're searching for a book on how to lay out typographic pages, you're a designer looking for a tool that will help you do your job. 

Each of these people that lives inside you has their own expectations about what a book in each field will look like. These expectations are built up over a lifetime of looking at, reading, and buying books on a specific subject. 

Why Genre Buyers Rule 

When you go shopping, you turn from a creature with a magnificent diversity of interests into a straight-out genre buyer. A genre buyer knows the books within the genre, probably owns a number of them, and has expectations about what a book will look like. 

For instance, books about places to go bicycling on trails almost always have photos of the area that's covered in the book right on the cover. Usually there will be a cyclist enjoying the countryside on a beautiful day (it never rains on these books!). A book of trail rides suitable for families will have - you guessed it - a family on bicycles on the cover. 

The cover also will describe in the title or subtitle exactly what geographic region, what skill level, or what kinds of riders the book is good for. 

People who buy books in this genre are well aware of these details, although they may never have thought about them. They all add up to expectation, and if you defeat that expectation, you may subtly move your book out of consideration by the buyer.

After all, if your book doesn't look like what they are searching for, it's very easy to go right past it to the ones that do look the way they expect them to. 

More Genre Expectations - Do You Know Yours? 

One of the best exercises you can do in preparing to create a cover yourself, or partner with a designer on a cover, is to spend time in a bookstore. Find the section where your book would be displayed and start looking at the books. Look at as many as you can stand. You'll start to notice the things they have in common. 

The cover commonalities change radically from one genre to another:

  • Historical novels almost always have full-cover illustrations, often featuring a young woman in period costume against a dramatic or beautiful background landscape.

  • Thrillers will have emphatic typography, strong images, primary colors and lots of action implied or pictured on the cover.

  • Biographies will almost always have an image of the subject on the cover.

  • Business books have bold typography, often an image of the author if he or she is notable in the field, and usually lots of blurbs from other people in the field. This type of authority is much more important for business books.

  • General nonfiction books typically have much more copy on the covers than fiction books.

  • How-to books have the most copy of all on the covers, sometimes including multiple subtitles, taglines, or even bullet lists to show the scope of the coverage in the book.

  • Books of philosophy often have plain covers or geometric abstractions or, in some cases, quiet landscapes that invite introspection.

The Next Step 

There's really no mystery to this exercise. Spend time looking at other books that are similar to yours. Ask yourself what makes them effective. What do they have in common? You will come away with lots of ideas to try out with your own book. 

Just remember that your buyers will be doing the same thing, whether it's in a bookstore or browsing online. Start off on the right foot by making sure your book is one they will recognize.

Joel Friedlander is the proprietor of Marin Bookworks in San Rafael, California, a publishing services company where he’s helped launch many self-published authors. He blogs about book design, writing and self-publishing at Joel is also the author of the newly-published A Self-Publisher’s Companion: Expert Advice for Authors Who Want to Self-Publish.

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