The book is written. THE END is typed with relish. And when this web’s been spun, an author dreams of book covers. Writers want their cover to do justice to their story. A book publisher wants the cover to convey the content to a target audience. Both want great book covers that sell the most books.

Avoid snakes

“Can we put a cat on the cover?” is a question every mystery editor has been asked in cover concept meetings. Mentioning there’s no cat in this plot is pointless since what would follow is inevitable: “Can the author put in a cat?” The good news is most mystery writers, like mystery readers, like cats, especially if the critters make their royalty statement look better.

Not all animals are equal. A paperback publisher I worked for did not allow snakes on any of our book covers. Also, no depictions of drugs, a prohibition I liked. The obligatory, unaesthetic, and unimaginative razor blade and chopped up lines of cocaine signaling a drug plot could be avoided. Back to mystery fundamentals: body parts sticking out from unfamiliar places and, for the cozies, gravestones. Also for loyal devotees of that pleasingly trustworthy genre, the creative use of skulls has classic appeal.

Holiday Homicide, Dell 1940

Featuring artwork on a book cover must be done with care. What appeals to some will not appeal to others, or may even repel them (like snakes). Or what is pictured might represent something altogether different to someone else.

Great wealth

At the turn of the digital revolution, I worked at an Internet publishing company. Our editorial program included republishing and making widely available many, many authors’ titles from their out-of-print backlists. That meant a lot of books in production … and lots of covers. Much of that work was done in Shanghai, and many covers were generated there too. Some were great. Some exhibited a cultural gap. One example: As coins signify prosperity and wealth in China, it makes perfect sense to place upon a non-fiction multi-generational saga of one of America’s wealthiest dynastic families a ….huge pile of pennies! That cover was reworked.

A marketing whiz and famous maniac I worked for looked to Proctor & Gamble for inspiration when searching for covers that sell books. She said the giant consumer goods corporation spent millions of dollars on research to produce the most eye-catching colors and design, all with the goal of someone choosing their product from the shelf. A shiny object attracts the magpie. Naturally, said my boss, we should learn the business lesson – basically, help some of our non-fiction covers sell books by making them look more like Tide boxes. On a bodyfat diet book I edited, we riffed on the detergent box formula using blue and green swirls. That book sold pretty well.

Short and sweet

Having bright swirls on your cover is a definite plus in today’s book publishing universe, where more often than not, prospective readers will see your book cover online, and it will be thumbnail size. Does your exquisite dream book cover, featuring a gorgeous Italianate garden, look just as good (or even recognizable) if it’s a half inch tall, with lettering of the book title and author written on it? That’s when you realize that ALL TYPE looks pretty good when miniaturized (but a writer never truly lets go of their dreams, so of course this is when they then think maybe that garden image could be done in half-tones on the hardcover end papers). Since every single book cover can’t have orange swirls, prioritize bright colors and readable type anyway. If there’s an image, give thought to how it looks small.


Of course you would never title your book by choosing how that title looks on a cover but your publishing strategy might factor in that less words look better. Though some of their books have longer titles, bestselling authors like Jonathan Kellerman (Breakdown, Motive, Gone) and Lisa Jackson (Ominous, Sinister, Obsession) sure like those one-word titles. Lately some laconic authors have been expanding to two words.

Lee Child Personal Lee Child PERSUADER Lee Child MAKE ME Lee Child THE HARD WAY

(They have a long way to go before they catch up to Joyce Carol Oates’ Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is my Heart.) But of course don’t choose your title because of how it looks on the cover. Still, those covers with big type and short titles do look pretty darn good, even one inch tall.

Embark on your own tour through a bookstore or an online retailer, checking out the covers of your favorite authors. What catches your eye? Post a picture and discuss on our Facebook page.