About 12 years ago, publishers would really focus on a book’s spine. It sounds strange today, I know, but we would spend hours taking spine cutouts to a local bookstore and trying them out within a category (while trying not get caught). We could bring a dozen or more spine strips to a bookstore, stand in front of a category (let’s pick parenting) and hold up spine after spine after spine to see what popped among the competition.

  • Does the red spine with the white lettering stand out?
  • How about a bright blue?
  • All Caps?
  • Bold or no Bold on that title?
  • Neon green (yes—this really pops!)


Don’t get me wrong, the cover of a book has always been important. Publishers always wanted something that would “pop,” grab a reader’s attention, and “leap” off the shelf.

It’s just that most books (for years!) were never displayed face out in a store. Sure, there were those on tables or end caps, but the true “war” that we were trying to win was the spine. What was the most visible, readable spine that jumped out at consumer?

Now, having a spine with a title, author last name, and publisher logo is important to get a book considered for brick and mortar retail, but the focus has fully shifted back.

What is the most visible, readable, front cover thumbnail that will “jump” off a screen?

Your book cover is likely a thumbnail on a screen that a reader is looking at. Yours could be in a list, table, grid, or even just on your own listing page.

We certainly strongly recommend working with a professional cover designer and heeding his or her advice. But don’t forget, when you take off your author hat and put on your publisher hat, you will be making marketing, packaging, pricing, and design decisions.

With that in mind, here are some important tips when considering your cover design:

Font: Is it readable? Keep in mind that if a reader is just seeing the thumbnail and not the title in a listing, you want it to be readable. No, this does not mean a Times New Roman/boring font is required. However, you might want to rethink the super-scripty, upside down swirly font that would take a reader minutes instead of seconds to decipher.


Color: Taking my spine example, it’s important to know your category. For example, if category X consists primarily of covers with themes of red, blue, yellow, and/or white, a pop of color—neon, purple, orange—may make some sense. In a sea of books with a similar color palette, something different could really make your cover standout.


Language: It’s a ton of fun to develop quirky titles, funky subtitles, and unique ways to title a book. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things to do with authors. Here is the thing to keep in mind: Fun, funky, quirky, and unique are fantastic. However, you can’t leave it at that. Something on the cover needs to explain what the book is. For nonfiction, if you have a quirky title, make sure your subtitle explains exactly what the book is. If the title is pretty straightforward, have some fun with that subtitle. A reader doesn’t have the time to work through what the book is if it’s not clear in either the title or the subtitle. Rather, they’ve likely said, “huh?” and moved down to the next book in the list.


Bursts and Violators Can Work: Whether it’s an award, a bestseller status, or a really cool endorsement, a break in design to “pop” something off a cover frequently works and helps with that “leap off the page” moment you’re looking for.


Imagery: Be smart about the imagery you’re using on the cover. Make sure it looks professional, clean and suits your category. This is not the time to be really outside the box.  While you definitely want your cover to connect and be visible, make sure it’s for the right reason. Whatever imagery you use on the cover should be professional, relevant, printable, and in-line with category (see below).


Bend the Rules. Don’t Break Them: Don’t forget the golden rule of advertising, branding, and marketing…We teach people what to expect with a category… That means you can play with the package (purple flowers on my tissue box? Great!) but you can’t break the rules entirely (triangle tissues? No thank you). The same is true in books. If a category is overwhelmingly all type—play with color, play with font, play with simple imagery. In fact, don’t be afraid to add some imagery. But don’t break the rule to the point that the reader sees your book cover and it’s SO out of category that they skip right by it because they literally don’t make the connection.


Actually, we recommend approaching book cover concept design a lot like our book spine research a decade or more ago. Go to your category online and print out several pages in color. See what the colors, fonts, imageries, themes are (they do exist, I promise) and then work with your designer to design your book to compete.

You only have a few seconds before the reader scrolls right by!

Bethany Brown

Bethany Brown is the President of The Cadence Group, a design, editorial, marketing and book coaching provider to the publishing industry. With a background in traditional publishing by way of Adams Media and Sourcebooks and close to a decade of working directly with authors and small presses, Bethany understands the challenges (and benefits!) facing self-publishers and indie presses today.  She lives just outside of Chicago with her husband Steve and her dog Popeye.

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