The popular idiom is “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but despite how true it might be in an idealistic sense, the reality of the book industry is that the vast majority of readers do indeed use the cover of a book as a deciding factor in not only whether or not they should buy the book, but if they will enjoy it as well.
With millions of books for readers to choose from, the first “sales pitch” is the cover. If it is not striking enough to draw attention, it will be passed over for something more interesting on either side.
If the text is not clear enough from a distance, or when the image is a thumbnail online, then a great sounding title will be lost on a potential customer. If the font is sloppy, unappealing, illegible, or just unprofessional (such as the overly-used, and some would say abused, Comic Sans or Papyrus fonts), it will immediately turn off the reader.
The cover is not only a billboard for the book, but, in a sense, the first page of the story, because it is here that the book can communicate a little of the style and mood of the tale inside. A dark cover, with lots of shadow, can suggest a horror, while a bright white cover with clouds could suggest a motivational textbook. This is important because it speaks to the emotions of the reader, engaging them on a deeper level, and thus potentially not only securing a book sale, but setting the stage for whether or not they will like the book in the first place.
A cover can also create preconceptions in a reader’s mind about what the characters or the setting look like. It is debatable whether or not this is a good thing, as the cover design may not match the author or reader’s ideas, but it could act as a visual aid where necessary. Romance and erotica obviously make good use of this fact with appealing models on the front cover, enticing readers as much as they might entice each other as characters in the story.
A well-designed cover is the first assurance the reader has that the book is of a high quality, both in content and delivery. The cover can scare away a customer or lure them in. Bad covers, with pixelated images, watermarks clearly visible, text badly formatted or aligned, and so forth, suggest to the reader that the interior of the book will be equally sloppy.
When a cover design is poorly produced it can also create preconceptions in the mind of the reader, setting them in “critical” mode as opposed to “enjoyment” mode. With their attention already drawn to errors and sloppiness, they will more easily spot mistakes in the text, or might even go looking for them. They are also likely to be less forgiving of typos than they would of what appears to be a more professional work.
The importance of cover design has prompted many big publishers to come up with different covers for different markets, catering to the unique culture of each region. Design principles are not the same the whole world over, leading to, for example, simpler designs on many UK covers, with more frequent use of negative space, and more detailed designs on US covers that cram in more imagery, potentially speaking to different cultural perceptions of “value for money.”
Titles on covers can also change, thanks to different meanings of words in different countries. A classic example is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US, since “philosopher” does not have the same connotations with magic there as it does in the UK. The artwork also changed to help reinforce the magical themes of the book, and the font itself became much more mystical, ending up being the form that was employed for the movies as well.
Great cover designs therefore need to draw the reader’s attention, engage them on an emotional level, suggest the tone and style of the work, and showcase the quality of the book itself, all the while taking into consideration the potential cultural expectations of the reader. This is a monumental task, without doubt, but one that could be a deciding factor in making a book a best-seller.