The Anatomy of a Book Cover: A Guide for Authors

Knowing and understanding the constituent parts of a book cover will help you make the best marketing decisions when you design or commission your own.
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Don't miss our free live webinar on October 17: What Every Author Should Know About Book Cover Design, sponsored by Reedsy.

by Yvonne @ Reedsy

Knowing and understanding the constituent parts of a book cover will help you make the best marketing decisions when you design or commission your own. Despite the popular saying, the cover of a book is what readers will use to judge the contents of your book. It could make the difference between readers walking (or scrolling) past it — or buying it.

Also remember: you want to design your book cover not just to attract readers, but to attract the right readers. This post that we wrote at Reedsy will take you through the anatomy of a book cover and help you build yours from the ground up so that it’s optimized to sell.

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Cover Imagery

Whether you use an edited stock image, an illustration, or bespoke photography, imagery is your cover’s starting point, and will affect all future decisions — such as text positioning. Since your cover will be displayed as thumbnails in online stores, the clarity and impact of the cover image is crucial.

For example, the cover for Sing Me to Sleep by Angela Morrison is based on a Shutterstock image of two hands, which has been manipulated, edited, and layered with other elements by a designer to have the desired effect. You can read more about this and stock image manipulation in this guide to book cover design. The image of the two hands works for Sing Me to Sleep as it hints at the tentative relationships that the main character Beth makes, and represents the emotion-driven action of the story.

A cover image, if effective, will:

  1. Indicate what genre the author is operating in,
  2. Provide hints as to the contents of the book, and
  3. Compel people to read it.

A picture does indeed tell a thousand words. In this case, it needs to tell (or indeed sell) all the thousands of words in the novel.

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When handling the words on a cover, it’s important to think in terms of visual hierarchy. In other words, how are you going to arrange the title, the author’s name, and if applicable, the subtitle — paying close attention to the relative size of each element?

For example, this cover design for Stephen King’s End of Watch has a minimal but dramatic image with the author’s name much larger than the title. King’s name is the central selling point, so it stands to reason that it’s at the top of the visual hierarchy. Equally, if you are a first-time author, or have a particularly long, impressive, or intriguing title, this will alter how you arrange the text.

Font choice is also extremely important, and should have almost as much consideration as the booktitle itself. A swirly, stylish font might suit a romance novel, but would look out of place on the front of a thriller, or a non-fiction book, for example. There are trends that come and go, but more or less, it just needs to be readable.

[Get hands-on craft and publishing advice at the WD Novel Writing Conference, October 26–28, 2018 in Pasadena, CA!]

The Spine

Often treated as an afterthought, the spine is actually a kind of concentrated book cover. In physical bookstores, there isn’t space for all the books to be stored cover-side forward, and the spine might be all that people see. So, it needs to be just as eye-catching and effective as your book cover.

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Typically, the spine will show the book’s title, the author’s name, and possibly an extension of the front over image, or at least the background style. You can be really inventive with this — some covers have images that wrap right around the spine to the back cover. Whilst it’s only a small bit of the book cover, the spine is definitely not something to forget.

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Back Cover

The back cover is like a second line of marketing — if the front cover hooked them in, now the back cover has to close the sale.

Practically, the back cover of fiction books tend to include a tagline (also known as a logline or the shout line), a blurb, possibly a brief author bio, a barcode and an ISBN number. If that last bit sounds confusing, check out this guide to ISBN for self-publishers. Non-fiction is likely to include all of the above, along with author credentials if the work is professional, maybe an author headshot with the bio, as well as testimonials (which may also appear on the front cover).

Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, for example, has a continuation of the front cover imagery with the matchstick, a catchy tagline at the top, ‘Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive — but not how to live,’ as well as a blurb that teases the reader into opening the book, and a glowing review to top it off. The back of the book is a bit like an elevator pitch. If a reader has got as far as picking up the book, the back cover is there to clinch the deal.

Now Your Turn

How will you combine all these elements to make the perfect book cover? Your book cover is your product packaging — it’s your branding for your book and for you as an author. A professional book cover will make readers take you seriously as an author whilst attracting the right readers to the story that you’ve worked so hard on.

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Free Live Webinar: 

What Every Author Should Know About Book Cover Design

Learn more about book cover design in our free webinar on Wednesday, October 17 at 1 PM EDT (11 AM PDT) with Suanne Laqueur, Patrick Knowles, Ricardo Fayet and WD's Jess Zafarris to learn everything you need to know about book cover design, and get insightful tips on how to get the best covers possible for your books. This webinar is sponsored by Reedsy. Register here.

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