You may have heard before that the most important job of a book cover is to get the reader’s attention, right? It must be compelling enough to get the reader to PICK IT UP. Like a brownie, a cute kitten, or a fifty-dollar bill. Then, hopefully, the reader is so intrigued by the rest of the content, he or she just can’t let it go and has to buy it.
For book covers, website pages and advertisements (as well as for basketball violations and dropped food) the 3-Second Rule applies. In this case, it means that you really have only three seconds to grab the attention of your audience. It suggests that we all have absurdly short attention spans, but we also value our time. If we don’t get an immediate read from something that ignites our personal brain cells, we move on.
Make Your 3 Seconds BIG
So how do you maximize your three seconds to get into the hands of your reader? There are many elements of a successful book cover, and one I am learning about now: clarity. But what does that mean? That my images are clear? My text is sharp? My book description is short, strong and to the point?And what could I possibly do to bring even more clarity?
Let’s start with the essentials:
Information is key. A book cover must include the basic information to identify it, categorize it, and make it findable. These are the title, author’s name, publisher name and logo. There should also be an EAN barcode that displays your 13-digit ISBN, and the shelving category, such as mystery, thriller, fantasy, non-fiction, or my favorite, historical fiction, so the librarians and bookstore owners know where to put your book. Speaking of the back cover, you might spend almost as much time perfecting your back-cover description as you did writing the book, because if your cover design is the lure, the back-cover copy is the hook. Make it sharp!
Appearance. What is the most compelling image you can use that not only identifies the subject matter, but also provides some sort of ‘eye candy’? This is the lure, that shiny thing that gets the fish to bite. It doesn’t have to be an image, it may also be words, but it has to grab the reader. Not only that, but it has to have the same effect when you shrink it down to thumbnail size that will appear in an online search—the image still clear and identifiable, the text still easy to read.
Your Book vs. Competitors
Competitiveness. Your book needs to stand out against competitors when it is on a shelf, table, or in a search list. Look at other books in your category. Do your color choices stand up beside them? Is the color and image stimulating and appropriate to your subject matter? Can you make yours just a little bit better than theirs?
Layout. How is the content—the images and type—organized on the page so that it is pleasing to the eye, well placed and sized to allow instant reading? Professional designers use a grid that hides in the background to ensure spacing is balanced and exact, because if it is not, the human eye can subconsciously detect that something is wrong. Make sure your font is well chosen and appropriate. I am a big proponent of using a strong, consistent font as part of your personal brand. Also, For added clarity, try to restrict yourself to three fonts on your cover: title, subtitle/author, and text font for your back-cover copy. Additional fonts make your cover look confusing and unprofessional.
Clarity. Make sure your cover communicates as clearly as possible what your book is about.
Now we come to the issue that troubled me. I entered a literary contest recently and scored well, with very positive comments from the judges, but was downgraded a little on the cover design. I was perplexed. I thought my cover was well-made for my category. It had all the required data plus a robust, vetted title and story description. And it had a stunning 17th-century portrait as the central image.
But the thing is, my topic is a little obscure. I write 17th-century Irish historical novels. While the content is really quite engaging, it’s not the stuff of everyone’s normal education, at least not in the U.S. And the truth is—except for a small percentage of risk takers—book buyers tend to gravitate toward what they already know.
In looking at the three winners of this contest, the covers were, in my opinion, not that strong or magnetic, and one was quite hard to read. But, all three were well identified for topic. One included a subhead, “a novel of the Battle of Britain.” Everyone has heard of the Battle of Britain. The next one was “a novel of the Civil War.” We all know about that. And the third had a title that made clear it was a novel about the Native American experience. The reader immediately gets it.
Clarity Helps the Reader Get Comfy
So, if I want to compete with common knowledge, my cover has to work a little harder. The front cover of my next novel includes this blurb, “Based on a true story of the Great Irish Rebellion” along with Celtic graphics. Back cover copy has additional detail. The topic still may not be something readers personally know, but they might be more willing to take a chance if I’ve checked off all the clarity boxes.
Whatever your novel is about, use your subhead, back cover copy or short descriptive text on the front cover to immediately connect your book to something your readers will recognize. Then perhaps those who pick up your book will also carry it home, safe in the knowledge that the writer will maintain them on familiar ground.
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