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Book Covers 101: You CAN tell a book by its cover

Let’s Talk Covers…

Your mother probably taught you many things, among them the truism “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”

Now, while that wisdom holds in most of our lives, one place where it doesn’t, ironically, is in publishing.

Oh, it’s still true — the cover doesn’t necessarily communicate what’s inside (though it should). But potential readers ignore it almost universally — especially when it comes to ebooks.

The cover is the first and (in many cases) most important piece of information those readers get about a title. This time out, I’m going to look at what should go into designing a cover that works for, rather than against, your ebook.

The Cover’s Job

Whatever format a book is in (print, audio, or ebook), the cover has a very important job — apart from and in addition to being visually attractive. As readers of probably already know, that job falls into several very important parts. It must communicate:

  • The genre/subgenre of the book
  • The tone of the book
  • The subject matter of the book

A cover makes a promise . It tells the reader very clearly — through words, but also through design — exactly what they’re going to read.


There’s no mistaking a Harlequin Romance book. The covers regularly feature virile, bare-chested men and beautiful women, themselves often less than fully clothed. Harlequin’s Historical imprint features similar characters, but with clothing from the English Regency, the Middle Ages, or Hollywood’s Golden Era. The colors will be bright and running toward the warm side of the color wheel.

It’s easy for non-fans (and non-authors) to make fun of such covers. Even so, they’re an important part of Harlequin’s huge success. They communicate to the potential reader with great efficiency exactly what kind of book it is they’re going to be getting if they purchase it. The promise they’re making is extremely clear.

Now, if I’m looking for a space opera novel in which romance isn’t a primary plot theme, those covers won’t make a promise I’m interested in. Instead, I’ll be looking for a cover with stars and space ships or possibly characters (human and non-) holding futuristic weapons. The color scheme is likely to be dark and cool.

We could make the same kinds of observations about a thriller, a business non-fiction book, an inspirational title — each genre and subgenre has certain tropes (characteristic elements) that identify it. Even literary fiction!

If you aren’t sure what the tropes for your subgenre are, go to a bookstore — online or in person — and spend an hour looking at every single book that matches your book’s narrow category.

  • Are there design elements that repeat?
  • Are there ways that the cover designers let readers know, for example, that a book is urban rather than epic fantasy, say, or police procedural rather than gumshoe detective or cozy whodunit?
  • Inspirational books for children as opposed to for their parents?

Educate yourself as to the design tropes and clichés for your subgenre.

You don’t have to follow all of those clichés in your own design — and probably shouldn’t. But they’re clichés for a reason. You need to know them before you choose to discard them.


A cover should let the reader know what sort of tone to expect. This is just as important as communicating genre. In the covers that you were looking at above, did the designs promise:

  • quirky humor?
  • brooding, steamy romance?
  • blood-chilling terror?

How did the cover manage that?

There’s probably some combination of artwork, font choice, and color that works to promise the reader a particular tone.

The book had sure better deliver on that promise!

There’s nothing worse than picking up a book with an amusing cover and finding that you’ve purchased a grim drama — or vice versa.

You know what tone dominates your book. Make sure that the cover communicates that.

Subject Matter

It can be important for the cover to let the reader know what the book is about — literally. This is separate from genre or even tone.

In this case, the cover actually tells the reader this is a book about time management or this is a book where there are gun fights or this is a kissing book , (as the grandson in the film of The Princess Bride would say). If the subject matter is central to your reader’s choice whether or not to buy the book, then definitely make sure that the cover communicates that subject.

However, please don’t feel as if the cover needs to tell the story of the book — or illustrate a scene from the book. Remember, they’re looking at the cover before they’ve read it . You don’t have to overdo it. But just as you would follow the dictum show, don’t tell in your writing, it’s good to give your reader a clue as to what they’re going to find once they crack the book open.

Ebook vs. Print Covers

Up to this point, everything that I’ve had to say pertains to all book covers — print, audiobook, or ebook.

There is one major distinction between ebook and print covers, however, that you really should bear in mind as you are creating your own cover (whether you are the designer yourself, or you’ve hired someone else to do the work for you). It’s kind of an obvious distinction, but it’s an important one, nonetheless.

Print covers are designed to be seen person on a book shelf or table — whether at a book store, a library, or a friend’s living room.

They are designed to be seen at full size, up close. Whether it’s a 6″x9″ trade paperback or a 8″x10″ picture book, it’s meant to be picked up and examined in detail.

Ebook covers, on the other hand, are largely seen at thumbnail size in a list of other ebooks, or at best at fairly small scale.

Here’s a listing of the results on Amazon for the search word kunoichi :

That’s the size that matters — what is known as thumbnail size, maybe an inch or so wide by an inch and a half tall. If the details of the cover don’t communicate at that scale — if the cover can’t communicate its promise — what do you think the odds are that a potential reader will be drawn to click through to see the cover at a (slightly) larger size?

Not very high.

If you look at the first two titles in that list, they read very clearly at this scale. (Yes, the second one is my novel Risuko . Shh.)

How about the third book, The Ninja Girl ? Can you tell anything about that book’s genre, tone, or subject matter? It’s dark, so I wouldn’t expect a lighthearted comedy, but aside from that, I can’t see a thing.

If I were to click through… I’d see this:

Okay. So that’s a little bit better — I can (if I look closely) see a woman’s back with a snake tattoo; she’s wearing a conical Asian hat and a sword. So that tells me something. But it’s still not much. 1

This isn’t a terrible cover — if this were a print book.

Tell me, the white box on the upper-left edge — can you read it even zoomed in? It’s the series/imprint logo. Which is nice, but not particularly helpful, and at the scale that Amazon shows, even on the product screen for the book not particularly legible.

Now, here’s the page for the ebook edition of my novel:

James Egan of Bookfly Design created that cover for me, and I’m pretty comfortable in saying he did a fabulous job. 2

It clearly communicates the genre (YA historical adventure set in Asia), it communicates the tone I was looking for (mysterious), and it communicates subject matter — a girl with a sword.

When James sent me his initial design, the central figure was somewhat smaller and there was text down the left-hand side — the series title.

However, one of the things we noticed when we looked at that cover at thumbnail size was that you couldn’t see the sword . It just looked like a girl’s silhouette. So we deleted the series and expanded the whole central circle. Problem averted!

However, this is the ebook cover.

Here’s the print cover:

Notice anything different?

There are two major differences

First, the height-to-width ratio is different. Where the ebook is 1.6 times as tall as it is wide, the 6″x9″ paperback is 1.5 times as tall as it is wide. That’s pretty minor, but means that I had to stretch the circle a bit.

But second, because this version was meant to be purchased at bookstores (and conventions, and…), I felt comfortable adding a blurb below my name. See that red text at the bottom there? Here’s a closeup:

Okay, sure, I’m pretty pleased with that blurb — but notice, you can’t read that on the Amazon product page. If anything, it just muddies the design. But if you pick up the physical book, it’s right there, promising you a good read.

I don’t bother putting that on the ebook cover. Why bother, when the first time someone’s going to see it is when it’s loaded onto their ereader — after they’ve already bought it?

So, an ebook cover should be clean, attractive and easy to read at thumbnail size. Even at that small scale, it should promise the correct genre, tone, and subject matter, so your reader won’t be disappointed.

You may decide to use higher contrast to make them read better at thumbnail (though I think that might help sell your print book as well). To fit the online bookstores’ thumbnail image slot, its dimensions should be 1.6:1. The long side should be at least 2560 pixels — which means that an ideal size would be 1600 pixels by 2560 pixels (or larger).

Audiobook covers are a completely different ball of wax — they need to be square (like old CDs and LPs). Their ideal dimensions are 3000 pixels on either side.

Next time, we’re going to be talking about how to make your ebook’s description field work as hard to sell your book as your cover does.

1 And the description gives me almost nothing more than the little that the cover already promises.

2 I feel comfortable saying that for a couple of reasons. First of all, people have told me many times that it’s a gorgeous cover. And second, it won an award in’s monthly ebook cover design contest.

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