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First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara

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ARC Review


Books Do Not Sell Without Covers

The Warded Man (US covers)The secret to book selling is not so secret anymore. The answer lies in the unspoken pact between an author and reader, which agrees a great cover equals excellent writing. Honestly, we know the premise is false—great stories exist inside shoddy covers and vice versa—but the expectation remains. In fact, I know readers who have refused to promote a book because of a poorly designed cover; I know others who won’t buy it in the first place. As unfair as this may seem, this is the reality. Readers inherently presume a writer will put as much effort into their cover as their story.

In an era of online sales and advertising, writers will find the majority of their readers online. Therefore, we are challenged to snag our reader’s attention in a technologically, fast-paced environment. To succeed, a writer must delay a reader’s scrolling—as they rush through a thousand images online—long enough to click their unique, book cover. Once the cover draws the reader’s interest, the writing must retain his or her attention.

Now, improving your writing is beyond the scope of this article, but I can tell you how to make a worthy cover.


Dickie and Dorrie at School (cover)To understand how to make a decent book cover, you should know how book covers evolved. They have come a long way in the past hundred years. While it’s true we did not always care about the cover, they have become the most important feature in the competitive, modern book industry. In 1911, Dickie and Dorrie at School by Evelyn Everett-Green was one of the first multi-colored stampings on a cloth binding. Then, after World War I, book covers began to evolve into an artistic expression of the stories inside, and decorated bindings truly began influencing the reader market.

The Dunwich Horror (1945 cover)However, I give credit to H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which, in 1945, really started attracting the consumer’s attention. The point being, at the end of the day, the reader does judge the book by its cover.

You did not truly think we could get through this article without that old adage? (Seriously. You’re lucky it wasn’t the title.) But we do judge books by their covers, and to think otherwise is ignorant.


The publishing community’s general opinion on clichéd covers is mixed, primarily due to the difficulty in finding a balance between original, yet familiar, while not being overused. In other words, custom artwork will help draw a reader into exploring your novel, but only if you are not trying to completely reinvent the wheel. Admittedly, large publishing houses often have access to marketing and distribution beyond the independent author’s scope, but you can learn something from looking at their book covers. Publishing houses know what book stores are willing to put on their shelves, and what readers are willing to buy.

In 2010, Orbit Books released a couple graphics (Trends in Fantasy Cover Art and Word Frequency in Fantasy Titles) that every fantasy writer should consider before making their cover. But even without statistics and fancy graphics, a few things immediately come to mind:

– Images of Swords, Magic, Dragons, and Symbols
– Large Fonts (Typically Serif Typeface)
– Color Schemes that Infuse Emotion

Hopefully, you considered this information when planning your cover, but most writers are not illustrators or graphic artists. Therefore, Google the bestselling lists for your genre and study the design of the novels ranking in the Top Ten. Take notes and consult with your illustrator; listen to their expertise.


Don’t publicize a cover that is incongruent with your content. Readers do not want to see a cover featuring a dragon without a dragon in the story. I have even heard readers complain that a character’s hair color or eye color was different on the cover than in the book.

Don’t throw something together with the first stock photos you find. The likelihood of maintaining a theme across novels with stock photos is not promising, and depending on the circulation of said photo, you may be butting heads with another author’s brand. Readers are capable of recognizing cover models and repeated stock images. (I made this mistake with one of my earlier novels, and now, I have found the same image on several other fantasy novels.)

Man With Sword Stock Photo Collage

Don’t crowd the cover with too many elements and lose your reader in the disarray. Having a title, subtitle, tagline, and half a dozen images strewn across the trade paperback will overwhelm the visual senses. The reader will be incapable of pinpointing where they should focus their attention. Stick with two or three fonts, remember the importance of symmetry, and keep it simple.


If you’re serious about being an author, you cannot skimp on the cover. The cover of an author’s book is their brand. No matter the genre, readers will first see your cover and title before taking the time to read your blurb and first few pages. Of course, I understand custom book covers are expensive, and I rarely meet brand-new authors with the finances to create a cover to match the content of their book. But you will lose a significant amount of potential readers with a poorly designed cover. Readers must be encouraged to stop and take notice. I know this is not the information authors like to hear, but readers are more likely to pay attention to remarkable covers. You may lose money on the first book—and possibly the second—but by investing in your books, they will come together in the end.

Remember, you are making a pact and it starts with the cover, followed by quality writing. If you have created a satisfactory product from front to back, the reader will return for more.



  1. This is so true! It can be hard to make a quality cover with limited resources, but if no one wants to read your book because of an ugly cover what’s the point?

    • You are right, Anais. The internet has lots of great cover designers, who can do some miraculous work (even with stock photos). But, unless you know your reader personally, the cover is the first point of contact. You want to make a good impression.

  2. A good point alluded at that it’s important to plan out a theme or brand for your novels (particularly for series) before you start designing them. I made this mistake with a cover I did for a novella that I put out. It didn’t fit visually with the traditionally-published novels it was related to. Unless people read the subtitle or description, they would have no easy way of seeing it was related.

  3. I totally agree, Patrick. A small publishing house (Sand Hill Review Press) recently released my second novel, “The Engine Woman’s Light.” Having worked on the manuscript for 20 years, I wanted striking cover art and was happy to pay for it. I worked with award-winning cover artist Julie Dillon. The wrap-around result reflects the description on the back cover. The art offers a promise to the reader that the story fulfills.

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