Admit it. You do it too. Yes, you! You judge books by their covers.

Of course, I’m a pretty extreme example. I avoided Terry Pratchett novels for years, put off by their busy illustrations, despite recommendations. Then, a few years back, I see these beautiful hardcover editions – I pick one up – next thing I know, I’m a fan.

But it turns out, it’s not all that strange. Our brains are hardwired to process images faster than words – when we see a cover image, we experience a gut reaction to it. In other words – it’s emotional, not logical.

So how exactly do you harness this knowledge to work for you and your novel, generating media buzz and capturing the attention of reviewers and readers?

Know your story

It’s easy to imagine that your novel defies categorisation. You’ve been living with these characters for a long time – they’ve become realer than real – and it doesn’t feel right to put them and their story into a box. But knowing where your work sits in the market is really important.

Bookstores, both real and virtual, divide their books into shelves where genre fans will seek them out. Even if your book spans multiple genres, it’s time to make a choice. Have you written a YA novel, a domestic noir, a historical romance? Think carefully about where to place it or you might miss out on a lot of readers.

This knowledge will then help a designer to craft the most marketable cover for your masterpiece, taking into account these elements:

Image (or not)

The cover image is usually your reader’s first experience of your story. Think carefully about what you want them to think and feel.

An epic illustration of a heroic major character may draw them into the story’s sense of adventure, shadowy or blurred photographic image (The Girl on the Train) may suggest ambiguity and threat, whilst richly patterned, ornate covers are often used for otherworldly flights of fancy and magical realism (The Binding).

Some covers forgo an image, using just text. In these instances, the text will often become an image of sorts that reflects the narrative or atmosphere of the novel, for example in the case of In the Cut.

The Girl on the Train, In the Cut & The Binding book examples


Richly coloured book covers and spines can really pop on a bookshelf or when shared on social media and titles by lesser known authors often employ a wide colour palette. Don’t forget that minimalism can be just as striking though and that planting the seed of your story is the best way to building a strong readership.

Colour works to communicate the mood of your book – a simple, bright colour palette such as that of The Kiss Quotient can suggest a playful read, while the earthier colours of The Silence of the Girls promises something altogether more serious and grounded.

If your book is intended for print – and you have the budget – covers with finishes such as foil embossing or spot UV – are eye catching. Just make sure these elements fit with your story and aren’t being used as a gimmick though.

The Silence of the Girls & The Kiss Quotient book examples


Fonts and their layout also have a huge influence on the impact of a cover. Font types evoke different emotions in consumers as well as carrying existing cultural associations from our long history of graphic design and specifically, book publishing.

Flowing script fonts conjure a sense of elegance and freedom (Call Me by Your Name) although a romantic novel might also take the route of a comforting, traditional serif font (The Notebook) to convey timelessness and gravity.

Fonts for sci-fi work are frequently sans serif – the lack of embellishments indicating a modern (or even futuristic) and objective feel.

A great tip for discovering a fitting font for your cover is to start by defining your work as a whole in one adjective. Is it epic? Lighthearted? Moody? This will definitely narrow down your font choices and get you thinking about communicating with your readers in the right way.

Call Me By Your Name & The Notebook book examples


Don’t lose sight of the wood for the trees. This can be surprisingly easy to do when focusing on the separate elements of your cover, but don’t forget that it all needs to come together into a coherent and professional looking whole. Readability is still the most important thing so it’s important that there is a harmonious balance between your design elements.

Hit the books 

A great book cover design can captivate audiences even before page one. Think about your own experiences and pay close attention next time you are browsing for books – what covers jump out at you and give you a clear idea of the experience you’ll be buying? Conversely, what makes you walk on by?

We live in an age of snap decisions, and understanding the psychology behind those decisions is your first step towards creating a cover that appeals to the readers that have yet to discover you and your work.

To discuss your next book design project, feel free to drop me a line at