Judging book covers

A lot goes into designing book covers that capture the book’s content and attract certain readers

The iconic cover of A Clockwork Orange uses bold primary colours to catch readers’ attention.
Image supplied by: Supplied
The iconic cover of A Clockwork Orange uses bold primary colours to catch readers’ attention.

A stroll through your average bookstore will reveal the myriad different ways publishers try to attract readers with book cover designs. Book covers can do everything from attract a certain gender to outline the contents of the material inside.

Most of us are completely unaware of the techniques used to visually market books. Here’s a breakdown of some of the key features of book cover design. Perhaps it will help you outsmart publishers and be even more wary of judging a book by its cover.

Encapsulating the Book

Readers generally know which genre of book they prefer. With this in mind, publishers try to keep books that belong to the same genre with the same type of cover to make them easier to identify. Romance novels might be the easiest to spot. The shirtless, muscled man is a must and a well-endowed woman with cleavage is also usually a part of the design. The cover doesn’t have to relate specifically to the story of the book, but it should certainly capture the book’s mood and tone. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, features a black background and has the author’s name fading into it, a barely recognizable grey. The red book title helps to capture the brutality of life, paired with the bleakness of the black and grey. The cover should always portray the content, intent and personality of the book.


The most important feature of the typography is that the font must be easily readable. Readers are unlikely to pick up a book with a title that doesn’t catch their eye. Usually the title should be at the top, unless the author is established enough that his or her name alone will sell the book. This is especially important for books sold in-store. If they’re stacked with other books, the title is most likely to grab attention. The size of the font should draw attention to the most important elements. While “3rd edition” should be noted, it’s certainly less important than the name of the author and should be printed in a smaller size and positioned lower to the bottom. If one element of the text is isolated it emphasizes it as the most important factor. The isolation of the author’s name for Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story makes Stephen King the major selling point for the book.


Primary colours and clean designs draw the reader in. The iconic blood orange, yellow and green cover of A Clockwork Orange is an example of this. Gender has a role in marketing too. Warm colours are more feminine and books targeting a female audience are likely to be printed in yellow, orange and medium reds, as well as aqua, lime greens and purples, which are warmer versions of cooler colours. Books aimed at men usually feature blue, green, black and white as well as sharp contrasts between colours. Covers in neutral tones are used when the book is targeted towards a general readership.

Culture Where the book is sold makes a big difference in the cover art. In North American publishing, consumers have a “bang-for-their-buck” attitude, which translates into bright covers, and filling the entire space with graphics and text. North American book covers are more inclined to take cues from advertising tactics. The United Kingdom conversely follows the art route, but covers can be criticized for being too stark because they often feature landscapes. One interpretation of this is that British readers prefer to imagine their characters while North Americans want a character they can identify with. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has different American and British covers. The Tudor rose, shown on the British cover, North Americans. The inclusion of a painting of Henry VIII between the lettering of the U.S. version provides a more familiar image of the Tudor court.

American publishing houses are also willing to pay more for cover art, which allows them to hire an artist to draw cover art for a particular book. This might explain the more elaborate covers found on North American books, especially when comparing the detailed paintings found on science fiction and fantasy covers in the U.S. versus the more muted covers found in the U.K.


People are more willing to spend the money purchasing a book if it’s recommended. For first time authors, having a big name critic review the book can really boost sales. A sticker from “Oprah’s Book Club” is the ultimate catapult for sales. Jacqueline Carey’s debut novel, Kushiel’s Dart, features an endorsement from Robert Jordan, the recently deceased fantasy titan who created The Wheel of Time series. Most people who identify themselves as fantasy readers would be familiar with his name and his popularity, even if they hadn’t read one of his books. On her ninth book, Naamah’s Kiss, Carey no longer needed Jordan’s words of praise, but was able to feature herself as a New York Times best-selling author. Although if another author’s praise isn’t included, review quotations make a book more appealing by adding credibility.

Extra Selling Features

Raised lettering, metallic foil, matte surface, lenticular printing (multi-frame, animated graphics that move when turned side to side), and embossing all cost more to print than a glossy, flat cover with no embellishments. These techniques are eye-grabbing and used to promote sales. Surprisingly, a book’s feel can also boost sales. When a browser picks it up, the quality of the cover paper can make a difference. Cloth books are starting to be seen more frequently for this reason.

Books with striking covers are more likely to be noticed visually and picked up. Glossy and sheer satin finishes make the book more eye-catching, but matte books have a higher perceived value. When Christmas rolls around, matte covers sell better as gifts.

The more a publishing house is willing to spend on a cover, the better they expect the book to do in sales. While jewels of books can be found behind poorly designed covers, expect books with excellent context or mass appeal to be found behind an expensive-looking cover.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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