“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Screw that. We all do, which is why you need to get your cover right. It’s the first thing people see. Before they figure out what your book is about, the cover has already made an impression. If that impression is boring, I don’t even let the title sink in. I’ve already gone on scanning, for a book that stands out and looks sexy.
So what makes a book cover uninteresting? How about rows and rows of samey shit. I don’t care if it’s as slick as a movie poster. If your cover is some Photoshopped stock model jobby with a dude on a horse, or a leather chick in the boob-butt pose, or some corseted lady swooning in Fabio’s arms, all your cover says to me is: “This is a McDonalds burger, just like every other McDonalds burger you’ve ever eaten.”
This is all some people want. I get that. I’m not here to denigrate that choice (much). I’m writing this for the authors who want to find success by standing out, not blending in. If you haven’t written the literary equivalent of a McDonalds burger, then holy crap do not package your book like a McDonalds burger. Avoid slick movie-poster covers, because everyone has one. Everyone but the trad pubs…
You see, the publishing industry took one look at the self-publishers and decided they had to up their game. Almost gone are the days of terrible Poser models with eye-gouging typographical horrors (ok, that last one was published recently—holy shit). Long-gone are the days of half-assed illustrations that have nothing to do with the book. The better imprints try to rise above the sea by marketing itself as “quality” (regardless whether or not it’s true). This means they have to pay decent illustrators/designers—and it shows. Take for example these F. Scott Fitzgerald hardcovers that scream, “I’m classy as fuck!” (Though I have to say, the original still kicks its ass.)
As far as advice goes, I won’t dictate style. The style you’re after depends on what kind of book you’ve written—not just genre, but the sensibilities of your prose. Your prose could be old-fashioned, or modernist, or pulp. You need a cover to match. Research the kind of covers that clothe the kind of book you’ve written, then find an artist who can pull off the style you’re after.
A unique graphic or illustration tells the reader “care went into this” as does good layout and typography. Hiring a professional photographer (please don’t take your own pictures of friends in Renfaire costumes) instead of using the same stock models everyone else uses says “quality” as well. It’s possible to make good use of stock art, but if you have the funds, pay someone to create unique images for your book. The difference is definitely worth it—and you’ll feel it, because you’ll know no one has a cover just like yours.
Your cover must be definitive. The more it represents your story, even if it’s a single symbol, the better it works as an advertisement for what’s inside. Even a typographical design, almost devoid of imagery, can do this kind of work. Don’t get so caught up with a *~specially significant symbol~* that you lose sight of the bigger picture. If that symbol means nothing to someone who hasn’t read the story yet, it’s not going to convey anything to a prospective reader. You’re better off choosing something the reader can “get” at first glance. It’s also possible you won’t be able to cram in every symbol you want, because good design requires breathing room—so don’t get married to needing this and this and this AND this and etc.
This cover for The Crysalids is a good example of combining symbolism with a striking graphic style. Unlike the Penguin monstrosity linked above, the butterfly is represented in the metaphorical way the author intended. The six-toed footprints may be a touch esoteric, but it does the job conveying ideas to a new reader: children, metamorphosis, mutation. The tone of the cover also implies the mutant kids aren’t bad, which is important. Here’s a proper link to blog where the cover is hosted.
This cover for The Man in the High Castle is also a great example of a definitive cover. It uses symbolism to punch the book’s idea right into the reader’s brain. Sure, the map isn’t 100% accurate to the book (it leaves out the neutral zone), but that doesn’t matter. It says everything it needs to in a striking and effective manner. The designer’s blog post also has an interesting breakdown of past publications and how desperately they tried to match the marketing zeitgeist of their day, regardless of whether or not it fit the book. We shouldn’t have to put up with that shit anymore!
Your cover can also be strikingly ugly if that fits the tone you’re after. Josh Kirby’s covers for Discworld are filled with memorably grotesque caricatures. They’re definitive. More importantly, they’re fun. When you pick one up, you know exactly what you’re in for. I mean shit, if you’ve written a book for 13 year olds, you can hardly do better than this to advertise it. That guy paid for a proper illustration, and he’s made all that money back because that thing fucking sells. The author is a dude who gets his audience.
Marketers don’t always get their audience because they spend too much time sticking to the bullshit they think they know. Authors have also been trained to cling to safety when it comes to marketing their book (not to mention playing it too safe with the writing, but that’s another rant). The gurus who came from trad publishing came from a risk-averse environment, where they were told, “This is what sells,” when given a bland-ass cover that hardly represented the book inside. They brought their wisdom to self-publishing, where this fear of not matching the popular books prevails. A risk-averse industry chases last year’s trends, and you don’t want to be on the butt end as its run into the ground.
As an author, you have to ask yourself if you’d rather sell more books to disappointed readers who leave tons of angry Amazon reviews because they didn’t get the McDonalds-burger book they were expecting, or if you’d rather take a risk that will make you stand out, and bring in a bunch of niche readers who’ll love you for exactly what you’re doing. It’s possible to make a quick buck misrepresenting yourself, but most readers won’t stick around for a second novel. Staying true to what your book is will build a following.