Book Cover Savvy

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Let’s say you are scheduled to give a major message to a Colosseum-sized audience. A speaking coach offers to help you to put your best foot forward. Would you accept the offer?

I’m pretty sure you would say yes.

Yet periodically I find my clients not making sure I, who am like that speaking coach, am engaged in discussing one of the most important ways their books are presented to potential readers: The cover design and back cover copy.

What’s the big deal?

The Book Cover is the Most Viewed “Ad”

Your book cover is seen by more potential readers than any other piece in your marketing portfolio. The cover conveys: the tone of your book, the intended audience, and your book’s subject. For fiction,  it should communicate the genre and the time-period, and appeal to the audience most likely to be fans.

The cover’s colors, fonts, and images all must convey one, unified message. And the back cover copy should highlight the book’s hook, while the tagline or headline should be in sync with the book’s description.

Ultimately, the front and back cover as well as the book’s spine should come together like musical instruments in a symphony performance.

What an Agent Brings to the Book Cover Conversation

An agent sees cover designs for books in every genre, for every age group, and for every audience that the agent’s clients write for. Many agents see covers for adults, teens, middle schoolers, and children of all ages. Fiction and nonfiction must be added to that list–often for both adults and children. Gift books, journals, devotionals, and sometimes even cookbooks are created under an agent’s purview.

Add all those audiences and the number of covers an agent sees, and you’ll find that an agent likely views more than 100 covers per year and sometimes more. Agents see more covers than most editors and possibly more than those in the marketing department (since fiction, nonfiction, and children’s products generally are promoted by different marketing teams). I don’t know for certain, but it’s possible an agent sees more covers than everyone at a publishing house except for the art director.

More Than Volume

Mere volume doesn’t constitute an agent possessing a knowledgeable opinion. But it does mean the agent has a lot of other covers to compare each new design to. Current design trends quickly become apparent. As do designs that fail to bring together all the elements necessary for a compelling cover.

Any agent who is thoughtfully studying designs and bringing years of seeing what does and doesn’t work, has an opinion worth considering.

How Can an Author Cash-in on the Agent’s Book Cover Savvy?

Simple. Be sure your agent is involved in your communications with your publisher whenever any aspect of your cover is discussed.

Oh, and by the way, don’t rush forward to gush over the cover design as soon as you lay eyes on it. You might discover you’re experiencing love at first sight, but your agent might see major flaws in your new love. Give your agent an opportunity to weigh in.

Whom do you turn to when you need publishing expertise? And what aspects of publishing do you ask for help?


Is your book cover the best it can be? Ask your agent. Click to tweet.

Use your agent’s book cover savvy. Click to tweet.

18 Responses

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  1. Very clear and informative, Janet.
    * If i were going to use a cover that represented characters in the book, there are two things I would do:
    1 – verify that the details of the ‘cover characters’ match up with the descriptions in the book
    2 – ask my beta readers if the ‘cover characters’ are what they envisaged when they were reading (unless there’s a confidentiality agreement restricting access to cover artwork?)
    * If feasible, I’d also run the cover art past an experienced portraitist; errors can creep in such that once the viewer notices them, that’s all that is seen. heads can be off-size, arms can be too short or of simian length (and often seem weirdly boneless), and feet are almost always too small. To my mind, the cover should not cause a double-take, and a horrified, “What’s THAT!”

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    I’ve learned a huge amount about publishing from this blog and a few others. Plus I’ve read more books than I have fingers, but probably fewer than fingers plus toes. Indies have no one to protect us from our own unwise decisions, so we better work hard at not making any.
    *Cover design is tricky, especially if you don’t want to drive away a market segment that might not be uppermost in your mind. My latest release has a gorgeous, professionally designed cover. The first version was ooohed and aaahed over by every woman I showed it to. The first male friend who saw it, who’d already read and liked my first 2 historical novels, said it looked too much like a romance and he would never have picked it up in a store or clicked at Amazon. Some digital sculpting of the female to make her more “athletic looking” (she was totally demurely clothed, just a bit too curvaceous) made the cover of the historical no longer male-repellent. I have our Andrew to thank for helping me figure out what made my friend see “romance” and not “historical.”
    *Moral: try out a cover on men and women and people of different ages. You probably have a wider range of readership than you might suspect, and you don’t want to accidentally discourage any of them with your cover.

    • I wave the white flag of surrender and defer to wiser minds! I rarely chose or reject a book by it’s cover. I open it and scan a few pages. Other than Andrew’s accuracy check, I will seek the opinions of people with more experience.
      *I find this all funny, because I am generally good at visual design. But “what sells” escapes me. Apparently, what sells to me doesn’t apply to the rest of the world.

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Shirlee, the gender difference wasn’t on my radar, either, before this. Men are known to respond more to “visual” triggers than women. A woman’s image that is well endowed says “romance,” while an image that downplays that says “historical.” Andrew, with his British English background, referred to that part of the anatomy as her “bosom,” so we named it the “bosom factor” for deciding what makes the best cover for both men and women.

      • Nicholas Faran says:

        I’m not surprised that there is a gender perspective difference. But I am surprised that simply changing the body shape is that significant. I tend to decide on cover genre on the pose, clothing and background of the characters rather than their physical attributes. Interesting.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Carol, this is such a tricky aspect of covers. Yes, you don’t want to alienate any potential readers, but you also want to appeal to your main readers. Novels can tend to have a pretty wide range of audiences they need to appeal to, but you also don’t want to suggest, as in your example, that the book is a romance when in actuality its a historical novel. Also, if the main characters are millennials, the book is likely to have millennials as the main readers. So the cover needs to reflect that sensibility and trust other readers to remain interested in the book. For nonfiction, it’s more important to target your main readers but not to discourage secondary audiences. A nonfiction title will tend to be focused in the audience it wants to attract. But it’s always about finding the right balance between appealing to one audience without turning off others.

  3. I love Jaime’s book cover. I can’t wait to read this. I’ve seen such wonderful reviews. *Even though I’m not looking for a book cover design at this stage, I appreciate all the insight, and I’m tucking it all away in my hope chest. For one day. Maybe. But I absolutely can’t imagine having an agent and not seeking their wisdom on such things.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, I think you’ll ove Jaime’s writing as well. Regarding the idea of not involving your agent, some authors just go with their first reaction to a cover and zip back a response to the email that was sent with the cover as an attachment. There’s a lot of joy (or distress) in seeing a cover for a manuscript you’ve worked so hard on. And if you love it, it’s hard to imagine that everyone else won’t feel the same way. And then there’s the author who just assumes the agent has been copied on the email but doesn’t check to be sure that’s the case.

  4. I love that cover for “House on Foster Hill” it is just lovely. Makes me think Gothic, mystery, tense, maybe a historical twist from the past. Am I right, I better go read the back copy and find out. Thanks so much, Janet, for reminding us of the import of covers and of asking your agent to come along on their road to creation.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kristen, yes, you’ve picked up on the right tones for the novel. The one aspect about it that would be too difficult to convey on the cover is that this is a split story–part of it is contemporary and part of it is historical, but the two eras weave together in complex but wonderful ways.

  5. Jaime Jo Wright says:

    I can attest to loving my agent’s insight in the book cover process! There are things thought of, like even the FONT, and its representation of the book/author, that would have never crossed my mind. I would be lost without my agent <3
    PS – thank you all for the kind words!

  6. Nicholas Faran says:

    If I were to be in this situation, I would listen to what my agent said, but at the same time I know what attracts me to books of my genre and what turns me away. Although I’d want my books to sell and appeal widely, I still feel that the cover should reflect my ideas too as it’s part of the package and it’s supposed to be mine.
    However, from what I’ve read I didn’t think authors have a huge say in cover design.
    A friend of mine self published last year. I was a beta reader for him, so new his story well. I felt his cover design completely mis-represented his story, was fairly dull and would turn people away. The cover had the London Houses of parliament on it when 99% of the story took place in a village. A friend designed it for him, but I don’t think it did him any favours. The author seemed very happy with it though.

  7. My first book was with a small house and the publisher rushed it to publication far ahead of the scheduled date so I could participate in a group event with others in that house. Unfortunately the kid on the cover doesn’t look anything like the protagonist, and I think that has hindered sales.

  8. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Thank you for your timely post on covers, Janet. I’m a very visual person, so to me they’re very important. Jaime’s House on Foster Hill was one of those I recently purchased; I found the cover and the beginning chapters actually gave me chills (hasn’t happened in a long time) and a strong sense of foreboding. As a good gothic story should. Love gothics–sometimes the darker a story is, the stronger God’s light can shine through. I also think that agents and professionals, because of their yrs. in the business, pretty much know what they’re doing.

  9. To be honest, I never knew that agents had a say in the covers or even see the covers until finalized. What a great relief to know someone wiser than me has eyes on that sort of thing. I took classes for designing assessments and worksheets for elementary students but have no eye for design even with the information provided there. And of course assessments and worksheets have no comparison to book covers. Thanks for sharing. The wisdom of this blog only reinforces my desire for an agent – someone wiser and more experienced is always a valuable and critical aspect of success.

  10. Jennifer Muller says:

    An author/speaker recently spoke at our church. He had a powerful, necessary message. As he peddled his wares afterwards, he held up one particular book that he recommended for men. “Men wouldn’t be caught dead reading this because the cover is stupid.” (it had a lame stock
    photo of people on a white background.) he proceeded to rip the cover off and say, “Now you can read it.”

    If it bothered him that much, I don’t know why he didn’t take steps to change the cover.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, that author might well have published with a traditional publishing house that felt strongly the current cover was the best design to sell the most copies of the book. Generally a publisher wants the author to like the cover well enough to sell the book WITH the cover attached. But a few publishing houses don’t hold to that idea. Most publishers will work with an author until the author, agent, and publishing team think the cover is effective. It might not be the cover either side really wanted, but it is the result of a collaboration between everyone involved.