Cover Design – 7 Tips from Readers

Recently, I asked readers for their thoughts on cover designs, specifically those featuring women. People responded with great enthusiasm, adding much more perspective to the matter of cover design than I had imagined when posing the question. And while many readers are attracted to women on the cover, they often add caveats.

I’ve summed up more than 90 comments with 7 tips. If you would like to weigh in, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

  1. Go for the overall effect: “it’s really the overall effect of the cover: treatment of the illustration or photo, font selection, text placement, use of white space etc.” Or as other readers said: “I’m attracted to any book with a really beautifully designed cover, even without people on it.” “I think the use of color drives the eye catch factor of any cover.”
  2. Create covers that tell a story: “the design needs SOMETHING to tell us what to expect.” Or a variation: “as long as it’s pertinent to the story, that is all I care about.” “The cover should have something to do with the main character and the setting/period.” “For me it’s more about a snapshot of what’s inside.” “I love covers that I refer back to sometimes as I read to help give me a visual impression.”
  3. Avoid tropes like a woman’s back or a headless woman. “I’m tired of seeing women’s backs.” “I’m really tired of the WWII books that take place in France and have the Eiffel Tower in the background, with a woman in the foreground.” And another one: “not big into the bodice ripper look.”
  4. Women on the cover need to grab attention: “if to me there is something striking about her then I will be interested.” “If it’s a Queen or a Princess that I have not heard of. Then, yes.” “I would say ‘yes’ but it’s all about the picture.” “If she’s alone in a beautiful or interesting setting, that would work.” And here are a few cautionary notes: “If a woman is objectified, I pass the book over.” “Too often the look of the women on the cover are too modern for the book.” “I love a cover with a beautiful artistic portrait of a woman.”
  5. It’s more than the cover: “Any striking image will draw me in, and the greatest cover in the world won’t induce me to buy a book if I don’t like what I see when I flip through it.” “I choose solely on the author, genre, or strong recommendation from friends I trust.” “the title and the imagery catch my attention, not necessarily the gender.” “The cover doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s all about the synopsis of the story that draws me in.”
  6. Bring the setting into play: “For me, it’s the setting. A forest, the beach, kitchen table etc. If a person is included, unrecognizable is preferred.”
  7. A cautionary note: “sometimes I’m annoyed when my version of the character would look very different from the cover, or she seems inconsistent with the character.”

On Great Thought’ Great Readers, Stephanie Nelson added this broad perspective on cover design:

Cover design is important and underrated! The photographic content is only a fraction of the attraction. I would say that type and color may be even more important to convey the mood of the book. All the elements should be a workhorse in selling. (I’m an advertising person and believe this in my bones. I’ve seen the benefits of a good creative.) If you are trying to say “female,” there are so many ways to do that other than a photo of a woman. Photo of a handbag, makeup, mirror, clothing article, fabric, room decor etc, etc. Feminine typeface. Then break all that down: Sophisticated or not? Young or old? Endless considerations! Zero in on your target.

In closing, writing in The Millions, author Anna Solomon has this to say about women on the covers of novels:

Maybe the point isn’t banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it’s not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized—though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women’s backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men’s books in egregious disproportion to those by women—check out the Vida Count if you’re unfamiliar with this issue—but by women ourselves. We’ve internalized the establishment’s dismissal to the point where we can write a book about women, and maybe about children, too, and sex, and then feel pissed off when women and children and sex show up on our covers.

Many thanks to all the readers who offered their input. Feel free to add yours!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


Selling Historical Fiction – Part II

A few days ago, I wrote about the HNS conference presentation on Selling Historical Fiction, which sparked interest and comments on various social media forums. Tony Riches encouraged me to add ‘bubbles’ representing Amazon (all 12 sites) and the other main online retailers that enable writers to reach an international audience. On Facebook Dianna Rostad, Sarah Johnson and Rachel Bodner chatted about the importance of cover design and sub-genre to attracting an audience.

I promised another diagram to explore the topic of connecting writers with readers in the self-publishing realm. Having spent twenty years in consulting, I find diagrams illuminating although I am aware that some see them as simplistic and that it is difficult to show all the subtleties of a situation in one single diagram. Consider this one a work in progress.

Selling HF to readers

One of the outcomes of my 2013 historical fiction survey was a very long list of online sources readers use to find book recommendations. Almost 700 of them, in fact. Investigating the list – a laborious process – has allowed me to categorize them according to broad purpose or functionality as shown in the ‘bubbles’ that facilitate connections between writers and readers. (I’ve excluded some sources such as publisher sites, newspaper sites and librarian services from the diagram because they are not typically available to indie authors.) Self-published authors who cannot exploit the agent-editor-publisher-retailer chain, must decide the best combination of influencers to approach to get news of their books out to the market.

Bombarded as we are with messages and imagery, individuals pause only briefly to  assess interest, which means the book’s cover and title must arrest the reader and convey something about its subject. Rachel Bodner offers her personal experience in a very interesting blog post.

It’s also worth reflecting on the answers readers gave when asked to comment on the importance of several factors in choosing a book. Here’s the breakdown:

Factors influencing book choiceAdding ‘very important’ and ‘extremely important’, subject matter comes out on top, followed by author, trusted recommendation and price.

A few reflections:

  • choose online sources to feature your book that suit its subject matter
  • a trusted author might be willing to lend their brand to your novel but you have to earn that privilege
  • as noted above, cover art must convey subject matter
  • book blurb and tag line also have to grab attention
  • you need a combination of online influencers to reach an audience of any size at all

I think I’ll look for correlations between factors that go into choosing a book and other responses such as preference for e-book or print, age, gender, and number of annual book consumption.

That’s it for now. Your thoughts, critique and suggestions are very welcome.