Book covers and how to judge them

A book cover has a specific set of tasks to achieve. It has to provide some kind of recognisable identity, it has to grab someone’s attention (appeal to the right audience), and it must, in some way, tell or at least allude to what’s inside (to sell the contents). Get this right and you have an effective cover – simple, right?

To do this there are two things you have to tackle. The first is know the book’s content, and the second is know the book’s audience. So, about that first thing, knowing the content. You’d rarely have the luxury or even the opportunity to pour over the whole book, but make sure that you have some worthwhile understanding of what’s inside. If you don’t, don’t try to make a cover for it. Simple.

Knowing the book’s audience is just as important. You may have a good and full understanding of the book’s content, but if you guess the target audience wrong there’s no way you’d be able to make something really effective.

Who the target reader might be isn’t always as clear-cut as you might think. When Harry Potter first hit the real big time, sometime around the third book into the series, the publishers decided to bring it out in two different cover styles. The reason was that the normal designs were clearly aimed at kids, but there was an increasing adult readership that was, apparently, a little put off from being seen reading it in public. In response, more serious, grownup-friendly covers were made to cater for this new demographic, this new readership segment. Not everyone is embarassed by what a book cover looks like to others – for example, a friend used to delight in replacing the cover of his A-Z London Street Atlas with one from the well-known Joy Of Sex – but in marketing and sales terms launching the grownup’s Harry Potter covers was a smart move.

Redesigning covers is open to anyone, for their own pleasure anyway. One great example of this is M. S. Corley’s unofficial Harry Potter book cover redesigns, done in classic 1960s Penguin book style complete with a visual treatment to make them feel decades old. The 1960s is a key one in book cover design; the development of phototypesetting and advances in offset-litho print meant new techniques in graphics and type could be used. The result was a style that quickly defined Penguin paperbacks and that era. Corley’s designs ape this look in an impressively convincing way. More importantly, they are clearly done by someone with a good understanding of the stories. Remember: know the content.
These haven’t been used as real printed book covers but you can see them online at

(Copyright M S Corley)

Frankly, we don’t have time to go into every area of cover design, but one of the big failure areas in book cover designs is the typography. First, choose an appropriate face or set of faces. This may not be obvious, although it goes without saying (he says, with a pointed stare) that Comic Sans is never appropriate. And similar brush-script fonts are also suspect. The basics should be pretty obvious; nothing too difficult for the target audience to read, strong enough in weight and structure to stand out on whatever background you have chosen, sympathetic to the subject, genre and so on… all the normal type-selection issues.

Placement of the book title (or whatever is the most important bit of info, perhaps the author’s name) should be at the top. No arguments unless you have a stunning reason to do otherwise. The top is the key area in terms of strength and the natural direction of the eye through the layout. But most importantly, in a typical book store shelf it could be stacked partly behind other titles.

Book title type should be more like strong poster type than regular headlines, so set things tighter than normal and think of everything in terms of visual units. Look at the words you’re working with and play with the scale of each one. If any words are particularly important then see what can be done to emphasise them, but watch out for mucking up or obscuring the meaning.

Do you want the design to evoke a particular era? Those unofficial Harry Potter covers are a perfect example. In fact, try covering up the giveaway author name, book title and HP emblem. The illustrations might be a giveaway if you know the stories, but they could pass for 50 year-old original covers. I do this with publishing students after making them suffer through a lecture on design thinking. It isn’t the most exciting thing ever, but it helps show how you can learn to read a cover to find out what sort of thing it is about and when it is from. Grab a selection of book covers from anywhere; Amazon, your local library or the nearest bookshelf. Cover up whatever text might give the game away, then see if someone else (you already know, probably) can suss them out.

The final set of designs shows how different interpretations have been made with the same story. Brontë’s classic Wuthering Heights has been produced many times by many different publishers and with a myriad different covers. Some work better than others, clearly, although it is useful to know the provenance of each one before making your final judgement.

Cover 1 Cover 2

Covers 1 and 2 are both from eBooks. They’re simple and formulaic, and they’re part of budget ranges of copyright-free texts packaged for cheap digital consumption. A kind of ‘no expense spent’ design. This is aimed straight at the digital version of the bargain basement; the book’s title elsewhere on the web page is what will sell this, nothing else.

Cover 3 Cover 4

Number 3 is from an English language education imprint from Hong Kong. The academic angle helps explain the dodgy schoolbook-style appearance, although it doesn’t excuse it. I know some people like the Usborne design, number 4, but to me it is more Sleepy Hollow than anything else. It is too reminiscent of horror film posters for my liking.

Cover 5 Cover 6 Cover 7

The ‘wild, windy moors’ feature in many designs, which makes sense. But contrast the difference between the photo illustration of the second Usbourne design at number 5, the Penguin Classics woodcut style of number 6, and the screenprint effect of the Neoseeker edition at number 7.

Cover 8

Cover number 8 is an odd one. In the popular Twilight series the main character, Bella Swan, is reading Wuthering Heights and refers to it a number of times. So to try to catch a new market of Twilight-loving girls the publisher makes a cover themes to match a particular Twilight book design. (Yes, interesting parallels to the adult-themed Harry Potter designs here.) Only, for the UK version at least, they get it somewhat wrong. The type is weak and doesn’t match, the flower is far too prissy, and the original’s background is solid black. If you’re going to recreate something then do it right.

Cover 9

Finally, there’s cover 9. Take away the title and the author’s name and you’re left with something wholly alien to most people’s mental image of Cathy and Heathcliff. The strapline beneath the title is fairly rich too; “the inspiration for the MTV original film”! This doesn’t generally go down well when I point it out. But look at it in terms of marketing for a moment. This is trying to tap into a demographic that only knows the story through MTV. With that in mind, do you think it is a good cover? You don’t have to like it, but it is a strong design that is aimed squarely at a specific group. In that respect it actually is a good cover. Although perhaps still a travesty.

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