More on covers

This was first published in September 2011.

Most self-published books these days are primarily sold in digital form because this allows authors to keep the price down and at the same time reach a potentially vast audience. There are specific restrictions – and opportunities – that apply to digital covers, which are worth thinking about to produce something that will really stand out (in the right way) amongst the vast millions of Amazon products.

1. The thumbnail
Unlike print books where the cover is the cover is the cover, most digital books are sold with a range of cover images. There is the image that will appear on an ereader screen after the book is downloaded, the image that will appear on the book sales page, and then there is the thumbnail that will appear in search results and lists. This thumbnail is tiny but vital. If you are uploading your book to Amazon, the thumbnail does not have to be the same image that appears as the cover of your book when it is downloaded. This means you can really have fun with it.

The biggest issue with thumbnails is readability. Images and text that look great at full size may be completely obscured at thumbnail size. Stick with clean lines and clear text for maximum impact. Have a look at the current top bestsellers on Kindle (click through for full size image):

Which ones work? I’d say that ‘One Day’ and ‘Six Seconds’ both work brilliantly. The images are simple but striking and the text is completely readable (with the exception of David Nicholls’ name). In ‘That Summer in Ischia’ the colour scheme is too subtle and so both the image and the text are indistinct, as well as the text being very small. For Victoria Fox’s ‘Hollywood Sinners’ there is insufficient contrast to read the author’s name properly and the whole cover looks messy and cluttered. ‘Three Weeks To Say Goodbye’ is pretty good and ‘Chosen’ is another one that has faded and become indecipherable at this size.

You don’t have to be able to see every detail of the cover but you do have to make sure that the thumbnail works. It’s simple to resize your cover image before uploading it to see what it will look like. The most important thing is that the title is legible. Ideally you also want at least one strong part of the image to be visible too, as in One Day and Six Seconds.

2. The rectangle
On Amazon, your thumbnail and your cover image will appear on a white background. This means that your book cover does not have to be rectangular. I’ll say that again, because as far as I can see, no one else seems to have realised this. (PLEASE link me to counter-examples in the comments if you have any.)

Your book cover does not have to be rectangular.

My first book cover was rectangular with a white background. I liked the fresh, bright look this gives, but I hadn’t realised what an effect it would have against the white background of the Amazon site:

It doesn’t have an edge. Fortunately, I think there’s enough stuff on the cover (including the image which does have an edge) that it doesn’t totally disappear into the background. But if I did it again, I would put a border around it, to define the image as a book. But then I thought, what if I play with that edge? So this is the cover I have uploaded for Tycoon:

It almost looks as though the rings have been laid on top of the book, rather than being part of the cover image. Note that this technique only works when you know what background the image will be on. For Smashwords, I stuck with a rectangular cover because they export the book to so many different retailers that I needed it to conform to the standard. And as I said, the actual cover image that comes with the book download is rectangular too, to fit on your screen. But I love the way that the thumbnail image can stand out a little bit, just by playing with its shape.

I don’t think I’d want to take this technique too far. It needs to be clear that what you are selling is a book. But still, there’s fun to be had.

3. Colour
Lots of ereaders are black and white, not colour, so the cover image that your readers download needs to work in black and white as well as colour. Check what your cover looks like in black and white before you publish it and, if necessary, make changes to the contrast, add in extra shadows/highlights etc, to make it work.

I am not an expert on these matters, but I hope that’s helpful to some of you. Please do share any thoughts, tips or advice in the comments. Or examples of great ebook covers. The Book Designer is launching a new ebook cover design award and I’m really looking forward to seeing what kinds of thing do well in that.