How To Create A Book Cover That Actually Converts To Sales
When I give advice to authors about publishing, the most common issue I discover – and the one that I get the most push-back on – is their cover fails to do what a cover is supposed to do. In modern times, with the majority of book sales online, there are a ton of new considerations that seem to be lost on people. It is not a good idea to just create an aesthetically pleasing cover, otherwise a top 100 eBook list on Amazon would look like an art gallery. Allow me to explain why a good cover is not just a good looking cover, but what actually makes a cover effective – you might be a bit surprised!
Rule 1: A cover needs to reflect the contents of the book, lest you have a low sell-through rate, and get destroyed by Amazon's algorithm.
This is essentially the only rule, in the sense that, I have not seen a book defy this rule and be successful, unless enormous amounts are spent forcing it to the top of the charts. A cover transmits information to the potential reader, and if you are sending the wrong signal, you will reduce the amount of readers receptive to your book who pick it out, and you will increase the amount of people who pick out your book and put it right back, because it’s not what they were looking for.
Before, when all books were sold in physical bookstores, this was a bad result.
Now, in the era of algorithms, this is absolutely disastrous. When you publish a book on, say, Amazon, (Amazon is a market leader – if a store is not using algorithms such as Amazon’s yet, it will be in the future) it gets a certain amount of free promotion – it might not be much, but you will always get initial sales. Amazon uses these initial sales to figure out what kind of reader to serve this book to in the future, and also to determine if it is a book that will be popular with their readers. Every sale, including direct sales (someone purchasing after clicking a link in your mailing list, for example) or sales made after searching for a specific keyword on Amazon, is of course used to determine your books relevancy and ranking. But, that is only scratching the surface. Amazon measures all user behavior to see what kind of person wants your book, and with an “inaccurate” cover, you will be fighting an uphill battle.
Here are some examples:
Susan searches the Kindle Store for the search term “teen murder mystery” and scrolls through the results. On page five is your book, because you put the term “teen murder mystery” in your keywords and subtitle. She is looking for a dark murder mystery, perhaps in a highschool setting, because she is a fan of Riverdale. Your book, despite being a teen murder mystery, has a bright white cover and two adult detectives on the cover. She fails to notice that you made the “i” in the title look like a knife, or that it says teen murder mystery on the front, because she is casually scrolling, glancing at the cover and title separately as she scrolls.
Repeat this a few times, and unless you have an enormous surge of sales, Amazon will not put your book back in the results for “teen murder mystery.” That is because they have constantly shifting, always working algorithms, and that algorithm can see you have a 0% click through for that term.
You paid an artist to create a stunning, captivating & beautiful cover. Your main character’s name is River, and the fantasy story is about how the evil witch named Winter (the same name as your ex-wife, but we’re going to ignore that for now) will drain the land of all it’s magic, unless River can destroy the magical rock (which is totally not a metaphor for a wedding ring) that she uses to manipulate you- I mean, manipulate the magical realm. So your cover is an immaculate fantasy landscape, showing one half of the cover as summer and the other as winter, with a river flowing from the summer and freezing up completely as it approaches the winter. A great metaphor with real meaning, and readers will notice that the winter freezing the river represents Winter, the witch, taking over River’s life. This is a bad cover, because it only has meaning to you and people who have already read the book. If someone has already read your book, they don’t care about your cover – they care about how good of a book it was! This cover only has meaning to those who already read the book, and does little to signify anything about the book except that is a fantasy book. Do you know how many fantasy books are published every single day? You need to be displaying not just a general concept, but where your book fits in, you should be showing your sub-genre and even your sub-sub-genre.
Countless people are intrigued by your nice cover, and they click to view more. They read the description, maybe read a bit of the preview, but since the cover was generic you cast a very wide net, and a lot of the fish aren’t biting. So, they click in, look around, and click out to continue their search. Now, you’ve destroyed your click-through rate – the percentage of people who buy your book, after checking it out. Now you’re not just hurting your book’s ranking for a specific search term as in example 1, but you’re hurting your ranking for EVERY search term. Amazon wants exactly what you want – to make sales. The algorithm might be difficult to decipher, but the goals of the algorithm are extremely simple – to serve customers books that they will buy. If your book gets 1 sale for every 100 clicks, and another book gets 10 sales for every 100 clicks, which one will the algorithm serve first? If your book has a high sell-through rate, then it’s worth it for Amazon to display your book in a wider set of keyword searches, so that they can keep your book in searches it’s often selected, and remove it from searches where it is not selected. There are way too many books on Amazon for them to just offer your book to customers even if it has a proven history of low sales. It’s not a charity.
So you can see the issue – by casting a wider net, and getting more interested people to click on your book, you are hurting yourself. You should make sure that the right people are clicking on your book, and only when you’re sure you’ve done all you can in that regard, then and only then, should you be worrying about making it as attractive in general as you can.
Of course, if you have an enormous amount of money, you could drive so many sales and inspire so many searches for your novel that Amazon can rank your book for many search terms, but why create an uphill battle for yourself? If you have those kinds of resources, you are probably not designing your own cover anyway, and the experts you are paying should already understand this concept. I say should, because many small publishers seem to barely consider Amazon’s algorithm – if you are outsourcing your book launch, make sure you do your homework.
Rule 2: A cover should stand out, especially when thumbnail size, and against a white background. It also needs to look good in low resolution, thanks to Amazon's "Look Inside" feature.
While this might seem obvious, your cover will be seen by many more people when it is shrunk to a small size in the search results, than people will see it full size. Amazon does not release data on Amazon searches, but for paid Amazon ads, where advertisers are constantly doing all they can to get a high click through rate, an average click-through rate is about 0.4%, and that is with them cutting all even slightly irrelevant searches. Amazon will put your book in the back-pages of all kinds of searches, many more than any advertiser would think of, based on unknown (to us) user behavior, so we can probably imagine that the click through rate of a normal search would be at best the same, around 0.4%, or maybe even far lower, say 0.1%.
So, a lot of people will be seeing your cover in the above format – way more than will be seeing your cover in it’s full glory.
Almost all booksellers, Amazon, Google Play, etc have white backgrounds.
So, designing a cover that doesn’t look good when shrunk down to a small size against a white background, is like cutting off your foot before a marathon. Here is an example of a cover that looks great in search display vs one that does not.
The former was crafted by a team of very experienced people at a Big 5 Publisher, and the latter appears purchased by an amateur or a small publisher. While the second book is doing OK, it is clearly due to the author’s amazing writing, as she doesn’t seem to have a single book under 5 stars, despite them all having many reviews. This pains me to see – someone succeeding, sure, but tied down and rate-limited by a quite easily fixed deficiency. The cover is cramped, a bit jarring, and kind of corny. Sadly, it is not even improved when viewing it in full size – because Amazon displays books in very low resolution in the “Look Inside” feature. This cover has an enormous amount of extremely fine details, which viewed in low resolution, looks really bad. Here is how it looks on my monitor.
I can guarantee that this cover, as it was received by the author, was quite good. Yet, due to a lack of understanding about the lay of the land, this Ferrari failed where a Jeep would have excelled. So consider your novel as it will be displayed to the customer.
Rule 3: Don't Overpay
You are the one who knows your book the best. To accomplish Rule 1, you need to be the one to come up with the cover, and direct a graphic designer or illustrator to create it. As such, you are paying people for their talent, and not their creativity. As there are a plethora of people in countries where wages are much cheaper, that are extremely talented and reasonably priced, and you will buy this cover online, there is absolutely no reason for you to pay too much. I have heard people paying over $2,500 for a cover – I have never paid over 300, at the very most, and I have extremely high quality covers. Don’t get ripped off. Expensive does not mean good.
Expensive can even mean worse. Take as an example, people who contact a high profile graphic designer or their favorite artist, and commission a cover. They buy the most expensive cover they can possibly afford, and it comes back to them. There’s a quick revision needed, that would greatly improve the cover’s efficiency. Except, Mr. Snooty artist made it perfect, of course, so he’s not going to re-paint or re-draw the cover just to change one little detail. Besides, you commissioned one piece – he cannot change his work as easy as a laid back 26 year old graphic designer from Ukraine can, and his 14 page contract clearly stated that this payment was for one completed cover only, the revisions are $250 ea and totally optional on his end. He’s loaded and does not even appreciate the work or the high price you paid for it, and besides, he’s found some other prey in the meantime, and he wants to bang their illustrations out instead of doing your revision. Whereas many lower priced designers don’t even charge for revisions, they will keep revising it until you love it. Instead of making a rich person slightly richer, bless yourself and a hard-working designer.
Rule 4: Emulate the best.
A book should stand out, of course, but it should be eye-catching because it really nails the genre in a unique way. If you just make your book different, you’re essentially ignoring the readers – you’re saying that their opinion, and their sales, don’t matter, and you will not take any of the objective data about their preferences (such as Top 100 most popular lists, in your specific sub-genre) on board.
Browse your niche, see what books are doing well. These are the books that were elevated above the masses – what wisdom can you find in their covers? What trends do you notice, that you want to emulate – and what trends do you want to throw away, or alter, or even parody? You need to know your competition, and having a book that looks like it belongs in the race will make readers more likely to bet on it. Every single person buying your book is gambling, they’re taking the chance that your book will be the best option for them, vs the countless other options. Don’t be so arrogant and haughty that you believe they should all pick your book, just because it’s yours. They don’t know you, they don’t know that you are special and the universe has pre-ordained your book to be successful, because you really really care about it. They didn’t get the message, because nobody sent it.
Send the right message with your cover – nobody else will.