images for book coversAs a self-publisher, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from many self-published writers, and to read the review copies of some fantastic self-published books. Through that process, I’ve found that a surprisingly large number are great books that are well edited and carefully crafted. I’ve also found that the overwhelming majority of the book covers don’t reflect the quality of the writing. Invariably, the substandard book covers put self-published writers at an unfair disadvantage. If you have previously published a book with a lack-luster cover, I encourage you to take what you learn here and submit a new design to your publisher or printer. Many, including CreateSpace, will accept new book covers free of charge.

Images for Book Covers trigger Memory

Because we visualize ideas as pictures rather than words, our brains can recognize images instantly. In fact, research shows that we process images up to 60,000 times faster than we process text, which is why we can recognize a stop sign, long before we’ve read the word stop. We also have an inherent preference for remembering visual imagery. It’s often easier to recall the cover of a book we saw in a store than it is to remember the title. Pictures make book covers memorable.

In addition to instant recognition and improved recall, images trigger emotion. Pictures of open landscapes, for example, generate calm and relaxed feelings. Distorted or disfigured images, on the other hand, evoke reactions such as fear or disgust. Images influence how we feel, and our feelings influence how we shop. images for book covers

Book covers that spark emotion create a connection. It’s easier for us to buy something we feel connected to, even when the feeling or attachment is completely irrational. Behavioral economics tells us that emotions are behind nearly every single purchase we make—from lawn tools to peanut butter.

The emotional component of graphics has so much effect on purchasing behavior, that billions of dollars are spent annually on imagery designed to influence the way we feel about products, services, and even ideas. Books are no exception. Book covers that contain images communicate faster and are more likely to create an emotional connection with the reader. It’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of bestsellers, regardless of genre, have graphics or images on their book covers.

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If you have previously shied away from images, this article will encourage you to take a second look.

 Images that Work for Book Covers

images for book coversEffective images for book covers draw on at least one of three devices: narrative, movement and depth. Narrative pictures tell us something about the book, such as the mood or setting. Movement inevitably catches attention as our eyes try to grab it, and depth (created with a vanishing point or shadow) holds our interest longer than pictures without it. Using all three, the first image of this article invites attention with movement, holds our interest with depth, and reveals a lively setting in its narrative.

Images with Narrative

Cover images convey more information than words can, and it happens almost instantly. With the right narrative picture, book covers become memorable and the titles become far less significant. To illustrate this point, four book covers are displayed below with the titles removed. In a single glance, it’s easy to make a well-informed guess about the genre or mood of the book, based solely on the graphics.

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Images with Movement

The suggestion of movement on book covers captures our attention as it brings a sense of activity to an otherwise motionless page. One look at the images below and you can can anticipate the splash of tea on the table and the fall of vegetables into the bowl. You can almost sense the approach of the dominoes and feel the coolness of spring air as it passes through the dandelion.

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Images with Depth

Depth works by creating the appearance of three dimensions rather than two. Lines can recede into the background for a quieting effect, or pop off the page with enthusiasm. Images with depth can be used on book covers to arrest our attention for a moment, and invite us to linger for a closer look. Notice how a horizon in the distance, or a simple shadow, creates a three-dimensional experience that sets the mood in different ways.

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 Book Covers Create Expectations

In addition to contributing the rules of layout (A Focal Point that Gets Noticed and Layout Part 1: Rule of Thirds & Diagonal Scan) one of the most important things your images must do is set the appropriate mood and create an accurate expectation for the material. A business book on investing, for example, should convey a level of expertise and instill confidence that the information inside is accurate and reliable. That same message would be unsuitable for a romance novel or a coming-of-age story, for instance.

Images of book coversWhen it comes to instructional or informational book covers (a majority of nonfiction), consumers tend to prefer images that are specific to the material. Note, I said material, not the title. The book cover for Wheat Belly, shown left, illustrates this point well. The image of a stack of bagels directly relates to the material and message of the book. Note, however, it’s not a visual interpretation of the title words (a piece of toast next to a bloated stomach). Though such an image would be relevant, it would lack appeal in the same way that obvious or unsubtle writing does.

Below  When mood or genre is ignored, and graphics are based on the title instead of the material, the results can be embarrassing, if not disastrous. Though it features both lawn and garden flowers, the first of the two book covers below sets the wrong tone for a how-to book like Lawn & Garden Care.

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While it may seem obvious, you might be surprised how often this kind of mistake is made on self-published book covers.  The image should reflect the book, rather than the title, as shown in the second example, above, for the romantic tale, This House of Mine.

book covers exampleWhen you can’t find the right image for your non-fiction book covers, consider using other graphic elements or smaller stand-alone images. Read Small Images, Color Blocks and Lines for more on those.




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Fiction titles often provide more leeway where the cover image is concerned. While you can find many examples of  images on book covers that are highly specific to the book’s material, you can find even more that aren’t. This is good news for those of you who publish fiction because without a studio and a professional photographer, you’re unlikely to find an image that just happens to suit your book and/or characters perfectly. The book on the left provides an example. It’s a New York Times bestseller, yet the cover image could work for almost any genre in fiction.


That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!

Next: Graphics and Images Part 2: Layout

Previous: Copy Placement: Where do the words go?

By Stacie Vander Pol