Friday, 7 March 2014

Getting Your eBook Cover Right

Covers make or break book designs. That tiny thumbnail in an Amazon search, on an also-bought page or on a bestseller list is your first and best chance to hook a reader.

A cover's job is simple: get the reader to click on it.

No more, no less. It isn't a retelling of the story. All it needs to do is set the right tone, and get the reader curious enough to read the blurb/ check out a sample or click buy.

Bad covers get no love. If you've made it in paint, you probably won't sell many - you're telling a potential reader that you don't give a shit, that you aren't putting out a professional product.

Mediocre covers are graphically competent, but they're not targeted. If you want a thriller reader, you need the cover to scream "Thriller readers will love this book". 

That means sticking within genre conventions:

· Genre appropriate colours - so red, white and black for thrillers (or horror)

· Low key lighting on the subject to create intrigue 

· Dark backgrounds to emphasise intrigue and unsettle

· Appropriate fonts - condensed, clean and highly legible; sans serif for maximum legibility. CAPS for titles are common

· Don't overdo the content - it isn't a montage. Thrillers are about suspense so the cover should be as much of an enigma as the contents

Of course covers are highly personal, but they should always be broad strokes - in the most basic way, they need to tell us what the story is about. Detail can be added, but it should be an extra layer (and if you're doing print versions, extra detail is needed).

Once you've got a concept, treat it like any other marketing item and SPLIT TEST it. Send variations to multiple people, and see which comes off most favourably. But don't ask opinions willy-nilly. Ask people who are part of your target demographic. If you're selling a thriller, ask thriller readers.

Then back it up - a great cover needs support from a great blurb and an outstanding sample. Make it so interesting that they absolutely have to know what happens next. Make it so they'll die of curiosity if they don't read on. Then deliver on that curiosity with the twists and turns that make a thriller great.

But remember that if your cover is crap, you won't be selling because readers will have passed over you before they even land on your book's Amazon page.

But, I hear you ask, how do you know if your cover is crap? The simple answer is, you test it. Then you test it again, and you keep testing it until you get it right.

There are lots of way to test things out. You can ask on book forums. You can ask on your mailing list. You can ask other authors. All offer something, but opinions are innately subjective. Data isn't.

Let's say a thousand people see a poster (Poster A). Fifty take a closer look.

Next to Poster A is Poster B. The same thousand people see it. A hundred take a closer look.

Objectively, poster B is better than poster A. Advertising isn't about just art. Something can be pretty, clever and original buy miss the mark. Covers are about expectations - it's about saying "this is what I'm selling". If you follow your genre's conventions, and have a concept that is striking, you'll get the views.

I test covers. I'm testing one right now. I do that by placing adverts showing the cover, and linking it back to the book's Amazon page (or a website landing page). I then run that advert for 10,000 impressions plus to get a reasonable data sample, and compare it to other cover options. I use advertising venues like Project Wonderful (subject to genre appropriateness) to do this.

I'll put up several concept, and measure performance. If one gets a CTR of 2% and another manages 4%, I'll go with the 4% cover. Then, I'll split test again by changing a couple of elements (like font or colour) and see which performs better. Then do it again, and again.

An average CTR on a banner ad style spot is 2% on adwords or similar. I've seen 1.3-3.4% on two split tests I've had today. My best have seen 7-13% using very targeted keywords.

For things like Facebook, that CTR average drops to more like 0.13%. So benchmark your comparisons using the same venue as if you compare Facebook to Project Wonderful, you'll be comparing apples to oranges. Like anything scientific, change only one variable at a time so you can isolate cause and effect, and use a statistically significant sample.

Match your graphics to the right ad venue too. I've seen covers that are beautiful and work well at full size in a blog post, but are dire when they get used on Amazon. That was because Amazon display covers at a tiny proportion of their full size - on the page, in bestseller lists and, on also-boughts and in search listings (in descending size order).

Then think about display changes. Some people shop on e-ink devices, so if you have something that works in colour but no in black and white you will damage your sales potential.

There is no clean way to weight each element - but you might guess what proportion of your target market shop in each way, and then aggregate your split test results by device. That'll give you a good idea what does, and doesn't work.

But, don't overdo it either. If you're paying by the hour for graphical assistance, or have a niche book (which could be a small genre, or it could be a smaller market like novellas) then limit your investment in split testing to a reasonable level.

Some genres work better with some designs - symbolic versus literal, big font versus curvy etc. Some designs won't replicate so well from eBook to print (don't forget to get RGB for display and CMYK for print). Others fall down if you change aspect ratio (such as for an audio CD).

Then there are regional considerations. A cover optimised for the US market may not do as well in the UK due to genre expectations. 

In short, know your target market and cater to them. Don't rely on your gut - test everything. Always strive to improve, but keep a tight rein on costs because art can easily eat away at your royalties.

Take a look at the evolution of our first cover - from initial sketch to final product (all images done by Nadica Boskovska - shout if you need her contact details).

Current version


  1. The first post I've ever read that explains how to test your ebook cover's appeal & all important 'clickability'. A couple of questions - what would be a reasonable sum of money to spend on test advertising? and seeing the title "Swan Maiden", did you also market test the title of your debut crime novel?

  2. The Swan Maiden is Nadica's DeviantArt name. We did test the title, but with a focus on SEO, length, memorability, trademark ability etc. I set aside $100 per cover for split testing, but you could do a similar test for free usung Facebook, straw polls and forums. Pinterest too. Just be careful to read any terms and conditions of sites you upload to for any licence terms.

  3. Great article - I definitely want to emphasize the fact that self-published authors need to fully embrace the entrepreneurial aspect of selling their novel. Arguably the most important thing is how your cover looks in a thumbnail image - you need people to click on it! If no one clicks the thumbnail, no one buys. It's your most important form of advertising. I've seen too many self-pubbers attempt to make their own cover, only for their book to flop (even though the quality of the writing was great). In the same vein, I've seen far too many authors overpay for their cover and never break even.

    I got my cover done at BTW. Really fast, and much less expensive than any other site I looked at - her custom covers are cheaper than premades from other sites. The girl who runs it is a pleasure to work with - highly recommended! I did no other promotion, and cracked the amazon's Romance top 100 in my first week - I have to credit the cover for helping to launch my career.