Wednesday, December 05, 2018

You CAN Judge a Book by Its Cover

By Ray Flynt

Part of the Indie Author Series

As difficult as it is to write a book, choosing an indie author path requires attending to so many more aspects of the entire publishing experience. Among the most important is creating a book’s cover.

First, I want to recommend a post by J. Kathleen Cheney from this Indie Author’s Series back in February. She addresses various cover design resources.

A few of my thoughts might overlap, but that’s okay since it never hurts to reinforce good ideas.

We caution against clich├ęs in fiction writing, but in forums like this one, their use can be a shorthand way of making a point. You’ve heard the expression: You can’t judge a book by its cover. True, somewhat. But a cover provides a prospective reader with a sense of what the book might be about. It sets a mood. It reflects your degree of professionalism.

I’ve heard many indie author’s say: “My book is just as good as ________.” (Fill in the blank with a prominent author’s name in their genre.) In addition to writing great prose and telling an amazing story, how a book is “packaged” signals how well it can compete on the same sales platforms as authors with household names.


With so many books available via e-readers, it is important to remember your book cover on the Amazon product page will be this size:

Elsewhere on Amazon (e.g. people who liked this book, also liked) or certainly on smartphones or tablets, your book image might appear even smaller, like this:

How are you going to fill that space? What are the essential elements? Title of the book. Name of the author. Appropriate imagery that gives readers a sense of your story. Easy right?

You might want to include other items on the cover. For example, referencing that it is part of a series. Include a subtitle. That quote from a famous author saying how terrific your book is. A seal indicating a book award. Just remember that the more information you include, it runs the risk of cluttering the cover or being so small that it is unreadable—especially in the smaller size image directly above.

Here’s an example of a cleverly designed cover where the C and D in the title are comprised of other words. Those become difficult to comprehend in this size. Are they readable? Yes. I suspect most people shy of 20/20 vision wouldn’t try. Script or other fancy fonts can also be difficult to decipher when reduced to a small screen image.


Who Killed Vivien Morse? is, in my view, an indie author’s cover that meets all of the basic requirements, and includes an image that – when aligned with the title - evokes a story. This cover was done by the author using a stock photo. I’m not sure how much photo shopping may have been required, if any. Even the typeface used for the title and author’s name adds to the storytelling.

Let’s look at a few more covers.

With Dead Odds, simplicity works. Unlike the book above, it isn’t designed as a story prompt, yet the palm trees suggest a location (happens to be Florida), while the gun indicates mystery/thriller. Effective covers often include a nice contrast between light/dark. Font hints at a contemporary story.

In the Company of Like-Minded Women is historical fiction. This is underscored in the graphics accompanying the text, the hair style and clothing of the woman, and what looks like a background photo of a suffragette rally. The cover nicely blends with a green to blue coloration permitting the woman’s face to stand out.

The Shaman’s Apprentice is a fantasy. Once again, a font is used appropriate to the genre, and we can’t help but note the sparkle in the letter “S.” The dancing woman draws our attention. We see joy on her face. The imagery behind is a bit busy, but we can see a variety of people, including the face of a person who appears to be a chieftain.Two seals indicate awards, even if all the details are difficult to make out.

NOTE: Your reactions to these covers may differ from mine. That’s why we have a comment section below (grin). PLEASE share your thoughts. In fact, I’d like to do a second article about covers for my January posting. Make suggestions.


How everything fits together on the page is important. Take a look at these compelling examples:

In Eye of the Moon, the moon is the focal point of the page, and the designer has wisely chosen to align the title to the right side. Note how effective a black and white image can be. One downside – it would be difficult to read the author’s name if the image were much smaller (Do I sound like I’ve visited the eye doctor for glasses within the past few weeks?). This is a “gothic mystery,” described as Eyes Wide Shut meets Agatha Christie.

I like the subtle design elements of A Black Rose. The rose features in the story. Since we aren’t used to seeing black roses at the florist, its pictorial inclusion on the cover works. Use of white color for the first letter of the word Black draws the eye to that spot, which also happens to be in the middle of the page. The author’s use of red for her name also makes it stand out, without detracting from the title.

Loser’s Road is a great example of a monochromatic cover effect. This book is described as a “contemporary edgy Christian romance.” Not sure all of that reads from the cover design, but we are bound to look at the man walking down the road and wonder about his journey. The lettering for the title and author’s name are nicely back-shadowed to help them pop on the page.


Every genre has its own conventions, not only about the way in which stories are told, but what readers expect to see in covers. Within the mystery genre, stories can range from “cozies” to heart-thumping thrillers. Trimmed to Death, as one of Nancy Cohen’s engaging “Bad Hair Day” series features an artist-designed cover, which fits the cozy genre perfectly. We see desserts, a blue ribbon suggesting a contest, and a knife near the strawberries dripping with blood. This provides an inkling of what we’ll find in the book’s pages.

Lost Stars is an engaging science fiction book cover. Its futuristic-style font meets reader’s expectation for the genre, although it could use more contrast on the author’s name.

In my research, I’ve also noticed author’s referring to works spanning multiple genres. My favorite, a combination of steampunk/fantasy/romance. Hard enough, in my opinion, to come up with a design that meets the needs of one genre.


 I’ve spoken to several authors recently who are looking at the accumulation of covers in their series and considering developing NEW ones in an effort to achieve a more cohesive design theme. Debbi Mack, author of the Sam McCrae Mystery series has done just that. Above are three of her new covers. You can see the consistency in font as well as placement location for the titles and author’s name. Background is subtle for these works of noir fiction. Note the little touches, like bullet holes in the title of one book and a fired shell casing on another. If you are at a place in your writing where you only have the first or second book finished in a series, it might be a good time to consider whether you want to begin develop a cohesive design scheme for the series.


Below are two books that used stock covers where the title and author’s name can be inserted along with imagery, which may – or may not – convey the best sense of the story. While you can save money by using a pre-designed template, you may be selling yourself short in engaging readers.

Leaving you with this thought…

I have one more cover to share. After her successful Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling entered the realm of mystery writing. Here is the cover for that book. I think it proves that after you’ve already sold a gazillion books, it won’t matter what your cover looks like. Until then, hopefully the information explored above will be useful for you.

FEEL FREE to use the comment section below to jump into this conversation. What have been your own joys and frustrations in creating covers for your books? If you’ve found a useful resource, please share it. Wishing everyone an enjoyable holiday season.

Ray Flynt authors two series: Brad Frame mysteries, and one featuring journalist Ryan Caldwell. He’s also written a political suspense, KISSES OF AN ENEMY. A native of Pennsylvania, Ray wrote and performs a one-man play based on the life of Ben Franklin. Ray is a member of Mystery Writers of America and active with their Florida Chapter. He is a life member of the Florida Writers Association. Ray retired from a diverse career in criminal justice, education, the arts, and human services.

Website | Goodreads |

About Unforgiving Shadows

Brad Frame lived a serene but aimless existence on Philadelphia’s Main Line until his mother and sister were kidnapped and murdered.

The tragedy transformed his life.

After helping the police catch their killers, and with the aid of his mentor, Philadelphia Detective Nick Argostino, Brad opened his own private detective agency vowing to help bring justice to others whose lives had been turned upside down.

Eleven years later, Brad is invited to the execution by lethal injection of Frank Wilkie, one of two men responsible for the death of his mother and sister.

Thinking that Wilkie might have something to say, Brad reluctantly attends. Wilkie remains silent, but as Brad exits the prison the chaplain races after him, thrusting the condemned man’s Bible into his hands.

Within hours another man is anxious to get his hands on Wilkie’s Bible, and Brad suspects the motivation could involve the still-missing ransom money.

But as the reason becomes clear, Brad’s world is once again turned upside down. Aided by his associate, Sharon Porter, Brad unravels an eleven-year-old mystery that casts new suspicion on family, neighbors and business associates alike.

UNFORGIVING SHADOWS is the first book in the successful Brad Frame Mystery Series.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble |Indie Bound


  1. A superb tour of cover methods.

    I especially like the tip of considering how the art looks at small size-- because that's where most readers will see it, on an Amazon thumbnail probably viewed on mobile. Hugh Howey and Bella Andre once had an author look at his cover from across a huge dealer's hall to get the same effect, and they suggest designing "iconic" images that work well at that scale.

  2. Very good tips, Ray. And thanks for including my book!