What I Learned as a Book Cover Contest Judge

really bad book cover artAmong my favorite internet acronyms is AFLE. Translated loosely, the letters stand for another freaking learning experience. (Indies Unlimited is a safe-for-work site, okay?) I don’t know about you, but for me, that acronym perfectly sums up this whole indie author thing. No matter what your background, there’s going to be some component of this jack-of-all-trades business in which you’re going to need a crash course. Or professional help.

Art is one of those things for me. In school, I was an A or B student in everything but art. (Well, and physical education. But so far, nobody’s expected me to do pushups for my books, thank goodness.) So imagine my dismay when I realized I was going to have to design covers for my books. Luckily, I have a couple of friends who are much better in graphic arts than I am, as well as two daughters who know their way around Photoshop. I treasure their advice to this day.

Still, I had no business participating in a cover art contest – much less being a judge. And yet, there I was, in a secret Facebook group, looking over contest entries and discussing what made each a contender or – gulp – a failure.

And yet, I’m glad I had the opportunity, because I learned a lot about what makes a book cover great.

One thing that surprised me was that we weren’t just judging indie book covers. Some professional cover artists entered our contest, too, and that set the bar higher than perhaps some entrants expected. But on the other hand, it was probably a good thing, as it simulates what actually happens on the shelves of your favorite virtual bookstore. After all, your eBook is going to be sitting right next to books with pro covers in readers’ search results. So you might as well assume you’ll be competing against professional work from the get-go.

That’s the first thing I learned: Your cover needs to look professional. I hate to tell you this, but we rejected obviously homemade covers immediately. Here are the kinds of the things that got an instant thumbs-down:

  • A blurry photo, or a photo blown up to the point where it was grainy.
  • Badly-composed photos – often a landscape shot with no foreground focal point.
  • Nearly all hand-drawn artwork. We gave a little leeway here for children’s books, or if the artist was going for a cartoony feel (but the book’s category and blurb had better support that sort of lighthearted mood). Otherwise, anything hand-drawn had to be pretty close to perfect.
  • Photoshop collages – the sort of thing where the author wanted to get every important element of the plot onto the cover, so they took a bunch of photos, trimmed them badly so that looked like they were cut out of magazines, and plopped them all into some sort of background. The result is a cover that’s too busy and too difficult for a reader to parse at first glance. Plus the details will get lost in the thumbnail.

Which brings me to the second thing I learned: Your cover needs to be legible in thumbnail size. “How does it look in thumbnail?” was the single most-asked question by the judges. By “thumbnail,” I mean a picture that’s about an inch wide by about 1.5 inches tall. The most important elements of your cover – title, author’s name, and photos or graphic elements – all have to be legible at that size, because that’s how readers are going to see your cover first.

Here’s how to check: Open a new document in Word. Insert, or copy-and-paste, your cover image on the blank page. If you don’t see a frame around the image with little squares at the corners and a handle at the top, click on the image. Then click-and-hold one of the little squares at one corner – it doesn’t matter which one – and move it diagonally toward the opposite corner. Your image will start to shrink. Stop when it’s about an inch wide. Now, look at your cover again. Can you see what’s going on? Can you read the title? Can you read your name? If you can’t – even when you know what it says – imagine a reader coming to it cold.

AFLE, right?

(Don’t forget, we have a BUNCH of FREE book cover advice and resources on our… that’s right… Book Cover Resource page.)

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

20 thoughts on “What I Learned as a Book Cover Contest Judge”

  1. It surprises me, still, how many Indie authors who have published several books still don’t understand the “thumbnail” rule. I often say if you can’t rewad it on a normal postage stamp the font is too small. Maybe that’s cutting it a wee bit tight but that’s often the size that shows up in many places – certainly smaller than those here in the right hand column.

      1. Right? 😀 Yvonne, I think part of the problem for new authors is that they’re tentative about trumpeting their name in big letters. If you’re used to 12- or 14-point type, seeing your name in a much bigger font size seems egotistical or something. But the font really, truly has to be big enough to see when the image is really small. You almost have to encourage your inner egotist to get it right. 😀

  2. Excellent post, and nails down the most important fundamentals. The rest is pretty much style, but if the basics aren’t attended to, no amount of style can make up for that.

  3. I’m not sure the type size is as big a deal as we tend to think. SOMETHING about the cover has to be appealing enough to make people click on it and take a look, but especially for unknown authors, that legibility at thumbnail may not matter as much as having a single compelling image that communicates genre. Once you’re Stephen King — yeah, sure. But if you go to Amazon and plug in Kindle fiction bestsellers, you’ll notice some stuff you can’t read in quite a few bestselling titles.

    1. Agreed! If you’re struggling with book cover design and can’t hire someone, you could do worse than buying one of his cover templates. Canva also has some templates for Kindle covers that are VERY cheap. I find them a great way to play around. (Just for the ebooks so far, though.)

  4. Way up there on my list of criteria is that your cover has to match what’s “normal” in your genre at the moment. Creativity can only go so far, and then it starts to mislead potential readers.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Gordon. That was another thing we looked at pretty early on — does this cover image feel like it fits the book’s genre? One way to double-check is to look at covers of books in your genre. But on the other hand, beware of using a cliched cover image — i.e. the headless guy with washboard abs for a romance novel. Although I guess nekkid torsos still sell books, because people are still using them…

  5. When I designed the first cover for my fantasy novel, I put my name big, as big as it could get across the front cover. My theory was, if Nora Roberts could do it, I could. When I scan the book shelf at our grocery story, the first thing you see are the author’s name–their brand. Many readers buy a book by the author’s name, not the title.

    I didn’t know I was going in the right direction back then, but I know now.

    Those book covers that were first to go in the contest are easy to spot at Amazon. They look unprofessional. The blurry photos and hand-drawn images scream amateur and even though they may have written a great story, many will pass them by.

Comments are closed.