Judging a Cover by its Book?

A few years ago, a friend, who was about to self-publish a nonfiction book, asked for my opinion of the title and cover design since I was a published author. I commented that it was lovely, but I knew nothing about the book by its cover. The title seemed odd to me, the font almost unreadable, and the image was kind of hard to decipher based on the title. The displeased response was, basically, “You have to read the book to understand the title and cover.”

When Marvin and I decided to self-publish a book about building our suspension bridge, we came up with a very long and revealing title: Building a Small Cable Suspension Bridge with the Cable Locking System. It’s a little cumbersome, but had we not also been marketing Marvin’s patented cable locking system, the title would have been shorter, but it would still be pretty obvious that the book was about building a small cable suspension bridge. We used key words that exactly described what the book was about. Sales have been beyond our expectations and even paid for the patent, although nobody has bought it, alas. We’re working on our next DIY book. Stay tuned.


So, back to our friend. I thought about my not very helpful critique, and realized that maybe a mysterious title and design might just draw in a reader. And to the author’s credit, he wound up describing the content on the back cover, which would be jacket copy in a hardcover book. I definitely would have bought the book based on the back cover description if the subject interested me.

The problem remains that many readers shop online, i.e. Amazon, and they browse book covers, quickly. Actually they don’t even browse, they scroll, and the book covers are postage stamp size. The book that makes them stop and learn more needs to have both a title and cover design that grabs them and tells them something about the book before they move on to the online description (which by the way, the author of a self published book also determines). Be it mysterious, obvious, or shocking, as Frannie Jackson writes in her Paste article about book covers, “The simple reality is that a striking design can influence whether we’ll pick up a title or leave it untouched on a shelf.”  That includes the cyber shelf.

You can check out Paste magazine’s best book covers of 2016 here and some nicely designed nonfiction book covers on ‘s site here. There are other terrific designers showing their creations out there, but these are a good start.

If you are self-publishing a book, remember that unless you are a big name author or you are publishing a book about a hot or familiar topic, most people will judge your book by its cover, including reviewers. Did you know that Goodreads does not require someone to read a book to give it a review? I have a letter from them that explains that’s fine with them because they trust their members… So. Given the huge onslaught of self-published titles, potential readers may be doing that decisive quick perusal more than ever. Make them want to stop and read more!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. The cover of “Building a Small Cable Suspension Bridge” is as perfect a nonfiction book cover as one can get. When I give talks on how to self-publish, I first distinguish between the needs of fiction book covers and the needs of nonfiction book covers, and then I show them the cover of your book. In nonfiction, the cover tells you what the book is about. Suspension bridge! Cable! Small! You photographed and designed a perfect nonfiction cover!!!

    1. Robin Koontz says:

      Thanks, Barbara. There’s also the option to alter size of the font so that you have a subtitle, which is sort of what we did. Thanks for using our book for an example in your workshop! Did you recall I almost went with a different photo but friends balked at it? So I also think getting opinions, and taking them to heart, is a good idea. Just be prepared to hear what you don’t want to hear.

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