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Marketing 101: Book Cover Design

Marketing 101: Book Cover Design

Some proverbs or old sayings are eternal (like the Book of Proverbs in the Bible). Some have less longevity … like this old saying:

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

That might have been true when all books were hardcovers with little more than the title and author name. But in the modern age, the book cover is valuable marketing space—the book marketing equivalent of a highway billboard.

Because we do judge books by their covers. I’m a freelance editor, so I’d like to be able to say that the most important aspect of a book is the writing and editing. But that’s not what I think.

Observing as a reader and potential buyer, I have to say that the most important aspect is …

Cover Design

Why? Bad or insufficient editing can be so annoying that readers react by not finishing the book, leaving critical reviews, or not buying your next book. Even worse, they may report the book to Amazon as being of poor quality, which leaves the author rushing to find and make sufficient changes that Amazon accepts the book again.

But all that assumes the reader has picked up the book (or downloaded the Kindle sample). And they won’t do that if they’re not attracted by the cover.

It’s Not About You.

True story:

An author posted her book cover in a Facebook group. She may or may not have been looking for feedback (the group allows book cover posts if people are looking for feedback, but not as a new book cover announcement). Anyway, the group offered her feedback on how she could improve the cover. Several people commented that the cover image didn’t look professional, and didn’t reflect the genre.

It was good feedback. But the author rejected it: her son had painted the cover image, and she loved it.

That was her mistake. Whether you like the cover isn’t important. It’s a bonus if you do (of course), but if you’re the only person who loves your cover, it’s likely you’ll be the only person who wants to by your book. Because cover design isn’t about the author.

It’s About the Reader.

Cover design is about the reader.

And not every reader. Just as no book will appeal to all readers, no cover should appeal to all readers. Your cover needs to appeal to your target reader. (You do have a target reader, right?)

So your book cover has to be designed to appeal to the kind of people who read books like yours.

More specifically, cover design is about genre.

It’s About Genre.

Your cover needs to look like the covers from the leading books in your genre. You need a cover that functions like a freeway billboard: the reader who’s skimming past will immediately know the genre and know whether it’s a book they might be interested in.

Not like a black cover with yellow writing I saw recently. It was for a young adult Christian novel based on the story of Daniel. I shows the cover to a couple of friends without telling them the genre, and they couldn’t even tell whether the book was fiction or nonfiction, let alone the genre or target reader age.

Your book needs to blend in to the Amazon shelf as a book that looks like it belongs. You don’t want to be the author of the book that stands out because it looks wrong. That’s like turning up to school in a blue dress and realising the school uniform is brown. You stand out, and not in a good way.

At the same time, you want your cover design to be unique.

You don’t want to use the stock image of the 1880s woman in the blue dress peering through the curtains out the window. Or the stock image of the woman in the white dress and hat holding a tea cup and saucer. Both are lovely images, but they’re overused.

Hint: if you’ve seen the image on a cover before, you don’t want to use that image. It’s overused. Keen readers in your genre will recognise it … and possibly ignore your book because they think they’ve already read it.

Check out the books in your genre. Know the trends. Follow the trends enough so your book fits in, but not so much that it looks like every other book in the genre. Brand your book covers, so people who see a thumbnail in passing on Twitter will stop and click, because they recognise the cover.

It’s About Brand.

Here are a couple of examples: Rayne Hall and James Scott Bell both write books about writing craft. Rayne Hall’s books on writing craft are consistently branded:

Books by Rayne Hall

James Scott Bell’s books are not:

James Scott Bell writes great content—probably better content that Rayne Hall. But the branding isn’t consistent, which makes his books harder to spot in an overcrowded online store. And even harder to spot on social media.

The same holds true for fiction covers. The best fiction cover shows the genre clearly, and is consistent across a series, or across all the author’s books.

Know the Trends

Book cover trends change. You’ll need to watch the trends and update your covers accordingly.

For example, Robin Jones Gunn’s Glenbrooke series has been through at least five cover designs since Secrets was first published in 1995:

If you want to learn more about cover design without actually becoming a designer, then you’ll need to watch the trends. I have two favourite places to watch cover design trends:


Amazon is the world’s biggest bookstore, which means it has the world’s largest selection of covers, old and new. Check out the new releases or the Top 100 books in your genre for ideas.

The Book Designer

Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer has a monthly cover design contest, showcasing submitted covers along with a brief critique about what’s good or bad.

If you’re traditionally published, then you may not get a lot of say in cover design.

But you need to know enough so that you (or your agent) can go into battle if the publisher gets it wrong. And publishers do get it wrong: the ugly black and yellow cover I mentioned above is a cover from a small traditional publisher.

If you’re self-published, then you have complete control over your cover design.

Complete control to get it right … or wrong. My advice? Make sure you find a cover designer who knows your genre (e.g. one who has designed covers for other authors in your genre), and follow your designer’s advice. If they tell you yellow on black isn’t a good look, then they’re probably right.

What cover design tips do you have?

Dear Editor: How do you keep God first in marketing?

Dear Editor | How do you keep God first in marketing?

Yes, this is another post taken from a question I saw in a Facebook group:

How do you market your books in a way that shows humility and points to Christ?

The fact you’re asking this question means you’re already well on the way to making sure your marketing is focused on God, not you. That’s great.

But I suspect it also means that you’ve bought into the common lie about what marketing is—that marketing is the annoying and sometimes smarmy push-push-push used to make the sale.

It isn’t.

Making the sale is selling. That’s important, but it’s not marketing. Marketing is about creating a product or service a segment of people will want to buy, then bringing that product or services to the attention of that segment.

Traditional marketing focuses on the four P’s: Product, Place, Price, and Promotion.

Even when I studied marketing, back in the dark ages of the early 1990’s, promotion was merely one aspect of marketing. And that was for traditional consumer goods marketing.

Now I believe there are seven Ps for the Christian author to consider: Prayer, Product, Package, Place, Price, Promotion, and Platform.

Let’s take a brief look at each:


As Christians, our marketing should begin in prayer. It should end in prayer. It should be bathed in prayer. We need to be seeking God to know what he wants us to write—what topics, what formats, what word count. We need to know how and when he wants us to publish—publish a physical book or share our writing on a website or blog? Traditional publication or self-publishing?

(The only wrong answer here is vanity publishing; I believe that for 99% of authors or more, a vanity publisher is a bad deal because it’s bad stewardship of our financial resources. Having said that, even the owners and employees of vanity publishers need to hear the gospel, so if that’s the job God has given you, do it and do it well.)


Traditional marketing starts with Product: offering a product (or service) customers will want to buy.

For writers, this means writing the best book or blog post we can write. It means learning to write, and learning to write well. Learning, learning, learning. Then writing, writing, writing. Writing the book or the blog post God calls us to write. It doesn’t matter whether we write fiction or non-fiction, literary or genre. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a book or not. Marketing our writing starts with writing well.

Seek excellence, because excellence honours God.


Package is about taking that product and turning it into something the reader can access.

For a book, this means hiring the best editor we can afford—someone who will take your book apart and put it back together again, only better. Then we hire the best cover designer you can find, someone who will design a cover that appeals to your target reader. Package also includes the formats in which you sell your book: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, podcast.

But not all writing has to be published in a book. Letters, blog posts, magazine articles, devotionals … all are valid ways of writing in obedience to God’s call. Consider how these shorter offerings can be packaged for the reader.

Place and Price

Traditional marketing then moves onto Place and Price: distributing our Product to our target customers (Place) at a Price they are willing to pay.

For traditionally published authors, the publisher will control Place and Price.

If we self-publish, then our big decisions are Place (sell ebooks exclusively through Amazon or do you go “wide” and sell through other retailers as well) and Price (largely driven by what readers expect to pay, which is related to what other authors in your genre charge). Remember, the worker is worth his or her hire, so there is nothing wrong with charging for our work. Paul supported his missionary journeys by making tents.

We might decide to give our work away, either as a free book or by writing for a blog. That’s a valid decision if we’re writing for God, as “free” removes one of the barriers to making a sale. But making our writing freely available doesn’t mean our writing is read—that’s going to come back to Product and Promotion.


Promotion is the final aspect of traditional marketing. Traditional promotion was a combination of push and pull marketing—pushing advertisements out to the world at large, and hoping to Pull customers into the store to buy your product.

Now we’re a little more sophisticated. We can target our advertisements on sites like Amazon and Facebook and Goodreads, to (hopefully) focus only on our target customer. We can cross-promote with other authors in the same genre. And we can promote ourselves and others using our Platform.


Platform is my preferred method of promotion because it reflects the approach I believe we need to take to marketing: to identify our audience, and seek to serve them.

Platform allows us to emulate Jesus by serving others, not ourselves.

What does this mean? Well, serving ourselves is easy to identify: it’s the author who tweets “buy my book” every six minutes of every hour of every day. It’s the author who constantly pins her own book covers. It’s the author who constantly posts quotes from her own books on Facebook and Instagram. It’s the me-me-me author who never talks about anyone but herself, who never responds to comments or social media mentions because her “marketing” is all on autopilot so she can focus on obsessing about her sales (and grouching because she’s in Facebook jail for self-promoting her book in a hundred Facebook groups in quick succession).

Serving others is harder. It requires more up-front thought, and more effort than scheduling the same 1,600 Tweets each week.

Serving others is about:

  • Identifying our target reader.
  • Working out what subjects our target reader is interested in.
  • Serving our current and potential readers by finding and posting content about those subjects.

There is a name for this: content marketing.

The principle of content marketing is that we don’t directly market ourselves. Instead, we share information that serves others, and use that as the way to attract potential readers. It’s about being real and authentic, about engaging with our readers and turning them into fans.

Good content marketing follows the 80:20 rule:

  • 80% of what you share is information (content) that will interest and engage your target reader.
  • Only 20% of what you share is direct self-promotion. And even that should still be designed to interest and engage your target reader.

If we’re actively marketing to a Christian audience, then some of that content will point directly to Christ. For instance, we can share:

  • Bible quote memes.
  • Inspiring Christian quotes.
  • Devotional posts.
  • Deeper thoughts on God and the Bible.

We can still point to Christ even while marketing to a mainstream audience. For example, one Christian author I know who writes general market romance has a link to Bear Grylls advertising the Alpha course on the bottom of her website. Another is a pastor’s wife, and often posts about church services or events. Others are more subtle—you can see their Christian faith come through in their writing. It’s not overtly Christian, but it still points to Christ for those who have ears to hear.

Our focus on on serving your audience.

God has given us a message to share through our writing. He therefore wants us to share that message. To do otherwise would be to hide our light under a bushel.

And we can share that in humility and in a Christ-like manner. Jesus was the Messiah, yet didn’t promote himself. He said very unpromotional things, like the least shall be first. He pointed to His Father in all things. We can do the same.

This method of marketing isn’t going to produce instant results.

It’s playing a long game. So is God. It’s giving without expectation. As Jesus did. It’s about delivering the message God has placed on our hearts, and trusting the Holy Spirit to get it to the people who need it.

At the end of the day, if we are focused on God, if we are writing and publishing what you believe He has called us to write and publish, then we’re going to have to trust Him with the results. Bathe our writing in prayer, sow our seeds, serve others, and trust God to bring His harvest in His time.

Meanwhile, if you’d like help in establishing a Christ-centred Platform, click here to check out the Kick-Start Your Author Platform Marketing Challenge.

What content can you share that will promote your writing and point to Christ?