Friday, October 15, 2010

Book cover design tips

(left click to enlarge)

The back cover of my Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults) explains the book, helps sell the book, and is funny to read. doesn't automatically put back covers online, but you can do it yourself.

Your back cover

Every book that has a front cover also has a back cover (unless someone tore it off). In a physical bookstore, the back cover is an important selling piece. Your back cover is an advertisement! Make the most of it. It gives you an excellent opportunity to convince a prospective customer to purchase the book she or he has plucked from a shelf or display.

It’s very different when you are selling online. does not automatically show your back cover. If you want potential customers to see it and read it, you have to up­load the image yourself by clicking on "Share your own customer images."

If you want your book to be sold by booksellers, your back cover must show an ISBN and its associated bar code, which usually go at the bottom of the cover.

It’s customary to indicate the book’s classification, such as “humor” or “gardening,” so bookstore people know where to put it. There’s no rule against listing two classifications such as “history” and “geography” if they both apply. Find out how competitive books are classified, and check the huge book subject list at the Book Industry Study Group:

Here’s what else you should include:
  1. What the book is about and why people should buy it
  2. Comments (“blurbs”) from readers and reviewers if available
  3. Your brief biography, to establish yourself as an authority in the field you are writing about
  4. Your photo—a studio portrait, not an amateur snapshot
  5. Name of publishing company, with city, state and web URL
  6. List price for United States and possibly other countries, particularly Canada 
What goes on the spine?

Even if all of your sales are online and you don’t care about be­ing noticed on a shelf at Borders, a legible spine title will make it easier for your customers to pluck your book from their own bookshelves.

On a crowded shelf in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, often the only sign of your life will be a narrow spine squeezed in among dozens of competitors.
Because of the limited space available (the spine on a 200-page book is only about a half inch wide) you have to consider the trade-offs between visibility and contents.

The more you try to squeeze onto the spine, the smaller each word will be. It’s important to be as big and bold as possible. In thin books, you probably won’t have room for a subtitle, and maybe not enough room for even your own name.

This is where an experienced designer like Joel Friedlander can make a big difference. By using a narrow typeface, your spine can have more words in the same space. Lettering should strongly contrast with the background color. It may be necessary to omit your name or use just your last name.

It may be tempting to omit your own company’s logo to save space. It should be there, even in small size, because it’s a sign of professionalism that’s important for a self-publisher who has her own company. HOWEVER--if your book is published by a self-pub­lishing company, its logo may hurt, not help.

The spine size is determined by the thickness of the book, which is determined by the number of pages and the thickness of the paper—so you can have only a rough layout of the spine until the number of pages is finalized.

Cream-color paper is usually a bit thicker than white, so if you want the biggest possible spine, use cream pages. The difference is small, but probably perceptable on books with about 200-250 pages or more. A 200-page book in cream could have a spine width of .454 inches, compared to .424 inches in white.

I've recently done two 366-page books with white pages. Their spines would be about 7/32nds (or maybe 7/64ths?--I misplaced my calculator)  of an inch wider if I used cream paper. They were thick enough, and white was right.

It’s possible that the spine text won’t be centered between the front and back covers, so leave some extra white space (or whatever color you are using for your background) around the text. Your publisher or printer can advise you how much clearance is required between your text and the edges (the safety zone). A sixteenth of an inch is typical.

Make sure the spine text faces the right way. Every so often—even from major publishing companies—books are printed with inverted spines. The error is usually caught before books are shipped to stores. CD and DVD packages are printed improperly more frequently than book covers are.

When your book is standing up with its front cover facing to the right, the spine text should read from top to bottom. When the book is lying down with its front cover facing upward and the spine towards you, the spine text should read normally, from left to right.

Some books have vertical type stacked up on their spines. It often looks ugly because of the variation in letter width. I usually don’t like it, but I can’t stop you from doing it.

If you have a really thick book, of course, your spine text can be horizontal even when the book is vertical. If you have an incredibly thick book, maybe it should be two books.

Show some originality, please.

It’s smart to study other books and to seek inspiration from successful authors and designers—but don’t be a copycat.
The book on the left has sold millions of copies since 2004. It provides guidance for solving personal and professional prob­lems.
The book on the right, which copied the cover design, typefaces and title style of the bestseller, is a promotional piece from Outskirts Press.
I saw three five-star reviews for the Outskirts book on One was written by an Outskirts author featured in the book, and one was written by an Outskirts employee. That seems a bit sleazy--just like the cover copying.

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