Sometimes authors (or, more rarely, publishers) ask a book cover illustration to do the wrong thing. They expect it to tell the story of the book. Sometimes they’ll even go off the deep end, trying to capture all of the key elements of the story in just one picture.

Even if this can be done (and generally it can not), those designing a book cover should always remember that the potential buyer only scans a book cover for as little as 3-6 seconds before either deciding to learn more about it — or going on to another book.

This short period doesn’t allow a complex cover to present its message. It comes across as a garbled communication whose content is lost to the potential buyer. Such a cover serves the book poorly, and the book sales reflect this fact.

A cover must capture a potential buyer’s attention almost immediately. And that’s why the simple “portrait” cover (with one or two characters making eye contact with the potential buyer) is so popular with books as well as movie posters. This style can set the stage quickly, making an emotional connection with the viewer through apparent eye contact, and also telling the viewer through clothing style, background environment, and so forth what the genre is.

In just a second or two, this style of cover can compel the viewer to want to learn more. Such a cover helps to sell the book.

It has been my (often sad) experience that when a book cover tries to tell a big chunk of the story of the book, or even just a scene, it invariably leads to disaster. One picture can’t convey much of a storyline without becoming very convoluted. Worse, when it’s reduced for a catalog, web site, or book review, the subject matter becomes lost in incomprehensible details.

So ideally a book cover should set the stage, showing the main character and the genre of the book, and try to do no more. The cover’s job is to get the potential reader to pause to learn more about the story, to read the blurb and other text about the book. If this material works well in conjunction with the cover, a potential buyer is compelled to pick up the book and buy it.

The cover illustration should tell a tiny story, but it can never tell THE story. That’s the job of the author of the book. A good cover illustration captures a potential reader’s attention, and then the other tools (blurb, reviews, back cover, etc.) take up the job from there.
Duncan Long is a freelance book cover illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, Fort Ross, and many other publishers and self-publishing authors. See his cover illustrations at: