Should there be a face on my book cover?

Book cover design should not be dictated by the author. 
Book cover design should not be dictated by the author.
Book cover design should not be dictated by the author. 

I have been learning that the hard way this past year with my own books and with the books of some of my clients.

The most successful book covers seem to have had minimal direction from the author who has given the designer free rein.

This I know: A good book cover designer knows the book market. Knows what goes on a thriller cover, historical fiction cover, chick-lit, mystery, literary fiction, contemporary romance… you name it.

A good book cover designer knows how to use serif and sans-serif fonts and which you need for your genre. They know about fading and blending and layering and type treatments.

A good book cover designer knows how to make your book fit in yet stand out from the other books in your genre.

A good book cover designer knows how to deliver an emotional promise to the reader.*

I am a member of a family of avid readers. My sister’s house is littered with books. My niece is reading Thieving Forest by Martha Conway. In line is Chris Pavone’s The Expats. We’ve all read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, The Goldfinch by Donna Tart. You see what genre we like.

My niece and her friend are 23. I pointed to the books scattered on the kitchen island and asked them to identify by cover, not title, the ones they wanted to read.


“Why?” I asked.

“Because it draws you in. There are faces.”

“So then why are you reading these, then?”



“Terrible covers. Would totally miss them in a store. But highly recommended.”

I work with many authors who have a great idea for their covers. They have a piece of art they want to use, an artist they want to commission a painting. Some of the images they choose are very complicated, with tiny details that won’t show up in the sizes I’ve pasted in above. I have a very hard time communicating to them they should let it go. Give it to a good designer with a description of the book, a writing sample, and some book covers in your genre you like and don’t like.

Look at the evolution of book covers for The Expats.

The Expats book cover

Even traditional publishers learn lessons during the publishing journey.

At the Willamette Writers Conference I offered up my book for experimentation. The China Road Motorcycle Diaries (title may not stand) was discussed to an embarrassing extent in a cover design session. I won’t show you my mock-ups. Here’s a rough sketch by designer Derek Murphy.

China Road Motorcycle Diaries

This is just a rough sketch!

I think it’s fun. It promises an adventurous ride. But it’s the wrong kind of motorcycle.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “The point is to attract readers.”

“I mean, it’s really really the absolute WRONG kind of motorcycle.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said again. And you know, I think he’s right. The audience agreed.

“And I don’t wear those kinds of pants,” I said.

Guess what he said. 🙂

The conference attendees agreed. I ran it by my nieces and nephews, who are young, avid readers, and they loved it. They even know what kind of motorcycle I rode in China, and the clothes I wore. But the consensus was that this cover promises a fun, adventurous read.

What do you think?



*I first heard this description – “delivering an emotional promise to the reader” –  from Mark Coker at Smashwords and thought it was brilliant. 

  • 4 years ago