The cover is second in importance only to the book itself.
If the cover doesn’t immediately appeal to your core reader, then that reader won’t even arrive on your first page to read a single word. You must get the cover right. Nothing less than perfect is enough.
That means your cover needs to:
Look good in thumbnail.
The book must work at small scale. Designers always like showing you the hi-res version of their image, which is fine, it needs to look nice at scale, too. Still, your very first task is to shrink that right down and see if it works when tiny.
Look good when compared with competing titles.
I always copy that thumbnail sized image onto a screengrab of an Amazon search page, full of books written by my own direct competition. Then I ask: does my image look competitive on that page? If not, try again.
Inform the reader instantly what kind of book it is.
A YA dystopian cover should announce its YA dystopia instantly. A rom-com cover should be instantly interpretable as such. Yes, that means that those covers tend towards clichés, but in this case, that’s good. The first task of a cover is to say, “I am a book of this genre”, where said genre is a rom-com, or thriller, or romance, or whatever else you’re selling.
Convey a mood or feeling.
Readers typically buy books because of a hook and a feeling, e.g.: ‘It’s this book about an ordinary girl and vampire who fall for each other.’ That’s a hook plus a feeling, giving a reason to buy.
A book cover can’t really convey the hook (that’s the job of your blurb), but it can and must convey the feeling. Those Twilight covers conveyed a general sense of dark, forbidden sexiness. That was all they needed to do, and they did it superbly.
Generate questions, don’t close them off.
Covers that answer questions don’t tempt readers in. Covers that prompt questions invite further exploration. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight cover is a good example. Why that girl? That apple? That black background? You instantly want to know more.
If the cover had been pretty-girl-plus-hunky-vampire gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes, it would have sold some copies, but never have been the global hit it became. Similarly, your approach to your subject matters needs to be oblique and suggestive, not right on the nose.
Use good quality images.
That’s sort of obvious, but it’s common to see self-published books where the images look like (and almost certainly are) stock images from some free or low-cost image library. And they don’t look bad, exactly, they just look like stock images. They have a seen-it-before quality, death to your project of attracting a reader’s eye. If you need to pay money for a top-dollar image, then pay that money.
Use good quality typography.
Again obvious, but getting the typography (font styles, etc.) on a book is harder than it sounds. If a draft cover feels a tiny bit ‘off’ when you see it, then it is wrong. That feeling never lies.
So once you know what you want to achieve, how do you achieve it?
It’s strangely hard.
You’d think getting a strong book cover was a reasonably mechanical process. You write a design brief. You hand it to a competent person. Boof, you get back a design that’s going to be anywhere from good to excellent.
And, in my experience, it’s not really like that.
I’ve had poor to mediocre covers from best-of-breed traditional publishers. I’ve had mediocre book covers from talented, award-winning freelancers. I’ve used competition type websites with results that were okay, but not utterly satisfactory. And, yes, I’ve also got some book covers that I’m totally happy with.
So my recipe for success is as follows:
Fire your Uncle Bob. Unless your friend, relative, etc., is a professional designer, that person is not right for you. And yes, you may save some money. But NASA would probably save some money by patching their rockets together from stuff found in a junkyard. There’s a reason they don’t do it.
Use pros. You can go to competition type websites, of which 99Designs is the most prominent example. (Personally, I think you have to pay a lot of $$$ to get a good outcome from this, however.) You can go to outsourcing type sites like Fiverr or Upwork. You can search libraries of premade book covers for sale (for example, The Book Cover Designer. You can just Google around (search “book cover designers”) and look at different offerings. Or, simply design your own ebook cover. There are pros and cons to every avenue and in the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You may blunder around a bit until you find the right solution for you, but that’s fine. This is a creative process and you may need to experiment before you get it right.
Spend money. Just to be clear: the phrase “blunder around a bit” can mean “spend some money getting projects started with designers who looked really great (and are great, actually), just you didn’t like their initial designs and twigged things weren’t going to work out.” Don’t end up settling for almost-good, because you couldn’t bear to write off the $150 that you had to spend. Either invest again with the same designer to get something you’re happy with or close off that avenue and start again. Remember that your first cover will almost certainly be by far your most expensive. Once you’ve settled the look (the kind of image, the mood, the typography, etc.), the next batch of covers will be easy-peasy.
Only work with people where you’re happy saying ‘no, not yet’.
This is a crucial one. You must be happy with your cover. That means continuing to look at images, to work away at typographical niggles, until you’re genuinely delighted. If your designer charges you $90 an hour beyond a certain level of changes, or if your (talented, but not infinitely patient) Uncle Bob is just going to start rolling his eyes, then those people may not be right. You must feel okay with demanding perfection. And yes, that may mean being pushier than you normally like to be, but it also means working with someone where you can feel safe to be pushier.
If you’re unsure, look up more tips on how to commission ebook cover designs, if you need.
Now we turn to the book itself.