You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover (but readers will)

What’s the first thing people note when they look at a book?  The title?  Sure.  Maybe it’s the author’s name if they’re perusing bestsellers at a bookstore. But when scrolling randomly through book lists on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, Wattpad, etc. –be honest– it’s the book cover image/design that catches your eye first, isn’t it?

As much as writing has been a learning journey for me, designing cover art has become one too.  As I’ve come to discover, the latter is integral to the story publishing experience, fanfiction or otherwise.

When I started writing, I was 100% focused on the words.  For me, it was all about telling the story, chapter by chapter, and that was that. So I distinctly remember drawing a blank —ba dum tss– when I had to upload a cover the first time.  ‘Umm, ok, a cover… yeah… hmm… my fanfic’s really focused on the dragon aspect of the male lead. I know, I’ll use a drama screenshot image of him as a dragon!’

This was my first cover for The Scales of Atonement (*cringe)

The Scales of Atonement first cover

**Bonus cringe, this was baby newbie SunInTaurus’ very first avatar: 


One day, on a whim,  I decided to change the cover of Scales –for the very reason that a stock image of a black dragon had caught my eye and I thought it would look cool as a cover. What followed were comments I never expected to receive from readers about it (for better and for worse, lol).  That’s when I began to clue in. I’d never considered that attracting readers required I put some thought and effort into my stories’ “visual packaging” (so to speak). 

It’s a rather unique situation when it comes to fanfiction.  There’s the “grey zone, turn a blind eye” fact that most fanfiction works use commercial images from the dramas or movies or of the actors from publicity shoots as their cover image given the fics are non-profit.  Then again, one could argue that fanfiction comprises a set readership who’ll take a gander at a story pretty much regardless of whatever image is on the cover. 

Or will they?

When it comes to original stories for a general audience though, chances are you have about 0.3 seconds to grab the attention of someone skimming down a list of books on their phone.  Marketing 101 has to apply to whatever cover you have: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. 

I mentioned lists on Amazon and Goodreads before.  As a hobbyist and amateur writer, I haven’t the budget to afford professionally-made covers.  If I want to someday self-publish originals, I have to do so with what means I have.  So what can a frugal-minded, aspiring author use? Let me share what I’ve picked up along the way.

Ever heard of GIMP?  Think of it as the poor man’s Photoshop.  It’s a free, open source image editor you can download which has loads of things you can do with it.  My only caveat for someone who may go take a look at it is that it isn’t intuitive and far from newbie-friendly.  I spent quite some time researching how to use some of GIMP’s functions on websites and YouTube videos.  What I know how to do with now came mostly from the school of Trial and Error however.

Websites such as Pixabay and Pexel have great images one can use for free. For creating titles, I recommend which is also free to use and has quite a selection of fonts you can dabble with.

As an example of a cover I made using all the above, here’s what I did for lemjo’s Hunting in the Mist. With Pixabay, Gimp and vectr, I took these…

To help me make this… 

For A Ripple in the Tide, I used these…

To help me make this…

All my story covers have undergone several transformations as I’ve experimented and practised with design stuff.  

Now if only I could draw freehand well enough to illustrate chapters. Oh, would I have a field day.  Hmm, maybe I can ask Santa for magic drawing lessons this year? Lol.  

So what say you, readers?  How much does a story’s cover influence you to take a peek at the contents, fanfic or original? Do you judge a book by its cover? And to writers, is designing a cover for yourself something you consider?

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November 29, 2020 18:26

The cover certainly can prompt me to check out the vignette of the story which determines whether I will read it or not. A well written vignette encourages me to open the book and read. I am known to discard stories by my favourite authors because the vignette/synopsis is not interesting enough.

Elisabeth Long
Elisabeth Long
November 29, 2020 19:05
Reply to  jayredj65

You raise an excellent point about the vignette. A book may have the most visually engaging cover ever but if the story description doesn’t appeal to the reader, then it’s a bust.

Writing summary descriptions is something I struggle with. You want to catch readers’ interest without it being too long or giving away too much.

Marie Bisset
Marie Bisset
November 29, 2020 16:01

I love the covers you made for Hunting and Haven! You have definitely mastered the art of creating book covers that are beautiful and capture the eye. Personally, I love landscape images on a cover. Or the image of a cool or intriguing object. And I have a soft spot for fowers, lol.

But as much as I love perusing cover images when looking for a new book, it’s usually a particular title that grabs my interest the most. Which is a bit funny because I’m so freaking terrible when it comes to titles. Oh well, lol.

Elisabeth Long
Elisabeth Long
November 29, 2020 17:00
Reply to  Marie Bisset

The title, eh? Fair enough. I must say something that turns me off is when a book’s title is smaller than the author’s name. I get that people may be fans of a particular author but when the author’s name takes up half the cover and the title appears almost as an afterthought… that bugs me. I don’t care if it’s JK Rowling, Stephen King, whoever. But maybe that’s just me being grumpy.