What makes a good book cover?

Dave Birss, writer, speaker, advisor

1 May 2018

Last week I announced that I’m using my RIGHT Thinking system to help me come up with a great title and cover for my next book. I was busy working on that last week.

RIGHT Thinking is a system that takes you from ‘I want a great idea’ to ‘I have a great idea’ more effectively and with a better chance of success. It’s the better alternative to a brainstorm. Each of the letters of ‘RIGHT’ stands for a step in the process:

  • Research
  • Insight
  • Generate ideas
  • Hone
  • Test

You need to do the steps in order. So this week I’ve been starting at the beginning.

Let’s get researching

The research phase is generally seen as an unexciting and uncreative slog. That approach is likely to result in unimaginative and obvious input. Which affects everything that comes afterwards.

Your research should be broad, look at human behaviour (if that’s important to the problem you’re trying to solve) and be focused on unearthing the stuff that most people wouldn’t notice. Because if you’re working with information no one else has, you can come up with solutions no one else can.

So here’s how I’ve done my research.

What are the bestsellers?

My ideal scenario is to get my book on the bestseller lists. I know that’s tough and there are lots of factors that lead to a book’s success – but I should be able to learn from the titles and cover designs of bestsellers.

This involved several hours tapping away in my web-browser.

I grabbed images of many of the most popular books. Here’s a selection of them:


There are quite a few bestseller lists around. And their content differs quite a lot. That’s great because I want to get a wide selection of input.

Some of the lists are behind paywalls and others have editorial input to skew the results. Some focused on what’s hot right now and other lists were about more long-term performance. When you bring them together, they give a good idea of what type of book is likely to fly off the shelves (even if those shelves are manned by robots in an Amazon warehouse).

I compiled a lot of that information into one document, which you can see here, if you fancy a peek.


What the bookshops are focusing on

The internet is unlikely to give you all the information you need. So I’ve ventured out on a few field trips to bookshops to see what’s happening in their non-fiction sections.


I’ve been snapping photos of the shelves in bookshops – as well as the display tables where they tend to display the most popular books. I would hope to make it onto these tables, so it’s a good idea to see which books they’re selecting.

This has also been a great exercise in seeing what physical books catch my eye. So I took pictures of the most striking books too.


Surveying humans

Last week I posted a questionnaire to find out what non-fiction books people are buying and how they make their decisions. And I got more responses than I was expecting.

A big thank you to Chloe, Simon, Chris, Tom, Eddie, John, Miriam, Aimee, Soon, Tracey, Dierdre, Peter, Dominik, Andy, Gerri, John, Tasha, Nick Mark and the many anonymous contributors who shared their thoughts. This added to my list of books to be inspired by. And gave me some really good insights into how people choose their books. All very useful stuff.

You can see the results in the document I mentioned previously.


Actual conversations

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been picking the minds of my friends in conversations. This is all more anecdotal stuff and it overlaps heavily with the results of the survey. It has helped in crystallising some thinking and giving me insight into the way people buy books. The big learning here is that people tend to trust algorithmic recommendations and book reviews. Those are the parts of the process that are in the hands of my publisher.

Another interesting thing I learned is that some of my friends don’t even know what the cover of their books look like. When you buy a kindle book, the cover is a little black and white thumbnail and the book opens at the first page of text rather than on a cover image. So, in this case, the title, the algorithmic recommendation and the number of stars it gets has far more influence than the design.

That will focus me on getting the title right first before I think about the design. That’s slightly different to the way I usually work where I’ll think about the line and the image working together to communicate effectively.

All very useful stuff.

Interview and articles

Alongside all this, I’ve been reading interviews with book designers and articles on what makes a great book title.

These have included:

A brilliantly helpful article with some really inspiring examples of book cover designs.

WikiHow – How to Come Up with a Good Book Title
Apart from the dubious brainstorm advice, there are some good prompts for different approaches

iUniverse – 4 steps to choosing your book title
A helpful little list of criteria that a good title should tick off

TCK Publishing – How to Write Book Titles That Sell: 5 SEO Tips
A great article on using an SEO approach to your book title. This has led to more research.

Another brilliant article that led me to the brilliant book The First Hundred Million written 100 years ago by a publisher who experimented with book titles. It also led me to a really helpful article on SEO for book titles.


What do good people consider good?

I’m occasionally a jury member for advertising, marketing and design awards. So I know a thing or two about what makes a great piece of graphic communication.

I would love it if my book cover didn’t look out of place amongst the great covers that I admire.

To that end, I’ve collected a bunch of award-winning and notable designs that I really admire. These will give me a standard to aim for and some inspiration for different appraoches.


The quality of research dictates the quality of the solution

It may be tempting to skimp on research. But that’s likely to leave you with knowledge gaps that could cause you to miss opportunities or important information.

I think I’ve probably got enough information to get started now.

Next, we move on to the Insight stage where we’ll apply thinking to this information to get to the inspiring nuggets.

Back soon!



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