The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been proven to be bad advice not only for readers but also for publishers’ marketing teams. As it turns out, books’ covers are often exactly what they’re judged by. For readers, this means a discerning eye for visual cues can help them find the books they enjoy; for marketers, it means having a discerning eye (and hand) in the design process can actually boost sales.

A simple glance at scientific conclusions on cerebral functions reveals that visual intake occupies approximately 30 percent of our cortex. That’s 30 percent of a potential reader’s functionality available to be attracted by an especially engaging cover. And, at the risk of belaboring adages, it has often been said that one has but one opportunity to make a first impression. First impressions are, as Malcolm Gladwell says in his bestseller Blink, in fact quite accurate and lasting for each person. Taken together, these physical and cultural facts lead to the conclusion that a striking visual first impression ought to be made if one wants a product to be memorable.

Now to consider book covers themselves. There are the basic elements expected from each: title, author name, and some kind of artistic element that alludes to the book’s content. These elements can be combined in innumerable ways depending on the book, and no single element is more important than the others: it all depends on audience, content, trends, time of year, and so on. The only solid piece of advice that applies across the board is to prioritize clarity over all other design elements. The consumer has to remember not only what the cover looks like but also what it says.

Okay, so far we know why the cover needs to look good. We don’t know exactly how to make it look good, but we know to hire someone (here’s looking at you, innovative cover designers) to make it so. But there is a final piece to this puzzle: placement. After all, how can a tool be useful if not properly utilized? The use of the cover by the marketing team can be as important as the cover itself.

Recent media has concluded that some tried-and-true methods of using a cover as a marketing tool are events such as prelaunch campaigns, cover reveals, and social media campaigns. Prelaunch can wear a lot of hats but essentially involves generating buzz around the title before the cover has been released. This leads into cover reveals, which are exactly what they sound like but are most prevalent in social media and online outlets. These in turn lead into the third type of event, social media campaigns, which can look like many things but should always feature either the cover itself or a banner that has the same design elements as the cover.

Circling back around, think back to the weight of visual first impressions. There is only one chance to make a first impression with a book cover, and that impression had better be a good one if you want a title to have a chance at competing with the myriad of other impressions floating around in people’s heads. However, this creates a viable opportunity for a publisher or a self-published author. Take good care of your cover design, treat it generously and appropriately as the marketing tool that it is, and watch your book succeed.

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