Simple, Strong, and Symbolic
The best covers are simple, strong, and symbolic. What does that mean?
You should think of your book cover as a billboard. You want a potential reader to be able to see and understand it in four seconds going 70 miles per hour.
Don’t clutter your cover with multiple images. Make a list of the key elements of your story and pick one or two. If your main character travels to eight different countries during your story, choose a suitcase or a crumpled boarding pass over including an object from each of the different countries.
Consider a single image or a text only cover. Good typography is an artistic image in its own right.
A quality cover implies quality writing. Your cover style should match your writing style.
Use clear, readable fonts and no more than two.
Make the title and author name big enough to be read on a shelf from across the room and in a thumbnail no more than an inch wide.
Set the mood of the book.
What genre is it? Contemporary romance, murder mystery, or science fiction? What is the tone? Dark and gritty or fluffy beach reading?
Don’t be literal.
If you are thinking, “This is my main character.” or “This is the exact setting for scene ABC from my story.” change the image. Giving the reader a visual representation of your words takes away their ability to see it in their imagination. Any reader will tell you that the reason they like books (and frequently prefer them to movies) is because the story is more powerful when combined with their imagination.
What does this mean for characters? Books seem to sell better with a hot guy on the cover?
This goes back to the billboard analogy. Hot guys immediately attract attention. The balance is to attract a reader’s attention without destroying their imagination. Consider images where the character is silhouetted turned away or to the side, in the distance, or bare feet in the sand at the edge of a beach blanket.
Take the time to look at book covers that catch your eye. What made you stop? Keep notes or take a picture with your phone.
Just for fun…
If eyes are the window to the soul, your book cover is the window to the soul of your book.