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Yes, We Really Do Judge Books by Their Covers

5 Guidelines Can Help Your Book Cover Design Pass The 7-Second Test by Adam Rowe at Forbes… Support our news coverage by subscribing to our Kindle Nation Daily Digest. Joining is free right now!

You might not have heard of book cover design’s “7 second” test, but if you’ve ever wondered through a bookstore, you’ve undoubtedly tried it yourself. Pick up a book, glance at the front and back covers, and you’ll likely make the decision to either nestle it back on the shelf or seriously consider buying it. That tiny window of time is all an author has to sell their story, and it all comes down to a great book cover design.

Tim McConnehey, founder at collaborative publisher and author of 10 Secrets to a Bestseller: An Author’s Guide to Self-Publishing, has five guidelines for passing that test, and they’re ones that all the major publishing houses know by heart. “A quality cover will signal not only to readers, but also to bookstores, that a publisher or author has paid the same attention to the details inside the book that make it easy and fun to read,” McConnehey says. “To pass the seven-second test, pay attention to proven guidelines on your cover’s genre, emotional impact, thumbnail, simplicity, and uniqueness.” Let’s go through those one by one.


Genres help book readers know what they’re in for, and they don’t wait until they start reading to begin guessing what genre they’ll be enjoying. If your cover doesn’t look like your genre, you’ll turn off the readers who would love while upsetting any readers who thought they were getting something else. All genres have conventions, which includes visual cues on cover art or designs.

“For example,” McConnehey says, “science fiction and fantasy book covers often combine fantastical content with a realistic illustration style, and even favor specific choices like all-caps titles and blue or amber coloring. Non-fiction, on the other hand, often uses a clever or thought-provoking image to engage readers on a cerebral level. Even if readers don’t realize they’re looking for these signals, they’ll notice that your book looks similar to others they’ve read and enjoyed.”

“A cover should also spark emotion,” McConnehey explains. “Fiction covers should immediately trigger a reaction in readers, with color, action, and affecting imagery. It’s less about explaining your plot, and more about giving readers a sense of how your book will make them feel.”


In a digital age, we’re buying more and more books online, whether the copy itself is an ebook or a print copy. As a result, a book cover needs to look good as a thumbnail image. “On digital platforms,” McConnehey says, “readers will first view a cover in a reduced size before, hopefully, clicking on it and seeing the full-size version. A clear and readable book title, with solid or vividly contrasting colors, will be most effective in a thumbnail. This also connects to our next point about simplicity and clarity.”


“Independent authors may have details in mind that seem important to include on a cover,” McConnehey says. “But one of the most common mistakes is to try to include too much hidden meaning, making it too busy and visually unappealing. Remember, the function of a book cover is more to draw new readers than to impress readers who have finished a book with clever references to the content. Simple is good. Being visually engaging is more important than being descriptive.”

Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group, exemplifies the balance of simple style with details that keep a cover interesting, with a trend towards blocky, Instagram-friendly typeface surrounded on covers by vibrant colors.


Matching your book’s genre is one thing. Disappearing entirely is another. If you want your cover to stand out above the rest, you’ll need to research other books in the genre and figure out how to set yours apart.

“If you’re going to use stock art,” McConnehey says to any independent authors in need of design tips, “do the research to make sure it hasn’t been used for other book covers or graphics. You don’t want your science fiction book to use an image of a planet on its cover that readers will see on a half dozen other books. Doing a simple search engine image search will help. With so many books published in the digital era, you want to stand out and avoid recycling an image that readers will see elsewhere.”

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