You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly sell one, publishers have long known. In 1951 DC Comics, publishers of Superman, published an issue which sold well. It happened to have an ape on the cover against a yellow background. After the sales figures came in, the editors decided to start experimenting with featuring similar covers. The results led DC and other comic book publishers to begin regularly commissioning covers featuring apes on yellow backgrounds. Eventually DC’s publisher felt compelled to declare that no more than one cover per month could feature an ape. This policy was subsequently ignored. To this day, you will see comic books with apes on covers.

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Why do publishers care so much about covers? Research has shown that in bookstores, browsers make crucial decisions during the first few seconds of looking at the front and back cover of a book. If they don’t see anything that interests them, they put the book down and go on shopping.

Something similar happens online. At Amazon’s website, visitors see a preview of a book’s cover, which is sometimes accompanied by an invitation to look inside for a preview. What they see when they look at the cover and preview can play a decisive role in whether or not they decide to buy the book.

Given this, the question of what makes a good cover becomes vitally important. Here are four keys to a good book cover.

(Incidentally, I’m focusing on nonfiction books here, but much of what is said here also applies to fiction with appropriate adjustments. The main difference is that fiction usually offers entertainment as its main benefit, whereas nonfiction usually offers a practical or intellectual benefit.)

1. A Unique Selling Proposition

First and foremost, a good book cover should convey your book’s unique selling proposition (USP). A USP is a succinct statement of what your book offers readers that competing books don’t.

A USP typically identifies what problem your book solves or what benefit your book offers. For instance, the title of Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People immediately tells you what the book offers.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

A USP may also identify who a book’s audience is. Wiley’s “For Dummies” series is geared towards readers who want a non-technical presentation of technical subjects.

Your USP should permeate every aspect of your book cover, including text and graphics, from front cover to back.

2. A Strong Title

Your title is the most important place to communicate your USP. It is also vital for helping grab your reader’s attention. Additionally, the keywords you include in your title are critical for helping readers find your book through online search engines.

To achieve these goals, your title should consist of words that perform one or more of these functions:

  • Grab your reader’s attention with an intriguing question, a provocative statement, or a colorful phrase (If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?)
  • Address who your book is for (What to Expect When You’re Expecting)
  • Identify what problems your book solves (Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives)
  • Describe what benefits your book offers (Think and Grow Rich)
  • Challenge skepticism by using words like “proven” or “guaranteed” (The DASH Diet Action Plan: Proven to Boost Weight Loss and Improve Health)
  • Include keywords to help readers find your book online

Think and Grow Rich

Sometimes trying to squeeze all this in the title would make it too long or bland. In this case, you might divide duties between a title and a subtitle.

To put these principles into practice, here are a few basics formulas for starting titles, with some examples of how to apply them to an imaginary book about getting out of debt fast:

  • Ask a question about the problem your book offers to solve: “How Can I Get Out of Debt Fast?”
  • Offer your solution as a numbered set of secrets, steps, or ways: “7 Steps to Getting Out of Debt Fast”.
  • Offer your solution as a numbered set of mistakes to avoid: “The 6 Greatest Debt Traps (and How To Escape Them Today)”.
  • Offer your solution as a practical how-to guide: “How to Get Out of Debt Fast”.

3. Design That Supports Your USP and Title

Your cover design should support your USP and your title. Communicate with your designer to develop a layout, graphics, color scheme, and font that draw visual attention to your main message.

Without going too much into design principles here, a key point is that your USP should govern design decisions. The layout should draw the eye towards your title, and from your title towards any follow-up subtitles or other front-cover blurbs.

Your graphics, color scheme, and font selection should support this goal. While good-looking visuals are important, your visuals should serve the function of getting the reader to want to open the book, not serve as an end in themselves. Your purpose is to get readers to buy your book, not admire your cover for a few minutes and then say, “That looks nice,” and put the book back down.

4. A Benefit-Oriented Back-Cover Blurb

In a physical bookstore, readers will usually look at the back cover after the front cover. Online, they can also often preview the back cover. Additionally, the accompanying verbal description of the book can be written to include information that would normally go on the back cover.

A good back-cover blurb should read like a mini sales presentation. It should open with an arresting headline, identify the main draw of the book, and itemize the benefits the book offers. A headline followed by a short paragraph and a bulleted list of benefits is a good starter format.

How to Win Friends and Influence People Back

If you have space, you might also include reviews, testimonials, or a short biography to establish the author’s expertise. Alternately, you can place this type of information inside the first few pages of the book, or inside a dust jacket if you have one.

And if you’ve tried everything else in this article and nothing works, try putting an ape on the cover.