Contrary to the old cliché, people really do “judge a book by its cover.” The difference now, as opposed to ten years ago, is that potential readers are now making that judgment in a matter of seconds.

The brick and mortar bookstore, for all of its charm, is becoming less and less pivotal to making book sales.

With the advent of print-on-demand services like Amazon’s Createspace and many others, just about anyone can see their name in print.

Even for the traditional publishing world, digital methods of advertising and promotion are beginning to take hold. In this climate, simplicity is now more important than ever when it comes to crafting an effective book cover.

As such, I find myself often giving the old “less is more” advice when working with new authors. The tendency is common for authors to want to pack in symbolism, hidden meaning, and obscure details that can often hinder or detract from a book’s primary message.

On that topic, I recently wrote an Email to a client similar to many others I’ve crafted over the years on the very same subject. Because this topic comes up so commonly, I thought I would take the opportunity to share a version of the Email (with any and all specific references removed):

My typical advice is to avoid integrating any type of detailed symbolism into a book design. Symbolism, such as depicted in the [provided] example, will be lost on the vast majority of potential buyers for the simple fact that most simply don’t take the time to decipher its meaning. A book jacket has a matter of seconds to convey its message, then its on to the next title. I like to compare a book cover to a billboard: if you have to take any extended time to determine its meaning, it’s already failed to do its job.

That said, the usual goal is to find a style, imagery, and typography that works to capture the general “mood” of the book’s concept—in the simplest/clearest, most distilled form. This is the key that separates most traditionally published books from self published ones (browse any bestseller list to see this in action)

In terms of creating a new concept, unfortunately, something that “will capture people’s attention and entice them to want to open the book and read it” is 100% subjective and not something on which I can concretely create a new design. What motivates one person to open a book may not motivate the next to do the same.

My target is typically what will convey the book’s main message best, rather than so much anticipating someone’s reaction to the same. That said, if there’s a more simplistic, universally recognized image or “theme” that the author has in mind, that would be really helpful.

All things considered, I’m happy to work up a new concept, however, I thought these might be some helpful things to consider before moving forward on a new design.

What do you think? How important a role does simplicity play in the creation of an effective book design?

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Thomas is a Graphic Designer, Web Developer, and founder of Rightly Designed. For over a decade, he’s had the privilege of working with a wide variety of individuals and organizations, spanning from traditional publishing houses to numerous independent professionals.