Judging a Book By Its Cover Check List: What Book Publicists—and Media— Want to See on the Outside of a Book

By Sandra Poirier Smith, President of Smith Publicity 

Each week, Smith Publicity receives more than 100 inquiries from authors and publishers looking for our help, support, and ideas on how to get their books featured on television and radio shows, in newspapers or magazines, and/or online/blog outlets. In evaluating if we are a good fit for a project and if we believe we have a good chance of securing positive media attention, we review many factors including the outside or overall look of a book.

A book’s cover, back cover, title, sub-title, author photo, etc. need to be professionally executed. In some cases, we see these details are not given enough attention. Here is a book cover check list to help understand what we, and the media, look for in a the look of book:

1. Is the cover professionally designed? Hire a graphic designer who specializes in creating book covers (not a friend’s daughter who took a graphics class in high school). Book design is a true art form, with knowledge needed in trends in imagery, colors, and typography, and expertise in print production and/or e-book presentation. A cover sets the tone for the book. Find a professional who will work to creatively represent the book. Please note: Most book designers do not write or edit copy, which is completely different skill set. Make sure the cover works at a thumbnail size (the size you see on Amazon and other online retail outlet search results) as this may be the only way readers view your cover. Here are some examples of bad book covers (Huffington Post) and good book covers. Read here for more information on book design from award winning designer Joel Friedlander. From a publicity perspective, if a book cover is of inferior quality, the media will likely ignore the book even if it is beautifully written by a highly credentialed author.

2. Does the title reflect the essence of the book? Selecting a title is a combination of creativity and market research. Creatively, does the title help differentiate the book? This is especially important for a non-fiction work where immediately describing the book’s content—what problem does this book solve—is critical. Fiction titles have a bit more creative leeway. Based on the title, is the tone and genre of the book evident to target buyers? For example, can you tell from the title if the book is serious, humorous, playful, or a self-help, chick lit, children’s book, or a murder mystery? From a market research perspective, review competitive titles on Amazon. What makes this book different? Is this difference evident in the title? What Amazon key terms are people using to find books on similar topics, and can these words be incorporated into the title/sub-title? Is the book part of a series? If so, keep this in mind as you design the series’ brand. Vague, lengthy, confusing, or misleading titles simply detract from a project. From a publicity perspective, as we present books to producers, editors, and bloggers, there are only a few seconds for a book and its title to capture interest for further consideration.

3. Does your non-fiction book have a sub-title? Not having a sub-title for a non-fiction book is a huge mistake. A sub-title helps the reader understand who the book is for, what they will learn, and why this information is important. It takes time to get this right! For example, there is a book with the title Quiet. Without a sub-title, could this book be a listening skills book, a parenting book, or even a meditation book? Its sub-title is key to define the book, which is: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Another example is the title: Clean Slate. Without a sub-title, this could be for a person starting out again after battling addiction or jail time, dating after divorce, or perhaps home decorating advice. However, the subtitle: A Cookbook and Guide: Reset Your Health, Detox Your Body, and Feel Your Best clearly defines the content.

From a publicity perspective, media professionals need to quickly understand what your book is about and the problems it can solve.

4. Does the back cover give a solid book summary, author bio, professional headshot and “blurbs”? Some books come to us with no back cover copy. Blank. This is a huge mistake, even if a book is only sold online. If blank, media (and book buyers) will know the book was not professionally published. Back cover copy should nicely summarize the book. Another mistake we often see in novels is when the author gives too much of the plot away. The goal is to entice people to want to read the book. For non-fiction books, the author’s credentials are essential. As with the entire book, hire a professional editor to help with this important text. If using a photograph, make sure it is a high resolution, professional image that matches the book’s tone and genre. We’ve seen blurry author photos, photos with other people and body parts cropped out, old, dated photos, and even one with a bride in the background (obviously taken at someone’s wedding). If you have reviews from industry experts, book reviewers, or people with impressive and relevant titles, consider adding these to the front or back cover. Do not put a review from an anonymous “Amazon reviewer.” We even received a book with a glowing review attributed to the author’s mother, and sadly, it was not meant to be funny. From a publicity perspective, professionally presented back covers help media quickly understand a book’s tone, message, and genre, why the author is qualified to write it, and its intended audience.

5. Does the book have the title, author name, and publisher on the spine? We’ve seen no text on a spine, the text facing the wrong way (the bottom of the letters should be pointing left or if wide enough, across the spine), and even seen book with the text like this:






Please don’t do this unless there is a specific reason. A solidly designed spine—with the book’s title, author’s name, and if appropriate publisher name/logo—is critical to a book’s overall presentation. Think what happens if someone shelves your book with no title on the spine (lost forever?). From a publicity perspective, having no text on the spine or spine that does not “fit” the design readers expect will make it stand out to the media in a negative way.

One final note: for book cover inspiration, I always recommend visiting a bookstore and see where the book would be shelved. Look on Amazon too. How does the book look compared to the competition? Does the size, shape, color scheme, tone, text, and images quickly and clearly define your book to its targeted buyer? Does it have all the attributes other books have, including pricing, age range (for a children’s book), and bar code with ISBN?


This information just scratches the surface on the marketing and design process needed to create the “outside” of a book. With the number of choices producers, editors and bloggers have when selecting a book for potential coverage, the book’s cover design and copy are essential to the first step in generating interest.

120 Responses

  2. Smith Publicity
    Thank you for your interest! Someone will be in touch shortly!
  3. I agree, all these elements are essential. As a book designer, I am responsible for excellent graphic design, but I can't control the elements provided by the author. Many of our authors don't know how to write good marketing copy. I suppose it is like writing your own resume; it feels like bragging. Some authors go ahead with less-than-dynamic writing, just when (and where) it counts the most! They would be much better off having a pro do it for them. Another thing that would help authors, and their covers, is to anticipate getting the reviewer's blurbs earlier in the process of publishing. Sending out an ARC when the draft is finalized allows reviewers time to respond. I've seen authors, inevitably in a big hurry to publish, who pushed the book out before all the reviews (or any reviews) came in. That's a big loss of opportunity, not only for the design of the book cover, but for ongoing promotion, too.
  4. Smith Publicity
    Thank you so much for your thoughts and even more tips! It is great to hear from someone who actually is designing the covers.
  5. This helps. Thx
  6. Smith Publicity
    Glad to hear it, Rodney!
  7. This is good solid advice but if you can not afford to pay a graphic designer, you gotta do what you have to do otherwise we must submit that novel writing is an art form only for the rich.
  8. Smith Publicity
    Absolutely! We understand. Thanks for reading.
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