Next time you visit the supermarket, go to the produce aisle. Place a blindfold over your eyes and then randomly go down the aisle, selecting produce items as you go. You are not concerned about the particulars of any specific item; after all, a tomato is a tomato, or is it? Most likely, when you shop for produce you are more selective, inspecting each item for color, shape, ripeness and blemishes. You only want the best for your table.
For the same reason, potential readers judge the cover of your book. The cover helps them to determine whether to take the book home and explore it further. If the cover did not matter, then the buyer would presumably randomly select any book in your category and be satisfied with that purchase. A recent search on Amazon.com revealed over 100,000 books in the category of memoirs. Random selection in this case means you have a 1:100,000 chance that someone selects your book.
Of course, a cover alone will not get your book placed in such a way that buyers will find it. Nothing will improve placement more than good marketing. See The eBook Myth for a discussion on the importance of marketing. However, once your book is found, something must attract the buyer to it, amongst the many other options available.
Your book cover includes several key elements that must all work together to first gain the interest of a prospective reader, and then persuade him or her to buy the book. First is the title. The title includes the main title as well as the subtitle. Both provide important information about the content of the book. They help to establish the category, excite the imagination and they can serve to appeal to a specific need. For example, readers of self-improvement or do-it-yourself books are attracted to titles that promise to simplify the problem, including phrases such as, “How to…”, or, “Seven Steps to achieve…”, or, “Fix your [insert appliance name] in 5 easy steps.”
The image on the cover must be simple, dramatic and it should communicate the central theme or conclusion of the book in a visual manner. Simple images always work better as they are easier to interpret and to recognize, and they maintain their integrity as you scale them down into thumbnails for online book listings. Select bold colors and/or high contrast black and white designs to create more dramatic and memorable images, rather than using washed-out pastel shades. The spine of the book should be easily recognizable in the same font and colors as the front cover.
A good back cover typically contains two important elements: a summary of the book that helps the reader to learn more about the subject matter of the book and the benefits they will receive by reading it. In addition, a paragraph or two about the author, including a recent photograph, helps to introduce the reader to you and to begin building a personal relationship that will extend to your next book.
Finally, include brief reviews by a few well-known experts or authorities on your subject matter. Reviews are invaluable to lend credibility to you and your work. Buyers will place much higher value in someone else, particularly someone they recognize as an expert, before they develop a new relationship with a new author.