Good, genre-appropriate book covers aren’t just about pretty images. You can have the best-looking photos, with perfect colors, high resolution, and spot-on genre targeting, and the wrong typography will absolutely shoot it down. How the letters and words look on a cover are just as critical as the images.
When you think of a great, effective horror book cover, what do you picture in your mind? Some dark, foreboding house on a hill? A creepy figure with glowing eyes? Blood and gore? Chances are, you’re also picturing the title rendered in some blood-drippy, grungy, splattered font that oozes genre convention all over that foreboding house on the hill. Urban fantasy? Gritty, industrial, distressed lettering. A title that looks like it was dragged on a chain, kicking and screaming, through a grimy gutter by some badass demon butt-kicker. Regency romance? Swirly, scripty, with lots of flourish and embellishment. You get the idea.
Font and typography signal a book’s genre on the same subconscious level as the imagery does. I’m sorry to say it, but people absolutely do judge books by their covers. And digital books have even less time to make an impression on potential readers than their print brethren. It’s much too easy to click away from a book in less than a second online, or not even click at all.
Working with typography for digital book covers presents other challenges as well. It’s so disheartening to slave away for hours on a gorgeous, large-format cover only to size it down for a thumbnail and have the whole thing fall apart into some amorphous, unidentifiable blob. If no one can read the title at the postage stamp level that most online retailers provide to customers, it only lessens the chance that the book will be seen. It’s frustrating to have to design for so many unknown formats and sizes, and sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do to fix it, but there are some general rules of thumb that can enhance your success.
- Start big. You definitely do want to design big and resize down. Then you’ll meet the requirements of the retailers who need a large format and those who only want the thumbnail. You’ll also be better prepared to do a cover for print if you design with the larger format in mind.
- Keep it as simple as you can reasonably get away with. Sometimes, simple doesn’t cut it, but, in general, the simpler you can keep things, the better they’ll suit a range of sizes. I will sacrifice thumbnail readability for aesthetic, but only if it suits the genre and theme.
- Make sure that you have permission to use the fonts that you’ve chosen. There are tons of fonts out there that are free for commercial use, but check the license requirements before you commit. I like Font Squirrel. You can filter by license terms, genre, and font style, among others.
- If you have the resources and capability, don’t overlook vector or raster alphabets. This is where my DepositPhotos credits really come in handy. The steampunk alphabet pictured above is a JPG of the vector file of those letters. Yes, I bought the whole set, since I knew that I’d be using them for the whole Firebend series.
- Contrast is your friend. A grey title just isn’t going to pop against a light background like a darker title will. Again, stick to genre conventions, but readability should be your ultimate goal. Outlines, glow effects, and drop shadows can make a lackluster title shine, especially over a complicated, multi-tonal background. Don’t be afraid to play with it to see what works.
I use a range of sizes for my covers, depending upon the image use. My Facebook banner and the front page of my website both use my covers at the smallest size – 100 pixels wide. Any smaller than that, and they probably wouldn’t be very readable.
While I love the full-size and web-size versions of my covers, I try to design to the thumbnail size, which is 200 pixels wide.
You can clearly read the title, author name, and even make out the series title and number. The important parts of the typography are the words ‘Steampunk Heart’ and my name. While the fancy steampunk letters aren’t as clear at the thumbnail size as they are larger, they signal the book’s genre. Incidentally, the wild west-looking font used for the rest of the Steampunk Heart lettering is another vector set. I had to place each letter individually. Way more time-consuming than just typing it out, but I love the overall look.
This one does use actual fonts that match the fantasy/knightly theme. I played with letter spacing and base lines for the title. This font is one that I would consider to be on the borderline of too fancy for small sizes. But it’s too perfect for the series, so…
Though the covers of my difficult-to-categorize Legend of the Grimoire series aren’t as clear with the genre conventions, the typography works so well. These covers are readable to a ridiculously small size, thanks to the simple, high-contrast typography.
With a combination of font and vector lettering, I love the typography on the Soulfire cover. The imagery skews more paranormal/fantasy than its equally important romance aspect, but I tend to do that with my covers. If you’re looking for this one on my website, it’s a mailing list exclusive.
As always, I’m happy to answer any questions. There are so many things that I just do out of habit now that I don’t always remember to spell them out. So, if you want clarification on anything, feel free to ask away!
Thanks for reading!