Why Your Book Cover Can't Actually Tell A Story

Anna Leinberger Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.

Why Your Book Cover Can't Actually Tell A Story

The coveted book cover! It is one of the most exciting parts of being an author-- where you get to see that beautiful, full color piece of art!  It will be stunning! A picture saying 1000 words, or rather, 30,000 words! It must do more than  tell a story, you think, it must convey the whole concept of the book in one perfect, all-encompassing image!

Sound unrealistic yet?

Clearly, I am not trying to diminish the importance of a book cover- it is your book’s calling card.  It is the most compelling piece of marketing swag associated with your book. An amazing and impactful cover can do wonders for a book, and a bad cover can negatively impact sales.

However, that puts a lot of strain on the poor dear.  Think of the pressure! One image, and a whole book’s story to tell in 50 or so square inches, and one that needs to read as well in 50 inches as it does on the Amazon page, at about 2 square inches.  How could one image possibly accomplish that?

It Can’t.

Simply said, a book cover will never be able to tell the literal story of your book.  It can barely even tell a piece of your story.  Say your book is about people working together to save the planet, and the book is making the argument that people need to contribute according to their individual strengths, rather than conforming to a strategy that is disconnected from the people and situation.  Even trying to convey that central idea is going to be almost impossible. Option A: four human images on the cover, each holding a different item to indicate their strength. Option B: a cartoon of people working together in a woodsy setting, each holding a different tool. Now imagine either of these images on the cover and then slap on a title. Now add a subtitle.  Now add the author’s name. Now add a tagline like “by the best-selling author of XXXXX,” now add a blurb from someone famous who thinks the book’s great.

Do you see where I am going with this?

It’s hard enough to find the right image, but you also have to consider how the image relates to and visually complements all of the other wording on the cover and the various ways everything will be placed. When you have all this going on in just the cover, who will look carefully at the individual tools in people’s hands at what they symbolize or mean? This is a grab-bag of micro-messages, not a singular visual force—which is what a good cover should be.

Instant Connection

In short, a book cover needs to evoke a basic yet strong emotional response at the heart of your work. You should look at a book cover and feel something, not everything. A book cover cannot account for all of the details in the work. A reader will never be able to look at a book cover and understand, via an image, all of the concepts or emotions in a book so complex that it took you thirty thousand words to explain. The answer? Keep it Simple. A powerful sustainability cover might feature just simply a young tree, taking root and growing from a seed. Quiet, the book on introverts, showcases the power of an quiet, introverted person by simply yet starkly contrasting the title in bright red with a textured grey background. 

So when you think about your book cover, look for the singular emotional response you want to evoke and then think of the singular or simple image that matches that response.