How to Design a Book Cover That Annoys Booksellers – by Gary Robson

How to Design a Book Cover That Annoys Booksellers – by Gary Robson

As both an author and the owner of a (very) independent bookstore, I have a different perspective on book covers. Despite the old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” people have done exactly that since the first bookshoppe opened its doors centuries ago. Whether browsing the shelves of their neighborhood bookstore or paging through search results online, our customers’ eyes are drawn to book covers, and they make snap judgments based on those covers.

Good covers sell. Bad covers not only don’t attract customers, but can actively annoy the very people you count on to hand-sell your books. Authors who self-publish or go through a Print on Demand (POD) house often think that brick-and-mortar bookstores won’t sell their books. Granted, it takes some work to get in the door, but there are some POD books that sell well in my store. Sometimes, though, a mere look at the cover is enough to make me not want to carry a book – even a book from a large traditional publishing house.

Are you looking for ways to annoy booksellers and encourage them not to sell your book? I hope not, but if you are, here is a list of some of the ways you can do it:

Fill All Available Space

Your book must be made to stand out from the thousands of others with which it shares shelf space. Perhaps making the title and author’s name, of course gigantic will help. Fill the entire cover! Leave no space unused. As attractive as this idea may be, remember one of the first lessons of graphic design: white space is your friend. If you’re lucky, booksellers may want to put your book face-out on the shelf, with stickers proudly proclaiming “Local Author” or “Autographed Copy.” If you’re really lucky, they may need stickers saying “Award Winner” or “Staff Pick” or even “Bestseller” (but hopefully not “Clearance” or “40% off”). How much will that sticker help if it’s covering part of your carefully-crafted title?

Ignore the Spine

Even though the vast majority of books in any store are destined to rest spine-out on the shelves, the idea may have crossed your mind to leave your spine blank, or at least unlabeled. “Then the booksellers will have to put my book face-out,” you think to yourself. Alas, it is not so. Your book will still probably end up spine-out, and the undecorated spine will not encourage customers to pull the book out and look at it.

Forget the Genre

There’s a reason that so many fiction books have the words, “a novel,” on the front cover. Booksellers need to know where to shelve things. I’m sure that it’s blatantly obvious whether your book is a biography or a mystery; history or historical fiction; nature or poetry. No need to label the spine or top-left corner of the back cover with the genre. No need for a descriptive subtitle. Booksellers just love having to run to the computer and look up each book before shelving it.

Sex Sells!

Let’s see, if every romance novel (or massage book, or dating how-to) on the shelf has a cover picture with a shirtless hunk and a wispily-clad damsel, how can you make yours stand out? Maybe you could cross that line they don’t seem to want to cross. Make the title explicit! Pull that dress all the way down! Show how hunky that guy really is! You certainly can go that route, but you’d better be prepared to do all your sales from your own web site. Most booksellers won’t display books with explicit covers, many POD publishers won’t print them, and even major book websites may refuse them.

Do a Tie-In Cover

Here’s a little secret for you: booksellers don’t like movie tie-in covers. Wal-Mart customers may be drawn to book covers with movie stars on them, but people who frequent bookstores are usually more interested in the book itself.

Me, Me, Me!

Let’s just say that if your name and/or picture are the most prominent things on the book’s cover, then people had better know who you are.

Art Over Readability

All that matters on the cover is its artistic appeal, right? Go ahead and use a trippy orange font on a red background. Hide part of the text behind part of the picture (why buy Photoshop if you’re not going to use it?). Use an illegible signature instead of printing the author’s name. If people have no idea what the title of the book is or who wrote it, they’ll really want to pick it up and look at it, right? Right? Hello?

Mess with the Barcode

Oh, those ugly black barcodes on white backgrounds. They really do detract from artistic back covers. Maybe if you made it red, instead? Or shrunk it down really small? Oh, I know, you could leave off the white background and tuck it inconspicuously over part of the picture. The flaky old barcode scanner at the checkout counter won’t read the barcode, and the clerk will have the joy of trying to read and type a 13-digit ISBN while a line of customers waits impatiently, but who cares? Your back cover looks cool!

Keep Your Series Covers Random

Everybody knows your books are part of a series, right? There’s no reason to put the series name on the cover, no reason to put sequence numbers for people who like to read series in order, no reason to give all of the book covers a “look” or a theme. As a bookseller, I love it when series books have a number on the spine, and the front cover says something like, “Twitching Tails: #4 in the Space Squirrel series.” It saves me having to run to the computer when someone says, “I read the first three books in the Space Squirrel series, which one is next?”

Make ’em All Alike

To carry that to an extreme, if someone is going to buy one of your books, making the covers look almost identical could make you some extra money. After all, it’s not you that has to deal with a customer who accidentally bought another copy of book one when they meant to buy book two. There are a lot of ways to keep a “look,” but make each book unique. Use the same font and similar pictures on each book, but change the predominant color. Or use a single color scheme throughout the series, and the same title font or logo, but change out the picture each time. Either way, you can make it clear that the books are different, but still part of the same series.

And, Finally, Misspell the Title

If your name is Stephen King, then by all means name a book “Pet Sematary.” Otherwise, your cute and/or clever misspelling is just going to make it difficult for people to find your book. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you that customers and booksellers alike count on using online searches to find books. But generally speaking, if they don’t find it in the first couple of searches, they’re going to give up.

Gary Robson owns an independent bookstore in Red Lodge, Montana. He is also an author, with 7 technical manuals and over 20 published books to his credit. He has self-published; produced an e-book; and put out books through a trade association press, a historical society press, a regional publishing house, and an international scientific publishing house.

His children’s series, “Who Pooped in the Park?” from Farcountry Press, has sold over a quarter of a million copies. The books are children’s guides to animal tracks and scats, and follow a young boy who is afraid of bears through family camping trips in various National Parks.

In addition, Gary has written hundreds of articles, for everything from The National Law Journal to World Book Encyclopedia. For more, see his Web site at


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