Cheating to win won’t help your book sales: Judging the Author’s Database 2013 Book Cover Design Contest

This month I was asked to be a guest judge on the Author’s Database 2013 indie book cover design contest.

It was an interesting experience, both in seeing the quality of what’s out there, and becoming more familiar with my own guidelines for quality cover design. There was a wide variety, and I was supposed to choose a first, second and third winner from each category.

Everybody could vote on the contest, but my vote had some extra weight for tie-breaking and finalizing winners – which keeps it from becoming just a popularity contest. Plus, if you want to know if you have a great book cover, asking a lot of regular readers for their feedback may be misleading, because their opinions may be skewed by their relationship with you, or they may have a very poor sense of design style.

And for Author’s DB, encouraging readers to participate was smart because the project became more interactive and get people to take action.

But it also means that the “Winning book covers” will be chosen half by designers, and half by the authors who made all their friends go and vote for their cover.

The final results, I’m fairly certain, will not be the best covers.

This is unfortunate because indie authors already have a tough time figuring out what makes a “Good Cover” – and if book cover contests like this give prizes to fairly ordinary or even pretty ugly book covers, the bar will not be raised.

Winning a book cover contest award won’t lead to more book sales. It may even convince you that your cover is good enough, when actually a better cover could dramatically boost sales. So getting a lot of people to upvote your cover design doesn’t make a lot of sense (except – by being a winner you’ll get a little bit more visibility and free publicity… so I’m not saying don’t do it. Just don’t believe the results).

On a larger scale, the same issue is repeated within the author-designer relationship: the designer tries to produce the best book cover, but the author chooses the samples they like and then keep making changes. At least half of the book covers I’ve designed for authors could have been much stronger if they’d have gone with my recommendations, rather than their gut.

What makes an ugly book cover?

Some of the covers in the contest were pretty bad, even some of the finalists, usually for these reasons:

  1. Too much bevel or drop shadow behind text.
  2. The text stretched to fit, making it too tall and narrow.
  3. Way too many elements crammed together and not blended well.
  4. No overall color consistency.
  5. Title text color doesn’t match the art
  6. Too many fancy fonts (especially for author name – keep that simple!)
  7. Custom illustration (almost never works, usually looks bad… but it can be OK on kids’ books).
  8. Really great art ruined by boring, simple or ugly text.
  9. Adding a “TM” after the title, or a publishing logo on the front cover.

Sometimes it was tough to choose.

A few covers I really liked – very strong covers – weren’t suited for the genre, so I went with ones that were a better fit.

Sometimes there were several pretty good but not perfect covers, none of which I loved, but I had to pick one. In these I usually went with my immediate reaction, the one I “liked” on first sight.

What makes a great book cover?

Uniformity, nothing too distracting, clear text that stands out, harmonious colors… here are some of my favorites from the contest (I don’t know the book cover designers who made these, so if you do know, feel free to add comments to this post with links to the designers).

2A0AA915B38A-134 2F10E53F0F9F-42 4AF90AEF5127-34 5C525C3A0B02-10 07C4506BBA48-48 8BE3D2079656-4 9DC3E6D14C46-38 15E01B66404D-36 32FA34F4D21C-30 53B0A6C7B8A6-50 314FB9CE9F36-30 495D6386FDC3-38 761AC4C2BDB1-36 8440DC4F24A9-38 14596E18151C-8 765173D1D6D1-50 A327520ED201-128 AAA5586A5B3C-38 ABF2F50B0F9F-10 BB63F7BC5A71-26 C7BF3EACEFBB-48 C942F2E032D7-54 C6292D5F2412-50 C7012164BDB7-48 CD269A171ECE-38 D2CB72D699CF-54 D35912CDFF85-30 DFE86FA5AA73-36 E74EA101092A-4 ED6E10264492-130 F6C0903A65FF-28 FC42B42021AD-32 FD7C5F817D48-136


 Why didn’t you like my cover?

If you entered the contest but didn’t win, and want to know what I didn’t like about your cover or what I would suggest for improving, feel free to email me: however there were only a couple that could be fixed with better text or simple changes – most needed a complete overhaul.


About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Dianne

    I am so grateful to have had you as the designer of my book covers. I have benefited immensely from your judgement and advice on them, and I continuously get compliments from readers on how much they were attracted to the book covers.

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