An American Editor

June 4, 2012

To Design or Not to Design in the Age of eBooks

Whenever a discussion arises about how an indie author can increase sales, two things generally occur: First, regardless of the merits of the suggestion, the indie author defends by saying he or she cannot afford to spend the money to hire the professional (fill-in-the-blank) and second, with limited funds available for hiring a professional, it is hard to prioritize where to spend the money. There isn’t a lot that can be done about the first matter, but tackling the second matter, every indie author can do.

Years ago, when I ran a small publishing company, we worked under very tight budget restraints. As an editor, rather than a designer or artist, I believed that it was better to spend the money on editorial matters, even at the neglect of design. I quickly learned a valuable lesson: Aside from the story and quality of the storyline and writing, the most important facet of the production process was not editorial but cover design. If the cover design didn’t entice a reader to pick the book off the shelf, it mattered not at all how well written or edited the book was — there would be no sale.

The Age of eBooks raises this question yet again: Which is more important: professional cover design or editorial help?

Some ebookers dismiss the covers as being unimportant under the guise of content is king. I think that ignores how we buy products. Consider Apple products. If we look at the content, that is the inner works, of its devices, we find good — not outstanding, just good — components that will not win awards for being high quality; Apple products are basically, component-wise, middle-of-road. Apple’s real genius has been in design — the “cool factor.” People line up to buy Apple products because of the design; if they were interested in high quality components rather than design, they would consider alternatives. They don’t because design is what drives sales.

The same is true of an ebook. Look at how many ebooks of middling content are sold and read (or at least started). There is no consumer clamor for something to indicate that the content has been professionally edited; professional editing doesn’t drive sales although it can maintain sales momentum. Sales are generally visually driven.

Over the past few months, I have been consciously tracking how I make a decision to buy a particular ebook. I also have been tracking how my wife and a few of our friends decide to buy an ebook. I thought my discoveries would be earth-moving, but they aren’t; in fact, they mirror how pbooks are sold.

The two primary factors in the decision-making process (once we get past the genre/subject-matter obstacle) appear to be the blurb and the cover. Secondary factors appear to be reviews, price (especially the price-to-length ratio), and sample pages.

The higher the quality of the cover design, the higher the likelihood that the book will be looked at; the more informative and better written the blurb is, the higher the likelihood, when combined with a professionally designed cover, that the ebook will be bought.

After the initial sales, word of mouth becomes important, but not so important, in most cases, as to override the value of the cover and the blurb. My experience and my recent observations confirm to my satisfaction that a professionally designed cover is, after the quality of the writing and storyline, the most important investment an indie author can make in his or her book. This is not to suggest that this investment can be in lieu of investing in professional editorial help; just that it is an investment that is too often neglected and shouldn’t be.

A good author knows the value of professional editorial help. But it is fairly clear that ebookers are quite forgiving of editorial mistakes (or perhaps are unaware of the mistakes themselves), which means that if you can afford to invest in only one thing, that investment probably should be in the cover.

Remember that the very first thing an ebooker sees when scanning Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, or any of the other ebooksellers, is the cover image. A great cover image can cause an ebooker to pause and read the blurb; a well-written blurb, combined with a great cover, can result in a sale.

Do not think that it is easy to create a great cover — it isn’t. Even the big publishers have troubles in this regard. Not only must the image be right and convey the story (remember that a picture is worth a thousand words) to the observer, but the choice of typeface is also important, as is its placement. Much too often it is impossible to read the type on an indie cover because the wrong typeface was chosen or because the image-typeface combination is simply wrong.

I agree that even the poorest cover-designed ebooks may still sell; the question is how many more copies would it sell if the cover were professionally designed and eye-catching? If you cannot capture a reader’s attention using the cover of your book, how much hope do you have that the reader will pause to read your blurb? There is just so much time and effort that a reader is willing to expend to find an ebook to read, and the most common sorting method that readers use is to scan cover images, pausing only on those ebooks whose cover has caught their eye.



  1. Rich, basically I agree with what you have said here, as I know from my own buying patterns that in a book shop it is a combination of the cover and the blurb that will cause me to buy a particular book (as you say, leaving the author and genre to one side).
    But against this is the method that Penguin used for many, many years, that simple red and white cover with no image of any sort to beguile us into buying the book. And this worked very well too.
    However, when I go hunting for ebooks, then to be honest the cover plays no role at all in my final choice. This is because I use a computer with a relatively small screen, or a Kindle or a Sony ereader, and on all of these, the covers are effectively useless… One can see no real detail on the small thumbnail one is offered.. So the title and blurb are what sells an ebook to me.


    Comment by ebookano — June 4, 2012 @ 4:32 am | Reply

    • Tony, I have found that on my Sony 950 and on my Nook Tablet that the cover thumbnails are such that they either induce me to look further or not. If I decide to look further, tapping on the image brings up a full-screen view. Even on Smashwords, I find that I scan the cover images looking for an interesting cover along with an enticing title. With hundreds of thousands of ebooks available, I find I am drawn to the covers as an initial screening method.

      Having said that, however, an interesting title on an uninteresting cover image does sometimes induce me to read the blurb. But I see an amateur cover as too often correctly indicating an amateur attempt at writing.


      Comment by americaneditor — June 4, 2012 @ 6:56 am | Reply

      • It had never occurred to me to click on the covers……. And I have been working with computers since about 1984!


        Comment by ebookano — June 4, 2012 @ 7:21 am | Reply

  2. Then there’s the matter of taste and context. My e-book has a clever title, a zorchy cover, and two versions of a reasonably well-written blurb that capture the gist of the story. But most people zip right by it, because it’s not what they want to read.

    Story, ultimately, trumps all.


    Comment by Carolyn — June 4, 2012 @ 7:26 am | Reply

  3. I opted to have a professional graphic designer to design my cover. At first I wanted to spend very little, but when I thought about it I knew it had to convey what I wanted in a way only a professional could achieve, and everyone that has commented onit is very impressed. I’m lucky in that I have a degree in English so I didn’t need to choose between editorial input and cover deign. I would say both elements are so important, but the cover might not get you a reader who sticks around for your next novel. If the story is well written and professionally presented then you’re more likely to have a repeat customer. Catch 22 springs to mind!


    Comment by davidmcgowan — June 4, 2012 @ 3:42 pm | Reply

  4. Hi!

    I am the Books editor at Before It’s News ( Our site is a rapidly growing people-powered news platform currently serving over 3 million visits a month. We like to call ourselves the “YouTube of news.”

    We would love to republish your blog’s RSS Feed in our new Books section. Every post would have a description of your site and a link back to it. Our visitors would love to read your content and find out more about you!

    It’s a great opportunity to spread the word about your work and reach new readers. We don’t censor or edit work.

    We will be featuring and promoting content and book excerpts across the web.

    Looking forward to hearing from you!


    Sebastian Clouth
    Books Editor, Before It’s News


    Comment by sebastianclouth — June 5, 2012 @ 11:22 pm | Reply

  5. I tend to scan covers and titles when I’m looking for books, be it paperbacks or ebooks. Next the blurb – alas, I also think this is an area that some writers overlook. A one- or two-sentence description that tells me that I’m going to love the book but nothing about the story gets a pass from me.


    Comment by Vicki — June 6, 2012 @ 7:09 am | Reply

  6. Hi Vicki… How goes it? I see what you mean about that free ebook at Amazon. I went and had a look (I am always interested in free ebooks as a good Scotsman). Superb 1940’s cover, most enticing I suppose…. But you are right, there is a certain lack of useful info in the “synopsis”, for want of a better word, So I passed as well.


    Comment by ebookano — June 7, 2012 @ 2:40 am | Reply

    • It goes well, Tony. 🙂 Hope you’re doing the same. Synopsis is a good word — one of those things that is easier said than done. NYT bestselling indie author Victorine Lieske runs the where she analyses why a book is not selling. The synopsis/product description is part of that.


      Comment by Vicki — June 7, 2012 @ 8:27 pm | Reply

      • Hi Vicki, Glad all is well with you. with me too, last few days here in the Philippines and off to live in Australia in a couple of days now..
        I agree with you, writing a good synopsis is a real skill I reckon, much as writing a good headline is. I know I have a lot of trouble doing it for my blog. For the search engines one has to write a short synopsis of each post, which is intended to make people want to read the full post, and I really struggle over that.
        How to say enough to entice people to want to read the entire thing, but not give away too much at the same time. A real balancing act I find.


        Comment by ebookano — June 8, 2012 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  7. […] O blogue An American Editor aborda a relevância do design editorial na era do e-book. Para ler aqui. […]


    Pingback by A importância das capas dos livros na era digital | E-ditar | Livros em Digital — July 20, 2012 @ 9:05 am | Reply

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