The Future of Ebook Covers

Nearly 40% of all books in the UK are now sold online. This means that the cover that is seen on Amazon is rapidly becoming more important than the cover that is seen on the book. Will the constraints of ebook covers begin to dictate the design of all book covers? Maybe. However, as the constraints of physical covers become less important I think we will see ebook covers become more creative and relevant to their medium.

There is a great post about where ebooks might go at Passwordincorrect. The examples of Seth Godin’s Poke the Box is used to illustrate e-covers that no longer bother to carry information that is adequately conveyed by the webpage. This means the author name, title and other text. Do the Work uses the same trick. This technique is discussed further at The Magaziner.

Front_Cover_PTB-300x427   Do-The-Work

Meanwhile PasswordIncorrect use a different trick for their free ebook. The cover is designed to look like an app on a phone, tablet or similar device.


Before you get too excited about the brave new future of cover design, Mike Cane has some criticisms of this cover here. It seems like, before e-covers can really come into their own, we will need to sort out all the pesky formatting errors that still plague ebooks.

Fantasy Covers

In my last post I claimed that British fantasy covers work better as e-covers than their American counterparts. If you look at the two rows on the A3 Book Chart named ‘Original Covers’ and ‘Updated Covers’ I think you can see this pretty clearly. Here are a few examples for those who can’t see the chart.

09 The Way of Kings   09wayofkings   09a The Way of Kings UK    1955

03 Dragon Keeper   43098   03a Dragon Keeper   88138

04 Robert Jordan   33496   04a Robert Jordan  37770

In all these examples the British covers (on the right) work better as e-covers. The pictures are clearly drawn, without variation in colour and tone. The text is large and block-coloured. The contrasts between light and dark highlight the titles. In the original covers (on the left) the artwork is beautiful and detailed, but entirely lost in thumbnail and greyscale. The text can be large enough, but it often merges with the background due to similar shades of grey.

Better, worse, the same or just different?

Over at The Ebook Test, Mike Cane wrote an interesting post comparing the print edition covers with the e-edition covers of various books. He says:

One of the few things I haven’t complained about with print publishing is the design of book covers.  This is because it’s an art that stretches back for decades and there have been some seriously great covers (see The Book Design blog for some samples).

There is even a science to book covers!

But with print publishing turning to eBooks, all of that learning is being flushed down the eToilet.

I have to admit that for most of these comparisons he has a very good point. There was no need to change the Richard Branson cover, which works perfectly well as it is. The new version certainly isn’t an improvement, the text is nearly illegible in thumbnail and the image is dull. It’s frustrating that the replacement is worse than the original.

cover004b1   77904   ecover0041

Mike would like to see all the original covers reformatted and used on the ebooks, but I disagree. The problem really is that the replacements are bad, not that the originals are good. The Branson cover could work better in thumbnail if the photograph was closer cropped and the text was slightly larger. Many of the other covers, such as The Civil War, Lincoln Unmasked and Black Boy do not work well in greyscale thumbnails. The photograph in The Civil War is lost and much of the text is too small to read. The red banner across Lincoln’s eyes, which was an effective play on the theme of ‘masking’ in colour, looks like bad design in greyscale. Much of the text is too small to read in thumbnail and clutters the image. The contrasting colours of Black Boy are lost in greyscale, destroying much of the effect and the allusion to abstract expressionist art.

55004   86293   74770

These books would be best served by creating covers that work both in large and small, both in colour and in greyscale.

I was interested to discover that there are different covers for e-versions of books. I poked around on Amazon and discovered an interesting fact. Some books on have different covers for the physical copy and the kindle copy. However, those same books on have only one cover for both the physical copy and the kindle copy. For example, Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey has one cover for the paperback on, and another cover for the kindle edition. On, it is the same cover for both editions. The first colour image below is the American edition, the second is the British. They both use the British edition for the kindle. Is the British edition a better cover for an e-edition? I honestly don’t think so. The American version is clearer in thumbnail and greyscale, although the British version is more eye-catching in colour.

9780143118589H   21821   shades-of-grey-pbk   27924

The Way Of Kings is the same on Amazon. It has one cover for paperback on, and another cover for British paperbacks and all kindle editions. In this case, it seems clear to me that the British version is much better suited to being a kindle cover. The American version is inadequate for reasons discussed here.

09 The Way of Kings   09wayofkings   09a The Way of Kings UK   1955

Looking at other fantasy books I saw that Sword of Shannara and Lord of Chaos both had American covers for the paperback on and British covers for the kindle edition. It seems that the trend on Amazon is not the choose the cover that works best as an e-cover, but to simply use British covers across the board, regardless of whether they are better or worse.

It is my opinion that the British fantasy covers generally work better as e-covers and I’ll be discussing that in my next post.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I am a huge fan of Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer. Every month he gives an award to the best ebook cover design, and he gives some good advice to the runners up. Now that I’ve discussed some of the factors that influence ebooks I wanted to examine some examples from The Book Designer that do it well and some that do it badly.

The Afterlife and Sarah and Gerald apply the same principles to come to vastly different results that, nevertheless, both work well. The Afterlife image is a black and white photograph that works well in colour and in greyscale; the hint of red in the text adds a highlight in the colour version but doesn’t detract from the greyscale version. Sarah and Gerald on the other hand is a bright and stylised drawing that really pops out in colour. It still works in greyscale because the bright colours of the background become light greys the contrast well with the text. The simple line drawing still works in greyscale. The dark colour of the clothes becomes a dark grey that helps the figures to stand out. The simple line drawing remains clear in grey. The Afterlife works well in thumbnail because the image of the face immediately draws the eye and is still very clear. Sarah and Gerald works well in a smaller version as the image and the text are just large enough to still be clear.

afterlife   afterlif   Sarah-and-Gerald   sara

Covers that don’t work include the cover of Private Showing. When working in thumbnail size, it’s necessary to use all the space available. The large amounts of empty space at the top and bottom of the page are unused and consequently the image of the house is overpowered and left looking lost and alone. It’s too small to see clearly in thumbnail, as is the text of the title. The subdued and mottled grey of the cover fails to draw the attention in colour and in grey the whole thing becomes washed-out and hard to see. The green of the hill and the blue of the sky become almost identical in grey. A Very Zombie Holiday is bright and attractive in colour, but in greyscale the reds and the greens become similar and much of the mood is lost. In thumbnail the text becomes difficult to read and the expression of the little girl, vital to understanding the narrative of the image, is too small to read comfortably.

Private-Showing   25845   A-Very-Zombie-Holiday   29594

Taglines: Yes or No?

Taglines and quotes from reviewers are a useful sales tool in a bookstore. A casual browser can be persuaded to buy a book on the recommendation of an author or celebrity that they already admire. On an ebook cover the tagline is rarely visible (especially during the process of browsing and purchasing) because it will be viewed in thumbnail. That kind of review and recommendation text is much better displayed on the webpage next to the cover, not on the cover itself. However, there are reasons to keep the tagline on the cover: so that the ebook cover will match the hardcopy cover; so that the work of cover design doesn’t need to be done twice; in case the browser decides to click-through and view the large image.

I’m undecided whether the illegible tagline on the cover has a negative effect on aesthetics of a book cover in thumbnail. Consider the cover of Firestarter (which was designed before ebooks but is still a useful example). The title, author name and image are all clear in thumbnail, but the text below the title is just slightly too small to read, which is both tantalising and irritating to the viewers squinting down at it. Likewise, in The Celestine Prophecy the text is illegible and would probably be better replaced by an image of a pyramid. In Cold Mountain the rather obvious information that the book is a novel is slightly too small to read comfortably, forcing the viewer to work harder to understand the cover.

Firestarter_novel   Thecelestineprophecy   Cold_mountain_novel_cover

However, there are covers which I think benefit from the tagline, despite it being illegible. In Gone Girl the original cover is rather empty without the tagline and the sticker. There is nothing to draw the eye around the cover or to keep it in the image. The sticker adds some much needed shape and contrast to the composition, while the tagline helps to fill the blackness.

05 Gone-Girl   5 gone-girl

In Stardust the quote from William Gibson is too small to read. However, if it were removed the composition of the cover would be ruined by the wide-open negative space that is currently filled by the quote. It’s better to keep the quote, just to balance the image, than to reject it for being illegible.

06a Stardust


Working in Thumbnail Part 2: Complicated Covers

In a previous post I noted that many of the covers from the 1980s were simple and bold,  as if perfectly designed to work as ebook covers in thumbnail. In contrast, many of the bestselling covers from the 2010s were complicated. So what factors allow a complicated cover to also work in thumbnail?

Patricia Cornwell’s Port Mortuary has a detailed colour photograph and small text. The photograph has various colours and details in the texture while the text is thin. There is great potential for this cover to fail in thumbnail but it succeeds. The font is a geometric modernist font without serifs or modulated stroke so it remains clear and legible even at a small size. The black shadow in the photograph is cleverly positioned behind the white text making it stand out. The tiny figure in the background is also silhouetted against the sky, helping to keep the image clear. The knife in the foreground is large enough to be visible even in a small size. The detail is only detail of texture. The detail is interesting and evocative in a large size, when the viewer can make out the sea, clouds and the blood splash on the knife, but none of these features are necessary to understand the composition of the cover. In a small size, the knife and the silhouette are still clear and visible, the blood stain has vanished. The quote at the top is legible in a large size, but in a small size it gets lost in the cloud and is not a distraction.

9781408702352   9781408702352

This is the secret to scaling complicated covers: the details that are visible in the larger version and invisible in the smaller version should not be necessary for understanding the picture. The Forest of Hands and Teeth achieves the same effect as Port Mortuary. The creepy details of the trees, the texture of her shirt and the whisps of her fly away hair are all lost in the thumbnail – but the overall mood of the picture is still clear and comprehensible in her lowered head, floating hair and the subdued colour scheme.

Forest_Hands_Teeth_hb_cover   Forest_Hands_Teeth_hb_cover

Terry Pratchett’s Guards Guards is a perfect example of a cover which does not work in thumbnail. Josh Kirby’s artwork is a perfect fit for Terry Pratchett’s novel. The novel works on many levels, as a straightforward adventure, as a witty comedy, as a satire of fantasy conventions and as a police procedural. Josh Kirby’s artwork reflects that: the cover is grotesque and amusing, frenetic and detailed. In thumbnail the characters in the lower left become a jumbled mess, while the baby dragon and the sea gulls are lost entirely. It’s hard to make out the basic narrative of the story, a drgaon attacks a group of men, which is obvious in the larger size.

05 Guards Guards   05 Guards Guards

Fantasy covers have traditionally been complicated and colourful. The trend towards simpler covers in the fantasy genre is something I will discuss in a later post.