Here at YMB Properties we create graphics design software. It’s a cool job and to be successful we do a lot of research. When we decided to enter the self publishing niche, creating a piece of software to design front covers, we analysed 200 bestsellers across the four most popular niches (Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller and Suspense and Romance) on Amazon to see what makes a great front cover.
What surprised us is that there are almost no studies about front covers on the Internet. It’s all just conjecture. We wanted to work with data, because we know that’s how you create a piece of software that would give self publishers the edge in a competitive marketplace. We knew the results would be important, because like Marilyn Monroe said:
“Boys think girls are like books, If the cover doesn’t catch their eye they won’t bother to read what’s inside.”
So what designs are the big publishing houses paying industry experts thousands of dollars to create? Let’s take a look at the findings.
Selecting the Variables
The first thing we needed to do before we even started is agree on exactly what variable we would be measuring. These are the factors that we decided on.
Photo, Graphics or Composite
Font Style and Color
Serif & Sans Serif or Playful Fonts.
Layout of the front page
The obvious place to conduct this study was on the most popular eBook platforms. So we looked at the 100 bestselling books in each of the four niches across Amazon, the most popular platform for buying books on the Internet.
The Amazon Marketplace
The first thing we noticed is that if you are selling your eBook in an online marketplace is just how difficult it is to stand out. On Amazon a front cover appears to readers as an image that is just 60 by 90 pixels in size. It’s the same story for Barnes & Noble.
Just let that sink in for a minute. It should have massive implications for the design of the front cover of an eBook. The question is, did it? Or are most designers still creating book covers that cater to the offline market. It’s a question we needed to answer.
The other thing we noticed is just how badly Amazon categorises its best sellers. We found the same books across multiple categories. We also found Amazon included whole series in its lists. So as to avoid duplication, we only counted each book once. Any book found in multiple niches was put into what we felt was the most relevant category. We also discounted series and book bundles from the bestsellers list.
One of the first things that you need to consider when you are designing a front cover is the background image to use. This image can either be a photo or an illustration. Reviewing the best seller list across the four niches, it is apparent that photos are used more often than illustrations. However, there are significant variations between the niches. For example 52% of the top 50 best selling romance novels used a full page photo for the front cover, while only 12% of romance books used just illustrations (28% of book covers in this niche use a photo and a solid background. The ratio of image to background color is either 1:1 or 1:2, while 8% combine a photo and illustration).
In the other niches the percentage of front covers that use full page photos is significantly lower (28% for science fiction and Fantasy, 32% for horror and 32% for mystery, thriller and suspense). The number of front covers that just use illustrations rises correspondingly, with 16% at the low end for science fiction and fantasy and 36% at the top end for mystery, thriller and suspense.
Font Use for Titles
The first thing that we realised as we started breaking down the data is just how varied font use for the title is across various niches is. For example, 80% of mystery and thiller genre best seller book covers use formal fonts like Arial, Serif, Verdana etc. for the title. Of the remaining 20%, 12% use stylised formal fonts which are outlined or have backdrop shadows. The remaining 8% of book covers use more playful fonts for the title.
In the romance niche it is a very different story. The types of fonts used are a lot more varied and the more formal fonts like serif and sans serif (this includes fonts like Verdana, Arial, etc.) are a lot less popular with just 36% of book covers using these fonts for the title. Instead of formal fonts, book designers prefer to use playful decorative fonts, which is used on the front cover of 64% of books in this niche. In the two other niches that were reviewed, decorative fonts are used 32% (horror) and 40% (science fiction and fantasy).
While font use for a books title is varied the font used for the authors name is not. In a maximum of 12% of cases the authors name was written in a stylised font (horror and romance. For science fiction, a stylised font was used just 4% of the time).
When it comes to font colors, simple is better. The majority of best selling books that we reviewed used a maximum of two font colors on the front cover. In the science fiction and fantasy niche only two font colors are used 64% of the time. The percentage is a lot higher across the other niches that were researched, with 70% being the norm. In terms of color variance less is definitely more. Across every niche, only 12% of book covers used more than two colored fonts on the front cover.
Across all niches the most used font color is white. In the romance niche 72% of books use this color for the font. In the horror niche, where font color is most varied, white is used 28% of the time. As to be expected, font color use changes across niches. In the romance niche, the second most popular font color is red, with 22% of books using the color on the front covers. In the mystery, thriller and suspense niche 30% of covers use black font, while mixed colored fonts are the second most popular option in the science fiction and fantasy and horror niches with 26% and 22% respectively.
In 100% of cases, when two colors or more were used for the font color, the title and the authors name were printed in different colors. In just 8% of the best selling book covers that were reviewed was the title of the book in more than one color.
The final factor that we reviewed was the layout of the book cover. We reviewed how pominent the text was relative to the background image. We also looked at some basic style issues, like is it more common for the authors name to be above or below the title.
Some of the results proved things that we already suspected. For example, 90% of book covers written by Stephen King, the name of the author was more prominent than the title of the book. The reverse is true for less well established authors, with 88% of books from across the bestseller lists displaying the title of the book more prominently than the authors name.
A surprising fact that we discovered was how much the proportion of text relative to image varied by niche. For example, in the horror niche, the title and authors name took up more than two-thirds of the page 66% of the time and for the mystery and thriller niche it was 64%. In the romance and science fiction and fantasy niches on the other hand it was just 10% and 6% respectively.
With so much data it’s good to review some of the key actionable findings. Here our some of the things you need to remember if you want to make a great book cover. For starters, instead of commissioning an expensive illustrator to create graphics for the front cover of a book, use photographs like the majority of highly paid graphic designers are doing. There are a lot of great resources online where you can get copyright free images if you need them.
When selecting a font, make sure to adjust it to your niche. If you are writing a thriller then use a serif or sans serif font for the title. If you have written a romantic novel then you should use a more playful font for the title. Regardless of what fonts you are using for the title though, always use a serif or sans serif font for the authors name. Use a maximum of two complimentary colors, one for the title and one for the authors name. If you have written a romance novel, you know white and red colored font work well together. If you have written a mystery, thriller or suspense novel then use white and black font on the front cover.
Finally, pay attention to the trends in your niche when composing your book cover. You don’t want to be one of the 6% of authors in the science fiction and fantasy niche who plaster the book title and authors name all over the cover as this doesn’t work well with the audience. However, it’s perfectally acceptable to do this in the horror niche where eye catching titles grab the readers attention.