We’re always told never to judge a book by its cover, and yet we do. Everyone does. The cover communicates genre and tone. It gives readers an insight into what they can expect. If what you’re selling on the front cover isn’t what’s printed on those creamy white pages (or more likely that Paperwhite Kindle), you’ll have a disconnect with your readers because your target readers aren’t the ones picking up your book.
It’s a terrible cliche, but a picture really is worth 1000 words. Your book cover is no different. Most often it will be the cover image that first catches your reader’s eye. It needs to convey a lot of information very quickly. The image will show the reader what to expect from the novel. Come thriller? Expect a dark, brooding cover. Romance? The protagonist and their love interest entwined in each other’s arms. Space opera? Usually the protagonist’s starship against a backdrop of the stars and planets.
It’s also important to keep the thumbnail in mind as well. If you’re targeting the e-book market (and even if you’re going a traditional print route) the image still needs to be strong enough to carry its message as a thumbnail. Images and text should be clear and easy to read.
A cover can, however, also be used to help the same novel reach different markets without losing any of the insight the cover will provide. This is something we can easily explore by looking at the various reprints and rebrands of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
The original UK and US prints were published with bright covers that highlighted key scenes in the novels. It was important that the illustrations appeal to the younger audience because these first publications were the entry into the market. Capturing the hearts of a generation was one step on Rowling’s road to success, and brightly illustrated covers was an excellent way to reach them.
As young readers were the primary audience for the series, variations on the illustrated theme have been used in most countries, each with artwork tailored to suit local tastes.
In both covers, ‘Harry Potter’ is highlighted in large typeface—Scholastic using an early instance of what would become widely recognized as the Harry Potter font, while Bloomsbury opted for an easy-to-read bold serif. In addition to the illustrations, this went a long way toward visually tying the series together.
Bloomsbury’s 20th Anniversary editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were printed in Hogwarts house colors. The black covers allowed the brightly colored house crests to shine. Though each cover doesn’t really provide any information for new readers, they are simple and effective at targeting existing fans. As many of the original fans had reached adulthood, the 20th Anniversary Edition was relying on the nostalgia of the series to reach them.
These are collector’s editions, that do not generally target new readers. Of course, it’s important to mention that the movies had also added to the global popularity of the series, so it is also likely that new adult readers were attracted to these covers.
As the target audience for this edition was adults, it was also important to move away from the illustrations of earlier editions. Compared to the children’s illustrations, the sedate black covers would be less likely to draw attention on the subway.
From a collector’s standpoint, it would have been great for Bloomsbury to release the whole series in this style.
Bloomsbury also published the signature edition in 2011. This was the first chance to purchase all 7 titles in one boxed set, and was again targeted at an adult market. They sought to reach collectors and fans that had grown alongside Harry. While these covers returned to highlighting key scenes, they did so in a much more stylized fashion.
The Harry Potter title font was now replaced with the ‘signature’ of the signature series. The golden, handwritten name was eye-catching, if also hard-to-read, and the gold leaf embossing caught the light brilliantly. The cover illustrations of key scenes were now less brightly colored. The pale, parchment colored background allowed the dark illustrations to stand out on the covers. Each still hints at the fantastic fiction within—giant chess pieces fighting, and snow-covered graves with music glyphs—though by this time Harry Potter was such a household name that cover illustrations no longer needed to sell the story. Harry was firmly embedded in global pop culture.
Recently re-released through Pottermore, the latest titles go even further stylistically. They move away from touching on scenes from the stories and lean heavily on the iconography within. The owl and lightning bolt still suggest a fantasy tale, as does the phoenix rising above the spires of the castle. Highlighting the iconography of the stories allows the covers to lend more weight. These covers more clearly suggest a fantasy story than the signature series. These also appeal to a broader audience. The bright bold colors will draw younger readers, while the subtle illustration will suit adults.
These covers also keep the heading font uniform. Previous examples highlight Harry Potter by using a separate font from the subheading. Making the font uniform ensures the title remains easy to read as a thumbnail, which is important here as these covers are specifically designed for audiobook versions (the accessibility of digital online stores means audiobooks are more likely to be purchased online).
Through these examples we can see how each cover and printing serves a particular purpose and aims to reach a particular audience, without changing the original text.
If you’re looking to recreate the feel of these styles, the Envato Marketplace has a huge range of fonts and illustrations to get you started.