The most important thing about your book cover thumbnail (it’s not what you think!)

 In book design tips

Authors tell me over and over again how important it is to have the title and text of their book cover big enough to be read as a thumbnail. I don’t know who first came up with this myth.

Here’s a snapshot of how thumbnails actually look on amazon.com (I picked out the following covers randomly; I haven’t read these books, but they’re probably very good – go buy one).

Are any of the titles clear and easy to read? Wouldn’t it be easier to just read the title from the text written right below the cover, which is always there? Isn’t this what you do naturally? So does everyone else! 

Sure, “THE FALL” catches our eye because of the bold text, but that doesn’t make it a winner. Some people may prefer the more elegant font in “What Kills Me” or “The Warrior’s Soul”.

“Raven’s Shadow” up above, on the other hand, is in dark red on black. Too bad – it could have easily been made the bright red of the bottom fire to stand out.

The thumbnail is a good place to use style to indicate the book genre. The title should be there, but it doesn’t need to be huge, and it isn’t important for the subtitle to be readable.

What IS important?

The thumbnail should look clean and professionally designed. It should be balanced with complimentary colors and nice spacing between elements. And if possible (difficult as a thumbnail) it should be eye-catching and evoke an emotional response (surprise, lust, interest, humor…)

Sure the title should be visible, but people aren’t going to squint to read it.

It also depends on the genre – for a thriller, it’s OK to have HUGE BOLD TEXT that covers the entire cover, with the background visible behind it. But for a whole bunch of other novels, like a PARANORMAL ROMANCE or a WESTERN or a BIOGRAPHY, having that kind of huge text yelling at people doesn’t really work.

The thumbnail should look good and appear professional. Even as a thumbnail I can usually tell if a book is self-published or mainstream published, or at least if the indie author hired a good designer . This is a trust issue. If your cover looks like you designed it, people might skip by on principle.

It’s not a matter of whether they can read the text, it’s only a matter of whether they think your book looks at least good enough to warrant clicking on the thumbnail to take a closer look.

And then of course, when they do, the cover can shine its entire brilliance on them. The subtle details and effects, the sparkle, the emotion… having huge text in a plain font may not be as stylish as something a little more fancy. So if you have to choose between aesthetic beauty and “readable-as-thumbnail”, go with beauty.

Of course – the title should always actually be clear and easy to read when they look at the cover at a normal size. Even with a pretty swirling font, this needs to be true. (One trick for this is to use a pretty font for the first letter of each word, but something more simple for the rest of the letters).

And one final thing that really matters

Of the above 4 covers, the one on the right could be fine with a brighter title. The one on the left looks good except I’m getting tired of seeing that font (I think I’ve used it on a couple covers as well…) and the colors are a little drab.

(I’m not judging the whole cover, just the tiny thumbnail version I can barely see).

The middle two are pretty good, except that both are using text effects to bring out the text. “The Warrior’s Soul” looks like it has a 3D bevel, and “The Fall” looks like it has a heavy drop shadow behind the author name.

My guess is, these authors (or their designers) tried to make the smaller text more visible by adding these text effects. Maybe it looked great already, but then they thought “but it disappears on the thumbnail” so they added a heavy text effect to bring it out more.

Drop shadows and bevels are signs of self-published books. Yes they help text stand out. But don’t use them. Most mainstream published books these days have zero text effect – and the text DOES blend in with the cover and it’s a little hard to see sometimes. But our brains are clever, and we can pick out the text anyway.

Instead, focus on lightning or darkening the background to help the text stand out more with natural contrast.

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