On Book Covers: Part 3

Today’s lesson is on how to make that cover pop.

3. Visual Impact

The human eye is naturally drawn to three things: movement, high contrast, and bright color. For a book cover, motion is out, but we have two tools left at our disposal. Contrast and color.


This is merely the level of difference between the palest color and the deepest color. Obviously black and white give the highest contrast. But black and yellow is actually one of the most eye-catching combinations because it combines high-contrast and saturated color. 

FreneticBeautyHowever, vivid black and yellow gives the general impression of a bumblebee or safety caution sign. That may not be what we want for, say, our young adult contemporary. For an example on a more literary cover, see the example to the left. The background is low-contrast, but that makes the paler title stand out in comparison.

A good trick to check your contrast is to use an image-editing program to temporarily convert your cover to black-and-white. This will give you an idea of the general contrast. You can also try squinting at it until it looks blurry, which will emphasize any contrast.


The use of color can be vital in making your cover stand out. If you’re writing genre fiction, you’ve got it a bit easier on the color front. Vivid colors are common in many types of genre fic.

Children’s books and middle-grade novels run the gamut on color, but generally have brighter or more saturated color schemes.

In adult and young adult genres, thrillers and suspense novels often have bright pops of red or orange or yellow on the cover (though other colors are used to great effect sometimes). Horror usually has a fairly dark cover but accents of bright red are great, as well as unearthly blue or green for ghost stories. Alien horror? Add a splash of sickly, vivid green.

Shown above: Two examples of use of saturated color on an urban fantasy cover and a contemporary horror novel.

For sci-fi and fantasy, the world is basically your oyster when it comes to color. Brilliant green dragons, spaceships with brightly-colored lights, the glare of neon signs against wet pavement for a cyberpunk novel. The flash of red on a blood-stained knife for a mystery.

Romances have some play with colors too, though usually paranormal skews toward deeper jewel tones while historical and contemporary can play with softer or brighter colors. I have a romance on my shelf right now that uses a pop of hot pink script in the title, to great effect.

If you’re writing more serious literary fiction, you’ll likely want to steer away from brighter hues unless one has story significance. You can also use vivid hues in a highly conceptual illustrated cover, in which case you’ll probably want to hire a professional designer unless you have experience in design or illustration. A tasteful pop of color can be great on these sort of book designs, but a lot of that also depends on the tone of your novel.

Which brings me to another point on color….

Colors convey mood a8nd tone.

All colors have emotions tied to them. This is partially cultural, so I’ll be referencing uses that are generally-accepted in the US. Pale blue is calming or sad. Red is passion, anger, strong emotion. Pink is softer, romantic, or cheerful if you’re getting into the hotter pinks. Yellow is bright, sunny, joyous. Emerald green is earthy, solid, reliable. As a general rule, lower saturation conveys a more serious tone, while higher saturation hints at a more emotional story.

There is one small caveat here. If your genre is absolutely stuffed with bright, oversaturated covers, a classy white cover with a single element in color can stand out among the crowd. In this case you’re going for contrast against the other covers, instead of within your own single design.

All of these color rules can absolutely be broken, but thoughtfully. Just like all those pesky writing rules that famous authors seem to get away with flaunting, the knowledge about when you can get away with something unique is acquired through practice and experience.

Bottom Line: High-contrast and high-color covers grab the eye. Be mindful of contrast against other covers in your genre.

Tomorrow we’ll cover the next trait: Professionalism!

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