The Humbling Truth about Choosing Book Covers

As an author, I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had substantial input in the design of my book covers. In fact, in all of my most recent books, I (and my co-authors) made the cover decision. Nevertheless, I probably learned the most about the process through the design and selection for my newest novel, A Warrior’s Soul (published by Wheatmark). I also learned a fair amount about the importance of taming my author’s ego.

Indeed, the design I really liked was not chosen as the cover. We determined it simply wouldn’t market well. And that’s the point. A book cover is all about marketing, not the ego of the author. This is one reason why most publishers don’t give their authors design approval for the cover. As authors, we often become emotionally vested in the characters, plots, and themes and lose sight of the fact the cover is first and foremost a marketing tool—it needs to viscerally grab a potential reader surfing the internet or browsing a book shelf with sharp and easily processed graphics.

During my selection process with Wheatmark, we always came back to one paramount question: Which design will sell the most books?

The selection process included three radically different cover designs. (They can still be viewed at A Warrior’s Soul’s facebook page.) I solicited input from my facebook friends (Sam R. Staley) as well as personal friends. Overall, I received specific input from more than 30 individuals during the four week process.

Interestingly, I found reactions all over the place. I was able to narrow the cover down to two: One with a dark, brooding teenage boy with very cool graphic lettering for the title and the other with a silhouette of a martial arts figure with cool (but not as cool) title graphics. I loved the darker themed cover. I thought the design was intriguing and provocative, and liked the intensity it brought to the book. It was also the cover that had the most divisive reaction among those providing input. People loved it or hated it. That doesn’t bode well for a book cover because the point is to reach as broad a readership base as possible.

We chose the silhouette because the design still “popped” graphically, it avoided casting a negative pall over the book, and it still conveyed key content (including an action theme with a martial arts tie-in). The design didn’t unnecessarily narrow the potential readers (to either boys or girls, older or younger).

The main lesson for authors involved in the cover design is to adopt some humility at this stage of the process. The cover is not about you; it’s about marketing your book and giving it a chance with the broadest audience possible. We may be great writers, but that doesn’t mean we’re great marketers.  

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series ( has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).