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Why Business Books Are Blue (And Other Tricky Marketing Techniques)

Yes, you judge books by their covers. Here’s what draws you in.

Why Business Books Are Blue (And Other Tricky Marketing Techniques)
[Photo: Flickr user Ginny]

I review a lot of business books. Consequently, publishers often send me copies of new releases. As I was cleaning out my office the other day, and staring at about 50 book covers, I had a thought: Why are so many of these books blue or orange? What do cover designers know about what lures readers in?

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It’s a question with profound implications. According to book information company Bowker, traditional publishers printed more than 300,000 titles in 2013, and the non-traditional sector–such as self-published e-books–added at least a million more.

It’s hard to stand out, which means we do judge books on their covers. Michele DeFilippo, owner of 1106 Design, says: “A successful book cover design is part art, part science, but mostly business. A book cover has one job–to make people look.”

Here are a few factors that usually do the trick:

1. The Cover Is Striking

This explains the explosion of blue and orange in my office. Jayme Johnson, president and founder of Worthy Marketing Group, notes: “Blue is known to be a color that represents business, trustworthiness, and calm.”

Since orange is on the opposite side of the color wheel from blue, “they compliment better and can ‘pop’ off the page in a more vibrant way,” she adds. If enough business books choose one or the other option, the whole shelf will continue to catch people’s eyes.

Sometimes people even combine contrasting colors into one book. What’s on top of my pile? Mike Michalowicz’s Profit First, whose cover was mostly deep blue, but one-third is neon yellow and green. “[This is] to catch your attention,” he says.

His shortcut tip for getting the right combo is to look at established brands outside of literature for inspiration. “For me? The Seattle Seahawks uniforms inspired the color scheme on the book cover,” he says.

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2. You Can Tell Immediately What The Book Is About

The title and subtitle obviously matter here, but on a more fundamental level, readers know what certain genres of books are supposed to look like. They are drawn to those that fit those conventions.

If you’ve got an attractive, half-dressed couple on a book cover, you’re probably looking at a romance novel. A flirty font with pink accents means you’ve got chick lit. Business books have their style too: solid bands of bright color with a simple typeface are a long-standing convention. See the cover of How to Win Friends & Influence People.

“Buyers like to feel safe when spending money, so the cover should also look like it ‘belongs’ with the competitive best sellers that Amazon will display alongside it,” DeFilippo says. Emulating these concepts makes readers feel comfortable “because so many people have purchased these best sellers.”

3. The Cover Reflects The Audience

Within any given genre, a book cover can tell book browsers immediately if this is a book for people like them. Johnson suggests looking at Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso’s #GirlBoss as an example.

“This is a business book, but absolutely geared toward a younger, hipper, more edgy female audience,” she explains. “So the cover of the book has a fashionable photo of the author with a hashtag in the title–which pays homage to its social-media savvy readers–and the tone of the book is absolutely more aggressive and take charge.”

It works for Amoruso’s brand. “But this style approach would not work for a more traditional buttoned-up author and audience,” she says.

4. The Cover Looks Good Even When Shrunk

This is the killer design challenge these days. Most book buyers aren’t browsing in an airport book store. They’re clicking through online listings. If a reader is on her phone, then the cover image will literally be only one inch tall.

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“This presents a challenge for designers because a cover that looks good online can be overwhelming at actual size, seeming to scream at the reader,” says DeFilippo. “Some publishers will create separate, but subtly different designs for the online and e-book icons.” Simple icons and fewer words–in a huge font–work best.

It’s difficult, but some authors just roll with reality. “I so much believe in the importance of the Amazon thumbnail that I do all my design work around that,” says Michalowicz.

With a previous book, The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, he chose a cover-sized graphic of toilet paper. His second book, The Pumpkin Plan, had a big pumpkin image. Profit First has just a piggy bank. Even at an inch tall, you know what that is.

You’ve heard great things about a book. The old-fashioned practice of putting blurbs–or testimonials from famous people–on the cover is about assuring readers that people they admire also like this book. But as people increasingly come to booksellers through social links, they’ve already gotten the blurb from friends. In the long run, this increasing reliance on word-of-mouth makes the cover matter somewhat less.

“At the end of the day, I think book covers absolutely help lure viewers and drive book sales,” Michalowicz says. “But if the book itself is crap, the best cover design in the world probably won’t make a tremendous difference. Content is still king.”

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at www.lauravanderkam.com.

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