THING 2. Successful Seduction and the Naked Truth: Rethink Cover Design for a Small, Small World

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.


There’s something about you, Anastasia, that calls to me on some deep level I don’t understand. It’s a siren’s call. I can’t resist you.”
–Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James)

I’m Eve in the Garden of Eden, and he’s the serpent, and I cannot resist.
Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James 


The Siren’s Call

How does the sexy billionaire mogul Christian Grey meet hapless college student Anastasia Steele? Well, it’s like this, see: her friend is the editor of their college newspaper and she had the flu and—

Oh, never mind. Suffice to say that our virginal heroine finds herself in the reception area of Mr. Grey’s Seattle office, waiting to interview him—a wait that is just long enough to recognize that Mr. Grey seems to prefer a certain “type” of employee; namely, attractive blonde women.

Of course, only later does Grey confess to her that she has it all backwards about the blonde beauties at the office. Turns out they’re there to save him from temptation. As he helpfully explains to her: “I like to whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all look like [my mother].” (Because nothing says “you had me at ‘whip’” like a big order of kink with a side of mommy issues topped with too many HR ethical violations to count, you know?)

In other words, if you stood a bunch of blonde women in a row and threw a brunette into the mix, Christian Grey’s eye would naturally be drawn to someone he wants to spank.

Uh-oh. Someone’s in trouble.

Stop Eyeballing Me

Speaking of eyes, did you know that your eyeballs are always moving? I don’t mean the “smooth pursuit movement” that causes Christian Grey to track Ana Steel with his eyes as she walks away. (Not to mention tracking her down using her cell phone signal just as she pukes into an azalea bush…classy.) I’m talking about something called “saccades.” Saccades are the tiny, involuntary and nearly constant movements your eyes make. There are several reasons for this rapid, continuous motion but one type in particular, a “reflexive saccade,” causes your eyes to quickly focus on “the appearance of peripheral stimulus.”

“Peripheral stimulus.” Ahem.

No doubt this was a handy trait for our distant ancestors to have while wandering, say, the plains of Africa; if a hungry lion suddenly appeared while you were out picking Paleolithic berries (or whatever), the reflex saccade would make sure you saw it—right before it killed you and ate you. Similarly, if a man “naked except for…soft ripped jeans, top button casually undone” is to jump out at you holding a paddle and yammering about his mother, the reflex saccade guarantees that he will have your full attention.

With so few carnivores gunning for us now (and denim-clad, paddle-wielding sadists thankfully thin on the ground), our vestigial reflexive saccade is a dream-come-true for marketers who, whether they know it or not, use this quirky characteristic to get your attention online—whether you want to give it or not. Colors, video, interesting graphics—savvy marketers use whatever methods and techniques they can because they know that they have just a brief second before their chance to sell you something is gone.

The Siren’s Call

Pretend you’ve just walked into a bookstore, except this bookstore only has one bookcase and it’s so far from where you’re standing that the covers appear to be just over one-inch tall. Just one shelf has books on it—all of them turned so the covers are facing out. Now, from where you’re standing, pick one of those books to buy:


Ludicrous, you say? Well, here—let’s replace the bookshelf with this:

Look familiar? This is Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” suggestive selling ribbon and it’s ubiquitous on that site (and other e-book sites a well). Whether you’re browsing for a police procedural or spicy erotica, the suggestive selling ribbon serves up a tempting, seductive, and near-constant barrage of suggestions to its customers at every turn.

In Part 2 and Part 3 of my series “My Date Using the Almighty Amazon Algorithm,” I  explain how the suggestive selling ribbon on Amazon is transforming “discoverability” (the way readers inadvertently “stumble upon” a book) and the way authors need to think about cover design with these overarching points: 

  • Designing a kick-ass book cover  for the Kindle Store is one of the most valuable marketing and discoverability opportunities your self-published book is likely to have.
  • When designing an e-book cover, you MUST assume that every potential reader will see it first as a thumbnail on Amazon’s suggestive selling ribbon and not as a full-sized graphic.

Christian? Is that you?

Although people may think that they’re tuning out attempts to market to them, if you do it correctly your eye’s reflex saccade simply can’t ignore the “peripheral stimulus” of a great book cover. Of course, it’s up to authors to make sure that even if all a potential reader does is glance at the suggestive selling ribbon for a second, their very human eyes will be attracted to their book.

A Complete Mystery

Mystery author Nancy Tesler’s first four books of her “Deadly Things” series were published by Dell between 1997 and 2000, with the fifth in the series published by Perseverance Press in 2003. Though the first four are out of print (but still available for purchase on Amazon), all of her publishing contracts fortunately predated e-books, leaving Nancy with the opportunity to revive a series whose heroine, Carrie Carlin, was lauded by everyone from Publishers Weekly (“a clever, slightly neurotic heroine”) to Janet Evanovich (“a slightly frazzled, commitment-phobic, in-your-face heroine who’ll tickle your funnybone as she steals your heart”).

At a loss as to how to make her backlist available as an e-book, Nancy attended one of my “soup to nuts” self-publishing workshops last summer, including a session on e-book cover design. Right after Thanksgiving, she sent me a lovely thank-you email:

Just wanted to let you know I finally have my backlist on Kindle. Your advice on cover design was invaluable and I want you to know how much I’ve appreciated your making yourself available to answer questions about this strange new world. I’ve still got much to learn about marketing and follow you as a great example of what to do. Many thanks for your help.

She included a link to her books on Amazon in the email; unfortunately, I was so behind on reading emails that I didn’t even see it until after Christmas! When I did finally read it, I clicked over to her Amazon page immediately and this is what I saw:


I think I was grinning from ear-to-ear when I emailed her back:

Couldn’t be more thrilled for you! Your cover concepts are delightful and clever! (If you’re interested in more feedback, please let me know. I know better than to offer without being invited.)

To her credit, she was eager for additional feedback and we arranged to speak on the phone. By this time, I had an idea percolating that I wanted to share with her. Tired of using my own book overs as examples (about as tired as the publishing world is probably of looking at them, no doubt), and dreading the thought of manufacturing more “mock covers” from thin air, I decided to ask Nancy if she would be willing to take her professional and imaginative covers and make some modifications that would make them “pop” on Amazon’s suggestive selling ribbon so I could use the results in a blog on e-book cover design. It was a conversation that I thought would take 15 minutes.

We spoke for over an hour.

Shrink the title art and highlight the graphics…

Attracting readers to your book on the suggestive selling ribbon requires rethinking book cover design completely–so much so that it may even be upsetting, especially for authors who are or were at one time traditionally published. Indeed, hearing that cover features such as title art and the author’s name—features that are often critical for a book on a bookstore shelf—simply aren’t that important on a thumbnail and can be greatly reduced in size in most cases (I’ll discuss the exceptions to that rule in a moment) leads to much rending of garments and tearing of hair.

…and design for the thumb-nail.

“What?” people shriek. “You’re saying my title isn’t important? You want me to make my title smaller? But how will anyone be able to read it?”

Well that’s the thing about the suggestive selling ribbon; unless your book’s title art is all you have on your cover and you make the font very large and very distinctive or you have the zoom on your screen set to 400%:

  • No one can read the book title on a thumbnail image.
  • No one can see the author’s name on a thumbnail image. 

Before you start hyperventilating and pass out at this revelation, let me reassure you that it doesn’t matter that no one can read your book’s title or your name on a thumbnail. Why? Because Amazon prints the name of the book and the author’s name right below the thumbnail in a perfectly legible font.


Why’d You Have To Go and Make Things So Complicated?

If you’ve never seen the TED Talk given by Chip Kidd, the designer of iconic covers from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park to David Sedaris’s Naked, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do so; it may well be the most illuminating 17 minutes you’ve spent so far this year. In his talk, he recalls a lesson that he learned from his graphic design teacher many years ago: either show the picture of an apple or write the word APPLE—but don’t do both. To do so, he says, “…is treating your audience like a moron.” A cover is a “distillation” of the text, and a designer needs to be an interpreter and translator of the story without clinging to symbols hidden within the book.

Which is not to say that your cover should be boring. Quite the opposite. As Mr. Kidd explained in a Photo Gallery of his work for TIME Magazine:

“All I ever hoped for in a book cover was not beige. Not that bland cream-to-tan range that is so tastefully discreet and complacently qual-lit that you want to scrawl lewdisms all over it before it sedates you completely.

These points all hold true—even more so, one could argue—in the case of designing for a thumbnail. Remember: you’re trying to induce the eye’s reflexive saccades, not glaze them over with boredom. What you’re striving for is simple but “visible” and hot enough “to fry eggs on,” according to Chip Kidd.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, the hapless and horny Ana Steele escapes from the ties that bind her (no, seriously) to make an impromptu journey across the country to visit her mother. “I need space to think,” she tells the controlling, twitchy-palms Mr. Grey. Once in Georgia, she unloads on her mother, confessing her fears and confusion about her new “relationship” (but thankfully leaving out the part about the rack and the blindfold).

In what is perhaps the most misguided advice in the history of maternal-child relationships, Ana’s mother brushes aside her daughter’s doubts with this generic bit of wisdom: “Men aren’t really complicated, Ana, honey. They are very simple, literal creatures. They usually mean what they say. And we spend hours trying to analyze what they’ve said—when really it’s obvious.  If I were you, I’d take him literally. That might help.” (It didn’t.)

Fortunately, while it’s terrible mother-daughter advice, it’s actually genius if you think about it in light of successful e-book cover design:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Don’t make it complicated.
  • Make it obvious.

Covers That Bite

Nancy Tesler’s covers were already fantastic, so by following these guidelines it was pretty easy to make them even better by using the raw materials of what her graphic designer, Karen Adler, already had in place.

This is scary.

Keep It Simple. Nancy and Karen were well aware that a cover must convey the genre, tone, and plot of the book with as few words or pictures as possible while still keeping the cover interesting. Her clever book titles provided the perfect focal point for the covers—pink balloon, star, ski slope warning sign, golden eggs—so it was more a matter of deciding how to use those very powerful visuals to maximum effect.

The only direct change I recommended was that she use a shark on the cover of “Sharks, Jellyfish, and Other Deadly Things” instead of the jellyfish because it went with the theme she’d begun of using the first word of the book title as the focal graphic. (And, frankly, sharks are way scarier than jellyfish.)

Don’t Make It Complicated. Next, I advised Nancy and Karen to clear as much of the background imagery from the cover as possible. Not only would a potential reader not be able to make them out, but cluttering the cover with the graphics could cause a “muddying” effect when shrunk down to thumbnail-size.

Several of Nancy’s covers used images that were tailor-made for inducing the eye’s reflex saccade, including the “warning” imagery of the POLICE LINE tape on Pink Balloons and Other Deadly Things, the warning sign on Slippery Slopes and Other Deadly Things, and the money and gold on Golden Eggs and Other Deadly Things. I did suggest that the tape might be more effective wrapped around the balloon itself on Pink Balloons, and I recommended finding (or creating) a falling skier on the Slippery Slopes warning sign.

Pick one or the other.

Make It Obvious. In order to increase the visibility of the focal graphics, I recommended that they either reduce or relocate the title art since no one would be able to read it on the thumbnail anyway. Of course, when the reader clicks through from the thumbnail to your product page you don’t want them to be repulsed by the cover at full-size, so make the title art reductions moderate. The only exceptions to this rule-of-thumb(nail) is when your book’s title is the focal graphic. In other words, if you’re saying, “Apple” rather than using an apple graphic, the word “Apple” should be big enough to read on the suggestive selling ribbon.

Once they had cleared the background imagery, filling the “white space” was easy enough simply by enlarging the focal graphics, which Karen did to excellent effect. Here are her covers, originals on top, re-designed covers underneath:


Any one of these covers is enough to make a browser on Amazon look twice at the suggestive selling ribbon:

See? Designing an e-book cover “for the thumbnail” isn’t complicated. (And in the end it hurts way less than a spanking—just ask Anastasia Steele.)

As always, thank you for reading.

Related posts:

NOTE: The Curious Life of Schrodinger’s Cat is a mock-up cover of my own design that I use in workshops. (Just be thankful I only made you suffer through one in this post.)

Expert Publishing Blog
Elle Lothlorien

About Elle Lothlorien

A “military brat,” Elle Lothlorien was born in Germany and spent her childhood in such far-flung places as Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C., Italy, and Washington D.C. Sadly, the only language she ever became semi-fluent in is English. Elle’s first two self-published romantic comedies, THE FROG PRINCE and SLEEPING BEAUTY went on to become Amazon bestsellers. She is considered a “reluctant expert” on the business of electronic, independent publishing (also called “indie-publishing”), and frequently writes and speaks on the topic. Elle lives in Denver, Colorado. She keeps two dachshunds around the house to provide comic relief. Find out more about her and her books by going to her website, or by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

6 thoughts on “THING 2. Successful Seduction and the Naked Truth: Rethink Cover Design for a Small, Small World

  1. Chrinda Jones

    I have found your 3 part series “My date . . and your newest post “‘Thing 2” very informative, without being overwhelming, as some post geared toward self publishing are. Thank you for the clear and concise advice. I’ll stay tuned for more insights. Thanks again!

  2. Scott Nicholson

    Thanks, Elle, as someone who has dumped most of my \professional\ covers because I don’t feel the designers understood the thumbnail world, I am eager to learn more about design, and I appreciate these tips and examples.


  3. Jeanne Moran

    You’ve shared a wealth of helpful info in this post, and your examples are great. I also followed the link to the TED talk by Chip Kidd, which was eye-opening. Thanks for the insights!



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