The cover is by far the most important element of design for books being sold in a bookstore. Research shows that the average shopper in a book store will examin each book for less than fifteen seconds, nearly all of which they spend looking at the cover, before desiding to whether or not to buy it. Beyond that, whether the shopper will even decide to pick the book off the shelf depends entirely on the coverdesign--the design of the spine of the book in particular, since most books are shelved so that only the spine is visible.
For this reason, cover designers often receive more money from a publication than the author in royalty publishing agreements. Designing the cover requires much creativity to make the book both eye-catching and appealing to the potential buyer, and designers often commission pantings or photographs, which can be quite expensive, for use in the design. Because so much depends on the cover alone, publishers almost always produce hardcovers with dustjackets, which in reality have never had anything to do with protecting the book from dust.
Things people usually look for in a design once it has grabbed their attention--that is things that will encourage them to buy--are a very brief summary, title, and graphic that will help them understand what the book is about, praise for the book that describes the kind of writing they enjoy ("chilling read" or "absolutely hilarious" etc.) and an author name they recognize (perhaps the most important factor).
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