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Once upon a time, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that he couldn't define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it."  Can we do a little better?  What is it that makes a cover a 'good' cover?

Don't say that it attracts the reader, because the only begs the question: why does it attract the reader?
Don't say it has a nice font, because that begs the question: what is a nice font?

Are there some specific characteristics that we can pin down?

I'll start.  When dealing with kindle, the cover shouldn't lose its appeal when displayed without color.
 

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The cover should show at a glance what the genre is, and if the tone is light, dark, funny, etc.

The fonts should be (1) easy to read and (2) fit with the tone of the book. That is, ahem, don't use the Hobo font for a mystery/thriller (and learn to your embarrassment that the font was used on the TV show Dukes of Hazzard  :'(
 

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A good cover raises more questions than answers - it makes you want to pick up that book. In some cases, less is more.
 

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A good cover depicts the sense or feel of the story inside, whether it is a directly pulled scene or a metaphorical representation.  It is clear, clean, and artistic.  Good cover art should be something you wouldn't mind hanging on your wall.  As far as logos, graphics, and fonts, the main rule I have first and foremost is, can you read it?  And once that's established, the next question is, does it look professional?  And finally, does it convey the same sense or feel as the artwork?

I know that all that can be construed as vague or subjective... and it is!  I just go on my own feeling when creating or commissioning a cover, designing something that I would like to see on a book on the bookstore shelf.
 

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Pandas :)

OR you could use the Tyler Perry method to turn horrible, flat stories into box office smash hits:

"I told Jesus I want to write plays. And I asked Jesus what do people want to see? And Jesus said, 'Sexy men!' So I searched the world for the most sexy, shirtless men. And Jesus was pleased. And I asked Jesus how can I further spread his message? And he said, 'Put on a dress and a wig!' And Jesus was pleased!"

I know for a fact that the sexy shirtless man method has done wonders for many here on the board ;)
 

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The cover tells the reader what he or she is going to get.

In different instances, this will mean completely different things.  And you may need to have a long term strategy.  I was JUST thinking about this in terms of "hook" and "premise" and the difference between great "Golden Age" mysteries and many modern cozy mysteries.

In the old days, a series was about the personality of the detective and the overall flavor of the book. You didn't have a "hook" -- like it's a Feline Quilter Mystery. You didn't need one because midlist fiction was supposed to build an audience over many books, and depended on word of mouth.  I remember when I first heard of Columbo even: my cousin was blathering endlessly about this rumpled guy who schlumped around and kept coming back to drive the murderer nuts.  The hook was the character.  Same with Miss Marple or Poirot or Nero Wolfe.  Once people knew who they were, the "pitch" became, "A new Miss Marple Story" or a "new episode of Columbo."

Look at the covers for Dick Francis -- there are two generations of covers, and they are very consistent, and what they say is "This is a Dick Francis Novel."  That tells the audience what they're going to get.

So, imho, one part of a great cover is personal branding.  A fabulous cover for a first book may not translate to a series as well as an ordinary cover.  You never know.

Camille
 
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