It should go without saying but: I’m not a graphic designer or an artist. I’ve taught myself how to design book covers and this post distils what I’ve learned from people wiser than me online. The most important piece of advice is:
Don’t design your own covers unless you know what you’re doing and have a good eye. It’s worth investing in a professional designer if you can afford it. But also be careful of who you hire. You need a design that’s relevant to your genre and story, so find somebody who has designed covers for your type of book and has a good track record. Get recommendations from other writers.
If you can’t afford to pay somebody to design your book cover, you’ll have to do the best you can with the tools you have. And those tools are unlikely to include proper design software like Photoshop. But don’t despair! You can get good results using programmes like Word and PowerPoint.
There’s also tons of help and advice and free resources available online. For example, Canva has many free templates you can use to create a Kindle cover, plus loads of fonts and other design elements, as well as handy design tips like this: Design Elements and Principles
Start with the Concept
Before you start playing around with images and fonts and making pretty pictures, you need to think about the concept behind your book. What are you trying to say? Who are your target readers? What are they looking for? How do you convey that in your design?
Whatever design you create, it must reflect the essence of your book – not just in terms of the image, but also in your use of colour, fonts and typography, and how it’s all arranged on the cover.
Most of us buy books online these days so your book will have to stand out in a very crowded marketplace. You only have seconds to grab a potential reader’s attention before they scroll on or click away to look at something else. That one quick glance (or half glance) needs to lure a reader in and make them want to find out more.
So the cover needs to say something about the genre and mood of the book, as well as reflect its themes. The best way to do that is to keep it simple.
Focus on one clear image or idea.
Use an image that illustrates the story but don’t be too blatant or on the nose. You’re aiming to create an intriguing mood or context, and that works better when you think symbolically. Don’t be too literal.
Use visual metaphors – perhaps something from the book, like a character, location, symbol, or object that features in the story. Focus on the key ideas and themes of the book but don’t give away important plot twists or the ending – obviously!
It’s a good idea to gather images, fonts, colours, and inspiration, and put them in a folder. Or perhaps print them out and scrapbook them, or make a mood board. This will help you to find the ideal image for your book and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
You can also mock up examples of book covers using the images and ideas you collect. Experiment and play around with possibilities. Live with the designs for a while and see how you feel about them over time. Good ideas usually stand out and you’ll keep returning to the ones that work.
You can see some of my terrible attempts here: The Shining Ones Cover Considerations
Genre is an important part of the concept because it helps readers find the books they’d like to read. So research book covers in your genre for inspiration and tips, and look at the current trends. What fonts are used in your genre? What colours?
Remember that whatever design you choose, it must be relevant to your book, so don’t just go with genre conventions unless your book warrants it. Your book needs to stand out and be distinctive, but it also needs to fit into the right genre market niche. You don’t want a reader to buy the book based on a misleading cover.
Finding the right image for your book cover can be a laborious process but it’s worth taking your time. Don’t settle for the first one you find – unless it’s brilliant. Also, don’t use your own images, unless you’re a photographer or artist and know what you’re doing. If you’re designing your own book cover, the least you can do is find an image that looks professional.
You can buy high quality images for commercial use from sites like istock and shutterstock, but there are also lots of excellent images available online that are free to use. Flickr and Pexels are both good places to start.
Always check the licensing of the image you choose, and whether you need to give attribution. Flickr allows you to filter searches based on licence, and all the images on Pexels are CC0 – free for personal and commercial use.
Use the highest quality image you can. If you’re only planning to publish on Kindle, and/or other electronic reading services like Kobo and Smashwords, then you don’t need to worry about dpi (dots per inch). But if you’re planning to publish a paperback as well as a Kindle version, you need an image that’s at least 300 dpi.
When you’ve found an image you like, check that it’s large enough and is the right quality for your purposes. You can convert lower quality images to a higher dpi, but results vary and you may be better off with another image. An image can look fine on your computer, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work for your book. So before you commit, be sure the image will work when it’s printed at the right size.
Start with the biggest image you can. You can reduce it if you need to, but increasing the file size from a smaller image will lead to a loss of quality. You don’t want to end up with a blurred or pixelated image on your book cover.
Aim for an image that’s simple and bold. If you have too many elements cluttering up the cover, it’ll look messy and confusing and people won’t know where to look. Important details and information could be lost in the noise. Remember that your book cover will be displayed as a thumbnail on most sites, so whatever image you use, it has to work at that size.
Finally, always check how the cover looks in black and white. Many people are still using old Kindles that can’t display colour, so don’t disappoint them with a murky mess.
More tips on what to avoid:
- Don’t use clip art or any of the crap that comes free with your computer software, like Microsoft Office.
- Don’t use garish colour combinations – you want to grab attention, not put people off or give them eye strain.
- Don’t use too many colours and make sure the ones you use work well together. There are sites that can help you choose.
- Don’t put an image in a box on the cover – it’s considered amateurish (apparently), but perhaps it’s just old-fashioned.
- Don’t use a white background because the book will disappear on white screens – although there are books like this, and it doesn’t necessarily do them any harm.
Fonts and Typography
Many books don’t have an image on the cover and rely on typography to make an impact (see When You Disappeared above). This has become more common since we all started shopping online. So don’t feel you have to use an image. If your title is strong enough on its own, or quite long or detailed, then you may be better off sticking with typography for your cover.
Whether you use an image or not, the title should be large and easy to read. Check your design in thumbnail to make sure the text stands out and remember how small your cover will look on Amazon. The screenshot above shows books on one of the bestseller lists and they’re tiny! You should be able to read the title clearly when the image is shrunk right down to that size.
Obviously there’s a limit to how large you can make the title – it depends how long the words are – so you may decide to change the name of your book at this point. With that in mind, it’s worth thinking about how the title will look on the cover when you name the book while writing it.
You’ll also need to decide which font to use for your title. It may seem strange, but fonts are often described as having ‘personalities.’ Fonts with strong personalities are called Display fonts and are usually only used for titles because they stand out so much.
The font should also reflect the mood and genre of the book. Research books in your genre to see which fonts they use and which ones work best. You need to choose a font that not only fits your genre, but also reflects the book and works with the image you’ve chosen. CreativIndie has a useful post listing 300 popular fonts by genre here.
There are many free fonts available online, but as with images, you need to make sure the licence allows for commercial use. Some fonts are only free for personal use or online, but not for ebooks. Font Squirrel allows you to search for free commercial fonts here.
The font you choose will also influence how readable the text is. Some fonts are easier to read than others, so always check how it looks in thumbnail. Be especially careful with Script fonts that have lots of flowery embellishments. These can be almost impossible to read even when the font is large, so avoid them. Some decorative fonts can also be hard to read and end up looking messy – avoid! (The cover of my first novel, Addled, is a case in point – I need to redesign it!)
Don’t use more than two fonts on your cover. It’s a good idea to use one sans font and one serif, but make sure they work well together. The fonts need to complement each other and not be fighting for attention. Canva has a useful post on combining fonts here.
You can also use different weights on the same font, like bold and italic. Many fonts have a variety of weights available, from thin to heavy to extra bold. But be careful of very thin fonts because they’ll disappear once the cover is shrunk down to thumbnail size.
More tips on what to avoid:
- Don’t use fonts like Comic Sans and Papyrus, or other silly ones you get free with Microsoft Office – they’ll make the book look amateurish.
- Don’t use special styling effects, like you find on Word Art – unless you’re very subtle about it. A tiny bit of shadow can help to make text stand out, but don’t over do it.
- Don’t shape the text – again, with Word Art. You don’t need your title to look like a rainbow. Nobody needs that.
- Don’t use gradients and textures to colour your text. Keep it simple.
- Don’t bother making your name massive (like bestselling authors) unless you are a bestselling author. (And if you are, what are you doing reading this?!)
When you come to arrange all the various elements of your design, you need to take into account something called the hierarchy of information. This means that the most important details should stand out and be clearly visible.
Every element you use must have a reason for being there and be saying something to the reader. If you try to convey too many ideas at once, it’ll just be a mess and nobody will have any idea what you’re trying to say. The image and the text should fit together harmoniously, and not look like a car crash – unless that’s the mood you’re going for.
Think about where the eye moves when you look at the cover. What do you notice first? Does one element distract from another? Using the Rule of Thirds can help to organise your design in a way that feels balanced. This means the page is divided into thirds using a grid and the important elements are placed where the gridlines intersect. There’s a useful tutorial on designing with a grid here.
However you design your cover, the most important thing to remember is this:
Less is more.
When in doubt, keep it simple. And don’t panic! If your cover doesn’t work, you can redesign it and upload a new one.
Good luck and happy designing!