Self-publishing

A Blagger’s Guide to Book Cover Design

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.

Cover Images

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.
‘The Break’ looks a bit lost – but it’s selling okay…

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?!)

General Advice

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!

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8 thoughts on “A Blagger’s Guide to Book Cover Design

  1. Nah. It’s easy. You just need a scantily-clad woman prone in the foreground with a terrified look on her face being menaced by a horrible monster immediately behind her as a jut-jawed hero bearing a ray gun or huge sword and a determined expression enters the left background.

    A million sci-fi and fantasy books can’t be wrong.

    Seriously, in the 60s & 70s I read lots of high quality speculative fiction that had nothing to do with bug-eyed monsters or damsels in distress that had covers like that (or of city-sized spaceships in low orbit over exotic planets, despite the fact there was no space travel of any kind in the story. Several of my Philip K Dick and Clifford Simak books had such covers).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What if your genre of book is somewhat unique or untested? Then you’d have a hard time finding an experienced artist in that regard.

    I don’t think I want to make a strictly AMAZON Kindle book cover, though…

    If you need help composing a cover, I can help. I can’t produce anything stellar in terms of digital artwork or with embossed lettering and such, myself, not with the tools I have. But, I am a wonder at composing and bringing out what you want to pitch most. So, if you need a fellow brain, I’m here.

    Target readers. That’s a form of suicide in itself. The best books are the ones that exceed the target audience. I continue to use J. (fake K, stressed over the middle books’ publishing deadlines) Rowling as an example. Those Harry Potter books were geared toward kids. Yet, I know as many adults who are crazy about them. Do not pinpoint the audience or expect a response from a particular age group. Though, the simple answer to age marketing is slap a big picture on the cover if you want to grab kids and use big bold print if you want to snag adults with failing vision.

    There’s also an apparent reason my old teachers taught me that line about not judging a book by its cover. And, that reason is because most of the covers I’ve seen stink. There’s rarely anything to grab my attention, anymore. I see too many covers with the author’s name and title swallowing the page. And, if there’s a picture, it’s usually rather vague, potentially inaccurate and likely on some scandalous book that promotes sexual deviancy (in which case, I am usually as or more repulsed by the read than I am intrigued).

    So, don’t stress too much about your cover(s).

    But, to be fair, your first two “terrible” designs–unless they have absolutely nothing to do with the story–are actually quite nice and unique enough. My only concern with the first might be the white letters on the light blue backdrop; the title might get overlooked though the wings stand out in the corner (which is a unique detail that may separate it from other covers, just that little thing to catch an eye). I really like the stained glass wings on black; the title is clear. However, I may have seen other books with similar color schemes which could blur with that one. Still, I’d pick up a book with that cover design. [Now, add to that a good back/inside cover summary/blurb that gets minds going or makes people smile/laugh/swoon.]

    The dove ones below those… Definitely keep the “Humanity is evolving” on the cover, even if there are a bunch of people already writing stories about the next stage of evolution. That’s becoming as common as those dystopian future civilization and vampire/werewolf love triangle stories. The dove grabs your eye, but does it take part in the story, or is that just to resemble the angel wing thing, a “heavenly symbol?”

    Then, you have the one with the woman’s silhouette amid the triangles of light breaking up the darkness. Decent image for suspense/intrigue; and it’s eye-catching, though bland in color. The title stands out. But, your name and “tag line” are washed out. I’d fix that by adding a band of color behind the line and your name that give the color scheme a contrast “pop.” Maybe a splash of red or lime green; red with white letters, green with black.

    Next, you have your “star man” with the light on his forehead. Don’t stress about printing all the stars. If they got washed out, you’d still get the general idea of the cosmos and him projecting a light. But, that one leaves me a bit torn because you changed the “tag line.” Maybe it could be both. Maybe it reads: “The gods have returned. Humanity is evolving.” I like how all of the text is visible on the image, despite the light sources.

    Lastly, the woman by the “water” at night. Nice color variety. And, as you say, you felt it did a better job of representing characters/elements. The only weak spot with that one I can see might be the tag line and author space, similar to the silhouette dividing the rays of light in the previous example. But, the title looks great and unique.

    If you follow or look at trends too much, all you’ll be is a follower and likely go unnoticed. Not to repeat myself, but I’d say you speculate a bit much; you’ve got my worrisome conscience. 🙂

    Professional is a word slapped on things to “separate it from the masses.” Like “boujwah” (my own spelling off the cuff) and “peasant” can make the difference between what is fit for the elite and what is fine for the commoner. It’s professional once you make it work and it sells. It’s professional when it makes money or your career.

    And, what constitutes an artist is beyond human understanding. You don’t have to be a Rembrandt to be able to produce commercial art. I just heard about a guy making fashions with simple shapes. And, how many cliche museums feature giant canvases with a dot or splash of color on them and valued at a fortune? Just make your own cover, once, craft an image, maybe using feathers and fabric; then photograph that, transfer to the computer, open MS Paint if you have to, and add your text. I’m sure you could come up with just as good a cover that way.

    Also, using your own design, there’s less concern for using someone’s work. And, it will be more original. What happens if two or more authors use the same “free image?” Gee, that would kinda make my book feel lame.

    Yea, now look at those cover examples you gave above. I see hot messes on those covers, yet they sell, and who knows how well or who boosted sales by handing them out on talk shows. Some of those covers are quite cluttered, but obviously the author wanted or committed to that. Some cluttered covers work better than others. Some Star Wars movie posters, for example, were a bit busy with all the little “sub-plots” in the background of the bigger images. I actually think that adds to the image, giving more points of reference to the contents. It gives a cover more to ponder. However, if the whole cannot be adequately seen on a small paperback cover, that busy-ness could get lost.

    I LOVE PAPYRUS! And, there was a funny lil skit on SNL just recently about that and how an artist used it with the Avatar movie logo. My only complaint(s) about Papyrus is that it doesn’t work with every letter. Many fonts have that problem. Script fonts never seem to merge letters to look like penmanship…unless they differ from paid sites?

    And, Comic Sans, while I am reluctant to use it on a cover, it has its uses and is usually visible in a way I like versus fonts that put all of those tabs on letters. I get sick of letters with tabs, fast. But, I need a font that puts tabs on the capital “I” or it always gets confused with a one.

    Okay, sorry for the comment as long as the post. But, I hope I had some good input. 🙂 If not, it’s not the first time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback, writingbolt.

      I’ve noticed a lot of covers on Amazon looking the same – the books all blur into one after a while. They’re all trying so hard to stand out that in the end, none of them do. The content is probably all very similar too.

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      1. Mmm, if you say the content is the same, then you’re “judging the books by their (similar) covers.” And, if you think that way, you’re playing into the publishing madness that pushes you to change what you thought was just fine. I had an English teacher tell me I had no style and was going to fail me because of it. To this day, I don’t know what I lacked, but I know I have yet to develop a definitive artistic style of my own. My work varies so much, I can’t imagine anyone saying, “Oh, that’s a Writingbolt! Definitely.” Same with my writing, although, I do seem to use the same types of sentences and dodge fragments frequently…which is even annoying me a bit.

        I’m just saying you should do what feels right for your book, not what someone tries to force upon your book. What will make it stand out is that it’s yours, from the heart and as original as you. When you tweak it to please someone, it’s theirs. As an artist, I tweak commission projects people give me to please the client. But, that’s work they ask of me. Your book is YOUR work and should be respected as such. If it’s not “professional” enough, well, that’s the publisher’s call. But, don’t give up the heart you put in your work. If a publisher asks or tells you to write/create another book for them, do that after they respect the first/previous.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. What will make it stand out is that it’s yours, from the heart and as original as you.

          Books are as original as their authors?
          The world must be full of clones.

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        2. What are you saying?

          Well, if the book is written from the heart without any outside force driving its completion other than moral support and input from trusted second/third opinions, then it should be as original as the author.

          Sure, we may write similar stories with similar sources in mind. We might be inspired by the book of another and work in some of the same sort of material…or as close as one may get without being accused of copying…but…

          Well, if the book is too much like another, then either it’s the work of harping tools or the author has lost all ability to think on his/her own and then becomes the typewriter of the harping tools.

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        3. What are you saying?

          Just that there’s a heck of a lot of very similar books out there.
          How many times do ya reckon they cloned Tolkien for example?

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        4. I dunno. I haven’t read any Tolkien books; just viewed cartoons and movies. But, it would take some looking to find a clone versus a fan who just writes something inspired by him. Did Tolkien invent Ents, Orcs and Hobbits?

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