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Six Keys to a Great Book Cover Design

So you’ve written a book and made the decision to self-publish, and now you need a cover. The meat of the book is what’s inside, of course, but don’t take the cover lightly. Most experts agree that mediocre covers can seriously erode sales. In his book The Secret to EBook Publishing Success, Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, describes how one author’s book went from selling five or six a day to over a thousand a day simply by changing the book’s cover. The bottom line is, if the cover looks cheap, boring, or unprofessional, that’s how your book will look, and buyers won’t bother clicking on it or picking it up. The cover is not the area to pinch pennies or try out DIY.

So how do you start to think about book cover design? How do you evaluate a cover you’ve gotten from a graphic designer? First, be clear about the cover’s main task. A book cover’s main task is getting people to look twice, to pick up the book or click on it, and to read the back; it’s getting them one step closer to buying it. The task isn’t to display a particular picture or scene that’s meaningful to the author, or even to be a work of art, it’s getting people to pick up the book.

So what makes people want to pick up a book? Here are six rules to keep in mind when evaluating your book cover:

1. Choose Quality Artwork

Hire an illustrator or photographer, or purchase unique, high-quality stock photography. Our brains process images before words, so the image on the cover should be strong and dynamic. The artwork on a cover should not look generic, like you’ve seen it a hundred times before. It should go without saying, but don’t use cheap clip art or something your nephew drew, or a grainy vacation snapshot. As Coker puts it, “If you strip away the words, the image needs to make a promise to the reader. It should promise, ‘this is the book you’re looking for to experience [the feeling of first love for contemporary romance; fear for horror; edge of your seat suspense for thrillers; knowledge for a non-fiction how-to; the liberating feeling of financial freedom for a personal finance book; an inspiring story of personal journey for a memoir, etc.]”

2. Keep It Simple

Simple, powerful images are usually more likely to catch someone’s eye than something very busy. Don’t try to show a whole scene in the book. The cover is only 6 x 9 and can’t possibly convey everything that’s inside. Instead, think through the symbols, characters, and images that populate the book, then try to find the one that packs the most punch. Think less about actual objects and characters and more about the book’s atmosphere. What color palate might fit this atmosphere? Red, like a horror story, a melancholy blue, green for money, etc?

3. Fit the Genre

A book cover must play a careful balance between being instantly recognizable for the genre it’s in, and standing out from the crowd. A romantic comedy will look different from a financial management guide will look different from a murder mystery. People respond to these subtle visual cues and make the decision whether they’re interested in the book in a split second. Look at other books in your books genre. What kinds of colors, fonts and images do they use? Can the reader tell in a split second what they might find inside the book and whether it will appeal to them?

Yellow background with Paw Paw fruit, leaves and flowers with title and author

4. Pick the Right Font

When choosing a font, think of time period, whether the book is modern or classic, etc. Is this about an accountant, or a circus clown? Like the imagery, the font choice should fit the feeling of the book. You don’t want an overload of fonts, usually no more than two. And in most cases you don’t want fancy or unusual fonts – something simple and clean will look more professional. Though you might be able to be a bit more creative with the title font, make sure it’s large and clearly legible. Designers will also ensure that the kerning, or spacing between the letters, reads cleanly.

Readers remember the cover of the book. Like a logo, the cover represents the book’s brand. Kris Miller, the designer for the Saima agency, who has been designing book covers for over two decades, points out, “Even if a book isn’t part of a series, there should be a continuity that communicates who the author is to potential readers.” Does the chosen font fit this brand? Consider how this cover might meld with potential future covers in the series.

5. Use Contrast

Don’t fill the entire cover with noise - make effective use of negative space. Consider contrasting colors, like black and white, or teal and orange, to make the cover pop. Use the contrast of light and dark. Also pay attention to how words are laid out on the page.

6. Test it out

Don’t just trust your screen. Print out a mock-up of the cover and try wrapping it around a hard cover book. How does it read when actually on the book? We read from left to right and top to bottom, and this is also the direction in which our eyes tend to scan a cover. When you scan the information on the cover does your eye seem to flow naturally, or is important information in unnatural places.

Shrink the cover down thumbnail size, about ½ inch by ¾ inch. At this size, which is how it will look on a phone, can you still tell what’s going on? Finally, don’t forget the spine. In some cases the spine may be all that’s visible.

As a designer and illustrator, I find few things more fun to create than book covers. Getting a cover for your book should be a wonderful moment, in which the book suddenly feels like a beautiful, physical object. Take a look at other effective covers in image searches or on Pinterest for inspiration, and give your book its best shot with a professional cover.


Thank you to Hilary Schenker, Animator, Illustrator, and Designer at Green Comma Media. You can contact her at and check-out

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