Top 8 Cover Design Tips for Self-Publishers

by Joel Friedlander on June 9, 2010 · 74 comments

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We’ve all seen them. The train wrecks. The art class projects. The cringe-inducing artwork. It’s the world of do-it-yourself book cover design.

Somewhere between the quirky “cover design generators” on author-service company websites, and the All-American view that everyone should get a ribbon because, after all, they participated, the cover design is suffering at the hands of self-publishers.

And no, I’m not saying that self-published books aren’t getting better—there are a lot of great-looking indie books out there. But I am saying that you don’t have to go far to find the ones that went wrong.

Book cover design, at its height, is an amazing commercial art. The best book designers continue to amaze and surprise us with their graphic design prowess.

But anyone who can write and publish a book ought to be able to avoid at least the worst mistakes in cover design.

So, here without further ado, are my

Top 8 Cover Design Tips for Self-Publishers

  1. Establish a principal focus for the cover—Nothing is more important. Your book is about something, and the cover ought to reflect that one idea clearly.

    One element that takes control, that commands the overwhelming majority of attention, of space, of emphasis on the cover. Don’t fall into the trap of loading up your cover with too many elements, 3 or 4 photos, illustrations, maps, “floating” ticket stubs.

    You could think of your book cover like a billboard, trying to catch the attention of browsers as they speed by. Billboards usually have 6 words or less. You have to “get it” at 60 miles per hour, in 3 to 5 seconds.

    A book cover ought to do the same thing. At a glance your prospect ought to know;

    • the genre of your book,
    • the general subject matter or focus, and
    • some idea of the tone or “ambiance” of the book.

    Is it a thriller? A software manual? A memoir of your time in Fiji? Your ideas on reform of the monetary system? Each of these books needs a cover that tells at a glance what the book is about.

  2. Make everything count—If you are going to introduce a graphic element, make sure it helps you communicate with the reader.
  3. Use the background—Avoid white backgrounds, which will disappear on retailer’s white screens. Use a color, a texture, or a background illustration instead.
  4. Make your title large—Reduce your cover design on screen to the size of a thumbnail on Amazon and see if you can read it. Can you make out what it’s about? If not, simplify.
  5. Use a font that’s easy to read—See above. There’s no sense using a font that’s unreadable when it’s radically reduced. Particularly watch out for script typefaces, the kind that look lacy and elegant at full size. They often disappear when small.
  6. Find images that clarify—Try not to be too literal. Look for something that expresses the mood, historical period, or overall tone of the book; provide a context.
  7. Stay with a few colors—If you don’t feel comfortable picking colors, look at some of the color palettes available online to get a selection of colors that will work well together.
  8. Look at lots of great book covers—You may not be able to mimic all their techniques, but the best book covers are tremendous sources of inspiration and fresh ideas.

Resources

  • If you’ve designed an eBook cover you’re proud of, consider entering it in our monthly eBook Cover Design Awards. These posts also have a ton of useful information about what works on covers, and what doesn’t.
  • There is lots of stock photography online to explore, and ways to find images you can use for free
  • Sites with color palettes can be helpful and just plain fun. Make up your own color palettes too.

Takeaway: Taking a little care with a book cover you’re designing yourself can produce big results. Look at lots of book covers for inspiration.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/striatic/

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    { 54 comments… read them below or add one }

    Book Cover Designer February 5, 2014 at 5:04 am

    This is a great article! I think It’s important NOT to be too literal. I think that’s a big big mistake.

    Reply

    Linda Diggle November 21, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    This information is timeless, thank you for such an in-depth article on cover design.

    One valuable lesson I have learnt in addition to these these principles is the importance of having 2-3 cover design options developed for each book, prior to publication. Testing cover designs with your target audience often throws up surprising results, and is a good reminder to not go too far down a certain design route that you are falling in love with. Sometimes the stats that come out of this split test reveal your favourite may not be as appealing to the masses (i.e. buyers of your book) than you thought.

    Thanks again Joel on a great article.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Hi Linda,

    “Crowdsourcing” your cover decision has become really popular in the last couple of years, and I can see why. And the times I’ve been involved in a decision like that have almost always been times that a cover I would not have picked was chosen by the majority of people. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Reply

    Laura Drake January 26, 2013 at 11:15 am

    first time here, loved to read all the comments, good tips to! I have just self-published my first children’s book. Will send in the cover to you.

    Tks.

    Reply

    David Oliveras December 21, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Thanks for the clear and concise advice. Great post. I’ll be sure to remember these tips as I move forward with publishing my first book of photos.

    Reply

    C L Smith July 11, 2012 at 5:51 am

    You’re top in the Google Search for ‘Tip Book Covers’ and I’m second – so I though I’d have a nosey at your article. You’re not as verbose or opinionated as I am (i.e. that’s a good thing) but there is some really nice cross-over in what we think about cover design. So kudos to us both!

    As a design I love good design. I just wish other people would see it’s importance.

    The one point that I would have to disagree with you on is Text Size – I don’t think it’s that important that it’s large because of the thumbnail – after-all it’s not like it’s just simply on a bookshelf in a store – there’s the name of the title and the author right there on the webpage next to it! And chances are potential readers will look at the name first any way.

    But I digress.

    Have a good day fella!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 11, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Hi CL, thanks for that. You’ve got some great cover designs on your site, think about submitting some of your ebook covers to our monthly ebook cover design competition, it’s great fun.

    As far as legibility, you’re probably right, but it still bugs me when designers (or DIY authors) put type on covers that can’t be read. But that’s just me.

    Reply

    Doreen Pendgracs April 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Interesting post, Joel. The cover in indeed so very important in helping us reach the right audience.

    The publisher of my last book saw the target audience as being something entirely different than me and therefore insisted on a cover to match their intent. They missed the mark. The cover was somewhat drab and didn’t appeal to my intended audience so I’ve had to work especially hard in drawing the book to the attention of the RIGHT demographic.

    Definitely won’t let that happen with my upcoming book. We authors know our intended audiences far better than anyone else.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Right on, Doreen, at least savvy authors know their audiences. Good luck with your upcoming book.

    Reply

    DIGITALspin February 10, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Be careful of creative common photos! As a Professional Book Cover Artist I find that some of these “public domain” internet photos do not belong to those who uploaded them for display, hence there are potential copyright infringements. When in doubt, always ask a professional designer before using rogue graphics from the internet.

    http://bookcoverartist.blogspot.com

    “You can’t judge a book by its cover, but amazing covers sell more books”

    Reply

    Mogo~Spok-Spok~Slogo November 16, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    RIGHT!!!!..You can be a dynamite sales/marketer….have a book that crosses all boundaries, BUT a BAD cover will send it to the graveyard….I CHEATED: I’m a professional Artist who writes CRAZY SURREALISTIC books just so he can put his prints in as illustrations, then retail the prints…the COVERS are AMAZING WORKS OF ART and for sale at top$$$$$..sorry i ain’t fo’ hire…see “Grandparents and Grand Lessons”…Margena Myrick’s watercolor cover..it travels ART Shows all over FL.,Ga.,Ala….and sells the book itself..Love Joe

    Reply

    Tania McCartney September 10, 2011 at 2:16 am

    Hey J-Man! So wonderful to see your content continue to soar. Hope all well with you. Tx

    Reply

    Conzz September 7, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Excellent post. A lot of these principles cross-over to other areas of design as well :)

    Reply

    Deb Simpson September 5, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Do you know of any good reference books for book cover design for self publishers?

    Reply

    Tammy Snyder June 22, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Great tips!

    Reply

    David Mark Brown April 7, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    What do you think about Poke the Box’s decision to skip the title in the cover image? I’ve been pondering doing this for my summer release as well, assuming that in most places the title will be included right next to the thumb anyway.

    Reply

    Irk March 25, 2011 at 11:47 am

    “Look at lots of great book covers” can sometimes be tricky. I’ve seen a lot of people make a logical leap to “great books/books that sell a lot have great covers”, but that can be entirely not the case. A lot of times a book either sells despite its cover, or it’s a reprint (possibly with a different publisher) and the cover art has changed. Some early classics had terrible covers (I’m looking at you, SF&F genres). So while it’s important to study good design, it’s often hard to quantify exactly where it can be found. I find it’s good to also study BAD design to know what to avoid, but again, a lot of laymen don’t know the difference yet.

    Just sticking that out there. This is a great list of tips and I’ve pointed several people at it already.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 25, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Irk, that’s very true. At least at most bookstores you’ll be looking at covers that were done by professionals. I know that doesn’t guarantee a lot, but at least it puts you in the ballpark. Thanks for pointing people here, I really appreciate it.

    Reply

    Derek Oscarson January 3, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Best tip I can provide those who want to design their own cover is to NOT mess with the horizontal or vertical scales of your fonts. If you need to squeeze a font, try using a condensed font, if you need to flatten it, use an extended font. Please keep type at 100% scale.

    If you go squeezing or squashing your type, it will read as amateur to EVERYONE who sees it. They might not be able to articulate what is wrong with the type but the average person is actually quite sensitive to fonts that are pulled or pushed too much.

    And if you ever use a script font in ALL CAPS I will personally come to your house and confiscate your computer. You don’t even want to know what happens to people who use Comic Sans.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 3, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Good advice, Derek, there was a real run of ultra-squished type a couple of years ago that really made my hair stand on end. Glad to know you’re around.

    Reply

    Ro Van Saint December 22, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Great tips – if I may add another one.
    Always start with a large image size. I’ve noticed cover art that’s been enlarged so much that the image is fuzzy and pixelized.

    I design my own book covers – helps that I have experience w/ graphic design. I always have the phrase “visual impact” in mind when I’m in the process of creating a cover.

    By the way, first time on this site, will have to take a look around =)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 3, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Ro, glad I can help, and I hope you’ll have a look around. I like your covers, especially Bad Juju.

    Reply

    Leslie December 17, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Someone told me that the purpose of the cover is to entice the reader to turn the book over to read the blurbs on the back. Here is a great cover website: http://bookcoverarchive.com/

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander December 17, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Leslie, thanks for the link to the endlessly useful Book Cover Archive. It’s a great source of inspiration and anyone involved in books will enjoy it.

    (Readers might also be interested in clicking through to Leslie’s site, where you’ll see outstanding design and typography specializing in art monographs and other heavily-illustrated books.)

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Mat McLeod November 3, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    You guys are all amazing!
    I was so excited when I found your site today Joel. It’s packed full of such usefull information. Thank you for your work.
    And everyone else for your comments.

    Question: Is it okay to wrap a single image around your whole book cover?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 4, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Hey Mat, great to have you. Yes, it’s perfectly find to wrap an image around the cover and can be done to great effect. You might want to create a knock-out box for your spine and back cover text, or “ghost” the image in those places so your type is readable.

    Reply

    maggie Dana June 17, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Nothing like a jazzy old barcode to spice things up.

    Liz: It’s good to see you hanging out on Joel’s great blog.

    And Joel, everybody, when it comes to book design and layout, Liz really knows her stuff … along with writing them, too.

    Maggie

    Reply

    Liz Castro June 17, 2010 at 8:35 am

    I’ve been volunteering at my local library, putting on bar codes in order to automate our card catalog. And guess where we put them (mandated by a state-wide system designed to accommodate automated sorting some time in the future). In the top-left corner. No matter if it covers the author’s name or the title.

    So I’d add that it’s probably a good idea to leave a little space in the top-left corner for a possible library bar code.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 17, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    So Liz, that’s the top-left corner of the front cover? I wonder why they didn’t mandate putting them on the back, where we’re accustomed to finding bar codes. Perhaps it’s just one of the “wonders of bureaucracy.” Thanks for the tip.

    Reply

    Liz Castro June 17, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Yes, top-left corner of the front cover. They’re trying to get ready for machines that sort library books automatically here in Massachusetts. I agree that putting them on the back cover would make more sense. I hate covering up important bits on the cover. I wonder what other states/systems use.

    Reply

    Carolyn CJ Jones June 16, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Great post, Joel! I got to your blog by way of Dana Lynn Smith on FaceBook. She linked to this post. Small world…

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 16, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Isn’t that amazing? I saw her Tweet and thought it was awfully nice of her to give this list some “air time.”

    Always nice to have you here, Carolyn, thanks.

    Reply

    Lou Belcher June 16, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Great points. Thanks for the concise instructions. I’ll pass it along to others why may be struggling with designing their own covers.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 16, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks, Lou. It’s certainly not exhaustive, but this list (and some of the great additions in the comments) should help avoid a lot of avoidable mistakes.

    Reply

    KL Crumley June 16, 2010 at 7:28 am

    Here’s one more: Get the spine width correct the first time. I learned this lesson the hard way. I wound up ordering 5-10 proof copies before I got it right. It was frustrating and wound up costing me more money than I needed to. Templates are good, but you cannot rely on them too much.

    Also: BE ORIGINAL! Don’t let your book look like every other book in it’s genre, on the shelf. There are certain ongoing trends right now I noticed, even in traditional publishing. Steering away from the current “thing” whether it is a chess piece, a bloody rose, or a plain green background with some celtic symbol…
    would make your book stand out and be more interesting than “same old, same old.”

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 16, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I would laugh except I’ve been there. The exception would be the templates you get from the book printer that are sized for you specific book should be the most accurate of all. But because some printing processes are not very precise (digital printing) you sometimes need to design around the limitations of the process. Like don’t plan a stark color contrast where colors meet and the front of the spine, because some of the books will skew or slip one way or the other.

    Reply

    Mari Miniatt June 17, 2010 at 1:45 am

    Funny you should talk about being original. My latest blog post is a rant against the well meaning, but people with a lack of understanding about my story. And I point out the latest book covers in the same genre I am in. I had to fit the genre, but try to be different as well. My whole rant is here
    http://www.mariminiatt.com/2010/06/trends-and-me.html
    But you can see in some of the pictures how every book is starting to look alike. It is intentional by the publishers because they know the reader of book A will think that book B is the same based on the cover. (my thinking too). But even if you are doing that try to do something different.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 17, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Hey Mari, I enjoyed your rant. And yes, the resemblance of books in the genre is intentional. On the one hand it alerts readers of these kinds of books that “here’s another one” but on the other hand it’s pretty exasperating that they are such slavish clones. So yes, do something different!

    Reply

    'o-Dzin Tridral June 11, 2010 at 4:36 am

    Thank you for the helpful article. I particularly appreciated the ‘billboard’ analogy, and also the tip re looking at your book cover thumbnail-sized.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 16, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks, ‘o-Dzin, nice to have you visiting.

    Reply

    Rachael Gootnick June 9, 2010 at 9:03 am

    This was a great simple post Joel, and I really think authors and designers should spend more time working on their covers. I have also seen some terrible covers, and it’s a shame, since the actual content and writing is usually worthy of a better cover.

    This was a wonderful post – I’ve cross-posted it on the Open Publishing Guide and will refer authors to remember these 8+ hints to successful cover design. Thanks Joel!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Rachael, thanks so much for your kind words. It seems like we can’t be reminded often enough about “first principles” so I think it’s useful to keep educating on a basic level. There seem to be a lot of people coming into this field, and resources like your Open Publishing Guide are crucial to getting new publishers the information they need.

    Reply

    Mayowa June 9, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Thanks for another great post Joel,

    Cover design has been on my mind for the last couple of weeks. Right now, my biggest problem is even generating ideas on what to put on the cover. The potential titles (IN GREENER PASTURES, IN BRUTAL SPLENDOR) don’t seem to generate any images in my mind….more mulling over on that.

    Also thanks to the commenters for their great additions to the list.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Mayowa, it sounds like you need to do some thinking about your target market, which might lead you to other books that sell well to that market. This will give you a lot of guidance with titles, subtitles and cover designs. And hey, if that doesn’t work you can always hire a designer!

    Reply

    Mayowa June 9, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Joel,

    You’re right, more thinking is required. Just so I have things right, the general idea for the cover should still come from the book/title/theme etc. but I need to see what is selling well for my target market to give me a good idea of what works and what doesnt?

    I also have a rather naive question. How does one go about determining a target market for a work of literary fiction these days? My novel is set in Nigeria so I figure (more like hope) Nigerians, Africans, travellers to Africa will be interested in it. But i also believe my novel’s appeal is much wider than that (in much the same way Khaled Housseini’s Kite Runner appealed to people otherwise unaware of afghani culture?). Narrowing down my target market seems to exclude this second (much larger group).

    Thanks for all your help.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Ah… literary fiction, yes, that does present unique problems. To be honest, Mayowa, most of my background with marketing self-published books is with nonfiction. Fiction is considerably harder and, from what I understand, literary fiction the most challenging of all. I think building your readership as much as possible before committing to publication will be helpful. Keep me in the loop as you move forward.

    Reply

    Mayowa June 9, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Yeah it’s kind of daunting…good thing I like a challenge :)

    I recently met a writer (Wanda Shapiro, I interviewed her on my blog a few days ago) who is self publishing her literary novel and is doing a rather terrific job of it. She studied typography, design etc. all so she could tackle the process. Quite amazing really, you don’t want to get her started on kerning…

    Anyways, I hear stories like Wanda’s and it gives me hope. It can be done.

    Your many posts have helped tremendously and I intend to keep reading them. Much of the information applies to my situation and I am grateful for that.

    I’ll make sure to let you know how it goes.

    Sue Collier June 9, 2010 at 6:17 am

    And can I add another? Don’t use six different fonts in completely unrelated families just because you can! I’m kind of a font freak, and this just drives me nuts!

    This is such a timely post for me, Joel, as I just received a sample book from a potential client with one of those cringe-worthy cover designs–low-quality art, ugly colors, unreadable fonts. (The interior is no better, but that’s for another discussion!) And it’s a shame because the content is good, but the book just screams low-budget, self-published project. I will have to incorporate your tips into my next conversation with them. Thanks for a good post!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2010 at 7:27 am

    Thanks for that one, Sue. Here’s another that didn’t make the list: Try to avoid using more than 1 “effect” in your imaging software. When printed, the chiseled, distressed, drop shadow, outer glow you put on your title type may just confuse things.

    Thanks for visiting!

    Reply

    KL Crumley June 16, 2010 at 7:40 am

    I absolutely agree with you on that one. A book cover shouldn’t look like a ransom note. ;)

    I saw one book at Xlibris that had 3-4 subtitles (why so many?) and each subtitle was in different font, as was the author’s name.
    It was confusing!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 16, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Ouch, that sounds rather painful. Just because you’ve got a drawerful of fonts doesn’t mean you have to use them on every project! Thanks for the comment.

    Reply

    Mari Miniatt June 9, 2010 at 1:43 am

    A couple other things to add.
    If you are making a series, figure out the overall look for the series to begin with. With mine the focal point (a large cup) will be the focal point for all of the books, with just a few minor clues to each book, via props, around it.
    Color schemes: Go on graphic design sites like http://www.colourlovers.com/palettes and look over the swatches. What this will allow you to do is find the right color scheme for your book. My vampire book is gold, black, and red. The fantasy novel might be blue, green, and yellow. Sticking to certain color combinations helps draw the eye.
    Another thing to try. Put the cover pic up on your computer. Stand at least 15 feet away. Does it still catch your eye?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2010 at 7:26 am

    Thanks, Mari, good point about the series design.

    I guess we both like colourlovers, that’s the same link I used in the Resources, it’s a great site.

    Reply

    DIGITALspin February 10, 2012 at 9:28 am

    As a Professional Book Cover Artist I find when designing a book series try to stay with signature fonts and text that represents the trademark look of that author.

    http://bookcoverartist.blogspot.com

    “You can’t judge a book by its cover, but amazing covers sell more books”

    Reply

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