3 Secrets to e-Book Cover Design Success

by | Jan 9, 2012

The move to e-books has brought with it a new challenge for those who do book cover design, amateur and professional.

The first challenge, of course, if you’ve been designing book covers for any time, is to understand exactly what an e-book cover really is.

Unlike print books, which we can pick up and examine, e-books don’t exist in any physical reality other than as a computer file. So how can they have a cover?

And since an e-book is simply a computer file with text that will reflow to the form and shape of the reader into which it is loaded, e-books can’t be said to have any particular shape.

So when it comes time to design a cover for your e-book, it’s important to realize that the little rectangles we’re used to seeing that represent the cover of printed books are simply a convention. There’s no particular reason an e-book cover needs to be a tall rectangle, other than to announce to the potential reader that it is, in fact, a “book” of some kind.

Some retailers have even tried to mandate that e-book covers conform to the tall rectangle, which is a bit silly considering that printed books come in many shapes and sizes.

But more than anything else, designers and do-it-yourself self-publishers have to address the challenges of this new form in a way that helps them sell books.

Since we started the monthly e-Book Cover Design Awards I’ve judged hundreds of e-book covers. The patterns that emerged were unmistakable.

So here they are, my guidelines for how to succeed at this important publishing task.

3 Secrets to e-Book Cover Design Success

  1. Simple
    This is the most important key of all. While a 6″ x 9″ printed book has 54 square inches of space to play with, an area large enough for a pretty decent painting or illustration, maybe 40 to 100 words of copy for nonfiction books, awards, blurbs, subtitles, tag lines, series logos as well as the required title and author, e-book covers do not.

The overriding fact to remember about e-book covers is the very small size they will be viewed in by people searching on the sites of e-retailers.

So simplicity becomes one of the chief virtues of successful e-book cover design. Especially if you are adapting a print book cover to your e-book, take out any elements that won’t be legible or readable at this small size. I know it’s hard, but just toss them, you’ll be happier in the end.

Keep the cover to the title, author name and one graphic that instantly communicates something about the tone or genre of the book.

  1. Small
    This one is super important, and makes sure that all the work you’ve put into your cover is going to pay off.

Your book will be shown in several ways on sites like Amazon, Smashwords and iBookstore. I think you really need to design for the smallest size of all, and here’s why. That size is the one that your book is displayed in when you do a search.

People who already know about your book are going to head straight for it anyway, those aren’t the people we should be concerned about. It’s the others, people looking for something but not sure exactly what, who should be your primary focus.

And that’s where the search results page comes in. If you look at a page of search results on Amazon, for instance, you’ll be presented with a screenful of tiny images and links via the book titles.

ebook cover design

If your cover disappears in this view, or it’s unreadable, or you can’t possibly tell what the image on the cover is, it’s much more likely that browsers will skim right over it to the next and the next, and your chance at making an impression on that person is gone, literally in a second or two.

When you have a design you like, get one of those Amazon or BN.com search results pages up on your screen, reduce your cover to the same size, and see how it looks compared to other books in your genre. There’s no better test than this to see if your concept is going to work.

  1. Strategic
    Even though your cover is going to be viewed in a small format, and even though I’ve just advised you to keep it simple, your e-book cover also has other important work to do for you in terms of branding and positioning.

This is just as true for novelists as it is for nonfiction writers, by the way. Many of the novelists who have had a lot of success with e-books are writing series of books, or several series of books, a great strategy to keep the attention of readers and build a base of fans for each release.

It’s important for your readers to be able to recognize the books in a series right away, that’s part of your series’ branding, and part of your author branding too.

In print book design, we usually consider the combination of the graphic elements on a cover with the typography of the title as making up the basic “brand” of the book. This is also true with e-books but, because we have to simplify them for online display, they have to do this work even more efficiently than their print book counterparts.

Sometimes branding can be as simple as color-coordinated covers or design elements. At other times a simple logo can be used to brand books, or a distinctive stripe along the top or bottom of the cover can bring together different looks into a branded series.

Positioning has a lot to do with how your book compares to other books in its niche or genre. Is it the deluxe version of a beginning carpentry book? The quick guide to fixing your Volkswagen? Advice for love-struck teens?

The design of your e-book cover has to reflect these differences between related books to give potential buyers the information they need to make a purchase decision. While a tiny cover image can’t do that all by itself, it is a part of your positioning strategy overall, and should coordinate with it.

Don’t Miss This

So there you have it, 3 ways to make sure your e-book cover design gets off on the right foot, helps you achieve your publishing goals, and is kind to readers and browsers.

You can see exactly what I’m talking about in our monthly competition for e-book cover designs. The posts from this competition are almost a class in what works on e-book covers—and what doesn’t.

There are hundreds of e-book covers to check out, and each one credits the designer, so it’s also like a shopping mall for people looking to hire a designer. Here’s a link to the main page where you’ll find links to all the recent competitions: e-Book Cover Design Awards.

Photo by Chlorine-lim. This article originally appeared as “3 Steps to e-Book Cover Design Success” at BookBuzzr.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Sharon

    Derrick, I’ve not heard any positive feedback from authors or publishers. Proceed at your own risk.

  2. Derrick Swald

    Hi Joel, What’s your thought? as I am getting confused about whether or not I should use Fiverr. I recently read this review: https://www.danielshustle.com/fiverr-reviews/ that revealed 22 people who were talking about their experiences on the Fiverr platform. Some were good and some were bad and that fact left me confused… I want to hear from an expert like you. Do you think fiverr is any good?

  3. Ray The Video Guy

    I agree with your assessments. One of the things I often see are ebook covers where they try to cram a ton of words on a cover that is likely to be seen in a pretty small format, making the entire thing unreadable.

  4. Mike Cairns

    Hi Joel
    Thanks for the post
    This has really resonated with us as we’re right in the middle of getting two of my books ready for publication. The small and simple approach seems key, so it’s about finding just the right image (or getting it made).
    Fingers crossed!

  5. Fabio

    Nice tips, I’ll keep in mind them

  6. Lauryn Doll

    Thanks for this post.

    One of the things I’m working on is creating simple yet effective book covers. For the most part, I’ve freestyled my book covers, and I can’t say they’ve been wildly successful. I’m working on cleaning my act up and either outsourcing design or going hard to create the designs myself.

  7. Joanne

    Joel, this is such a helpful article. I have found your blog and other resources to be a goldmine of information. Thank you so much for the time and care you put into your blog postings!


  8. George Angus


    This is a great follow up to the e-book cover series (which I loved). I think it’s important for all of us self-e-publishing types pay attention to these kinds of things. It would be a shame to put months of blood and tears into a book, only to sell yourself short by not understanding or implementing these crucial components.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey George, the e-book cover design awards will be back this Sunday, so watch for it. I believe we have about 60 this month.

  9. Joel Friedlander

    I don’t see any reason why the covers for print books and e-books can’t be different, especially if you take care to carry over the main design elements and branding so they are recognizably the same book. That’s what I tried to do with the covers of A Self-Publisher’s Companion when I published it last year. If you want to have a look, check the Amazon page here:

    A Self-Publisher’s Companion

  10. David Bergsland

    It’s been a major change in my mind. I now do completely separate designs for Print and PDF versus ePUB and Kindle. Even then the print covers look too complex for the tiny icons in Amazon and Lulu.

    So, I’m thinking that all covers should maybe be designed to ePUB standards. But my workflow has no book and mortar outlets. If it did, I’d probably do things different.

    No decision yet…

  11. Olene Quinn

    Thanks for the post. Cover design is so fun, but such a nightmare. It is good to be reminded of the actual goals of it, rather than just stressing about programs and formats and such.

  12. Sharon Beck

    If you publish a book in both pbook and ebook formats, is it possible to have a different book cover for each format? I haven’t published any ebooks so I have not yet gone through the process.



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