Book Design to Sell: Tips for Self-Publishers

by | Dec 14, 2010

Ed: This article is an excerpt from the teleseminar I recorded with Laura Cross for her Expert-Entrepreneur program. This program has a great lineup of experts Laura chose to help educate authors about the publishing process. In this excerpt, we talk about book design and tips for self-publishers to make better books. See the link at the end of the article to hear the complete recording.

Laura: Let’s talk more about book design. What would be some of your top cover design tips for self-publishers?

Joel: I’d like to start off by saying that there are some things you can avoid. For instance, sometimes self-publishers see the cover of their book as an expression of their own personality or interests. That can lead to serious problems with the cover design because the cover really has to be more oriented to the potential buyer, not to what you feel, the colors you like or the designs you like but what the reader is looking for and what they expect to see.

Laura: Yes, it’s about the reader. It’s not about the author. Sometimes we forget that.

Joel: Exactly. If you expect to sell your books, you have to make it about the reader. If you don’t care if you sell any books then you can design it any way you like. You know, each approach is perfectly legitimate as long as you’re clear on your goal about what you want that book to do.

Another error that self-publishers make is thinking that the cover doesn’t really matter and they shouldn’t spend any money on it. They don’t want to get a stock photo or anything else because they feel their words are so valuable that that will just sell the book all by themselves, but unfortunately, that is very rarely the case.

We live in a culture that’s saturated with advertising. Book covers are a form of product packaging or advertising and so if you want to compete with other books, and if you imagine a reader looking at a selection of books and 3 of them have like really great covers that draw you in and the fourth one, looks kinda plain like nobody put any effort into it, very few people are gonna buy that book. They just won’t be attracted to it.

The best thing you can do to make a really effective cover and one of the biggest problems that self-publishers have in putting together their own covers is to pick one thing that’s going to be the central focus.

In other words, I see a lot of covers where there’s the title then there’s an illustration, then there’s the sub-title and maybe there’s a picture of the author, and everything has the same emphasis. They’re all about the same size and nothing really takes control of the cover.

There is no main focus for the reader to look at, so having one thing that’s really dominating the cover whether it’s the illustration or the title or if you’re a famous author, the author’s name, that’s really important.

If you’re going to put graphics on the cover, make sure that everything that you use on the cover actually counts, that it has some relevance. Don’t use something just because it’s a pretty picture of a flower if it doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the design and doesn’t relate to the content of the book.

Another really good tip is to avoid white backgrounds. A lot of people like books with white backgrounds, and I’m not saying they look bad. They frequently look very nice but the problem is when we’re selling books online, most of the online sites like Amazon or have a white background so when you put your book with the white background on their webpage with a white background, your cover kind of disappears and that is not good for selling books because you want your cover to really stand out.

Laura: Yes, you don’t want it to disappear.

Joel: Yes, and if you have any doubt about what to make large, to make the principal focus, make it your title. Here are some more tips:

  • Make sure your title is big enough so that when you take your design and reduce it down to about an inch high—which is the way it’s going to look on a thumbnail online—that you can still read the title, you can still read the author’s name and you get some idea or feeling of what the book is about. This is the most important thing for books that are going to be sold online.
  • Many designs look lovely when you’re holding them in your hand but when you get them down to about the size of a postage stamp, they’re completely illegible. That is not going to help you online. I would encourage you as a self-publisher to make that test. No matter how much you love that cover, shrink it all the way down and see if it still works.
  • For that reason, you also want to use fonts that are easy to read because if you use something that’s a fancy script, for instance, with lots of flourishes and a big contrast between the thick and thin strokes and then you try to reduce that down, it’s going to just disappear and you won’t be happy about that.
  • If you’re using images, photographs, illustrations, make sure that they have some relevance to the story that they actually help to clarify what the book is about instead of bringing in elements that just confuse the reader.
  • My last tip would be go to the bookstore. Spend an hour just looking at book covers. See what you think works well. Most of the books that you’ll find in a bookstore today are books that actually sell, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. What you will find are book cover designs that have been successful, and you can learn a tremendous amount just by looking at the books—particularly the books in your genre—and you’ll get a lot of ideas and you’ll see things you like and you’ll see things you don’t think work, and that’s a great way to educate yourself.

If you’d like to listen to the complete one-hour teleseminar, head on over to the Design to Sell recording at Expert-Entrepreneur. To register for further teleseminars in this season, head to the free teleseminar registration page. (affiliate)

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by laihiu,

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  1. Tahlia Newland

    Good points. I have an artistic background so I have to be careful not to get over enthusiastic with the artistic nature of my covers, I’m thinking they’ll shrink all right, but I’m actually going to shrink them and look at them now, just to make sure.

  2. Kay

    Hi, Joel,

    I am thinking of becoming a book designer, after 7 years as a publication designer. But, in fairness, I’d like to find out what it is like before I take the plunge.

    May I ask if I can talk to you about this for about 15 minutes one day in the New Year, via phone or Skype?


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Kay,

      Sure, email me at jfbookman at and we’ll set up a time to talk.

  3. Gregory C. Randall

    Joel, also remember that if you are writing a series (or at least trying and is two completed books a series?) the covers should carry the theme through the editions, maybe the colors change, but I suggest that some of the imagery carries through as well as the titles. If you’re lucky maybe a hundred years from now they can be reissued by your estate with new covers but you really won’t care. So give it your best look now. Thanks Joel, Greg Randall (Land Swap 4 Death)

    • Joel Friedlander


      Sure, 2 books is a series, or the start of one. Good points about carrying over elements of the design, thanks for your contribution.

  4. Joan Chamberlain

    Hi Joel, I love your blog; I’ve been subscribed for about four months now. I, too, have learned so much, not only from you, but also from your blog of the week. About covers, do you have any special or different comments about ebook covers? I’m going to have my first experience with that. What do you think about covers designed by Smashword designers? Thanks for the advice ahead of time. And, my website is currently being redesigned as a WordPress one, to look more current and, frankly, more like yours. Thanks again, Joan

    • Joel Friedlander

      Joan, thanks so much. Ebook covers are a pretty different breed. In fact, I think that I’m overdue for a post on the subject, so thanks for bringing it up. Of course, most of them are adapted from print book covers or jackets, but increasingly books are going straight to digital, and the “cover” is developing into an interesting concept.

      I can’t say I have any familiarity with Smashwords designers, but perhaps another reader will chime in with their own experiences. Let me know when your blog is up, I’d love to have a look.

  5. Tim A Martin

    Great advice Joel! If you didn’t have the design knowledge that you have, would you trust the cover design service at Create Space, or do you think you would be better off outsourcing elsewhere? Thanks for the great blog and tips. I’ve learned a lot from you!

    • Joel Friedlander

      As with all of these services, you may or may not get something you like for your book. There are so many freelance designers available you might have a better experience by finding someone through a referral and working with the artist to create the cover for your book. That’s what I would do.

  6. Michael N. Marcus

    >>Another really good tip is to avoid white backgrounds. A lot of people like books with white backgrounds<<

    I love the clean/crisp/contrasty look of a white cover. My first three self-pubbed books had white covers — and they blended into white web pages.

    Later, I thought the solution was to put a dark frame (border) around the white cover. Unfortunately, because POD printing is imprecise and inconsistent, the frame can shift and may not look the way I planned.

    I've found it's best to have an all-over illustration, or a background tone or color that will show up well against white pages.

    If a book is printed with precise control, then a frame can work well. Mark Levine's "The Fine Print of Self-Publishing" has a properly-positioned front cover frame. I assume it was offset printed.

    Another tip: I've never done it, but it's possible to upload a modified image of a white cover, with a frame added just for visibility on some booksellers' websites.

    "The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage" shows a frame around its white cover on Amazon and B&N, but not on Alibris or Borders.

    Its title type is printed in light gray and has many thin strokes which disappear when the cover image is reduced.

    "The Bagel" is a jacketed hardcover published by Yale University Press. The book measures just 6.8 x 5.3 inches, has small title type and a white dust jacket that blends into web pages.

    "The Navy" is a beautiful, big (about 11 by 15 inch), expensive padded, embossed casebound book from the Naval Historical Foundation. The white cover is powerful in person, but weak on the web.

    It's not just us amateurs who make design decisions that are bad for online visibility. Some of the pros need to be taught about the 21st-century book business.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael, I’ve seen many of those types of books myself which, when you pick them up in the bookstore are gorgeous, but just seem to disappear in online displays. I like borders on some books but you have to be careful to not create a design that will challenge the capabilities of your printer, digital or offset.



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