The Secret to Cover Design Success

Cover Design Advice Blog Graphic

A picture is worth a thousand words…

Don’t judge a book by its cover…

Insert additional clichéd phrase…

Let’s be realistic here. No one needs another trite phrase to tell them why or why not their book cover matters.

It just does. Period.

When you’re self-publishing, you’ve got a choice to make; create a cover on your own or pay a professional to create one for you. But what to do? Pay a pro and hope they realize your vision with a stunning cover? Or go it alone and risk creating something that will turn off readers?

To help you out, let’s review the importance of a book cover and what you should think about when you decide how to handle making the cover.

Do I DIY?

Making your own cover is the most economical option. If this is the way you want to go, we’ve got this post from last year with loads of advice.

I won’t tell you it’s impossible to sell your book with a homemade cover. Lots of authors do it. I wouldn’t feel good about saying I think it’s a bad idea. But it’s not a great idea. Unless you’re a skilled graphic artist or designer AND you’ve got a good sense of book design AND have the time to design yourself, designing your own cover may not be the best bet.

Don’t let some skills with design and layout trick you into thinking you can design a cover. I know how to run InDesign and can find my way around Photoshop. And I’ve made a couple of covers in my time.

They were horrible. Like, really horrible. Embarrassingly mediocre at best.

Because I don’t have a mind for cover design. I can’t visualize and manifest a concept. And what’s more, I’m not knowledgeable about designs prevalent in the market. So even if I had the know-how to build a solid cover, I don’t know that I could build the right cover.

Professional Touch

When you hear someone refer to anything as “professional” there is a tendency to assume that means it is high quality, elaborate, and well crafted. Book covers are no different, but the emphasis will almost always need to be on the “well crafted” aspect.

Why?

Simply put, a book cover need not be elaborate or complex to be “right” for the book. Professionalism in cover design means understanding where your book will fit in its genre and the broader marketplace. This matters more than any amount of flash or originality. Book cover design is an essential test for designers—working in original and eye-catching elements within a very limited and structured set of parameters.

Your cover really has to work regarding promoting and selling your book. In the digital age, the cover becomes the product thumbnail and is arguably more important than ever in grabbing attention.

Which amounts to this—a highly capable and talented designer may not be a great cover designer. Be aware of this when researching and securing professional help for your cover.

A picture is worth…

How much you pay for your cover will vary depending on a myriad of factors. It’s not unheard of for a cover to run hundreds of dollars. You might end up paying nothing and designing yourself!

I’ll say it again: make sure your cover is the RIGHT cover for your book.

That doesn’t mean you have to pay a lot for a cover. It means you probably should look at professional designers to get a cover that accurately entices potential readers. But don’t spend the money just to spend it.

I know, I’m sounding like a broken record. Just once more: you need the cover that is right for your book more than you need something elaborate or expensive.

For example…

Let’s look at three covers I think nail it.

First up is ‘Mort(e)’, a sci-fi book from Robert Repino.

I bought this book about a year ago based entirely on the cover. As a thumbnail, the contrast between white and orange is very eye-catching. It also breaks one of my personal taste rules – using a terrible font – but it does it so well. What I mean is that the cover imagery is so strong, I’m inspired to tilt my head and try to sort out the title. I want to know more just from looking at this cover.

The cover conveys a small piece of the story (it will involve a cat), but the real strength of this cover is in the design. We can tell from the style (and the short review at the bottom) that this is a science fiction book. No other genre could use the stencil type font used here.


Next up is the newest from Preston & Child, ‘City of Endless Night.

As with any Preston & Child book, you can’t turn around in the book world without seeing a copy.

This cover does two things exceedingly well. First off, it emphasizes the author name. We’ve got a name here that is very, very well known. So using that as a major piece of marketing collateral makes perfect sense.

The other thing this cover does so well is to juxtapose the cityscape in the background with the graveyard in the foreground. Coupling this positioning with the title itself and we’ve got a story jumping out at us before we even turn the book over and read the blurb!


For the last one, I’ll show you a Lulu book by N. Maria Kwami titled ‘Secrets of the Bending Grove.’

Much like the first cover, we have an expert use of color and space. The effect of the black on white (or is it white on black?) creates an ominous mood. The title tells us there is a secret, and from the tilt of the character on the cover, I can sense that she is bearing the weight of that secret. This cover is simple, impactful, and gracefully done.

The one key element this cover hits, perhaps even more accurately than the first two, is simplicity. For some genres and books a complex cover can work, but the simpler the cover the more impactful it will be. Readers don’t want to spend timing trying to understand the cover, they need to be struck by it with immediacy. Something all three covers achieve.


Making the distinction

You know your book better than anyone else. Period. That’s a given. It’s a piece of art you’ve created, be it a novel, memoir, historical account, or even something like a manual or textbook. You’ve crafted this thing, massaged it and designed it until you had a finished product.

Approach the cover with the same mentality. Your cover can’t be an afterthought. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think about how you might build or design your cover during the writing and editing phases.

The cover can be easy to overlook. You’re a writer after all, not a graphic designer. Just one more reason you have to think early on about how you’ll design your cover.

To wrap this up today, here are a few pieces of advice I’ve discovered after years of working with and around authors.

4 Tips for cover design

  1. Stay true to your genre. If you write High Fantasy, then you will want a graphically rich cover, probably depicting one of the important scenes from your book or an amalgamation of important events in the story. If you’re writing a piece of non-fiction recounting historical events, use a photo from the time.
    Stray from the expectations and norms of your genre with caution.
  2. Use common fonts. I love Comic Sans and Apple Chancery as much as the next person. You shouldn’t use these fonts ever. Yes, there might be some situations where a more stylized font is right, but those situations will be rare.
    Instead, use fonts people know and accept. Yes, your title may not pop as much as it could, but you won’t risk turning off a reader because they can’t easily read your title.
    Keep in mind that the cover is almost always going to be seen at thumbnail size – so the font and size of the title text need to be readable on a small image.
  3. Don’t take chances. Use your book’s contents to astound your reader with wildly inventive literary feats. The cover is a piece of marketing material as much as art.
    Yes, it should be well crafted and attractive, but it need not be groundbreaking. Keep the cover design simple and on-point. You want to capture their interest, yes, but you don’t want to scare anyone away.
  4. Be original. I know. I just listed three reasons to be boring, now I’m saying be original. This is the challenge of designing an awesome cover. You want, as much as possible, to meet the reader’s expectations, but you also want to do something that makes them pause and really give your book a look.
    I have nothing specific to advise on this one because it really is a challenge each book has to confront.

I could go on and on looking at and critiquing covers, but the real take away is this: you need to make the right cover for your book.

So I guess I owe everyone who reads this far an apology. I started this promising a ‘secret’ to a great cover. But there isn’t really one. The secret is open and many authors and designers already know it. Be simple. Be honest. And most importantly of all, craft a cover (either yourself or with the aid of a designer) that speaks to the readers you know will want to read your book.

20 thoughts on “The Secret to Cover Design Success”

  1. Thank you Paul for this article. Certainly the cover will have an impact, but I saw the cover of “Secrets of Bending Grove” completely differently. The image immediately conveyed to me a woman looking, with curiosity, at something which had caught her attention—nothing of a burden at all. I showed the image to my wife, without saying how I saw it, and she saw the same thing as I did. Interesting how very different messages might be conveyed from the same thing.
    How can you be certain that your cover will convey the message you intend? One to ponder, I’m sure.

    1. Hi Tom,
      Great point! I think it ends up being most important that the cover evokes an emotional response.
      “Secrets of Bending Grove” is a good example, as I felt a sort of tension from the cover, while you and your wife felt curiosity. Wonderfully, either response might be enough to make someone buy the book!

  2. I would love to see some examples of non-fiction ebook covers. As a designer, I was just given the heads up about getting paid for cover designs – who knew this was a money-making possibility! Except that I’m definitely a non-fiction type of person. Any good examples?

    1. I am not as well versed in non-fiction, but I know there are a few routes you can take. Malcolm Gladwell is a good example of minimalism – see some covers here.
      Another way to go is to use simple graphics, either created or photography, to highlight the content. Here’s an example from Lulu that I like.
      Again, I speak purely from my own taste, but I find non-fiction that sticks to minimal, clear cover designs to be more appealing.

  3. One difficulty with the Lulu cover interface is that it’s difficult to move the title and author name about. Also, there’s no option to go other that parallel lines. I suppose one can design a cover off-site and use the Advanced tab, but I do wish the template was more flexible.

  4. Good afternoon ( as it is here in Ireland), Paul,
    I have a book for children that is non-fiction. I wonder if you have any views to share on cover and layout to share and any observations borne out of your extensive experience watching the market.
    Kind regards,
    Paulyn Marrinan .

  5. Good afternoon , as it is here in Ireland, Paul,
    I have a book for children that is non – fiction. I wonder if you have any views and observations to share in light of your extensive experience watching the market.
    Thanking you ,
    Kind regards,
    Paulyn .

  6. I’m interested of writing a children book’s. I wake up in the middle of the with a new book to write . I need help,getting my books out in the world of readers.

  7. I’m interested of writing a children book’s. I wake up in the middle of the might with a new book to write . I need help,getting my books out in the world of readers.

  8. Hello Paul. Lot’s of great tips here. When designing your own book cover, are there any guidelines about how large or small the font should be, size of the title and author, gaudy covers, plain simple, colorful or jut two or three contrasting covers or does it mainly depend on the story, genre. I’ve seen many covers where a crystal clear photo of someone is used (fiction, romance, western) looking like they posed for the picture. Other covers I see have been done in graphic art, some clear and distinct and some abstract, many have no picture at all, but the title and author maybe a short blurb are done artistically. Are there any guidelines about how where and when to use these various styles? Thanks

  9. Pingback: 6 Step Publisher Quick Start Guide - Lulu Blog

  10. Pingback: How do you judge a book? By its cover, of course. | Lulu Blog

  11. Pingback: Meet NaNoWriMo Accelerator Author: Alyssa Fisher | Lulu Blog

  12. Pingback: Calling All Authors: NY Book Show Cover Design Competition

  13. Pingback: The Three Phases Of An Effective Book Marketing Campaign

Join the Conversation

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: