Many people use the idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” to remind others that people should not prejudge the value of something based solely by its outward appearance. Yet when it comes to actual books, few heed that advice.
The simple truth is that today, nearly everyone judges a book by its cover. Covers matter. A lot.
Fierce competition has made standing out from the crowd incredibly difficult, especially for indie authors. Smart indies know that a striking book cover design can help to differentiate in a noisy marketplace, particularly when competing against traditionally published books. In fact, it’s entirely possible today to create self-published book covers that are impossible to differentiate from books released by traditional publishers.
Below, we’ll offer 10 smart tips to help you get an amazing book cover design for your upcoming book. But before we get to the tips, let’s be sure you understand why book cover design is more important today than it has ever been.
Traditionally, when books were purchased at retail, a striking book cover was necessary to get the reader’s attention when placed on a shelf next to hundreds of other books. But because most retail stores displayed just the book’s spine, it was impossible for authors to differentiate unless the prospective reader picked up their book or the book was displayed in a more appealing manner. Great book cover design has always been necessary to get the attention of retail merchandising managers if you wanted your book featured – and that remains true today.
Today, however, particularly for indies, the vast majority of sales occur online. This has allowed indies to compete against traditional publishers but has also made it clear that to get the readers’ attention, a great story must be matched by a great book cover design.
A typical reader will do a search on Amazon and will look at a handful of books. Sure, content and reviews are important, but the book cover is the first thing a potential reader sees and the cover can either make or break that initial impression. This is not surprising. Great images create an emotional reaction in people. Because images are processed by our brains 60,000 faster than words, a great cover is critical to make an amazing first impression. A poorly designed cover not only fails to create the emotional reaction you want to create in your readers, but also implies that the contents of the book are also sub-par.
Covers can lead to more (or fewer) sales, can allow you to price your book higher (but underscoring the message of quality), and can lend you credibility as an indie author.
Don’t just take my word for it. Smashwords founder Mark Coker tells a story in his ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success about R.L. Mathewson, a romance writer, who went from selling five or six copies a day of her romance novel, to selling over 1,000 simply by updating her book cover image.
The creatives on crowdSPRING (nearly 200,000 from just about every country on earth) have helped many authors and both non-traditional (CreateSpace, among others) and traditional publishers (Random House, among others) with amazing book cover designs.
Here are 10 smart tips to help authors create an amazing book cover design:
>> If you’re interested in current book cover design trends, read 10 Top Book Cover Design Trends for 2022.
1. Be sure the design looks professional.
Whether you create your own book cover design (some authors are talented artists and can create effective covers without professional help) or get professional help on crowdSPRING or elsewhere, the most important element of an amazing book cover design is that it looks professional. Great book covers are easy to read – typographical elements are distinctive and clean. Images on the cover are connected to the story and audience. A book cover for a thriller shouldn’t be confused with a romance novel. We’ll offer plenty of examples below and you’ll find other examples in our recent look at some great book cover designs of 2016.
Look at book cover designs of other books in your genre. What color palettes do they use? What kind of imagery do they have? How are they using type in the design? Don’t copy – but look for examples as inspiration for what works.
Here’s a good example from a recent project on crowdSPRING for the book Bogeyman. The book is about a serial child-killer and the lawmen who tracked him down. This book was to be published through Amazon’s CreateSpace, so it had some special requirements (which are easy to accommodate on crowdSPRING). The winning designer, faucetana, did a nice job capturing the drama and the dark elements of the story.
Often, even if you can design your own cover, consider whether you should. A great design doesn’t need to cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Focus on your strengths – writing – and let professionals help you with the other critical elements that will help your book succeed.
Advanced Tip: When you’ve created a few variations of a book cover design, send these out to trusted friends and colleagues for their feedback. It will help to have some objective feedback from someone other than you. This is one reason we include free focus groups in every project on crowdSPRING, including all book cover design projects – so that authors can easily and quickly survey their friends or others (privately or publicly), to get some feedback to the cover designs being considered.
2. Design for large and small screens.
The book cover image will be reproduced on large monitors and mobile devices. In fact, when you’re searching for books on amazon, you see just a small thumbnail of the image. That makes it especially critical that the design is simple. Simple designs are more memorable and less confusing, especially when viewed on a smaller screen. Take the iPhone, for example (or any comparably sized phone), a typical book jacket will be about 1/2 inch wide by 3/4 inches tall. That’s not a lot of space.
As an example, here’s the winning design from RedOne22, who prevailed over 27 other designers and over 100 book cover design concepts with their winning design in this book cover project on crowdSPRING. The book had to appeal to a broad audience:
Our primary audience is our existing clients and their families. Ranging in age from 6 – 96. The largest concentration is in the midwest. Our goal is to present an image of “not your usual financial book” and success.
Notice how the designer kept elements simple and clean. The imagery is visually interesting, not literal. The typography is clean and readable and there’s a lot of space for the design to breathe.
3. Focus on one image.
It’s tempting for some authors to get carried away by trying to represent all the symbolism in their story. But when it comes to book covers, less is definitely more. Remember that the cover will be typically seen as a small thumbnail and you want your reader to understand what they’re seeing. You don’t want to confuse or overwhelm the reader with conflicting or busy imagery.
While you may have three storylines, five characters, twenty scenes, and several plot twists, pick one strong theme for the cover. Is there one constant to your story? One lesson? One value? One message?
Good design is about balance. Pick one constant and tell it visually through the cover design. Here’s a great example from Andy Weir’s book, The Martian (a terrific read, if you like science fiction). (This design wasn’t done through crowdSPRING but is a nice example of crisp focus in a cover design).
Here’s another good example from a book cover design project on crowdSPRING from the BroadStreet Publishing Group. Here’s the anticipated audience, as defined in their project brief:
The audience is readers of books like Pilgrim’s Progress, The Alchemist, Hinds Feet on High Places—Christians or spiritual seekers who enjoy an allegory or fictional story. The cover needs to feel like this is an epic story.
Here’s the winning design, from moonlighter, who prevailed against 17 other designers in the project. (Incidentally, if you work with crowdSPRING for your book cover design, you can crowdsource a design and work with multiple designers at once, or you can work directly with a single designer in a 1-to-1 project).
Advanced Tip: Don’t be literal with your images. Don’t take away the reader’s imagination by selecting an image that tells the reader what a character or place looks like. Show, don’t tell. Think of the cover like a movie trailer – hint at the elements of your story but don’t give the whole story, including plot twists, away.
4. Pick Colors Smartly.
Colors are important because colors create emotional reactions. The colors you pick should be connected to the story and mood. For example, a book best suited for the beach should consider incorporating cool blues and jade greens to give a tranquil feeling. Dramatic books should consider using black, bold red, and similarly dramatic colors to underscore the mood of the story.
As an example, take a look at the winning design in this book cover design project on crowSPRING. The winning designer, JMJ, did a nice job using only a few colors, to emphasize the name so that it stands our sharply on the cover (and spine). JMJ prevailed over 32 other designers, who collectively submitted 172 cover design concepts.
Advanced Tip: Don’t use more than three colors in your cover design. If your design looks like a crayon box, you’ll confuse the reader. If you need some help with figuring out what colors work well with others, here’s a helpful site that can help you get started. Also, keep contrast in mind.
But do keep your audience in mind. If you’re writing for a broad audience and using photos, colors can help tell a story. Here’s an example from a recent project on crowdSPRING for the design of a book called A Bicycle Built for Two Billion. The winning designer, nealio, prevailed over 16 other designers who collectively submitted 79 book cover design concepts. Notice how the image creatively stretches across the front and back of the jacket to underscore the theme of the book. More than three colors are incorporated in the design, but the color palettes work well with each other.
5. Text is important. Don’t ignore it.
Colors and a great image are critical to effective book cover design, but you also need text and an effective font that matches the cover and the story. For example, if your audience is mostly women, you might prefer fonts that have more feminine flairs, such as scripted fonts. But don’t go overboard – some fonts are easier to read than others. There are thousands of fonts and not all of them are clean and readable on a small screen. Use a simple typeface and be sure you’re not using many typefaces on the cover. It’s OK to use two fonts on a cover, but more than two fonts will make the cover look busy and less readable.
Here’s a good example from a recent project on crowdSPRING for the book How To Finally Win. The author, John Lee Dumas is the host of EOFire, an award winning Podcast where he interviews today’s most successful Entrepreneurs 7-days a week. Dumas explained that his audience consists of:
those in their late 20’s through early 40’s who are ready to break out of status qou and into the world of Entrepreneurship. My audience skews male, and they would also be reading entrepreneurship experts Tim Ferriss, Gary Vaynerchuk, Lewis Howes, and Pat Flynn. The primary connecting attributes of the audience are ambition, determination, creativity, and dedication to excellence.
The winning designer, jendralpiggy, prevailed over 20 other designers who collectively submitted 131 concepts. Notice how the winning design focuses on text, and especially the word “WIN”, a critical theme for prospective entrepreneurs.
Advanced Tip: For some books, a properly typeset design can be powerful without the use of images. Sometimes, all you need is text. But selecting the right colors, fonts, and kerning is important, not just when you use images, but even more so when you decide not to. Take a look at some examples in the book cover archive – you’ll see some very effective text-only options.
6. Consider a subtitle or a teaser.
A short subtitle or a teaser could give readers a little more context about the book. Remember that most readers looking at books online won’t have the opportunity to read the synopsis on the back of the book. A subtitle or teaser takes very little time to read but can motivate the reader to take a closer look. Be sure that the subtitle or teaser doesn’t compete with your title – you need to have a hierarchy on the cover and the title should, in most cases be the most prominent text readers see.
Here’s a great example from a recent project on crowdSPRING. The winning designer, henrytagalag, prevailed over 49 other designers who collectively submitted 207 concepts for a book about retirement. Retirement is a broad topic. Notice how the design uses a subtitle “Stop Worrying & Start Planning” to provide more context about the book..
7. Create a brand if you’re creating a series.
If the book you’re publishing is part of a series, you need to also focus on creating the brand because people will more easily identify related books if there are common elements in the book covers (even if the images are different). These common elements can be tied together through colors, imagery, style, etc.
8. Pay attention to intellectual property when using images and fonts.
If you don’t have permission to use an image or font or you don’t know who owns it, you should not use it. Just like you wouldn’t want someone to steal your writing, don’t abuse the work created by others. Professional designers can help obtain royalty-free cover images (or can create original illustrations, where appropriate). If you must use free images because you don’t have a budget for a book cover design, you can use a site like this one.
This is a particularly sensitive subject for books about law. Here’s a great example from a recent project on crowdSPRING. The winning designer, sumit_s, prevailed over 19 other designers who collectively submitted 91 concepts.
9. Don’t be afraid of white (empty) space.
Some authors worry that they need to fill the entire cover with images or text. But when this happens, all of the elements compete for priority and nothing stands out. The best way to draw a reader’s attention to something is to help it stand out by giving it space to breathe.
Think about it – if you use too many complicated words in your text, or have too many adjectives, the text becomes confusing. That’s the equivalent of visual space.
Here’s a great example from a recent project on crowdSPRING that nicely incorporates clean white space. The winning designer, scott_mcroy, prevailed over 32 other designers who collectively submitted 219 concepts.
10. Type size and placement matters.
The author’s name doesn’t have to be in huge letters on the front cover. This is very common with self-published works, but far less common with works published by traditional publishers. There’s a reason for this – people will remember your name based on your written work, not because you put your name in big, bold letters on the cover. If you’re James Patterson or Dan Brown, your name in big letters can help sell new books. But for most indies, the title and imagery are far more important.
Here’s a great example from a recent project on crowdSPRING. The winning designer, godfreyw, prevailed over 21 other designers who collectively submitted 99 concepts for Turkish translation of “The Great Cat Massacre” by Robert Darnton. Especially when creating cover designs for foreign markets, cultural nuances, color preferences, style preferences, and other variables become very important. That’s why you typically find books originally published in America republished with different book cover designs when introduced to foreign markets.
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