I'm a writer, editor and artist, and I've designed lots of printables and clip art, most of which I give away for free.
If everyone could design book covers, the world would be flooded with gorgeous books and you wouldn’t have any need for this information. But I think we’ve all seen some pretty terrible book covers. At least I have. So, as a long-time cover designer and book editor, I wrote this to help steer people in the right direction.
As long as you have at least a minimal understanding of how to use graphics software, this article will give you the tools and tips you need to be your own cover designer.
First Things First
To begin with, it's important that you have taste. Sorry to be so blunt, but it's true. If you don't think you have an eye for what looks appropriate and professional, then you really should hire a cover designer or at least buy a pre-made cover. You need to be honest with yourself about this.
Assuming you pass that first test, then you should familiarize yourself with the books that are currently selling. A good way to do that is to go to Amazon.com and search for titles in your book's genre. Not every top-selling book has a great cover, but the odds are good that many of them will. Taking time to look at covers that are producing sales in will provide intangible influences that I can’t give you directly.
Factors to be Aware of When Designing a Book Cover
Does the Book Have a Strong Concept?
It's a lot to ask of a book cover to make up for a weak editorial concept. For example, not many people would probably be interested in a book comprised of a list of the items in your garage. The best cover in the world probably wouldn't make a book like that sell. But if the same book was about garage organization, decluttering your garage, etc., and had a compelling cover to match, it might sell well.
A good cover also can't help you much if your topic isn't of interest to many people. If the book is aimed only at technicians who repair a particular brand of old television, the sales will obviously be limited.
So it's important to make sure your book has both an interesting premise or story and commercial potential.
It's a lot to ask of a book cover to make up for a weak editorial concept.
Does the Design Reflect the Concept?
Although not always true, usually a well-designed book cover will convey the genre before people even read the title. A children's book obviously has quite a different vibe than a political thriller. And a cookbook should inspire people to want to make the recipes it contains. Sometimes there can be crossovers between the genres, but in general, your cover will be stronger if it has a look that's recognizable in the genre.
Take a quick glance at the cover samples below and you'll see what I mean:
I hope you were able to easily detect the genres those covers represent:
Surviving Earth: Science Fiction
Printable Cupcake Wrappers and Toppers: Crafts and Cooking
Chess 101: Chess Instruction
A New Hope: Romance
Mind Hurdles: Children's
Top High School & College Spring Break Destinations: Travel
The Guide to Questioning Everything: Self Help
As I said before, all covers for successful books don't necessarily follow this rule. But if a book has a similar look to other popular books in a genre (while still being unique), it removes one of the barriers to selling. This is because there will already be a comfort level.
Is the Design Eye-Catching?
Now that many books are bought over the Internet on computers, tablets and phones, covers need to look compelling even at tiny sizes. Again, take a look at Amazon.com to see how small the covers are in search results. The same is true of Kobo.com, BarnesandNoble.com and myriad other online booksellers.
There isn't an exact formula for being eye-catching, but it usually happens when an interesting image meets readable and compelling-looking title text, and an appealing color scheme. However it happens, the final results need to be not only attractive but also visible when the covers are small.
Color, as well as its appropriateness for the genre, is critical. Color schemes are subjective, so if you're new at this, you can start by matching your colors to the genre. How colors match with genres is subjective, too, but these very general suggestions--used alone or in conjunction--might help get you in the ballpark:
Thrillers and Science Fiction
- Dark moody colors
- Military themed colors, such as khaki or Army green
- Red, white and blue for American political thrillers
- Bright colors, such as turquoise, pink, orange, yellow and purple
- Pastel colors
- Soft, pastel colors
- Predominantly warm colors with just a touch of a cool color (such as a body of water in the distance or a single toy)
- Predominantly cool colors with just a touch of a warm color (such as the sun or a few flowers)
Memoirs, Biographies and Autobiographies
- Vintage or antique colors, such as brown, beige, gray or forest green
- White background with a photo of the book's subject if you want a modern feel
For Any Genre
- Take colors present in the photo or illustration you're using and feature one or more of them (not too many though)
As I said above, these suggestions are just generalizations. But they can help get you started if you're stuck.
Another great way to choose a color scheme is to use a pre-established color palette. You can find a wealth of them by searching for "color palettes" in a search engine.
There isn't an exact formula for being eye-catching, but it usually happens when an interesting image meets readable and compelling-looking title text, and an appealing color scheme.
A note about finding eye-catching images:
As a designer, you can control color and text size. But finding the right image can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. See the bottom of the page for some great free and low-cost image resources.
Does the Cover Have a Clear Author and Series Identity?
Having your name clearly visible and prominent on your cover is important, because it helps build your brand. In case you didn't realize it, as an author your name is a brand, just like any other business. This is particularly important if you write multiple books because people will look for you by name.
Sometimes really popular authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz or John Grisham will have their names displayed at twice the size of their book titles. This is because their publishers know people will buy their books based on their names alone.
You don't have to have your name appear really large on your covers if it's still early in your writing career--or ever, actually. But do make sure it’s visible.
As an extension of this branding, it's a good idea to use very similar cover designs for books in a series. It builds brand awareness, and as a bonus, it makes subsequent designs easier to create after the first one is completed. Here are two examples of how covers within a series can mesh, while each book retains its own identity:
The Role of Inspiration in Book Cover Design
It took me many years to understand that designers, no matter how good or experienced they are, at least occasionally--and sometimes more often than that--require inspiration. That means they need to see what other people have designed and keep abreast of what’s happening in popular culture. This need for inspiration is especially relevant if you’re new to cover design. It’s not cheating to look at other peoples work--unless you actually steal it, which I’m sure no one reading this will do. Looking at other people's designs is a way to fill up your idea bank so you have something to withdraw when you design your own cover.
Spending time looking at book sites to get inspiration will turn out to be a great investment in your own books.
Cover Design Resources
In a perfect world, you would take your own photographs or create your own illustrations for your covers. But since that's unrealistic for most people, here are some good resources:
Pixabay.com has free AND copyright-free photography and illustrations. Don't forget to credit both Pixabay and the photographer or artist in your book. It's the least you can do to pay them back for the gift of free images.
If you want custom illustrations, search on Fiverr.com. In spite of the name, the images probably won't be $5. But it's a great place to find quality illustrators who will work for not too much more than that.
Understanding Image Copyrights
This site explains the basics of using images legally.
Also, please note that if a trademarked image (a Coke bottle or Nike logo on a shoe are two examples) is portrayed in an image, that usage might be restricted, even if you have permission to use the image. This applies even if you take the photograph yourself.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Carla Chadwick
Carla Chadwick (author) from Georgia on May 30, 2018:
Terry L. Wilson on May 30, 2018:
Carla's covers are awesome. I was amazed at what she did with the Lucky Bird book covers and am looking forward to having her design a new cover for a new series of books I'm writing.
A books cover is so important and Carla's creations makes me want to peruse them all.
Carla Chadwick (author) from Georgia on May 29, 2018:
You're quite welcome, Dave!
Juggergnost on May 29, 2018:
Great hub! Thanks so much for including some of my book covers as examples.