3 Foolproof strategies for designing fiction book covers that work for any genre

I talk a lot about book cover design, but when you start out with that blank canvas and your eager imagination, you’re bound to get lost in the possibilities of what to put on your book cover.

So let me simplify things for you, a lot.

First you can write down all the stuff you dream about putting on the cover. Got it? Great – now crumple it up and throw it away. Your vision, as the author, for your own book cover, is probably a big full scene with different characters interacting in different ways, expressing different emotions, wearing specific types and colors of clothes and jewelry, with three different important settings behind them.

None of that is going to work – even if it were possible for a designer to pull it off and do it well, it won’t be nearly as strong or powerful as something much simpler, which means, it’s more work but will result in less sales.

I sometimes feel like I’m being lazy when I explain this to authors, but it’s not that I’m afraid of hard work, I just know they’d rather sell more books than less, and that’s the standard I try to hold myself accountable to.

PLUS – take a look at bestselling fiction in any genre, and you’ll see if matches one of the three simple layouts I’m going to suggest below. Contrast that with any self-published cover that looks like crap, and you’ll find they avoided these simple solutions and tried to do something more complicated, that failed horribly.

The BEST designers know how to simplify, and yes, sometimes that means just using one simple image and some clean, simple text – it may have taken them 5 minutes to make, but still looks better (and will outsell) something an amateur designer spent 25 hours making.

Option One: Find a picture and Keep it!

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This works best for memoir, historical fiction, literary fiction, self-help/spiritual and possibly some romance. It’s not about the DETAILS – so don’t mess up the picture trying to change things to make it more ACCURATE. That’s a mistake.

You can add a little bit of texture or design to make it more attractive and appealing for the genre. Sometimes changing all the colors to a monochromatic scheme is a good choice, or using a color gradient, or make everything gray with one red element.

But stick with the picture. The better picture you start with, the better your cover is going to be. There is a small danger if you just pick the most amazing, genre specific cover you find (like a vampire couple) because a dozen other books are going to use the exact same cover. So this is mostly about generic landscapes or nondescript pictures which are simple and beautiful, but not so perfect that other authors are going to want to use them on their covers.

The best option is usually to add a small scene at the bottom and fill the space with clouds or sky – easy to add text over. You can add fonts text effects and fonts, but this will depend on the genre (in general, the more literary and high brow the book, the more simple and boring the text).

Option Two: Foreground character with background scene

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Take a simple background, add a simple character. Again, appealing to the right target readers is MORE IMPORTANT than getting the details right. Take a look at the Fallen cover by Lauren Kate. I’ve always loved this cover but I only read the book recently. It’s a modern story about a girl who recently cropped all her hair short. It takes place in an old school and in a cemetery. So the long hair and beautiful dress in the cover doesn’t fit at all (except if it represents one of the protagonist’s past lives), and the background doesn’t represent any of the specific settings of the book, it’s just a forest scene. But none of that matters – the cover’s job is to attract the right reader, NOT to tell them what the book is really about.

This usually works best if the character is facing away.

-Alternative A: character on top in sky with scene on bottom



-Alternative B: One scene with a small character standing in it.


This is great if you want to show the size of something. It also works well for most thrillers, having someone running through a city

Option Three: Close up face

This works especially well if the model is looking right at the reader with a captivating gaze. There is no need to fit the whole face; adding just half gives it some extra intrigue – plus leaves open the option of readers putting it up over half their face for selfies, which you could turn into a contest with prizes.

Even if you use half a face, don’t feel like you have to fill the space with setting or more details; most of these covers use half a face and still leave the background empty, except for a little flair or decoration.

It can be indistinct; some texture or leaves or fire, close up, rather than panned out and fitting a whole landscape or view. These covers are not about details, they are all about that captivating gaze. Don’t distract away from it with other elements. Support it but stay out of the way.

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About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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