This is the preface to my revised book marketing guide, download the free PDF.
A few years ago I did a case study with 10 authors; I remade their book covers for free to see what kind of difference it would make on their sales. All of them saw sales double immediately. Whatever kind of marketing or promotion you’re thinking about doing, there’s no better investment than getting a nicer book cover.
And you probably already agree. You might even think it’s obvious. After all, everybody says this. The hard part shows up when I start talking about what kind of covers actually sell books and why. On one of my YouTube videos about why tropes sell books, I routinely get comments from authors who say they hate those commercial book covers, which don’t appeal to them at all. They are “drawn to” the more artsy, creative or unusual covers.
Firstly, forget that you’re wandering through a bookstore browsing with your eyes and fingertips, deliberately allowing your senses to be quietly seduced by pretty covers. If you’re self-publishing, your book probably won’t be in bookstores. You’ll be competing against millions of books on Amazon, where readers are browsing quickly, are actively tuning out distractions and interruptions and making quick purchasing decisions with as little brain power as possible. They aren’t going to pick your book up, smell it, think about it. They aren’t even going to notice it, at all (unless they notice how terrible it is, ugly covers always stand out).
Designing for online sales, for self-publishing in general, is not the same as designing for famous, traditionally published authors. Specifically, when you Google “best book cover design examples” you’ll get a lot of clever, weird but artistic book cover designs, often for modern remakes of classical books; and mostly for literary fiction. For that genre, marketplace and audience, those covers make sense. Partly because, the cover doesn’t need to do any work. Famous books will sell anyway, despite the cover. For indie authors, on the other hand, the cover is everything.
So forget about what you like, or what appeals to you. The only thing that matters is its effectiveness. Does it work?
As one viewer commented (a lone positive comment out of all the negative ones):
“When I first started watching your videos I thought your approach was ruthless, crushing my book cover dreams. But now I totally get it. It’s like, do you want your favorite pretty picture, or do you want to sell your book? I’ve decided that I’d rather sell my book.”
This is the mindset you need to have, because also: the more you love a cover, the less likely you’re going to be to give it up. Book cover design can feel fun and creative. It’s not uncommon to spend 20 or 50 hours playing around with something, then start all over. The blank canvas is the indie author’s worst enemy.
This book isn’t a book cover design manual, but I will end the section with links to more resources, and I do want to make sure I cover some quick basics, so here goes. There are three elements to a great cover design.
1. The image. For almost all commercial fiction, you will have one protagonist or humanizing element (stories are about people). This will not be a specific scene. You do not need to match all the details perfectly.
2. The fonts. Title fonts dictate genre so you must pick something that’s clear and easy to read, but also tells the genre. Author title and subtext should be in in a simple serif of sans serif font.
3. The mood. Contrast, colors, etc. Make readers feel what you want them to feel, with colors, contrast, motion, grit or glow, depending on the genre.
That’s it: how professionally all of those are added and blended together is also important, but it’s not the main thing. You can have an ugly cover that still ticks these boxes and still performs OK because it’s doing its job: it’s communicating the basic genre to the right readers. You can also have a beautiful, professional cover that does not tick these boxes and so does not perform.
Premade book design templates and tutorials
I design in Adobe Photoshop, but there are also online tools that can help you make a simple cover, and you can even make your own in MS Word, if you know what you’re doing. I have added some templates and tutorials to this website:
You should ask for feedback, but don’t just ask your friends and family: they are your own worst enemy. I’ve seen “friends” rave about how wonderful a cover design is, when it’s really the worst I’ve ever seen. Good friends will support you and make you feel good — that’s not what you need right now.
Or, they may pick apart little things that totally don’t matter. Instead, hire some strangers to look at your book cover or edit your sales description. Improve each 10% and you’ll get 20% more sales. Post in some Facebook groups (you’ll get tough love, and also, the authors in those groups mean well but aren’t designers, so take their opinions with several spoons of salt).
When in doubt, buy a nice looking premade cover; there are several sites that offer premades for under $100, and they are usually designed to be commercial.
7 must have qualities for a book cover that sells
PS. While I’m here, a side-tangent: the cover is not the place for a scene. Authors think in terms of scenes: they want a character standing here, wearing these clothes and this expression in this pose. It’s also not the place for little objects; tattoos, jewelry, details. Your cover has to make an impact and match the genre or topic. One subject or model; one background; usually one or two main colors; a title font that communicates genre; subtext in simple serif or sans-serif font.
For more help, read this: How to manipulate readers into buying books.
This is an excerpt from my free book marketing guide; download the full book and learn how to launch a bestseller.
Here’s an updated article on cover design
More book cover design resources
- 300+ Fool-Proof Fonts to use for your Book Cover Design
- Where to find royalty-free stock images for your book cover
- Cover design secrets that sell books
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.