7 foolproof design tips to crush your book cover design

7 foolproof design tips to crush your book cover design

IMG_2372I was chatting with friends at the London Book Fair when one of them reminded me of a presentation on book cover design; which I felt duty bound to attend. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much, since I consider the cover design strategies I recommend for indie authors to be avant garde and not mainstream. But Damien Horner (@Damienhorner) delivered a 5 minute value bomb – 7 tips plus a golden rule – that was as concise as it was brilliant.

I took notes but am paraphrasing below, and I strenuously second all of these tips, especially for self-publishing authors.

#1 Membership

Your cover is about membership, not aesthetics. It doesn’t have to be “interesting” or “beautiful” – it needs to let people know immediately what genre it belongs in. It needs to look like one of the gang. Don’t worry about being a cliche or looking like other books in your genre. Far better to fit in and sell some books that to stand out and sell none.

#2 Lust Factor

That said, sometimes you can stand out with a really freaking beautiful book cover, but these are usually for literary fiction books with mainstream publishing and a big promotion budget; they need to be designed well, and a little artsy, to appeal to the people they are supposed to appeal to. For most popular genre fiction, indie authors attempting to go this route will fail, because it’s really difficult to create a cover so beautiful people want to lick it, unless you’ve been designing book covers for years (and even then!) If this is your very first book cover and you’re designing yourself, or hiring someone cheap, it’s doubtful you’ll come up with a lustful cover.

#3 The Blink Test

Whether you go with basic genre conventions or attempt the trickier “lust factor” cover, your book cover needs to tell people what it’s about in one second. Flash the cover in front of someone quickly. Can they make out the art? Does it communicate the genre immediately? The book cover isn’t the place to “explain” all the details – people aren’t going to read all the text on the cover unless they are already hooked by the cover alone in under one second. It has to appeal, attract and communicate the basics (genre, maybe setting) and as I like to say, have an immediate emotional impact (as Wordsworth says, “The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”).

#4 The Title is Integral

You need to have a great title and be sure about it before you start the cover design, because book covers have to compensate. If you pick a simple, abstract, one word title that doesn’t say anything about the type of book or story, the cover art has to do all the work. On the other hand, if you have a very long, keyword rich, descriptive title, the cover art can do less work.

#5 Straplines (taglines, subtitles…)

Damien says publishers rely on straplines to explain a crappy title. If you had a great title with great cover art, you wouldn’t need a tagline to add more information (and people are unlikely to read the small cover text on your book cover anyway…)

If you do a brilliant job, you don’t need them. However, almost all the indie authors I know are doing a firmly mediocre job, with not-great book covers and abstract titles that don’t mean anything – and then they also don’t add any small text. Which means – the covers aren’t passing the blink test, at all. In my opinion, almost all self-published books would benefit from putting a strapline, subtitle or at least blurb on the cover that gives more information.

If it’s a werewolf romance, you need either:

1. A werewolf on the cover, preferably with another boy/girl to show “romance”

2. “Werewolf” in the title.

3. A subtitle or strapline that mentions werewolves, lycan, or hints at romance somehow

4. At the very least, even though it’s cheesy and obvious, put “a werewolf romance” and use that as the subtitle as well on Amazon. It’s heavy-handed, and unprofessional, but it will help you sell more books than every other self-publishing author who doesn’t use any keywords and has covers that don’t convey the genre.

#6 Consider your distribution platform

If Amazon/ ebook retailers are your primary sales platform (and they are, unless you are a professional speaker or planning to sell thousands of copies at events) you need to design for Amazon. Most indie authors already know this and recycle the (in my opinion) bad advice that you need the text to be legible as a thumbnail.

It isn’t true. Your cover has to stand out and be impactful even as a thumbnail, yes – but people don’t read text on thumbnails! They read the text on the side of the thumbnail, or if the cover is great, they click the image to find out more. Damien used the example of one of Seth Godin’s covers, which just have big, fun art and no text at all.

Really big text has its place (thrillers, horror) but some genres don’t call for it, and big text may ruin the emotional promise your cover needs to be making. Big text is just like all caps, shouting at the world, LOOK AT MY BOOK, DAMN YOU!

#7 Hierarchy

You can’t stress everything all at once, and you need to decide what’s most important.

If you are a first time author with no platform, it’s probably not your name –  because nobody knows who you are. So the title is almost always most important – it will be roughly 100% and fill the width of the cover.

Then, probably is your author name, which can be at about 50%. Don’t make the mistake of thinking because you aren’t famous, your author name should be tiny and invisible. Make your author name roughly the same size as other authors in your genre. People don’t know you aren’t famous. You can even make your name HUGE and people may assume you are famous, even if they’ve never heard of you (but it can backfire, so don’t use that as  strategy).

On the other hand, if you are famous, the title doesn’t matter so much, because you already have millions of fans who will buy anything you write – so the name would be 100%, and first, and the title would be smaller and down below.

You may have a series title as well, plus a book title, plus a tagline and your author name – some elements should be really small (12 pt font, but stretched out widely at 600 spacing) which will look more professional than trying to make the small text as big as you can and cramming it in – something you might do if you believe the mistaken advice “make the text legible as a thumbnail” and make all the text as big as possible, fighting for attention.

The GOLDEN RULE of book cover design

I’ve said this in hundreds of ways, but never quite as well as Damien phrased it:

Be clear before you are clever.

Indie authors often want to stand out and do something creative. They want to refer to or symbolize the contents of the book – a book people haven’t read yet! Readers won’t get what you’re referring to or symbolizing. Don’t be clever. People aren’t going to reflect on your cover and try and figure out what it means, and analyze while they read the story.

The cover is packaging. It’s a billboard. It catches the eye and attracts people to read the summary and reviews. That’s it. It’s great if it can also truthfully represent the book, but it’s always better to use a powerful cover that doesn’t quite represent the book accurately, but doubles your sales, than it is to represent the book accurately (a mistake most authors make) with a shitty cover crammed full of exact details and pictures and scenes and meanings that you can explain and talk about for an hour but nobody else gets (or even likes).

Make a beautiful cover that sells the book.

Selling the book is the cover’s only job.

Don’t get caught up in all the other stuff that doesn’t matter.

The best cover is the cover that sells the most books (unless you’re writing literary fiction or you have a career goal that doesn’t depend on book sales).

7 must have qualities for a book cover that sells

Here’s an updated article on cover design


  • mtr amg Posted

    Great info, thanks, Derek. I heard Sean Platt say in a podcast that he bought Twilight based on the cover alone. It really does matter.
    But titles? So HARD to come up with!

  • Bridget McKenna Posted

    A fantastic knowledge-bomb, Derek. Thanks for dropping it on me (along with many, many others).

  • Rachael Posted

    Thanks, Derek. After reading this list, I’m feeling 87% (that’s pretty good!) confident that I nailed it with my first book cover. 🙂 This was concise and helpful advice! I hope the next one comes together even better.

  • Tammie Kay Kasicki Posted

    Just so you know, in your rule #5, lichen is moss, lycan is werewolf — from lycanthrope. They are very different things.

  • Kimberly Klein Posted

    Loving the info you’re sharing. Being a first timer, I’m still confused on “to do” or “to not do” a tag line for my poetry book. I’ve gotten mixed answers from numerous authors. Any words of wisdom?

  • MJ London Posted

    So glad I found you through Joanna Penn. I appreciate your incite on writing and willing to help – and did I mention the free stuff?! You are a valuable tool to my process, Mr. Murphy. Keep up the excellent work!

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