Indie publishers are slowly coming to realize the importance of an amazing book cover. Since many self-publishing authors are starting out on a very small budget however, homemade, DIY book covers are still a popular choice.
But be forewarned: although book cover designs come in a wide variety, publishers consistently use reliable, time-tested techniques and guidelines to catch your attention and make the sale.
You want your cover to be different and unique, but you also want to tick all the right boxes (because they work). The worst thing an author can do is consider their cover design like a blank canvas and add whatever they want, wherever they want. So here are the tricks you need to know.
(Note: I chose these images and book covers quickly to illustrate my point. I’m sure you can find better examples).
The art & science of covering books
1. Make it “Pop”
A lot of authors ask for covers that “pop.” And many designers have no idea what this means. But I’ve narrowed it down to contrast. You want a strong light to dark transition, with strong shadows.
You want the central object or character to really “pop” out, by being spotlighted and lighter in color (you can also do the reverse and have a very light cover, with a bold, dark central image). But you also want contrasting colors: colors that are opposites on a color wheel. Movie posts use orange and teal all the time, because they are a very pleasing color combination.
You can also use blue and red (although it’s hard to do well – black/gray and red usually works better), purple and yellow (colors which – I believe, only those born in Aquarius truly love).
(Note: non-fiction covers don’t need to “pop” in the same way – they can stand out by using bright colors or a simple central image).
2. Lots of space
A lot of book covers are too busy. Many of mine certainly are (partly due to my design style, partly because the authors want to include everything on the cover). Even if there are lots of elements, the background should be blended together smoothly – this can be done with a color wash (for example, in Fallen below, the dress could have “popped” more if it were deep red… but that would have made the text harder to read. Lauren Kate’s covers are breathtaking, but very simple.)
There’s also a lot of space in Guy’s cover below. Most non-fiction books will have a central background color/gradient, and a very simple single image that illustrates a concept. If you’re designing your own cover, there probably needs to be a lot more space between the letters. The normal spacing between letters is too cramped for a book cover. This is especially true for author names. See how far the letters in “Lauren Kate” stretch out? (Probably about 350% of normal). It makes it more cinematographic somehow. More epic.
Guy’s last name and author title are both pretty long, so he couldn’t fit as much space between the letters, but he makes up for the cramped letters by adding a lot of extra spaces in the middle, and to the sides of the subtitle and blurb lines (look at the subtitle on the very bottom. No reason to break that into two lines. But the extra space makes the cover layout less box-square, and more fluid – like two inverted triangles.
3. Make it clever (non-fiction) or emotional (fiction)
Here’s a quick rule of thumb: non-fiction appeals to the brain. You want an instantly clever image to catch their mental attention. Non-fiction covers should have a central “gimmick” and a solid color background or gradient (orange and yellow are very popular for business books. (BTW, notice how wide the spacing is between the letters on these two covers). You catch the brain’s attention by showing a juxtaposition – things that shouldn’t really go together and are unexpected. Then the subtitle tells them what the book is about.
On the other hand, fiction appeals to the heart. So fiction covers should be bursting with color, vibrancy, action. They should be beautiful. The art alone should make you feel, something like longing or loss or passion, immediately. Here are two covers for books I really enjoyed: both are simple and use a lot of space. Both use the orange – teal contrast. Both don’t really show anything about the book itself… but the bold, industrial fonts show they’re YA dystopian fiction (paranormal books will have more curly, sharp or ‘wicked’ looking fonts; romances will have a lot of curls and decoration).
I like that Allegiant put in a little bit of setting on the bottom, which is easy to do and usually works well (so the author name had to be moved up). Ignite Me is done very well too though, and the dark contrast on the bottom getting lighter as it goes up makes the dark eye really stand out. Something else to notice: both had to use dropshadows to make the text stand out – something it’s usually better to avoid (in other genres) but since dystopian fiction covers can be a little aggressive, it works here.
Allegiant really pops out with a heavy dropshadow (and metal gradient), and it also makes the teaser (at the top) easy to read – unlike the teaser for Ignite Me, which I can barely see. Be careful of overusing dropshadows through, I try to avoid them by using natural contrast (put light text on dark areas of the cover). So when designing for fiction, you’re appealing to the subconscious and the emotions. You’re not providing detail for the brain. Focus on colors, abstract symbols, representations. Focus on strong contrast and mood. How does the cover make you feel.
4. Use a subtitle, teaser or tagline (and a review!)
Once you’ve got that down, provide just a tiny bit more information with a teaser. For fiction, a teaser should hint at the major plot point or conflict (star crossed love, a family feud, a personal growth quest, etc). It should excite interest without giving away too much. Far too many indie authors aren’t using teasers – just the extra bit of small text makes the covers look more professional.
Make them simple, in a simple font, and small, but find a way to fit them in (and get them edited – pay someone on fiverr.com to help you brainstorm. The teaser has got to be really good. You should also get feedback on the title….) For non-fiction, your subtitle is crucial because it allows you to fit more keywords.
You don’t want to stuff your title with too many keywords, so you can fit in a few more with a very nice subtitle (it should be clear and easy to read, not just a string of keywords).
Fiction books can benefit from subtitles too: recently I helped an author change a 1 word title, which nobody was finding, or if they did find, didn’t know what it was about, to include the subtitle “A Dystopian Adventure.” Not all books will need this, but his book was hidden on about the sixth page of nonrelated books with a similar title – when I was searching for the title of his book. Adding a simple genre-subtitle into the title field on Amazon can help you be found. Example (I’m just making this up).
Title+Subtitle: Smasher: a paranormal fantasy
Title+Teaser: Smasher: sometimes you have to break everything before you can put the pieces back together…
You probably don’t need a subtitle and a teaser, and a teaser is probably better for fiction (except if adding keywords or the genre helps your book find the right readers). You can also add a blurb or review – these help sell books even if the reviewer/source isn’t recognized or famous. Edit it down to make it short and punchy – 10 words or less. Smart indie authors in related genres will trade cover blurbs (so start networking!) Reviews establish credibility. Big publishers aren’t using them as much any more, because demonstrating credibility can show a lack or credibility or insecurity. Something to keep in mind…
Here are three covers with different teasers on them (all in different places; you may have to squeeze the teaser wherever it will fit). All three have strong dark to light contrast, and all three use color contrast (yellow and blue; Odd Thomas more purple) Bared to You fits the title in nicely over the image, it would be hard to put it anywhere else. Not my favorite cover, and I prefer warm colors to be on top of cool colors (blue doesn’t seem very romantic to me…) but the title font and keywords “possession” and “obsession” let me know what to expect (even without the naked woman, so that’s a bit overkill).
Soulbound uses a very nice background (red goes well with cool blues or grays, there’s a lot of natural contrast) but the text isn’t great. The red+blue+yellow is too much, and title font is a little boring – flat – and I’ll bet that cursive “S” doesn’t belong with the rest of that font family. It’s common to change the first letter of a word (like in Bared to You) but the two font styles shouldn’t conflict. Also the author font is too fancy (stick with one fancy font.) Odd Thomas is one of my favorite covers. It’ll be easier to see why by comparing it to something else…
Note: A lot of indie authors say that you shouldn’t use small text on ebook covers. This isn’t true. Designing for print and ebooks is the same. Thumbnails don’t matter. Small text like reviews and blurbs makes your cover look traditionally published, and actually gives viewers a reason to click on the cover and see the full view (so they can read the small text, which may clinch the sale.) People don’t read the cover; they read the description right next to the cover, and if they want to find out more, they click and see the big view.
5. Pick the right font (and effects)
Here are two very similar covers. Deeply Odd uses a pale blue/yellow contrast, which is stronger than Kelley’s Green/Yellow. The fonts are nearly identical, but I far prefer the Koontz cover, because:
- The two different fonts make a nice contrast. They aren’t fancy fonts, but a very simple serif and sans-serif.
- They use natural color contrast for text and light/dark contrast. The top and bottom of Deeply Odd are dark enough to add the text without a drop shadow or special effects to make it stand out. Omens‘ top is in that annoying twilight, in between light and dark, where neither dark or light text will stand out well, so she had to add a strong drop shadow. Yes it helps the text stand out, but it overpowers the title and kills the fluidity of the cover.
- The letters in “Kelly Armstrong” are too condensed, whereas “Dean Koontz” is widely spread. True, he was lucky to have a shorter name, but it’s also the lack of drop shadow and the simple sans-serif font that make it so clean and elegant. Even using gray rather than white increase its subtlety.
- Ditto with the “bestseller” tagline. Kelley’s is a little too heavy and long (probably English Gothic). Koontz’s is elegant and minimal (Open Sans or Lato?)
- With the dark cover, the yellow Deeply Odd really stands out, because it’s the lightest thing, in a way that Omens doesn’t, because the top is too light.
- Deeply Odd uses two special effects, a very subtle glow which is great to suggest a bit of paranormal, and an underline (the two words in Deeply Odd would probably have been too cramped, if not for the underline, which connects everything.) I would have at least liked to see a subtle gradient on Omens.
- I don’t know what either book is really about, but Deeply Odd fixes this with a great teaser “Beauty is skin deep…” So I know it’s a struggle between good and evil.
- Deeply Odd is a little more interesting because it has a person in it. More on that in the next section.
When choosing fonts – don’t use anything that comes installed on your computer. Search through hundreds of fonts, on sites like DaFont.com or MyFonts.com. You can get a free one (if you check for commercial usage), but a paid one will be less used.
You can make your font unique by hiring a designer to tweak it – for example the Twilight fonts which have extended letters (l, n, p, k) which are suggestive of fangs, knives, danger. You can also get a custom font made, if you need a truly 1-of-a-kind, brandable font for a huge publishing phenomenon (like Harry Potter).
If you use a fancy font, stick with just one, and make the rest of the fonts clean and simple. (See how widely spaced “Stephenie Meyer” is? She could have made her author name much bigger, but it works better this way).
6. Make it personal (but not cheesy)
As I pointed out above about the Deeply Odd cover, people sell. Having a person on/in the cover creates intrigue and interest. But only if done right.
For example, imagine this picture (Fearless) without the guy in the center. It would totally change the cover, and make it a little boring. The boy adds adventure, focus, not to mention much needed color contrast (red on blue). Adding a person from the back (like the Odd covers) is fine – usually better – as it allows readers to form their own mental images of the characters.
But avoid total silhouettes. A lot of indie authors are using them because they are easy, and it’s really hard to find the right pose otherwise, but they are usually cheesy. An exception is Ken Follett’s covers (the new ones), but even here they have some details and a bit of light overlay.
By the way, check out how the new cover for Dangerous Fortune compares to earlier versions. (Softer, more subtle, and much more intrigue with the characters, which also helps tell readers the time period.
Super close up of faces can be really powerful too, but if you find them on a stock photography site, there’s a good chance it will be used on another cover. (The better the picture, the more covers it will show up on). You can avoid this by getting a friend to pose or hiring a model off craigslist for a quick photoshoot.
In these two covers, I love the girl in Alpha although I don’t think the font is ideal. Also the author name is squished together needlessly. Requiem is a little boring but clean; although it doesn’t tell me enough about the book. Both could have used a teaser. You can also cut off the top half of the head (or just use the top half/eyes) so that the model isn’t as instantly recognizable.
Cassandra Clare’s covers are much loved – note the color contrast. The City of Bones cover is colorful but didn’t have any contrast, so they add that little red circle! City of Glass already has the orange/teal contrast so they didn’t need it. Both covers use exciting light-stream overlays to give them that magical bursting effect. Putting a character on top and a city on the bottom is a good (and common) balance for layout. City of Glass had to use a stronger dropshadow, because the author name and subtitle weren’t standing out enough. They both use reviews instead of blurbs. The source is larger and clearer for the one by Stephanie Meyer because she’s more famous (the first one, by Holly Black, is smaller and a little hard to read).
Note: It’s been pointed out that these covers are super busy – these are YA titles, which tend to sell the most copies, and are colorful/busy/exciting to attract young readers. An adult thriller or law novel would be stark, simple – but still clean and stylish.
7. If it’s too hard, go simple
It’s a mistake to try and fit everything in. I’m working on some covers right now with two characters, and all the details (hair color, eyes, clothes, expression, weapons, decorations, etc) have to be just right. After weeks of work and hiring an illustrator from Russia to hand-draw some elements I can’t make in photoshop, it’s getting pretty close to a decent cover.
But it’s way too much work and something simple probably would have been just as good, or better. If it’s fantasy or paranormal, or epic, or just so huge it can’t be well defined, go simple. Busy covers take more work and rarely outsell simple covers. If you’re dealing with a lot of little details to make sure they match the book precisely, it’s too complex already. You’d have to hire an illustrator or make a whole bunch of changes in photoshop, and the result won’t look natural. Even if it all turns out pretty good, you probably could have published months earlier with a simpler cover.
8. A little more on text placement
Try to fit the text/words together in a balanced way. Usually small words like “the, in, of, and, by…” can be italicized, lower case, and made small to fit between larger text better (example: The Help).
Try to add the text in a way that you don’t need any drop shadow or glow – the that the text stands out naturally against the background. (Example: Lolita). Nabokov also has his author name on top, which makes the cover seem upside down or top heavy (perhaps symbolic of the fragile and perverse relationship in the book?)
Unique text placement can be a form of branding. (Example: Shades of Grey). I don’t love the Shades of Grey covers, but they chose to use very simple, minimal fonts and a unique layout (title aligned top right, the rest aligned bottom left) to create a distinctive style. The diagonal layout makes room for the strong images and creates a moving interplay (symbolic of the submission/mastery in the books?)
I hope these tips help you design a cover that sells more books!
Follow up with this post:
Cover design secrets that sell books
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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
- 3D book cover creator
Or hire a professional book cover designer
I try to help authors DIY their book design, but you shouldn’t do that without at least understanding the enormous gap between your homemade efforts and a professional designer. Here’s a list of my favorite designers.
Not everybody is capable of this kind of book cover art; it’s a combination of photoshopping and typography, and sometimes some custom illustration. But a quality cover like this generally costs around $350 to $750 and it’ll drastically, significantly, boost your sales and reduce your marketing spend for ads and promotion.
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.