Can Hugh Howey teach us anything about book cover design?

Can Hugh Howey teach us anything about book cover design?

Today I saw that Hugh Howey had posted an article on book cover design.

“That’s cool,” I think.

Hugh Howey is one of the most successful self-publishing authors in the world. He started out with pretty unprofessional book covers that embody the design tastes of most indie authors (they focus on scenes and symbolism and details, instead of being simple and powerful).

His new covers, for the books being done in print since he got picked up by traditional publishers, are awesome. But in the article on book cover design, he doesn’t show any of them. Instead, it looks like he’s chosen to show some of the ones that he has had more control over; the ones where he had some impact on the designer, they did what he wanted, so he thinks the covers are really cool.

He wants book covers to be “iconic”, saying:

And even if they are bad covers, they show the direction I’m thinking cover art should go.

Here are the ones he refers to. (The box looks tiny here, but it’s actually a book shaped white rectangle with no border, then a small box in the middle. No author name).

beacon-23-2 The-Box-Cover1-225x340 secondsuicide_ebook_FINAL-copy-225x340

Second Suicide, above, is pretty good… the rest aren’t. I’m sure his books are doing well anyway; but I’m also pretty sure I could double sales by remaking his covers for The Box and Beacon 23 (if you’re reading this, Hugh, I’d be happy to do it for free as an experiment).



Actually, Hugh redid these covers and they’re all great now… Beacon 23 was remade by MS Corley.




But I’ll leave the rest of this article here, just food for thought.

As an example, Hugh publishes a book with just the art and no title name or author name.



It’s fun that Hugh Howey can play with covers and take big risks like this.

It’s awesome that his first books became successful even though they started with really bad cover art. It’s important to have this conversation, since covers impact sales – especially in the beginning when you’re starting from no platform.

So indie authors need to consider which cover is going to help their books get over that first hurdle; attracting the first few readers into the story without scaring them away with unprofessional book cover design.

And I think Hugh Howey can teach us a lot about book cover design, but not by sharing his design instincts (fun and artistic, creative like his books, but making a statement about the author, rather than conforming to industry design standards based on what actually moves books).

If you’re rich and writing as a hobby, have fun! Be creative! If you’re publishing books and want to get rich and write as a hobby – make your book look like a bestselling book in its category, not like a wacky indie published unusual book.

Here are some of Hugh’s early covers – I,Zombie is, I think, still being used for that book. All three of these are strong intermediate covers – which means; they took “ideas” and executed them well. But they’re too busy, and not very strong. (OMG, I just noticed the Molly Fyde cover has Hugh Howey lurking in the background… or seems like it).


Let’s go down memory lane and compare before-and-after’s.

This was the first Wool cover I saw.


It’s almost silly. But I get it: steel wool, then a wiped off window scene with clear skies and green grass in the background. It’s conceptual. It makes sense after you read the book, but doesn’t sell the book to strangers. It’s not attractive, and doesn’t give me enough information on the setting and genre. (In the Kboards article, Hugh refers to this cover saying

“Then again, maybe it’s a bad idea to listen to the guy who came up with this cover.”

This one, I think, is a fan fiction makeover.


This is what you might get if you hire a designer and tell them what to do. It’s well done, professionally designed, but still fails as a cover. Too much contrast, too much going on, almost cool looking but still doesn’t do a good enough job of conveying the essential information.

Now here’s the remake after it got picked up by Simon & Schuster. Most authors might say “But doesn’t say anything about the book!” That’s true – the grass and blue skies and steelwool are gone. But the cover’s job is not to explain the details. The cover’s job is to attract readers and tell them that this is a GOOD book (with professional design).

The colors and texture do all of that, and also convey the genre (sci-fi/thriller/dystopian). Once the cover has got your attention, and you slow down to check it out, they’ve added some “details” on the front – not about the book, just credibility boosters so you’ll take it seriously.

And also the tagline, missing from the first covers, “If the lies don’t kill you, the truth will” – so you know it has violence, murder and conspiracy.


This version (below) has a blurb on the top from SJ Watson of When I Go To Sleep: 

“Exhilarating, intense and addicting.”




Let’s try another example.

Here’s an early HalfWay Home cover. It looks like a homemade or very cheap cover (I think you could get a better one these days on


Here’s a reboot, much better design, but just doesn’t quite work (no focus, split between the title text, too much attention on the author name via the bright yellow…) The title font also looks amateurish to me. This is the kind of cover that most indie authors would LOVE to have, because it looks cool and glossy and 3D and awesome… and probably used some of their ideas (the slight reflection of character faces in the water… conceptual. 



Here’s another I found… maybe the original? Maybe fan art? Nice pics, but poorly done text, and the picture doesn’t really reveal the scifi genre; people would mistake it for a murder thriller.


But here’s the reboot – one of my all time favorite covers in the Hugh Howey collection.



Simple, mostly monochromatic, beautiful.

Here’s an earlier version of Hurricane; again, conceptually clever, but not strong as cover art.


Here’s the remake. The remake hints at the digital and adds the important tagline – the essential crux of the story – “What if your entire digital life vanished tomorrow.”



This one, I think, is the original Molly Fyde cover.


Simple background, all conceptual, not great text. A little cheesy.

These were the other covers in the series.


This is the reboot. I don’t love these – I don’t think illustration is great for fiction/novels, except for children’s books. If Molly Fyde is aimed at 10 to 13 year olds, it’s great. If it’s aimed at teenagers, not quite as good. But… it’s really hard to find good stock photography of spaceships and aliens, so sometimes illustration is what you have to use.



This is another version. I think the newest one.

Nice, shiny text on the author name, but I don’t like the fantasy script on the title. Or the illustration. Still, pretty good, clean, strong, definitely professional, and mostly appealing.


Compare that again with the two covers Hugh Howey used for his latest short stories – the covers he’s showcasing as he recommends that other indie authors follow his lead.

beacon-23-2 The-Box-Cover1-225x340

I think you should publish with what you have; you should be publishing shorts, and you should get the best cover you can with the means available to you. But even if you have zero budget for cover design, you can do better than this, if you understand the principles of designing covers that sell books.

Hugh Howey writes books that sell books; so making covers that sell isn’t a big issue for him. But for most frustrated self-published authors who can’t get anybody to give them a chance, review their books or even respond to their emails, covers like these are far more certain to foil your efforts than to support them. You can still be successful despite amateur covers, but why work so hard?

Ultimately, the best cover is the one that sells the most copies (to the right readers).

Giveaway: Free Signed Copies of Dusthugh howey dust

It was hard for me to write this article, since I’m a huge Hugh Howey fan. And I love how much he’s continued to help indie authors and be a champion of self-publishing. And of course I’m only talking about cover designs – his books are amazing.

I’m going to start writing Silo and Sand fan fiction soon for Kindle worlds (incidentally, here’s one of the covers I’ll use).


My dream in life is to write books of high enough quality, and sell enough copies to prove their value, to earn a blurb from Hugh Howey.

I actually have two signed copies of Dust I had him sign for me at the Taipei Book Fair last year. I’m going to give them away to the first two people who can help me answer a question I’m stuck on about the Silo series:

The story concludes with the people digging out from under the nanobot storm, reaching abundant nature. But didn’t the world end because nanobots killed everybody off? Except the people in the silos? Couldn’t people in other countries have hidden underground as well, then come out whenever the killer nanobots shut down or turned off?

I’m also happy to hear your opinions or ideas about book cover design below.

Update: Hugh also wrote a post over on Kboards, here. In that post he shares a bunch of nice covers, and then his new ones. It’s also worth pointing out that Hugh is doing an awesome job of content marketing: he’s posting tips about cover design that incidentally share his new books – instead of saying “Hey everybody, go check out my books!” You could learn a lot from this. Find something you can comment on; even if you aren’t an expert. Broaden the discussion and try to add value – not just share your book and hope people check it out.


  • Blake Atwood Posted

    An insightful post, Derek, and thanks for including the before and after examples.

    A few years ago, I listened to the Wool trilogy on a solo trip from Florida to Texas. I only knew about Howey’s success story, and that made me want to give Wool some attention. I’m glad I did. I enjoyed the series, but I have no good answer for you in regard to the question at hand. It was too long ago (and I have a better reading memory than I do aural).

    However, I looked through a few GoodReads reviews to jog my memory ( It would seem that you’re not alone in your questions. Many people said they were emotionally satisfied with the conclusion, but not intellectually so. Some likened it to LOST’s ending, which I loved because I’d bonded with those characters, though I totally understood why millions were upset by its finale.

    Maybe Howey himself lived in one of those other silos, found a time machine, then came back to now to warn us of what could happen …

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Thanks for the comment; I didn’t notice any problems until I went back and started searching for answers. In my version, some Chinese real estate agent got his hands on spycraft, copied what the Americans were doing, and set himself up as underground emperor… just not sure whether people in China will be safe coming up from underground…

      • S. J. Pajonas Posted

        Ooooh, I like your idea a lot but I have no answer to your question. He leaves a lot open to interpretation, which is, I suppose, great for people writing in the world.

  • L. R. Dennis Posted

    Thanks so much for that article. It reminds me, again, that I have no taste when it comes to art. That sounds snarky, but it’s absolutely sincere. My dream would be to have someone paint me some cover art in the style of Grandma Moses, so there you go.

    I no longer read science fiction, because I get depressed enough just reading the news, so I don’t have any info about your question. However, just going off the info in your question I’d have this to say:

    What do nanobots eat? That is, where do they get their energy? Because if you say that maybe people around the world saved themselves in silos, then you are going to have no one saved except for people who live in countries that have silos–in other words, countries that were involved in the Cold War. Or maybe Switzerland, with all those cheese caves, and some places with extensive wine cellars. Anyway, you will be left with a world in which all the inhabitants carry DNA from warlike, but technologically inclined, ancestors. All the simple people will be gone. The jungles, farms, deserts, islands–all will be up for grabs, and there will be lots of people left who are good at grabbing. Likely, those people left will still have the same loyalties and suspicions they had before they went underground. They will have to work out some way to co-exist or they will have to continue their antagonism.

    UNLESS nanobots are powered by something that exists only in technologically advanced countries. In that case, you will wind up with a number of survivors in USA, USSR, and China (warlike countries where silos were placed) and the rest of the world will be untouched, still populated. All the tribal peoples will be as they were, but without European or Chinese oppression/foreign aid, etc. They will be flourishing or starving, depending on their own innate attitudes and traditional skills. In this case, the world will see the rise of a NEW set of world-beaters, so to speak. Some of the primitives will launch out into the sea, visit, and perhaps colonize or conquer new lands. Some will erect walls to protect themselves, and others will be innocent victims. Innocence, naïveté, is the natural precursor to victimhood.

    ALSO, do the nanobots know the difference between humans and other animals? Did they kill only humans, or did they also kill other members of the animal kingdom? (And what did they do with the bodies?) Can nanobots die? If not, what happened to them after they killed everyone? Are they lying in wait, just outside the silos? Or are they mostly rusted up–effectively dead–and therefore no longer dangerous? Even so, some pockets of nanobots may still be in good enough working order to reactivate and continue their devastation. And, after being dormant for a while, they may have suffered some kind of mutation of programming, ability, or appetite. This change may appear to be helpful to humans, at first, mwhahaha.

    In other words, I don’t have any idea where the story goes from here. Any way it goes, it’s going to make me nervous. 🙂

    Good luck with your writing project! I trust that someone will come along who has read the series and can be of more help to you. LRD

  • BooknookBiz Posted

    Well, I haven’t read Wool, so I can’t speak to your question. (I know, I know, heinous, yes?). But I concur, absolutely, that Mr. Howey’s recommended covers are pretty awful. I mean, as you’ve said, he has the ability to do whatever he wants, as he’s wildly successful. But if a client walked into my shop with one of those, and asked for my honest opinion (a question I spend a lot of time ducking), I’d give it, and it would be to start over. His writing must be truly remarkable to overcome those, because quite frankly, those look like Kiss of Death covers to me.

    Offered FWIW.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      He already updated one of the newer ones, (maybe he read this post). 🙂

      And they’re short stories and he can afford to experiment. But some authors can’t – it’s got to be amazing the first time around.

  • Daniel Adorno Posted


    Excellent article and great points to consider on the future of indie book cover design. You’ve always been inspiration to me in this area and I’ve worked hard to learn all the art and design aesthetics of a good book cover. In fact, I’ve been outlining and working on a book specifically targeted toward book cover design and equipping indie authors with basic art principles to follow if they design their own covers. has been instrumental in boosting my knowledge in this area and I applaud you for taking the time to put out such a high quality resource. Anywho, best of luck in your fan fiction endeavors–I’m sure you’ll hit it out of the park especially with the design on your covers!

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Cool – I’d be happy to blurb the book when it’s done. 🙂 Just email me.

      • Daniel Adorno Posted

        Awesome! I’ll definitely take you up on that 🙂

  • Bob Miller Posted

    Thanks very much for sharing real-life examples.
    I love seeing before and after pics. Very insightful.

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