The Craft
Comments 6

On Book Covers

Klementinum Library, Prague, Czech Republic

Klementinum Library, Prague, Czech Republic

I used to be a graphic designer. This isn’t exactly a secret, and I was a graphic designer for something like 20 years (a little over, but close enough.) I became something of a specialist in logos, which are often considered the hardest work a graphic designer can do.


I wasn’t giving enough credit to book cover designers. This stuff is HARD. Keep in mind: I am an artist. I have that advantage over most writers — I still think this stuff is hard. Insanely hard. When I say writing the book was the easy part, that is nothing but blunt honesty.

You’re probably wondering why I’m designing the book cover at all, if I have a publishing contract. The truth is: I don’t have to. I’m very lucky in that my publisher is open to the idea of letting me take a crack at it (even if they go with something else, which would be their contractual right.) As a graphic artist turned writer, I have it within me to be the most obnoxious of beasts, a writer who thinks they know something about design. Quelle horreur. The good news is that instead of flailing wildly, pointing at the proof and saying “I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but I know I don’t like it,” I have the option to show, not tell. Everyone wins (hopefully.)

As such I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at covers and thinking about the philosophy behind what makes for a successful book cover.

There are a lot of opinions about book covers, and they are often completely contradictory. Show the main character (you shouldn’t show the main character.) Illustrate a scene from the book (never illustrate a scene from the book.) Use photography (never use photography.) Use large type (don’t use large type.) The only rule that seems to be consistent: there are no consistent rules for book covers.

One of the pieces of advice I’ve heard the most often is that you should make sure your novel’s genre is identifiable at first glance. Romance novels have a certain look, as do westerns, mysteries, fantasies, etc. And that sounds like good advice, right? Dare I say, it IS good advice. The last thing anyone wants is for you to pick up a book accidentally thinking it was something completely different, then leave a nasty review because the book wasn’t what you expected. I know I’d be upset. It’s bait-and-switch and no one likes that kind of surprise.

Then I began to notice a pattern. A lot of break-out books didn’t really follow this rule, you see. Would you have ever in a million years thought Twilight was a book about vampires? Or that 50 Shades of Grey was a book about BDSM? How would you classify The Fault in Our Stars? The Hunger Games? American Gods? Clearly one can break the rules. Indeed, one might even say that breaking the rules carries a risk, but the potential reward is pulling away from the field. To put this in a John Hughes metaphor: you can try to blend in with the popular kids in the class, or you can show up in weird clothes and tri-colored hair. The later might get you sent to the principal’s office, or it might convince that cute guy to finally notice you (someone will notice you anyway, and remember you too, which might be better.)

Anyway, you might guess I was never very good at blending in with the popular kids.

Now if my publisher likes my book design, we move forward with it and my book sits there like a big fat dud, I will probably rethink my philosophy. For now? Let’s talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of book design.

The Good

There’s a lot of amazing work out there, and even amongst indie and self-published books, I’m seeing a huge rise in quality in just a few short years. It feels a bit like the start of web design (yes, I’m old enough to remember ‘the start of web design’) where the early work was pretty bad just because most of us were still trying to figure out what could be done with html. Improvement was fast, and quickly went from being all do-it-yourself to a field with a lot of specialist freelancers who could do it for you. As self-publishing grows, we’re seeing a growth in industries that provide necessary secondary services — like book design. It’s a lot easier to hire someone to make you a damn good cover than I suspect it was even a few years ago. That’s awesome.

For those who want to design their own cover, the internet abounds with seriously good advice and tutorials. Some of these sites will try to sell you something (there’s still no such thing as a free lunch, is there?) but that doesn’t mean the advice on typography and formatting isn’t sound. Sites like mean that you have no good excuse for not using an outstanding font on your cover design.

The Bad

The market has changed. There are now web sites devoted to people who don’t get the book cover thing right. (Protip: if your cover looks like any of these, give serious consideration to revising it. Completely.) Even professional publishers are still learning the curve and regularly design covers that look like terrible smears at thumbnail size. Small indie presses may not have the budget to hire the kind of professional illustrators they need to really take their work to the next level, while readers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and intolerant of amateur-looking covers, equating an amateur cover effort with equally amateur writing inside (literally judging a book by its cover.) There’s no wiggle room for a cover that looks like it was created in MS Paint.

The Ugly

Especially for new writers, it may be prohibitively expensive to buy original art for a book cover. Believe me, I know. Were I self-publishing, I certainly couldn’t afford that right now. The state of the freelance art world is atrocious, and you might well be able to find someone over at DeviantArt willing to sell you a photo or even license you the use of their awesome illustration for prices that amount to what you’d pay for a meal in a reasonably good restaurant (awesome if it works out) but you’re counting on the fact that someone out there has already created the perfect image for your book. It’s a roll of the dice. Likewise, stock photography has become reasonably inexpensive, but because most cheap stock photography and art is royalty free, that means there’s no guarantee at all that the art on your cover won’t also end up being the art on someone else’s cover. You can’t stop this, control this, or call out ‘dibs.’ It’s a bit like showing up to the ball in the same gown, isn’t it?

Ultimately, my advice is: pay for the stock art or photo. It’s going to be better quality than anything you’ll shoot yourself, and if your book takes off, use some of the proceeds to splurge for awesome original work.

What not to do.

  • Don’t montage elements in photoshop. Creating a good montage is a skill. You (likely) don’t have it.
  • Don’t distort the proportions of photos. This never looks good.
  • Don’t apply layer effects to fonts (full disclosure: I do this very thing on my book cover, but in my defense? I do it like a boss.)  Generally speaking, don’t play with warping, distorting, stretching, beveling, drop shadows, glows, or any other cool layer effect unless you do this professionally. Even then, really think about whether it makes the cover stronger. If it’s not carrying a lot of weight, leave it. I have a least one friend (also a graphic designer) who has some very strong opinions about the fact that I’m using layer effects at all on my cover: namely, she thinks I’m INSANE (she might be right, too.)
  • Oh, and by the same point: no filters. It’s unlikely that inverting the color profile on a bad photograph is suddenly going to turn it into a good one, or that applying crinkle edges is going to fool anyone into thinking that photograph is an illustration.
  • Don’t be clever. Don’t try to photoshop a gun into someone’s hand that wasn’t originally carrying one. Don’t try to mesh different photographs into ‘one’ original. We can tell. (protip: the lighting will never match.)
  • Don’t illustrate the cover yourself unless you are, in fact, an illustrator. I don’t care how many people told you that your drawings are awesome, it’s unlikely they are awesome enough for professional standards.
  • Don’t put the illustrator’s name on the cover. Sorry, but that’s just weird. I’ll all about calling out props inside, but you don’t need to give them a credit on the cover.
  • That also goes for the great art you made in Poser or with Maya/Max, etc. Put the 3D away.
  • Don’t do ANYTHING that obscures, hides or draws attention from two elements: your name and the name of your book. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve seen in the past three months where the author’s name was illegible or written in such small type it was effectively invisible. A book cover is no place for humility! The whole point is that you want the reader to remember your name. You made this! Be proud.
  • Don’t create a book without contrast. I’ve seen plenty of books that were well done monochromatics (using one color) and some lovely book covers done in black and white, but all of them had contrast. Contrast creates interest. Take your book cover and (assuming it’s not already) turn it black and white. Can you still understand what’s going on? Is the text still readable? Or did your book just become a rectangular blob. If the later, this needs to be fixed, pronto.

What to do:

  • Pick a color scheme. Stick to it. (Here’s a lovely tutorial on color theory. It’s for web designers, but I promise everything they talk about here works for book covers too.) You could do a lot worse than to sit down and think about color before you think about any other element of your book cover.
  • Use readable fonts. I can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t matter how wonderful or appropriate the font is if it’s so ornate no one can read it. Awwwards has a very nice collection of links to free fonts that go behind what you’ll find at the usual sites. Not all of them will work for books (in fact, some should be run from, screaming) so use your discretion, but there are some great fonts available. Remember that simpler is better (I like the 2012 group better than 2013, for what that’s worth).
  • Keep it simple. Seriously, say what you want about the book, but the decision to use a simple motif of a pair of girl’s arms holding an apple for the cover of Twilight was just good design. You do not have to include a dozen, five, or even two elements on your cover. Use the minimum you can.
  • Show it to people. Show it to everyone. Show it to people who will be brutally honest with you. Show to people that will rip it apart. This isn’t just so you’ll feel bad about yourself: you need fresh eyes who will spot the mistakes you may have made. It doesn’t mean you have to listen to them either — but it does mean you’ve defended your decisions and you are at least aware of the possibility that your book cover isn’t up to par.
  • Don’t be afraid to pony up the dough to a professional. At the end of the day, cover art is probably the one thing you DO want to spend money on (right after a good editor.) And it frees you up to concentrate on writing.

Okay, so that’s it (I make it sound so…easy…don’t I?) After having gone through the process myself (a process that isn’t by any means finished) I have a new appreciation for the skills involved. This really isn’t something that just anyone can do and expect to do well, so much like writing itself, if you’re going to do your book cover yourself, prepare to invest a lot of research and energy into the task.


  1. Excellent advice! Been mulling over the possibility of writing a book one day, and as a designer myself, the cover is definitely at the forefront of my mind! 🙂

    • I think it’s the constrained space that makes it so difficult. Make a mistake a book cover and it’s right there, no hiding it! Took me a bit by surprise. I just assumed I’d have no problem with the cover.

      Good luck with your own book! I look forward to seeing it. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Book Cover Reveal – Blood Chimera | Jenn Lyons

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