5 Book Cover Design Tips that Show You’re a Pro

Use these book cover design tips to invite your reader into your story.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover”: Book marketers have taken that old saying, ripped out its guts, kicked it to the gutter, and stomped on it.

The truth about books:

  1. People do judge books by their covers.
  2. The reason readers continue to judge books by their covers is that over and over again it proves to be a fair indication of the content and quality of the book.

This judging happens at an intuitive level, so quickly that the reader may not even be aware of it. If the book cover design doesn’t work, the reader just slips it back onto the shelf or scrolls past it onscreen without a second look. If asked, the response might be, “Not for me. Not what I’m looking for. Meh.”

A good book cover design, on the other hand, demands a second look. Even if the book is obviously not what I’m looking for, I may find myself browsing the jacket copy or reading the first few paragraphs. (In fact, I discovered one of my all-time favorite novels that way.)

If you’re going through a traditional publisher, the company will take care of the book cover — for good or ill, but mostly for good. By and large the big traditional publishers have top-flight designers who know their business and create covers that intrigue and communicate. Some authors aren’t happy with the outcome, but the simple fact is that the percentage of abysmal covers is much higher among self-published authors.

Here are five ways a good book cover works for you and book cover design tips to make the most of them:

1. It Evokes Curiosity

A good book cover sets up a problem so powerful that your brain won’t let go of it until it knows the solution. That hint of a story will get a reader to open the book and find out if the author really answers the question posed on the cover.

Book cover design tip: Look through some top-selling book covers across genres and see how the cover includes surprising juxtapositions of different elements: the baby doll with the malicious face, a face looking out of the sky, the suggestive bend of a neck tie. For some books it might be contrasting colors or fonts. What works best for you, and how can you incorporate the principle into your book cover design?

2. It Connects with Your Audience

The cover tells your audience who the book is for. If the cover resonates, readers feel that they’re understood and that they’re in good hands.

Book cover design tip: Study magazines and blogs directed at your target market for colors, fonts, and design conventions that speak to them in their visual language.

3. It Captures the Mood of the Story

The cover tells the audience how they can expect to feel about the story. If your book is problem-based nonfiction, the story is just as important as for fiction and narrative nonfiction; it just moves the reader directly into the role of protagonist.

Imagine two book covers, each with a red heart on a plain, colored field. On one book, the field is black; on the other it’s pink. What do you know about the contents based on that simple color decision?

Other mood-definers:

  • Whether a person shown is looking at the camera or away. (Toward the viewer is open, engaging; away is mysterious, closed off, possibly hiding something.)
  • The style of the artwork — cartoonish, gauzy, expressionistic, historical, and so on.
  • Fonts — serif, san serif, script, humorous, foreign-looking, and more.

Book cover design tip: What’s your book’s mood? Sunny? Bleak? Heart-racingly fearful? Comic? Study art that captures the mood of your book. Look at the people in the works, as well as the colors and forms. How can you use these structural elements in your book?

4. It Conveys the Type of Story

Genres have their own cover conventions. If I show a dripping dagger and a red lipstick kiss, it says sexy thriller without another word. A cover full of text says “problem-solving nonfiction” more than any picture could.

Book cover design tip: Look at book covers in your genre and find the elements that are present in all or most of them. If you’re in a big genre like science fiction or mystery, be sure to narrow down to your subgenre, because the audiences can be entirely different.

5. It Assures the Buyer that Your Book Is the Work of a Pro

We all know that indefinable something that tells us an object is the work of a skilled artist. It will differ from work to work and audience to audience. One audience’s polished craftsmanship is another audience’s slick sterility. But in either case, present the best work you can create or afford.

Book cover design tip: If you or your good friend has a design background, a “home-made” cover might be a good choice for your book. Otherwise, your marketing budget should include $300 to $3,000 for a book cover (and at the higher end, the price may include interior design as well).

Book Cover Design Tips

The point here is not to discourage independent authors, but to make you aware that independent authors are still competing against the big publishers. There are free-lancers out there creating book cover designs that show you to be a publishing professional, but it takes an upfront investment.

Whichever course your decide, use these book cover design tips to guide your decisions, because your book cover is ultimately your responsibility.

Image: Celeste via photopin cc.


  1. says


    This is an excellent post, covering in depth what is important when designing and planning your book cover.

    I have one tip to add, crucial in this day of online selling: Make sure your book cover is easy to read even as a tiny thumbnail. Online, that is often what a potential buyer will see, and yours may get overlooked if it is too busy, or the typeface too small, to grab attention at such a small size.

    Alina Niemi
    Author of The New Scoop: Recipes for Dairy-Free, Vegan Ice Cream in Unusual Flavors (Plus Some Old Favorites)
    and Lizard Lunch and Other Funny Animal Poems for Kids: With Animal Facts, Puzzles and Fun Activities

  2. says

    Thanks, Alina. That’s a great point that I should have included in the blog post.

    It’s important to look at the final cover at a size of 100 px wide. Many strange things can happen to pictures and fonts when they’re displayed as thumbnails. The best book covers (take a quick look at Amazon) are perfectly understandable at that size, even if all the finest detail and smallest fonts aren’t fully visible.

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