How To Design A Book Cover That Sells

Book cover design is the arguably most important stage in self-publishing a book, certainly the step with the most impact on marketing. Handle this process with care if you want to give yourself any chance of success.

Without the right cover, no one will give your book a chance, no matter how well-written it is, or how diligent your editor.

This comprehensive guide will break down the anatomy of a great book cover so you know what you’re shooting for, but that’s just the beginning.

It will also show you how to research your specific niche so that you know what readers are already responding to, where to find your very own cover designer and what they might charge, and also how to write a design brief so the cover you get is exactly right for your nichethe secret sauce that many beginners miss.

You will also get options if you are on a budget, and specific guidance if you are one of those libertines who insist on designing their own book cover, no matter how many warning signs are erected along that path.

The Anatomy of a Great Book Cover

The most misleading cliché in publishing is that you should never judge a book by its cover. Because almost every single reader does exactly that.

A great cover can sell a book all on its own but a bad one will sink the most wonderfully written story imaginable.

So far, so obvious.

Here’s where things get tricky: a good cover which doesn’t quite fit your particular book can cause serious problems – ones which are difficult to unwind.

Book covers must be nailed on for their respective niche or they will attract all the wrong readers — something that will hold back the success of your book no matter what marketing magic you conjure forth.

Whether you want to spend on a custom cover, save money with a pre-made cover, or attempt designing your own, it is imperative that you know the respective conventions in your genre; stray from those at your peril.

What does great book cover design look like?

The first mistake authors make is to answer in an artistic sense, rather than a commercial one. Your book’s cover is not an expression of your soul as an artist. It’s a marketing tool – one which should be explicitly designed to get readers to click on it.

And not just any readers, but the right readers.

Remember that most readers will first encounter your cover as a small thumbnail in a retailer’s search results, or as a small image among many in the charts, or as one of dozens of items clamoring for attention on an Amazon product page. Not in glorious, full-size, attention-grabbing hi-res. And certainly not as a giant image which graces the oversized computer monitors that designers tend to favor.

This means that your book cover design should be simple rather than ornate. And it should be striking instead of subtle. As Seth Godin once said, designing an effective ebook cover is like designing a desktop icon – as opposed to than the wraparound hardback of your authorial fantasies.

Also, the idea isn’t to convey every single story element… but you must clearly communicate what kind of book it is. Adding even more difficulty to that tightrope walk is the need to do this in a granular fashion.

This means that your cover shouldn’t just hint at romance, thriller, or fantasy, but should go deeper again and scream paranormal romance, cozy mystery, women’s fiction, epic fantasy, historical adventure, legal thriller, and so on.

These are all distinct niches with their own cover conventions, which must be respected if you wish to sell books. If that’s not a concern, do whatever the hell you like.

I can imagine lots of authors chafing at this advice. This isn’t evidence of publishers or designers lacking imagination, but simple recognition that you have milliseconds to grab a reader’s attention in the fast-moving stream of the internet.

You should use that time wisely and flash up a giant neon sign which screams, “This is the kind of book you love!”

Great book cover design is a bat-signal to its target reader.

Even within sub-genres, there are variances across different niches. For example, a historical romance set in the glens of Scotland might have a burly chap in a kilt wielding a large sword. But a regency romance is more likely to have a silk-gloved lady in an epic ballgown.

You need to know these differences. Or hire a professional.

Even if you do hire a professional, which I strongly recommend, it’s still important to research your niche, to know what is selling, and to brief your designer accordingly – and I’ll show you how to do exactly that in a moment. And if you are designing your own cover, you need to know that stuff inside out.

Book Cover Design Costs

There are just two steps in the self-publishing process where I think it’s really important to spend money. Finding an editor is one, and designing your cover is the other. Just don’t panic when you see some of the prices quoted below — I will give options for those on more restricted budgets.

However, let me also add that you should consider this an investment in your book just as much as it is an expense, should funds allow; you can’t magic money from thin air, alas.

Let me give you some ballpark figures before exploring each option in detail:

  • $300-$500 – the starting price of a good custom cover.
  • $30-$40 – is the surprisingly low floor for a pre-made cover.
  • $0 – DIY costs nothing, naturally, but you might still be paying for software and stock photos, and other stuff like that.

Now let’s look at the pros and cons of each of those options in detail.

Custom Cover (i.e. Hiring A Pro)

Hiring an experienced, professional designer to create a custom cover for your book is easily the best option for all authors… if they can afford it.

Rates vary quite a lot — and the sky really is the limit with the world’s most in-demand designers. However, despite what some unscrupulous and ill-informed types would have you believe, you can get a good custom cover designed for $300-$500.

It will be more again if the design involves buying exclusive rights to a custom piece of art, rather than the more standard stock photo manipulation, but that’s a pretty high-end approach that most beginners can ignore.

Those with real money to burn can go to town here by commissioning an illustration or organizing their own photo shoots, but this is the realm of bona fide bestsellers and we shan’t linger and press our noses against the glass. We’ll dispense with FOMO by telling ourselves that such things can be more hassle than they are worth.

Seriously though, you really can get a good cover in that price band of $300-$500. But to ensure it is 100% dialed in for your niche as well as being competent or pretty, you need to brief your designer correctly – which we’ll get to momentarily.

For my specific recommendation on professional book cover designers who do wonderful custom covers in that price band, grab your free self-publishing guide – which is available from your preferred retailer. And if you work your way through this article, I’ll throw you a marrow-filled bone at the end as well.

“What if I don’t have $300-$500?” you might reasonably ask. Well, you do have options – other than ennui, I mean.

Most authors in this position make one of two mistakes: they either jump right to designing their own book cover, often with terrible results, or they ask a friend who has some design experience… but not book experience.

Before those on a budget turn the air blue, there is a much better idea. One that almost everybody can afford.

Premade Covers

A premade cover can be just as enticing and professional as a custom one, but only costs a fraction of the price – sometimes as little as $30 or $40.

What sorcery is this? Let’s take a look.

Pre-made covers are also professionally designed but are basically spare covers that designers have knocking around. But those can be great quality too. When you get a custom cover, the designer will often offer you a few different mock-ups of your cover, and then only finalize the one you choose. The leftover covers you didn’t select are often then sold as pre-mades at a vastly reduced price.

There are many pre-made cover sites, and quality varies a lot. GoOnWrite.com is consistently the best of the bunch with a huge selection of pre-mades broken down by genre for just $40.

Only downside with pre-mades, aside from being restricted to the selection on offer, is that you can only usually change the author name and title, and that’s it.

No fiddling! You take what you’re given. Of course, you might also have to spend quite a bit of time scouring pre-made cover collections before finding something suitable.

But once you do, the cover is sold just once, to you, and no one else can purchase it.

Just keep in mind that if it is using a stock photo, you may see that photo elsewhere, even in a similar context. The cover design is exclusively yours though – and that’s what you are acquiring.

For something truly unique that costs nothing at all, you can design your own cover. But does that mean you should?

Designing Your Own Book Cover

Hoo-boy. Here’s where you can really get yourself in trouble.

A truly unfortunate mistake that newer self-publishers can sometimes make is not hiring an editor and/or a cover designer, as those tend to be the two biggest expenses… and then spending that money on marketing instead.

Or wasting that money on marketing, I should say. Because you can’t sell a book with a bad cover – no matter what promotional fireworks you drum up.

It’s worth repeating: you are better off scouring pre-made cover sites for something suitable rather than designing your own cover, unless you are an experienced designer. If design is something you merely dabble in, I’d recommend holding off and cutting your teeth on things like promo graphics first – more on those below.

However, I know some resolutely independent authors will disregard such advice, no matter how forcefully I express it, so let me give you some pointers and point you towards my favorite tools.

I still think you should be very cautious – even if you have design experience, there are so many specific quirks to book cover design, and ebook cover design in particular, that even good designers from other fields can slip up on their first go.

Here’s one common pitfall: designers without specific ebook experience can sometimes optimize their design for the print edition, and not realize the ebook edition should take primacy, particularly for self-publishers.

If that sounds strange to you, keep in mind that a typical self-publisher will regularly see 80%-90% of their sales in ebook formats. And where this isn’t true, that’s normally because they haven’t really gotten sales going generally.

Even in the few exceptions where a self-publisher has strong and consistent print sales, readers will still tend to discover their work online, meaning they will usually view that cover first as a small thumbnail among many others.

So, the same rules apply. Keep it simple and striking and communicate that genre quickly and cleanly – and the specific niche within the genre too.

What else? Spend a lot of time on the typography. Good lettering can truly elevate a mediocre cover, and amateur lettering can ruin the most lovely photo or illustration. Some designers do master’s degrees in typography – there’s that much to it, and it’s that important.

Spend a lot of time getting the title and author name right or you will undermine the rest of your design. And when it comes to plastering your name on the front, don’t be shy. Some authors think you have to “earn” a larger font size. This is a holdover from traditional publishing you can – and should – ignore.

Try to make your title and author name legible in thumbnail and make sure your fonts work well together. While a stylized font for your title can work, I generally think a less stylized one for the author name almost always works best, regardless of what you choose for the title.

The same rule applies to lettering as it does to your overall composition and cover generally: look at what’s dominating the charts, and make sure you fit in. Don’t slavishly copy anyone, but don’t look out of place either. The books in the charts are what readers are already responding to, after all. Take time with this research step – I’ll break it down in detail below – and that will really help you nail down some rather important details.

Knowing the differences between niches which I spoke about above assumes even more importance if you design your own covers or promo graphics.

Finally, for any kind of design work you might fancy handling yourself, check out my post on my favorite tools for wrangling promo graphics, which also work well as free book cover design tools.

free book cover design tools

How To Brief A Cover Designer

I recommend following this process whether you are hiring a professional designer for a custom cover, or designing your own – even if you are simply purchasing a pre-made cover.

Going through this process of drawing up a design brief will help you so much when it comes to marketing your book, and will also assist you in generating some crucial assets like your marketing tagline and your blurb – things you don’t want to be scrambling to produce under pressure.

Take the time to do this right, and you will reap the rewards.

The process here somewhat mimics the internal process in a large publisher when an editor is commissioning a cover, with some adaptions made to suit the world of ebooks and self-publishing.

Now, some designers might not want all this information from you, and that’s fine. Many are strictly visual – of course they are – but the process is very useful for both sides anyway. Besides, your designer can (and will) just disregard any extra detail they don’t need.

I recommend saving a document on your computer with all this information, because you will be referring back to it yourself when actually uploading your book to the various retailers, and when creating your marketing campaigns – trust me.

Some of it might sound a little silly… but go with me on this.

Write the following headings into a document, and then try and fill them out according to my directions. Don’t worry if some of this takes time – it really should, if you are doing it properly. And then when you are discussing your cover with your designer, you can just give them the document and they will cherry pick what is useful to them.

Author Name and Title

This is not as obvious as it seems. Presumably you know your own name, but have you checked if it is already in use? You definitely want to do that before paying $300-$500 to slap it on a book cover, because you may need to add an initial, or use something else altogether.

Glomming off a more famous name – intentionally or otherwise – will only end in tears.

While this isn’t the place for a lengthy digression on what makes a good book title, let me just note that you need to have this 100% nailed down before commissioning your cover. Again, you might want to check if your title is in use. While titles can’t be copyrighted, they can be trademarked. It is common for titles to be re-used (says the author of a book called Mercenary), but I’d recommend staying away from re-using a title in the same niche, especially from a recent release.

Here’s something less obvious: is this book a series? Have you picked a series name? That’s something you should do before publishing, and before commissioning your cover.

Keep in mind that different niches have trends and styles when it comes to titles as well. Literary books can be wordier – and I’m sure you’re so surprised to hear that your eyebrows shot right off your face and out the window – and thrillers, to give one example, can often be just one word. Survey your genre, note the commonalities. Non-fiction types especially will need to come up with a sub-title as well – note that Amazon can ding you for using a sub-title which doesn’t appear on your cover.

One final point for those writing a series: one way to ensure strong branding across a series is with the title. If Agatha Christie was self-publishing today, she might have followed up Murder on the Orient Express with Murder on the Eurostar and then Murder on the 10:26 To Chepstow.

Best not to box yourself in with the choice for Book 1. Do a little brainstorming on potential titles for future books as well.

Your tagline

You don’t strictly need a tagline, but trust me when I say that you will find endless uses for one. I personally find the process of generating one quite painful – I don’t have that natural talent for taglines that some authors possess – but it’s always worth it.

When someone asks me what my novel Mercenary is about, for example, I can tell them that it’s the story of “USA’s most famous soldier of fortune, a hard-drinking drifter who changed the face of a nation.” I can then use that tagline on my cover, in my description, in my Facebook Ads, in the sales copy at the back of my books when talking about the other things I’ve written, and so on.

The tagline might come to you first, or it might organically spring forth from the process of writing your description.

Don’t make that face! You actually do need to write your description at this point, and the reason why it’s essential in the cover design process is that those pesky paperbacks require a book description for the back cover.

A lesson most authors learn the hard way when the designer asks them what to put in that space. And then they scramble. And when you scramble, you make mistakes… says the guy who had a goddamn typo on the back cover of one of his books for quite some time.

Yeah. Don’t do that.

Book description

Here’s where you really do need to take the time to look at what’s going on in your genre. But before you even do that, I recommend looking at the book descriptions on Amazon for five of your favorite books. Even better: try and write the descriptions yourself first and then read the descriptions online.

Unless you are preternaturally talented on this front, you should notice the real descriptions are probably leaner and meaner and focusing on the core conflicts of the story.

You should also notice that styles vary a lot depending on the genre. One more reason why you should have good knowledge of what’s happening in yours.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this; I find writing descriptions to be a bore. Worse than that, painful. Something about the process triggers some primeval sense of foreboding, as if I’ll suddenly realize that I have put all my book’s words in the wrong order.

What can I say, I have an overactive-imagination. Just don’t worry if you feel the same way too – it’s normal enough.

Hewing to a formula can help. Most novels are about a hero who wants something and has to overcome some kind of obstacle to get it, and you just need to put some flesh on that story skeleton in an efficient manner. Practice really does make perfect here. That and wine.

Calling in some reinforcements can help. I sometimes trade blurb-writing duties with a friend. She has the emotional distance from my story to boil it down to its core essentials, and I have with hers.

If you need more hands-on help with writing your book description, I recommend staying away from paid services – I can think of at least one which is heavily marketed to authors but the blurbs are really not great.

Read Book Blurbs Unleashed by Robert J. Ryan instead, who is an experienced professional copywriter and knows his stuff.

Target audience

You should at least have some idea who you are writing for. You will get better at defining this as you get more experience and it’s perfectly fine to be vague. Maybe you know enough to say “my target audience is grizzled vets who love action-filled science fiction and tend enjoy themes of brotherhood, honor, and duty.” But it’s also okay to just know your target audience likes small-town sweet romance.

Comp authors

Here you need to be a bit more detailed, and definitely don’t be shy. If you are aiming to pinch readers off E.L. James or Dan Brown, then say so – it’s not public anyway. Knowing who your “comp authors” are is pretty important, and something else that you will return to again and again over your career.

Newer authors can be reticent to say that their comp authors are the likes of Brandon Sanderson or Kristin Hannah.

This isn’t about who you write like or who you think you might outsell one day, for that matter. It’s about the readership you are aiming for.

So if you do write fast-paced, multi-faceted epic fantasy or thoughtful character-driven historical fiction, Brandon Sanderson or Kristin Hannah could well be perfect comp authors for you.

This guide to comp authors should give you some more to work with, should you need it.

How to find your comp authors header image

Book covers you love… and hate

Confession: most designers could ignore almost everything you have generated up to this point, and that’s totally fine – I trust it was a useful exercise for you anyway. And it will help you with this part, which really is important to all designers.

You need to give them a list of book covers that you love. It helps if they are also from the genre you are working in, but if you want to include one or two from outside that which have certain features you like, feel free.

I don’t need to explain why designers might find this useful, but want to add that it’s just as illustrative to include some covers you hate – especially if they represent things trending in your niche that you want to avoid, for whatever reason. For example, when redesigning my non-fiction, I was quite insistent that my designer avoid white covers, because (a) I felt they were overdone in my niche and (b) I think they get swallowed up by the white backgrounds which predominate at the retailers.

Your complete design brief

That’s all the information you need for your design brief. Just send all the above to your designer and let them come back to you with any specific questions. Usually they will mock up a few covers and see which you respond to best, and then finish that one off for you, incorporating any changes you need.

For those scouring pre-made collections instead, this process should help you zoom in on the more suitable covers. And for the intrepid types designing their own… I really hope you spend more time on this part of the process than anyone else.

All of you should quickly run through the final section on print editions and promo graphics, because, if you’re smart, you can get your designer to throw in some very handy extras. And the cheapest and easiest time to do that is when you are commissioning your cover.

Bonus Extras: Paperbacks and Promo Graphics

For a small surcharge most designers will happily include a paperback version of your ebook cover – and if you have followed the steps above, you will be ready to roll on that front too, which gives you the possibility of launching the paperback simultaneously, or at least soon afterwards.

I sell a decent amount of print, but there’s always a huge difference based on how long I take to get that paperback version out – which makes sense. Launch week is when your most passionate fans will be purchasing, and when you will have more attention on your new release.

But don’t worry if you are not ready to actually release the paperback quite yet – designers will usually let you cash in that chit later, when you have all your bits and bobs lined up.

And there’s more.

The time when you’re ordering your book cover is also when you’ll get the best deal on other extras, like promo graphics. For a small additional fee, most designers will be happy to generate graphics for your website, newsletters, or Facebook Page – as well as ads for Facebook and BookBub as well, if you plan on doing those.

The following sizes are useful:

  • 1200×628 if you want the “letterbox” shape for Facebook posts and ads.
  • 1080×1080 for Instagram, and also for that square shape on Facebook.
  • 640×200 is a good size for newsletter banners.
  • 820×360 will work for your Facebook Cover Photo – i.e. the header on your Facebook Page.
  • Various is the only size guide I can give for your website because everyone’s needs there will be different. About as useful as a chocolate fireguard, but there you go.

For those who want to try and create promo graphics themselves – which is an exceedingly useful skill, and one I recommend you develop – I have a variety of video tutorials on my YouTube channel, which will give you a step-by-step on-screen process that you can follow, one that will work for almost any book.

I have a bunch of these on my channel but here’s the latest one covering ad graphics for both Facebook Ads and BookBub Ads.

For either platform, and for your graphical needs in general, I strongly recommend asking your designer to give you the file for your book cover with the lettering removed.

This “blank” cover will enable you to use the cover art for all sorts of promotional graphics, not just ads. Designers should provide that free, so there’s no reason not to get it.

Book Cover Design Checklist

That was a lot of info and it’s all important, but let me summarize what you need to do in a handy checklist.

  • Understand what makes great book cover design – ebooks especially.
  • Know your niche – spend time on this or I will personally scold you.
  • Decide between a custom cover, a pre-made, or DIY.
  • Compile your design brief and don’t skip any of the recommended steps!
  • Communicate all this to your designer if you are going the custom route.
  • Commission your extras or DIY – you will need them either way.

And that’s it!

Please feel free to ask your questions in the comments – I do want to help you all get the very best covers you can for your books; it’s such an important step that far too many get wrong.

And if you want a recommendation for a really good cover designer who works in a range of genres but is still very competitively priced, try Deranged Doctor Designs who will do your ebook and paperback and audiobook for just $360.

Feel free to recommend your cover designer in the comments. But please note the genre so the recommendation is more useful for everyone, definitely link to their site if you can… but no self-promotion, please.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.


71 Replies to “How To Design A Book Cover That Sells”

  1. I’m about to redo my covers for my series – 5 books to date and the sixth to be released later in the year, so it’s an eye-watering decision. Especially since the originals were all custom and cost me a good few pennies. But they have never been on genre. My fault – I had no idea what good cover design was about nor how to brief the designers – which meant the covers looked nice enough but simply didn’t work.

    My other problem is that the books encompass several genres and although they are primarily fantasy/sci-fi , they don’t fit snugly into that genre (take a serving of the ancient past with crystal skulls, benevolent extra-terrestrials & Atlantis and weave through it the secondary modern-day story of a woman caught up in this) . Researching covers on Amazon, none seem to reflect the feel of this.

    Help please. Where do I go from here? All suggestions gratefully received.

  2. Great post as usual, David. I have a question. This topic sent me back to your book Let’s Get Digital where you say “Your cover will go in two places—your book’s page on the Amazon site and inside the ebook itself”, with the high-res version being the one that goes on the Amazon site and the low-res version going in the book itself (if my understanding is correct). So … where exactly do you upload the low-res version that gets shipped with the book? I presume it’s got to somehow become part of the .MOBI file, right? Since my book manuscript is simply a Microsoft Word document (written with MS Styles) that I intend to turn over to a formatter/converter wizard (since, in the words of Clint Eastwood, “Man’s got to know his limitations”): Do I just hand my formatter person the low-res version and say “Oh, and here’s the cover art, which I’m sure you know what to do with”? Does it go in the ePUB file similarly?

  3. Ironically, I paid for professional covers for my first series and am creating them for my second series myself. Since I didn’t understand how to say what I needed (also the reason I cut my own hair) and didn’t understand about getting it to fit the genre right, I suspect that has been holding me back and I’m contemplating redoing the covers myself. I’m doing the covers myself for my second series and while the covers for my first series were pretty, I can already see where my second series covers will work better. They fit the genre more and look more professional, cleaner, again ironically.

    1. Some cover designers definitely need more specific instruction to nail the right look for a particular genre, and I’m glad you found a solution that works for you on the second go-round (but I suspect you also would have struggled with that approach had you opted for it with the first series).

  4. Thanks David, an inspiring post. My prehistoric adventure is having it’s final draft edited, so I’m beginning to look at a cover design to illustrate its genre. Although I’m a designer, I work in a separate field entirely, and it is increasingly clear that my skills don’t translate to book cover design. I think I need to seek professional help. Your post, and the comments it generated, have therefore been welcome.

  5. So I went to Amazon and had a nice look at several ‘best sellers’ lists under the broader ‘fantasy’ category.
    They all looked different as far as I could tell. UF seemed to have fairly consistent conventions, ie color, font, person on cover vs landscape or graphics. But other sub-categories not so much. I’m looking at myth and legends, and coming of age and finding a broad mix of graphics, landscapes, color schemes, and people. Even the typography is all over the board. I don’t even know where to start beyond picking out a few book covers I like.

    I’m all for hiring someone, but I don’t even know where to start looking. Totally confused.

    1. Well, I think you have picked a couple of odd sub-categories there because Myths & Legends and Coming of Age aren’t really organic niches – more like kind of strange sub-categories which Amazon came up with.

      Perhaps I could so with some visual examples above but it becomes a bit clearer if we look at more organic niches/sub-categories/sub-genres that readers really do recognize:

      Urban Fantasy covers definitely have a distinct feel, as you noted.

      Epic Fantasy covers often have a dragon or a fantastical cityscape or a group of people who are questing in one form or another and use a very different selection of fonts and color palette.

      Dark Fantasy will of course have darker themes and a darker palette.

      Space Opera will usually have a planet or a spaceship hurtling through the cosmos and determinedly futuristic font choices.

      Historical fiction will go the other direction of course, and will use not just fonts but either an object in the foreground or a historical painting or photograph or tableau to immediately reference a specific time period in the past.

      And so on. You don’t need to know all of these, but it does help to understand cover conventions in your niche and in your genre generally.

      If it’s not immediately apparent to you, just slow down and steep yourself in the covers for your genre – it can take time to learn your genre and its individual quirks, and that’s fine. It’s always time well spent.

  6. Great Post David.
    I’m in the position of not having the resources to be able to go with a custom design, one day maybe.
    I made the mistake in the beginning of ‘slapping anything up’ and guess what? They didn’t sell!
    Seeing nothing happen at all even running ads with AMS taught me to go back to the drawing board and rebuild, I use Canva now (tried Bookbrush and didn’t like it) but often ‘play’ with a photo in ‘Paint 3D’ first (it’s amazing how much just changing the tint in a photo changes it)
    I’m still learning, but boy do I enjoy building the covers!
    Thanks again for the information.
    Lawrence

  7. I generally (99% of the time) agree with you about hiring a pro for a cover and have been known to pay top of the scale for a cover. However, it can depend on the subgenre. I write some historical mysteries and have yet to find a designer who can do a cover that I think fits that subgenre. It doesn’t help that historical mystery covers are all over the place. It is hard to pin down what makes a cover look like a historical mystery, especially a medieval one. Thank God for Canva Pro. I never thought I would do my own covers there but that makes it possible. I am still not a cover designer by a long shot, but I seem to have come up with some covers that at least work and don’t scare the horses.

  8. Thanks for the great post, David! I completely agree that all indie authors should invest in a professional book cover and spend time on creating the brief for designer. I’d like to recommend MiblArt – https://miblart.com/. These guys are very professional and affordable, I’ve done all my covers with them and they just rock!

  9. Hi David

    Thank you for this article, which is extremely helpful.

    I’d just like to enter a caveat about picking a designer through Fiverr. I have had a terrible experience with one, and I did my research – checked the reviews, checked his/her previous work, did everything I’d ever read I should. Unfortunately I misunderstood my contractual position – I thought that because I’d hired the artist I was legally obliged to pay the agreed sum regardless. I ended up paying £150 for a final article that included a copy and paste of a sketch of one of the characters I’d sent the artist to illustrate the type of dress I wanted her to be wearing – and I can hardly draw a straight line with a ruler! Costume designs (“something like Lord of the Rings” I said) were lifted straight out of the LOTR promotional photos. I’d sent photos of various people with the sort of face/expression I wanted for other characters and they were photoshopped in as well; the only one I didn’t specify a face for ended up with a photoshop of Elon Musk!

    By the black and white stage it was already apparent that it was a farce, but I thought I had to pay anyway, so I gave the go-ahead to colour, praying there would be some improvement. Needless to say, after the picture seemed to have been printed out and filled in with coloured pencils, the farce had become a tragedy. Heartbroken – I’d gone for the best I could afford and had no money to go elsewhere – I paid up. I just wanted to get it over and done with.

    Too long afterwards I complained to Fiverr and they said I shouldn’t have paid if I wasn’t happy – but although I’d complained repeatedly during the earlier stages of the project, all they’d said was that I had to go back to the artist and get it amended. Nobody said I didn’t have to pay if the end project was terrible! I even tried to get some money back via PayPal, after being advised by Citizens Advice that I had a case with the article being ‘unfit for purpose’, but they didn’t want to know.

    I know this hardly reflects any glory on me, but I’d like to feature as a Grisly Warning. Even going for a decent-looking artist whose charges seem appropriate for the quality of work you want done can backfire – seriously!

  10. Good stuff as always, David! I’m hiring a PA and the first couple weeks of his employment are basically going to be spent reading through your entire blog. <3

  11. Thanks for this article. Working on 3 projects at the moment and beginning to envision covers. One of the problems I’ve had when looking for a designer to hire is that their websites include a form for the brief. The forms ask questions like which colors the author wants, and asks for images the author would like to use. They are the f#$ing designers. I want to tell them the genre, sub genre, target audience and plot & theme, and have them come up with color, and an image or icon. Usually the forms have a final open field like this one where I can attempt to communicate the above. Generally, that is met with suggestions that I submit covers from other authors that I like. As you said above in your post, the cover is not art, it is marketing. I’ll give Deranged Doctor Design a try. Thanks again for posting

  12. One thing I’ve always been aware of are the different cultural expectations when it comes to book covers, particularly with respect to US and UK covers. Assuming self-publishing and an increasingly global market hasn’t kicked all that in the nuts, that is.

    Many, many years ago I worked in a science-fiction bookshop, and the difference between the US and UK editions of books could be quite startling. US covers for instance more often prominently featured a character from the novel, whereas this wasn’t necessarily the case at all with UK editions, which tended to focus more on landscapes or simpler – one might even say, more subtle – designs.

    I came across an article – it’s old, but it’s informative – that talks about these differences: http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=columns&vol=carol_pinchefsky&article=002

    With Amazon and other online retailers, you can’t have a cover for one market and another for another market – which is actually a good thing, because then we’d all be worried about having to pay twice as much for two covers rather than just one.

    Although I’ve had traditionally published books out in the UK, overall I’ve made very little penetration of the US market, and that’s led me to wonder if it would be worth sticking with UK designers who are likely to be more familiar with the British design culture and audience expectations. But then again, there’s a quite limited number of good quality UK book cover designers I’ve been able to find compared to the US.

    Another option is to take a look at the quality small presses, find a cover you like that fits your genre and track the artist down. That’s worked for me in the past.

    I know that some people are a bit leery of fiverr.com when it comes to hiring designers, but I’ve actually had a pretty good experience of it. The cover of a short story collection I self-published only cost me about a tenner and that book performed far beyond my expectations. And it looks great.

    The trick with fiverr, I find, is to run your own search on sites like shutterstock for appropriate stock art and send a designer a link to that art, along with a brief description of what you’re looking for (pretty much the same thing you suggest above) and if the results aren’t that great, well, it only cost you literally a couple of quid.

    So far I’ve had great results. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I always made sure to pick the designers who had the most positive reviews, sometimes thousands of them. I also used fiverr designers for book magnets and that worked out pretty well.

    It really depends on what kind of book you’re writing. If you’re writing straight-up space opera, it’s relatively easy to find generic but acceptable art if you’re on a really, really tight budget. If you’re writing something a bit more nuanced, getting a good cover out of fiverr might be a lot harder.

    That said, I’ve spent £200 on a cover from a UK designer and $350 on a cover from a US designer, and the results were magnificent.

    1. That’s a really good point, Gary. I grew up in Ireland where we mostly got UK editions and the fantasy I was weaned on was the likes of David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist and so on. I was really surprised to see just how different books looked when I first went to America – fonts, compositions, illustrations all had a different style.

      As I started getting into publishing, and seeing how much of the industry was driven by gut-based decisions – sometimes very well-informed guts, but guts none-the-less! – I began to wonder if it really was the case that UK and US readers responded better to different imagery and fonts, or whether it was the case of a little bit of tail-chasing… just different tails.

      I still don’t know the answer to that. You do see more “global” covers these days, and the more American trends dominating, but I also wonder if that is more down to authors tending to sign away world rights these days and having the same publisher in English globally. I’m sure there are smart people at the likes of Orbit and Tor who have thought about this as well.

      On that note, there’s an interesting story about Game of Thrones and GRRM where his US hardback publisher almost tanked the series on launch. They had spent quite a bit acquiring it and went all out with this fancy silver leaf embossed cover… that audiences didn’t respond to at all. It was a bit literary really and just didn’t hit the mark. The UK publisher saved his bacon (ironically with a more US kind of character focused style) and the success of that Commonwealth edition convinced the US publisher to try something very different with the paperback, and that turned out to be a smash. Things could have been very different!

      You have my brain whirring now, because you probably could answer this question quite conclusively, if you were willing to spend a bit of money and do some split tests on Facebook and compare the results of US versus UK readers, although even that will be skewed by what has gone on before, and rather powerful forces like nostalgia.

      I should note that I’m certain there are cultural differences feeding into this stuff, I’m just not clear how big those are and whether we overplay them or not.

      Thanks for the link! Some great examples there. Funnily enough, the Robert Jordan editions that hooked me were illustrated covers – possibly the same cover artist as teh US but with more UK-style demure fonts.

  13. Very helpful information! Just one question. When you say to ask your designer for your book cover file with all the lettering removed, what lettering are you talking about? Sorry if it’s a dumb question. Thanks!

  14. One comment: Cover trends change. It pays to revisit how a cover compares to others in your genre periodically.
    I design my own, so it’s easier for me to do this.
    (I have design experience, know the tools, and most of all, I keep it simple. And I still worry about doing my own. I’m a former journalist, and I pay for editing because you need to have professional editing even when you are a professional editor. I worry that cover design is no different.)
    When I do a new release in a series, I consider whether the covers need updating.
    Case in point. I have a thriller series with white covers. Always risky. But last August, I ran a successful promo with book 1 for the release of book 2 and hit the top of the free charts with it. 30 percent of the other top covers were white backgrounds. So it stood out, but wasn’t out of bounds.
    But I’m running a booksweeps promo this week with that book, and out of 50+ covers, it’s the only white cover. And so I’m considering a remake for the series for the release of book 3 in June. Thank God for Canva pro.

  15. Just used Marianne at PremadeEbookCoverShop.com, and she did a great job on my romance novel cover, reasonable price for custom cover.

  16. For the DIYers out there, I’d like to recommend Affinity Publisher, Photo and Design. I’ve recently switched from a creaky old version of InDesign and a feature-limited PhotoShop Elements 9.0 (the latter a freebie with my Wacom tablet).

    Affinity works on Windows and Mac, as well as IOS. I’m very picky when it comes to software, and these tools are a pleasure to use.

    I’m nothing to do with the company, I’m just a very happy end-user.

  17. In case the date of the comments confuses anyone: this article is almost completely new but was published over the bones of one from 2011 for various technical reasons I won’t bore you with (It was called the Anatomy of a Book cover – so one section does still reflect that original content, if you are curious!).

    I will be refreshing a lot of the evergreen posts on this blog in a similar way as there are some really valuable posts like this that are a quite buried right now. It’s part of an overall overhaul of this blog in 2021 to make the best content easier to find. Just FYI.

    Comments are still open though (scroll all the way down for the box), so feel free to share your thoughts!

  18. I redesigned my book cover a few months ago, and am about to go live with the paperback; so far, my cover’s been well received. I’d like to give a shout-out to Joey Rosa for his technical wizardry, as well as his assistance with some design decisions; please see the attached link for the cover, and I hope you enjoy!

    http://www.amazon.com/First-Cause-Possibility-Terranaut-ebook/dp/B004XQV7ZE/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2
    PW

  19. Fabulous post, David. Thank you for sharing it. The part where you mention crowdsourcing – sharing your cover ideas with the online community, I think that’s a great idea. After all, you never know what people will think of your book cover until you put it out there. It’s a good way of sharing your book too.

  20. Bingo, David.
    Family rules. My designer is my daughter who is an award-winning graphic designer and I could almost track ever step we make in your own steps with your sister. I think the phrase ‘long suffering’ has great resonance as well as our designer rellies put up with us. But I trust my daughter’s vision, her empathy and most of all her ability.
    She was also instrumental in publicity (bookmarks, press releases, ads in specialist mags, and in working with the book trailer where needed). In respect of the book trailer for my first book I was also lucky to have available family as my brother is one of the Directors and a cameraman for a post-production house and was prepared to do a bit of work at home to help me get a trailer together. But on reflection, I would have to publicise a trailer far better than I did in the past to get the hits. I’ve learned an awful lot since 2008-09.
    My daughter and I discuss concepts but inevitably I leave most to her as she is a designer… I am a writer. We have a business arrangement but I get a good family cut. Professionally she would charge a recommended fee and frankly justifiable I think. You want quality? You pay for it.
    Thanks for this. It is a great post…

  21. I was going to ask if your sister did freelance work, but you beat me to it with the answer. 🙂 I’d also have asked the same question Jen did about how much discussion one usually gets to have with a hired designer. Thanks for posting all of this – the amount I’ve learned through reading your blog is tremendous.

    1. Hi Elisabeth,

      It’s not that she wouldn’t take on a project at all, she is just too busy at the moment for anything outside the day job. But I always tell her when someone is interested, and she is thinking about drawing up a price list for the occasional project. She wouldn’t be cheap, but she is very good.

      Dave

    2. Most designers will do plenty of back and forth…if you are willing to pay for the extra time. I had one extra mock-up done of my cover before I made my decision, which resulted in an extra 30 mins of her time ($40).

  22. You have one cool sister, David!:) Though I’m partial to faerie tales, I think the cover for ‘Transfection’ really hits one between the eyes. Hmmmm, now am thinking hard about spending money on cover design and editing for my full-length fantasy novels. I plan to release them towards the end of the year, so I have time to get them professional edited etc but though I know inside how important it would be to invest in these two aspects of self-publishing, I can’t bring myself to shell out the dough just yet. You’re on the way to convincing me though:)

    So far I’ve been relying on BookCoverPro software for my poetry and short stories and – funnily enough – my sister’s artistic tendencies have been of immense help:DD Blogged about my cover designing process last month actually – if you’re interested to check out a DIY approach (with all its admitted failings:D), do have a look at this post: http://isabellaamaris.blogspot.com/2011/06/i-was-reading-through-some-posts-in-my.html. Cheers.

    1. hmmmm, okay now I’m leaning towards the ‘Into The Woods’ cover… it really is intricately designed… and that bird somehow manages to look cute and chilling at the same time lol really good work…

      1. It’s all about the red eye. She spent quite a bit of time on that alone, testing different sizes and shapes. It’s those little details, barely noticeable, that make a cover really good.

    2. Thanks Isabella – I’ll look at that link now.

      Put it this way. The #1 reason people buy a book is because they read something by the author before and enjoyed it. The #2 reason was a recommendation. The #3 reason was cover.

      Out of those three, the cover is the only thing in your direct control.

  23. Of course you know I’m your sister’s number 2 fan (I only concede number 1 status to you being the brother and all) :).

    Great post . I loved seeing how the design thought process went and also what to expect to provide a designer is good to know for the future.

    1. Heh.

      I think the more information you can provide your designer with, the more likely you are to arrive at something you are happy with. Show them covers you like (and explain what you like about them) and show them covers you don’t (and what bothers you). Give them lots of links. Designers often think a lot more visually than writers, I think it helps them when you can boil your story (and what you want reflected on the cover) down to a few words. They may read your blurb and/or story and draw out different elements than that you wish to highlight, so be specific.

      Dave

  24. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes info. Being an illustrator (in addition to writing), I’m a HUGE cover nerd and love to see any discussion involving the process.

    I love your sister’s work. I like the “Into the Woods” cover even more. Did she draw the art for that one? It’s one of my favorites.

    1. Hey David,

      That’s a collage she put together of several modified shutterstock images, with some extra effects and layers she did herself. I have so little knowledge of the technical side, that I don’t even know if I am using the right words here!

      The actual discussion, of course, had a lot saltier language. But this is a reasonable representation!

      Dave

  25. so totally helpful, thanks, David, especially the process, and something I wouldn’t think of: using social media for feedback. Yes, I’d love more posts in a similar vein, regarding the process you used with beta readers and/or editors. I would also like to hear a ballpark figures regarding out of pocket costs to self publish, since few of us have such talented cover designers in the family.

  26. I think a great cover is even more important on an ebook than a print book. I’ve been doing an Ebook Success series on my blog, and the section on Cover Art turned into 4+ parts because there was a lot to say about this simple element (simple, not easy).

    Isn’t it great to have an artist to do your covers? My daughter who is a graphic artist does mine.

    Best wishes,
    Joan Reeves

    1. Hey Joan – I’ll check out that series – sounds interesting.

      And you’re right – in many ways, a great cover is more important for an e-book. The bookshelf is much bigger and you need to work harder to grab the reader’s attention.

  27. Wow. Thanks for a look at this process. Very interesting and informative. Wish I had a sister who did graphic design! Do you think/know if people who hire a cover designer have as much back and forth as you did with your sister? And would a hired designer dig in her heels and come up with the best cover possible rather than “settling”? Somehow I doubt it. I’m guessing you’re extra blessed because your sister can say “Not yet!” and you’ll listen, eventually. Whereas I assume a hired designer would be more likely to just go with what author wants/is happy with.

    1. Hey Jen,

      Others will have to chime in with their experience, but I doubt there is this much back-and-forth, and I doubt that most designers would go through as many iterations before the client was happy. She lets me in on the process, and shows me where she is at each stage – I doubt most designers would even want their clients seeing every mock up.

      However, I thought it would be helpful to document the thought process.

      Dave

      1. Oh, it’s incredibly helpful. Especially to those of us doing or pondering doing it ourselves. To see the evolution of a book cover design is really so very helpful. I was just “thinking out loud” about what a lucky situation you have.

    2. My designer (Robin Ludwig) makes it clear she’ll try to find a balance between giving a writer what they want and being honest about something not working. After all, a crappy cover with her name in the credits hurts her business. A spectacular cover will go into her online portfolio.

      So I’d say don’t discount the professionalism of designers who want to put out a good product as much as you do.

      1. I’m not discounting the professionalism of designers at all. That cover that David liked best is not what I would ever call a “crappy cover.” And I would think any designer would not feel that cover would hurt her business. I just love that David’s sister was so adamant that it wasn’t quite right yet, and I wonder if a hired designer would push it in the face of an author who argued it was just what they wanted.

      2. My hunch is that a lot would depend on the relationship between the designer and the writer and their respective personalities. How much you are paying could be a factor. If you are paying basement rates I can’t see the designer going the extra mile.

  28. Great post! Recognizing crap is a gift. I’m still honing mine. *s* And yep, I’ve got some covers that need a re-do, even though they’re selling very well.

  29. I loved this post. I think that MOST people really should have a professional do their covers. I am not a graphic artist or a cover artist. Could I figure it out? Yes. But would it be friggin’ awesome? No. It would be ok. Maybe. And that just isn’t good enough.

    One of the keys, I think, is what you pointed out about genre. Your cover MUST reflect genre. I can’t tell you how many indie writers I’ve come across asking for cover feedback who have good covers, but which don’t match their genre. Just today a woman (insistent on doing her own covers) couldn’t understand a reviewer’s feedback on her cover. She liked her cover. And it was nice. A pretty ocean view with the title in nice big letters. It was a very lovely non-fic inspirational cover.

    Except her novel was a paranormal thriller.

    Yeah, big fat problem.

    The people giving positive feedback were all other authors who weren’t genre fans. They did her no favors. Her cover, quite frankly, sucked. Not because it was bad, but because it didn’t fit the genre. Not a single genre fan, myself included, liked her cover. And ALL of us agreed we’d never pick up her novel because we’d have no idea it was a paranormal thriller until we read the blurb. And THEN we’d think, “Oh, sucky indie cover.”

    Yeah, it’s like that. And we’re all indies so we know better.

    But back to Transfection. I remember when you posted the covers on Twitter. Minute I saw that cover I KNEW that was the one. It just SCREAMED old school SciFi. I was thrilled when you ended up choosing it. And I loved seeing it’s various incarnations. Your sister rocks.

    1. Hey Shea,

      You hit the nail on the head. “Ok” isn’t good enough. Some indies seem to think that they are only competing against each other, as if the rest of the publishing world doesn’t exist. They need to realise that they are competing against every single book out there in their genre, and THOSE are the standards on which they will be judged – not just for covers, but for writing, editing, formatting, the whole deal.

      Another writer I know had a big smash with her first book. The second didn’t do as well. The cover was beautiful, stunning actually, but it pegged the genre wrong and threw off her target audience. She changed it recently to something more fitting and sales jumped. This really matters, and I wrote about it a good bit in my book.

      Dave

      1. In a word, Dave: WORD!

        It’s sooo important to get everything right. Not just ok, but spot on. Professional. Because whether anyone likes it or not, we ARE competing against traditional writers with the power of the Big 6 behind them. That’s life. Deal.

  30. Another excellent post. One of the key things here, I think, is the importance of crowd-sourcing. It’s very easy to get too attached to one design or the other without considering other opinions–and the more important ones at that of potential buyers.

    1. Thanks Brondt.

      That’s exactly what happened. I became attached to one design, and I couldn’t see the attraction of the alternate. Crowdsourcing helped me step back and see it as others did. Then I got it. And you’re right, I could see that my target market (science nuts, SF fans) clearly favored the other design.

      I tried it again with a mock-up of the cover for “Let’s Get Digital” (you can see an early version here: http://i1091.photobucket.com/albums/i381/dgaughran/Picture62.png ) and I got some great feedback – especially on the subtitle (up top) that wasn’t working. It’s better now – all thanks to crowdsourcing.

  31. As I’ve mentioned before, the covers give away a LOT of self-published work for me. There are so many cover designers out there working at a very reasonable price. I just don’t think saving $50-$150 is worth putting out an inferior package that will stereotype the book in a reader’s mind before they even check out the blurb or the sample.

    I won’t ever show anyone the crappy stuff I came up with when I tried to design my own cover, and that’s with some college art classes and software experience in my background. What I started out with and what my designer did for me was the difference between a child’s crayon drawing and a masterpiece. Just about every piece of fan email I’ve received has mentioned the cover, usually as the first thing that caught their eye and got them to look at the blurb & sample.

    The one thing I did bring to the process was a clear understanding of the visual cues readers expect for my genre. I was limited to available, affordable stock photos, but we did what we could to stick to the genre (save putting the tramp stamp butt shot on the cover, of course).

    1. Hey Margo,

      I agree. And you have a great cover. It ticks all the boxes. An arresting image that looks good in thumbnail, the genre is clear from first glance, the picture is intriguing and engaging (and fitting), and the reader knows exactly what they are getting (and there are lots of subtle cues on the content).

  32. Ha, it would help EVERY self-publisher to have a sister who just happens to design book covers for one of the EVIL New York publishers! 😉 The question is, how are you allowed to talk to her if she works for the enemy!?!?!

    Yes, that’s all snark… I’m still pondering this “us vs them” thing a lot of self published authors have going on…. and I bet you of all people probably recognize that a lot of very good, very talented people work at the EVIL New York publishers. 🙂

    1. It would certainly help every self-publisher to have my sister design their covers! Unfortunately, she doesn’t freelance.

      For sure there are a huge amount of smart, talented people working at publishing houses. Most of the advice I give in terms of actually producing books is some version of “look at the great books coming from New York and London. Copy them.” Their problem lies in their business model, not in their production standards.

      I know people working in most different parts of publishing and they are all very good at their jobs. But sometimes (and I’m most certainly not speaking of my sister here), they aren’t allowed to do their jobs.

      Also, all editors will have stories about books they wanted to publish but sales and marketing said no. All agents will have stories about great books they couldn’t sell to publishers. All booksellers will have stories about great books they couldn’t sell to the public. It happens. Life goes on.

      1. Your sister has awesome skills! Use them as much as she’ll allow because a great book cover can make all of the difference in the world. 🙂

        I think being an editor in New York is one the most frustrating jobs in the business these days unless you are one of the lucky few who has your own imprint and writes your own checks. EVERY editor has had to pass on a book they loved because someone else said no — and it happens a lot more today than it used to. EVERY book has to be on a “hot” topic (will that topic be hot in 12 to 18 months??) or have “bestselling potential.” It’s a real shame.

        By the way, your attitude is one of the best things about your blog. There are a lot of people advocating for self-publishing, but most take the “screw the bastards in New York for not recognizing how amazingly brilliant I am!” attitude, which I find to be a big turn off. You understand why the business works sometimes and why it doesn’t work other times.

        I’m still betting that you sell more copies of LET’S GET DIGITAL than you’re expecting or even hoping for…

      2. That attitude is around a lot.

        Sometimes it’s justified. If you have had a long career in trade publishing, and have now made the switch, I think you are entitled to kvetch as much as you like about “clueless New York types” if you have been screwed over or dropped like a stone, and then proved them wrong with stellar self-publishing sales.

        But that’s not me. I’m just another writer who couldn’t crack the system. I’m not going to piss and moan about agents who rejected me and declare the whole system broken with my unrecognized genius being Exhibit A, but I will point out flaws in their business model. For me, it makes sense right now to pursue self-publishing on an artistic and a business level. That may change. Who knows what’s around the corner?

        I do think everyone should try self-publishing. Even if it’s only a short or a trunk novel that you could never sell, but you think is good enough. I do that because I think it would behoove every writer to learn this stuff, and because for certain projects, self-publishing is really the best way to go.

        But it’s not an ideology for me. I applaud when indies get a trade deal (if it’s a good one), just as I applaud when a trade published writer decides to take a risk and go it alone. I think there is a lot of false opposition between trade publishing and self-publishing. It’s all publishing, and there are lots of writers doing both – something that will become more common, not less common.

        I support more choices for writers. What they choose is up to them.

  33. This is a fantastic post. Thank you, David — and your sister! — for letting us peek behind the scenes. I loved seeing the evolution of this design. One of the biggest complaints about indie authors is the number of less than stellar covers, but you’ve proven that high quality is not just the purview of NY publishers. Very nice. 🙂

    1. Hi Angela,

      I think cover design is crucial, and indeed it’s the third most important stated reason for readers in choosing a book. A good cover designer isn’t free, but they won’t break the bank either, and I think if you have spent all that time writing a good book, you should give it the best possible chance to find its audience.

      Dave

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