Indie Publishing For International Writers, Step 2: Design Your Cover

This is the second post in my continuing series INDIE PUBLISHING FOR INTERNATIONAL WRITERS, a step-by-step guide to getting your stories into (digital) print. I’ll be doing each step with you, learning as you do, because I’ve never done this before either.


Let’s face it, everyone judges a book by its cover, so if you have a bad one, people may never read your story.  

There are certain conventions in book design. Play with these at your peril. A reader selecting a title with a cartoon blonde in stilettos, overburdened with shopping bags, is not expecting free-form poetry.

If you set false expectations, your sales will suffer.  George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Fire and Ice” nearly never got out of the blocks.  For the first book of the series, “A Game of Thrones”, the designer opted for something a little different (it’s that awful silver one in the centre), and sales were muted.

His UK & Australian publishers went for a more traditional fantasy cover, and the international success of the series convinced the publisher to stick with it. It has since sold 7 million copies worldwide. Design matters.

Every genre has their conventions, whether its science fiction, fantasy, detective novels, or romance.  With literary fiction there is a bit more latitude, and here really anything goes, as long as it doesn’t look too much like a ‘genre’ book.  Make sure you know what is standard for yours.

There is still a stigma attached to self-publishing because a lot of the stuff coming out is poor quality, and looks unprofessional.  Many people are cautious about buying self-published books and you don’t want to put them off before they get a chance to read your writing.

And don’t forget, your self-published work won’t just be up against other indie authors.  You will have all of these guys to compete with too.

If you are a graphic designer, great, otherwise hire one, preferably one with experience of book cover design.  This is one of the few areas where you should spend money (along with editing).  It’s worth it; a bad cover will sink your book.

Most writers know this deep down, which is why many publishing contracts include a clause stating that the author has final approval over the cover.  Unfortunately, the practice is somewhat different.

More often than not, the author is left out of the loop until the final possible moment, and there is a lot of pressure to approve whatever they come up with, that reworking it will cause all sorts of knock-on delays in the publisher’s schedule and nix planned promotional efforts.

Designers simply don’t have time to read every book, often only getting a blurb or synopsis to work from.  While they always try to do their best, they have to get approval on everything from marketing and editing, and this can often result in something that the writer is unhappy with (and can do little about).

When you are self-publishing, you have none of these concerns.  You can do whatever you like.  Nice, isn’t it?

To make sure you end up with something that you are happy with (and don’t have to go back to your designer with endless revisions that will cost you money, and them to hate you), it’s important to give your designer as much information as possible.

Give them a copy of your book (they may only flick through it so give them a blurb too).  Tell them what you are looking for (and don’t say something “fresh”).  Show them copies of covers you like, and those you don’t like.  The more information you can give, the better chance there is the designer will come up with something you like.

You will find great tips on designing your own cover here, and here, but there are two important elements specific to e-book cover design that you must be aware of.

First, your cover must look good as a thumbnail.  Most people will only see your cover on listings such as this.  Those images are pretty small, maybe one inch by half-an-inch, so keep those images clear, the fonts big, and the titles short.

The second thing you need to know is that it must look good as a greyscale image, as many readers will be browsing for books on their Kindles.  So, in short, keep it simple.

Keep those dreams of a radical or ornate design for a print version.  We’re talking about e-books, people, they’re not going to be on anyone’s coffee table.

Now, seeing as I am trying to keep costs down as much as possible, I had my sister, a book cover designer for a UK publisher, do a little moonlighting for me.

That might seem like cheating, but you must try and use whatever advantage you have to do this as cheaply as possible.  The less you spend, the less you have to sell to cover your costs.

Then everything after that is profit.  Forever.  And you want to get to that point as quickly as you can.

In the future, if you are making money, you can pay professional rates for whichever designer you choose, but like any business starting off, and you must think of this as a business, you should aim to keep costs as low as you can.

If you don’t know a cheap way of doing this yourself, Smashwords provide a list of people who will do the cover for you, at reasonable rates.  Always make sure to see samples of their work before you agree anything.

And if you are really on a budget, you can always try sticking a post up at your local art college.  A student designer, keen to build their portfolio, may do the work for free, or at a reduced price, and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Whatever you decide, make sure to stick to simple rules above.  The future of your book depends on it.

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.

15 Replies to “Indie Publishing For International Writers, Step 2: Design Your Cover”

  1. Thanks, David! I’ve been thinking about this very topic recently, and your post really helped me organize my thoughts. Cheers!

    1. Your welcome Will, glad you enjoyed it. The next post in the series will be about editing, why it is so essential, how to go about finding a good editor, and how much it will cost. It should be up in a few days. Check back.

  2. Hi JB,

    I will talk about all the required file formats for each of the retailers in an upcoming post, but to answer question quickly, Kindle accepts jpeg and tiff.

    This is from the Kindle site (the last point is very important):

    Amazon KDP accepts two types of files for cover images:

    • JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group)
    • TIFF (Tagged Image File Format)

    Amazon KDP applies additional compression to images when displaying them on its website. For best results, images should be uploaded with minimal compression.


    Minimum 500 x Maximum 1280 pixels

    Recommendations for the size of your cover art:

    • Minimum of 500 pixels, horizontally
    • Maximum of 1280 pixels, vertically

    Save at 72 dots per inch (dpi) for optimal viewing on the web.


    Product images display on the Amazon website using RGB color mode.
    RGB is the color mode native to the web and most color screen displays. RGB stands for red, green, and blue. These three colors displayed at varying levels of intensity create over 16 million colors.

    The RGB color space is used for product images. Use color images whenever possible and relevant. The Kindle reading device has a black & white screen today but Kindle applications for other devices, such as iPhone or PC, take advantage of colors.

    Borders for White Cover Art

    Cover art with white or very light backgrounds can seem to disappear against the white background. Adding a very narrow (3-4 pixel) border in medium grey will define the boundaries of the cover.

  3. What a great post! Very informative and some great advice. I do want to mention, however, that the site you linked to for examples of romance novel covers (Uncle Walter’s Bad Romance Novel Covers) is just that — BAD covers. lol I don’t know that any aspiring self-publishing author would want to use those works as a template of sorts to fit their story. Unless, of course, they’d like to end up on our blog. 😉

    1. Hi Jennifer, you are indeed correct, it was initially a placeholder until I found a “proper” link, but I think it does the job anyway for showing some of the general conventions of the genre. In any event, romance writers are always romance readers and they will be pretty clued in on the expectations of their genre in terms of covers.

      1. I think you’re right. If they turn to any of our posts as examples to use for their own cover art, well… perhaps they deserve to have a bad cover in that case. lol Either way, knowing what to *avoid* is sometimes just as important as knowing what to look for, too. 🙂

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