Six Things to Consider RE: Book Cover Design

With the number of published books exploding, it’s harder than ever for yours to find an audience.

A professional cover is key to help your book stand out in the crowd. Your cover is an ad for your book. Ideally, it entices readers to click on it or pick it up and read the blurb. A quality cover also shows you take your work seriously. If the cover’s well done, it’s an indication the content within may also be of good quality.

Whether you’re a graphics pro designing your own covers or an author thinking of hiring a designer, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

1) Less is more.


You can’t (nor should you try to) depict your entire work on the cover. Rather than recreating pivotal scenes or including every character, your cover should show a slice of the book—present a central image that hints at the contents. Your cover doesn’t need to represent the entire plot arc; it should represent the idea of your book.

Chip Kidd’s cover design for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is an example of a clean, iconic look that clearly communicates the content without clutter.

2) What does your cover tell readers about your book?

This is where genre conventions come in. The imagery, colors, textures, and type work together to deliver cues to potential readers. You want to make sure they're delivering the right message.

Would you pick up Laura Landon’s The Most to Lose expecting to read a hard-boiled detective thriller? No, and if the book did turn out to feature more gun fights and seedy pool halls than romance, you’d probably feel misled.

The muted color palette, the purple, the model’s dress, and the swishy font all work together to tell readers it’s a historical romance.


If your book is science fiction, you want your cover to “say” science fiction. If it doesn’t, you’re missing out on a chunk of potential readers who are searching specifically for sci-fi. Conversely, if your cover reads as science fiction but your book is actually a romantic comedy, you also have a problem. Not only are you missing out on potential readers, but you run the risk of alienating those who pick up your book expecting a good sci-fi read.

3) Type matters.

Font choices are an important part of communicating genre. The swishy font on the Landon cover signals romance—a thick, blocky font wouldn’t send the same message. On a thriller you expect to see condensed sans serifs like Knockout and Trade Gothic. On westerns, thick slab serifs and rugged historic fonts convey the genre. Romance novels call for flowing scripts and lighter, more elegant typefaces. 

The arrangement of the type is also important. Don’t just slap the title in a text box, apply the font, and call it a day. The title and author name should be carefully placed, sized, and kerned so the text interacts with the imagery to create a cohesive message.

4) Don’t lean too heavily on stock photos.

Unless you’re commissioning a custom illustration, chances are your cover is going to include some stock images. If you want your cover to be unique, it’s important that you don’t rely on a single stock image to carry the design. If an image is strong enough to singlehandedly create a powerful cover, it’s probably already been used on countless other covers, billboards, websites, calendars, greeting cards, and magazine ads for allergy medications.

This is not to say you shouldn’t use stock images. Just find ways to make them your own. Flip them, combine them, deconstruct them, bend them, break them, tint them, replace heads, transplant faces—the possibilities are unlimited.

5) Your cover should stand out as a thumbnail.


If you’re publishing an e-book, readers will likely see it first as a tiny rectangle. Zoom out until the cover is about the size it will be online. Can you read the title? The author name? Does the image stand out and grab your attention? If you don’t have enough contrast on your cover, the type and imagery will blend together, creating an indistinct effect in comparison to the bold colors and large type of the cover next to yours. Which one are readers going to click?

John Green’s Paper Towns shows how an image can be arresting, making you want to know more. Even though the title and author name aren’t huge, they are clearly readable even when the cover is at a small size.

6) …but it should also hold up at a larger size.


So much emphasis is put on the importance of standing out as a thumbnail, that it’s easy to overlook the importance of your cover looking good at a larger size. Ideally, a closer look at your full-size cover should reveal previously unnoticed subtleties. This is especially important if you have a print version of your book, but it's also key for e-books. When readers open up the “look-inside” feature, does the quality of your cover hold up? Is it as intriguing as when it first caught readers’ eyes as a thumbnail?

When you see the cover of Ania Ahlborn’s The Bird Eater, the avian skull on a fork and the bold title work together to grab your attention. When you enlarge the cover, you see that the little gray blobs, barely distinguishable at thumbnail size, are actually feathers, adding to the cover’s creepy effect. The gritty texture of the fork also becomes apparent at a larger size.

Of course, an amazing cover can’t make up for a subpar book. You need to deliver on the promise a good cover makes with a strong blurb, an intriguing plot, and a well-written story. But keep in mind, your cover alone can make readers want to try your book. 

Book Cover Design: A Look Behind the Scenes


I almost spit out my coffee Monday morning when I found out my design for Cargo by Michael Berrier had won the fiction category in the January edition of Joel Friedlander’s e-book cover design awards

Joel had this to say about the cover design: “We’re instantly aware of the drama and tension of the story. A very self-assured design that does a superb job of communicating with readers.”

Thanks, Joel. I appreciate the feedback, and I’m honored to win. This month’s contest had some amazing covers, including a trio of retro throwbacks for the Munch Mancini series designed by Kit Foster and a slick concept for Surfing the Seconds.

I put a lot of work into designing Cargo, but it wasn’t a solo effort. Before I even fired up Photoshop, the author had already put a great amount of energy into communicating his ideas. In addition to providing detailed information about his book (plot, characters, themes, etc.) as well as an excerpt, he also described the tone he was hoping for and provided links to other covers he liked. He even sent along video clips. One showed freestyle climbing—not the style in Cargo but with the same elements of danger—and the other showed the type of rugged mountaineering (think lots of snow, ice, and dark crevasses) that the characters in Cargo endure.

Keeping all this in mind, I went to work.

I wanted a design that featured the main character without showing too much of her face. I usually try to steer away from faces, as they can get in the way of readers forming their own mental picture of the characters. But you can avoid this if you find a way to obscure the features. In this case, ski goggles and a hat seemed appropriate. After hours of searching stock photos for images of a female mountaineer in heavy-duty climbing gear, I was coming up empty-handed. There were plenty of photos of women climbers, but they didn’t convey the grit of the main character in Cargo.

This was actually a good thing because it’s risky to simply pick a stock image and call it a day. Not only does that usually make an ineffective design, but the better the photo, the more likely it is other cover designers have used it. If you spend enough time browsing e-books, especially in a specific genre, you will start seeing the same models—and even the same exact images—cropping up on book after book. So I found several stock images that I could combine into something new.


The book is set mostly on the dangerous slopes of the Andes, so a picture of the mountains was an easy choice. I layered a public domain topographic map of the Andes on the blue ripped paper bar behind the title. To add to the feeling of danger and despair, I gave the author’s name a black ice effect. Finally, to blend the cover together and give it a unified feel, I layered some images of snowstorms and threw in a bokeh effect. After the author approved the front cover, it was simple enough to wrap the design around to the spine and the back.


Overall, I was happy with the final cover. At thumbnail size, the image stands out enough to entice potential readers to click for a closer look. Enlarged, the cover contains enough subtle details to add visual interest and hint at the story inside.

I have Berrier to thank for providing such detailed information about his book to start with. Book cover design is a collaborative process, and the more authors share about their vision for their book, the easier it is to arrive at the right cover.