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: The Back of the Book Matters

The back cover layout for The Bean Trees.

It goes without saying that the cover of your book is key. Some informative blog posts have addressed techniques for creating an effective front cover, but an often overlooked aspect of book cover design is the back of the book.

You might ask, does the back of the book even matter? When buying an indie print book, readers are usually shopping online, where they’re most likely judging the book by its front cover.

The back cover layout for Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides.

However, most books on Amazon have the “look inside” feature, allowing the potential reader to view the back of the book before ordering. Not to mention, once your book arrives, the back layout can color readers’ expectations as much as the front cover. And what about books you order yourself to sell at events? Your book is your product, reflective of your author brand; you want it to look as professional as possible.

The back cover layout for The Good Girls Revolt.

We’ve all seen off-putting back cover layouts—those books you flip over and can immediately tell are self-published. A sprawling, hard-to-read blurb screams amateur and can make readers second-guess their decision to pick up the book.  

When designing the back of your book (whether it’s a DIY project or you’ve hired a professional), consider the following:

1) The back cover should have some sort of design that mirrors the tone of the front cover without distracting from the content. While you’re not aiming for the dominant, eye-catching quality of the front cover, you also don’t want a clunky layout that looks like it took two minutes to throw together in MS Paint. Smaller images, textures, frames, and flourishes can add a sense of design to the back without overwhelming the text. Depending on the layout, sometimes the design from the front can wrap around to the back, creating a unifying effect. Sometimes the back cover offers a chance to adapt concepts that looked good but didn’t quite work for the front cover.

2) The text must be legible. And not only that, it should be attractive and inviting. Common mistakes include:

  • Making the type too large (looks clumsy) or too small (hard to read). Generally, it’s best to keep your type between 8 and 12 points. Resist the urge to increase the size of your type until it fills the page. Without some room to breathe, your blurb looks like a chore to read.
  • Setting the copy in all caps (hurts readability and makes the reader feel like they are being SHOUTED AT). You can use all caps effectively if they are limited to the opening sentence or first few words of your blurb. Enlarging the first letter of the first word (drop cap) can also give your copy some punch.
  • Using a hard-to-read font. Though it might be tempting to use a gimmicky typeface, it’s best to stick with the classics for back cover copy unless you really know your stuff. Your font choice should reflect the tone of your book without drawing too much attention to itself. Remember that the most important factor is legibility, which requires contrast between the type and background. White type on a dark background can be effective and attention-grabbing, but it can make smaller type (especially serif fonts) indecipherable.  

3) You don’t want your back cover to be crowded, but it should have some substance. Look at the backs of traditionally published books (which have trained readers to expect certain content). Include an author bio to let readers know more about you. Consider an author photo (and don’t forget to include the photo credit). Adding your website can help readers find you online.

4) If you’re fortunate enough to have review quotes, include those on the back cover (unless you’re using them on the front). The stronger the quote, the more it should stand out.

5) Then there are the nuts and bolts of a back cover: barcode, category, cover design credit. Readers might not notice these, but their presence gives the subconscious message that your book is professional.

6) If you’re self-publishing under your own press, include the name (and website?) of your imprint. If you can hire someone to design a logo for your press so you can include that on the back, even better.

7) The spine is also important. Don’t just slap on the title and author name. Design the spine in a way that complements the rest of the cover and can catch readers’ eyes from a distance.

Indie authors often don’t have all the back cover content that a traditionally published book has, but that doesn’t mean your back cover has to be empty. Be creative. I’ve seen self-published authors include thumbnails of their other books or QR codes for their websites. The key is to remember that readers expect a professionally designed back cover (and spine) as well as the front. Spend some time on it. 

Here's one of Bookfly's recent full cover designs (Pivot, by L.C. Barlow).