The Elements of an Effective Book Cover Design | NY Book Editors
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6 Elements to a Beautiful Book Cover Design: Tools for Writers Series

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We've all heard the advice to not judge a book by its cover, and it's true that you shouldn't. But we all do it, especially when it comes to choosing an actual book to read.

Your book's cover is your best marketing tool for reaching a cold audience (i.e., people who've never heard of you before).

Think about it from your perspective as a fellow reader.

Let's say you're on the hunt for a new book to read. Whether you're wandering through a brick-and-mortar bookstore or browsing for new reads on Amazon, the first thing that strikes you is the book's cover design. Its simplicity or complexity may draw you in. Its color palette may tell a story and wink an eye. Or its inventive use of fonts may beckon you.

No matter which individual element grabs your attention, it's the overall cover design that ultimately piques your interest and convinces you to give the book a chance.

Book covers do multiple jobs at once.

A book cover's first (and most important) job is to grab the prospective reader's attention. If it can get you to pause and pick up the book, it has accomplished its number one goal.

The second job of a book cover is to differentiate it from all of the other books on the shelf. There are over 100 million books in existence. Your best chance of getting selected is to create a book that looks different from the others.

The third job of a book cover is to emphasize the genre. This is the reason why romance novels almost always feature a bare-chested man and a woman with wind-swept hair. It's also why mystery novel covers are usually moody and set at night, almost always using black as a call out to its prospective audience. The book cover design should fit within its genre, even if it pushes the boundaries.

Another important but often overlooked job that book covers do is to establish a mood for the reader. Readers can use your book's cover design to get an instant impression of your story's atmosphere. If you don't consider this when designing your cover, you're squandering a storytelling opportunity.

A cover designer uses elements (color, graphics, and fonts) to not only create a visually appetizing book cover but to signal why the prospective reader should pick up the book. It's your first touchpoint with your reader.

Your book cover is your first touchpoint with your reader. Make the right impression.

This is exactly why you can't afford to get your book's cover design wrong.

When done correctly, your book's cover will attract attention and convey what your book is about in a quick snapshot.

In this post, we'll discuss the design elements that go into creating a mesmerizing and effective book cover. Whether you're designing the cover yourself or you're hiring someone else to do it, here’s what to know about cover design.

What to Consider When Designing a Book Cover

Let’s discuss what to focus on when contemplating your cover design:

1. The Non-Negotiables

Every book cover must include the title and the author's name. Of course, you should also include the cover’s design.

2. The Extras

In addition to the non-negotiables, a cover can also include the book's subtitle and a quick review from a trusted source. This is used to give the prospective reader more information about the book. A quick review placed in the upper section of your book cover (above the title) is located in prime real estate. Its job is to provide a solid endorsement for your book that encourages the prospective reader to buy.

3. The Imagery and Fonts

Both imagery and font are graphic elements.

Your book's genre will play a huge role in the types of images and fonts that you select.

As mentioned above, readers who are loyal to a specific genre also have specific book cover design expectations. For example, you may notice that young adult book covers tend to be symbolic and heavy on floral elements. Many use calligraphy or ornate fonts to evoke a sense of complexity.

Look for trends in your chosen genre to ensure that your book's cover design fits within the expected norms. You can gather inspiration by perusing the Book Cover Archive.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about font:

  • Don't use more than three font types on your cover.
  • Your title should be legible from five feet away (this ensures that your title is also readable in thumbnail form).
  • Your name should be smaller than the title.

4. The Color

Your cover's color story will give the prospective reader a clue about your book's theme.

Is it redemptive? It may include a color gradient from dark to light.

Is it humorous? It may show lighter colors that reflect your book's light-hearted meaning.

5. The Thumbnail

Your book may look good in full size, but what about the thumbnail version? Online shoppers are more likely to judge your book based on its teeny-tiny thumbnail. This is why your book cover must be legible at a 10th of its actual size.

6. Don't Forget About the Back Cover and Spine

You didn't forget, did you? The back of the cover doesn't do as much heavy lifting as the front cover, but it's still important. Don’t make the back cover an after-thought. Your back cover should contain a blurb about the book to intrigue the prospective reader. It should also share a short bio of you, the author, to forge a connection with the prospective reader.

Your back cover should continue the same visual style from the front.

Also, remember the book's spine. It covers the back of the book's binding and is visible when the book is stacked on a shelf. Depending on the length and size of your book, the spine may be thick or thin. Because there isn't a lot of visual real estate on the book's spine, it's only necessary to include the title and the author's name. Keep the visual style similar to the front and back covers.

Four Book Cover Designs That Nail It and Why

Book Cover Design

Image Courtesy of The Book Cover Archive


Written by Richard Bausch, Designed by Helen Yentus

While the title indicates peace, the cover is dim which foreshadows an uneasy world up ahead.

Book Cover Design

Image Courtesy of The Book Cover Archive

In the American West

Written by Laura Wilson, Designed by Elizabeth Avedon

The cover image shares a haunting and melancholy photo of a young lady that connects with a prospective reader.

Book Cover Design

Image Courtesy of The Book Cover Archive

The Ghost Sequences

Written by A.C. Wise, Designed by Vince Haig

This cover features an optical illusion of a skull at first glance and an overhead view of two women upon closer inspection.

Book Cover Design

Image Courtesy of The Book Cover Archive

Cold Comfort Farm

Written by Stella Gibbons, Art Direction by Paul Buckley, Illustrated by Roz Chast

This cover design features a whimsical cast of characters that the reader will meet within the pages of the comic novel.

What If You Don't Want to Design Your Book Cover?

Some of us are born to write and not to design, and there's no shame in that. Then there are others who may not have the time or inclination to design.

You may be self-publishing, but that doesn't mean that you have to do it all alone.

As a self-published author, you can build a small team to help you produce your greatest work. We recommend that every author's team include a professional editor, a book designer, and a publicist.

While you can certainly design your book cover, here are two reasons to hire a professional designer:

1. Save Time

Designing a book cover actually takes a lot of time. Not only do you have to come up with a design, but you also have to research your genre, look for ideas, and figure out how to get what's in your mind onto the page. Plus, you'll need to learn how to use a graphic design program like Indesign, PhotoShop, or Canva to create a book cover. Depending on the program you choose, there may be a steep learning curve. When working with a designer, you'll free up your time to work on other projects.

2. Get Professional Results

Creating your design may save money, but that may backfire, especially if your design looks unprofessional and DIY-ish. The last thing you want to convey to a prospective reader is that your book is a low-budget read. But that's exactly what can happen if you're not willing to invest time and effort into designing a quality end product or money into paying someone else to do it.

You should hire a professional book designer for the same reason why you hire a professional to make a wedding cake or build your desktop computer. You could theoretically do both of these things yourself, but:

  • Will the end result look professional?
  • Will it meet your needs?
  • Will producing it be a good use of your time?

While you could do it yourself, it makes more sense to hire an expert who could likely do it better. This is their job, so they have way more experience than you do. And that's not a bad thing.

Not sure where to look for a quality book cover designer? Here are three designers that we recommend:

Check out their work now and let us know what you think.

Final Thoughts

Self-publishing isn't what it used to be. Back in the day, self-publishing was a lonely venture and you had to do everything yourself, from writing to editing to cover design.

These days, there are a plethora of resources. Lean into those resources to create the best book that you can.

Before you go, check out these related resources:

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