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 niche — the 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
- Book Cover Design Costs
- Custom Cover (Hiring a Pro)
- Premade Covers – For Limited Budgets
- Designing Your Own Book Cover
- How To Brief A Cover Designer
- Bonus Extras: Paperbacks & Promo Graphics
- Book Cover Design Checklist
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.