Blog

Learn how to become the author
you were meant to be

How to Nail Your Book Cover Design (With Five Examples of What Not to Do)

If you’re planning to self-publish your book, we need to sit down and have a heart to heart.

It’s about your book cover.

I know, you probably don’t have a book cover yet. But that’s actually perfect. Now is the time for you to hear what I have to tell you.

The tough-love truth goes like this: You don’t know what a good cover looks like.

I love you. I believe in your book. But after two decades in book publishing, I speak with authority when I say: If left to your own devices, you’re probably going to do a terrible job choosing your book cover.

How do I know this? Because over and over, I’ve seen smart, talented, well-meaning authors choose amateur, self-publish-y, unsalable cover designs for their books.

And the craziest part is that most of the time, they have no idea what they’ve just done.

They think they’ve knocked it out of the park with that cover design. While anyone in the business of publishing books can take one look and see that it’s a foul ball.

There’s no shame in ignorance. After all, why would you know what goes into a professional cover?

You’re not a career book publishing professional. You’re not a professional book cover designer. (If you are either of those things, you can seriously stop reading this blog.)

Your zone of genius is clear. It’s probably whatever you’re writing about. But cover design? It is not your area.

Let me repeat: Cover design is not your area.

Yes, I want you to love your book cover. (You’re going to be looking at it a lot over the next few years.)

But—and this is going to sound crazy—you liking your cover is a secondary goal.

There is a far more primary goal for your cover.

The #1 goal for a book cover is to sell the book.

The cover doesn’t have to be “beautiful” to sell. It doesn’t have to be “unique,” “fancy” or “unusual.” And it doesn’t have to “feel like you.”

It just needs to communicate a few key pieces of info to readers:

  • What genre of book it is, and the specific topic
  • That the reader can expect a high level of professionalism throughout
  • That it’s the book they’ve been waiting for!

There’s a “know it when you see it” quality to a good book cover. I can’t just lay out three principles of good cover design, not in words.

So I’ve decided to do it in pictures.

With that in mind, I reached out to several industry colleagues—editors at traditional publishers, all. I asked them to send me an example of a self-published book that eventually got picked up by a traditional house.

I told them, “I’m writing a blog to try and explain to my authors the difference between good cover design and bad cover design.”

My colleagues’ responses? “Oh, thank god.”

Like me, they care about you. And like me, they know that self-published books are notorious for painfully unprofessional cover design.

We want your books to sell, so we want you to understand what you don’t understand.

With each of the following sets of cover designs, the image on the left is the cover design the author chose for their book when publishing on their own. The image on the right is the cover, redesigned by the traditional publisher who picked up the rights to the book.

I’m starting with two books that I, myself, acquired and published when I was at Penguin and Hyperion, respectively.

Then I move on to books that I have no personal relationship to, but which illustrate the same principles.

Note: Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom of this post. I’m giving you my essential tips for how to choose a cover design for your self-published book that would be indistinguishable from traditionally published tomes!

Cover Design Example #1: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy was my first New York Times bestseller as an editor. (Funny how my genre of choice has changed over the years!)

The cover on the left was the author’s original design, published through a friend’s small press.

When we repackaged it in a more professional, industry-standard design, it went on to New York Times bestsellerdom for several months.

What did we do?

  • Gave it a palette that referenced America, since it was a book about American politics
  • Created a cartoon of the author’s most maligned politician (George W. Bush) so the reader would know which side of the aisle the book fell on
  • Made the subtitle shorter and larger, and thus more readable
  • Featured an endorsement by an above-the-marquee name, instead of a foreword by two people most readers have never heard of

A cover design is meant to signal to the reader, “This book is for you!” The traditionally published version did that much more effectively than the original cover.

Cover Design Example #2: Glynis Has Your Number by Glynis McCants

Glynis Has Your Number was a book on numerology that I published when I was at Hyperion.

The self-published version, on the left, had been hitting the Amazon bestseller list due to the authors’ appearances on a popular late-night radio program. (In other words: It was selling over the radio, not because of the cover.)

While the “new” cover is now 15-ish years old, you can see how much more professional it is.

What did we do?

  • Made the title the focus of the cover, rather than the author’s photo (since few people had visual recognition of the author)
  • Upleveled the typeface
  • Added a subtitle, with the word “numerology” highlighted for emphasis
  • Gave it a softer, more “self help” friendly color palette in purple and gold
  • Updated the author’s photo
  • Removed the “ocean wave” image, whose relevance to numerology was not immediately apparent

Cover Design Example #3: The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir

You may be familiar with The Martian because it was eventually made into a movie starring Matt Damon.

What I like about the above example is that there is a similarity between the two covers—the orange-red color of Mars. But that’s where the similarities end.

While I’m all for cover simplicity, the image on the left is so very bare-bones as to look unprofessional.

Some of the traditional publisher’s updates:

  • Replaced the serifed title font (which would be more at home in a newspaper) with a clean, almost robotic sans-serif font more appropriate to the book’s content
  • Increased the size of the author’s name so it “played better” with the title size
  • Replaced the too-realistic photo of Mars with an orangey-red background that conveys a sense of mystery and atmosphere
  • Added “A Novel” to make it completely clear this is a work of fiction, not a science book

Note also that the title The Martian makes one think of tiny green men. The original cover does not explicitly reveal that the Martian is a human being—which opens the book to a VERY different readership than if it were about aliens. Note that the traditional publisher added the image of an astronaut, which clears up this potential misunderstanding.

I think we can all agree that there’s something about the traditionally published cover that just “looks like a professional book cover.” It looks familiar. It looks tied together. It has coherence, both within the cover and to the bookshelf as a whole.

Cover Design Example #4: How to Heal Hashimoto’s by Marc Ryan

By now perhaps you’re starting to see the trends I’m pointing toward. What do you notice about the cover on the left, versus the cover on the right?

Things I notice about the new cover on the right:

  • It’s palette is lighter and brighter—conveying a “hopeful” feeling of health and healing
  • The title has changed to be much more specific to Hashimoto’s, rather than relegating that very key detail to the subtitle
  • The dark, heavy photo has been replaced by a typeface-focused design

This brings up the important subject of photography. Notice that out of the four books I’ve mentioned so far, three of the self-published cover designs were full-bleed (edge to edge) photographs.

And now, please notice that none of the traditional redesigns are straight photos. This is a huge piece of information.

Many self-published authors lean toward photographs because they are easy and convenient. It costs a whole lot less to use a photograph you yourself have taken, or that you’ve licensed from a stock photo website, than to hire a professional designer to create a custom illustration.

And yet, full-bleed photographs are rarely used as the sole design element by traditional houses. It happens, but it’s the exception, not the rule.

If a traditional publisher is going to use a photo, they will often make it a small part of the cover, with a border around it, to make it look more polished.

Or, they will rework the photo—or several—into one element of a type-driven cover design. Speaking of which…

Cover Design Example #5: The Gift of Maybe by Allison Carmen

I decided to talk about this one last, because of all the self-published cover design examples I’m showing here, I think this one was the closest to “professional” to start with.

But then the traditional house took it and made some very subtle design tweaks, to major results.

Here’s what I see they’ve done:

  • Perked up the sprout image by tilting the leaves just so; what an amazing example of how a small tweak can make all the difference! This is the genius of a professional book cover designer!
  • Moved the sprout off to the side, so it no longer divides the title
  • Perked up the title with a better font, a more consistent font size, a brighter blue and a little splash of color on the “dot” of the i
  • Changed the title from something that makes no promise to the reader (The Book of Maybe) to something that promises the reader a gift, i.e. a blessing, good fortune
  • Increased the size and readability of the subtitle
  • Decreased the size and prominence of the author’s name

And Now: Six Tips to Ensure You Pick a Great Cover Design

So now that we’ve seen “what not to do,” how can you land your book in the “good design” column right off the bat? Here are a few of my best tips.

Tip #1: Research, research and research some more.

Before you hire a book cover designer, do an enormous amount of research on book covers in your genre. Go to Amazon or BN.com and look up your genre. Then look at the top sellers in that category. Scroll through hundreds of book covers, and screenshot 20-30 that appeal to you. (Don’t overthink this, just save ones that you like.) Once you have at least 20 screenshots to review, look through them and notice what’s similar about them. What themes emerge in terms of what you like? Are they mostly all-type covers? Or do they feature photography, illustrations? What color palettes are you drawn toward? Do you love feminine, handwritten fonts? Or do you want the “power look” of a strong typeface? Understanding what kinds of designs are already working in the marketplace is an essential first step. There is no better way to choose a selling cover for your book than to understand what’s already selling!

Tip #2: Hire a professional book cover designer.

I don’t mean “a graphic designer who has the capability to make a 6×9 design.” I want you to hire someone who designs book covers for a living. If not exclusively, then at least mostly. Ideally it’s someone who has worked in the past at a traditional publisher. Someone who has designed book covers that have gone on to work in the marketplace. This will run you around $2500, versus, say $250 for a graphic designer to slap a design together. The difference is expertise. No genuine professional will work for $250. You will get what you pay for. Guaranteed. The trouble is, you may not know the difference. That’s why you need to move on to #3.

Tip #3: Take your book cover design to your local bookstore. Ask to talk to a manager, and show them your book cover design. The manager at a small, independent bookstore knows whether a cover design is going to sell. Ask for their honest opinion: Would they know by looking at it that it was self-published? What tips them off? Do they think this cover would succeed in their bookstore? What other advice would they give?

Tip #4: Repeat the above exercise at your local library.

Tip #5: Repeat the above exercise with absolutely anyone who is a working professional in the field of book publishing.

Tip #6: Then, listen to what the pros tell you.

Your willingness to ask, and then listen, to the professional advice you receive could be the difference between winning at your cover design—i.e., selling lots of books—and not.

A couple years back a friend of mine took part of my advice: He hired a professional book cover designer to work with him on his novel. They went several rounds, and they came up with a couple design options that were cohesive, familiar yet interesting, and fit the genre he was writing in. Needless to say, I was very excited for him.

Then my copy arrived in the mail.

Without telling me, he’d nixed all of the profesh cover designs. There on the cover was an “artistic” (read: blurry) photo he’d taken of his daughter walking down a country road. When I (gently) queried him about the cover, he told me he’d decided that none of the the professional designs really “fit the spirit of the book.”

Apparently “the spirit of the book” was more important than “the sales of the book.” It went on to sell fewer than 500 copies over its lifetime.

So please: Hire pros, get professional advice and then—for the love of all that is good and holy—listen to it.

Final Tip: Avoid asking friends and family what they think. They do not have the expertise to know whether your book cover looks self-published or not, and they are your biggest fans. So their cheerful insistence that “I’d buy that book!” is untrustworthy. Of course they’d buy it—they love you! Their enthusiasm will throw you off your mission: Finding a cover design that will sell to people who don’t already know you and want to support you.

Herein Ends this Painful Conversation

I know this convo about your cover design might not have been easy reading. It was not easy writing, either. Book cover design is such a sensitive—and subjective—topic. After all, we all know what we like. It’s easy to assume that everyone else will feel the same. But it’s simply not true.

There’s a reason there are standards in the book publishing industry. It’s because these standards have proven, over and over, to sell books. So, I leave you with these pleas:

  • Learn the standards of good book cover design before you choose your design (or your designer)
  • Be willing to be humble in the face of professional experience and advice
  • Don’t take it personally if your cover design idea isn’t embraced by the professionals you speak to. Take a deep breath, and do what they tell you. Your readers will thank you for it!

Have you published a book, either via self-publishing or traditional? What was your experience with finding the right cover design for your book? Do you wish you had done something differently? I’d love to hear your story! Drop me a comment below. 

 

Share:

39 thoughts on “How to Nail Your Book Cover Design (With Five Examples of What Not to Do)”

    • Awesome Pamela! Hardcover vs. paperback is more a matter of market than design. Hardcovers cost more, so you want to make sure the target audience for the book will be willing to pay more. My book, The Book You Were Born to Write, is a reference book and falls into the category of “business.” We decided to publish in hardcover since business readers and reference readers tend to be up for the higher price point. But for most books, especially first-time authors who are self-publishing, I recommend paperback rather than hardcover.

      Glossy vs. matte is really up to you, though if you can get samples of books published by your self-publisher with both cover finishes that’s a great idea. I am generally a fan of matte but sometimes the coating feels TOO thick to me, which is a “self-pub” tip-off!

      Hope this is helpful, best of luck to you!

      Reply
    • Hello!
      Where would I even start to find a professional book cover designer? I just finished writing my 78k word novel and I want to do this one right! I saw Upwork and other various places like that but I don’t think it falls in that realm you discussed earlier, thanks!

      Reply
      • 99designs.com is a good option if you’re on a budget. But if you have professional $$ to spend, consider looking on the shelf for covers you love and then finding the name of the designer (usually credited on the back cover or back jacket flap, or in the copyright page). You can Google their name and reach out to see if they are taking new clients.

        Reply
  1. Hi Kelly,
    Great information thank you!
    Any additional suggestions for children’s books? I did look at Hay House and Balboa Press children’s book covers to get some ideas.
    Thank you
    Debby

    Reply
    • Hi Debby! Children’s books follow the same protocol as above. Definitely try to get industry feedback on your cover design (and if you haven’t already had the book fully illustrated, a sample illustration), i.e. from a bookseller and a librarian. Best to you!

      Reply
  2. Thank you. This is great advice and the examples are what made this educational . I have a question. Self published authors seem to make more per book, so if they are doing well with sales and are approached by a publishing company, why would they say yes?

    Reply
    • Great question, Heather! There are lots of reasons to go with a traditional publisher, but I’d say the most common are:

      1) Cred/clout that comes with a publisher taking you on. Which results in…

      2) A better chance at media attention, hitting bestseller lists (the bestseller lists often don’t track self-published book sales as closely), book reviews (most traditional book review outlets will not review self-published books) and certain book awards

      3) Additional sales, marketing, COVER DESIGN (!!), and editorial expertise, without having to pay more for it

      4) The sense of having a partner in the game, a team on your side

      5) The feeling of being wanted/loved/accepted/making it into the big leagues (finances aside, this is a driving force for MANY self-pubbed authors who sell their rights)

      6) More opportunities/connections for you and the book (for example, you’re more likely to get distribution into non-traditional markets like gift shops, libraries, airport bookstores etc if you’re working with a publisher)

      Those are just a few off the top of my head! Plus, if you’re distributing your book primarily via the major online retailers, you’re not getting as much of an increase in per-copy revenue as you used to. So it’s a personal decision that each author needs to make!

      Thanks for the question!
      Kelly

      Reply
  3. Kelly, thank you for this very timely blog! I am in the throes of finalizing a book cover and took your advice immediately: went to Barnes and Noble, lined up 20 books in my genre, and am scanning for similarities. Two questions:

    1) It’s a bit hard to identify similarities in the best selling covers in my genres — they’ve used very different approaches, colors, feelings. Some use photos in nature, some use no graphics at all, some use hand-drawn “cute” graphics. I do notice what they DON’T do — most do not stretch a graphic across the entire book cover (like two of my publisher’s comps for my book) and they also don’t use typically feminine images (flowers for example) for books intended for female audiences like mine. Any advice for what to specifically hone in on when the comparative covers are very different?

    2) Related: my hybrid publisher’s comp covers do not reflect some of the characteristics I see in best selling covers. I’m going to speak with them about this (gently). Any advice for how to best approach them about it?

    Reply
    • Hi Sue!

      I totally understand the dilemma, in that different bestselling covers have different feels/strategies for cover design. I would suggest you simply pick 2-3 covers you really like (make sure they truly are selling, and have been published within the last 2-3 years) with elements you appreciate, and then take them to your publisher and ask them to try again those elements. Alternatively, try taking the designs they have created to a bookstore and a librarian and ask them if they look professional/traditionally published–and if not, which elements specifically strike them as self-publishy. Hope this helps!

      Kelly

      Reply
  4. Hi Kelly! It’s been a while since I’ve written, but I’ve been faithfully reading and admiring your amazingly consistent, incredibly helpful, and utterly generous emails. Reading them has become part of my weekend ritual. I just HAD to let you know that you hit it out of the park with your latest gem on book covers. Being a cover designer myself, I just wanted to let you know that it was chock-full of great advice– even for me! My favorite: “Final Tip: Avoid asking friends and family what they think.” I can’t tell you how many pints of blood, sweat and tears I have been spilled on a great cover design only to have it nixed by aunt Alice and her quilting group. I’m going to insist that all of my future clients read this one! – Jeff in Boulder

    Reply
    • Hi Jeff! Thank you SO much for the feedback, it means a lot coming from a cover designer!!! And all I can say about Aunt Alice is RIGHT!?!! So many books go to the graveyard because of Aunt Alice, LOL. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

      Reply
  5. Hi Kelly!
    I have been following you for a while now. I got your book, I am subscribed to all your channels. Obviously, I appreciate your inputs!!
    I have attended 2 Hay House Writers Workshops. The Book you Were Born to Write guided me through my proposal to Hay House. I regularly save all your posts. And so on…
    My main concern, which I haven’t seen covered, is the following:
    I can write in English. I have written my MSc thesis in English, I work as an academic editor after all. And I wrote my book proposal in English for Hay House.
    However, I realised that, my book being a memoir, English is not the right language for me to express my deeper thoughts. So, I am writing it now in Spanish. What do you think about the English vs Spanish market? I think is better to publish it in English, but the book itself would be better in Spanish. I would really appreciate your advice on this.
    Many thanks for all you share 🙂
    Liliana

    Reply
  6. Hi Liliana! Thank you so much for your question. It’s a really good one. Generally speaking, I see authors have the most success writing their books in their native language, and then having them *translated* by a professional translator into other languages. Just as you say, a memoir needs to read like a novel. The writing needs to be evocative, atmospheric and engaging. This is something it is much easier to do in the language one is most comfortable speaking.

    While translation adds additional cost–significant cost–it is definitely the most high-quality option. If you don’t want to spend that kind of money, the other option would be to write it in English and then hire a book doctor to help you polish it.

    I hope this is helpful to you! Sending you all good wishes.
    Kelly

    Reply
  7. Hi Kelly –

    I enjoyed reading your article. I could clearly see the difference between the self-published and professionally published covers though without the explanations I’m pretty sure I would have missed the important points. Thank you for them.

    I’m at the point where I need to do my own research but I honestly have no idea how to describe the genre I write in and by extension what to search under. I write non-fiction (that part was easy). Each book I’ve written is from the perspective of one parent to another – the idea of sharing what I’ve learned as it relates to children who have been diagnosed with behavioral and learning disorders. I stared out as a parent just wanting to help my youngest son, but ended up back at school to learn about alternative therapies to the drugs so readily prescribed for these disorders. After many years, I now have 2 Masters, 1 in Education and 1 in Complementary Alternative Medicine. I wrote my 1st book in 2006 and have learned a lot since them. At some point, I want to go back and revise the first 3 books, but I need to keep my focus on the one I’m working on now.

    Back to my genre issues – Book 1 focused on learning styles and multiple intelligences; book 2 focused on using herbal alternatives; book 3 focused on a variety of alternatives and how the labels these kids are given can leave them feeling ‘broken’; and now, book 4 is focused on conscious parenting covering everything from pre-pregnancy to the time they reach adulthood. Can you see my dilemma? The genre may jump out to you, and if it does I would really appreciate your insight. I’m more than willing to do the research, I just need some help with the keywords to use.

    Thank you for all you do!

    Mary

    Reply
    • Hello Kelly, I am in the process of publishing my father’s memoir, a WW2 survival story, the only one survived out of 600 POWs and who became chief witness against Japanese, at Australian War crimes commission, after war. Any suggestions for the cover of memoir/war story.

      Reply
      • The best ways to research cover options is to look at the bookshelf of books from a similar genre and see which ones are doing well. Then you can choose the ones you like the best and pass those along to your designer for inspiration. If if you’re not sure which ones are selling the best, you can call your local bookseller and ask about World War II memoirs, which ones they can’t keep in stock. That is a great way to make use of the rich industry knowledge that a bookseller has accumulated.

        Reply
  8. I am self-publishing with Balboa Press and as part of my publishing package, their design team will create a cover for my book based off my answers to 8 questions. I feel a little nervous about this! But they ARE book professionals. In your opinion, should I trust the BP design department or should I hire an outside book cover designer? I definitely do not want my book to look “home made!”

    Reply
    • Amy, We do not have specific information or an opinion on the designers at Balboa. Our recommendation is to look at the book covers they have produced in your genre, compare them to the traditionally published book covers that are on the bestseller lists in that same genre, and see what you think! If you can tell which ones are self-published and which ones are more traditionally published just by looking at them, you may want to seek out a designer who has lots of experience designing covers for traditional houses. If you would like recommendations, you can write into our contact form.

      Reply
  9. Hi, amazing description, thank you!
    I have a question for everyone, as I will need everyone’s opinion.
    What do you think of designing a book cover on paper with paints and pens and then scanning it onto a computer?
    Would that be right?
    If you have a strength in typography and patterns, can you do it on paper and scan it onto a computer?
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hey M, I noticed no one answered your question. But I don’t see why not? I’m also something of an artistic person myself and had a similar idea (I paint and draw in my spare time, and also design emails for work). So give it a shot! Just my 2 cents. And good luck!

      Reply
  10. Hi Kelly- great post -thank you!
    I have a 5 part book series in the mystery thriller category. I plan to release all 500,000 words in short succession I would love your thoughts on the cohesiveness of design. The Michael Connelly Bosch series is less so. The 50 Shades series is more so. What tips do you have?

    Reply
  11. Hey, so I’m a little late to the party on this article, and I’m sorry for further bothering you, and taking up your time.

    But what if every cover design for my book done by both myself and the artist/designer doesn’t fit the book?

    We have the covers designed for the next two in the trilogy (even though I don’t start writing those for another year or two), but not for the first one.

    Reply
    • Hello!

      Thank you for your question! We invite you to schedule a free consultation with one of our lovely matchmakers, as they will be able to provide you with feedback regarding your book design and answering all questions that you may have.

      Cheers!

      https://knliterary.com/schedule/

      Reply
  12. Just went to 99dedigns. Its asking me to choose from book cover designs to show the designers which styles I prefer. Seems counter to what is described in your article.

    Reply
    • 99designs.com asks you to choose book cover designs so that the designers can get a better understanding of your vision.

      If you have professional $$ to spend, consider looking on the shelf for covers you love and then finding the name of the designer (usually credited on the back cover or back jacket flap, or in the copyright page). You can then google their name to see if they are accepting new clients.

      Additionally, you are welcome to schedule a free consultation with one of our lovely matchmakers! They will be able to answer all questions that you may have regarding the writing process.

      https://knliterary.com/writing/

      Reply
  13. We are so glad you are enjoying our blogs. Over the years, we have accumulated many great posts on lots of different subjects, so be sure to use the search to search by category and topic, as well as individual word searches.

    Regarding your question about other resources, we can make a few suggestions. First of all, if you haven’t visited Kelly’s YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoEWlt0rBh1-uaPAhblttLA, please do so. It also has lots of advice on a variety of subjects. You could also join our email list https://knliterary.com, at the bottom of the page. Another great resource is Hay House. As you may know, Kelly works with Reid Tracy at Hay House to do online workshops (during the pandemic) and (we hope!) live workshops soon. You can get more Hay House information here by signing up for their newsletters. As well, the Hay House Writer’s Community is a great resource, and membership for that opens up twice a year. You can join the wait list for that at https://www.discover.hayhouse.com/writerscommunity-waitlist-2021/

    Finally, if you have identified successful authors in the space in which you want to publish, you might check and see if they do blogs, or newsletters. “Author platforms” are really important these days, and most high profile authors have them. Kelly has also written a book called “The Book You Were Born to Write” which is a “comprehensive and easy-to-follow guide for all things book writing, publishing and platform building so you can confidently and skillfully share your message with the world.”

    We wish success in your literary journey!

    Reply
  14. Thank you! I am working on my book cover now. I’m going to take your GREAT advice and research covers! Thank you for the great examples. Many thanks!

    Reply
  15. If your book cover design is crowded then it will make it impossible for you to pick out the important stuff. Readers will not interact with the book covers with the same engagement that they do while reading a page from the book. If someone is browsing cover then they are simply looking at the covers and are not ready to buy your book. For more info visit: https://romancestockphotos.photoshelter.com/

    Reply
  16. I self published in 2014. My ghastly cover was all black with the title written in caution tape across the center. I hadn’t done any research and designed it myself.
    Apparently this is a common designs mistake because whenever I see a cover bathed in black, it’s usually a self published work.

    Reply

Leave a Comment