Last updated on March 11, 2020
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 with your local librarian.
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.
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.