Last Updated: March 2019
The Importance of a Good Book Cover
Your book cover is a marketing tool. One could argue it’s the one of the most important tools because it’s practically the first layer of sales messaging.
Fine-tuning your metadata, choosing the right social media hashtags, and pursuing advertising opportunities are marketing tools for reaching your target audience. Then once you have their brief attention, it’s the job of your cover art and book description to entice potential readers looking for their next fix.
A caveat: depending on how you got a reader’s attention, it may be a logline or tagline that needs to do the enticing. For example, a Twitter user might see your sales tweet via retweet from an author they follow, but sometimes attached media (i.e. your book cover) is hidden, so it’s the text of your sales tweet that will need to win them over.
Unless you can boast significant author name recognition, your cover art is otherwise doing the talking most of the time. And a well-designed book cover will entice more potential readers to glance at your book description than a poorly designed one.
Understanding the Basics of Cover Design
Whether you hire a professional designer or bravely decide to go it alone, you should educate yourself on cover design basics before going down either route.
“The Anatomy of A Book Cover” (Jul 2011) by David Gaughran, author of Let’s Get Digital
“How to Avoid Cover Design Pitfalls for Indie Publishers” (Feb 2014) by Ray Rhamey via Writer Unboxed
“Six Things to Consider RE: Book Cover Design” (Apr 2014) via Bookfly Design
“Writers on the Reality of Book Covers” (Oct 2014) by Kyra Bandte via Writer’s Edit
"Anatomy of a book cover" (Mar 2017) by Karla Lant via 99Designs
Next, take a few moments (or an hour, if you’re fascinated like me) to browse covers from all along the spectrum of attractiveness:
Monthly Cover Design Awards via The Book Designer
Click on an individual month’s post to see wide range of at least a hundred book covers, including very helpful commentary from Joel Friedlander. If you really like one of the covers you see, you can usually find the cover artist’s name in the entry.
Now it’s time to do some research. Find the relevant genre category for your story at various online retailers. (I like to visit Goodreads as well as Amazon.) Play with the sort order, using both “bestselling” and “most recent.” Now look at the covers and answer the following questions:
What are the design conventions (colors, imagery, and font faces) for your particular genre?
Which covers evoke a clear idea of the book’s content? Which do not?
Which covers intrigue you most and why? Which don't and why?
When envisioning your book’s cover, you have to walk a fine line between something unique and something that signals genre. Your thriller novel, for example, probably shouldn’t feature pastels, a flirty font, and a cutesy illustration, but you don’t necessarily want to perpetuate the “scary silhouette man” cover cliché. Moreover, a good cover design should still be attractive and readable both as a thumbnail and in grayscale (some e-Readers, especially older ones, don’t have color displays).
I collect covers that stand out while still signaling the right genre. Write out in words exactly what makes these covers unique: a clever way to use cover text, a particularly compelling model, a well-photographed inanimate object, etc. It’s also very helpful to collect the covers you don’t like despite their high quality. Again, write out in words what you don’t want for your cover: for example, cutesy fonts, city skylines, etc.
The Case for Hiring a Professional Cover Artist
Just like formatting and e-book conversion, you can outsource your cover art to an experienced designer. And just like the editing step, you should strongly consider doing so. Even if you’re looking at a limited budget, you still have options!
We all know a questionable book cover when we see one, and if the cover is slapdash, a discerning reader can only assume the story is equally as low-quality. Of course, #NotAllSelfPublishedBooks, but readers are limited in both discretionary spending and free time, so the adage asserting “you can’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t do much to generate sales off a DIY book cover made in ten minutes in Microsoft Paint.
Unfortunately, just because you can spot a bad cover doesn’t mean you know how to make a good one. While you could spend a considerable amount of time learning Adobe Photoshop (or GIMP, a free near-equivalent), reading digital design books and a few dozen blog posts, scouring for specific tools to manipulate stock art, fonts, and textures the way you want, and easily dumping hours into finding the right stock images to make your perfect cover, you can save yourself a lot of time and energy outsourcing to a cover designer.
Moreover, the grand majority of professional cover designers will optimize your cover for uploading to Amazon and other online retailers, guaranteeing an attractive product image. If you elect to offer your story as a print book, you can also purchase a POD-ready version of your cover, complete with back copy and space for a bar code.
How can you find the right cover designer for your story and your budget? Thankfully, a little bit of internet-searching is all that’s needed to find not only the best and most popular cover designers, but the ones that will really give you the most bang for your buck. Many of these sites also sell formatting services as well as additional design services for things like social media images, interior title images, and swag designs.
An Incomplete List of Cover Design Sites:
EBookLaunch: pre-made eBook cover ($99); custom eBook cover ($349); custom eBook & POD-ready covers ($498).
Damonza: pre-made eBook cover ($195); custom eBook cover (starts at $495); custom eBook & POD-ready covers (start at $595).
Go On Write: pre-made eBook cover (starting at $30); POD-ready cover (additional $65).
Art by Karri: pre-made eBook cover (price varies); custom eBook cover ($300); custom eBook & POD-ready covers ($350).
BookFly Design: custom eBook cover ($649); custom eBook & POD-ready covers ($799).
Yocla Designs: pre-made eBook cover (price varies); custom eBook cover (starts at $299); custom eBook & POD-ready covers ($349).
A special note regarding covers featuring models of color: if you look through the pre-made covers on the sites listed above (or general stock art), you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone other than white models.
Update: in a previous version of this post, I was happy to provide a link to a stock image site specifically geared toward filling that diversity gap, but it has unfortunately folded. A little Googling has yielded a couple of other resources for stock photos of black models, but I'm sad to say that I couldn't find sites geared toward non-black models of color. I'll update this post again when/if I discover any other resources.
Once you’ve decided on a cover designer, you still have some more work ahead of you before the designer takes over. If you chose a pre-made eBook-only cover, you need only supply the designer with the book’s title, the author name, and perhaps a series title and/or blurb. However, if you’re commissioning a custom cover for both your eBook and print versions, you’ll need to give your designer a little more inspiration besides the genre and book title. A typical commission form for a custom book cover will ask for the following:
Title (and Subtitle, if necessary)
Genre (and perhaps a Target Audience)
Try to pick just one, maybe two. Perhaps your story melds a whole bunch of genres together, but it’s best to keep the messaging on your book cover as simple as possible. Remember, you only have that potential reader’s attention for maybe two seconds.
Not the same as "back copy" or "jacket copy"—the 100-250 words on a product page enticing a potential reader to buy your book. What the designer probably finds most helpful here is a full story synopsis, which should still be as short as possible—2 pages or less. If anything, this context will help the designer know what not to use on the cover.
Elements You Want on Your Cover
This is not the list of all the elements that must be on the cover. Cramming a lot of discordant elements together or trying to get the designer to create a scene from the book is usually not (if ever) the way to go. What you should brainstorm is a concise list of your story’s strongest elements, themes, and moods for your designer to reference while crafting your cover.
If you’re really keen on distilling a key scene from your story into a simplified form for your cover, using that scene for the excerpt might spark an idea, but mostly, the excerpt will help the designer settle on your story’s overall mood. Perhaps they got the sense from your story description that your book is very serious, but the excerpt shows them that it’s closer to dark comedy. That will affect the kind of cover they create!
Other Covers You Like
If you’ve done some preliminary research as suggested above, you should be able to show the designer a collage of covers you feel contain the right design choices that would also work for your cover.
Helpful Sketches or Image Suggestions
Let’s say you want two elements on the cover of your historical mystery novel: a plague-doctor mask and snow. Providing a rough sketch of the mask discarded in a pile of dirty snow might be very helpful. You could also direct them to a few stock images. If your book cover should feature a model of color, you could direct the designer to your favorite image from Mosaic Stock!
Page Trim Size, Number of Pages, and whether the paper color is Cream or White (for POD-ready covers)
Book Description (the back copy on a POD-ready cover)
Here is where you’d provide your highly polished book description as well as any other copy you’d like to have on the back cover of your book, such as an author image, bio, and/or a selection of quotes praising your book.
"12 Questions to Ask When Hiring a Book Cover Designer" (Oct 2015) by Diana Urban via BookBub
“7 Tips to Make the Most of Working with a Cover Designer” (Nov 2015) by Marcy Kennedy via Fiction University
Having It Your Way
The good thing about that cover-design list is it’ll also be helpful in the event you decide to forego professional design services (even the cheaper pre-made covers) and vow to create a cover yourself. Thankfully, there are many options for what program to use and where to buy stock images.
Image-Editing Programs & Tutorials (all offer trial periods):
Adobe Photoshop: current version is subscription-only, $20/mo. You can call Adobe to outright buy the previous version, Photoshop CS6, but it's hundreds of dollars and Adobe no longer provides updates to it.
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program): free alternative to Photoshop and just as robust.
Tutorials by GIMP, from beginner to expert
Design Tutorials by Canva
PicMonkey (Web only): you can use it for free, but access to more images, features, etc. requires a subscription, starting at $3.33/mo when billed annually.
Tutorials by PicMonkey
Royalty-Free Stock Images Sites:
iStockPhoto: my personal favorite.
Adobe Stock: new sign-ups get 10 free stock images.
DepositPhotos: beware that if, for example, you buy a “10 On-Demand Download” pack, they’ll put you on monthly auto-pay for 10 more at the next billing cycle. Be sure to turn that sh*t off.
Hot Damn: for romance covers.
Period Images: for romance covers.
“15 Articles on Cover Design for Self-Publishers” (May 2014) by Joe Friedlander via The Book Designer
“Beginner’s Guide to Book Cover Design” by Jo Sabin via Hongkiat.com
“Is Your Indie Book Violating Copyright Laws?” (May 2014) by Jordan McCollum via Fiction University
"Book Cover Redesign as Marketing Tool" (Jun 2016) by Jane Friedman
“How I make book covers + tips for you!” (Jun 2018) via Rachel Writes
I highly recommend Rachel’s blog post. It’s extensive.
Other Tips And Resources:
Be sure to update your cover if your book wins an award, receives praise from a prominent author or reviewer, or hits a best-seller list. Pretty much any cover designer will charge you only a small fee to adjust the cover art they made for you.
Look your cover over carefully for any typos before giving a mock-up (or “proof”) final approval—or before uploading your cover, if you did it yourself.
Some authors collect images related to the visuals or themes of their story into a mood board (exactly like Pinterest boards, in fact). A well-crafted mood board (AKA “swipe file” or “tear sheet”) is an excellent resource either for you when making your own cover or for your designer when commissioning a cover.