How much time did you put into crafting your book cover?
Most authors will spend hours searching for a cover to buy or working with a designer, a very few will spend days. Some might only consider the cover as one last step needed before they can upload the book for sale. Short or long, these are all just a fraction of the time it took to create the book.
Your book cover is the single most important marketing tool.
Think about it. You will use this cover in promo images and posts, your website, and, of course, on retailers. Thousands upon thousands of readers will look at your cover and based on what they see, often at a thumbnail size, will make a snap judgement to look further or skip your book.
Hate it or love it, this is the truth.
I say embrace it! And learn to use it. Book covers are an author’s first foray into marketing beyond writing update posts. They are the big extravaganza leading up to launch. The cover reveal comes first after all.
So it is time to get your cover correct! Whether you create it yourself, or purchase a cover, knowing what to look for and judging if it is right for your book because it will attract the right reader, one who will love what you’ve written, is important. And it can save you a lot of time and money!
What You'll Learn
There are five major elements to a book cover.
Really, just five… at least it doesn’t sound like much. But when you think about how much information those five elements are packing into your book cover and the things they are telling a reader in those 7 seconds they might glance at it before deciding to look at your blurb or skip your book, well, you realize it is a LOT to get right. Plus, there are two things to keep in mind, so that means there are seven elements to juggle when perfecting your cover.
Let’s dive into what those seven elements are and what they are telling readers about your book… and if they should read it!
We are going to start off with perhaps not the first one you think of: the font. Because I’m a font addict (they say the first step is acknowledging it!🤣).
Once I discovered how easy it was to load fonts onto my Mac and then found repositories of FREE fonts like Font Squirrel and 1,000 Free Fonts… well, I have a difficult time not downloading twenty at a shot when I’m just looking for one.
If you aren’t into graphic arts, or aren’t a crazed font addict who knows the difference between serif and non serif fonts, you might really be wondering what this part is about, how it affects your cover, and why you should care? You will soon come to understand, if not suddenly find a love—or at least a working relationship—of fonts too.
One of the most important purposes of the font you use for your title, author name, and any additional text is legibility. Some fonts are absolutely horrible. Others are fine, if used in small doses such as the first letter of a word in your title. And some are designed to flow nicely with loopy linkages or clean letters that would work as a substitute for your next eye exam.
The important thing is a reader should be able to read your book title without wondering if that “i” is an “l” or “t.” So if you absolutely love that curling, strange font, fine. Use it—for the first letter of each word in the title. Or the first and last letter. Fill in the rest of the title with something more legible and straight forward.
Another big aspect is the book title should be fancier than your author name and your name can have more oomph than any tag line. Tag lines are usually only legible at a medium to large scale image (400 pixels wide and larger), so a straight line (non-serif) font works best for these small text based elements like tag lines. Your author name should be like the title, legible at a small scale, but it shouldn’t take the showcase from the title… unless you are simply so well known your name will sell the book (aka Neil Gaiman).
Your name is your brand and how a reader who loves your book will find you, and recognize you, in the future. So first book or fiftieth, make sure your name is visible and legible. And a large part of that is choosing a font that doesn’t look like a blind elf wrote it in poor dwarvish.
Size and Scale
If legibility weren’t bad enough, the book title and your author name should be comprehensible when the book is shown at a thumbnail size, typically 150 pixels wide. That is seriously small. Any tag line you have will be invisible. Instead, a reader will get an impression of the cover image, your name, and the title. Something in those three things should be enough to capture a reader’s interest to click and look more.
A fuzzy, small title won’t cut it. Curiosity about what the heck a book is actually called will not make a reader click on your book, not when there are thousands to choose from! So check the contrast between your image and title, see what can be done to offset one or the other (light bursts or glow to the title are the most common ways to emphasize words against an image), and also make sure the title, and your name, are taking up the full space. The title should fill the space allocated for it from right to left and have a good height, extending to approximately 1/6 of the cover.
Adjust, or have the font adjusted, so that the vertical height is sufficient to fill the space as well as the horizontal. This is part of how it is legible even when viewed at a small scale like the thumbnail. Then check the contrast between the text and cover. You need high contrast to keep things legible at any scale.
This is why I’m a font addict. Did you realize the font you choose provides subconscious clues to your book’s genre?
Oh, it does. Try selling a fantasy book with a cover title written in “Cowgirl Rope.” There are certain fonts we’ve simply come to match with certain genres. Horror, Romance, Scifi, and Fantasy all have expectations of what works and what doesn’t. Using the correct font not only provides information like the title, but also the genre. Simply by the font selected! There is psychology to fonts! Aren’t you excited?
And if you mix and match a font that implies one genre with a cover that says another… well it could work if your book is a mishmash and you want readers to know it is “space opera fantasy” or it could lead to confusion that keeps a reader scrolling.
How do you know what font fits your genre?
There are lists out there for you to check such as this one from Kindlepreneur. Or take a look at book covers in your genre. If you can’t recognize a font by typeface, you can take a screenshot and upload it to What the Font (yes, that is WTF for short 🤣) to see if it can match it. If not, you can ask the font experts there for ideas. They are usually on the ball and a ton of fun to talk to!
So get your fonts right and it will go a long way to helping you book cover stand out.
You might think we already covered text under fonts… but that was just about what your text looked like. Now we need to talk about what the words actually say.
There are several places where you’ll have text on your cover:
- Title: The title of the book is typically the most prominent element on the cover. It should be easily readable and visually appealing. The font, size, color, and placement of the title can vary depending on the design concept.
- Author’s Name: The author’s name is usually displayed on the cover, although its size and placement can vary. It is often positioned below the title, either on the same line or a separate line.
- Subtitle/Tagline: If the book has a subtitle or a compelling tagline, it may be included on the cover. It provides additional information or entices readers with a short phrase that highlights the book’s content.
- Spine Elements: Book cover design extends beyond the front cover. The spine of the book often includes the title, author’s name, and publisher’s logo.
- Back cover: The back cover usually includes a brief book description, author bio, testimonials, barcode, and sometimes additional artwork or images.
That is a lot of text! And there are some general rules to keep in mind about it.
Check your grammar and spelling
Make sure your all of your text is spelled correctly, punctuated appropriately, and is understandable. Use an editor or at the very least editing software to double check anything before giving it to your cover designer or pasting it into your cover design software.
It is especially important for words you’ve made up. There is nothing more embarrassing or confusing to readers to read something on your cover and then see it written differently on your blurb.
Use keywords that will help your book be found—and understood!
The title of your book and series are searchable, just as the elements in your blurb are as well (the one on the website, not the book description on the back cover). So making good use of what that title and series/sub-title says will not only help readers decide if they want to check out your book, but also maybe find it easier.
So if your book happens to be fantasy, think carefully when choosing a title between a word that might fit your worldbuilding, like the Throne of Kasadia, and one that might better explain the plot, such as Fight for the Dragon Empire. Which one do you connect with first?
The imagery is what most people think of when they think of a book cover, but it is only a piece of the whole (and why I didn’t put it as the first item). The image that is part of the cover, or even a lack of an image, gives clues on genre, type of story (coming of age, action, suspense), and characters.
There are many types of imagery that can be used on a book cover. From photos or photo-composites, use of negative space (white or black areas on the cover), icons, drawn/painted images, or vector graphics. There are a lot of choices you can use to express what is in your book!
Some genres lean toward cartoon style images such as cozy mystery. Others use photo-realistic (real life stories). Fantasy uses everything from photo-composites to a move toward vector style and drawn images. It’s best to check covers in your genre to see what is currently selling well before choosing cover art.
How imagery affects readers
If you are curious all of the psychological elements you can pack into a cover image, here is a list of the biggest:
- Visual Appeal: Humans are highly visual beings, and a visually striking image on a book cover immediately grabs attention and piques curiosity. An appealing and well-crafted image can attract potential readers and make them more likely to pick up the book and explore further.
- Genre Indication: Imagery can provide visual cues about the genre or subject matter of the book. For example, a thrilling suspense novel might feature a mysterious silhouette or a dark, atmospheric scene, while a romance novel might showcase an intimate moment between two characters. By using appropriate imagery, the cover can effectively communicate the book’s genre and attract readers who are interested in that particular type of story.
- Emotional Connection: Imagery has the power to evoke emotions and create a connection with the potential reader. A well-chosen image can convey the mood, tone, or central theme of the book, resonating with the target audience. It allows readers to instantly connect with the book on an emotional level and creates an expectation of what they might find within its pages.
- Story Representation: The image on a book cover can visually represent elements of the story, characters, or key scenes. It serves as a visual representation of the narrative and can provide a glimpse into the world or concept that the book explores. This representation can entice readers who are intrigued by the depicted elements or who are familiar with the story.
- Differentiation and Branding: In a crowded marketplace, imagery can help a book stand out from the competition. A unique and visually captivating image can make a book cover memorable and instantly recognizable. It contributes to the overall branding of the author and their works, creating a visual identity that readers can associate with their writing.
- Cultural and Symbolic Significance: Imagery can incorporate cultural symbols, metaphors, or visual motifs that hold meaning or significance in the context of the book’s content. These symbols can convey deeper layers of meaning or engage with specific cultural references, enhancing the overall storytelling and attracting readers with a particular interest in those elements.
I hope this gives you a greater understanding of why carefully selecting a cover image is so important. An image is more than a catch to capture a reader’s eye. The image feeds the reader a lot of information about your book and if you choose the wrong image, you may be turning away readers who would love your book… or attracting the wrong readers, who then might not buy after reading your blurb.
You might not think about color as being different from the image, but it is! Some genres only use color instead of images and some images use color overlays over the image (fantasy and urban fantasy being examples).
And I’m going to be generous here and use color to include light or dark overlays, which are technically a tone… but let’s just go with color since maybe it is light yellow or dark violet. 😉
Horror is the great genre to use as an example. Have you noticed how many horror covers are dark with red, slashing titles? Or red with black titles? These convey the fear of creatures in the dark and violence the purveys the genre.
Fantasy tends toward violet and blues, green being a close second, either in images or titles. Bright yellows and white often signal coming of age or hopeful adventure. Dark covers and colors indicate dystopian or dark fantasy. Misty effects frequent the genre too. And, of course, there is the nebula effect of magic woven into the cover or title as well.
Pick your colors to highlight subtle clues about your story and not just because it makes the text stand out. Garish says nothing about your story… well, hopefully it isn’t what you are trying to say about your story!
How color affects your book cover
Just like the image and font, a color tone to your cover encodes information that your reader will pick up on. This includes…
- Emotional Impact: Colors evoke specific emotions and moods. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow can convey energy, passion, or warmth, while cool colors like blue and green can evoke calmness, tranquility, or mystery. By selecting colors that align with the desired emotional tone of the book, the cover can immediately communicate the atmosphere or feeling of the story.
- Genre Association: Different colors are often associated with specific genres. For instance, bright and vibrant colors are commonly used in children’s books, while darker or more muted tones are often found in mystery or thriller novels. By utilizing colors that are commonly associated with a particular genre, the book cover can effectively signal its intended audience and genre to potential readers.
- Visual Hierarchy: The choice of color can help establish a visual hierarchy on the cover. By using contrasting colors, such as light text on a dark background or vice versa, important elements like the title or author’s name can stand out and be easily readable. Colors can be used strategically to guide the viewer’s attention to the most important parts of the design.
- Branding and Recognition: Consistent color choices across a series or an author’s books can help create a strong visual identity and facilitate recognition. By maintaining a consistent color scheme or incorporating specific colors associated with the author or series, readers can easily identify and connect the book with the author’s brand.
- Cultural and Symbolic Meanings: Colors can carry cultural or symbolic meanings that can enhance the book’s messaging or reflect its themes. For example, red can signify passion or danger, while green might represent growth or nature. By incorporating colors that align with the book’s themes or symbols, the cover design can deepen its visual storytelling and resonate with readers.
- Contrast and Legibility: The color of the text and graphic elements on the cover should be chosen carefully to ensure readability and clarity. The contrast between the background color and the text color should be sufficient for easy reading. High contrast can make the text pop and be more visible, while low contrast can create a more subtle or sophisticated look.
You might not have thought much about a color overlay or overall color scheme for your cover, but it carries some important clues about your book. It is useful for more than just helping your title or author name stand out.
There is another element to cover design that goes hand in hand with the actual images, colors, and text: the composition. The overall layout and composition of the cover design determines how different elements are arranged and interact with each other. It should be balanced, aesthetically pleasing, and draw the viewer’s attention to the most important elements.
You might not think there is not much to debate about the cover design process, but do you want your title at the top or bottom… or up the side? And why? How will that affect how readers interact with your cover.
Things to consider with your book cover composition
When deciding how to layout your book cover, here is a list of some things to keep in mind.
- Visual Hierarchy: Composition helps establish a visual hierarchy, guiding the viewer’s attention and indicating the relative importance of different elements. By utilizing size, placement, and contrast, the designer can emphasize key elements such as the title, author’s name, or central image. A well-executed composition ensures that the most critical information is easily noticeable and stands out.
- Balance and Symmetry: Composition helps achieve visual balance and symmetry within the design. Balance refers to the distribution of visual elements to create a sense of equilibrium. It can be achieved through symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangements. A balanced composition ensures that no single element overwhelms the others, creating a harmonious and pleasing visual experience for the viewer.
- Alignment and Grid Systems: Composition can utilize alignment and grid systems to create a structured and organized layout. Elements such as text and images can be aligned to a grid or along common axes to create a sense of order and unity. A well-aligned composition helps create a professional and polished look.
- Negative Space: Composition involves the effective use of negative space, which is the empty or unoccupied space within the design. Negative space can help balance the visual elements, create breathing room, and enhance the overall clarity and impact of the design. Thoughtful use of negative space can draw attention to the main focal points and contribute to a clean and uncluttered composition.
- Visual Flow: Composition guides the viewer’s eye through the design in a deliberate manner, creating a visual flow. This can be achieved through the arrangement of elements, leading lines, and the use of directional cues. A well-designed composition leads the viewer’s gaze from one element to another in a logical and engaging manner, capturing their attention and conveying the intended message effectively.
- Context and Storytelling: Composition can be used to convey a sense of context and storytelling. By strategically placing elements and creating relationships between them, the cover can hint at the themes, setting, or characters within the book. The composition can evoke emotions and provide a glimpse into the narrative, generating intrigue and compelling the viewer to explore further.
- Genre Appropriateness: Composition should be aligned with the genre and target audience of the book. Different genres have different design conventions and expectations. The composition should reflect the tone, style, and aesthetic of the genre, ensuring that the cover appeals to the intended readership.
Composition plays a large role in moving a self-designed cover up to a professionally designed cover. Layout creates a cohesive feel to all the elements, purposefully putting some to the fore while pulling the reader toward others secondary or tertiary. This attention “catch” helps draw the reader in, clicking on your book to see more, so consider it carefully when buying or creating a cover.
6. Branding and other graphics
We’ve covered the five main elements of book covers, but there is more. Not every book will have these, but I want to mention them. And maybe you’ll want to consider them on your next book and series!
The publisher’s logo or author branding elements are often placed on the front, spine, or back cover, reinforcing the book’s association with a particular publishing house or imprint. A series can have a logo to help tie it together—think of the Dragonlance logo.
These logos help show the relationship between books and can give visual recognition to a reader if they bounce to your website and see the same series or author logo. But, of course, you need to consider how they will fit into the overall layout of the cover. They shouldn’t distract from the clues you are giving to the reader such as the genre and tone of the book.
A logo is rarely the largest or first thing a reader should focus on. So make sure adding one doesn’t offset the composition and all the hard work you’ve put into the cover so far.
Awards and other graphics
There might be something else you really want to include on your book, such as the awesome award you earned! I get it. Announcing your book was a best seller or won book of the year is fantastic, and a cover is often the place to drop an image to help alert the reader.
And that is great, but adding a feature such as an award logo after a cover is designed can often unbalance the entire image. The reader will see the award first… and that might be just what you are looking for. Or it might detract from the overall message.
Trust a cover designer to help you find the best spot, size, and color to make sure the logo is seen without ruling above every other element of your cover. After all, the image, title, etc shouldn’t be undermined by an award icon.
7. Size and Resolution
You might not think of size as part of your book image, but it is an important element! At least, important as in your book will be displayed at different sizes, print books require a different resolution, and there are specific requirements by online platforms for minimum cover sizes. You certainly don’t want your book rejected because you purchased a too small of a sized cover!
Platform Size Requirements
Every online retailer has a size requirement (and accepted formats) for book covers used to display your book on their website. I’d list them here, but there are a lot of ebook retailers AND these requirements change over time. A few years ago, they were smaller than they are now.
So, while Amazon will allow you to get away with a cover that is 1,000 pixels by 625 pixels, I wouldn’t recommend it. Most websites are looking for a cover that is closer to 2000+ x 1200+ pixels. These are big images, much bigger than you’ll use to post on social media. If you are buying a cover, make sure the size matches requirements before you click the purchase button.
One more thing to consider with book cover sizes is the length to width ratio. Despite books often being digital these days, a smaller width compared to the height is still standard. Most sites will let you upload slightly different proportional sizes (except for audiobooks, which are universally square), BUT they may decide to make your image fit their constraints. So this means all the work done on that lovely cover gets squished of stretched into something horrible.
It’s best to double check the requirements on your main ebook platform. For example, Amazon prefers a 1.6 to 1 ratio. This means if you had a width of 1000 pixels, the ideal height would be 1600 pixels.
Also, keep in mind that you might be able to get away for a different sized cover. They do exist and you’ll stumble on them on Amazon. Maybe something unique will make your book stand out… but maybe it will also look like you just don’t know what you are doing—which is not a good look. Keeping within standards is usually best for size ratios!
And here’s a final pro-tip: if your book cover has a lot of white on the edges, create a border with an outline to use as the store image for sites like Amazon. Otherwise, the image will merge with the page and look horrible!
I’ve already mentioned that there are some different sizes you’ll see your book cover displayed for online retailers. Let’s dig into those a bit.
The results of searches are often shown as thumbnails of around 250 pixels wide. This is tiny! You can’t hope for a lot of detail to be shown here, but the overall look, tone, and main image will be noticeable, as well as your title (hopefully legible!). Readers will get the overall impression of genre and layout at this size, which is why you should focus on those subtle clues using colors, fonts, and images that fit along with a layout that says you are professional.
The book cover shown with your blurb is bigger than a thumbnail, but no where near the size of your full sized image. It will be closer to 400 to 500 pixels wide. This will be the most prominent size where most readers will see your cover, so this is the size you should absolutely focus on for reader impact. Make sure everything is legible, clear, and attractive to your ideal reader. If things are too cluttered or unclear at this size, cut out the extra detail and slim it down.
Honestly, I don’t know if a reader will ever see your book at the full size image the retailer requires! It will exist on the e-reader, but even that isn’t quite as large as some of the sizes you can upload. And that is why I said to focus on your cover at a small size of around 500 pixels wide. You can pack in a LOT of detail at something 3 times that width… more than you really need to pay for or that the reader will ever see.
It can be hard when cover shopping because you want to see the full sized image. And it should look great with clean edges around objects, especially if clipped from a photo. That is just a sign of a quality designer though and will help your cover have a crisp, professional feel. But something that will be a great book cover displayed on an e-retailer sight might feel a bit plain at full scale resolution. Don’t get sucked into more is better. In this case, stay focused on the message and image that isn’t overwhelming at a smaller size.
Print versus Online
There is a huge, vast difference between print and digital. Really, this is a whole other post that I’m not sure I want to crack open here. But let’s try to scrape the surface…
The first big difference between print and online covers is resolution, otherwise known as dots per inch or DPI. An ebook cover only needs a resolution of 72 DPI. If you printed that, however, it would look blurry and horrible. A print cover needs to be 300 DPI!
You can make up for some of the difference in resolution requirements by using a large size book cover (because the size will most likely need to be reduced to match your book print size) and using some formats that maintain better resolution like PNGs over JPGs. But… in general, an ebook cover will not work as a print book cover. If you also want to use your ebook cover as a print cover, you should ask the designer for a 300 DPI version as well (which you may need to pay extra for).
And the other big difference is color. Ebook covers are literally painted with light. That means they use RGB or Red, Green, Blue as color mode. However, print books use CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) as these are the colors of ink used to make your image.
There is a whole realm of physics here in that light is additive and ink is subtractive and blah blah blah. The important thing to note is that another reason your ebook cover will look like crap with odd colors as a printed cover is that it has the wrong color base. Ask your designer for a print cover in a print ready file. It will look better. You’ll be happier. There is a reason designers get paid for what they do. They work magic!
And if you ever talk to a book cover designer and ask them what resolution you need for a print book and they don’t answer 300 DPI, don’t buy their cover. Simple as that. I just saved you some heartache and time.
Some final steps for making sure your book cover stands out
So if you don’t want to go the route of a cliched book cover, or simply not to have yours get lost amid all the other books in your genre, you’ll have to find a way to make it stand out without subverting the subconscious clues to the genre and tone of your book. Here are some tips on how to give your book cover some zing without wrecking its genre theme.
- Research the market: Before designing your book cover, research other books in the same genre as yours. See what kinds of cover designs are popular and what elements they contain. You don’t want your cover to look like every other book in your category, but it’s essential to understand what is visually appealing to your target audience. Getting an idea of the playing field will help you know what readers expected AND to find book covers that catch your eye. What is better about them that you like? How can you do something similar, or, better yet, even better?
- Use strong imagery: A compelling image can draw readers in and pique their interest in your book. Whether it’s a striking photograph or a beautifully illustrated design, the image on your cover should be relevant to the content of your book. The stronger the image you can put together, the more intriguing it will be to potential readers—allowing it to compete better in a crowded market.
- Choose the right typography: The typography on your cover is just as important as the imagery. The font you choose should be legible and appropriate for the genre of your book. You should also consider the color and size of the text to ensure that it’s easy to read and stands out. Look at the text at a full size, mid size, and thumbnail. Can you still read the important elements? Does the font look similar to other books in your genre.
- Keep it simple: A cluttered cover can be overwhelming and confusing to potential readers. Keep your design simple and easy to understand. Focus on one or two central elements that capture the essence of your book. All elements you use should work together to achieve an overall message and look that gives clues to readers about your book. Is it exciting, mysterious, a mixed genre such as an epic fantasy image with a rough, dystopian style font (for dark fantasy)? Purposefully choose and craft the message your book cover is conveying and you will see better sales and better reviews as a result.
- Test your cover: Before finalizing your book cover, get feedback from others. Show it members of your target audience as well as other authors in your genre. Now is a great time to utilize your email list to ask them what they think about the cover for your next book! Ask for their honest opinions and use their feedback to make any necessary changes. But also remember that one person’s feedback isn’t necessarily everyone’s opinion. Just like with beta readers, look for trends and if readers keep focusing on certain aspects, then those are the ones you want to pay attention to.
Remember that your book cover is the first thing readers will see, and it’s essential to make a good first impression. By using strong imagery, typography, and a simple design, you can create a cover that stands out from others and attracts potential readers.
You might not have realized there was so much to a book cover! It is one of the reasons that we recommend hiring a cover designer if you are not a graphic artist yourself. And even then, sometimes it is good to have separation. Just like trying to edit your own work, it can be difficult to see the “forest because of the trees” because you are too close to it.
You might be worried about such a minor detail that most readers would never notice and has no impact on book sales (check out the comments under Size again). It helps to at least have another author/designer to keep you focused on the things that matter, like those listed here.
Do you want to check out an awesome post on what happens when you use all the fantasy cliches in one epic book cover? Head over to the Thoughts on Fantasy Blog and prepared to be amazed (and highly amused!) for a few more cover ideas… or maybe things to avoid. lol.
Think about what you want that color, font, imagery, and size to say about your work, your genre, and your story. Because even if you don’t think about it, the reader will be using the information to judge your book. So it is better to be sure you know what you are subconsciously telling them!
This is your number one marketing image for all the hard work and time (and money) you’ve put into creating this book. It is not just the wrapping paper that will be thrown away—it will represent your story to the world. This is your story’s crown jewels. Don’t go cheap and chintzy after all of that dedication. Your characters and work deserve better!
But you also don’t need to take out a loan for a great cover. There are some great designers who are reasonably priced and even some great premade covers by designers who know what they are doing. Shop around, ask questions, maybe add on a few tweaks, and you’ll find cover that fits your story, reaches the right readers, and stands out of the crowd.