Image: The front and back cover of 'Darwin's Wake' before the ISBN and barcode. (Source: Pete Mitchell).
The adage that ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’ couldn’t be more wrong in publishing. It might be an admirable attribute in your personal relationships, but when it comes to books, the cover plays a pivotal role.
A book’s cover is its first impression. It entices a reader to pick it up and explore its pages. Even before that it might determine if a bookstore stocks it, and where it places it amongst its peers on the shelf. Just like cereal in supermarket aisles, a book placed at eye level is more likely to sell.
Designing a book cover is an art form that requires an appreciation of aesthetics, an understanding of the book’s content or its intent, and a touch of marketing flair. The same rules apply regardless of genre or indeed if it is fiction or non-fiction.
There are several fundamentals that can assist you in determining what gives your ‘baby’ the best start in its young (literary) life:
Understand what your book is trying to say.
The first step in designing a book cover is to thoroughly understand the book's content, themes, and tone. Just as a blurb should give context, the cover should talk to the prospective reader. If you have contracted your cover design to an external party makes sure the designer understands what you are trying to say. At the very least, they should understand the genre, the time period in which the story unfolds and the main characters. Knowing the essence of the book is essential to create a cover that resonates with your potential readership.
Image: A great new cover for an old book, 'The Wizard of Oz.'
Research the Market
Examine the market for books similar to yours. What colours, fonts, and types of images are commonly used? Do they use photo realistic images or artistic creations? This type of research will help you identify trends and design elements that are currently appealing to your book’s target audience. While you don’t want to copy existing designs, this can provide valuable inspiration. I reconnoitred the shelves of several bookshops, where I visualised ‘Darwin’s Wake’ sitting amongst its contemporaries. It was amazing how many followed a similar colour scheme (blue cover with yellow or orange fonts).
Hint: I provided photos of covers I liked to the designer as an example of how I wanted my cover to look. Some might say you want to look different, to stand out, but I think your first novel needs to conform. When you have established yourself as an author – then you can afford to be more creative with cover design.
Decide on a Colour Pallet
Colours evoke emotions and set the tone. Choose a colour palette that aligns with the book’s themes and genre. For example, warm colours like reds and oranges can evoke passion and excitement (that might be appropriate for a romance novel), while cool blues and greens can create a sense of calm, that might suite a cosy mystery. The colour palette selected also extends to the fonts you use. The font should be clear against the other images, unless you are deliberately trying to be obscure! A colour wheel instantly tells you what contrasting colours to use. Remember though that colour-blindness makes it difficult for some people to distinguish from red and green, so don’t use this combination
Hint: Use the same font and colour palette for other market materials (e.g., bookmarks, business cards, t-shirts, etc.) it doesn’t hurt to look like a well-established brand even when you’re starting.
Image: A colour palette from Canva. (Source Canva.com)
Choosing the right font size and text placement is crucial. The title and author’s name should be easily readable, even in thumbnail size. Remember that the cover will appear on different websites and booklists. The font should align with the book’s genre and tone. For instance, a whimsical font might work for a children’s book but would be out of place on a serious non-fiction cover. Remember the rule of thumb is the author’s name only comes first or is in larger font than the title if it is the author’s name has a more powerful marketing message. Don’t get clever and reverse this. It will only seem arrogant.
Hint: If in doubt, choose the simpler selection.
Create Eye-catching Visuals
An illustration, photograph, or abstract design, should draw the reader in. Consider hiring a professional illustrator or photographer if your budget allows. The imagery should complement the book's content and resonate with potential readers. While there are plenty of free images that can be used, make sure the size doesn’t make it look cheap and pixelated when printed. Ask the printer for a galley proof before printing too many copies.
Once you have a preliminary design, seek feedback from beta readers, colleagues, or design experts. Their insights can help you refine and improve the cover. Be open to making revisions based on constructive feedback.
Image: No argument here - a compelling cover from Stephen King. (Source: The website of Stephen King).
Hint: Check out Google Images for free images and other sources like Canva or Pixaby. Note if you choose to use an image that is not freestock you will be required to pay the owner for the use. The cost for this can vary hugely, so make sure you know what you'll be up for before committing to print.
Test Different Formats
Keep in mind that your book cover will appear in various formats, from physical prints to digital thumbnails. Test how your design looks in different sizes and formats to ensure it remains visually appealing and legible.
Finally, when you're satisfied with the design, make sure it meets the technical requirements for printing or digital publishing. Work with a professional graphic designer to ensure the design translates well into the final product.
Image: One of my favourite non-fiction book covers, 'Made to Stick' by Chip and Dan Heath. (Source: Goodreads)
The Essential Stuff
Don’t forget that your book cover design includes the rear cover of the book and the spine. The spine should clearly state the title and the author’s name. It may also include the logo of your publisher. If you think your book deserves a place on a library shelf – and of course it does, leave room for the library number to be added. The rear of the book should include a compelling blurb (a whole other blog topic), publisher info and the ISBN and barcode. Make sure the barcode (or QR Code) is sufficient resolution. It is a good idea to include your web address if you are trying to develop a readership. If your book has some rave reviews or endorsements from people that readers might recognise they can be included too.
I prefer not to have a photo of the author, but it’s a personal choice.
Image: Even in a foreign language (Danish?) this cover is unmistakably one of Natasha Lester's. A great example of deciding on a style and sticking to it. (Source: Natasha Lester's website)
Even if you decide to hire a professional book cover designer it can be a fun exercise to play with a few examples from DIY or readymade sites to brief the designer. Beware though, it can be an exercise that burns hours of your time. The development of tools like Canva have come a long way in recent years and the output quality is impressive.
Hint: Canva is the go-to tool for all things print design and it has a free to use option. Alternatively, you might like to use a service like Bookcoverzone.com. This site has readymade covers that you can you drop your title and other information directly into.
Rember a well-crafted book cover not only attracts readers but should also convey the essence of the story within. By following these steps and investing time and effort into the design process, you can create a book cover that stands out on the shelves and leaves a lasting impression on readers.
Remember, the cover is the gateway to your literary world, so make it captivating and memorable and make sure you have fun in the process.
Do you have a favourite book cover?