I look at a LOT of book covers. I am either designing a cover or researching covers. I’m always evaluating what does — and doesn’t work — make a good book cover design. As you would expect, a good deal of this research is on Amazon where you can see the good, the bad, and the I-want-to-poke-my-eyeballs-out ugly.

Self-publishing is becoming the new standard for authors. This means more authors are opting for designing their own book covers. Most authors are too emotionally invested in their book to make the best design decisions. In my experience — most do not have the design skills to create a professional looking cover. As I recently read in a popular author forum, “Writers should write, and designers should design.”

A large and easy to read title

This is more important than ever in today’s digital world. The majority of our potential buyers will be seeing your cover on a device, not on a shelf in the bookstore.

No more than 2 fonts

If you want your cover to look professional, resist the temptation to use too many fonts. Please note that I’m not saying which 2 fonts you should use. As a self-professed font-a-holic, I have to confess that I have almost 8,000 fonts squirreled away on my computer but that doesn’t mean that I try to use them all at one 🙂

A NOTE ABOUT ALL CAPS. I’ve read articles that you shouldn’t use all caps on a cover. I couldn’t disagree more. There are many wonderful looking covers that break this rule but you really need to know about typography to pull it off well. Depending on the font you use, consider using small caps instead of upper case capitals.

Example: ALL CAPS versus small caps

Legible fonts

Fancy fonts are fun to use but simple — well designed — fonts are more legible at smaller sizes (see above). How does your cover look at thumbnail size? Do the “squint test.” Use your image previewer and reduce your cover to a small size (think Amazon preview). Squint your eyes and look at it. Can you read the title? What does your cover looks like in black and white or grayscale?

Try to avoid:

  • “Shaping” your text
  • Applying extreme text effects. This is tempting to do when you want to make it “look better”
  • Amateur looking fonts, like Comic Sans or Papyrus

Professional artwork

Please don’t use your own artwork — or your children’s artwork — on the cover. Yes, there are a exceptions to this rule but I’m going to assume that this isn’t one of them. Your cover art should capture the mood of the story. It’s the promise of things to come.

A professional book cover designer will have the skills to create an image that will help you book stand out. The best ones have years of practice manipulating images and the best softwares to get the job done.

Try to avoid:

  • Cheesy clipart. You know what I’m talking about. Professional designers use quality stock images and vector graphics in their covers. That’s the difference between slop and pop!
  • Putting images inside a box or using borders around the whole cover. It’s a sure sign of a DIY cover. Nothing screams “amateur” louder.
  • Gradients. A gradient on your book cover is a real turn off.
  • Garish color combinations. Yes, there are some successful covers that have wild colors on them but they were created by a designer with a good knowledge of color theory.
  • White backgrounds. Most retailers — like Amazon — have a white background on their website and this will ensure that your cover will disappear and get lost in the shuffle. At the very least, you should use a solid color, a texture, or a background illustration.

A true reflection on its genre

Many authors use forums to test their book covers. The most common feedback I hear is, “it doesn’t look like a scifi or fill in the blank genre book.” This rule is a bit harder to follow because many authors choose the cover image based solely on emotion.

Above all, remember, rules are made to be broken. But, first, you need to know the rules! If you decide to try designing your own book cover, I hope you will find these suggestions helpful. A good start is looking at LOTS of book covers. They are an invaluable resource for inspiration and fresh ideas. If, however, you decide to hire a designer or maybe purchase a premade book cover — now you know what to look for.

Extra credit assignment:

Take a look at the covers below. Which one has the easiest title to read? Take a moment to click on each cover and check out how the books are doing on Amazon. The results shouldn’t surprise you.