Want to make your next book fly off the shelf? Here are 25+ expert tips on how to design an eye-catching book cover...
When it comes to book cover design, a picture can say a thousand words – literally! The right book cover can catch the eyes of potential readers, sell them a story, and convince them to crack open a book and start reading. But what makes a book cover jump off shelves?
With over a million books now being published every year, readers are spoilt for choice. And with such an overwhelmingly large number of books to choose from, there’s no doubt that we do tend to judge a book by its cover. So, to grab the attention of your audience and ensure the success of the book you’re working with, a unique, professional and thoughtfully considered book cover design is key.
To find out how to design a book cover that not only draws in your audience but keeps them turning those pages, we’ve compiled these top tips, tricks, and advice from some of the most experienced experts in the industry. Here’s what they had to say…
As designers, we don’t always have the time to read the book in its entirety and we, therefore, rely on what the editor has to say about it. Editors know their books very well, but your perspective on it will always be unique. By reading the book, you can enrich the design with so much more than its summary. It’s also very important to research the market. See what else is being published, and analyze what will make your book distinguishable from the rest. Think about how it will look on a shelf, and what will make it stand out to your target audience.
My creative process starts with exploring what I’d like to do, so I can then gather all I need to make it happen. I like to prepare for the project by reading about it, watching documentaries on the subject, and going to the library and bookstore. After that, I like to brainstorm with my editor. Great ideas come when a “pictures brain” (me) meets with a “words brain” (my editor.) After that, the fun begins: execution! This is my favorite part of the process, and I like to experiment before I settle on a final execution. After this, I like to get feedback to make sure my project is well received by not just myself, but a broader audience. This whole process is fueled by black coffee and accidental intake of brush water, and constantly interrupted by Frida, my cat, hiding my tools.
A small sketchbook is an essential tool for me. If something I have in mind looks good on a thumbnail, it means it can be seen from a far distance and still look good. Lately, I’ve been also using Adobe Fresco on my iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil and it works wonderfully for lettering. Adobe InDesign is my go-to tool for book designing, and Adobe Photoshop helps to make any corrections to the artwork. I also love creating mood boards on Pinterest, it’s an easy and practical way to conceptualize my vision for each project.
My top tip is to address these three pillars: storytelling, clarity, and simplicity. The last two can be interpreted in various ways. For example, simplicity doesn’t always mean minimalism, or only two elements and few colors. For me, simplicity is determined by the number of times your eyes wander to different parts of the image. There shouldn’t be elements that distract too much from the main visual, and the theme – despite being open or ambivalent – should be clear.
I used to sketch ideas in my notebook with a pencil, but then I became a Photoshop maniac. I use many Grit Textures Supply tools, Kyle T. Webster’s brushes, and take scans of papers and other textures from my clothing or whatever I find to achieve a distressed effect. I have always been fond of my Wacom tablet, Intuos for traveling, and Intuos pro for my studio. I have even got more accustomed to drawing like that directly into the screens like in Procreate or in the Cintiq. The design field is now more fond of the content of illustrations rather than the traditional pictorial part, which is something I admire about this technological era. Technical virtuosity isn’t as valuable as being keen to learn.
The hardest part of designing a book cover is deciding on a concept. I get anxious sometimes because I have to come up with at least three different ideas, and I always want at least one of them to be wild or poetic while the others can be more simple. Deciding on a concept gets more challenging every time, because I’m always changing styles and there are infinite subjects to illustrate.
Designing a book cover can be a little overwhelming, so my advice is to get to know your book from cover to cover! Read it again and again, making notes as you go and highlighting the parts that resonate as key moments.
Once you are familiar with the storyline, put together a visual mood board using something like Pinterest to pin your ideas and references relating to your notes. This could include colors, textures, photographs, places of interest, etc. This is a great way to kickstart your imagination when developing the design for your book cover.
Finally, make sure you are familiar with the technical specifications of the cover design. What is the physical size of the book? Will you be designing a cover that needs to incorporate the front of the book, spine and back cover or do you only need to focus on the front cover? Figuring out these things at the beginning of the design process will save you a lot of time and ensure that the final design will work seamlessly with your chosen book.
Before starting work on my commission to illustrate ‘The Color Purple by Alice Walker, I read the novel several times to get to know the story before I actually started any drawing work. I highlighted scenes that I thought portrayed the essential essence of each character and then I spent quite a bit of time imagining not so much the faces of the characters, but more the expression in their eyes.
Once I had a gaze fixed in my mind, I then did a lot of research using public domain online archives, looking through photographs that focused on the lives of sharecroppers and migratory agricultural workers in the USA during the 1930s. This wealth of reference material gave me the visual foundation to start drawing the characters in the novel. The faces always evolve as I work, which is what I love about drawing. You can start off with a definite idea of what you want to draw, and then creativity takes over and decides what the end result will look like.
Age, gender and genre are the main things we establish before starting any book cover design. Since most of our authors don’t have the budget for focus groups and market research, we use online research of successful books in the genre to guide the initial design direction.
What is the main selling feature of your book? Is it the quirky title, the best-selling author name or maybe the attractive main character? Whatever the answer, make sure that is the first thing readers are going to notice about the cover. Visual hierarchy is established most often through size and contrast.
The right font selections and proportions can make or break a book cover design. Poor typography is a dead giveaway for an amateur vs professional book cover.
I’m a big advocate of trying to suggest action from beyond the page. I think this was one of Jules Cheret‘s tips when he was designing posters, and it’s something I try to emulate as best I can within any given brief. I’ve always tended towards a relatively limited color palette in all of my images – it’s more impactful and is something I like to see in book covers and posters in particular. I think a general approach of suggestion, rather than explicitly showing, is a key tip for me.
My latest work is predominantly digital. I used to scan in-line drawings and use Photoshop to fill out the colors and textures, but I found some great Photoshop brushes from Kyle T. Webster that mimic pencil marks, which I now use a lot. This frees up time to spend on other parts of the design process. Deadlines are always pretty tight, so it can be a bit of a juggling act trying to work within a limited timeframe.
Designing a book cover is like trying to create a movie trailer in only one frame, or in this case, one image. Just like a trailer, your cover doesn’t have to tell the whole story: it can be just one interesting scene, object, or place. First and foremost, you must have an overall tone or emotion that you want to convey on your cover. Emotion is very important in art, and it’s what speaks most to your audience.
One of the things that you can do before creating your book cover is to check out bestsellers in your category. This is not just about checking out the competition; it can also help you decide what kind of cover works best for your genre.
Checking out new design trends will help you design a more timely and relevant cover. You can look for references or inspiration online – I usually just type some relevant keywords into Google and check the first few images that pop up. They rank highest in search engines for a reason, so you should consider that as well.
I first get inspired by sketching different ideas in my notebook. If I can’t think of any, I’ll go for a walk to clear my mind, or take a break and treat myself to some chocolates.
I also go to Amazon to check the covers of bestselling books. Once I’ve decided what kind of design works best for the cover, I create a mood board then look for three fonts that I think will work best on the cover. For the color palette, I usually go to paletton.com to get inspiration for color combinations. I then post an online poll on the TCK Publishing social media to see which covers resonate best with our audience and get their feedback.
When preparing illustrations for the interior of a book, I find it easier to start with the small stuff and leave the cover for last. By the time I start working on the cover, I have a clear picture of what atmosphere and message I’m looking to convey.
I usually experiment with different illustration styles and techniques until I decide upon a visual approach that’s both engaging and works well with the brief. There’s always a moment when nothing seems good enough, and there’s an urge to start over again from scratch. But once the design is about 70% completed, the serotonin kicks in. The last 30% of a design piece feels magic.
Eye-catching covers often feature strong focal points in their designs, which can be achieved in a variety of ways. The use of vignettes, complementary colors, and atmospheric depth are all great ways to create a clear focal point.
Your font selections should always speak to the genre of the book and complement the imagery. Ensure your text maintains legibility, and be cautious of adding too many layer effects, which can make cover text difficult to read. I recommend a limit of three different typographic treatments for the front cover.
With all the ways a book cover can be viewed, it’s very important to preview covers on different devices to ensure the design maintains its impact and readability. For example, how a cover appears at full size on a PC may not translate to an Apple smartphone user.
Mismarketing your book can be a recipe for a disaster. You want to attract potential readers with a cover that represents your genre and style accurately. To do this, nothing is as effective as robust, old-fashioned market research. Learn what your audience prefers, how and why other covers in your genre work or don’t work, industry trends, etc. Don’t mimic other authors, but ensure your cover fits neatly into your niche and matches the preferences of your audience.
Your cover should display or hint at your book’s selling point. It could be a strong, interesting character, an amazing world, an experimental concept, or a masterful execution of beloved genre tropes. Find the crucial element that makes your book unique and ensure the cover sells it well.
Color, imagery, and typography work together to create a certain emotional atmosphere. Ideally, you want the atmosphere to match the vibe of your story. The easiest way is finding color combinations that have established associations. For example, the combination of dark and red is often used to convey the sense of danger, which is why it’s such a popular choice for horrors.
Scribble every idea that comes to your mind and see how it feels, what works best for you and what creatively motivates you. In my experience, your first instinct is usually best, so don’t think about the concept for too long. This gets you to the truest result and saves time.
After 10 years I completely moved to digital work, it’s just the fastest way to work today and gives the best options for quick corrections. I work on a Wacom tablet and also use Procreate with an iPad Pro for sketches and line art.
In some cases I draw the sketch and line art on paper, then scan it and digitally color it. Sometimes this feels more organic and less perfect than totally digital work and gives it more dimension. Merging traditional and digital means you can see the constructions, traces of erased or blurred lines and see the working process shine through the final artwork.