10 Tips for Effective Book Covers

As more authors opt for independent publishing routes, I’m getting more questions about secrets to good book design, production, and layout.

While at F+W, I spent hundreds of hours in cover design/review meetings. Sometimes I forget about the education it’s given me. Here are the 10 biggest things I learned about book cover design during those conversations (and also from seeing the sales outcomes).

Remember: Most people in book publishing believe that a cover is a book’s No. 1 marketing tool.

  1. The title should be big and easy to read. This is more important than ever. (Many people will first encounter your cover on a screen, not on a shelf.) This is such a well-worn cliche of cover design that I have a designer friend with a Facebook photo album called “Make the Title Bigger.”
  2. Don’t forget to review a thumbnail image of the cover. Is the cover compelling at a small size? More people are buying books on a Kindle or mobile device, so you want the cover to read clearly no matter where it appears. You should also anticipate what the cover looks like in grayscale.
  3. Do not use any of the following fonts (anywhere!): Comic Sans or Papyrus. These fonts are only acceptable if you are writing a humor book, or intentionally attempting to create a design that publishing professionals will laugh at.
  4. No font explosions! (And avoid special styling.) Usually a cover should not use more than 2 fonts. Avoid the temptation to put words in caps, italics caps, outlined caps, etc. Do not “shape” the type either.
  5. Do not use your own artwork, or your children’s artwork, on the cover. There are a few rare exceptions to this, but let’s assume you are NOT one of them. It’s almost always a terrible idea.
  6. Do not use cheap clip art on your cover. I’m talking about the stuff that comes free with Microsoft Word or other cheap layout programs. Quality stock photography is OK. (iStockPhoto is one reliable source for quality images.) 
  7. Do not stick an image inside a box on the cover. I call this the “T-shirt” design. It looks extremely amateurish.
  8. Avoid gradients. It’s especially game-over if you have a cover with a rainbow gradient.
  9. Avoid garish color combinations. Sometimes such covers are meant to catch people’s attention. Usually, it just makes your book look freakish.
  10. Finally: Don’t design your own cover. The only people who should consider designing their own covers are professional graphic designers—and even then, it’s not advisable.

Bonus tip: No sunrise photos, no sunset photos, no ocean photos, no fluffy clouds.

Here are some covers that do not follow these 10 tips.

Want more on this topic? Check out The Book Designer by Joel Friedlander.

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38 thoughts on “10 Tips for Effective Book Covers

  1. dmdaye

    A great book cover can make such a huge difference to the way in which your book is perceived by your intended audience, I’ve used the guys at http//www.jdandj.com (it’s well worth checking their designs too).
    Great article however!


  2. melisanda

    It’s a pity that most of the 10 tips are about what not to do. These, presumably, are tips for the self-publishing author, and as such are probably pretty good advice. The last one, however, ‘don’t design your own cover’ makes all the rest redundant.

    A professional designer would be able to break a number of those ‘rules’ and still produce an excellent cover. An amateur could follow them all and still produce a dreadful cover, e.g. there are thousands of terrible fonts out there other than comic sans and papyrus (which isn’t all that bad anyway, just a bit hackneyed).

    In the end, though, a book cover does no more than attract prospective readers to pick up the book and look at the marketing blurb, which in turn encourages them to look inside. I think it highly unlikely that a person has ever bought a book because they liked the cover. On the other hand, I’ve known quite a number of books with rather poor covers which have sold very well. Alas, the buying public don’t know the rules.

  3. Cathi Stevenson

    I’ve written similar lists for articles and blogs myself over the years. I’d like to add handshakes and puzzle pieces to the "images not to use anymore" list.

    I’m still saddened by the fall of Papyrus. It was one of the first "fancy" fonts I ever used as a designer…long, long ago…back when my hair was naturally blond and I had no idea what "control top" meant. 😉

  4. Paul

    Most of those I agree, but why not ‘shape’ the type? Do you have a technical reason for this? Stretched type for example?

    I agree radical things like curved shapes and blends don’t work, but stretched type faces sometimes can work — in my view?

  5. Susan Neuhaus

    Great rules for DIY publishers and new cover designers. You might add:
    – Have a persnickety editor look over your cover.
    (The Chiropractor’s Editor would have noticed the straight "foot mark" instead of a curly apostrophe.)

  6. Joel Friedlander

    Jane, thanks for the mention. What a terrific roundup of cover advice. You really cooked it down to its essentials. If authors just followed your advice, we would have a lot fewer covers like the ones you’re showing here and which, unfortunately, are very easy to find. Another rule might be "take it easy with the drop shadows and special effects."

  7. Jane Friedman

    Kim D – Well, let’s have a good conversation about this, yeah? Maybe you could provide us with some design principles that defend the 80s cover as well as the boxed photo. Why do these work from a graphic designer’s standpoint?

  8. kim d

    I was going to repost but I don’t agree with some of these suggestions and I’m a graphic designer. I also like the 80s cover and the boxed photo is not as bad as you say.

  9. Bob Mayer

    That’s weird. We just posted a blog this morning at Write It Forward about our experience with book covers. Agree with every point. It’s an art form. We made a lot of mistake. The big thing is contrast. Words and images have to pop.

  10. Steven M Moore

    Hi Jane!
    I will try to print off your rules–I think they are very useful. My first novel had a cover designed by three graphic artists. I thought it was quite good and said something about the story line. The next two were done by Infinity. They are more professional even, though I don’t know about the fonts. From my website design I had learned that it’s best for me to throw out some ideas or guidelines and let the artist(s) (read experts) have at it. My readers have told me that my covers are good marketing tools–I have no way to tell. They’ve mentioned especially the cover of Soldiers of God which they say is quite striking. Done by Infinity, it’s not quite a sunset, though it’s a picturesque scene. I imagine the A-bomb blast contrasted with the Juan Valdes character is what does it!
    Take care.

  11. David H. Burton

    Excellent advice! I design my own (gasp), but I have a background in web design, so I felt comfortable doing it. I follow the rules you stated above in addition to:

    – use font colors that work with the rest of the design (usually a color already in the cover design). There’s nothing worse that font colors that clash with the rest of the cover.

  12. Jane Friedman

    @Martyn – Thanks so much for taking time to share some other tips. Agree very much that you should understand what the current "look" is for your genre. "Look and learn" is right.

    That said, I don’t think Comic Sans is ever, ever coming back. (My attempt was to offer timeless principles of good design that will not likely change in our lifetimes, so I still stand by them.)

    @Simon – I’d argue you’ve received a positive reaction because readers are usually kind people. Few people will be so brazen as to criticize your book cover or your children’s art. However, if you’re reaching your sales expectations, then keep doing what you’re doing!

  13. Martyn Daniels

    The problem is that there should be no rules as what is acceptable today becomes a loud yawn tomorrow. There are clear trends that work then go out of fashion. The big ones you missed are:
    Go look at the latest styles in the charts or similar books and look and learn.
    Ensure any pictures comply with copyright and buying stock photos for commercial use is different to buying them under creative commons licence. It pays to get permission.
    Make sure the jacket reflects the content (we all have seen the recent professional job certain publisher did on making Jane Austin have a chit lit cover)
    do not just use text unless its a reference business type book (again look and learn)
    Make sure even the ebook has a cover image

  14. Erika Dreifus

    Nice post, Jane. I saw your tweet asking for cover designer recommendations (and linking to this post). I came here to recommend Joel Friedlander, who designed my book’s cover (and interior), but you’ve basically recommended him already!

  15. Kharisma

    I dislike so many of the covers out there. And it blows my mind when people say how wonderful a cover is and I think it’s horrid.
    Some of my covers are here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?id=100001774866450&aid=22290
    They were done by Mystee and she can be found on twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DemonzPrincess
    and on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/mystee.nottellingya
    She’s been involved in digital arts and licensing for over 10 years now and has a store as well that represent artists and authors here: http://intoxxikated-intentionz.com/store/

  16. Claudia Hall Christian

    I used Brion Sausser at BookCreatives.com and found him to be super awesome. What I liked about him was his capacity to communicate and his willingness to do what I asked AND try something new – we used the new. He’s reasonably priced, friendly, and accessible. I’ve used a lot of graphics people and rarely had the kind of service and kindness I received from Brion.

  17. Jane Friedman

    @strng: Know the rules before you break them. And know WHY you’re breaking them. Otherwise you just look like one of those people who thinks they’re being really unique and rebellious, when really you’re just producing crap.

  18. Jason Black

    I’m partial to Nathan Everett of http://nwesignatures.com/. He’s @wayzgoose on Twitter. He is an indie book designer, so if you’re looking for someone relatively affordable, who will be as hands-on or hands-off during the process as you care to be, and who has an absolutely impeccable eye for layout and font selection (he holds a few patents on text layout algorithms), he’s a pretty good choice.

  19. Porter Anderson

    Gratifyingly practical advice, Jane, love the nitty-gritty level of this post. Very post-muse, which is precisely where you need to be when the time comes to think cover design.

    Maybe I’ll offer a service to send this column to "those folks" who need to read it. Everybody: slip me the "design geniuses" you’re ready to strangle. I’ve never seen you before in my life. Your name will never be attached. I’m young, I move fast, I wear a lot of black, they’ll never know what hit them.

    Regarding your last so-important point, Jane (Number 10, don’t try doing your own cover at home), I’d just add that at the point you sit down with your professional, award-winning, world-class graphic designer? — pull out this list. When I was an account executive at a PR and advertising agency, I watched even the best designers become so authentically enthusiastic about the aesthetic glories of a project that they, themselves, often forgot what they knew. The proposals they came back with! I cannot tell you.

    How clever of you to remind us, Jane, that there really ARE some rules to getting this right. Carry on.

  20. Will Entrekin

    I actually really like that "The 80s Were" cover (though not its extraneous apostrophe); doesn’t it totally look like something that came out of the 80s? I could swear I had a Trapper Keeper -exactly- like that.

    Totally on the other ones, though. Yaysh.

    Good advice overall. Covers are challenging.