The Three Types of Book Cover Design Every Author Should Know

Here, Reedsy dips into the business end of book cover design, looking at the three basic categories of cover design, what types of books they’re good for, and how much they cost.
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by Yvonne S at Reedsy

One of the great pleasures of browsing bookstores involves admiring the artwork — the cover designs on display, to be more specific. In the current era, the publishing industry is producing beautiful covers as diverse as the range of books they adorn: a walk through Waterstone’s can be like browsing a gallery where they let you pick up the paintings.

But we’ve waxed lyrical long enough. If you’re an author who’s in the market for a dust jacket — whether you or your publisher is paying for it — it’s worth understanding what goes into designing one. In this post, we’ll be dipping into the business end of book cover design, looking at the three basic categories of cover design, what types of books they’re good for, and how much they cost.

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Type 1: Stock Image Manipulation

The term ‘stock photo’ is often thrown around like a four-letter word. In the mouths of non-designers, they’re seen as a hallmark of creative laziness — which is as unkind as it is untrue.

The truth is that the vast majority of book designs you love will feature elements taken from stock image libraries. Services like Shutterstock, iStock and Getty Images license millions of images that designers can work with. Not just photos — illustrations as well.

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For the cover of a book that takes place in Paris, for example, a designer can find an image of the Eiffel Tower taken from the Trocadéro. The image license will permit the designer to change just about any element they like. They might give it a coloured tint, airbrush out any tourists from the background, and lay over some bespoke lettering.

And there they have it — an original, distinctive cover design.

The benefit of using stock images as the basis of the cover design is cost, first and foremost. They are relatively inexpensive, professional-quality images that are available within seconds. Why would a designer send a photographer to get a picture of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate when there are literally 9,615 of them available on Shutterstock?

Another benefit that relates to cost is time. It’s quicker for a designer to work with a pre-existing image than to illustrate one from scratch — which also means it’s cheaper. Very often, cover designs will be comprised of multiple composited stock images. At this point, the designer’s job becomes that of a talented collage artist, balancing the different visual element with the typography.

Covers created using stock image manipulation is common to almost every publishing genre, but are particularly visible in thrillers, romance, and non-fiction titles.

According to quotes provided by experienced freelance designers, the cost of creating a cover of this nature goes from £220 to over £700. This range only includes designers who have worked with traditional publishers — but at the upper end, you would find senior designers for “Big 5” publishers.

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Type 2: Illustration

The main advantage of illustrated covers is the distinct visual style that the artist can bring. The styles of drawing can vary from the deceptively simple to the overly intricate.

Readers of certain genres have come to expect illustrated jackets. For example, fans of Fantasy and Science Fiction are often drawn to elaborate illustrations that invite people to explore its world. Of late, readers of literary fiction often expect simple, almost abstract illustrations on their covers. (A ‘cut-paper’ style is one particularly common style in lit-fic).

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At this point, it’s important to note that not all cover designers are illustrators — and that, critically, not all illustrators can design a cover. Very often, a designer will commission an illustrator to work with them on a design — at which point, their job is to ensure that the image coheres with their vision for the title treatment. After all, it’s no good if a cover illustration is so fussy that the addition of a title and author name would only serve to make it look worse.

The downside to illustrated covers is, predictably, time and money. Even if the designer is a skilled illustrator, it will take them longer to illustrate a cover design than it will to manipulate stock images. As a result, the client should expect to pay more. If you’re a self-published author, you may see the value in having a cover with a simple illustrative style. But once you start playing with the idea of having an ornate Harry Potter-type cover, you have to question whether your money is better spent elsewhere.

According to designer Ben Anslow, it’s possible to assume that an illustrator works on a day rate of £150-£250. If you opt for a complex illustration over a stock image cover, you will be looking to double your budget.

Type 3: Original Photography

Book covers with bespoke photography are rare. This is on account of our old friends, Time and Money. If you thought paying an illustrator was extravagant, wait till you see how much it costs (and how long it takes) to organise a photo shoot.

This route is commonly taken only when there’s no way to capture what the publisher wants using illustrations or stock imagery. The two genres that immediately jump to mind are celebrity memoirs and romance fiction.

Thanks to the wealth of muscled torsos and mysterious female figures available in image libraries, most romance novels these days can eschew original photos. However, you’ll remember the heyday of Mills and Boon with its revolving cast of long-haired lovers and the heavily airbrushed photos. These are still seen on some romance novels, though modest production budgets are making them even rarer. And of course, no celebrity memoir is complete without a glorious portrait of the subject adorning the cover.

Bear in mind, if you are producing a memoir and you are not famous, then it may be best to avoid a photoshoot altogether. As readers are unlikely to go, “Oh, I recognise them!” when they see your book, your photo will not add value. According to the conservative estimates of London-based portrait photographer Idil Sukan, once you factor in studio space, assistants, make-up, and hair, the “cost of a seemingly simple shoot can rack up to over £1,000.”

In the simplest terms, these are the three types of cover available to authors and publishers these days. If you’re in the position to influence the design, you’ll naturally want a cover that’s right for your book. But remember that it’s also a business decision: you want a design that offers maximum impact for what your paying, which in 95% of the cases will involve the most cost-effective route.

Meet the editor, designer or marketer who can help bring your book to life at Reedsy.com.

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