What makes a good book cover design?

My friend Masha and I put together this list of book cover design principles that should help you pick out the right cover for your next book baby.


Design – like all art – is subjective. Sometimes a design that really appeals to you just won’t work as a book cover. As an indie author, this is one of the top challenges you’ll face. After all, we know that people really do judge books by their covers! If you’re not a designer yourself, and you know you’re not objective, how do you decide?

Masha du Toit is an artist, author and graphic design teacher and she has some amazing tips for what indie authors should look out for in an effective book cover design. I put together some examples of what not to do – and then fixed them a little.

1. Make sure the design looks good tiny!

As an indie author, most of your readers will likely come through online stores like Amazon. Those stores only showcase books at a very small size, so it’s essential that your cover stands out and catches a reader’s attention even when it’s no more than an ickle thumbnail.

“Don’t try to tell the story of the novel in one image,” Masha advises. “Rather, decide what the main emotion or mood is that you want to convey, and choose the image, typefaces, and colours to fit with that mood.”

Something very important to remember: choose typefaces that are clear when they’re very small. A font that is very detailed and elaborate, or very thin, will be difficult to read at a small size.

It’s not just about how your book looks on its own. A cover may not appear too busy when you’re looking at it on your own screen, but when it’s reduced in size and set out beside a lot of other covers in the same genre, you may find your eyes glaze over a cover with too many details.

“Another thing to keep in mind is that usually, websites that sell books display the covers on a white background. If your cover is mostly white, there is a danger that it might disappear into all that white background,” Masha adds.

  

I upped the contrast and changed the fonts. This is still not the best cover, but you can at least read it if you zoom out and it’s not as busy as it was. 

2. Choose fonts that reflect the genre

When I wrote my very first book and started playing around with cover ideas, I gave my fantasy book a curly title. Fantasy titles are curly, aren’t they? No, actually, they’re not! Fantasy novels generally have a sans serif font. Script (curly) fonts are reserved for romance. Putting a script font on a fantasy novel will immediately make it look like a romance.

I asked Masha for a list of her favourite fonts for certain genres:

“I’m very fond of sci-fi san-serif typefaces like Alte Haas Grotesk and Amerika Sans. But it’s a good idea not to forget about the more classic, neutral typefaces like Helvetica, or Bookman Old Style, especially for the less eye-catching words on the cover. “

One of my favourite fonts for fantasy is Trajan Pro. For Young Adult fantasy, Cinzel is very popular (and the one I have used on one of my own books). Action books usually use thick, bold fonts with sharp edges. See what other trends you can pick up by browsing through your local bookstore!

 

The first font is pretty, but it has no business being on the cover for an action book. It’s also difficult to read! This is still not the nicest cover, but it says “action”. 

3. Contrast

The secret to making a book cover pop is usually all about the colour and, even more importantly, the balance of colour. ​

Try to balance dark and light so that you have a very clear positive and negative space and your title stands out (even when very small).

You can also create contrast and balance by choosing colours that contrast (are opposite each other on the colour wheel). A popular contrast is teal and orange – you’ll often see it on movie posters. And, of course, green and red which reflect Christmas! Just be careful that your colours don’t clash.

Contrast also means creating disharmony. This can work in your favour if you want something to stand out, but it can also make your eyes hurt.

“If you do combine strongly contrasting colours, like, say, red and green, try to combine a rich version of one, with a softer version of the other,” Masha advises. “For example, use a rich, bright green with a soft, wine red. Also avoid using the same amount of contrasting colours together. It usually works better to use a small amount of a bright colour, with a larger amount of a softer, less saturated contrast. In this way, colour has a hierarchy.”

With the first cover, you can hardly read the title. I added a pink overlay behind the text to create an even stronger contrast than if I’d just made it white. It would be even better with a more readable font.

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4. Hierarchy of elements

An important part of design is guiding the eye. If everything in a design is the same size and screaming for attention, then the eye wants to run away.

What this hierarchy is, depends so much on the genre and the type of book.

“It’s worth doing a bit of research on books that you consider similar to your own – the ones that appeal to readers you hope to attract,” Masha suggests. “For example, having a big, bold author name that dominates the design is quite common in a certain kind of thriller. Also consider which element is going to be most effective in terms of drawing a reader. In most cases it’s probably going to work better to have the title be the first thing that catches the reader’s eye, but these things do vary.”

  

With the first cover, you don’t know where to look. There are two faces (faces always draw attention), the title text is tiny and the biggest text is the author name but it’s partly blending into the background. 

5. Choose a good quality image

Even though it might seem unfair, the quality of the cover image signals to readers the quality of the story. You might be tempted to take a photograph yourself, or to ask a friend to draw an image for you, but often this is not going to look professional.

Some definite no-nos

  • An image that is too small and pixelates. If you’re just doing an ebook, you can get away with a much smaller image, but for print the image resolution is really important.
  • An image with any sort of watermark. If you pay for an image and obtain it legally you won’t have to worry about this, so having an image with a watermark will immediately show everyone that you didn’t think your book was worth spending money on – no matter how hard you try to crop it out. It’s also illegal.
  • 3D models without correct lighting or textures. If you are getting a 3D render of your main character, make sure the provider understands lighting and textures. A good 3D render should look like a photograph!
  • Images with confusing light sources. If the picture you chose is a composite of a number of stock photos, you need to make sure that every piece has the same kind of lighting or it will immediately look fake.
  • An image that is too dark or grainy – even if you’re writing a horror. When you add an effect to a photo (like darkness or grain), you have control over where and how it is applied, which you won’t if the image is just bad quality.

Masha adds:

“This is going to sound odd, but look with your eyes, rather than your brain. That is, try to see what the image really looks like, as opposed to what you want it to look like. For example, you might really want to have an image of a fence, because it fits the theme of your story…but the image you choose is too dark and confusing for anyone but you to notice the fence! 🙂 One trick, if you have access to Photoshop, is to desaturate the image. That is, turn it into a black and white image, not to use it like that, but just to judge how “legible” the image is.”

Remember, it’s always easier to scale down from a very large image than it is to adjust a small image to look good. If you’re purchasing stock images, always go for the largest option available.

  

This 3D model just looks creepy! 

6. Genre genre genre!

The absolute most important job of your cover is to subliminally communicate to a reader what your book is about.

Take a look at the top selling books in your genre on Amazon to help you determine what look and feel you should be going for.

“Of course, you don’t want your book to look exactly like every other book of the same genre,” Masha says, “but you need to be aware what the cover communicates to the reader. The last thing you want is for you cozy mystery to be mistaken for a horror book! Another common mistake is to make the design too neutral. The reader wants to know, at a glance, whether your book is a collection of poetry, a self-help book, a cook book, or a science fiction thriller. While each of those types of books could have all kinds of different covers, they are still quite distinct from one another.”

These are bad covers to begin with, but they’re especially bad when you try to imagine them fitting the stated genres!

 

Final note: Remember everyone has an opinion when it comes to design. You will never please everybody. The most important test is if you can hold your cover up beside the top sellers in your genre on Amazon and feel happy.


Aside from being a graphic design teacher, Masha is an indie author herself. These are two of her books that I’ve read recently and enjoyed!

The Babylon Eye (science fiction)
A cybernetically enhanced dog gets lost on a space station between realities and it’s up to ex-con Elke to track her down and save her, without getting herself killed.  

Crooks and Straights (young adult fantasy)
Cape Town is no longer the haven for magical refugees that it once was. When the Special Branch of the police, who investigate the illegal use of magic, come knocking for Gia’s little brother, she will do anything to protect him. She has no concept of the secrets her parents are hiding.