Most of the time, I design my book cover before I write each book. The tone of the cover – the emotions, and how light (or serious) it is – affects my writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
I’m sure it helps that I’m an artist, but – really – anyone can create book covers. Mostly, it’s a matter of taking it one step at a time.
The following is modified from my article about “word art,” at Aisling.net.
It won’t teach you everything about creating book covers, but it’ll give you a place to start, and some useful resources.
Three parts of successful book covers
People do judge a book by its cover.
Successful book covers make an immediate, powerful impression.
Your choice of graphic – and how it’s positioned – can be a make-or-break decision. (If your cover is mostly text, it needs to convey a visual message, too.)
Likewise, the style of the letters – the font (or fonts) – matter. So do the colors & proportions of the letters.
And finally, the layout matters, and can vary widely from one book category to another. Some book covers – particularly non-fiction – look great with the title as the focal point. How-to books are a good example.
It’s ideal for all three elements to work together. But, if you’re a perfectionist, avoid tweaking more than you need to. Know when to say “good enough.”
Here are the steps to a successful book cover.
Start with a template
You’ll want a template for your book cover.
If it’s a Kindle book – not a printed book, as well – I’ll use the free template Amazon provides.
As I’m writing this (Sept 2020), Amazon suggests “Ideal dimensions for cover files are 2,560 x 1,600 pixels.”
Do not think you can start with a smaller graphic and “just enlarge it.” It won’t work. Not for Kindle and not for printed books. It’ll look blurry or pixelated. Or worse.
If your book will be sold as a printed book, your cover dimensions may be different. I recommend using Amazon’s basic template, and just guess how many pages your book is likely to be. (The front cover size probably won’t vary much, when you adjust for the actual page count, later.)
What do readers expect?
Your next step is to go to Amazon.com (or whichever Amazon site where most of your readers will be).
Look at competing books in your category.
Readers expect that books will be similar if the covers are similar.
For example, romance readers may not respond well to an all-text cover. And your how-to book about welding is unlikely to sell if your cover features a photo of your puppy… no matter how cute your puppy is.
Look at the colors on each cover. A red-white-and-blue cover sends a very different message than one that’s black and white and red.
Too many choices? Not sure what colors are right for your book? Browse these resources:
- Color Theory in Book Cover Design
- Color Psychology and Book Covers – Why You Choose Certain Books
- Best Colors for Book Covers
Then, see how the images are positioned on competing books.
For example, if it’s a romance novel, do all the faces usually show, and are they the main elements on the cover… or are they off the top of the cover altogether? How much skin shows, and is that a cue about how sweet or sexy the story is?
Where do the words usually go? Are they all the same size? Are they centered, or lined up on one side (right or left side)? Is the title in a reversed Z design, or a semi-circle?
I’m enthusiastic about the “rule of thirds” in cover design. Here’s a good resource to learn more: Book Covers and Layout Part 1: Rule of Thirds and Diagonal Scan
Tip: Yasiv.com used to be the fastest way to get an overview of the colors, layouts, and images used on books selling well in each Amazon category. As I’m writing this, it’s offline. Check regularly to see when it returns. Yasiv.com will save you a lot of time.
The big, initial impression
With those decisions made, you’ll probably start with a cover graphic. (If your cover will be entirely text with some minor graphical accents, you can skip this section.)
- You could use your own photos or artwork.
- You could use Pexels.com (or a similar site like Unsplash.com) for a free image with commercial rights.
- You could buy an image from a site like PeriodImages.com, DepositPhotos.com, and so on.
Once you have an image selected, try different placements on your book cover. (That is, how it will fit on your cover template.)
Important: At this point, your decisions aren’t permanent. Don’t get hung up on making the cover “just so.” Not yet, anyway.
When you add text, you may radically change where the cover graphic goes, and how large it will be.
Fonts matter. Just like your cover graphic, fonts can set the tone and tell the reader a lot about what’s between the covers.
Decide what the font should convey. For example, is your story (or message) traditional, modern, or futuristic? Is it sweet or sexy, or gory, or hilarious? Do you want the title (and your author name) to look ornate or plain? Should the text accent the style of your cover graphic, stand out like it’s 3D, or take a back seat to the cover image?
You can change your mind, later. For now, having a general idea will help you select potential fonts. (But, as you’re searching, pay attention to any font that’s very different and surprisingly appealing. It may be the visual signal you’re looking for.)
Like other artwork, fonts can be copyrighted… as software. (It’s complex. You may want to read this article at Lawyers.com.)
Be sure your fonts’ licenses allow commercial use.
That can save you a lot of time, reading the fine print.
Some huge sites – like FontSpace – offer great, free fonts for personal use. However, when I searched FontSpace today, looking for commercially licensed free fonts, none of their 71,000 fonts met that one search criterion.
Fonts to purchase
When shopping for fonts, you’ll find many affordable options. Some are better than others. Frankly, many of them confirm the adage, “you get what you pay for,” but some stand out with great products, great prices, or great customer service.. or all three.
Generally, if I find two or more attractive fonts in a package, I’ll buy the entire package. That’s usually less expensive than buying the ones I like, individually. Sometimes those packages actually cost less than the price of a single, high-quality font in the set.
(Also, I’ve had great, fast response from TheHungryJPEG’s customer support as well as CreativeMarket’s. They’re eager to keep customers happy.)
Before making a purchase, it’s smart to double-check prices by searching (at Google, Qwant, etc.) for the font you like, by name.
If you can’t find it, search for the name of the artist or font foundry. Sometimes, their individual fonts are very affordable. (After all, at their own sites, they’re not paying commissions to CreativeMarket, etc.)
Learn from my mistake: For years, I recommended FontBundles.net and their sister site, DesignBundles. Now, after a shockingly bad experience with their customer support – as others have, too – I will never shop there again. (I wish I’d read some of their one-star reviews, sooner.)
In a class of its own
My all-time favorite source of paid fonts is Design Cuts. (Obviously, they offer a lot more than fonts.) They offer bundles – often themed – for around $30. They’re dazzling, and the values – sometimes in thousands of dollars – are not exaggerated.
You can also purchase individual products; the more you buy, the bigger the discounts.
For fonts, Design Cuts earns my highest praise. Their fonts are stylish and high-quality. You won’t find anything “plain vanilla” in their bundles or their individual products.
Their customer service has been flawless, as well.
A sneaky way to get the look you want, free
There are times when you want a great, stylish font, but you can’t afford it.
Here’s are two ways to work around that:
See if they recommend a free or really inexpensive font that’s “close enough” to what you wanted.
Sneaky tactic #2: Search at free font sites (like DaFont) using the name of the font you like. Then try slight misspellings. If the price-y font is popular, there may be a pretty good (and free) clone of it.
Note: Be sure it’s not an outright ripoff of any commercial font.
Of course, no free or inexpensive (and legal) font is going to match the style and elegance of the original, high-priced font. But, until you can afford to buy that font, the lookalike might be all you need.
Learn the fine art of combining fonts
No matter what look you aspire to, font combinations can make a huge difference. The way fonts interact often highlights the best features of each font. In a way, it elevates the lettering into the “fine art” realm.
Search for “font combining” and you’ll find lots of advice. Add the current year (right now, that’d be “2020 font combining”) for edgy and trending combinations.
Here are a few sites to start:
- For book covers, I swoon over Derek Murphy’s “Best Fonts by Genre” (PDF).
- You’ll find more tips at Envato’s How to Combine Fonts.
- Sketchdeck’s How to combine fonts (some NSFW language)
- FontPair’s guide uses free Google fonts, but it can be confusing if you’re new to fonts.
- It’s from 2019, but I still rely on JustCreative’s Top 15 Font Combinations, and – like FontPair – they’re showing just Google fonts.
- Easil’s Ultimate Free Font Pairing Guide is so good, I printed it and keep it in a notebook on my desk.
Note: The words in this website’s header use the Beautiful Minds font from Design Cuts. (The header text on my Aisling.net site combines Black Diamond font from Design Cuts, and Lato, a free font from Google Fonts.)
You have the basics… now play!
After selecting the elements you might use on your cover, it’s time to play.
Try different combinations. Different placements. Different sizes of words and images. Different colors.
Don’t feel as if you absolutely, positively, must mimic the best-sellers in your book category. Sometimes, different is good.
Remember Seth Godin’s advice about creating a “purple cow”? He said, “Today, the one sure way to fail is to be boring. Your one chance for success is to be remarkable.”
So, don’t be boring. Go ahead and be different if it’s right for you.
It may be exactly what readers crave.
OR… you may prefer a safer route. You could create a few cover designs, and then ask your fans, readers, or friends which they prefer.
Whatever you decide, it’s your cover. If, six months from now, you’re no longer in love with it – or you know you could do better – you can change it.
So, try a few designs. Select the one you think represents your book the best, and will attract readers who’ll like (or even love) what you’re publishing.
Need more ideas?
The following may be useful, but I suggest visiting them after you’ve created a few books covers.
Otherwise, you may be overwhelmed with too many choices. (I’ve been there, and the lesson I learned was “keep it simple,” at least when you’re starting out.)
- Reedsy’s 68 Book Cover Ideas to Take Your Book from Bland to Brilliant
- Canva’s 42 book cover ideas to try
- Dave Chesson’s Book Cover Design Mastery
- Adobe’s 12 Brilliant Book Cover Ideas
- Writers Digest’s 5 Tips for Better Book Cover Typography (probably best for nonfiction)
Do you have a favorite resource for book cover design ideas? Let me know.
If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, leave a message in the comments section below. (I read and manually approve all comments at all of my sites, and I’d love to hear from you.)
P.S. Here’s an art tip: Space on the right side of any image (or book cover) gives the visual message of freedom… and a place to go. That’s ideal for romance stories and cozy mysteries.
It sends the message that everything will turn out well. Good things are ahead.
However, if you want to convey fear, make the right side of the image seem like a stopping point… a wall, or even something looming. That’s ideal for thrillers, some sci-fi, horror, and so on.
It gives readers the idea that something is lurking – perhaps waiting – for your protagonist. How will he/she/they survive when the Big Bad becomes evident? The reader will keep turning the pages to find out. And that’s what you – and they – are hoping for.