Self Publishing Book Covers

A few thoughts on designing a book cover

I won’t pretend to be an expert on this but I have been involved in the process of designing book covers for quite a lot of books now, and I think it’s a subject that I am qualified to discuss and one which is worth discussing since the cover is the single most important part of your book.

You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover

YES YOU CAN! In fact, if you can’t judge a book by its cover, then you need a new cover design. As a metaphor for assessing human beings this phrase is quite correct, but when it comes to books you really should be able to work out what genre the book is at the first glance.

What are the rules for Book Cover Design?

Aah, now we hit a stumbling block. There are not so much rules, as guidelines, and even these are fluid and mutable. Every rule can be broken if there is a good enough design reason to break it. But here are a few rules that you would be advised to consider when working on your cover art.

  • Do not use copyright images unless you own the rights
    • I’ve put this first because it’s often the last thing people think about and it is the one that could cost you the most money. There are a number of ways you can avoid copyright infringeent. The first is to draw or photograph something yourself. Or you can pay someone to use their copyright work. And lastly you can use an image that is free for commercial use. (This last route has hidden risks but it will take a whole article to address them).
  • Title and Author name should be legible including when viewed in thumbnail
    • Making the text legible means thinking very carefully about your choice of typeface. Especially when using cursive and decorative fonts it is easy to end up with words that can be misread at first glance, sometimes in hilarious or embarrassing ways. It may also mean you need to add a drop shadow, or an outer glow, or blur the background or any number of other tricks, to get it to stand out.
  • Keep cover text to a minimum.
    • Title & author name are essential. Anything else needs to work hard to justify inclusion. If your book has just been made into a blockbuster movie, then fine. If you have a quote from the New York Times, or the Guardian, by all means. If there is a sub-title, fair enough. Other than that; I suggest you don’t. “A Novel” is frankly, pathetic. If the potential reader can’t work out that this is a novel, I suggest you get a new cover design.
  • The text should not obscure important features of the cover art
    • Ideally, if you can get cover art that includes a lot of sky, or grass, or sea, or just a blank wall… any area of fairly nondescript space where the text can go is ideal. If you are comissioning an artist you can tell them exactly what size you want and where to include blank features, but from past experience that does not guarantee anything.
  • Cover art should be eyecatching
    • Not much to add here. It should be fairly obvious if the overall look is dull or it leaps out at you.
  • Cover art should be genre appropriate
    • The usual advice here is to look at as many other books as possibel in your genre and get a feel for the common features. Try to focus on current big name authors, and not Agatha Christie, or your friend who self-published their book last month. Neither of these is going to be representative. You could publish a classic book in a white cover with black Comic Sans and people would buy it. And your friend, much as you love them, is no more qualified than you are
  • Important elements should not be closer than 5mm to the edge of the book
    • Or 10mm is sometimes the advice. Suffice to say, do not place the title right on the edge. (unless this is a brilliant avant guarde design trick and you can pull it off. Printers do cut surprisingly accurately, but nevertheless, a mm off either way could totally ruin your clever and cunning placement.
  • Design elements should be centred on the page
    • This is simple common sense, but when laying out your cover (if you are doing it yourself) you need to remember that the bleed (that bit that will be cut off) is not part of your cover.
  • The spine text should read from top to bottom (horizontal when the book is face up)
    • Yeah, I did this wrong the first time, but caught it before I went to print. I’ve seen it done plenty of times since and corrected it because of my onw mistake. unless your book is really thick, the spine text will be vertical. As you are laying it out, it should read down the page, not up. Centred on the spine with 2-5mm to spare either side. (don’t put text on any spine less than about 8mm)
  • The blurb on the back should be easily legible and not too long
    • Blurb is a topic in its own right, but when designing a cover warp for a physical book you need to be able to fit in on the page, with enough room for logos, and barcodes. The font should be large enough to read comfortably and not confused with the background image (if using one). There are several ways to make the writign clearer on the back but they also require another article.
    • Another mistake I made was to repeat the title on the back. I never thought about it before, but nobody actually does that.

O.K. if yo know me, you will know I am a bit haphazard about things like this, so I’ve probably missed off some important stuff.

Comment if you want me to add anything.

More articles on this to come.

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