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How to make your book cover design stand out on the shelf

In an overcrowded publishing marketplace, your book cover is crucial to its success. Here's what you need to know.

Book cover design
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We all know the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But the truth is, that’s exactly what readers do.

Based on the colors, the font, and the design, a cover creates a mood causing readers to make an instant assessment and decide if the book is worthy of more attention. A high-quality cover signals to readers that the content inside is high quality; a poor design does the opposite. So a well-designed cover is vital to a self-published book’s success – and well worth the time and money to create the best one possible.

Whether you create your own or hire a designer, understanding the elements of a good cover is important. Keep in mind how and where books are purchased. According to Author Earnings, 45.5 percent of all print books sold in 2017 were bought online. So no matter if your book is printed or digital-only, your cover needs to capture a reader’s attention with a tiny thumbnail-sized image.

Hampton Lamoureux, book cover designer and graphic artist with TS95 Studios, says the top three elements of an effective cover include well-thought conceptual imagery, a strong composition, and crisp typography.

A well-designed cover is vital to a self-published book’s success – and well worth the time and money to create the best one possible.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre, author coach, cheerleader, strategy consultant, and host of the Stark Reflections on Writing & Publishing podcast, has worked with many self-published authors over the years.


“The two biggest errors I usually see are the image doesn’t match the genre of the targeted audience, and the fonts and text used on the cover aren’t large enough to be readable as a thumbnail,” he says.

Lamoureux feels too many authors lack a sense of the big picture. “One of the big mistakes I see from authors attempting to create their own book covers is the lack of conceptual thought in the artwork,” he says.

“Immediately, many authors want to depict major characters and scenes, which works in some genres but does not ensure an image that truly captivates and speaks to the true concept of the novel.”



Elements of a good cover


Before diving into the specific elements of your cover, consider your genre. Each one has certain norms that identify it. You may think that you should go against those norms to make your book stand out, but this will confuse your target audience. Readers have certain expectations for their favorite genre, and if you deviate from those expectations on the cover, they may assume you did the same with your story.

Consider your target readership and then study recent covers in that genre. Pay attention to the size of the fonts, spacing of letters, the colors, and overall design. Cover trends change over time, so make sure you only research books from the last few years. If you’re writing in a particular sub-genre, focus mainly on books in your niche. A regular mystery cover is very different from the cozy mystery sub-genre, for example.



Font choices

Think big. You want your title to stand out so it can be read by someone shopping for books a cell phone. The font size is important, but so is the font itself. If you pick something artistic or a flowy script, it may be difficult to read. Remember, when it comes to book covers, there is nothing wrong with simple. Follow the lead from other books in your genre.




Colors convey mood. Thrillers tend to have dark or deep tones whereas a humorous women’s fiction novel will be brighter. Not all colors go together, and some combinations can be difficult for people with color blindness to read. For instance, a blue font on a red background is not a good mix for people with color blindness. When deciding on colors, think about the tone you are setting and the emotional reaction you want people to have when they see the cover.



Photoshop, Canva, and other graphic design programs make it possible for authors to create their own covers. But creating an effective cover goes beyond layering images and adding text. You also must consider the composition, the images, the lighting, the shading, colors, title, and how it all works together. It should all feel balanced and not too busy.



Should you design your own book cover? 

When deciding whether or not to create your own cover, think about your skillset. You are a writer. Do you have background in design or even visual advertising? If not, consider hiring a designer who does have those skills. When Lefebvre is working with authors, he usually advises them against doing their own covers. If they can’t afford a professional graphic designer, he guides them toward affordable options like 99Designs or

“I encourage authors to learn as much about book cover design as possible, particularly since there are so many free resources available to find information,” he says. “This will be useful not just if they are attempting to do it themselves, but [also] in order for them to understand if a design that is being done for them is going to work as an effective book cover.”



What to look for in a graphic designer

If you decide you want more of a custom, personalized cover and the ability to work one-on-one with a professional, there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing the right designer for you. Lamoureux recommends finding one well-versed in your genre. “Authors should ensure that the designer has a portfolio that includes a diverse, conceptual range of cover art,” he says. “There is nothing worse than receiving completed cover artwork that is identical in style and composition to those of the designer’s previous clients.”

Lamoureux goes on to say that working with a designer is a collaboration, and authors should seek ones who are open to discussion. It is possible to find one who meets your budget and timeframe and will create a stunning image that will truly sell your novel with the visual embodiment it deserves.



An effective cover is like a welcome mat for your book. It invites readers to take a look and entices them to want to know more about what is inside. Before putting your book out there, make time to research covers, familiarize yourself with the trends in your genre, and, if you are hiring a designer, find one who understands the market and your vision. Then you can feel confident you have created the best possible cover to encourage readers to pick up your book.


Book cover resources

Hampton Lamoureux 


Stark Reflections on Writing & Publishing Podcast

99 Designs Blog

Derek Murphy 


The Book Designer





—Kerrie Flanagan is a freelance writer from Colorado, writing consultant, and presenter. She is the author of The Guide to Magazine Article Writing, along with eight books under her label, Hot Chocolate Press. Find her Magazine Writing Blueprint at Web: