Ten Steps to Perfect Cover Design

Follow these ten steps, and your cover will look professional. Whether your cover looks good depends on the photos and fonts you choose, but if you follow these steps, your readers will thank you!

By the way, at the bottom of this page is a list of resources for graphics and fonts. Enjoy!


The Gallery

To avoid making this guide being about personal taste, I simply grabbed the top sellers in fantasy, sci-fi, young adult from Amazon, as well as the New York Times bestsellers overall for this month. Then, just for kicks, I included a group of YA books that are not best-sellers, but ARE some of the most interesting and artistic I’ve seen.

SciFi Bestsellers for Oct. 2014

SciFi Bestsellers

Fantasy Bestsellers for Oct. 2014

Fantasy Bestsellers

Young Adult Bestsellers for Oct. 2014

Young Adult Bestsellers

NYT Bestsellers for Oct. 2014

NYT Bestsellers

Creative Covers

Creative Covers

Front Cover

  1. The title and author name are USUALLY in the same font. If they don’t match, they need to be complimentary (Rise of the Alliance, Best of Me, Burn, The Girl From the Well). If you’re not sure how to pair fonts, I suggest places like “5 Tips for Pairing Fonts” to get you started, or 300+ Fool-Proof Fonts to use for your Book Cover Design (an epic list of best fonts per genre).
  2. Neutral Space. All the covers need some space, but that doesn’t mean an empty spot. Neutral space serves one basic purpose: to point your focus back to what matters – the title and/or author. The light around the silhouetted girl in The Truth About Alice frame the title. The birds in The Girl From the Well point you to the title. The space under Deadline underlines the title. The spacing in Monster draws the eye to the curve of the woman’s body, which happens to point down – at the title.
  3. The author’s name is nearly always prominent. Now, I know some of you want to argue (because the comments and emails I’ve received do) that the name should only be prominent if the author is well-known. I disagree. Most of your platform is putting yourself out there in a way that says you’re confident the reader will enjoy your book. If you are ashamed to have your name splashed on it, then design isn’t your problem – confidence is.
  4. Even the fanciest covers are still readable. An unfortunate trend in self-published books is a tendency to mash together a ton of images or really decorative fonts in an attempt to look appealing. The truth: you have about two seconds to grab your readers, but if they require time to figure out what the hell they’re looking at, you’ve already lost.  I understand; there are lots of pretty fonts. Billions of them. But they’re decorative – they’re not meant to be understood at a glance. Look at the covers above; even the really avant-garde ones are readable.

    Protip: ask people who don’t know anything about your book to look at your cover. If they find it confusing, or they have to squint to read the thing, go back to the drawing board.

  5. With a few exceptions, the title and author tend to fall in one of three places: the top third of the cover, the center, or the bottom third. Make of this what you will, but the rule of thirds isn’t just for photography.

Rule of thumb: You have two seconds to grab your reader as they scan down the list of covers on their favorite book site. If your title is not readable, or if the solid use of neutral space doesn’t point the eye where it needs to go, you will automatically lose sales.

Random observation

  • Most of the colors here are primary (blue, red, yellow) against a LOT of black. Does that matter? I’m no expert, but I’d hazard a guess that it does.

Back Cover

  1. All the text blocks USUALLY line up with the blocks on the front cover. This is something you don’t catch unless you open the book. The bar-code has on the back has the same baseline as any low text on the front cover (if the bottom third is used for text). The top description block lines up with the title or top-text, as well.

    Vicki Pettersson's The Taken

    Vicki Pettersson’s The Taken

  2. The back cover text starts with a stand-out sentence or two. Sometimes it’s a quote; sometimes it’s an intro to the book (a tagline).
  3. Two or three paragraphs follow this. The first paragraph sets up the character and world. The second and third paragraph says, “and here’s the big issue” – but it does this VAGUELY. This is important. If you give too much away, the reader can say, “Well, I guess I know what happens,” and has no reason to pick up the book.
  4. After that comes reviews. Often this is done in a slightly different font, or size, or color. Just make sure it’s complimentary.
  5. Leave room for your barcode. Createspace templates make this spot for you, but you’ll lose design elements here if you’re not careful.

Stock Photos and Photoshop Goodies

Note: yes, you want to use stock photos. 1. They’re large enough to print well without pixelation, and 2. you are guaranteed the rights to use them. When you’re tempted to just Google an image, instead try to imagine being sued for using somebody’s copyrighted photo, and that should kill the urge.

  • BigStock These guys are cool because you can sign up and get one free photo a month – large enough for book covers. GREAT stuff.
  • ShutterStock Nice photos, many of  them unique to this site. I don’t use them often, but they’ve been really useful when I have.
  • DepositPhotos My current favorite. Why? Because you can get FANTASTIC deals here. There’s one at MightyDeals right now for 25 images of your choosing for $37.
  • MightyDeals A good place to watch. They have resources, stock photos, AND fonts all the time up for grabs.
  • GraphicRiver Some of the more unique Photoshop actions are here for (usually) under five dollars.
  • CreativeMarket another one with LOTS of freebies and inexpensive resources (fonts, styles, textures, etc.).

Protip: photos are generally a set size, but vector images are fun because you can resize them as large as you need. 

Font Resources

NOTE: I don’t advise free font places unless you’re willing to do extra work. What do I mean by that? Simple: most free font sites are NOT good at labeling whether a font is free for commercial use, and just like with images, fonts belong to their creator. ALWAYS CHECK.

NEVER DOWNLOAD AN .EXE. Font-files do not install that way. 

  • WhatFontIs Ever seen a font you love but can’t identify? This site can help you figure out the name.
  • CreativeMarket another one with LOTS of freebies and inexpensive resources (fonts, styles, textures, etc.).
  • MyFonts Yes, these are not free fonts, but they are LEGAL fonts, and most of them are inexpensive.
  • FontSquirrel A good resource for free and inexpensive fonts that you can legally use.
  • 100 Free Fonts you should be using in 2015 is a nifty, nifty page. Take full advantage of this one!
  • FontSpace actually has a little “commercial” checkbox.
    fontspace
  • DaFont makes it a little harder. You have to check each font individually.
    dafontMost importantly: if you find a font you love, CHECK THE AUTHOR’S SITE, and if they don’t have one, SEARCH FOR THAT FONT BY NAME to find it on other sites and verify it’s commercial-use friendly. More often than not, fonts labeled “free for commercial use” are actually “please donate five dollars for commercial use.” I can’t emphasize this enough.
  • You wouldn’t want someone ripping off your hard work. Don’t do it to anyone else.

And that’s it. Ask me if you have questions, either in comments below or in email. If I can help you, I will! If I can’t, I’ll try to point you in a direction of someone who can.

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Ruthanne

Indie author Ruthanne Reid writes about elves, aliens, vampires, and space-travel with equal abandon. She is the author of the series Among the Mythos, and believes good stories should be shared.

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Show 5 Comments
  • Lori October 28, 2014, 2:04 pm

    Thanks for all the leg-work – I know how long it takes to put something like this together! I really appreciate your analytical look at the aspects of the covers. When I’ve tried to do the same, I’ve gotten sucked into the beauty of the cover. I can always identify what I like, but haven’t spent the time to decipher why I do.

    • Ruthanne October 28, 2014, 7:58 pm

      Hey, you’re very welcome! I really love graphic arts, and I realized in order to create my own lovely covers, I needed to know some basic principles. I’m glad you found this helpful!