Book Design Essentials

A good book cover will do several things at once.

It will reflect the book’s content accurately. The reader should get a good idea of the book’s subject matter, tone, genre, and the author’s personality.

It will add information that’s not available in the title. For example, if the title of the book is “Apple” then putting an apple on the cover is redundant. Maybe it should be a sultry woman’s face, or a child in a swing, or two people holding hands with fig leaves over their crotches. Maybe it’s just the apple, but the apple has a clean cut out of it. Each of these images will give the reader a better idea of what the book might be about than either the title or the illustration could do alone. For example, the woman’s face may suggest that the book is about temptation. The illustration with the child might imply that the theme of the book is about how ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ The fig-leaved couple will give the idea that the book is going to talk about original sin. The clean cut out of a real apple may signal that the book is about Apple Corp., and since it’s a real apple instead of their logo, maybe it’s the story about the people behind the company.

A good book cover will make the reader want to pick the book up because it’s their kind of book. For example, in fantasy books, there’s often a dragon either mentioned or depicted on the book cover because a lot of fantasy readers love dragons, and it signals to the reader that this might be their kind of book. People who want a self-help book may reach for soft, soothing colors because they need comfort. Art styles will let the reader know if they’re looking at manga, a book set during the renaissance, or in Japan.

Readers are sensitive creatures on a quest for a good read. The book cover must tell them, ‘pick me up, I’m exactly what you’re looking for!’ That’s why so many book covers of a given book type are similar. It’s not because designers are lazy. It’s because once readers learn that a particular style of book cover contains a certain kind of book, they look for more covers just like the cover of the books they like. Make sense? If you want the readers who will love your book to find your book in that great sea of books out there, your cover has to accurately tell the readers ‘hey, this is the exact book you’re looking for!’ If they’ve been looking for a book about the car show industry, your cover has to instantly convey that this book is about that subject, or they’re gone in less than the blink of an eye.

Cover design is not just about the image, either. Font choice is very important. (Look for a future essay on fonts and why book designers obsess about them.)

All these factors and more add up to one fact: if you don’t know what you’re doing with book design and you decide to design your own cover, chances are that you’re going to make mistakes that will impact your book sales, usually in the negative. Even if you have a beautiful cover that makes people pick up the book, if it turns out that the book isn’t what they expected (in designer lingo: the book didn’t fulfill the promise made by the cover) it upsets the reader. The human mind is very sensitive to art and social cues, so if your self-help style cover contains gore and violence, the reader will feel angry and betrayed, even if they don’t mind that kind of book. They’ll be upset because it wasn’t what they wanted when they bought the book, or when they sat down to read. To them, it would be just the same feeling of betrayal as if you put a famous author’s name on your book cover and then they found out the book wasn’t written by that author at all. It wouldn’t matter if the book was really good. They didn’t buy (with their money or in the case of a library loan, with their valuable time) what the book advertised with its cover. So, most importantly, a good book cover makes a promise to the reader that the book will fulfill.

Designing book covers can be complicated. This is why book designers can’t do just any kind of book. They have specialties. In their specialized area, they know the audience for that book pretty well, well enough that they can accurately tell the reader what kind of book they’re looking at, using the silent language of design. I usually do non-fiction, with a focus on martial arts, self-defense, fitness, sports or other related topic. I can also do contemporary fiction as long as it’s somewhat related to my area. I can certainly discuss doing a book cover outside of my specialty, but be prepared for the possibility that I’ll have to decline. In that case I’ll try to refer you to another cover designer, or give you tips on how to find a good illustrator and typographer if I think that will be a better choice for your book.

If this sounds expensive, it can be. It doesn’t have to be thousands of dollars, but expect to pay hundreds of dollars. Good cover design takes a lot of hours, and those hours are what you’re paying for.

You can, of course, learn how to do this yourself. Prepare to spend several months or even years of research and practice. You’ll also want quality feedback. If this seems like a lot of hard work with a steep learning curve, it is.

If you’re a writer, it probably took you months or years to produce a book worth reading. Expect to spend at least that much time on the cover, especially if it’s your first time designing anything. Why in the world would you put all the time and effort it takes into writing, revising, editing, and proof-reading a book, only to slap a cover on it that took you a couple of hours to fling together with a picture you thought was ‘pretty cool’ and a title and byline crammed around the edges in the highest contrast color you could make work? You can be the best software engineer in the world, but if you walk into your interview wearing a paper bag, expect to be shown to the door before you can shake the interviewer’s hand. Your book relies on presentation and first impressions just like a person going to an interview, or a product sitting on a store shelf.

Good book designers are interested in grabbing the attention of your audience as much or more than they are interested in pleasing you. They will also explain their design choices, and help you understand what works and what doesn’t in your genre.

Be sure to work with someone that you’re sure is ethical. Cheap book covers go for sale all kinds of places. Be careful where you look for book design, because sometimes those book covers are literally stolen. How? The stock imagery may be ripped off the web and is being used without a license. A thief will also take an existing book cover, Photoshop away the title and byline, and put your title and byline in its place. Whether these pirates disappear or not, it’s YOU as the purchaser that is almost always the focus of lawsuits and copyright disputes. The courts will not take pity on you. The photographers, artists, and authors affected by the theft will not take pity on you. So please, work with reputable cover artists. Ask questions. Get references. Dig a little bit. It’s worth the peace of mind.

A great book cover and interior book design will turn your ideas and words into a real book. There’s nothing quite like the pleasure of holding your completed project in your hands, especially if it matches the quality of the other books you see on the shelves in stores everywhere. I hope you have a great experience with book design, if not with me, than another professional.

For more information, please use the contact page and I will respond as soon as I can!