Book cover design

Designing a book cover–PART 3

From Rick:

First, I have three announcements.

[1] Silver Pen is sponsoring the new Write Well Award for published fiction. This award seeks to recognize outstanding short fiction (short stories and flash fiction) published in 2014 in print or online magazines. If you are a magazine editor or publisher or know someone who is, please make them aware of this new award. Details can be found at the website:

[2] After next week (Feb. 16) and until May 4, Write Well, Write To Sell will come out every other week. Scott and I have been extremely busy lately and doing the blog weekly has been a strain.

This will give us some breathing space to attend to our other projects in the meantime. Thanks for your understanding. If you’re new to write well, you might take this opportunity to explore some of our earlier blogs.

[3] Our punctuation book is done and Scott just finished his edits. We’re excited and hopeful for a March release of it.


In this part of Book Cover Design, we’ll take a look at some ways to decide on the design of a cover. In Part 1, I said that the main function of a cover is to grab the buyer’s attention. Part of that grab is conveying something about the book so that an appropriate buyer will notice it. It does no good to have a gorgeous book cover that tells nothing about the book or that conveys the wrong message.

The hardest part of designing a book cover is figuring out what the cover should be. I’m sure some of you are saying that it wasn’t a problem, that you knew (or know) exactly what you want on your cover. This may come as a shock to you, but the chances are fairly good that your initial choice of a cover design is wrong.

The basis for my statement is that many authors (new ones especially) will go for a cover that looks good (or pretty) as opposed to one designed to market the book. They’ll go for appearance (artwork) over function. Here are some common mistakes I’ve seen.

MISTAKE #1: A too-plain cover.

A very common cover mistake I see is putting nothing on the cover except the title and author’s name, possibly on some plain or patterned background. Unless you’re a noted author or this book title is a well-known one (such as the e-book release of a classic—check the link below for an example), then such a cover will broadcast “I am an amateur author and this is a self-published novel.”


A plain cover on a self-published novel usually results either from an author who has no budget (or expertise) for designing a proper cover or from a desire to get the book out there quickly with the rationale that any cover will do simply because this is your great novel and it’s going to sell a boatload of copies just because you published it.

As popular as James Patterson is, I’m not sure even he could get by with a plain cover because potential buyers might be suspicious of it. After all, why would James Patterson, with all his money, do such a thing?

MISTAKE #2: A cluttered cover.

The link below is one example that Joel Friedlander noted.


Joel Friedlander commented: “I’m sure people who buy and read this book will be very happy to see the story reflected in the cover. However, in general we design covers for those people who haven’t read it yet, and the problem I have with this cover, pretty though it is, is that it’s hard to make out what I’m looking at at a small size and I’m not sure why I’m supposed to be interested.”

This cover was in the December 2014 e-book cover design awards. Some of the covers following it had similar issues with overcrowding or being too busy. Study them.


MISTAKE #3: Using a picture of the novel’s main setting or a key scene in the story.

In this case, the author believes that showing where the story takes place will entice a reader to want to know more about that place. Unless the setting is something truly outstanding, bizarre, or unique, it’s probably not going to achieve the desired effect.

We’ve all seen breathtaking photos of places around the world that made us want to visit those places, but unless yours is a travel book, such a picture may be wasted on your cover. Authors forget that books are about characters, not about places (unless it’s some really unusual place).

Scott Gamboe (my co-blogger here) in his novel Martyr’s Inferno, made this mistake. The final scene of the novel takes place in St. Louis, with the Gateway Arch figuring prominently into that scene. Scott went to St. Louis and photographed the Arch visible behind a church, which, as I recall, was mentioned in the novel as well. A scene from the book is perfect, right? No. The problem was that until you read the book the scene had no meaning. The novel is a police thriller, and the rather serene setting in that photo ran totally counter to the novel’s genre. In other words, the cover said absolutely nothing about the genre and in fact didn’t seem to belong with that title. Perhaps if Scott has taken the Gateway Arch from an unusual angle that made it loom over the viewer, it might have worked better, but even then it still would not say “police thriller” by itself.

My wife and I offered to redesign his cover and came up with the current one: a briefcase full of money draped with the American and Russian flags. This was the first cover I’d ever designed and—honestly—it’s just a so-so cover. If I ever have the time, I’d like to give him a better one. At least this cover suggests the genre. It also links into the opening scene of the novel. You can view the cover among the book covers to the right of this blog or check it out on (where you can also read the opening that inspired it). In a later part of this series, I’ll critique this cover, along with some of my other ones and point out their flaws.

POTENTIAL MISTAKE #4: Putting the main character(s) on the cover.

This isn’t always a mistake, and there are many successful covers that put a person or people on the cover. This works with romance novels and some YA novels. The problem, though, is finding the right model for the cover. One usually has to resort to stock photos, which cost money, in the hope that it will work.

If you photograph someone you know, you definitely want to be sure you have a signed model release, and NEVER use a photo with potentially identifiable people unless you have their permission—in writing.

REMEMBER: You can NOT use photos you find on the Internet without explicit permission! Of course, if you know a good artist who can draw the image you need for a reasonable price, then you’re fine.

Here is a link to one exception cover that features an intriguing main character.


Compare this cover with the cover of Jason Willow II. I have not read the second book. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion on that cover. (In a future post we’ll talk about the importance of branding your covers in a series to give them a familiar look.)


Perhaps my favorite covers with main characters on them are in Chrystalla Thoma’s wonderful Elei’s Chronicles series that begins with Rex Rising. Three of the four covers in the series are on the right of the blog. The fourth (not shown there) has a different character, less striking but also good. She used stock photos appropriately modified to give the look she wanted. I should say that her first cover sold me on the book.

But such covers are exceptions. Unless your can find the right images model that match your characters, images of people can be more of a hindrance than an asset and perhaps more difficult to put effectively onto a cover.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t put people on the cover, only cautioning you to use care with image selection. Unless you have a romance novel (where hero/heroine on the cover is almost a requirement), then you want to ensure that the picture does the novel justice.

My rule is simple: If you’re going to put your character on the cover, make sure it’s an interesting character, one that will grab the reader’s attention. If your character is unremarkable physically in the novel, then you probably should consider a different cover image, or keep the character’s face hidden.

With the don’ts out of the way, I’m going to give you some positive suggestions for selecting your cover image. As you consider what to put on your cover, keep three factors in mind:

(1) The cover must clearly and correctly indicate the novel’s genre (or the subject matter if nonfiction).

I must admit that I don’t get how the original cover image of Twilight (a pair of hands holding an apple) or any of the other cover images said anything about the genre. I seriously doubt that these covers did much to sell the book initially. Granted, I’m not a professional cover designer, but I would not have risked a such a neutral cover.

(2) The cover should somehow either suggest the story or offer some meaningful element of it (meaningful before the reader has read it). Perhaps this says something about how much (or how little) faith the publisher had in those novels initially.

Most important here is that the image on your cover should be identifiable, not cryptic, and make some sense to the viewer of the cover. If a prospective reader has to guess what a cover is, then (in my opinion) the cover is not doing its job.

Therefore, my advice is that, when designing your own cover for an e-book, you should NOT use the covers of bestselling print novels as your examples. Browsing in a bookstore is a quite different experience from browsing online, and the requirements of e-book covers are therefore different. For one, they’re smaller on the monitor screen and the images must be easily recognizable. Covers with small details that might look good full size are going to look more like a jumbled mess on a computer or a tablet screen.

(3) The cover image should raise one or more questions in the reader’s mind.

As I see it, this is the most important requirement for a good cover. Once you’ve grabbed the reader’s attention, the cover image should make the reader ask a question as the one on Rex Rising did for me: Who is that guy and what do those marks on his face mean?

Maybe that was the point of the Twilight cover: be intriguing enough to make the person pick it up to read the back of it, but if I were I teen today, I don’t know if I would have gotten that far. (And I do like vampire stories.) Would this cover have worked for a self-published e-book? Not likely by itself. I think it would have taken someone with just enough curiosity to look further and, having read the novel, spread the word. That’s a very big risk to take, though.

I feel the same way about The Hunger Games. That emblematic cover would not have sold me. It was the enigmatic title that would have drawn my attention far more than the cover. But I will admit that when you have a title like that, you can probably get by with almost any type of cover that doesn’t obscure the title.

Your assignment for next time is to brainstorm one or more basic cover designs for your own novel (or for a writer friend’s unpublished novel or a better cover for a published novel of your choice).

If you already have a design in mind, rethink it. Take into account the various points I mentioned in this post above and decide if your design choice is still viable.

Once again keep in mind that gorgeous or ugly, the sole purpose of the cover is to capture viewers’ attention and not turn them off.

In Part 4, I will discuss how to decide if your cover will accomplish its purpose and how to refine your cover after you’ve solidified your design choices.


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