How To Get A Great Book Cover
by Tucker Max
I could write an entire book just on book covers. It’s a deeply interesting subject with a wealth of both art and data behind it…but I won’t do that to you, because you probably don’t care.
Instead, I’m going to make this as simple as possible, so you precisely how to get the cover of your book right.
I’ll walk you through what you need to know about book covers, why you need a book cover designer, how to find a good one, how to work with them to ensure they create the cover you want, and how to make sure you have the right cover when the process is done.
The Only 3 Facts You Must Know About Book Covers
1. Your Book Will Be Judged By It’s Cover (And This Is Good)
This is a fact:
Everyone judges books by their covers.
If you are silently complaining about this, stop. The best thing to do is accept it, and then focus on making sure you have the best book cover possible, one that draws attention and entices readers.
[NOTE: If you’re honest with yourself, you probably judge books by their covers as well, so your complaining is not only ineffective, it’s hypocritical.]
Not only does it not help to complain about this fact, you are missing that it’s good news that people judge your book by the cover. Otherwise, they might not make any judgment at all, and no judgment means they aren’t buying or reading it.
This is the thing that authors who don’t pay attention to the book cover don’t understand: It doesn’t matter how great your book is, because if the cover repels your audience they will never give it a chance. This is something you must internalize:
The entire point of the book cover is to help your audience realize they should be reading your book.
You should look at the cover as chance to win a reader, as a way to reach someone who needs to read your book. It’s an opportunity to stand out amid a sea of books that do NOT take this opportunity.
That being said, a good book cover is not just an expression of the idea behind a book, it’s the way that the audience first engages with the idea. It’s marketing. And that is how you measure an objectively good book cover:
A good book cover matters to the author (because it shows what’s in the book) and it matters to the audience (because it makes them interested in what is in the book).
2. You Should NOT Design Your Own Book Cover
When you want a bottle of beer, do you brew it yourself?
When you want a new coat, do you sew it yourself?
When you need a new jacket, do you kill the cow and tan the leather yourself?
No. You buy all of those things from people who are experts at making them.
Book covers are the same. You should have your book cover designed by a professional who specializes in designing book covers.
Why does this matter? It’s the same reason why most people don’t make homebrewed beer even though it’s not terribly complicated, and why no one wears homemade clothes, even though they’re easy to make—they suck in comparison to the professional alternatives.
The only real difference between beer and coats and book covers is that some people think they can design their own book covers, even if they really can’t.
Don’t do it. It will suck. Get a professional.
3. There Are Objectively Good And Bad Book Covers
Please don’t be the person that thinks because some art is subjective, then everything related to art—like book covers—is subjective.
No. That is wrong.
A book cover is a piece of art, yes, but it is a piece of art with a specific purpose, and all book covers can be measured against this specific statement:
Book covers exist to give visual form to written content.
This means a book cover’s quality is measured by how well it “shows” what the book “says.” And a great cover makes someone in your intended audience say “I need to read that,” by showing them why the book matters to them in a way they can immediately grasp (or at least raising their interest enough to want to learn more).
Another way to think about it is framed by Chip Kidd, a famous book cover designer, who said that “a book cover is a distillation of the content, almost like what your book would look like as a haiku.”
What this means is that there are objective measures for book cover quality. Please don’t think that, “Well, I like it,” means that it’s a good cover. Even though you may like it, if the book cover does not do a good job giving visual form to the written content in the book, it’s not a good cover.
What Do You Do Before You Hire A Book Cover Designer?
Now that you understand what purpose a cover serves and why a professional book cover is important, you’re ready to find a good book cover designer and hire them, right?
Not so fast.
The main problem, as any book designer will tell you is that the author gives them no idea what they want, or vague and ambiguous cover ideas, and the two never get on the same page.
You can avoid this by doing some work prior to finding a book cover designer. Not only will this get you a better cover, it can save you a lot of money.
1. Look at lots of book covers, both in your field and out
The first thing you need to do is get an idea of what other book covers in your field are like, and maybe get some ideas from them.
Something that is less obvious but also important is looking at books in lots of other fields to get ideas as well. Just because your book is about psychology doesn’t mean you have to use the same tropes as all psychology books; you can use some ideas from business or self-help books, or even novels.
Once you spend some time looking at a lot of book covers in your genre, you’ll be shocked at how repetitive they are. That’s common. Don’t feel bad about using some of these book cover tropes—they exist for a reason, and they will help you, actually. It is a good thing for people to be able to identify your book as being in the genre you want to be in.
Also, don’t feel bad about taking inspiration from your favorite books. Everything is derivative to some extent—just don’t flat out copy.
2. Pick several that are close to what you want
As you look at them, start to save a few examples of the ones you really like, or ones that have elements that you really like. The reason you’re doing this should be obvious: you need to show your designer what you like (not just try to describe it).
Scour the internet and book stores for covers that capture the aesthetic you’re going for, and save pictures of all of them. Designers see the world visually, and the best way to get a point across to them is to show them.
3. Pick a few brands or other pieces of art that capture your aesthetic
This might sound a bit pretentious, but it’s actually useful: don’t just limit yourself to book covers. Pull in logos, websites, art, photos, or pretty much any image you can find that in some way, is something like what you want on your book cover.
This is essentially creating a collage (some people call this a mood board) of visual inspiration and ideas that can help your designer understand how to best get your book’s message across to your audience.
4. Hand draw a couple quick mock-ups yourself
This isn’t totally necessary, but for some people, it can really help them. If you have a very specific vision for your book cover, what we recommend is actually hand drawing a mock-up of the cover.
Of course it will be bad. That’s fine; believe it or not, a really bad mock-up is still much better than anything you can describe with words.
In short, this is because using words to describe images is always problematic, so the more you can give a visual description to the designer, the better. Even if your mock-ups are terrible drawings that you scribbled on a napkin, they will help your designer turn them into something really good.
Furthermore, doing a mock-up enables you to see quickly see if an idea is working or not. As author Charlie Hoehn says,
“I can’t emphasize how important it is to come up with a concept first and to do the mock-ups yourself. Every author I know is inevitably disappointed with the cover concepts their publisher or designer comes up with. But the truth is that no one understands the spirit and meaning of the book better than the person who wrote it. All authors should try to envision the exact cover they want, then draw it out on paper.”
How Do You Find A Book Cover Designer?
There are a TON of options. I’ll break down the basic categories here, tell you about the major places, and what we think of them:
1. DIY ($0)
We would NOT recommend this—as I’ve said repeatedly. But if your goal is to keep cost to zero, it’s the only way to go.
We’re not going to get into the technical aspects of book design in this blog, but if you want your book to look professional, it’s going to take a lot of learning and a lot of practice. Good designers spend YEARS training.
For DIY, your best bet is to use the Canva book cover tool. You can use these to make the process easier, but don’t expect to end up with a great result. All the professionals use Photoshop or Illustrator, but those are difficult tools you can’t just waltz into and learn in a day.
2. Fiverr ($5-40)
Fiverr is a marketplace of services available for $5 or so. There are a ton of book cover designers on Fiverr, but almost all of them are absolute garbage.
We’ve never used Fiverr for cover design at Book In A Box, but friends of ours have been able to find a couple of designers who are good. Typically they do a great job, get a ton of 5-star reviews, and then disappear to another site where they can charge more than $5 for their work. But, if you search diligently enough, there are gems out there.
Basically, think of it this way. If someone has any design talent, why would they work for $5 a cover? Maybe you hit the jackpot and find the rockstar who hasn’t been discovered yet, but more likely you’re getting what you pay for.
3. Upwork ($50-200)
The next step up the quality ladder would be a freelance network like Upwork. Similar to Fiverr, the overall quality on Upwork is pretty low. Unlike Fiverr, there are more high quality designers hidden on there, because they’re able to charge reasonable prices. Expect to take your time to find the right person on one of these sites, but you will be able to find them. Job ads typically get dozens if not hundreds of responses, and designers typically link a portfolio of past work.
Screen out anyone with negative reviews, and then focus 100% of your screening time on judging their portfolios. Portfolios are the only thing that gives you a real picture into the quality of their work. If you like their past work, you’ll probably like their future work. Everything else is just marketing.
4. 99Designs/Crowdspring ($300-600)
99Designs (and similar sites like Crowdspring) aren’t necessarily a step up from Upwork quality; in fact, sometimes the designers are worse. But the model can often make it worthwhile.
How these sites work is that you post a detailed design brief to their site and pay a flat fee. Dozens of designers take your brief, design a cover, and post it for your approval. You then have the option to choose the winning designer, or, if you don’t like any of the designs, get a full refund with no hassle.
99Designs is great as a first option to test if a great cover would be worth the money to you. That way you can see the designs, get some ideas, and hopefully find a great cover. But, if not, no harm, and you can go back to the drawing board with the other options.
We’d recommend doing the Silver contest (which costs $499). The lower-end contests really repel the better designers on the site, and the higher-end ones don’t seem to garner much higher quality (and actually tend to get fewer submissions).
5. Independent Designer ($500-$2000+)
The highest quality option is always to hire an independent contractor. A lot of the best book cover designers in the world, who work regularly with major publishing houses, are available to hire on a freelance basis, and their prices can be pretty reasonable. This is what we do for our clients at Book in a Box, and it’s very worthwhile.
There are a few ways to find these people. One of the best options is Reedsy, a freelance marketplace designed specifically for authors. Reedsy screens the freelancers, only letting the best ones in. It’s the highest quality marketplace of book designers we’ve found, and we highly recommend it.
The other option is to go to more general design sites, like Behance or Dribbble, and search for book designers there. They can be a bit slow to respond and difficult to get in touch with, but the quality there is outstanding as well.
Setting The Terms
For the most part, book designers either work on an hourly basis, or a per project basis. Either is fine, but if they want hourly, just make sure you get an estimate on price and put some checks in; for example, they have to tell you when they go over every $250 increment of time.
Also, make sure you are VERY CLEAR on what the deliverable is. In a world where some authors are only creating Kindle books, while others are creating paperbacks and hardcovers, the default scope of work for cover designers can become fuzzy. It’s important to always be clear what exactly you’re hiring the designer for before getting started.
- If you’re only doing an ebook, you’ll just need a front cover for Amazon.
- If you’re also doing a paperback, you’ll need a spine and back cover designed.
- If you’re also doing a hardcover, you’ll need a file for the case binding (the physical book) and a separate file for the jacket (the sleeve that goes over the book).
The assumption should be that these designs are included in a normal “cover design quote”, but if not, you can expect to pay an additional 25-50% on top of the front cover price to get the rest of the design work done.
Always make sure to be clear on this before the designer gets started.
How Do You Work With Your Book Cover Designer?
Once you have established contact and negotiated price, then comes the discussion of your cover idea. Here is where all that work you did before comes into play.
First off, if possible, get on the phone. Email is not a good way to effectively communicate with strangers, especially about abstract concepts like design.
Prior to the call, send them a brief. This should include all the book covers you like, all the logos and other pictures you like, and everything else you assembled.
If you created one, also send them your mock-up of the cover. Do this at least a day ahead of time— designers like to have time to digest images and ideas.
Once on the call, walk them through your thinking:
- What elements do you like about each cover example?
- What elements do you dislike?
- What do you want your cover to feel like?
- What emotions do you want it to elicit in the reader?
- What signals are you trying to send, and to what audience?
- How does your mock-up or cover idea convey this, and what is missing?
The more you explain all of your thinking to the cover designer, the better they will do.
Ask them for at least 3 mock-ups, one that is derived from your idea, and two that are their own ideas.
Once you get the mock-ups back, if one jumps out at you, great. Give specific notes and feedback to get it where you want— and then, if you’re done, great.
If you aren’t happy with any of the covers, that’s OK too. Get back on the phone with the designer, and—while being polite—be as specific as possible about what you would like different.
This is not about getting angry or frustrated with the cover designer. They aren’t in your head, and if their mock-ups did not fit your vision, that’s OK. Just be clearer and more methodical in your description, and you’ll get there.
Remember this: your cover designer is a human who has feelings, but also a professional that wants to do a great job. You are both on the same team. You can be firm, but also polite and understanding.
If you are unsure about how to evaluate your cover, the next section explains.
How Can You Check If You Have A Good Book Cover?
Once you have a cover, or you think you have one, here is how you check to see if it’s right:
1. Does it stand out?
This is crucial. Look at it from all angles; print it out and put it across the room. Think of every possible way someone will look at it—on a screen, in a bookstore, etc—and make sure it stands out that way. Can you read the title? Is the image clear?
Check it as a thumbnail too. Does your cover look good when you shrink it down to a tiny thumbnail? That’s how most of your readers will see it, as a small image on Amazon.
You could think of your book cover like a billboard, trying to catch the attention of browsers as they speed by. Billboards usually have 6 words or less. You have to “get it” at 60 miles per hour, in 3 to 5 seconds.
2. Does it have a clear focus?
Establish a principal focus for the cover—nothing is more important than this one thing. Your book is about something, and the cover ought to reflect that one idea clearly. You must have one element that takes control, that commands the overwhelming majority of attention, of space, of emphasis on the cover.
Don’t fall into the trap of loading up your cover with too many elements— 3 or 4 photos, illustrations, maps, “floating” ticket stubs. This just confuses people, and confused people become repelled.
3. Does it say what the book is and who the book is for?
Not only should your book stand out, but at a glance your audience ought to know:
- The genre of your book
- The general subject matter or focus, and
- Some idea of the tone or position of the book
A truly great book is one that captures the book inside in some fundamental and perhaps unforeseen way.
4. Did you explore enough options?
Maybe some people have “love at first sight” when it comes to cover designs. The artist creates one comp, the entire team falls in love with it and the whole process takes 15 minutes. I guess that happens, but that’s certainly not something I’ve experienced.
We’ve had authors that went through more than 25 different designs. I’m not talking about 25 rough sketches or napkin concepts. I’m talking about 25 deliberate, hard fought comps. That is rare, but it happens.
The challenge is that, as an author, toward the end of the process, there’s a part of you that wants it to be done. It’s very tempting to pick a design you kind of like just to get the whole thing finished.
Fight that with everything you’ve got. You need to find something you love, not just like. You didn’t half-write the book, don’t half-design the cover.
5. Did you make the brave choice?
We see this happen all the time: we’ll give an author three mock-ups, and there will almost always be a bad choice, a solid choice, and a great choice.
The great choice will almost always require the author to be brave in selecting it. It will have some angle or position that is novel in your field, or make a statement that is controversial, or just be different in a way that will make you just a little uncomfortable.
I’d say that only about 25% of authors pick the brave choice, and it saddens me every time.
You don’t have to make the brave choice, but it’s almost always the best one (if there is a brave choice available, this isn’t always true). Be aware if this happens to you.
The solid choice is not bad, but it means your book won’t stand out or get the attention it deserves. The brave choice means it will.
It you are unsure how to define brave, here is a way to think about it:
The brave choice says what everyone is thinking, but not saying out loud.
It’s easy to mail this part of the book creation process in. Don’t do it. Your cover—along with your title—will be the thing that your book is judged on more than anything else. Take the time and get it right.