Elizabeth: Self-Publishing 101 – Covers

publish_buttonLast Wednesday we kicked off our self-publishing series with an introduction, followed by Michaeline’s wonderful interview on Saturday with Lois McMaster-Bujold.

There are many things to consider when thinking about self-publishing.  Since the comments of Saturday’s post included a discussion of the importance of book covers, I thought that would be a good topic for us to address this week.

Books are often judged by their covers.  In many cases, the cover can be the first (and possibly only) chance for a book to make an impression on a potential reader.  For an interesting discussion about designing covers, check out Chip Kidd’s TED talk “Designing books is no laughing matter.  Ok, it is.”

“A cover is a book’s advertising – it functions to tell the prospective reader something about what is inside, with respect to both content and its place within the greater population of books.” ~ Theophania Elliott

A good cover evokes a response in the viewer – an emotional hit.  It draws the reader in and embodies the book, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s a big job for something that someone may only glance at for a second or two.


A strong cover is all about marketing; its job is to attract an audience.  Your audience.

So, how do you know what will attract your audience?

A good first step is to look at successful books in your genre – books by authors with a writing style similar to yours or with an audience you think would enjoy your writing – and check out the covers.  Look at the imaging, typeface, tone, and overall feeling of the covers.  You don’t want to copy another cover, but if you are targeting the same audience, you want to consider what elements worked for the successful book covers and how you might incorporate them in your own cover(s).

A great way to get a feeling for different cover styles is to walk the aisles of a book store (physical or online).  How do the covers differ as you move from the fantasy section to the mysteries to romance?  What visual cues do the covers offer up to prospective readers?  What makes you want to pick up a book and give it a chance? Keep in mind the fact that certain images – like the embracing couple on the cover of a romance novel – will set expectations with your reader.  You want to make sure that the message your cover sends doesn’t conflict with your actual story, otherwise you may wind up with a very disappointed reader.


Another consideration when thinking about your potential audience is where they are geographically located.  What appeals to readers in one country may not appeal to readers in another.  If you are planning to distribute your book to multiple countries, make sure to do your homework and figure out what style of cover will work best in each geography.  It’s work up front that will (hopefully) pay off in the long-run.

“I went to a convention last year, and one of the interesting bits of information I came away with was that Americans like “louder” covers than Brits. So Brits think American covers are horrible and garish, and Americans think British covers are horrible and boring (“too literary” was the phrase used).” ~ Theophania Elliott


When thinking about your cover design, don’t overlook the importance of branding.  We’ve talked about author branding before, and part of that is cover branding – the style, typeset, and overall look and feel from one book to another that will help readers pick your books out of the crowd.  This is particularly important if you are writing a series and want readers to be able to easily find (recognize) future releases.

Basically, everything about your cover, from fonts to layout, should be intentional.  A pretty cover does no good if it doesn’t attract the right audience for your book.


In essence, book covers are little works of art.  As such, everyone will respond to them in their own way.

“Art really is so personal. . . I prefer the cute, retro sort of cartoony block art, and I have bought some less than stellar books on the basis of very cute covers.” ~ Michaeline Duskova

You want a cover that calls out “pick me up” and “check out this story” not one that blends in with the woodwork (or with the multitude of other books out there).  As Jenny Crusie talked about in The Crusie Theory of Cover Design, a good cover needs to catch the reader’s eye, be pick-up-able, and capture the mood of the story.  Piece of cake, right?

An effective cover has Visual appeal – bold colors, strong value contrasts, distinct typeface – basically anything that will cause a reader to pause and/or take a second look.

Though a bit of a challenge for eBooks, a good cover also has Tactile appeal.  For a physical book, that could be a raised texture or some other element on the cover that makes a reader want to reach out and touch it.  For an eBook, it could be a great image that makes you want to take a closer look.


Being a writer doesn’t necessarily make you an expert on cover design.  While there are a number of sites and resources out there to help you through the process of creating a book cover, you don’t actually have to do it all yourself.  Investing in a professional designer may be the best thing you can do for your cover (plus, think of all the time that will free up for writing).

If you are going to work with a designer, do your homework.  The clearer you are about your themes, characters, settings, etc., the more likely it is that you will wind up with a cover you really love.  Make sure you articulate your vision, ask questions, and (try to) remain objective.  If you’re spending the money on an expert, make sure you listen to their advice.  You certainly don’t have to take it, but at least listen to it so that you can make an informed, educated decision.


Where will people see your cover?  Will it be a full-sized image on an e-reader/physical book or a smaller thumbnail on a smart phone or in an Amazon query list?  If your potential cover design is very busy or features very small or intricate designs, it may not catch a potential reader’s attention when seen in a smaller size.  When you have a mock-up cover design, it’s a good idea to shrink it down to thumbnail size and see what it looks like.  Everything doesn’t have to be clearly visible or readable at a small size, but you definitely want to make sure your name and title are.

If you are designing a cover (or having a cover designed) for a physical book, don’t forget to include the spine of the book and the back cover.   A cohesive design across the entire cover will result in a professional and polished end product.

So, enough from me.

What makes a book cover work for you?   What kind of cover would make you pick an unknown author out of the pile?   Do you have any self-publishing cover design references to share?

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Self-Publishing 101 – Covers

  1. I’ve learned a lot about thumbnails from looking for pictures for this blog. Some things just jump out, and other pictures that may be perfect thematically just look like a fuzzy mess (especially with my aging eyes — if you are writing for people over 40, that’s a consideration, too!). I think it has something to do with color contrast, and wide swathes of color vs. . . . vs. whatever is going wrong in the murky thumbnails. Esp. in this age of mobile, I think a pic has to stand up to small size. The words aren’t going to be a huge deal — the title, author name and blurb probably show up in normal type above, below or beside.

    One thing that helps in deciding is looking at my pics in a file of other pics — choosing the thumbnail size. Then I can click on it and see if it looks good fullsize. (-: I don’t know how many times I’ve clicked on a good thumbnail, and found naked boobies. I have nothing against that, but we (the Eight Ladies) have never discussed nudity on the blog, so I tend to decide against that and keep it as safe for work as possible.

    When I get my covers done, I’m going to have to ask someone with artistic sense and a lot of patience. I know that’s not my wheelhouse.

    This is an interesting point about international covers. I had the impression that Kindle items were often international. But now that I think about it, I have heard that some are restricted to certain markets. So, I guess it would be possible. (I start to throw up my hands in despair at this point. I really am not qualified to choose my own covers.)

    • Murky thumbnails are definitely a hazard, though I’m never sure whether the problem is with the image or my tired eyes. Possibly a bit of both.

      I’m with you on planning to work with someone with artistic sense and a lot of patience, at least while I’m still in the learning phase. Figuring out the writing part has been challenging enough; . artistic cover design may be a step too far. I wonder if there are any classes out there on cover design

      • If you find any interesting ones online, let me know. Not sure if I have the money/time this year for a course, but it’s definitely something I’d like to learn more about with the right teacher.

  2. For some reason, I tend to prefer covers with no faces on them. Bodies are okay, but faces? I’d rather create my own picture of the characters. I love swirly fonts (I write/read mostly historical so no big surprise there). I’m not necessarily a fan of books with fonts for the author’s name bigger than the font for the book title, but that’s just me. Seems like a lot of puffy self-importance. Then again, I see it a lot, so maybe there’s something to it.

    I’m also a fan of the covers with the raised lettering and (ahem) the inside cover that shows a little bit more risqué scene than on the cover (you see this a lot lately with backlisted titles, like Julie Garwood or Johanna Lindsey — the “old” cover is now the inside cover).

    One thing to be cautious of is “the extra arm.” Basically, things that shouldn’t be there, but are. Go over covers you’re proofing with a magnifying glass. (Christina Dodd was the author whose book, “Castles in the Air,” had a 3-armed lady. Smart girl that she is, she used that disadvantage to ruthless advantage, marketed herself as “the one who has the three-armed lady book,” and managed to sell through her entire print run! You can read about it here: http://www.christinadodd.com/christina-dodd-and-the-infamous-three-armed-cover/ ) So maybe one should HAVE a 3-armed lady and take advantage of the publicity!

    • Justine – I’m with you on the faces, for the same reason. I tend to like covers that aren’t too fussy; simple images rather than a lot of details.

      That “extra arm” point is a good one. I’m surprised how many covers I see that could have used a little extra proofing before being released into the wild. The folks over at Smart Bitches do periodic “Cover Snark” posts where they highlight “questionable” covers; definitely not the post you’d want your cover to be featured on.

    • I do think author name is important. That’s the biggest selling point for me — a trusted author wrote this. So many of my favorite authors have titles that don’t always mean much until after you have read the book (one of the problems of writing places with Imaginary Geography). So, I’m only interested in the title as a recommendation. The sort of title I’d buy impulsively is often too long to be readable on a thumbnail. (Christopher Moore has GREAT titles, and his writing almost always lives up to the title, too! “Island of the Sequinned Love Nun.”)

      But the thing is, the author name and title of the book is usually next to the cover thumbnail, so it’s not that important except as a design element. Good point about the swirlies.

      (-: I love your story of how Christina Dodd turned made lemonade out of lemons! I have looked at covers that have been particularly dissed, and that often meant I looked at blurbs. I can’t remember if I gave any of them a chance; I probably did.

  3. There is (or was, anyway) a surge of books with photographs on the covers, rather than non-photo artwork. Most commonly, the photographs were of people, often touched up so that there was no backdrop/context for the bodies/faces. I’m not 100% sure why, but I found all of that off-putting and amateurish. While it was most common in the various Romance sub-genres, it also bled over into Fantasy.

    Oh, and for back covers, there is one Unforgivable Sin — *spoilers* in the damned description. I’ve been bitten by that maybe a dozen times in my life, and it’s just infuriating.

    • Oh, that backdrop thing. There’s something about photoshop or something that can give amateurly cropped photos a weird, uncanny line that just drives me crazy. You can see this sometimes in bad greenscreen, too. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it does make me want to cover up the bookcover, or wish I could replace it.

      I am going to have to take a class. There’s no way I can alter photos right now. I’m sure there are tricks to be learned, because if it was easily google-able, everyone would fix it, right?

  4. Hey, guys, I just found this on the Atlantic. It’s more about the sexual politics of covers, from a lit viewpoint but with some sympathy (and some condescension towards) “women’s literature”. I’m not sure what I think about it . . . would like to discuss so I can tell what I want to think about it.


    I really love the illustration that the Atlantic article carries though. A woman, naked, looking into a mirror with all the background taken out. It’s gorgeous and real in a way that I don’t often see in book covers. Plus, I like that old-timey look. I haven’t written a book that would fit that cover, though.

    I’m so sick of cupcakes and shoes. But then again, I love the cover for Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella. There’s this one from the hardcover (which I have) https://www.amazon.com/Twenties-Girl-Sophie-Kinsella/dp/0385342020/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=. But I like this one even better. I love the way the Twenties Girl is dancing. http://www.ottawavalleymoms.com/2013/05/may-book-club-selection-twenties-girl-by-sophie-kinsella/

    Women, having fun, doing stuff. That’s the kind of book I want to write. That’s the cover I want to show. Not a bunch of broody stuff looking out at the ocean. Certainly not a cupcake, a telephone, or a red high-heeled shoe.

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: Self-Publishing 101 – Taglines, Loglines and Concepts – Eight Ladies Writing

  6. Pingback: Kay: Now There’s a Lousy Book Cover – Eight Ladies Writing

  7. Pingback: Elizabeth: Self-Publishing 101 – Editing – Eight Ladies Writing

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