What Makes a Great Book Cover

Author avatar wrote on 26/02/2020

What Makes a Great Book Cover

Have you ever bought a book for its cover? Maybe not. But chances are a cover has captured your attention, leading you to pick it up and scan the first few pages to see if you’d get hooked. Even if you can’t pinpoint the reasons for the appeal, there’s something about a well-rendered cover that seems fresh, witty, and full of substance. If you ask book designers to explain what makes for a great cover, however, they can tell you about how the various design elements—the typeface, the color scheme, and the composition—come together to create a visual metaphor for the text.

1. Important Elements of a Book Cover

  • Stock Image – When choosing a relevant stock image for a book cover, the designer must understand what pictures would work and what wouldn’t. Readers want covers that give them a taste of what awaits them inside the book before even turning open the first page. All this has to be done while not revealing anything about the plot. The reader thus expects an intriguing cover.
  • Genre Specific – One important element involves designing the book cover in accordance with the requirements of the genre. When selecting a book in a particular genre category, the reader comes with certain expectations. And in order to make a particular book stand out, the book cover design must strive for uniqueness and relevance to the genre on hand.
  • Professionalism – The imagery of the cover needs to convey professionalism to the reader. It needs to maintain a certain standard since amateurish covers can put readers off and hence, reduce the chances of the book selling well.
  • Flow – It is important to maintain flow while designing the cover. It gives a sense of balanced synchronization and prevents the dominance of certain elements over the others.

2. Find Inspiration and Ideas for Your Cover

Apart from your ability to execute a design, the most important aspect of book covers is their ability to connect with the target market: that is, the people who are likely to buy the kind of title you’re writing. Therefore, your first stop for inspiration should always be the other books in your genre.

Take a look at the bestselling titles in your category and you’ll likely see visual styles and motifs popping up again and again. This is no coincidence. Publishers are always looking to communicate to their target market that this book is the one you’re looking for. And if that means taking a cue from the genre’s most popular books, then that’s what they’ll do.

Of course, within the constraints of a genre’s current visual style, there are plenty of opportunities to play with interesting ideas, striking imagery, and inventive typography. And don’t forget the back of your book cover in your brainstorming!

3. Uniqueness

A good book cover stands apart from the other books in its category. While it shouldn’t be entirely out of left field for the audience (remember, you have to appeal to buyers with expectations and preconceived notions of the genre), it needs to establish itself as something unique on the shelves. This can be achieved through style and technique but it can also be achieved by playing up the “hook” of the book on the cover. By “hook”, I’m referring to the thing that makes this book different. For instance, there may be a billion detective stories in the world, but if yours is the only one about a drug-addicted clown who’s attempting to solve the murder of his magician best friend, that definitely seems like something that should be played up.

4. Cover Design and Layout

anatomy of a book cover

Eden cover by Pulp ART for me YY

Book cover design is comprised of text and images. In order to get the layout right, you need to think about the single message you want your cover design to communicate. What is the one feeling or idea you want to convey? Whatever message you decide to feature, make sure every element from color and image to typeface and text supports it.

Once you know your message, think about how you can best convey it. If you want to set a romantic tone, perhaps the main design element should be an image with double meaning. If you’re going for mystery, you might want your clever title to dominate, and a vague, shadowy image to support (but not overshadow it). Or perhaps you’re an author with a brand name, and you really want people to know this is a book by you. Then make your byline the biggest.

5. Hierarchy

Typographical hierarchy is the system you establish to organise your type and make it easier for your consumers to navigate. For a more in-depth look at hierarchy, check out this guide to mastering the three levels of typographic hierarchy.

This cover by Christopher Brian King uses typographical hierarchy in an interesting way. The cover is designed to look like a bureaucratic form, so there is a lot of type dispersed throughout the design, but the weight and size of the title, author name and subheadings indicates which parts of the design are most important.


A book cover that looks like a bureaucratic form designed by Christopher Brian King. Image via the artist’s website.

So, if you have a lot of type or a lot of elements, be sure that your title, author name, and other important typographic bits and pieces are very quickly identifiable. To do this, experiment with scale, font weight, positioning, and color until those elements really pop.

6. Decide on Your Cover’s Dimensions

If you’re only creating an ebook, this is really easy: Amazon suggests an ideal size of 2,560 x 1,600 pixels — although you have some freedom to play around with different aspect ratio. Other retailers and distributors have similar recommended sizes, so if you hit this Amazon ideal, you’ll be safe.

However, for printed books, things get much more complex. You should take into account standard book sizes within your genre, then factor in the page count and paper density so that you know exactly how thick the spine needs to be. And then there’s the matter of typesetting the back cover — which is an art to itself.

Ultimately, if your intention is to sell printed versions of your book, you should strongly consider hiring a professional cover designer. There are too many variables at play for an amateur to have a chance at creating something credible.

7. Back Cover

Your front cover did its job if the shopper made it to the back cover; it got them interested enough to give the book a second look. Now it is the job of the back cover to draw them in so much that they feel compelled to buy the book.

The most important part of the back cover is a description of the book that offers up enough detail to ensure that the shopper can’t say “no” to buying it.

The back cover of a paperback should also include a headshot, your bio and your credentials if the work is academic or professional. (This often goes on the interior book jacket flap for hardbacks.) Readers love to know more about the author, and details about who wrote the book can help the description seal the deal.

The back cover should also leave room for the International Standard Book Number (or ISBN code) and the barcode that goes with it. Since 2007 all books have had 13 digit ISBN codes. Finally, the back cover should include any book reviews, and if it’s related to the book, your company logo.

8. Spine

Finished books that are more than 130 pages long also need spine text that shows the main title and author’s last name as part of the cover design. Make it easy to read, and be sure it can be viewed sideways.

Final words

Creating a successful book cover takes a lot of work. But if you can approach it from a buyer’s perspective that will help immensely. After all, the cover is ultimately a sales tool. By remembering it’s goal, addressing the audience, and crafting something unique and immediate that stands apart in the marketplace, you can greatly improve your covers.


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