The Self-Published Author’s Book Cover Design Guide

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The Face Your Book Shows to the World

Self-published authors are used to doing things in-house. Over the course of a typical business day they can wear many hats: writer, editor, marketer, salesman, secretary, Web designer, and bookkeeper. The addition of one more — book cover designer — doesn’t sound unreasonable, except that one has to ignore all of the expert opinions advising against it.

If you’re a self-published author, why shouldn’t you moonlight as a book designer? Quite simply, your book cover is just too important. It is the face your book shows to the world and should receive the same attention and care that went into writing it. Far too often, self-published authors will take a book they’ve spent years writing and perfecting, slap a quickie cover on it, and wait for the power of their words to attract a devoted audience. Unfortunately that is not enough.

Your book cover and title will be the biggest factors determining whether it sells. Readers will judge your book by its cover, the aphorism against doing so notwithstanding. This means they will infer a quality of your book’s contents commensurate with that of its cover. A professional cover will imply the same care and skill went into writing it, while a sloppy cover will imply the writing is similarly amateur.

Your book cover needs to be attractive enough that it causes a customer to stop browsing and pick it up (or stop scrolling and click on it). At that point, the marketing you have included on your book jacket (or the electronic equivalent of it) — story synopsis, reader reviews, and quotes — will clinch the deal. Sadly, almost all readers with decide whether to buy your book without having read a single word of it.

The stakes are high, so keep that in mind while assessing your book cover design options.

Option 1: Hire a Book Designer

Designs by Cormar Covers.

Hiring a book designer is the typical path authors take for their covers. Freelance sites such as Fiverr and Upwork are one way to find a designer without spending a lot of money. Specialty, high-quality design houses such as Cormar Covers (responsible for the four images above) is another option for a little more money. A curated list of qualified book designers maintained by Reedsy is a good resource.

There are many benefits to hiring a book designer. They can help with not only the cover, but the fonts used for the book text, the layout of chapters, and interior graphics that will impart to your book a finished, high-end look. A custom-made cover means no one else will have your book cover, which is always a concern when using a template or stock photography. An experienced designer will be well versed in the design conventions of each genre and the rules of the various self-publishing platforms, which can become complex. They can produce a professional cover in a fraction of the time an author with little experience could, leaving him or her to concentrate on what they do best: writing.

YOUR CONTRACT WITH A DESIGNER

When an author hires a designer, they should sign a work-for-hire agreement before any design takes place, according to attorney Cathryn Goldman. That agreement will cover the rules for the author’s use of the artist’s work, to which the artist holds the copyright. The agreement will be a license granting the author the right to use the artist’s work. It may put limits on the use of that artwork, stipulating for instance how many physical copies can be made. Assuming the artist created the cover using wholly original assets, then he retains the copyright to his artwork, and the copyright page of the author’s book should reflect that fact. However, the artist can execute a copyright transfer as a separate document that will transfer ownership of the cover and its copyright to the author.

If the artist did not use wholly original assets in creating the book cover — for instance if he used stock photography — then issues of licensing become more complex. The artist will own only limited rights to the stock photo he used, which will be transferred to the author via their word-for-hire agreement. If the author misused or misunderstood the license provided by the third party vendor, it could constitute an infringement for which the author is ultimately responsible. For this reason, Goldman recommends the author insist the artist provide a provision in the contract warranting that his work is either original or properly licensed. Goldman’s article at the Creative Law Center provides much more information on intellectual property rights and book cover creation.

Option 2: Pre-Made Templates

An author can save money by selecting a do-it-yourself, pre-designed cover from a site like Book Design Templates. These are high-quality covers in a wide variety of styles and genres (see image below). The options at BDT cover all the basics, but the inventory at any one time is somewhat limited. It may, therefore, be difficult to find a cover that exactly or closely matches your vision or the niche of your book. You will probably find a good-enough cover, however; one that with some tweaking will fit your book well enough. The prices at BDT start at $99 for an ebook-only cover and $199 for a print and ebook cover combo. Once a cover is sold, Book Design Templates removes it from its inventory, so there’s no risk of another book having your identical cover. BDT allows unlimited text changes and three design changes per purchase.

 A selection of pre-made covers from BookDesignTemplates.com
A selection of pre-made covers from BookDesignTemplates.com

Option 3: Design it Yourself

Perhaps you’re like me: you have a very limited budget and simply can’t afford to hire a designer or even to purchase a book template. Yet you’re confident in your design skills, you enjoy the design process, and you want full control over and full ownership over the end product. Sounds like a do-it-yourself book cover is in your future.

It’s not all bad news on the DIY front. It is possible, for very little money, to design a book cover that comes close to the quality of professionals, especially with the tools and apps available today. Before you begin, however, it’s important to become very familiar with your genre.

KNOW YOUR GENRE

Each genre of book has a style, typography, and imagery that typifies it. These visual cues convey to the reader a ton of information: not only genre, but mood, theme, and elements of the storyline. It’s important to understand the “design vocabulary” of your chosen genre so your cover matches readers’ expectations. If you don’t, your readers will become confused, and confused customers are more likely to move on to the next book in their queue than to try to decipher why the Erotic Romance title before them actually resembles a Mystery (see, for example, my first attempt at a cover for my own book, inset left).

By becoming steeped in the conventions of your genre, you won’t make the same mistake I did. Study the book covers for the top 50 books of your genre on Amazon and make note of the design elements they have in common: typeface, size or prominence of the title and author name, colors used, common imagery, whether the design is abstract or realistic, etc. Then when you begin designing your cover, try to use some some or all of these commonalities. Your readers expect it.

Below is a list of several fiction genres and some of the design conventions of their covers.

GENREDESIGN ELEMENT
ComedyCartoon drawings as opposed to photorealistic art
ContemporarySans-serif font used for title and author (all-caps or title case)
CrimeEnormous text for book title and author name (all-caps only, usually sans-serif font)
CrimeDark, foreboding imagery such as a shadowy figure or a bullet hole in glass, dark colors most common
EroticaA sexy, shirtless man or scantily clad woman, dark colors most common
HistoricSerif fonts or fancy cursive fonts in title and author name
RomanceElegant, handwritten font (in lower case or title case) or a combination of handwritten and sans-serif font (in all caps)
RomanceA sexy, shirtless man alone or a couple together, light colors common
Different genre’s design vocabulary
CHOOSe the right TOOL
Canva

There are some excellent tools that are very easy to use and tailor-made for designing book covers, such as Canva and Adobe Spark. These apps have a ton of templates to use as a starting point, and a lot of options for adding and customizing images and artwork. Both Canva and Spark have free versions, but because of licensing issues, you’ll probably need to upgrade to their paid versions in order to use your design. Adobe Spark is currently $9.99 per month and Canva Pro (the tool I prefer) is $12.95 per month. Canva has an additional benefit of including tons of great stock photography. Stock photo sites alone start at around $30 per month.

Amazon provides a free tool called Cover Creator but the version of it at press time isn’t worth your time, unless for some reason you want your book cover to look like a Powerpoint slide circa 20 years ago.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY & LICENSING

If you’re designing your own book cover and want a shirtless man on it, like mine (inset right) then you have a few options: (1) hire a photographer to take such a photo, who will then transfer his copyright to you or grant you a license to use is in your cover, (2) take a photo yourself (obtaining a release granting permission from the model to use it), or (3) take the easier route by using stock photography.

Control Issues Cover

Using stock photos can be tricky: there’s always the danger that the stock photo has already been used in another book, or will be in the future. Also, different stock photo companies handle licensing of their photos differently. Always make sure you read and understand the license you’re being granted.

Popular stock photo sites are Getty Images’ iStockPhoto, Adobe Stock, and Shutterstock. All have similar subscription prices of around $30 per month, usually with one month free. Pexels is an excellent free stock photo site, but the number of images is fairly limited. For instance, I could not find a sexy shirtless man in Pexel’s collection. For my money, Canva Pro is the best deal in stock photography, especially if you’re already using Canva to create your cover. For only $12.95 per month, Canva Pro provides access to thousands of stock photos that integrate seamlessly within the Canva app, making inserting them into your cover design a breeze. I found many sexy shirtless men in Canva Pro’s stock photo collection that were good options for my book cover, including the one I ended up using on my final cover (inset right).

learn SOME DESIGN BASICS

Successful book covers generally utilize one or two modern, clean fonts in a variety of sizes for emphasis. They use striking, contrasting colors and contain no more than two images. Be aware that your finished cover must be attractive and readable not only at full size but also as a thumbnail. Unfortunately, most customers will only ever see your book cover as a thumbnail, so watch your font sizes, keep the cover simple enough that it reduces well, and test print your cover at various sizes.

An understanding of the symbolism of certain imagery or how colors relate to emotions can be helpful, but some of this can be picked up simply by studying successful book covers in your genre. However, the below color table might be a good reference.

Colorsymbolism / associations
Redextremes, love, seduction, violence, adventure, energy, danger, anger
Pinkfemininity, innocence, friendship, affection, harmony, approachability
Purplecreativity, luxury, mystery, unconventionality, royalty, ambition
Greennature, balance, good luck, health, balance, jealousy
Blueopenness, serenity, trustworthiness, inspiration, wisdom, calm, reliability
Orangewarmth, optimism, freedom, playfulness, lack of intellect, bad taste
Grayneutrality, balance, depression, loss
Blackfear, mystery, strength, elegance, authority, sophistication, evil, aggression
FOLLOW AMAZON’S SPECIFICATIONS

To self-publish on Amazon, you need to join Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP. Amazon provides a wealth of essential information to guide the creation of your book, and one KDP tool that is indispensable for creating a print version of your book is its Paperback Cover Templates page. Insert a few key pieces of information about your book and KDP will provide a downloadable template upon which you can place your cover. You will then create your book spine and back cover, following the guidelines and allowing room for a bar code of your ISBN number.

You’ll need some familiarity with creating and manipulating layers in image editing software, and you’ll need to own software, such as Photoshop, that can do so. A great open-source image editor that’s an alternative to the very expensive Photoshop is called GIMP. It’s available for essentially every operating system, and it’s a free download. For the iPad, there’s a wonderful tool called Procreate that works well with layers. Plenty of tutorials exist on Youtube teaching how to work with every function of each of these apps. If working with layers and placing your cover on a template such as the one below sounds too technical, it’s not too late to go back to options 1 or 2 above.

celebrate your book’s publishing

If you made it through the above crash course, here’s a toast to you. I told you your book cover wouldn’t be a walk in the park. But I have faith you pulled it off, and look forward to seeing your book in the virtual aisles of Amazon and elsewhere, and hopefully on a bestseller list as well.

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