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Creating Captivating Cover Art as a Self-Published Author

Creating Captivating Cover Art as a Self-Published Author

Book covers can capture a reader’s attention, but how can you make sure yours stands out? Two authors share their best tips.

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but as any author will tell you, the reality is that many potential readers do exactly that. When you plan to publish a book, you need to be prepared for it to be judged by what you put on the cover.

Unfortunately, many excellent books out there hardly get picked up because the cover just didn’t command buyers’ attention. Though the writing may be extraordinary, too few people will find out just how great it is because of the lack of an interesting cover.

How can you create captivating cover art that makes people want to read your book?

We spoke with the author of the novel The Punishings, H.R. Bellicosa, and the self-help book Ain’t U Got No Manners?, Kristin Johnson, to talk about how they created covers that captured readers’ attention.

The independent authors share their top tips to help self-published authors produce covers that get their books on readers’ shelves.


4 Tips to Making Cover Art that Captivates Readers

1. Know Your License and Be Realistic About Your Needs

Both Bellicosa and Johnson used Shutterstock to find the perfect image to start their covers. Shutterstock made it easy to know what each license would mean for their books. It has both a Standard and an Enhanced license, which dictates how the image can be used for print runs.

Under the Standard license, up to 500,000 books can be included in the print run. Under the Enhanced license, that number is unlimited.

Bellicosa knew that, as a new independent author, she’d most likely only need the Standard license. But, she would consider the Enhanced license if her book received a second print run.

Many second editions end up getting a new cover for this reason. If you want to avoid having to make a new cover, you may want to start with an Enhanced license.

But, if you simply want to test your book’s commercial success with the first print run, you may only need to start with a Standard license.

Illustration of a woman accepting a certificate
License this image via Vector Juice.

Johnson and Bellicosa both warn that it’s a good idea to do some initial research before picking out an image to ensure that you understand the licensing of your cover image.

Although Johnson found Shutterstock’s licenses easy to understand, she still advocates for talking to someone with experience dealing with licenses for book covers to make sure that you know what you can and can’t do with the image.

2. Work a Professional Artist

You may not be a graphic designer in addition to being a writer. And, although there are plenty of applications and software programs that allow people to test out their graphic design skills, your book cover isn’t the place for you to be trying something entirely new to you.

Just like a graphic designer wouldn’t simply write a book in a matter of a day and try to publish it, you as a writer shouldn’t expect your graphic design skills to be professional-grade when you have little experience doing that kind of work.

Although it can be costly to hire a cover designer, it’s worthwhile to ensure that your cover is high-quality and professional. For both Bellicosa and Johnson, it was a given that they would hire someone to create a cover that would be perfect for their needs. 

What should you look for when hiring someone to make your cover? 

Johnson says it starts with finding someone who understands your book’s genre. Although you should aim for your cover to be unique, certain styles fit a specific genre better than others.

For example, if she had a self-help book and picked a cover that would work better with a dystopian novel, potential readers would, at first glance, never know what it was really about or that it could be just what they needed.

That first glance matters greatly.

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License this image via Vector Juice.

For Bellicosa, she looked for someone whom she could meet with locally and was willing to be flexible, communicative, and patient. “You definitely want someone who understands how important this project is to you and is willing to talk with you as you navigate through the process together,” she says.

3. Decide How You Want to Stand Out

While you want a cover that fits your genre, you don’t want one that a potential reader feels like they’ve seen a million times before.

Do your research on books that are similar to what yours is all about. Think about how you can fit your genre without making your book blend into the shelves.

“Know your book. Know your genre. Think of the book covers that have been done in your genre. How can yours stand out?” Johnson says. “Everyone remembers the original covers for the Harry Potter books because they captured the characters during key scenes, for example. Your book cover is like a snapshot or a movie trailer moment.”

Illustration of people in a library reading books
License this image collaboration via Vector Juice and Vector Juice.

4. Be Sure That Your Primary Image Isn’t Overwhelming

A common mistake many authors make is choosing an image for their cover that’s too bold and overwhelming to the eye. You may think that the bolder the image, the more likely a reader will be attracted to it, however, you want your whole cover to be pleasing to look at, without any one piece of the cover dominating another part.

Your cover should also include your book title and your name, of course, but you may want additional features.

For instance, if your book received a favorable review from an organization or a fellow author whose name holds significant weight, you’ll want to put that at the top of the cover. If your book won an award, that should go on the cover, as well.

With all these blurbs and badges, if your primary image is too bold, the cover will just look busy. 

In addition to shying away from images with too many bright colors and striking lines, you want to be sure the images aren’t too big.

If your text goes over the image, the words may be hard to read. And, no one will pick up a book if they can’t even decipher its name.

Illustration of a person preparing a meal and another person making a book
License this image collaboration via Vector Juice and Vector Juice.

You can easily resize images in Shutterstock Create, a free design tool that’s part of Shutterstock’s Creative Flow platform. The tool can help you optimize imagery—such as removing busy features from photos—even if you may not have access to a professional designer.

Independent and self-published authors often have a more challenging time getting noticed than authors contracted with large publishing houses, but one of the first steps of getting your book out there is ensuring that your cover is an intriguing representation of your book.

Judging a book by its cover happens, whether we like it or not. Creating a captivating cover means that you’re recognizing this reality and giving your book a chance to fly off the shelves.


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