What makes a book a best-seller? A compelling story, fantastic characters, or the quality of the writing perhaps? It’s more visual than you might think.
A well-designed book cover serves as the main marketing asset for publishers, with a good cover boosting visibility and increasing sales.
In this article, you’ll pick up tips for how to design a book cover that entices readers, conveys the mood and theme of a book, and, most importantly, clinches the sale. Carefully crafted design is key to the success of a book cover, with layout, typography, imagery, color, and format all playing important roles in bringing the design together.
So, whether you’re starting out in book design or looking to give your own publication a cover makeover, in this comprehensive guide you’ll find everything you need to start designing book covers with confidence.
Five Elements of Success
Although the end result might appear very simple, there will be a series of decisions involved in choosing and editing each element. Rejected designs are testament to this.
In general, successful cover designs combine carefully curated visual elements. These elements fall into three categories:
These are pulled together into a layout, which describes the arrangement and scale of elements — such as type and images — on the cover.
A final element of consideration is the format and size of the cover, with the chosen format usually dictating a standard range of sizes. The format refers to whether the cover is a hardcover (hardback) or a softcover (paperback). The format of a book cover has a significant impact on the cover design, since designers often create covers with either paperbacks or hardbacks in mind. We’ll look at that in more detail later.
For now, let’s explore more in-depth these five design areas and look at how they can interact with each other to create compelling and salable book cover designs.
1. Structure Your Layout
Book covers usually need to convey two key pieces of information — the book title and the author’s name.
The title or author name can be the main imagery for the cover (see the section on typography below). But often, the designer incorporates an additional photo or illustration into the layout to convey the theme or mood of the book.
The way that these core elements are combined, positioned, and scaled on the page comprises the layout. This can vary widely across different cover designs. Because book covers are not as text-heavy as some other layouts — such as posters or flyers — the designer has a large amount of flexibility in how to arrange the core elements.
There are numerous techniques you can use for perfecting the layout of your cover, and it’ll serve you well to look to the work of other cover designers for inspiration.
Some designers like to work with a structured grid in mind. In this style of layout, type and other elements are arranged across a structure of rows and columns. The content won’t always be centered — it can be flushed left, right, or towards a corner — but it’ll always have an ordered and balanced appearance.
Another layout strategy is to prioritize one element over others. Strong, graphic images or photos can be eye-catching enough to occupy most of the layout. In cases where the author is less well-known, this can be an excellent strategy for drawing the eye of potential new readers.
For eclectic layout inspiration, look to the work of David Drummond. His off-beat approach to cover design resulted in some of the most memorable layouts ever produced. Often highlighting absences or substituting text for a pictographic image, his layouts are a measured exercise in deconstructed layout design.
2. Use a Compelling Image
Images have been found to be six times more memorable than text, a phenomenon researchers have coined the Picture Superiority Effect. With this in mind, it’s wise to design your cover with a visual focus (don’t forget, the visual focus can be typography).
The prominence, arrangement, and nature of a cover image is completely up to you, and it pays to be creative. The more unique you can make your cover, the more likely it is to stand out in a sea of competitors.
Cover designers look to a range of different, and sometimes highly unusual, sources to find images that will give their cover an edge. A single strong photo can work beautifully in the right context, and stock libraries are a wealth of interesting photos, illustrations, and graphics that can be used alone or mixed and matched to create completely one-of-a-kind designs.
Look at how these three classic novels were redesigned using stock imagery alone.
Old advertising images, antique photos, or still-life images can make for compelling solo images, or be blended into collage designs.
There’s really no hard and fast rule for using images on your covers. The key to keep in mind is that images should be instantly eye-catching and linger in the memory. An image that conveys a theme or idea in an instant is a sure way of grabbing and holding a reader’s attention.
Illustrations are also a wonderful way of expressing ideas of settings with more freedom than a photo. But until recently, illustrated covers have been mostly dominant only in children’s publishing. In the last decade we’ve finally seen a revival trend for illustrated book covers in adult fiction, particularly in the re-issue of classic hardbacks.
Illustrated covers also present the potential for integrating text and image more fluidly, with the Clothbound Classics and Puffin in Bloom series, both released by Penguin Random House, being excellent examples of this.
3. Perfect Your Typography
Typography refers to the arrangement and styling of text, or type, on your book cover. Since book titles and author names are the only absolutely essential items required on a cover, it’s particularly important that the typography really hits the nail on the head.
This doesn’t mean that the typography has to shout — quietly designed type can be a beautiful support act to a more dominant image — but, in some cases, typography can and should be the main focus of a design.
This often goes beyond simply choosing a “good font.” Some cover designers will customize fonts, create hand-drawn typefaces, or mix and match fonts to create unique, eye-catching typography.
For type-centric cover designs, the best source of inspiration has to come from British designer David Pearson. After working for Penguin Books, Pearson established his print design studio in 2007, which focuses on “typography as the principle form of expression.” His covers explore the potential of typography as a visual substitution for images — in most of his designs, the text is the image.
Wielding typography with confidence, Pearson is able to convey the mood of a book instantly, in most cases without the need for supporting imagery.
As with many of the cover designs featured in this article, sometimes it takes suggestion and absence to realize truly iconic and memorable covers. In Pearson’s redesign for 1984 by George Orwell, the blanked-out title and author name is instantly evocative of the authoritarian theme of the novel.
In your own cover design work, you might want to use typography as a support to imagery, or direct the focus onto type alone. In either case, type shouldn’t be an afterthought. In the literary world, after all, text is everything. Integrating type with image so that both elements feel unified is a growing trend in cover design.
4. Refine Your Color Palette
Color is often the final design element considered when designing a cover, but its importance cannot be underestimated. In fact, color meanings and psychology reveal many symbolic underpinnings to a palette. Colors can be a signifier of genre (red and black for thrillers, powder blue for period novels), a psychological mood-setter, and means of catching a reader’s attention.
In these two cover designs for Mothers by Chris Power — which were created with different markets in mind — the symbolic power of color is at work in both designs. The femininity and softness of pink is offset by unnerving concealment of oil paintings of women.
Color can also be an effective method of unifying books across a series. In this example, designer Coralie Bickford-Smith uses a consistent monochrome palette that graduates through related color groups for her cover designs for Penguin’s Clothbound Classics. The result is a beautiful spectrum of color that evolves across the spines of books, creating an aesthetically pleasing display on the bookstore shelf.
While color might not always be the first thing the cover designer considers, it’s invariably often the element that makes a cover distinctive, setting the tone for the book. A choice of crimson red across a crime thriller or a splash of sunny yellow across a summer fiction title not only indicates to the reader what genre the book is a member of, but also communicates a psychological and thematic mood they may be receptive to.
5. Choose a Salable Format and Size
Book cover designers will probably create their work with a particular size and format (hardcover or softcover) in mind. Whether you’re designing a cover for a hardback dust jacket or a small “digest” paperback will have implications for both the design itself and the cost of production.
Hardbacks are more expensive to print — resulting in a premium book — which has either a separate dust jacket wrapped around stiff board or is sold without a jacket, usually with the board bound in heavy paper, leather, or textile (the latter is known in the industry as “clothbound”).
Paperbacks are cheaper to produce, and therefore less expensive to buy. Bound with a thick paper or paperboard cover, the pages tend to be glued into the spine as opposed to sewn or stapled as with hardcovers.
Both hardcover and softcover formats have their own appeal and audience. Some genres will typically only be published as softcovers (such as thrillers and romances, often the backbone of “airport fiction”), while other publishers might release a book in both hardcover and softcover formats, appealing to different audiences or markets.
For cover designers, the chosen format can lend a particular quality to a design. Coralie Bickford-Smith has single-handedly rejuvenated the traditional clothbound market with her specialism in creating intricate monochrome-illustrated covers for hardbacks.
Aside from the aesthetics of certain formats, such as additional tactility through textile or gloss paper, designers will also have to account for scale. Designing a cover for an eBook can be vastly different to designing a hardback. While potential readers may scroll through dozens of eBook covers at thumbnail size on their phones, a bookstore browser might encounter a hardback cover alongside hundreds of others on the shelf. In each case, the way that the cover is optimized for each purpose is the key to successful sales.
Before you start designing your cover, research the standard sizes in your territory.
In the US, Digest (5.5 by 8.5 inches) and Trade (6 by 9 inches) are two of the most popular print sizes, while in the UK and Europe, B-Format (129 by 198 mm), Demy (216 by 135 mm), and Royal (234 by 156 mm) are more widely used.
For eBooks, cover sizes vary depending on the online retailer. So, check the recommended sizes on Amazon and other distributors before you begin.
In this article, we’ve looked at five ways you can create a cover that has a compelling and salable design. From focusing on structuring your layout, to choosing amazing imagery and refining your choice of color, this five-step process will help you to organize your creative process, producing a cover design you can be proud of.
Hungry for more book design inspiration? Discover these tips, tutorials, and inspirational examples of fantastic book design:
- 3 Ways to Use Stock Photos for Book Covers
- 5 Tips for Creating an Awesome Book Cover Design
- 10 Cutting-Edge Book Cover Designs You Need to See
Cover image via GANNA MARTYSHEVA