Welcome to this post series! If you’re unsure what this is or where I’m going with it, I’ll refer you back to this post for all the intro stuff. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump right in!
A good book cover will take a combination of money, time, consideration, and effort. Either be prepared to invest money in a knowledgeable designer, or time and effort (and maybe money, too) in developing a LOT of new skills. When it comes to design, you should know your limitations and your budget, and plan appropriately with them in mind.
If you’re set on DIY-ing a cover, there’s actually quite a lot to do before any physical designing begins. Your first steps should always be mental ones.
The most important thing to do first is identify where your book fits in the market. Start with your genre and whittle down to subgenre to find comparable titles that are likely to be listed on the same pages as your book. I’ve had clients who weren’t really sure how to classify their stories, and, let me tell you, this makes creating an effective cover really tough. Why is this important? Because unless your name is Stephen King, or J. K. Rowling, or James Patterson, or another hugely recognizable name, your cover is going to be your biggest factor in drawing or dissuading new readers. You want a cover that says “here is a book that looks similar to this other book you liked,” especially when you don’t have a large, established audience already. Max out any leverage you can by biting off of existing successful titles.
You can do this by checking out current high-ranking books on Amazon. Every book listed there has a current rank, both overall and on the charts of various genres/subgenres. Find one book in your genre, scroll down to the product details, and there you’ll see clickable links to these charts.
So what, exactly, do you look for here? Well, all genres tend to have key visual indicators. Take Science Fiction, for example. Many books in this genre will use a bright cyan or light blue on the cover. Not all of them, of course, but enough that it’s something readers will immediately key in on.
They also very often feature sans serif fonts. If you’re unsure what that term means, a serif is simply an additional projection on the ends of letters. A sans serif font would not have that element, and you see that in fonts like Arial and Helvetica. Times New Roman and such would be serif fonts. It’s the blockier, tech-associated look of sans serif fonts that often tell a potential reader what they’re in store for, and the same applies across every genre. SF titles will sometimes have a more stylized look to them, to make them look “alien” or “digital”, but roughly 90% of the time, they are still sans serif. Check the charts to see for yourself.
Some other examples of visual genre indicators: dark and/or jewel tones for UF/PNR, shirtless men for romance, cute cartoon-like characters and artwork for cozy mysteries, and lots of white space (meaning space for the eye to rest in design-speak) and very limited color palettes (3 colors or less) for non-fiction titles. As for examples of font choices: using thick, straight sans serif fonts for thrillers; softer, curvier fonts for women’s fiction or cozy mystery; and high-impact combinations of script and plain fonts for romance. Look for patterns to see what’s most successful from genre to genre.
Now, I know everyone wants their book to stand out from the pack, but you have to know the rules before you can bend or break them successfully. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, especially if you’re new to cover creation. Figure out what works first, and then learn how to play within those guidelines. Having a visual formula doesn’t mean there’s no room for creativity, just don’t ignore all genre expectations thinking you’re going to forge a new path on your own. Traditional publishers have large marketing budgets behind them, and that money paves the way for new and unusual design to buck those trends. I’m not at all saying it’s impossible, only that it’s wise to have an eye on reality to give your creative dreams their best shot at success.
Going back to those charts, start picking out covers that really stand out to you. Snag those cover images as starting points for a collection of design inspiration. This is what’s called a moodboard. You can either throw this stuff in a folder on your computer, print them out and assemble them in a collage on a piece of poster board, or utilize online services like Pinterest to gather everything in one place.
But don’t limit yourself ONLY to book covers. I’ve often found TV and movie posters are great for design inspiration, and don’t discount sources from other countries, either. Check out what Russia and India are doing for film and book advertisements, for one example to explore. Video games can have really amazing artwork, as well. And as long as you’re looking for art, why not browse Google images using keywords from your book to see what comes up? You might get really great visual inspiration on how to depict Greek Gods with a technological, futuristic twist, or see a gorgeous metaphor of the psychological journey a person must take to become the hero of a story. I’ve also seen moodboards that include color swatches the designer wants to use, but that might be next-level art techniques. For the beginner, those are nice visuals to have, but might not be useful in the end, or might even be a hindrance if you get too stuck on trying to use them. Regardless, compiling all of these items will help frame your design choices so they conjure the correct mood for the cover you want to create.
So now that you have a general idea of what you’ll be building visually, what’s next?
Some folks find it helpful to make some rough sketches of the ideas in their heads at this point, and you might, as well. Keep in mind these drafts don’t have to be very detailed, or even particularly good drawings, but they may help to keep you focused on the overall goal as you put it together. Think about where text placement will go as well as the imagery. These elements should work together and enhance one another to tell a cohesive visual story.
Personally, I very rarely sketch anything out, as it tends to frustrate me more than help me, and after so many years of creating covers, I’ve got a pretty good idea of where stuff will go already. Most of the time, I go from moodboarding straight to the next topic up for discussion…
Searching for stock imagery.