The Principles of Great Book Cover Design

The average reader makes a judgement on a book in just 8 seconds, so effective cover design is a vital ingredient in your publishing success.

A great cover can be a major factor in persuading book shops to stock your self-published book, and then getting the reader to access the pages inside. If your book cover has even a hint of the amateur about it, bookshops won't stock it, and potential readers may not get as far as picking up your book - let alone seeing the content or handing over their cash.

When it's published your book will be in the market place competing for space in a bookshop, whether that's bricks-and-mortar or online. Your book's cover needs to attract, inform and sell.

Although this may sound obvious, it's surprising how many self-publishers get it wrong. This short guide will give you an insight into the 4 vital elements of good book cover design...


1: the spine

A printed book will generally spend most of its shelf life spine-out, so the look of the spine is just as important as the look of the cover. The spine should reflect the style and overall design of the cover, whilst maintaining a simplicity that means the title and author name is legible, and the publisher's logo is clearly visible. It's also vital to get the choice of typeface, and the colour and size of the type right, so that the book is easy to find on the shelf as well as aesthetically pleasing. And if it's available as an ebook, the cover must work well at thumbnail size.


2: the front cover

It's said that a reader makes a judgement on a book in just 8 seconds, and in that short blip of time they decide three things about a book - "Who is it by?", "Have I already read it?", "Is it my sort of book?". This means the front cover of your book needs to be visually captivating and must also convey essential information: author, title and genre. So, use an impressive image or graphic to grab the attention of the reader. Make sure your cover image is strong enough to see across a room but also works well as a thumbnail on the internet. The use of simple, strong colours will make an impact but make sure they don't jar or detract from the text.


3: the typography

As with the spine, the choice of typography should complement the design but also make it clear to the reader who the author is, and the title of the book. If the text is too small, in an over-elaborate font or positioned in an unusual way, people could find it too difficult to read and be dissuaded from buying it - counter-productive when your primary objective to get them clutching the book in one hand and heading for the tills!

A secondary function of the typography is to establish a consistent 'author brand' that the reader can recognise in an instant. An author brand carries a subliminal guarantee of quality, and sets the target reader thinking "I know that author's work... I've read it before and I liked it..." The reader has a relationship with that author, and they know what they're going to get when they buy one of their books. Once you've devised and developed your author brand, roll it out consistently across your author activities (on your blog, on your website, on all your promotional tools) so that your target reader gets used to seeing it and associating it with you and your writing.


4: the readership

The cover design should reflect the genre of the book, offering the potential readers subtle clues about whether this is their sort of book. By relating the design to the genre visually, the target reader is automatically drawn to the book. Study other books in the same genre as your writing and go for a similar look and feel for your cover design. If you write chick-lit, choose a curly cursive font and a pastel-tinted illustration. If you write travel books, select images that show modes of transport, pictures of destinations or perhaps just the idea of movement. The book covers of crime novels tend towards red and black. These may sound like stereotypes, but stereotypes can be good - they're a shorthand for the potential reader (and remember they're making their mind up in just 8 seconds... so it's vital your book communicates quickly and effectively).


Case Study

An example of good cover design is INCEPTIO by Alison Morton, winner of the We've Got It Covered competition run by indie author and popular blogger Joanne Phillips. The INCEPTIO cover is visually captivating, the typography clearly conveys the essential information of author and title, and the novel's position in the marketplace is established quickly and confidently.

One of SilverWood's book cover designers, Ali, talks about the reasoning behind her work:
"The design for INCEPTIO was influenced from the references that author Alison Morton supplied, and it developed from there. The cover had to clearly exhibit a recognisable 'Roman' style, giving all the right visual cues to enhance the message and evoke the right emotional response from the target audience, as well as adhering to the alternative history/thriller genre style. This determined the traditional Roman dark purple and gold colour palette, which carries complimentary visual dynamism, typographic and font choices and strong imperialist Roman imagery. This is evident with the emblem of the world-power city-state Roma Nova, which was designed to be used as a recognisable pictorial staple across the series for visual consistency enhancing audience recognition. The emblem needed to convey an identity denoting power, victory and strength to symbolise the new Rome. This was achieved through visual metaphors such as the laurel wreath, the shield and the eagle, each carrying Roman connotations."

"I was aware from the outset that this was to be the first in a series, so certain design decisions were made from the beginning and elements came into effect that could be applied across the series, such as the Roman numerals on the cover and spine, and additional thought and planning put into the sequel covers. I was also aware that the book was to be published not only as a paperback but also as an ebook, therefore the design had to work both at physical and thumbnail size."

See Alison Morton's entire Roma Nova series on her author page here.


More about the SilverWood Design Team

SilverWood's cover designers are all qualified degree-level graphic designers who draw on long experience of design for a range of applications. Designing a good book cover is about more than simply knowing how to use software. Training and expertise are vital, as are knowing what works within the current marketplace, having a deep knowledge of typography, the ability to communicate ideas and information with clarity, an understanding of proportions and contrast, and the know-how to select and combine the right illustration, photography and typographic elements in perfect balance. It's not essential for a professional designer to produce your book cover, but working with one makes it far more likely that your book will be seen as professional within the highly competitive books marketplace.

If you'd like to discuss bespoke and market-appropriate book cover design for your next project, please contact the Publishing Team.

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