Navigating the modern business of book publishing

Self Publishing Part 5: The Fiscal Art of Book Design (or people judge books by their covers – work with it!)

Just one of thousands of cheaply thrown together covers plaguing the Kindle store …

Bad cover design is rife among self published books and a quick search on any online book store will quickly show up hundreds of cringe-worthy examples (the example on the left was just the worst one I found in 1 minute of browsing on Amazon).

The long-term success of any publishing venture will always hinge on the quality of the writing, but without great packaging you are severely handicapping your book’s ability to sell in almost any channel you can think of. We are conditioned as consumers to make inferences about the quality of a product by the aesthetic promise of its design and wrapping. It’s a psychological loophole that marketers have been exploiting with every increasing precision.

In such a mature and competitive market as books, readers are well attuned to the subtle cues on the cover of a book and will not only make a purchase based on the strength of a great jacket, but will actively reject (or most often simply ignore) books that do not excite their subconscious search criteria. There are several common mistakes by self published authors (such as amateurish hand drawn covers, annoying fonts or impractical book formats) that will ensure automatic rejection by booksellers, distributors and most readers before they even look at the content.

In May 2012 Taleist, a Sydney-based self-publishing consultancy, published a detailed survey and analysis of over 1000 self published authors entitled Not a Gold Rush. The multiple findings of the survey are extremely interesting and worth a look (it’ll cost you $4.99 on Kindle) but of particular note was the impact that outsourcing editorial and design tasks had on the sales performance of the book:

“Self-publishers who received help (paid or unpaid) with story editing, copy editing and proofreading made 13% more on average … Those who had help with these things as well as with their cover design, made 34% more than the average, suggesting that outside help with cover design was worth an 18% bump in earnings”  

Taleist also went further to examine the behaviour of top earning authors in the survey who had identified themselves as being able to make a living from self publishing. They found that this most successful group were more likely to seek outside help for copy editing and cover design and that they were more likely to pay for these services. When considering stats like these there are always a number of factors to take into account, but the clear message is that professional editing and design is a key factor in successful self publishing.

Cover design was the task most commonly paid for by self published authors in the survey (41% of respondents paid for professional cover deign compared to 29% who paid for copy editing, the next highest). This suggests that cover design is the skill that self published authors feel they are least qualified to perform and, unless you have significant design training, your best option will almost always be seek help externally.

If you do decide to look for a professional graphic designer then look for someone with a portfolio of book covers that demonstrate their style and expertise. Australian book cover design is highly regarded around the world and there are a lot of very talented freelance designers who regularly work for the major publishers but will just as happily help self published authors as well. If you don’t know where to start looking, go spend some time in the new releases section of your local bookshop and survey your favourite jackets on locally published books in your genre (the title page will indicate where the book was published). The cover designer and internal designer will be listed on the title page or on the cover. Put together a shortlist of designers and then go home and Google them.

Whether you get outside help or do it yourself, here are a few pointers to help in the cover design process:

If you write romance you know you need a swoon-worthy alpha male on the cover

1: Fit your Genre

Look around at recently released books that share your readership and identify the key cover design elements and themes that your readers expect to see and will be looking for. Consider how you browse for new books, whether online or in a shop – your eye is naturally drawn to covers that are reminiscent of books that you have read and enjoyed before. Book buyers associate certain jacket styles with certain kinds of book and consciously or subconsciously use this when selecting their next read so don’t be afraid to adopt a similar look to your direct competition. The effect is also true at the author level so help your fans by branding your books with a similar look that is easily recognised.

2: Be true to your content

Your jacket design is the first promise you make to your reader so make sure it reflects the main story or subject. If the cover gives a reader a false impression of your book they may feel cheated and unsatisfied, while potential fans may never pick the book up in the first place. Hook your potential reader with an emblematic image from your story or subject, or if your cover is more abstract, choose a design that evokes the emotional tone of the book. A great cover will catch the eye of a browser, intrigue them with a hint of the contents and resonate with meaning as the book is read.

3: typography Typography TYPOGRAPHY

If the words on your cover are like spoken text, then the typography is the body language we use to give readers context about the theme and mood of the book. Just like body language, our brains are finely tuned to typographical symbolism and can interpret a huge amount of contextual information through elements such as font, size, positioning, spacing, colour, texture and graphical manipulation. An old-style period font will give a hint to the book’s historical setting, for example, while listing the author’s name in bold san serif lettering might indicate a blockbusting thriller.

Clever typography is like zipping a large file on your computer: you compact a large amount of meaning into a simple image that can be quickly unpacked in the reader’s subconscious. This is important when considering your cover image because a browsing book buyer may only spend a fraction of a second scanning over your book on a shelf or online and so your window for attracting their attention is miniscule. This is particularly true for the spine of your book and for thumbnail sized cover images in an eBook store.

Typography is where trained graphic designers prove their worth. As is true in so many things, the most elegant design often appears obvious in retrospect but was in fact the most difficult to come up with. Here are a few examples of typographical covers that leave the reader in little doubt about the genre, content or emotional tone of the book. (These examples are all sourced from The Book Cover Archive, which is a great resource to visit for inspiration):

4: Coordinate the elements in your design

Nothing screams amateur louder than a clumsily assembled cover. Make sure that the different elements of your front and back covers (title, author name, cover image, blurb, barcode, metadata and blank space) work together seamlessly. Consider position carefully, with the most important information at the top (title or author name?) and remember that the larger an element, the greater its perceived importance. You can draw the reader’s eye using white space, text flow or attention grabbing colour to lead them along a visual path and reveal information sequentially, just like telling a story.

5: Don’t forget the metadata

Back Cover Text

Including the right metadata on your cover makes it easier for booksellers

Write a checklist of all the data elements you need to include on your front cover, back cover and spine. This will of course include the title, author, publisher (with logo) and blurb. But here are some other commonly forgotten data elements that should be present:

  • Barcode (ISBN 13) – this should be available as a font in your design software
  • Tagline or subtitle – sum up the book in 3-4 words
  • “Author of [previous book]”
  • Reviews – short and snappy
  • Awards
  • Genre – not essential but it helps the booksellers out
  • Recommended Retail Price (RRP) – not essential and difficult to change later. Include national currency to avoid confusion
  • Illustrator
  • Cover Designer and Image Source – not essential on the cover but always appreciated
  • Website link

Don’t just pick the first design – brainstorm multiple concepts, sketch them, mix and match them and fine tune your shortlist to find the best cover you can

6: Brainstorm multiple concepts and make a shortlist

As an author you know that writing multiple drafts of your book often allows you to refine your narrative or even come up with completely new and unexpected ideas that lift the book to another level. You need to approach cover design in exactly the same way by exploring a number of concepts and fine tuning these to create a shortlist.

Brainstorming and sketching a number of different design concepts will push you further along the creative process and give you a lot more material to work with. You will be able to mix and match design elements and pick those that work best. You will also be able to test your shortlist against a network of Beta Readers to see which one gets the best response.

This wonderful article by Design Sponge author Grace Bonney chronicles her cover design process beautifully. The image on the right shows just a few of the design concepts that she and her design team came up with and rejected.

Go to:

Self Publishing Part 1
Self Publishing Part 2
Self Publishing Part 3
Self Publishing Part 4
Self Publishing Part 5
Self Publishing Part 6

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Categorised in: All Posts, How to Self Publish Series, Self Publishing

1 Response »


  1. Self Publishing Part 7: The Consonant Gardener – The Three C’s of Internal Book Formatting « Fiction et al

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About Richard

Richard Bilkey has been selling, marketing and distributing books for over ten years, managing independent bookshops, a major online retailer and, most recently, one of Australia's largest Independent Book Distributors, Brumby Books.

Contact Richard directly at
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