Your book cover design is the most important marketing tool for your book. Can you tell when a book cover is great, good, or bad?
Whether you’re looking to hire a book cover designer or DIY your cover, this is a crucial skill for an indie author, especially if you are worried that your book cover isn’t up to par now or could be the cause of underperforming sales. It could also stall your marketing in different ways, like preventing you from getting a BookBub spot or book bloggers not taking your book seriously and refusing to review it.
Spotting and preventing these book cover design mistakes is important, so without further ado, here are the blunders I’ve observed in seven years as a book cover designer and moderating a cover design critique group on Facebook:
- Genre miscommunication
- DIY-looking cover
- Too much subjectivity
- Weak hierarchy/structure
- Too many fonts
- Boring and bland design
- Completely unreadable in small thumbnail size
- Too much text and too many elements crammed into it
- Low-quality images
- Copyright-protected images
- Too much feedback from outside
- Author name size myth
While some of these are more subtle issues that won’t kill your book sales, others can stall your sales and cause other issues. I see them constantly on DIY covers and even on covers designed by new designers who are still learning the art of book cover design. Lets analyse them in a bit more detail:
1. Genre Miscommunication
This is a subtle mistake, but a serious one. Your cover might communicate that book is a psychological thriller while your book is actually an action thriller with lots of chases and shooting. The expectations readers have for each are different, and even though they might buy a book, your book may get more negative reviews from readers who are unhappy that they were misled. Not only you’re missing out on reaching the right readers, you will also lose sales because of bad reviews.
2. DIY-looking Cover
This one is often easiest to tell because some covers are just a disaster. Like few following ones.
But some covers have subtler signs of DIY and are often harder to tell (esp. Coming from newer inexperienced designers). This tends to be mistakes of misplaced text (too close to edges of cover), text too small (I’ve done that myself at first), a bad hierarchy of design elements (more on this on this at #4).
3. Too Subjective
This happens when an author’s personal preferences influence the design too much. Instead of designing a cover that fits your genre needs, an author sometimes wants a particular color or visual element on the cover that doesn’t fit the genre or is just a plain bad design choice. Cover designs shouldn’t be boring or too cliché. Adding an interesting or different element can work, but when suggesting ideas for cover designs, don’t get too attached to anything..
A designer should never be dismissive of the author’s ideas and not explain anything. A good designer is not only paid to design but is also the author’s guide to what works and what doesn’t, so the designer needs to at least explain in some detail of why the color or design element on a particular cover doesn’t work.
4. Weak Hierarchy/Structure
Every design should have a simple, clear hierarchy of elements. Whether it’s a book cover, website design, or poster, the way design is laid out impacts how readers perceive it. This is one of those design things that non-designer will not even spot easily, and that’s why DIY covers can suck.
A good reference to understand it easier is to compare it to the hero’s journey. It’s an underlying structure in every great story. It doesn’t always have to be laid out in the same order of events, but it is best when the story features all the elements. So that’s the underlying thing, a structure or a pattern writers can see that readers often don’t. Same here. Design as an art form has it’s own structures and hierarchy options.
All book covers have text and visual layout patterns which are repetitive once you learn them and recognize those that don’t have them. Not using these layout patterns creates a weak design. Breaking rules for the sake of breaking them isn’t always the best thing. Breaking these patterns can work if they are done by those who already know the rules well. A clever new pattern can result in a worse design than keeping it simple. Sometimes a small, simple tweak of a usual design structure will produce a better result than reinventing the design structure.
Some structure samples and their tweaks:
Structure One – Title in the middle and author name below it with the visuals around them.
As you can see, the left one is a standard placement, straight line text with nothing too fancy. It’s a good book cover that does its job well, while the one on the right takes the same structure but puts it at an angle. The title, subtitle, and the figure are not lined up straight, but the author’s name and tagline are, which makes for a nice change and a beautiful cover.
Structure Two – Visual in the middle and the text on top and bottom, title or text interchangeable.
This is a common design structure, probably what most would call a normal cover. Both covers are great and do their job genre-wise and both look awesome. The cover on the left plays with the structure, showing more dimension with the magic energy coming out of hand along with the title being on different layers of paper. Again, a simple tweak creates an exciting cover.
There are more structures, like placing the visual on top and the title and author name below it, or flipped version of that, etc. It’s out of scope for this article but I might write something up if you’d like (let me know in the comments).
Hierarchy is often different on every cover, which means all design elements—title, main visual, author name, supporting visual— are laid out in a way that matches their importance. On the cover for Ruta Sepetys book, the author name is the first thing that stands out on the cover before the eye is drawn down to the visual, and only then do you notice the title. It’s even hard to read in a small thumbnail, but since the author name is the main selling point, that is done deliberately. The main element is the name, and the visual is the secondary element, and the title is last.
It’s not uncommon for traditionally published books to look like this, and it’s less common for indies to focus mainly on the author name as a selling point. It does not make sense for a new author to have their name be the first thing in the hierarchy. The title or visual should be the dominant thing that attracts the eye. Sometimes it’s the cool- sounding title and the solid visual, sometimes it’s an interesting visual that is dominant and the title is secondary with author name being tertiary. I recommend a more readable and legible design, though.
5. Too Many Fonts Used on the Cover
The general guideline for good typography—use two contrasting fonts. Never use more than three fonts on a cover. Sometimes a third font is okay and can be used. But if you use a third font, it should be used as a tagline or supporting text, not the main message. Often you can just use one font and change the weight or thickness, bold and regular, regular and italic, etc.
6. Boring and Bland Design
Sometimes a cover can have the right visual for the genre, well-made typography, and have everything basically right, but if it lacks contrast and vibrancy then the cover will not get as much reader attention as possible. Bland designs drown in the sea of great covers.
Vibrancy is especially important in genres like fantasy, YA, urban fantasy, and science fiction, where most covers are vibrant and colorful. Contrast is imperative for covers.
If the goal for the cover is to have a more abstract or melancholic cover, too much vibrancy is not needed.
7. Completely Unreadable in Small Thumbnail Size
The book title should be easy to read in the thumbnail size on Amazon. While the cover visual might be good enough to attract attention on its own, an intriguing title multiplies your chances of getting the reader to click through your Amazon book page.
The size of the author’s name can range from being legible, not easy to read at first glance but readable, to being almost as big as the title so it’s easy to read at once.
8. Too Much Text or Too Many Visual Elements
Too many things on the cover become too hard to understand. It is easy to lose structure, hierarchy, and cover your best design elements with too many things.
Never cram too many visual symbols from the story. Don’t include every important person, gun, cityscape, a religious symbol, etc. The cover doesn’t need to display all the story elements or depict a scene in detail. Conveying the right genre or subgenre and the feel of the story is more important than depicting intricate details of any one scene.
The purpose of the cover is to intrigue the reader to buy the story, not to show or spoil the story.
For covers that need to be abstract, this usually means a minimalistic design with only one visual and matching text. One cool visual is often more than enough.
9. Low-Quality Images
Book Covers that draw readers have exceptional images. Tiny images taken with an old phone or small images found on Google will show amateurism. Images that are too old and scanned poorly show the author hasn’t invested in his book – images like these can get pixelated, and screw up the cover. Not many things scream DIY more than pixelated images.
10. Copyright-protected images
There are some things you can’t use on book covers because they are copyright-protected and you might get sued for using them. For example, if you need a sports car, do not use a Ford Mustang image, the Mustang logo is copyrighted and can’t be used unless you get expressed written permission from the Ford Motor Company’s attorneys (good luck with that). There are also places that are forbidden to be used on covers, like the Eiffel Tower at night for example (due to the night lights on the tower being a copyrighted design, not the tower itself). To learn more about restrictions for things go here:
Editorial images are only allowed for editorial use, not in commercial projects like book covers.
Even when the cover designer is looking for a stock for your cover, we have to exclude editorial images and be aware of the copyrighted images.
So, never go to Google and search for the image you want for cover and use it. That’s illegal too. Not all websites allow their images to be used. The only images that can be used for covers are the creative commons. Some need attribution, some don’t, and there are different license types here as well. Learn more at:
Some stock photo sites also offer free images that can be used, but since they are available to everyone, everyone uses them so they lose their originality.
The best option is to stick to professional stock photo sites or doing a photo shoot, which can get expensive, so it’s not for everyone.
11. Too Much Feedback from Outside
Getting feedback on your cover is important. You should get it before even choosing a cover.
Don’t ask too many people about it. It’s best to have five people who know the purpose of a cover, like fellow authors in your genre or designer friends, before asking your loyal readers’ opinions but do not take design advice from too many people, especially from those who do not have any design education and skills.
I’ve moderated a book cover critique group for over a year now, and while it’s a great initiative and it helps self-published authors, sometimes it is more of a distraction than a help. People have good intentions, but some don’t know what they are talking about while others give their opinion, which is not real advice.
Discern between feedback that is subjective, one person’s opinion, from feedback that is based on design practices or genre expectations. Subjective opinions will mislead you if you don’t know the difference.
If you conduct a vote sometimes a cover that is visually more impressive but less genre-appropriate can win, which is a mistake. While the general public may like it more from a design standpoint doesn’t mean it is the right tool for your book marketing.
My recommendation is to stick with a small group of professionals, and if you want to ask readers, ensure that you’re already giving them the right options to choose from in the genre before letting them choose a winner.
You can always email a cover designer and ask them for their opinion, especially for an older cover that may need to be redesigned. If you’re worried that an older cover isn’t working, email a designer or two you’d consider working and ask for their opinion about the cover. Designers aren’t entitled to do it for free or go into a lot of detail, but most designers are helpful so you would get feedback from a professional.
12. Author Name Size Myth
There was a myth circulating around the self-publishing circles that authors, even new ones, should blow up the size of their author name on the cover. It was supposed to be a way to trick readers into thinking that big author name size signifies they are a well-known author…on
…which is absolute b.s. nonsense!
It came from trying to copy what traditional publishers do for books, as you see huge author name sizes on covers for Steven King and other authors. It makes sense for them because they sell more books based on the author’s name than on the cover or title. The name needs to stand out on bookshelves from far away too, so they play by different rules and focus on that. There is a small percentage of indie authors who also do it. Hugh Howey, yeah, H.M. Ward, yeah, Russell Blake, yeah, Mark Dawson, sure… Anyone who is already well-known in their particular genre should have their name in a readable size, and often as large as possible without messing up the design.
A new author can’t trick a reader because readers don’t know that size means something indies imagined. Readers need to have a reference point in their minds about a person to recognize their name. If a reader hasn’t read your book before, he will not recognize the name at any size. He will only know it if he’s read your other books or has seen recommendations for your books. In either case, it’s not the font size of the author’s name but the reference point in the reader’s mind that does the selling.
I hope this article helps and educates you about what is necessary for a quality book cover. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment below. I read and reply to each one…
Please share this article with your author friends and author groups. Raising the cover design level for our industry is important, and the more indie authors read articles like this, the more likely they are to not make cover design mistakes and lose book sales!