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Surrealistic Planet

ALWAYS judge a book by its cover

When I self-published my first novel I made mistakes. The first and biggest was creating my own cover. I did it for the best of reasons - I couldn't afford to pay anyone to design it for me. A few months later, with sales flat-lining and advice from other writers, I learned a vital lesson. Money may be in short supply but employing a cover artist is an investment.

The old adage about never judging a book by its cover is true in its metaphorical sense but it's not when it comes to selling your book. According to Bookbub, the book sales site, a good cover increases click rate by 30%. The cover tells us a lot:

  • the genre

  • the tone of the book, we can sense what to expect

  • it's a hook. It encourages the reader to look inside, even read the first page at least

  • your brand, a way for readers to recognise you as an author

The book cover is your shop window and you don't want it to look like its a charity shop! (I'm sure lots of charity shops have lovely window displays but I'm talking about how merchandise is presented.)

The Book Cover and the Genre

To return to my shop window concept, the cover needs to identify the genre quickly and explicitly. You have three seconds to grab your potential buyer's attention, just as you do as you wander past a shop window. The genre must scream its identity.

BUT, it must do more. It needs to communicate the basic trope of your story. The main theme or concept of your story needs to be visible.

I can illustrate this best by using the fantasy genre. It's full of tropes which dictate distinctive cover designs. In such a wide-ranging genre, readers have preferences and they need identifying quickly. The sub-genres often use similar tropes so you can work out what the story from the cover.

The Chosen One is a common trope. The focus is on the protagonist and their journey (physical or metaphorical) so that's why the cover will focus on that person primarily. I've used this Harry Potter design because of the heroic posture, almost Henry V in its call to battle!

Grimdark stories use a trope with is more about the setting of the story. As with the cover for Mark Lawrence's story, the cover tells us much about the focus on death and battle. Look at the colour palette compared to Harry Potter! The main character's cloak and cowl also depict someone who is far from a traditional hero.

Urban fantasy includes a number of tropes but crucial to the design of the cover is the need for the right setting. It needs to depict a place we will recognise: a cityscape perhaps? Something which shows a modern world but which contains supernatural elements too.

Steampunk as a sub-genre uses the trope of alternative technology so it's all about the setting again. China Mielville's stories are good examples, none better than the world of Perdido Street Station. Its quasi-Victorian setting is captured beautifully in its cover, letting you know what to expect.

Being clear about the genre is easy. It's what the story delivers within that genre where you need to focus your efforts. Your designer will want to know this right from the start, it will help them get a sense of what you want. Think about the primary trope of your story. Approaching 50% of all covers focus on a person (or two if their relationship is the focus) because the story is about the development of their character. So begin by distilling the essence of your story into a basic image.


An element I discovered after my mistake of creating my own cover was the importance of the typography on the cover. I'm not just talking about the font you choose. It's what you do with the words. For some stories, often those without a character focus, the formatting of the title itself communicates a message.

Do your research though. Look at what others have done within your chosen genre. The examples I've just shown are unlikely to appear in a fantasy story for instance, world building and character matter more. But in thrillers and crime novels, this format is quite common.

But it's important to know what message the font sends to your reader.

  • Serif fonts represent eternity and formality.

  • Modern serifs are associated with gloss and haute couture.

  • Slab serifs are used to grab attention and highlight the content’s importance.

  • Sans serif fonts are neutral and simple.

  • The concise font is more authoritative and intense.

  • Bold fonts relate to importance and strong key messages.

  • Handwritten fonts are mostly elegant and distinctive.

  • Geometric fonts go well with kids’ topics and have a retro vibe to them.

  • Mono-spaced fonts send a clear and sharp message.

  • Rounded fonts are friendly and lively.

  • Vintage typography is trendy and cool.

  • Grunge font refers to something mystical and magical.

Notice the importance of being clear about your book's themes and basic concept. Everything must point to it. Mixing up the message risks losing your audience because they will be confused. Look at the covers above and the font choices made there - such as the slab serif font for The Fall and how it grabs attention. Research the kind of fonts used within your genre. I like to go to Amazon and type in a genre and pay attention to the books I know nothing about and try to guess what the story is about before reading the story's premise. It's a great way to see if the author's messaging has worked.

If you're looking for a site to download fonts that extend beyond what you have now, here are a handful to get you started:

  • 1001 Free Fonts - a great site which organises fonts both alphabetically but also by category/genre

  • FontSpace - has 37,000 free fonts, organised into categories (pictorial, foreign, old style etc) but you can also copy/paste your title into the site to see what it looks like in different fonts

  • DaFont - lots of free fonts, organised via alphabet & category, lots of fun fonts to see here.

One final point about your font and format. Know your target audience. Be clear how the message + font + format speaks to them. Don't alienate them by giving wrong impressions - eg. fonts that look childish and suggest a young audience, or font/format suggesting quirky for a serious story.

The Layout

The best tip to offer here is to keep it simple! Minmalism is your friend.

It's tempting to want to put lots of information in the cover. Not just the title and author but the targline, the series in which the story appears, promotional quotes. The point to remember takes us back to my opening - readers will look at your cover for THREE SECONDS. If there is too much to look at, they are more likely to move on. Simplicity is everything here. Decide what is essential.

Remember that quotes and taglines can appear on the first inside page - or the back cover in paperback.

Likewise, consider the colour palette of the cover. (Mentioned earlier). Colour conveys meaning, often subconsciously, bear this in mind. Serious = darker hues, light-hearted = bright, light, garish primaries.

For further hints - and examples of fonts suitable for specific genres, go here.

Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur has some helpful tips too. He uses this example to prove the point I've been making so far.

As you can see, they are covers for the same book but developed with these tips in mind. Look how the font tells us more, establishing the historical elements of the story. The photo is the same but the colour palette and mistiness of the photo captures the tone. The tagline remains but it doesn't dominate now - if interest has been piqued in those first three seconds, the reader will want to read it. By reducing its size, the cover is simpler, more minimal, more effective.

The Cover Designer

Finding the right designer is important. No surprise there. Keep in mind that the two of you are entering into a creative relationship. Like with any relationship, communication is key. You need to be crystal clear what you want. Vague descriptions lead to frustration on both sides. Look for someone willing to discuss ideas with you, who really want to understand your vision. Some basic tips:

  • Find out what they've done before (ideally from your research, not only what they show you). Find out if they are familiar with your genre and have experience of working in it

  • Send them a "mood board" which displays details of the story, its protagonist, the setting, its themes. If you can, provide images which illustrate these things. (You can do simple copy/paste from Google as its only between the two of you.)

  • Decide what kind of designer you want. Are you looking for an illustrator who will create a bespoke cover? If so, this will be more expensive but your cover will be unique. Or your designer may buy a stock image and manipulate it so it meets your brief. It's worth checking out stock image libraries to find the kind of picture you want on your mood board. I use Deposit Photos because their prices are reasonable. Free images (and therefore more frequently used) can be found on Pixabay. Or you can try other libraries; such as Shutterstock and iStock.

  • Talk to your potential designer about their understanding of the market in which you're planning to work in. What are the current trends? What style choices are there within that genre? What are the best selling authors /publishers doing that you might copy/avoid? (Do they know??)

Where can I find my designer?

Let's start with the larger organisations. If you want more advice and links, try Reedsy.

You can find designers who operate from platforms such as Fiverr, they outlines their services, contact details and typical prices - which can start at a fiver! It's a cheap means of getting a decent cover but remember, the cheaper the price, the less likely the artist may want to engage in lengthy discussion.

Over at Creative Penn, they have a lengthy list of folk along with a short profile so you can select the right ones to approach. There is also 99 Designs which gives you access to a community of designers. There is also Deviant Art with their designer community.

If you're active on social media, you can find people there too. Some personal recommendations from me, based on their reputations from my fellow authors as great designers and nice people:


It's a complex business, creating a cover for your book, isn't it? And, keep in mind I haven't mentioned anything about how the cover of your book needs to be visual in a way that will translate into social media and personal branding. Something which only occurred to me as I published my fourth book - the need for all your books to have a recogniseable brand. See what I mean with mine?

The font is identical, as is a vibrant colour palette and character-led central image. As I mentioned earlier, you need covers to convey an impression in 3 seconds and that should include a reaction which goes something like "Oh yeah, I recognise that!" The use of the font allows me to use it in other contexts where the books are promoted, again providing that mental connection. But it also captures the things I've listed in this post - at least, I think they do.

And a few quotes from people who know a thing or two:

“Good cover design is not only about beauty... it’s a visual sales pitch. It’s your first contact with a potential reader. Your cover only has around 3 seconds to catch a browsing reader’s attention. You want to stand out and make them pause and consider, and read the synopsis.”

"Readers are naturally drawn to books that have a familiar appearance and brand to those that they have previously enjoyed." Aimee Coveney

"A unique book cover design is a way to attract potential readers and buyers of a book. An independent author should pay heed to the concept of the cover, colors, typefaces, and simplicity of the design. But it should be a scalable design that appears excellent in smaller sizes for online selling of the book." Designhill

"In my opinion, the most common mistake people make when designing book covers is definitely using poor, inappropriate and outdated fonts. Add an obvious drop shadow to it and you’ll get a “DIY – looking” cover. Also, using non-complementary colors pretty much destroys the cover too, as well as using too many colors. Undoubtedly, the artwork you create is very important too and it has to be well done and eye-catching, but the crucial mistake are the fonts, because no matter if the artwork is good, if you go wrong with fonts, you’ll ruin the whole cover, which will result in your cover looking unprofessional, which then will lead to you losing sales." Mila Book Covers

Finally, for some light-hearted messaging, watch this 17 minute TED talk by Chip Kidd, an expert on book cover design. There's great advice and laughs along the way.

I hope you find this post helpful, the links have helped you find what you need. Good luck with your cover design - may it increase your sales big time!

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