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Self-Publishing Guidelines For a Great Book Cover

What was the first thing that you noticed about the last book you wound up buying while browsing a bookstore or online retailer? Chances are, it was the cover. It’s the first thing readers see, and before they pick up the book and decide whether your title, description, or first few pages are engaging, they’ll need to make a gut decision about your cover

Does it look visually appealing overall? Does it resemble the covers of other books they’ve enjoyed? And perhaps above all, does it look professional? A well-designed, professional cover signals to readers that you’ve put the same level of care into the rest of the book. It shows they can expect a smooth, easy, and enjoyable reading experience. And an experienced cover designer will bring another level of expertise to speak directly to your book’s target audience.

Guidelines for a great cover

So how do you get those results? There are five guidelines that you’ll want in mind when choosing a cover. While authors may have a creative vision all their own, readers will be looking for signs that a book is similar to other books in their favorite genre. Sci-fi books, for example, tend to use certain color schemes and realistic illustration styles to make a fantastical setting come alive. But while using these conventions as a guideline, a cover should also spark emotion in potential readers. All readers will be hoping to either feel something, or learn something, from reading a book, and a cover should let them know what to expect. 

It may seem daunting to cover those bases while keeping your design simple and straightforward, but the best book covers will manage to do just that. Instead of loading your design with hidden meaning, make sure the message is simple, clear, and easy to understand at a glance. You’ll also need to balance those genre guidelines with keeping your cover unique and allowing it to stand out. It should look at home next to other books in its genre, but also jump out from the shelves. 

Finally, given how many books are purchased through Amazon or other online retailers, make sure your cover looks good in a tiny thumbnail. The simple design, as well as solid or contrasting colors, will help here.

Finally, given how many books are purchased through Amazon or other online retailers, make sure your cover looks good in a tiny thumbnail. The simple design, as well as solid or contrasting colors, will help here.

Choosing a cover designer

It would always be cheaper to hire a general graphic designer. Even cheaper for a Photoshop-savvy author to just design a cover themselves. So why do we recommend hiring a designer with experience specifically in book cover design, ideally for a major publishing house?

On top of knowing the guidelines we mentioned, these designers will take the time to do it right, and that’s a big part of why they charge more. They’ll know (and charge enough) to spend time learning about your book, your target audience, and the rest of your marketing plan. They’ll know how to take an author’s ideas and keep what works, while taking the marketing plan into account and using tried and true design strategies.

While any credible graphic designer would know how to create a visually appealing image, a veteran book cover designer will know how to create one that will speak directly to your audience and put the book in the hands of the readers that will appreciate it most. 

You’ll want to ask your cover designer about their experience with book covers specifically. Ask how they approach design, and whether or not they will offer multiple options. You want a designer who goes beyond just listening to an author’s ideas, to give their own input on what actually gets readers’ attention. 

Communicating with a cover designer

A cover information sheet is a three-page questionnaire that puts all the most crucial information about your book in one place, including an author’s ideas, marketing plans, and basic information like title, subtitle, and genre. This is a great place to start. It may sound simple, but it’s important to get this information across. 

Once you’ve communicated your ideas for the book, it’s absolutely crucial to be open to feedback and input from the designer. Remember, you didn’t just hire them to turn your idea into a design, you hired them for their expertise on what works. 

What seems important to an author about the cover may not match what audiences will be looking for. Instead of depicting details and references to specific plot points that could only be appreciated after reading the book, a good cover will focus on giving readers an idea of how the book will make them feel. Remember, your cover is for people who haven’t read your book yet. 

If you’re working with a serious cover designer, they’ll offer multiple options to choose from before finalizing. When you are given these options, try to give the designer feedback they can work with. Instead of just saying ‘no’ to an idea, make sure you focus on responding in a way that gives direction. If you like most of a design, but have an issue with something specific, be sure to say so. If you want to combine elements from two designs, say that. If all of the designs are really unacceptable, be sure to explain exactly why. 

When done right, the cover design process involves give and take. You want a designer that is open to your thoughts, but with enough expertise and confidence to help guide the design process. You may be the expert on your book, but you want a cover designer that is an expert on how to win over readers with a design, in the few brief seconds they’ll scan your book on a shelf. 

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