When I began self-publishing, one of the first rules I set for myself was to learn as much as possible from both the good and bad of the domain. A common mistake I saw in self-publishing was bad design, the first and most fatal hint of amateurism in the creator. I resolved to at least try to make my books look professional, and I find that years later I'm still refining my chops. I also found that I enjoy the process of designing my books almost as much as I do writing them.
I've collected here some of the most important things I've learned over the years about how to make a self-published book cover look professional. Consider this article a living document; I may update it from time to time with new discoveries, freshly unearthed resources, timely insights.
(Note: All design work here is mine unless otherwise indicated. Links to original image sources are shown next to the covers.)
All design is about the communication of information, whether factual or emotive. A cover should communicate the following information about the book:
I emphasize the last one because communication of intent is as important as any other kind of factual communication. You want the reader to have some sense of what's in store for them -- whether the book is lightweight or austere, serious or frivolous, epic or intimate.
Consider the following cover:
You and I know that promoting George Orwell's dystopian masterwork as if it were a story about a thirtysomething discovering real love for the first time is disingenuous, to say the least. The reverse would also be true: one generally doesn't use an austere and cold design for a warm-hearted story about relationships.
Here, everything about the design tells us something useful about the book we're going to read:
Much of this revolves around expectations and what's already in the marketplace. If we had a tradition of using brushstroke fonts and pastel colors to promote grim and disturbing fiction, we'd do that.
On the other hand, if you want your clash of style and premise to be deliberate, as per the the above example (quick, someone write that book), that can be fun too.
But always be conscious of what you are evoking and why. This is why getting out there and looking at other book covers is instructive -- not because you want to copy them, but because you want to have that much more experience with what's possible and to what end. You want to do this continuously, too, so you know what the visual language is right now, and also what it might be five years from now.
If you can commission artwork, by all means do so. But for those of us who have no budget, or who like to create things with serendipitous finds, here's what you need to keep in mind.
The more images you have to draw on to make your cover, the easier it'll be to settle on something that communicates your intent. I collect images compulsively, so I am almost never without good imagery to work with.
Artvee, Pexels, Pixabay, and Unsplash are among my favorite sources for images, since everything there is free to re-use even without credit. Many museums -- e.g., the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- also now allow images from their collection to be downloaded and freely re-used. Note that individual items may have different copyright restrictions, but most anything created before 1923 is fair game.
Under no circumstances should you assume that just because an image has no apparent owner that it is free to use. Absolutely do not assume that, say, an image you found in a book from 1980 that is no longer in print is fair game. I myself wish copyright law were more flexible in this regard, but what can you do? ("Do it until you get caught" is not good advice.)
The most important thing is that you keep a storehouse of images that stimulate you, that say to you in some way, "I'm a book cover!" It's always easier to work with an image that already excites you than to work with something that doesn't, or that would need to be tortured into usefulness.
Go look at professionally published books -- not just SF&F stuff, but everything. See what catches you eye, and ask yourself what it is that stands out about it. Do this again and again.
You're not obliged to emulate everything you see that you like, but you can take individual lessons from individual covers. If you find a cover that only has a single, stark design and two lines of text, the takeaway may simply be that you don't need a lot to communicate intent.
Consistency of design across books is useful, but not something you have to be dogmatic about unless you are trying to enforce a brand. I do this myself, but not because I think it is an absolute good, only because I find it useful.
The design used in someone else's consistent brand is always worth paying attention to because of what lessons they can provide. For instance, Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics, and the NYRB reissue series both have deeply consistent designs. (All examples shown here are their designs, not mine.)
In Penguin's case, it's an image with the title, author, and Penguin logo below that in a large black zone. Simple, consistent, uncomplicated, iconic with time.
Oxford Classics are similarly consistent.
In NYRB's case, it's a well-chosen image with a text block centered over it -- a daring choice that would normally not work since the text would often threaten to obscure the image, but the designers are judicious enough to make each such incarnation of it work.
Every successful design is an object lesson of some kind. Your job is not to clone the design, but to find the lesson conveyed in the design.
I should note that some people do not consider designs like these exciting. I think exciting design is fun, but has a minimal shelf life. What we think of as exciting at any one moment tends to age quickly. If you look at what were thought of as splashy covers in years past, they just look awkward and loud now. (If you want to evoke the spirit of a previous age by way of its graphic design, that's another thing.)
The iconic cover painting for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is still a great cover after all these decades, in big part because it is modest and self-assured. It does not try to do too much. And it does a lovely job of selling us the bittersweet, melancholic flavor of the book (look at all that blue, those sad eyes!) with a single, now-iconic image.
When the 12" vinyl record was the predominant format for music, graphic designers had a blast creating huge, poster-like images for album covers. Cassette tapes and CDs changed all that, because what looked good at 12" on a side looked uncomfortable when blown down to 12cm on a side. Many CD reissues were left as-is for the sake of consistency, but graphic designers now had to think about designs that looked good at both sizes. Sometimes they created variants for either format. Often that didn't involve much more than just changing the scaling of the text slightly to be more readable on a CD flyer.
The same thing's happening now with ebooks vs. printed books. What looked great on the cover of a 5¼"×8" book may look pretty incoherent when blown down into a rectangle 200px on the longest side.
To that end, always blow your covers down to ebook size to see how they play out. If you are really fond of a particular printed design that doesn't port well to an ebook, consider making variants for each format (again, as per CD vs. LP).
It's tempting to use elaborate text blocks with gorgeous, complex fonts, especially with SF&F books, where that kind of alluring design is a good way of communicating the book's intentions. Just don't do this at the expense of general legibility and coherence.
If you have a fancy font you want to use, try using it in the barest possible way first, and only adding enhancements to it as an A/B experiment. The fancier the font, the more room you need to give it to be legible and to "breathe".
This goes double for fonts with color treatments. Colors always need to be contrastful enough with your underlying images to be legible. This is why I tend to favor black and white for fonts, as they provide the highest contrasts with the least amount of work.
As with images, it helps to have a wide roster of fonts that serve multiple needs. I settled on two fonts for my covers - one for titling, the other for jacket copy -- without getting too fancy about it, if only because it was one less thing to think about. But I collect and experiment with typefaces all the time, just to see what else is out there.
The most common temptation that arises with a good piece of artwork is to simply center it on the cover and call it a day. Sometimes this can work, but give yourself the leeway to experiment with cropping or juxtaposing the image.
This image (Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, Giovanni Boldini, 1906), a favorite of mine, can be turned into a cover by simply adding text.
But we can also trim the image down to its core elements, moving those to one side, and using the balance of the space provided for the text.
This still keeps the most important part of the composition, the relationship between the mother and child, while giving us a new way to deploy the text block. It also provides us (and this is no small boon) with a solid field of dark color to provide strong contrast for the text and to make it legible as-is.
You can also use more than one image together for contrast against each other thematically. This rather sledgehammer-obvious example is an album cover (not my design), not a book cover, but the principle should be clear:
Whatever the focus is of your image, whether it's a human face or a centrally attractive element, try not to obscure it. Work around it with your text, or use the text to draw attention to it. Or, as noted above, crop to emphasize it.
One common approach these days is to have large, sparse text over an image that allows both the text and image to intermingle. This can be effective, as with the book below (not my design). On the other hand, it's an effect that borders on being overused these days, and it can be a struggle to keep it from looking like a jumble.
Many people use black borders, drop shadows, or cartouches to make text stand out against an image. These are effective, but they come at the cost of adding more visual information to the text and the cover as a whole. More information on a cover means it takes that much longer for the viewer to make sense of what they're looking at. Even an incremental amount of such interference can make a cover seem that much less appealing at first glance without the reader knowing why.
I've found it's even more effective to manipulate the output level of the underlying image slightly, since that way you don't have to further clutter the image with information in an attempt to add legibility.
Photoshop and other image editors have controls that let you constrain the output range of an image, from 0 (darkest) through 255 (lightest). My texts are absolute white (max output 255), while the image below may have its max output constrained to 232 or 240. This allows the text's white to be distinct from the image's white.
Another trick you can use in conjunction with this is some slight color balance changes on the image, so that the white of the image is cooler or warmer (depending on the effect you want to achieve) than the white of the text. Again, it provides a subtle but noticeable contrast.
I also find that you can selectively decrease the image output under a piece of text to make it further stand out. One way to do this is to make a layer that has some output constraint on it, and use a mask on that layer at the exact area where you want to emphasize contrast. Again, you don't have to do this very much at all to make it distinct -- you can daub a little here and there to improve the contrast where it's most needed. This provides the same net effect as a drop shadow without the visual clutter drop shadows often silently impose.
If you're designing for print at all, remember that every cover needs to take into account image bleed and the wrap along the spine.
The "bleed" is the area all around a cover that overlaps where the cover is trimmed in the production process. This is typically about 0.125" on all sides. Your images should lap over into this area. Your text should not even come close to this area. In this image, it's the red margin:
I also tend to have my images wrap along the spine as that makes them attractive on a shelf and when held in the hand, but that also means I have to take into account the left side of the image as part of the design.
If the design I have doesn't allow for it, I have a few options. One is to mirror the image along the spine (although this is IMO obvious); another is to selectively stretch part of the left side of the image to fill it. The distortion is usually not noticeable. See this post for more information about that trick. But whenever possible, design with crops and spines in mind.
Don't shy away from making multiple versions of a cover to test out different placements of objects or different concepts. Disk space is cheap. Photoshop and Photopea (the free online clone of Photoshop) both have functions that let you take layers and put them into groups, so you can experiment with different text treatments non-destructively.
At the end of the day, though, try to narrow down to two or three variants that you want to choose from. Put them aside for a couple of days, forget about them, and then come back to them and choose.
Take courses on graphic design and typography. It's never been easier in the history of, well, history to educate yourself about these subjects.
I also recommend a few books:
And, most of all, get out there and look at other book designs. Preferably good ones!
Never let a pigheaded rule get in the way of a perfectly good design.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind