An author at a bookstore is bound to be impressed by the amount of creative energy in all of the book covers and overwhelmed as to how her own is going to stand out. One way or another, it’s going to have to.

Describe the image in a couple words
Via by Nevergohungry

It’s common knowledge by now that readers shop with their eyes. They look for familiarity but simultaneously yearn for surprise—for something that is new and refreshing. They want a book they can be proud to hold on the subway or read on their e-reader. So many books are published each year—a good book design must communicate that the pages within are worth a reader’s time and attention.

In the Ultimate Guide to Book Design, we’ll take a look at how to get your book cover to tell readers a story before they even crack open the first page.

Before you start your book design

Questions to answer

Who is the author and what is his or her brand?

The author wrote the book. The design process must start with them. If the author is a debut, they might be figuring this out at the same time. Are they young and upcoming or established and trusted? Do they have previous books that have already established an expectation of what a cover should look like?

Does the genre (Sci-fi, romance, horror, etc) have an established style?

Commercial fiction are books that fall solidly in one genre. Examples of commercial (or “genre”) fiction are romance, thrillers, fantasy, horror and science-fiction. These genres have cover design styles that were established decades ago. Since the goal of your cover is to sell books, the cover of a commercial title should follow, or at least evoke, the standard bearers of its particle genre. A planet (that’s not earth) sends a clear message of science-fiction; a couple sends romantic vibes. A desolate landscape can be fantasy or dystopian. The key is to embrace the expected and find a way to create something surprising and new.

>> Learn more on how to design book covers for any genre
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A lovely cover by L1graphics that stays true to the recognized historical elements while still feeling fresh, modern and cinematic.
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The covers for VE Schwab’s Shades of Magic tip their hat to the fantasy stylings while also building a recognizable, gorgeous brand that is all their own. Via Bookriot.

Literary books most often straddle one or more of these genres and are defined by high-quality writing and profound human stories.

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Literary covers that give little away in terms of plot–but don’t you still want to read them? Via LitHub.

“Up-market” titles are books that are well-written while also retaining the readability and accessibility of genre. They are often popular choices for reading programs and bookclubs because they are enjoyable reads that also have powerful themes that spur conversation. Their covers often blend elements from literary and genre to draw interest from the largest possible audience.

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A selection of up-market covers via Pinterest.
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The cover of The Martian employs a light genre touch from the science-fiction style while being attractive enough to not alienate average readers without an interest in hard sci-fi.

Where will the book be sold?

Where a book will be sold can have a great impact on its design. With the recent rise in e-readers, some authors choose an eBook only path, eschewing the printed format entirely. Design will be different if the book will only be sold on Amazon as a thumbnail. Text has to be larger and more eye-catching as a consumer scrolls through hundreds of titles on a screen. A print book will live on a shelf in a bookstore where the consumer can pick it up, flip through it, and have a more tactile experience.

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Christmas book cover design for graemesb. Via B&J.
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An eye-catching design by Meella that would pop whether it was used in print or as an ebook.

Information to collect

Format

Ask first if the book cover be used in print, eBook or both? This is relevant for the design notes mentioned above and also because print and web use different color spaces. If the book will be print, find out which format and size.

Formats include: paperback, hardback or casebound. Hardbacks can be made with dust-jackets or with the cover images printed directly on the boards. Books can be almost any size a designer can dream up, but it’s wise to really think about what’s best for the book before arbitrarily selecting a size. The smaller the trim size the less words per page. A 300 page book will get extremely thick if designed too small, while a larger book needs to be a good length to not feel flimsy and more like a magazine or booklet.

Copy

This can include: front copy, back cover copy (also referred to as “flap copy”), author bio/photo, blurbs and endorsements.

Graphics

The less fun but very pertinent graphic information. Examples include author and publishing company logos, as well as barcodes so the book can be sold in stores.

Budget

Both the designer and author should be aware of the extra costs that can add up during the design process. This will include (but is not limited to) font licenses, stock images, ISBN identifier and barcode.

The book design process in 7 steps

Now that you’ve gathered all of the information in one place, it’s time to start the design process!

parts of a book diagram
Diagram of the different book styles. Via bookprinting.com.

1. Understand the elements of a cover

A book cover has three mandatory parts: the front cover and the back cover, connected by the spine. A paperback book’s pages are glued together with a paper cover and then cut to size. A hardback book’s pages are sewn or glued into a “case” made of cardboard which is then covered with cloth or paper. The paper cover wraps around the book and includes flaps on either side. When you open a hardcover book and see colored or printed pages glued to the boards, you’re looking at endpapers, a lovely extra set of pages designers can use to tie a book project together.

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A great design that connects the front and back covers into a cohesive whole. Via Nevergohungry.
>> Learn more about the anatomy of a book cover

At many printers, there are many other premium options available including thicker paper weights, linen-wrapped hardbacks, foil stamping, varnishing, and embossing. These options add high-value to your design but also increase the cost of each book.

2. Research the market

Consider some guidelines: genre sells better in paperback while literary fiction, thrillers and biographies sell well in hardcover. If it’s a book a reader might take on a plane or to the beach, it needs to be a paperback. Libraries prefer hardcovers. Keep price point in mind: don’t design a $34.00 hardback for a Young Adult title (which tend to be priced around $12 and max out at $17.99).

3. Choose a design direction

Next, it’s important to consider what your design direction will be and how it will fit the author’s vision of her book. There are lots of beautiful books out there—but not all designs will work for every book. Consider input from the author or publisher. Make a Pinterest board of comparable titles with successful covers and book packages. Go to your local bookstore and handle books to get a feeling for the different paper thicknesses and materials. Make notes about what you like and don’t like—that information could prove useful way later in the design process if you hit a wall.

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A cover that uses a strong photograph of the author to build on an already established brand. Via Meella

4. Figure out what the design needs to emphasize

Think of the cover or front of the dust jacket as an extension of the marketing plan for the book. What’s the most important element of the story—the thing that makes it unique—that will help a reader select the book? Is it a character in the book? The style of writing? The setting where the book takes place or topic in history it covers? If the book is similar to a hugely successful blockbuster, think about ways you can subtly evoke that title without creating a cheap copy.

Maybe the author is considering writing a sequel or plans on building the title into a series. Think about how future titles might be linked in design to the first in order to build the author’s brand. If the author is well known the strongest piece of marketing might be their name. But for most authors, the book has to stand alone and make an impression among its competitors on a bookshelf.

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This series gives careful consideration to connecting the author’s books into a well-branded series. Via Meella

5. Choose graphics and fonts

One of the great things about book covers is that there is almost no graphic style that can’t work. Writers have wild imaginations, and it’s the designer’s job to create a cover that represents all of the wondrous worlds their pages create.

The downside of this is that narrowing down a style can be a challenge. Book covers can feature a photograph, illustration or abstract design. They can feature everything from cartoonish doodles to stark, modern typography.

Consider what message the graphic style sends to a book-buyer’s brain. A photograph of New York City shouldn’t be used for a book not set in New York. Soft typefaces and natural settings are often used in women’s fiction while vintage photographs imply a historical setting.

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A playful, yet polished, illustrated design for davidheidenstam. Via Pulp ART.
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This cover is wonderfully minimalist, while still grabbing the reader’s attention with a unique style. Via Martis Lupus.

Also worth noting: think carefully about where you source your images. While lots of books on shelves feature stock images, you do run the risk another book could come out with the nearly same cover.

The same goes for fonts. Pick typefaces that are appropriate to the era in which the book is set. A bold sans-serifs might work beautifully for a book set in space 200 years in the future but fail entirely for a nonfiction book about the Civil War.

6. Collect feedback

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Much-groused about covers for a poetic novel about an empowered woman. Packaged originally in a way that leaned too heavily on the sexiness and ignored the more subtle elements of the book. Via Amazon.

Sometimes a “great cover” is not a great cover for a particular book. The more sets of eyes you get on the design, the more you’ll be able to evaluate whether a cover is sending the right message to broad swath of people. Start with your own judgement and then move to the author. From there, let outsiders sample the cover free of context. Ask them what their assumptions are about the book. If the cover features a child, they might ask, “Is the narrator of this novel a child?” They might point out that a design strikes them as funny or heartbreaking.

7. Know what the printer needs

The final file for a book project will be one flat file that has all the pertinent graphic and text information for the front and back covers, spine, and flaps (if your project has them). The printer will want this as one wide file that they can print and either cut or fold to fit the final book. Most printers prefer high-quality PDFs but others take .ai or .eps. All colors must be CMYK for printing.

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A clean design that makes good use of foil stamping for christenC. Via Meella.

If you request any special printing processes (like foil stamping) you will likely have to create a second document that acts as a guide for where you want the foil to go. Some printers will carefully manage how close your text will go to the edges of the spine by giving a specific measurement.

Printers will want the cover file to be full bleed, meaning all images or elements extending beyond the trim line and leaving no white margin. Every printer is different, so while there are industry standards (.125-.25 inch on each side), it’s best to communicate directly with the printer to make sure your file is set up perfectly. Even a tiny miscalculation can cause the text to not be printed on the spine and roll onto the front or back cover instead.

You’re ready to design a book cover

Seeing their imagination come to life in the form of a beautiful cover for their book is every writer’s dream. Hopefully now you feel confident to tackle your next book design project.

Need a cover for your book? Launch a book cover design contest and get ideas from designers all over the world.