Authors: Don't Fall Into These Cover Design Traps!

by Joel Friedlander

I look at a lot of books, books of all kinds from big publishers, small publishers, micro publishers and self-publishing authors. 

One of the biggest problems I see in self-published books is a real misunderstanding of the role of the book cover. Because of this misunderstanding, do-it-yourself cover designers keep falling into the same traps. 

Why do I say that? Too many authors don't understand the critical role the cover plays in their book's success. It's great to concentrate on your writing, making your book the best it can be. But when you switch from being the author to being the publisher, you need to reset your priorities. 

And like any other publisher with a stable of authors, sometimes you have to get tough with your "author" or the book might suffer. 

Here's where I see the misunderstanding. From looking at a lot of self-published books, the covers seem to be designed to fulfill some of the following needs. 

What Authors Want from Their Book Covers 

  1. To show all the artwork the author has collected over the years about her subject matter.

  2. To create a lovely period setting for a novel that takes place in Edwardian England, complete with authentic typefaces from the period.

  3. To emphasize just how beautiful the landscape around the Ozark Mountains is, since that's where the story takes place.

  4. To make use of the great artwork the author did a couple of years ago, which he always thought would make a great book cover.

  5. To let readers know about the 12 subject areas covered in the book, the 6 categories of people who will be helped, and the 19 resource lists included.

Let's contrast this with the actual role the cover needs to play if the book hopes to compete in the open marketplace with other books on the same subject. 

What Publishers Need from Their Book Covers 

  1. To make its subject matter and approach instantly clear to anyone seeing the book for the first time.

  2. To communicate the one big idea of the book through a combination of visuals, color, typography and overall design.

  3. To emphasize exactly who the book is for and what benefit the prospective reader might expect to get from the book.

  4. To entice the browser enough that they will pick the book up or click the cover link to find out more.

  5. To convince the prospective buyer that the book will solve a problem, answer a question, teach them something or otherwise enhance their lives, making the reader herself more awesome.

  6. To sell books.

Do you see a difference here? Briefly, the way I would sum this up is: authors concentrate on their book or themselves. Publishers and book marketers concentrate on readers and potential buyers. That's it. Which one are you? 

Traps and How to Avoid Them 

Okay, now on to practical matters. How can you avoid the fate of book covers that don't do their job? 

The short answer is to hire a professional to design your cover, give them all your input, artwork, thoughts and ideas, then let them do their job. 

However, lots of authors are designing their own books these days. If that's you, here are some common traps to watch out for as you work on your cover design, and simple ways you can work to avoid them. 

  • Too many elements - Look at book covers from major publishers, which are almost all done by professional designers. You'll see that one main element focuses attention. Don't distract people with too many things to look at.

  • Illegible - Take a look at the search results page on Notice how small the book covers are in that list. Make sure you can read your title and subtitle when your cover is that same size.

  • Typeface confusion - You may have hundreds of type fonts on your PC, but that doesn't mean you have to use them all on your book cover. Ideally, stay to 2 typefaces, one for emphasis and the other for detail, and your cover will improve right away.

  • Lack of clarity - If you use images on your cover (and you don't have to, you know), make sure they are appropriate to the subject matter and genre of your book. The reason many books in each genre look similar is reader expectations.

  • Generic stock photos - Be especially careful of stock photography images, which may show up in other contexts attached to different products. For instance, I've seen several books recently that use the exact same shot of a young woman smiling at her computer. If everyone is using it, what meaning does it have? You would be better off with no photo at all and doing a better job describing your book for prospective readers.

Like many things, education is the best preparation for avoiding these traps. You don't want a book that's confused about what it's communicating or looks like it could be the cover of any other book. Your cover needs to express just how unique your book really is. If it can do that, if it's clear about what's in the book, if you can read it even when it's a tiny thumbnail image online, then you've done your job, and your book will be well on its way.



Joel Friedlander is the proprietor of Marin Bookworks in San Rafael, California, a publishing services company where he’s helped launch many self-published authors. He blogs about book design, writing and self-publishing at Joel is also the author of the newly-published A Self-Publisher’s Companion: Expert Advice for Authors Who Want to Publish.


This article originally appeared on For more helpful articles and blogs for authors, visit Createspace Resources. Reprinted with permission. © 2011 CreateSpace, a DBA of On-Demand Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.


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