5 tips for grabbing attention with your book cover

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The "A" in AIDA

It’s not that we judge books by their covers. But if you’re standing in a bookstore staring at a dozen photo-realistic illustrations next to one cartoony sketch, you’re gonna notice the cartoony sketch.

A great cover makes us look.

Will you have any control over your cover? If you self publish, yes. If you go the traditional route, it depends on your contract. Typically you’ll be allowed to voice your opinions, but the publisher makes the final decision. This can be a good or bad thing. On the one hand, their marketing department probably knows more about selling books than you do. On the other hand, you know more about your book.

So if you’re self-publishing, here are some cover design tips. If you’re going traditional, here, at least, are a few notes you may want to bring up when they ask for your opinion.

1. Keep it simple. Go to any bookstore and stare at the shelves for awhile and your eyes will start to burn from the colors and clutter. Those tired eyes will naturally gravitate towards negative space to get some rest. That’s why, often, the simpler your cover, the better. Think Google vs. Yahoo search.

2. Promote natural eye flow. Choose the sizes and colors of each element – title, byline, images, etc. – based on importance. Where does the eye fall first? Where does it go from there? Where does it end? Does the eye flow easily from one element to the next, or is there a war of elements all screaming for your attention at once?

3. Avoid photo realistic illustrations of people. Stand in the romance section and that’s almost all you’ll see. Shirtless guys with their arms around buxom blondes, long hair waving in the wind. Add a dragon for fantasy or laser guns for science fiction, but with or without the shirtless guy, you’ll see this pattern everywhere. If you are only targeting an audience that reads your genre exclusively, the typical cover may benefit you best. But if you want to appeal to a wider audience, pick something simpler, with greater contrast. Do you really think Twilight would have gotten so popular if it had looked like every other paranormal romance book out there?

4. Avoid overused fonts. Comic sans, for instance, or Papyrus. Check out a list of overused fonts here.

5. Aim for bold and iconic. Negative space with one or two contrasting colors will point you in the right direction. If it’s still recognizable when you squint at it (this advice per Karen Kavett), you may have a winner. Especially since online shoppers are only going to be looking at a thumbnail about a square-inch big.

Along those lines, consider also how the design can translate to other materials. Website. T-shirts. Think of your cover more as a signature or a logo rather than exclusively a glimpse at the scenery. Like the mockingjay pin on The Hunger Games, the puppet-master hand of The Godfather, the burning paper man of Fahrenheit 451, or the bent tree of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Just check out some of these titles for comparison:

Images from Amazon (book links below)

What are some of your favorite book covers? Tell me in the comments!

Stay tuned: next week, we talk book titles!

Book links: Kiss Me Dead, Irish Moon, Yours Mine & Ours, Her Dark Angel, Bound in Darkness, Twilight, Fair Game, Shadow’s Fall, Game of Thrones

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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23 Comments

  1. This makes a lot of sense and gave me some good ideas. Thank you very much.

  2. I love Kate Mosse’s book covers – they’re quite simple and very rustic. I have the Illustrated version of Labyrinth and it’s just such a nice book to hold and look at.

    I do tend to judge books by their covers. I picked up Karen Miller’s Godspeaker trilogy from a second hand book store because of the simple picture of a girl on the spine, and I’m really glad I got those books!

    This is some really useful advice, thank you! I think authors tend to be very close to their novels and when designing the book themselves they want to put to much in it. I definitely agree and this is what I am trying to achieve with my novel at the moment.

    • I picked up The Book of Lost Things (John Connolly) because of its cover and loved it. Then there are other books whose covers I’ve loved but whose content I haven’t been as crazy about – The Looking Glass Wars (Series? Trilogy? I only have the first two) are drop-dead gorgeous, but I got so bored with the second one I actually didn’t finish it.

      So, you win some, you lose some.

  3. Appreciate your observations. I hired a professional cover designer for my books and she kept trying to give me a ‘photo realistic’ (i.e. Photo-shopped) shirtless guy in a dramatic pose on my cover because, she said, that’s what people expect. I finally gave up, let her keep the money, and went DIY. Unfortunately, I listened to her and did not deviate enough from what she called the norm. In the future, I will.

    • Well, like I said, if you’re only trying to reach readers in your genre, that may be the best way to go. But yeah, I’d encourage you to branch out with your next book. : )

  4. Things to think about. I’ll have to remember this when I get to this point. Thanks.

    Ps: I’ve read the book in the top left under romance. It was a great book, but I see what you’re saying about the cover. I bought it as an ebook and it was free. I obviously got it because of the price.

    • I’ve read a lot of good books that had really horrible covers, but I mostly picked them up because someone recommended them to me. The book jacket from my copy of Battlefield Earth is a hideous 1970s rendition of – you guessed it – a shirtless guy on a paved road holding a gun of some kind. But the book is brilliant.

  5. Who am I kidding? I ALWAYS judge books by their covers. 😉

    And as for me, I absolutely fell in love with the cover art of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series. They are gorgeous!

    http://www.faenation.com/http://www.faenation.com/images//wickedlovely-400×341.jpg

  6. Hm… food for thought. It’s fascinating to see the history of book covers.

  7. Reblogged this on amberdover and commented:

    Great advice BEKINDREWRITE 🙂 thanks! Enjoy this reblog friends for Hear the Writer Roar! Tuesday 🙂 God bless and remember The High King Lives!~Amber Dover

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  9. Thanks for the link to my design blog. Appreciate it! Great article on book cover design as well.

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