Cover Design

Anatomy of a Book Cover

20161020_164341-1A book cover is divided into three main areas: front, back and spine. These should match the size of your typeset pages, with a border of a few millimetres to allow for paper movement during trimming.

Designing a cover involves attractively arranging the following elements within these spaces:

On the front:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Image (photo or illustration)
  • A brief, relevant endorsement or shout line to capture the reader’s interest (optional)

On the back:

  • Price
  • ISBN and barcode (if you have them)
  • Book blurb
  • You also occasionally see some or all of the following: a website address, acknowledgement of cover designer and author info/photo.

On the Spine

  • Book Title
  • Author
  • Your publishing company’s logo e.g. the penguin of Penguin Books fame. This latter can be omitted. The chances are you don’t have a publishing company and even if you’ve made one up, you probably won’t have a professional-looking logo to go with it.

A Note on the Book Blurb
Ostensibly this is to sum up what your book’s about. Its real purpose, though, is to persuade the reader this is something they absolutely have to buy.

Use short, well-spaced, paragraphs and language appropriate to your genre. For instance, blurbs on novels often employ emotive and compelling language whereas a user manual, aimed at the general public, may well suit an authoritative but accessible tone.  If you’re unsure how or what to write, look at other bestselling books in your genre. Analyse their use of keywords, sentence length and structure.

The first couple of sentences are particularly important as they’re often the only ones that are read. Overall, your blurb shouldn’t be more than a couple of hundred words. Ensure that the text is carefully proof read. A mistake here won’t reflect well on your book.

Sometimes, the book blurb also includes reader/reviewer quotes. However, if you don’t have a really good quote, from a relevant source, these are best omitted. Doing them badly is definitely worse than not doing them at all.


Design it Yourself

Your book cover is the single most important part of the production process. Although I would encourage authors to have a go at typesetting, I wouldn’t recommend a DIY book cover, unless you’re skilled in design.

Why? Because the cover is the first thing buyers see. If it’s rubbish, it’s the only thing they’ll see because they’ll scroll right past it onto the next book which doesn’t look like a pile of pants. They won’t read the blurb, they won’t download a sample and they certainly won’t buy a copy.

If you do have design skills and want to create your own cover, the first step is to make or download a template.

To do this, you’ll need to know your book’s dimensions, page count and the paper you intend to use for printing. Paper thickness varies immensely and different printers have different options on offer. The thickness of paper, along with the page count, determines spine width so you can’t design a cover without some basic information from your printer.

Fear not, though. No complex mathematics is required. Almost all printers have helpful spine width calculators on their websites. Simply enter your book’s size, page count and paper type and they’ll give you a spine width.

If you’re lucky, your printer will even provide a downloadable template. Below is an example from CreateSpace:


You’ll see there’s a space marked out for the barcode. This is simply a note to you, or your designer, to leave this area blank. CreateSpace will add an ISBN and barcode at a later date.

If you’re wondering what the weird shaded bits are: that’s the bleed. The dotted lines are the expected area of your cover. However, due to paper movement during cutting, you need to allow roughly 2–5mm of space round them. Don’t put any text or other important elements into the bleed area as you can’t guarantee they’ll be visible when printed. Equally, ensure the cover image continues to the outer edge of the bleed in case the cut is made there.

If your printer doesn’t provide a template, you’ll have to build one yourself remembering to add in a suitable bleed area.

OK, I have a template. What do I do now?

My advice? Hand it over to a designer. Other than that, you’re on your own. Even if I were proficient using Photoshop and technically knew what to do next, I have no eye for design and little idea which pictures, colours and fonts make the difference between a professional cover that attracts readers’ attention and one that looks like it’s been vomited up by a disturbed five-year old.

However, if you’re really determined, here are a few common sense tips:

Getting inspiration: Look at books in a similar genre. Other, similar, products are easily your best source of information. What colour schemes, fonts and images do they employ? How do all these elements contribute to the overall feel of the book? Remember, readers need to know, at the briefest of glances, what to expect inside.

Sourcing an image:

The image on the front cover is key to attracting buyers and helping them recognise your book’s genre. There are a number of stock image websites you can purchase pictures from:

If money is tight, you could try one of the following sites which provide either free or low cost images:

Always check licensing terms before using a picture. I’ll talk about these sites in more detail when I discuss marketing as they’re a great source of images for websites and social media.

Your cover image must be extremely good quality. By this I mean it has to have plenty of pixels, at least 300 pixels per inch when it’s blown up to fit the size of your cover. This will ensure it doesn’t look fuzzy or pixellated. Remember, images always look clearer on-screen than when printed so if you’re using a lower resolution image, always order a proof copy.

Keep it simple: If in doubt, the simplest designs are often the best. Don’t use dozens of fonts and images but settle for one or two.

You could splash a single image over front, back and spine, making sure all these elements look good as separate entities as well as a whole.

Alternatively, I’ve seen the following method applied to good effect. Fill the front cover with a single image and then use a small part of the picture, like a motif or echo, on the spine and back. For example, if you use a portrait of a woman with a flower in her hair, you could take the flower and repeat it on the back cover. Another option is to pick out the main colour of the image and fill the back and spine with that.


Using a Designer

See my post on typesetting for advice on how to find a designer.

The process is more or less the same here: don’t be afraid to ask questions and always check price, timescale and exactly what’s included. For cover design, you should also ask the following questions:

  • Is the price for a template or custom design? Template design is not to be confused with downloading a blank template from CreateSpace to give to your designer. In this case, the template serves to provide information about the size of the book and position of elements, such as an ISBN. It’s simply the outer shape within which the original, unique design will be created.
    Template design, on the other hand, is where the book elements have fixed positions and your photo, title, blurb etc. are just dropped into pre-arranged spaces. The template may even already include a picture. These services tend to be significantly cheaper but aren’t ideal. They don’t look as professional and other people could use the same design, severely affecting your branding. If you’re paying a designer, ideally, you want them to come up with original, custom-made work. However, if you can’t afford that, template design is an option.
  • Does the price include an image or do you pay extra for this? Images are usually sourced from stock photo libraries, like the ones listed above). If you want the designer to come up with an original illustration, this will be considerably more expensive.
  • Who picks the image? You? Your Designer? Do they advise on which image would suit the genre you’re writing in?
  • How many design rounds are included? A design round is when the cover is sent to you, you suggest changes and it goes back to the designer. If alterations aren’t included in the price, how much are they charged at?
  • How many designs will be produced? Just the one or two/three for you to choose between?

The above isn’t a check list of essentials, just a guide to help you better understand the service you’re paying for. If, for the quoted price, just one design is produced and alterations are charged extra, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad service. It’s just important to be clear exactly what you’re paying for.

Once you’ve established this, you’ll need to email over the elements you want on your cover: title, author name, book blurb, image etc. If you have an ISBN, the designer may be able to source a barcode for you, either free or at a small charge. Otherwise, contact the printer you intend to use and ask their advice.

If you’re using a service like CreateSpace, where the barcode and ISBN need to be in a specific place, they should provide you with a downloadable template, like the one shown earlier in this post. You can then just email this to your designer.

It’s very important that you double-check the ISBN is correct and everything else is proof read to within an inch of its life. Your designer isn’t a proof reader and it isn’t their job to spot errors. If the title is misspelt because you sent it that way, it may well cost you to have it corrected.

You also need to make sure your designer has all the relevant information about your book’s physical properties. They’ll need to know its exact size, including a spine width. Look on your printer’s website for a spine width calculator or template creator.

Some designers who do a lot of work for self-publishers, have relationships with printers and may advise you about, or even arrange, this next stage. If this is the case, you don’t even need to think about the spine width as they’ll work it out automatically.

Once the designer has all the information, they’ll create a cover and send you the design, usually in PDF format. This will be done either via email or a service like Dropbox which allows for larger file sizes. You’ll then download the cover to your computer and upload it to whichever printer you’re using. If you have any problems with this process (for instance, how to use Dropbox) ask your designer. This isn’t a stupid question: it’s not unreasonable to want to access something you’ve just paid £200 for.

How long will it take?

Like typesetting, it depends how busy the designer is but it’s a fairly quick process. Usually it’s a matter of a few days to a few weeks, assuming you provide all necessary information and pay promptly.

Can you suggest a designer?

Again, I recommend, Chandler Book Design.

I’ve also heard good things about Design for Writers and am impressed by the covers displayed on their Facebook page.

If you’re looking at the cheaper end of the market, then Go On Write does reasonable template designs and offer cheaper original (custom) options.

How much will it cost?

Just as with typesetting, price varies greatly. You can pay anywhere from £150 to £600 for an original design. Template covers, on the other hand, start at just a few pounds upwards.

Chandler Book Design and Design for Writers both charge around the £200 mark.

Go on Write offers template design for print books from $80 (approximately £64)

If you want the designer to create an illustration, rather than using a stock photo, it will be considerably more expensive. I would argue this is an unnecessary luxury for the small-scale self-publisher.


Other Options

If you can’t afford a designer and don’t have the money to create a cover yourself, there are a couple of other options.

Do you know any young designers or talented artists? They may be willing to do the work at a reduced rate or even free in exchange for you promoting their work. This would involve linking to their website from your own, mentioning them prominently across social media and acknowledging them in the book itself. It’s worth approaching them with a marketing plan so they can see how your efforts will promote their work as well as your own.

Failing that, you’ll need to use a service like CreateSpace or Lulu who boast free cover-creation software. The book covers produced using this method aren’t usually very sophisticated from a design point of view but it’s considerably easier than doing the job yourself. I’ll outline this option in more detail when I come to discuss CreateSpace.


Next time: Printing


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