How To Make A Great Cover For Your Self-Published Book

By Hazel Lau | cover design

This article is about two things: understanding what is a great cover and knowing what it takes to make one.

Without knowing what is a great cover in the first place and trying to create one, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

It’s like saying you want to travel to North Pole without first knowing where North is.

Only after you understand what it is will it be easier for you to learn what it takes to design one.

Even if you are not a cover designer yourself or want to hire one to do the job eventually – which you should by the way – you need to know the foundation behind making a great cover.

With that in mind, let’s address the first question, what exactly is a great cover?

The answer is simple.

It’s a great book cover if it does its job as a cover.

Here is what I mean.

Your book cover is designed to catch attention from your audience quickly and elicit their interests by building curiosity without revealing all the story of your book.

So by sending out enough right signals, your readers will want to pick up your book and find out more.

In my definition, that is a great cover.

Now, let’s answer the second question.

How can you design an eye-catching cover that makes your book stand out from the rest, and eventually convert more book browsers into your readers?

Let me be honest upfront – it is not an easy task and things can be pretty subjective when it comes to design.

Take font for example. What one designer likes may not be favourable at all to another designer.

Though there are particular fonts designed for certain genres, it’s hard and pointless to argue which one is better than another.

Fortunately, there are indeed a few rules to follow in putting different design elements together to create good covers that not just look beautiful but also sell your book!

Before I continue, a quick reminder for you is this:

If you are able to avoid the four (4) common mistakes self-published authors make when designing their book covers, then your book cover is already way ahead than many others.


So, what do professional cover designers know that you don’t in designing a great cover?

Let me present.

4 Components X 7 Rules to Design A Great Cover

Cover Components

By convention, you need the following components to be on your cover. And anything other than them, in my opinion, is not necessary. Having more may cause more harm than good and wasting spaces on that 6” x 9” canvas.

This is obvious. If the cover IS that important element of your book to get people into buying, then the book title IS that important component on your cover. Your book title is the first impression of your story as it suggests to your readers if your book will be interesting and applicable enough to pick up. Therefore, put more thought into creating the best title possible for your book.

Subtitle or Teaser
Subtitle is your alternate title. A good subtitle should contain keywords, explain and set the context of your content. You’ll often find subtitles being used more in non-fiction books. When it comes to fiction books, what you may see more is the teaser. A good teaser should entice the right interests and give hints to the main plot without disclosing the whole story.

When I say background, I am referring to that one layer that goes beneath your other cover components.

Depending on your genre and book content, it could be a layer with or without images. Sometimes, for non-fiction, a less busy background like colour pattern may make your cover stand out than a complex image. On the other hand, for fiction, colourful photos or pictures may be more appropriate and much more attractive than a mono-colour background.

Author’s Name
Again, this is self-explainable. One mistake that I see authors make is making their names more prominent than their book titles. Remember this, readers don’t care who you are until they realise you’re the right one to offer what they want. Think about the last time you bought a book from an unknown author, did you pay as much attention to the name? I bet that wasn’t the first thing came to your mind.

If you’re already a housebrand, you don’t have to make your author’s name big to catch the attention. People will be looking for your name and waiting eagerly for the new book to come. But if you’re not, making your name big doesn’t help until you’ve built your own authority successfully.

Design Elements

Next, let’s understand how different design elements make your cover pop. If you think that your cover isn’t attractive enough, then look among the elements below, you’ll find your answers.

Convey with a theme and concept.
Build a relevant theme and concept to convey the core message of your book clearly. The theme and concept also communicate your genre. You want your audience to know immediately that your book is in the right category and may be something they’re looking for. In simpler terms, if what you have is a science fiction, you want it to look like one rather than let’s say, a romance fiction.

Create focal point with layout.
Your cover has to lead the audience’s eyes by creating a strong focal point. Therefore, learn to play smart with your layout because it affects how you arrange your text and images on a single flat canvas.

If you played with any camera before, you’ve probably noticed the Gridline function your camera has. And if you’re more advanced than that and into photography, you probably have heard of Rule of Thirds.

Here I quote Wikipedia,

‘Rule of Thirds’ says that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject.

You could apply the same guideline in designing your cover. Split your cover into 9 grid boxes and place your text and images along these lines or their intersections. Combined with the right fonts and photos, your cover is going to wow your audience.

Choose the right fonts.
As mentioned, certain fonts appear to be more suitable for certain genres because they trigger respective emotional responses from humans. Therefore, you have got to pick the right one to fit your theme and content.

Typography alone is a huge topic. I could try writing about it, but I doubt you’ll benefit more from me, than listening to a cover design expert like Derek Murphy, who has an intensive article just about picking the right fonts for your book cover.

Make dramatic visual effects with photos and picture.
You and I both know that a picture speaks a thousand words. Great photos are used for a few purposes:

  • Trigger the right emotional responses to make the readers relate to your theme and concept.
  • Summarise your plot and build anticipation without giving away all the information.
  • Make your cover pop and more interesting.

As I said, you do not need to include photos on your cover not all the time. For fiction books, having great photos (sometimes one photo is enough) as the background is almost a convention because fiction tell stories and photos do just that. For non-fiction books, having great graphic or simply a colour background could be enough in some cases. It’s a creative way to turn the facts into more interesting topics.

Enhance visual effects with pleasant colours.
You can’t avoid colours if you want to create dramatic visual effects. Similar to the fonts, colours speak and represent a lot of things. By changing the tones, shades, and contrasts, you achieve different visual effects. Be careful though, having more colours on your cover doesn’t mean it’s better and could mean the opposite sometimes. Know what to achieve in your theme and style, and then choose one or two colours that fit. It could be similar colours to avoid too much contradiction between design elements, or totally different colours to highlight their differences.

Either one, your cover should have good amount of light contrasts to be seen. That is especially important when it comes to your title and background; those two should be distinguished from each other clearly.

Take note of the lighting too. Have you seen covers that look dull? One reason could be the covers are lack of lighting that casts shadow on the text and images.

Keep your cover simple.
Simplicity in design means a lot of good. Keep your cover simple means avoiding too much complexity (too many dramatic photos, too much colour effects, too fancy fonts…). Making it less complex means the design elements will stand out more in the hierarchy. You want your title and main object to be the focal point and anything less important smaller or appear to supplement the design only. Hierarchy also means allowing more empty spaces on your canvas, which would in turn improves the readability and balance of your cover.


With all these rules in mind, I know it’s likely to make you feel overwhelmed.

I have two suggestions for you.

Say you already have a book cover done and want to improve it, evaluate your cover against the rules above.

If one of them appears to be the obvious reason that is causing your cover to suck, then, fix it.

What if you are looking to design a brand new book cover from scratch?

Then my best advice is, don’t try to design your own cover.

Of course, with proper training you are able to master these principles and practices and probably design a decent book cover over time.

But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!

You see, if you want to become an author and successful at it, you have to treat your book like a business.

Know that in business, you as the owner have to learn what are the most important things you need to do by yourself, and when to allow professionals to step in if you want to grow.

Making of a great cover is a process of considering all these elements and rules, and knowing how to put them together in a way that they all balance and are in harmony with one another.

That is what, a designer does.

And this is one of those moments you want to consider letting the professionals take over and do the work.

What you have just learned here is to be on the same page as your designer and you know what and how to tell them what you want.

And when “something” seems off on your cover, you know how to pin it down and instruct them to change it the right way.

Now you have it.

Leave a comment below and let me know how you came up with your book cover.

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