Basic Elements of Digital Book Cover Design

book cover examplesby K. S. Brooks & Stephen Hise.

The books that appear in features on Indies Unlimited have been through a comprehensive vetting process, a portion of which considers the book cover. In many cases, the individual elements of the cover design do not work together to convey a professional representation of the book’s content. Sometimes, this means that someone took a photograph the equivalent of a “snapshot” and inserted some plain text on top of it. This can result in a homemade look which, to readers, may scream “amateur.” While the self-published stigma is fading, indies still have to work hard to put out a good quality product. And the cover is a big part of that. The reader will keep going if the cover is anything less than catchy and professional.

We understand that many indies do not have the funds to spend on a professionally-designed book cover. At Indies Unlimited, we try to give authors the tools to do these kinds of things themselves. We’ve published a number of posts on the importance of a good book cover and even provide a resource page with tips and tools on how to design a book cover.

This article details the specific elements we take into consideration when evaluating book covers. Of course, each cover is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But don’t take our word for any of these. Take a peek at this page filled with sample book covers and see the difference for yourself.

Orientation and Dimension

In general, books should have a portrait orientation with a dimension ratio close to 2:3. In other words, it should be 1/3 taller than it is wide. The reason for this is that image size is dictated first by width. We display books in the sidebar at a uniform pixel width of 120. If your book is wider than it is tall, your book cover will just seem very small. (Amazon/KDP suggests the following: Requirements for the size of your cover art must have an ideal height/width ratio of at least 1.6) We understand that these dimensions vary for children’s books and picture books. We are not the only site who uses vertical thumbnails, so we recommend the author have a vertical version of the cover available for advertising purposes (many authors already do that).

Text

The text on the book cover should include the book title, series title (if indicated), tagline (optional), and author name. Truly, anything else is extraneous. Leave the review snippets, dedication, acknowledgements, cover credits, and all that stuff for the inside.

Font Style, Size, and Positioning

Use an actual display font. Display fonts are designed to be used in larger sizes. . Blowing up something like Times New Roman is just going to give you ragged text that looks like it was cobbled together from Lego blocks. (Example of ragged text here.)

The font you use should be thematically consistent with the genre of the book. For instance, you probably wouldn’t want to use some feminine curlicue script for a book about ninja vampires. In general, fancy fonts are difficult to read in thumbnail size. Using a thematic font gives the reader an idea what your book is about. That’s important.

The font size should be generous enough to take up 75-90% of the cover width. Don’t leave a lot of white space around your title.

Title text should be centered and should appear at the top or middle of the cover. (As long as it is balanced with the graphics, the location is not immutable. See Text Balance below.) Author name can be centered or right justified and should appear at the bottom of the cover. The distance between the text and the edges of the cover should be uniform – don’t crowd the edges.

Color and Contrast

Cover text should be either dark or light. Do not choose some funky text color that clashes or blends with the image. Do not put a dark colored font against a dark background or a light font against a light background. Make sure the color you choose can be read evenly across the cover image. Do not use shadowing unless it improves readability. As an alternate to shadowing, consider using a background screen.

Spelling, Grammar & Punctuation

This shouldn’t even have to be said, but it does happen that typos occasionally appear on covers. Check it before you wreck it.

Text Balance

The text on the top and bottom sections of the book should represent a roughly equivalent weight. You don’t want a huge title and a teeny-tiny author name, or a lopsided series name and an inadequate title size

Cover Art

The cover image should convey a sense of the theme of the book. Again, this is something that really shouldn’t have to be said, but it is surprising how often authors miss the mark here.

Thematic Considerations – Palette, Tone

Sometimes we look at a book description then at a cover and end up scratching our heads. Let the cover speak the truth. A browsing customer should be able to identify the essence of your book by the image alone.

Remember that on Indies Unlimited we are work and family safe, so nothing too racy.

Image Quality

There is a lot of decent low-cost and free cover stock out there. If you want to use your own art or photographs for your cover, make sure the image quality and resolution are good. Stay away from refrigerator art or anything people have to read the book to understand. Bear in mind that the image will be quite small, so in thumbnail size artwork with too many elements or fine details will come across as little more than a colorful blob. (Again, check the comparison page to see examples.)

Balance

Pay attention to where the eye is drawn – you want attention drawn to the title. Elements off to the sides are distracting.

Other Cover Elements

If your book won an award or was an editor’s pick or something, you want to put that little gold sticker on your cover, right? Let’s make sure that doesn’t disturb the symmetry of the cover. These graphics are conventionally displayed in the lower right of the cover, above the author’s name, but wherever it is not too distracting (usually in the white space if there is any) should work.

Graphic Quality

Make sure the resolution of the image is sufficient. The size should be large enough to be readable, but it should not overwhelm or intrude upon the cover. If you blow it up and it looks cheesy, you’re better off putting it on the inside of the book.

Critical Acclaim and Notation

Your book cover should be about the book it covers; not other books you have written or what other people thought of this one. Extra text that reads, “From the bestselling author of some other book,” or “Dazzling! Brilliant – person who read the New York Times” add clutter to the cover. These tidbits may work on print editions, but should go on the inside of a digital book. Of course, most readers don’t care about a review from someone they’ve never heard of, on the cover OR on the inside. If you just have to have that review in there, put it in the back of the book with a link to it in your ToC.

Readers may not buy a book based on the cover alone, but they will often pass up a book if the cover doesn’t do its job well. Adhering to these general guidelines should be helpful to you in putting forward a professional cover.

Of course, there are book covers out there that do not follow some of these rules that look attractive, are legible in thumbnail, and are effective at grabbing attention. Each book is considered individually. A lot of time and resources are expended with the IU vetting process. We want authors to put out the best possible product, and hopefully, one day, put the last nail in the coffin of that stigma that Indie Author books stink.

Author: K.S. Brooks

K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist and photographer, author of over 30 titles, and administrator (AKA Fearless Leader) of Indies Unlimited. Brooks’ feature articles, poetry, and photography have appeared in magazines, newspapers, books and other publications both in the U.S. and abroad. For more about K.S. Brooks, visit her website and her Amazon author page

8 thoughts on “Basic Elements of Digital Book Cover Design”

  1. In my opinion the cover is the most important element in the choice to buy a book. You know what they say about job interviews – the first three seconds often decide the outcome. I think that applies to books as well. And those first seconds are almost always given to the cover as that is the first thing we see.

    Great post, Kat. As for me, I still don’t think I’m ready for the “big time”. 🙂

  2. This is fascinating. I only wish I had the kind of talent to do it! My publisher hired an award-winning designer but tried to micro-manage him and the results were awful. The cover is for a Japanese historical novel and I had specifically said, when asked what I had in mind, that as long as they didn’t use an Asian font all would be fine. Asian fonts look cheesy, like Charlie Chan movie titles. Guess what four of the first five covers had? I had also said let’s have a clean, cherry-blossom type cover, nothing garish or with geisha on the cover because there are no geisha in the story. Well, they didn’t send me covers with geisha (not that I’m anti-geisha) but they did send some of the most garish color combinations I’d ever seen. On one cover I thought all it really needed was a picture of Godzilla to complete the look. And then there were the non-Asian font combinations! It’s what I now call the Font Wars. LOL

    It’s funny now, but at the time I was preparing to walk and self-publish. You simply have to have a cover you’re proud of. How can you have your name on something that embarrasses you? How can you market something you’re ashamed of? I’m pleased with what I have now, but it was a very last-minute thing where the designer was finally given free rein. I should have had several similar covers to chose from, not just the one. My advice is, if you’re going to go with an indie publisher, be sure you have some control over the cover. Major publishing houses have experience with the different genres, but not all indies are going to have that.

    The cover is almost as important as the content, imo. Hm. I suppose it’s the same with people, too. Which brings up another topic: how to dress for the book club presentation, the interview, the (I should be so lucky) book tour, etc.)

    1. We agree that the book cover is super important. It’s just like buying a house. If you go to a house and the outside doesn’t look right, you’re not going in. That house could be the Taj Mahal inside, but no one will ever know because the outside doesn’t portray that. As you touched on, it’s the same with a book.

      I think your current cover is great. The problem is, many authors don’t realize their covers don’t have a professional look. Someone from the outside has to tell them because they are too close to it. And that usually doesn’t go very well for the person bearing the news.

  3. Super round-up of very important (and often overlooked) points. Not only is the cover the first glimpse of the story, but it can also be the first excuse for a reader to pass it by if it’s not compelling enough. Great post!

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