Book covers: essential information for authors

You’ve completed your book. Firstly, well done. That’s a fantastic achievement.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid the hard work isn’t over just yet. So let me help take some of the pain out of the process of getting your book out there. Sit down, grab a cup of something and let’s talk about one of the first things your potential readers are going to see… your cover.


What are you publishing and where?

Deciding which printer (or printers) to use to self-publish your book is an important early step in this process. For example, are you looking for a physical book, an ebook, or both?

Ebooks

At the risk of coming over all Matrix-y, the simple fact is: there is no cover. What there is, instead, is an image that represents your book.

This image may appear at the beginning of the book on an e-reader device but, arguably, its most important job is to sell your book to shoppers browsing through the virtual bookshelves of an online bookshop such as Amazon. So, if it is not really a cover, then what should go on it?

If you’re also producing a printed version of your book, then it makes sense for your ebook cover to be the same as your printed cover. However – and this is a key consideration – it must look good at the size it appears in that online bookshop. And this size is small. We’re talking something like this…

Example thriller book cover design thumbnail, red canvas look, spy or gangster with hat

So if your printed cover loses its impact at that tiny size, if the title is illegible or the images incoherent, then it is not a great choice for an ebook cover. And if you are only producing an ebook, then there is absolutely no excuse for not having a cover that looks great at the size at which it is most often going to viewed.

My view on ebook covers is simplicity. If I’m browsing the bookshelves, I want a design where I can read your title (very important), your name (possibly just as important, depending on the strength of your brand as an author), and a strong image. And that’s it.

Printed books

These, of course, have a cover. It’s that thing that stops you spilling tea on the words inside. But what size is it?

Depending on the printer you are using, you may be able to choose from a paperback, a hardback, or a hardback with a separate dust cover. The earlier you choose the style of printed book, the easier it will be to nail that awesome cover design. (Of course, us illustrators know that changes happen and we’re pretty good at rolling with the punches, so don’t despair if you want to alter your dimensions part way down the line – just let your illustrator/designer know as soon as possible.)

Let’s stick with an easy example: a paperback. The first thing to do is to calculate the dimensions of your cover. If you’re working with an actual printing company then talk to them about the size of your finished book. If you choose a print-on-demand service such as Create Space or Ingram Spark, then they offer online tools to help you calculate the dimensions. This will depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • What size you want the front cover of the finished book to be (there are a range of ‘standard’ sizes, depending on your genre of book)
  • What paper stock you choose for the inside pages (the thickness of a page can vary depending on the paper you choose)
  • How many pages are in your book (this number, multiplied by the thickness of a page, tells you how wide your spine will be)

If that sounds complicated, don’t worry. Head over to the online tools provided by your chosen printer and they will work it out for you.

Once you know the dimensions of your book cover, it is time to think about your design.

Awesome artwork: what should go on the cover?

As a self-publishing author, you may be asking yourself: how do I create the cover for my book?

There are all sorts of options when it comes to book cover design, whether it be an actual cover for a printed book, or the “cover” that represents your ebook online.

  • Do it yourself – There are tools on several of the print-on-demand sites that let you do this, or you can create it yourself using image-editing software. But, please, it must not look like you did it yourself. Your cover is the first thing your potential readers are likely to see and you want it to scream “read me!” not “help, I’ve been cut-and-pasted together”.
  • Use the print-on-demand company – Several, such as Create Space, offer a paid service where they create the cover for you. This can have merit, but you are unlikely to develop a relationship with the designer and the amount of creative input you have may be limited. Read up about what you get for your money and decide if it is right for you.
  • Use an illustrator/designer – I am not an unbiased commentator here (illustrator, remember) and I think there is a lot to be said for having your own illustrator or designer create your cover. This will cost more than doing-it-yourself, but consider the investment you have made in your book already. If you don’t invest in your cover, does that really reflect the effort you have put in to get this far?

In terms of the book cover design itself, consider a few things:

  • Should the design wrap around onto the spine and/or the back cover? (Not applicable for those ebook “covers” of course)
  • What does the design communicate about your book?
  • Does the design fit with the “expectations” of your chosen genre?
  • Have you managed to cram every last important piece of imagery from your novel into your cover design?

Okay, let’s talk about that last one. You’ve written a book. It is full of “stuff”: imagery, locations, important plot devices, and more MacGuffins than you can shake a stick at. And that’s great; inside your book is exactly where all of those things should be. But the outside…

Don’t overdo it. Not everything needs to be on the cover. Your cover artwork should communicate something about your story and it must entice the potential reader, encouraging them to find out more, but it absolutely does not need to show them everything that appears in your story. Simplicity is still important.

And what about that “expectations” one? Surely you want to stand out from the crowd, not be lost in a sea of identi-kit covers. Well, yes and no. You do want to stand out but you also want to tell your potential readers, breezing by as they browse those bookshelves, what they can expect from your book. Dress your hack-em-n-slash-em fantasy epic in the clothes of a genteel historical melodrama and you are likely to land some bemused readers.

These genre expectations are a sort of shorthand for a particular style of book. Play with those conventions of course, but throw them away at your peril.

How to stand out

Given what we’ve just been talking about, you may be asking yourself: just how do I stand out from the crowd?

Again, I’m not impartial here, but I’m going to say artwork.

There are loads of great covers out there that have been created from stock photographs. But that’s also the problem: there are loads of them. Hire an illustrator and you can have something that is unique, created specifically for your book, and that can stand out from the crowd. Whether the illustration is stylised, simplistic, or a detailed piece of art, it can communicate all sorts of things about your book while also keeping to those guidelines we’ve already discussed.

Title – Author name – Distinctive piece of artwork that tells me what’s great about your book. That’s all you need.*

*It’s not, but it’s a pretty decent start.

Practicalities

What else do you need to consider when creating your book cover?

Consistency

Think about the long game. Remember what we were saying about standing out? You want to take every opportunity to grab the attention of a potential reader and consistency is one of those things.

If you are writing a series of books, they must have a consistency to their cover design. Make it easy for your readers to recognise that the book in front of them is part of a series they may already know and love. Even if you are writing standalone books, consider the consistency of style between those books. Could someone pick up your new novel and immediately recognise that it is one of your books.

Think practically, and consider the long-term marketing of your books beyond just the one in your hands right now.

Safe areas, bleed, and trim

Although it sounds like something from the latest 50 Shades knock-off, this actually refers to the physical process of printing your cover (so you don’t need to worry about it if you’re only creating an ebook “cover”).

Your book cover design will be physically printed onto a piece of card. That card will then be trimmed down to the correct size for your book and there is scope for small inaccuracies in that process. You need to take this into consideration when coming up with your book cover design (or just sit back and let your illustrator or designer handle it for you).

Diagram showing trim bleed and safe area for book cover printing

The safe area is the section of the cover that will definitely not be impacted by the trimming process. All of the really important stuff should go in this area (you know, the title, your name, that sort of thing).

Then there is the trim area. In theory, the blades will slice right along the trim lines but there is a chance they may encroach into that trim area slightly so it’s best to make sure that there is nothing you can’t afford to lose in that section.

Outside of that is an area of your book cover design that will be chopped off. So why have it? This additional bleed area is included in case the blade goes outside of the trim lines. If your design only extended as far as the trim line itself, you could end up with an ugly white border around the edge of your book. Allowing the design to “bleed” outside of the lines avoids this problem.

Several print-on-demand sites provide tools to help you come up with a template that includes the trim and bleed areas. Just make sure that you consider them if you are designing your own cover, or give these dimensions to your illustrator so they can create the correct-sized cover for you.

Barcodes and other critical information

Your book needs a barcode (again, not an issue for those ebook “covers”). Some printers allow you to supply this with the uploaded book cover design, whereas others will automatically place this onto the book as part of the printing process. Check out what your chosen printer will do and make sure you haven’t hidden anything critically important right where that barcode is going to go.

File formats and resolutions

Each printer can have their own requirements but you should expect to have to provide a print-ready PDF of your final design, or possibly a TIFF or JPEG. It really does vary between printers. I would recommend at least 300 DPI resolution for your artwork.

If you hire an illustrator or designer, just let them know who you are using to print your book and let them take care of the file preparation for you.

Other resources

If you are interested in finding out more about different printing companies (and learning why they are not publishing companies), as well as general information about self-publishing your book, I recommend this article by Jane Friedman.

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Finding an illustrator

Hello! Excellent work. Job done, you’ve found one. I’m an illustrator and I do book covers.

If I had you at “hello” then skip straight across to my sample book covers, where you will also find out how to get in touch with me and what to expect as we go through the process of crafting your cover.

Of course, my artwork is not going to be right for every book. Luckily, there are many other great designers and illustrators out there who may be just what you’re looking for. I’m not going to list them here (my sense of fair play will only stretch so far) but search on Google, browse the Behance website, or have a look at DeviantArt, and you are likely to find a style that suits your book cover design needs.


You may also enjoy this article I wrote for Navigating Indieworld, asking What is a book cover for?

And why not check out the Book Cover Design posts in my Journal?