5 Essential Tips for Planning Your Book Cover Design

It might seem far, far away in the distant future, as you happily type “Chapter 1” into your word processor, but if you’re writing a book, eventually you're going to need a cover for it.

Whether you're publishing a paperback or a digital e-book, it’s essential that your cover is good enough to captivate readers and seduce them into buying your book.

Why put all that time and effort into your writing, only to have a badly designed cover let the whole thing down?

All because you didn't plan ahead and then rushed it at the last minute.

I completely get that you'll already have a million things on your mind (as well as writing your book) but here’s my first big tip for free:

Start thinking about how your cover will look while you are writing your book.

Your book cover shouldn’t be an afterthought—something thrown together at the end of the process—because it’s just as important as the inside.

It’s the advert—the first impression that gives buyers that all-important glimpse of your writing. So it’s vitally important to think ahead and plan your cover design—the same as you planned your writing.

Whether you want to hire a designer or you’re taking the DIY route, getting clarity about your ideas for your book cover well before you’ve got a finished and edited manuscript sitting on your desk will undoubtedly save you time, stress, and—in the long run—cold hard cash.

It will also save you from ending up with a second-rate cover design and your book sitting unnoticed on the shelves—or getting scrolled past on the screen.

To help you get the cogs whirring, here are my 5 top tips for planning your book design so your cover looks professional, grabs the reader’s attention for the right reasons—and ultimately sells your book.

TIP 1: Make a Mood Board

One of the easiest ways for you to distil your favourite styles (and the subconscious decisions you make about your design preferences) is to research and group together images of book covers that float your boat—and more importantly the ones that stand out in your genre.

Obviously, make sure the covers come from the genre you’re writing within. There’s no point researching horror fiction covers if you’re writing a book about needlecraft, or how to set up your own business.

Do your research over time. Spend a few minutes, here and there over a few months, browsing on online bookstores (or photograph books that jump out at you in shops).

Notice the images that appeal to you or catch your eye (for good or bad reasons) amongst the sea of other titles, and save them into an ‘Ideas’ folder so you can view them all side by side.

When you've build up a collection, group the cover designs with similarities together into themes.

You should see which covers explode onto your eyeballs and jump out from the page, which are successful and have shelf appeal—or ‘clickability’.

Try and analyse why the best ones work so well, because this is what you need to achieve with your cover.

Whether you are DIY-ing your cover, or working with a designer, this is a really useful exercise because:

  • It will give you a clear idea where to start with your own cover—and help you avoid cluttering the layout with too many design ideas,
  • It will help your designer to see your vision—where you're coming from with your ideas—and whether the direction you have in your head will work well for your particular book.
  • It forms a useful part of your brief—which brings me to the next tip…

TIP 2: Set a Brief

Creating a brief is about clarifying your vision for your cover, and getting it down on paper (or whichever project management app you’re using), so the design process can run smoothly.

Even if you are DIY-ing—and especially if you’re working with a designer—a brief is essential.

Creating a brief will help move the swarm of design ideas and information spinning around inside your head, out into a practical, constructive format that you can work with.

Your cover design is the packaging that advertises your book, and sells it to your reader. It must provoke intrigue, giving the buyer a tantalising glimpse about your writing inside.

Think about how your cover will achieve this.

What are your expectations for the 'look' of the cover? It might need to convey a certain mood. Should it be serious, fun, authoritative or exciting?

Your choices about fonts, colours and images will all influence how the end design will look and feel.

Do you want a full colour illustration for the cover, or will stock photos (or a commissioned photo) be more suitable? Do you need internal illustrations or diagrams as well as a cover?

If you’re hiring a designer, also make sure that you communicate any definite dislikes or no-nos. Blithely giving a designer carte blanche to do what they want, and then later picking holes in their work because you’ve forgotten to include your dislikes is a frustrating waste of time (for both of you), and it's also wasting your money.

Are you tight on budget — or time? Or both?

If you’re expecting a top-end book cover for a budget price, and all for next week, there’s a distinct possibility you’ll end up disappointed.

In tip 3, I’ll explain why…

TIP 3 : Plan Ahead

Most good designers can be booked up months ahead, so approaching them as your book is a fortnight away from being launched may be a bit unrealistic.

Do your research early, and make shortlist of those designers whose work you like, so you can approach them in good time.

By planning ahead, you’re more likely to secure a project with an in-demand designer you admire, than having to settle for an average one who’s free to design your cover in the time constraints you have.

The same principle applies for DIY-ing your cover design.

Let me warn you now — a good cover design will take longer to create, edit and perfect than you initially imagine.

To create the best cover you can, it’s a good idea to design a few (at least 3) draft versions or experiment with different appearances.

This will take time.

Especially if you have to fit it around your other business tasks. And writing your book, picking the kids up from school, cleaning up after the cat’s been sick etc.

Planning your time carefully will make the design process go so much more smoothly, instead of rushing to finish the cover design as your manuscript is sitting ready for publishing.

Both creating a strong brief for yourself (or designer) and planning ahead means you’re less likely to fall into the trap of settling for a mediocre design under the pressure of just getting the damn thing out the door.

TIP 4 : Keep it Simple

Iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel famously said,

Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

Although she was probably advising on the perils of over-accessorising and clanking around like a one-man-band, this is sage advice when designing pretty much anything.

Over-complicating and adding too much to their cover design is a trap that most amateurs fall into. It’s usually one of the giveaways that a cover’s been DIY designed (and that a book is self-published).

Fortunately, there are a few ways you help yourself avoid this pitfall:

  • Create your brief properly, and then carry out your cover design by sticking to the plan,
  • Don’t try to be clever (or include obscure references) with your design. It will just confuse potential buyers and they’ll walk away.
  • Make your titles simple, clear and easy to read. Nobody can be bothered trying to decipher a cover that’s too fussy or complicated.
  • Work on your design, then create variations or different versions of the layout to see which works best.
  • When you have a design you think works, go back, look at all the details and edit.

Is your cover getting your message across in the simplest and most elegant way possible? The chances are, when you look closely, you can pare back the design to give greater impact and clarity.

In short—less is always more, and be clear before you start getting too clever.

TIP 5 : Don't Be a Backseat Driver

It’s difficult to let go of the reins if you’re used to doing a huge range of tasks for your own business. Especially if you’re a solopreneur or not used to outsourcing.

The temptation to try and prescribe the design in great detail might be strong, but if you've decided to work with a professional cover designer, you’ll be paying good money for their skills and experience—so take a deep breath, sit back and give them space to do their thing. You’ll both get much more out of the relationship.

I’m sure you have definite ideas about your own likes and dislikes, but bear in mind that your book is not being designed for you personally—it’s being designed to appeal to your potential buyers. An experienced designer will know what works—and what doesn’t—for both your market and your genre.

It’s vital you're both singing from the same hymn sheet about your expectations—this is why it’s imperative that you discuss and agree a brief at the start of the project.

But from that point onward, an accomplished designer will know how to craft a stunning book cover, so let them get on with it.

Don't panic when you don't hear from them every other day. They will keep you updated on a regular basis when they do have progress to report, so phoning and emailing constantly will be counterproductive. Not only will they have to take time out of working on your cover design to answer, but you'll also end up pissing them off by micro-managing them.

Instead, spend that free time you’ve been given doing something more productive for yourself.

Writing and publishing a book should be an exciting and rewarding experience, with an outcome that’s immensely satisfying—when all this is over, you’ll be a published author!

The last piece of the jigsaw is your cover design, but you can avoid it being a stressful afterthought to writing your book, if you follow the tips I've outlined:

  1. 1
    Do Your Research: make a moodboard and get your creative ideas going
  2. 2
    Set a Brief: Clarify your vision for your cover—for either a DIY cover or for your designer
  3. 3
    Plan Ahead: Your book cover design process will take longer than you think
  4. 4
    Keep it Simple: Avoid over-complicating your design—less is always more
  5. 5
    Don't Be a Backseat Driver: if you hire an expert to create your book cover, allow them do their job

If you decide you have the time and creativity in your bones to choose the DIY route, this should help you get started on your planning your cover design.

Or, if you’re using a designer, sit back and allow them their creative freedom.

At the end of the whole process, you get to slice open your delivered box of books and hold the results in your hand. And if everything’s gone to plan, you’ll be staring at an amazing cover that effectively sells your book—and does justice to all your hard work and effort.

Start Designing an Awesome Book Cover Today

I'm on a mission to help self-publishing authors get the pro-level book cover designs they deserve. If you want to learn more about designing your own book, you can check out my blog for more articles and guides. 

If you want a little (or a lot) more help, find out how you can work with me

About Julia

Julia Brown

Julia is a motorcycle-riding, cat-herding, food loving artist, illustrator and book designer. She loves food and cooking but then has to run it off at some point later.

She takes great pleasure in making paintings and artwork to sell, and with her design hat on, she helps self-publishing authors get high-end book design and illustration to boost their marketing and help them sell lots of books — all without having to approach big scary design firms.

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