Cover Design 101: Research

Self publishing wasn’t always a viable option for new writers outside of vanity presses. But with the rise of ebooks and online marketplaces like Amazon, it is becoming more and more common. There are a

A step by step to designing your own book cover
(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels)

Self publishing wasn’t always a viable option for new writers outside of vanity presses. But with the rise of ebooks and online marketplaces like Amazon, it is becoming more and more common. There are a number of reasons someone might choose self publishing over traditional publishing, not least of which is having more control over the final product and being able to keep a larger share of the royalties from their work.

If you’re considering this route, it’s important to take into account all the services a traditional publisher provides that you will now be responsible for. This includes professional editing, cover design, and marketing. This can cost thousands of dollars, which is a big price tag for most people. Of course, you can do all this yourself, or potentially get a friend to help you out for free, but in the end you get what you pay for. Given the choice, I will always recommend paying professionals for these tasks. If you’ve gone to all the trouble of writing and editing a novel, why wouldn’t you want to give it the best chance possible?

But I also know that some people simply can’t afford all that, so I’m here to help. The job that people seem to have the most trouble with on their own is designing their cover. Which can be a problem, since the cover is one of the main things that either draws people in or prompts them to keep on moving. No matter how well written your book is, if the cover looks amateurish, readers will assume the writing is poor and unpolished as well. I will say once again, if you can at all afford it, it would be well worth it to pay a professional. But for those who can’t, this is the first in a series that will give you tips and tricks to make your cover look as professional and appealing as possible.

I have several years of experience in graphic design, but it is not specifically in the area of book cover design, so I will be focusing on basics.



When designing a new product, the very first thing I do is research. For example, when designing holiday photo cards, I will go through all the cards my sister received the previous year and take meticulous notes on as many aspects as I can, looking for patterns. It is a limited and biased sample- I’m only seeing cards from people in my sister’s social circle. But since she is my target demographic, this tends to be more helpful than detrimental.

As authors, a limited sampling is going to help you as well. Besides narrowing the pool to a much more manageable size, you’ll be able to ensure that you are learning from professionals rather than fellow amateurs. So how do you do this?

Step 1: Go to a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Whether this is a large chain like Barnes & Noble or Waterstones, or a small family owned shop, an actual physical bookstore is your best friend at this stage. Find the section that your book belongs in (and maybe take a moment to find the exact spot where it will go one day, like I do 😉 ) and pull out at least five books whose cover art appeals to you. Be as specific as you can. Even if the store doesn’t label the shelves with subgenres, you can tell which books are the closest in style and tone to your own. You can find a place to sit and examine them right there, or simply note the titles and authors and then look them up online.

Now, before I move on to what you should be looking for, let me answer a few questions you may have.

Why do I have to go to an actual store if I can just look them up online?

The main reason I recommend this as a first step is that it weeds out all the amateurs. Every single book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore has had a professional cover designer. This is someone who not only knows the artistic side of things, but who is also intimately aware of market trends and what works in each genre.

Can I just go the bookstore’s website then?

In a word, no. Though it would be worlds better than simply going to Amazon, chain bookstores are able to offer a far wider selection online than in a physical location. And while that’s wonderful as a reader looking for something in particular, when looking to study cover art you want only the best of the best. From the pool of books they have for sale online, a physical store has to select the titles that they expect to sell the most copies. Here again, you stand to benefit from someone else’s hard won expertise.

Plus, you’re more likely to stumble upon books you might not see in an online search, which helps diversify your pool of samples and avoid personal blind spots.

Step 2: Look for Patterns

Rather than examining each cover in detail before moving on to the next, I recommend focusing on one aspect at a time. You’ll probably want to take notes.

A few things to consider before you continue:

  1. As a graphic designer, I’m trained to pay more attention to detail than the average consumer, so the following lists may seem intense. Don’t feel like you need to answer every question for every cover you study. It is simply meant to give you an idea what to look for.
  2. This is not a paint-by-numbers approach to cover design. You may not find many commonalities at all, and you’re not obliged to follow them if you do. Actually, the more different designs you study, the more material there is to get your own creative juices flowing

Cover Image

Is there an image at all, or simply a solid color?

If there is an image, is it a photograph, a painting, computer-made art, or an abstract image?

What is the subject? A landscape, building, people, objects on a table, etc.

What is the composition of the image? If there is a key item/place/person, does it take up most of the image, 50% of it, or less? Is it entirely in frame, or does the picture cut off part of it? If it does, how much is visible? Is it in the center of the cover or off to one side? If you were to pick one focal point in the image (in a face it would likely be the eyes, but it doesn’t have to be), where is that located on the cover (both vertically and horizontally)?

How is it lit? From behind, head on, from below? Is it natural light like the sun or moon? Is the entire image well lit, or only a specific part? Is it dark or light?

Is it in focus, blurry, or a combination of both? If it’s artwork, is the style very realistic or more cartoonish?

Does the image take up the entire cover, edge to edge, or only part of it? If only part, where is it located and how much of the cover does it take up?

Is there more than one image? If so, are they completely separate, or superimposed one on the other? If superimposed, study the composition. If separate, are they the same size? Does the composition or subject vary from one picture to the next? Where are they located on the cover?

The list of questions goes on and on, but you get the idea. The more you do this, the easier it will be, and the better your eye will be when designing and evaluating your own work.


How big are the title and author’s name? In the title do the words vary in size? If so, how many different sizes are there and which words fall into each size?

Where are they placed on the cover? Are they aligned left, right, or center? Are they justified (the letters stretched or squeezed so that each line aligns on both the left and right)? If they’re not aligned at all, is there a pattern like a stair step? Do the words interact with the image at all? Do they extend all the way to the edge of the book? If not, what are the margins?

What kinds of fonts are used? Are they clean and modern, cursive, or have a handwritten look? Is the author’s name in the same font as the title? Is there more than one font used in the title? What kinds of fonts do you see paired together?

Are the words entirely capitalized, or only first letters?

Are there any artistic aspects to the text? Is there a picture overlaying it in places, or patterns applied to it, whether subtle or obvious? Are the letters lined up on a horizontal line, or do some or all have a tilt to them? Do any of the words overlap each other?

Does the title stand out against the backdrop of the cover, or look more integrated?

Are there additional words on the cover, like “a novel,” “based on a true story,” or a tag line? If so, note all the same things as above (size, font, location, etc).


What kind of color palette does it have? Is it bright and bold, or muted? Are the colors mostly warm, cool, or neutral? Do they contrast each other, or are they more monochromatic? Is there a single dominant color?

How does the color of the text interact with the rest of the cover? Is it a contrasting color that stands out, is it in the same color family, or is it directly taken from the image itself? Are the title and author’s name the same color? If not, is there an obvious reason like the color of the background behind it? Are they opaque or semi-transparent?


Did you see anything unique that you particularly liked or didn’t like? Examine it further to determine exactly what it was about it. How did it stand out from the others?


Step 3: Draw Your Conclusions

Here’s the part where your own personal taste and preferences step back in. You don’t have to strictly adhere to any patterns you noticed. Use your best judgment. If something was universal in every cover you studied, it’s probably a good idea to follow it. If not, use it as a guideline. Anything that didn’t fall into a pattern, especially the unique things you noted in the last section, can be a jumping off point for your own creativity.

Be careful of copying someone else’s work, though. As a general rule, if it is universal (or frequently used) you can copy away. If it was a unique twist or idea, you can put your own spin on it, but don’t directly use it.


Next Steps

Phew! This was just the first step in the process of designing your own cover art. But don’t worry, I won’t leave you to figure it out on your own from here! In the next week or two I’ll write a post going through this process with a few covers as an example. In future posts I will delve further into each of these topics and more. I’ll provide further information to help you make the right choices for your work, useful links and resources, and some basic Photoshop tools to help you achieve the vision in your head. Together we’ll do everything we can to make sure your book is seen and appreciated by as many people as possible. Stay tuned!



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