Hints on Creating Effective Book Covers

I received a good, gemeral question via contact form:

I want to design my own book cover. What’s the best way to do that?

The short answer is: catch the essence of the book when designing the book’s cover. Here are some practical hints to help you decide where to start.


click to get my 6x9 book cover template

There are several ways to start, depending on your book. If your title is important or extensive, then start with that. If an image is more significant, then work with that as most important. Usually, both are taken into consideration, so look at your book and decide what best will represent it.  If it’s the title, place that title, any subtitle, and the byline onto your template. If it’s an image, start with that. OR, start with both simultaneously.

Next, consider the most significant idea which illustrates your story. This could be:

  • a color,
  • an object,
  • an animal or person, or piece thereof (either doing something or with a particular attitude).
  • all of the above, some of the above, none of the above and something completely different. =)  (Read on)

SingularityImagery that best represents your book may not be a known object, but, instead, an unimagined one. You could graphically create what I call a conceptual ideative, that is, expressing in imagery something which embodies a thought, idea, or concept. . (These are the most difficult, but also the most fun.) Here’s an example of one of mine, called ‘Singularity’, to suggest “forming” with relationship to Tao.


Select a font face that reflects the tone and voice and subject of your book.  Books which are meant to be terrifying don’t do well with cute, fancy, or elegant fonts. Books that are quirky or humorous deserve a font that suggests that. Same with other genres and subjects. Of course, if your gory, horror book is a comedy, then you are going to combine the feel of both of those, humor and horror.

Font choices and effects are an art unto themselves. Play with ideas. Just make sure that the title, and, if you’re a ‘name’ author, the byline, remains legible from a distance.

graphic art text effect 7232011A


distressed book cover, front


If you want your main character on the cover, find or paint that main character in the aspect that most reflects either their actions or their most important trait.

If you want to suggest an action or an object, then choose one that delivers the “feel” of your story or the perspective of your book.

For non-fiction, this is usually quite easy to conceptualize, because non-fiction deals with real life subjects that are important to people. Choose the one that best represents your book’s message.

For fiction, you’re going to need to figure out the kernel of the story, then, taking the book’s audience into consideration, design a book cover that will both stimulate your audience to look at your book and, also, deliver the idea of what your book’s about.


Sarah Kay's "B"Some of the most effective covers are the simple ones. Here’s an example of a poetry book which has a cover that is simple, yet it immediately imprints itself in your mind.


The goal of a book cover is to catch your target reader’s attention. If you remember that as you design your book cover, you’ll be able to catch the essence of YOUR book in the cover you create.

Wow, That was Quick!

Clients are often pleasantly surprised at how quickly a project can be completed once a design is decided upon. Sure, some projects do take a lot of time and effort, but, for the most part, a CD project can be completed within anywhere from hours to a couple of days once designs are approved. It comes with having good tools, along with experience and practice, I guess.

When things go slowly, though, it can be excruciating for both the artist and the client. Problems with making decisions, difficulties in finding appropriate stock images that can be used either as a model for hand-painting some element or actually used within the artwork, either as is or in an extremely modified version can all slow a project down. Then, of course, there’s just an overall block that can happen to a project where progress seems stymied regardless of how much time and effort go into its creation.

Especially taxing and time consuming for me is having to deal with hand-drawing a human or parts of a human, something that’s just not my forté. I’m just not a portrait artist like my mother. And I’m certainly not a portrait artist who can paint a human being so realistically that it could be a photograph. For that a client needs to find an artist whose specialty is hand-painting human beings in the style he or she desires.

The keys to success are knowing what the desired outcome is and how to go about achieving it. That’s what makes most–emphasis on ‘most’–projects go quite smoothly and quickly.

Significant Art

Despite the fact that I ignore trends in general, preferring to capitalize on looks and designs that remain timeless, I spent the other day getting an overview of the prevalent trends in art, fashion, product presentation, and entertainment here in the U.S. I do this occasionally in order to view the cultural direction of professional art in our country as a whole with an eye to its implications to the future.

No, I won’t tell you my conclusions, and, while, yes, trends do influence my graphic art, fads don’t. Take the retro- fad that’s been raging the past few years. I don’t cater to it in my own work, though I will create it when a client prefers that look…which I have on several occasions this year, especially with book covers.

I prefer to let the trends come to me, rather than me drifting with the trends. However, I choose to be aware of overall trends because that’s what clients will want…or at least something near enough to it.

With trends, I look at them, then develop my own adaptation on them. Fads, on the other hand, are different.

Fads are so momentary that I choose to ignore them. Oh, sure, I will have some requests for graphic art that syncs with the fad, and I will, for the most part, fulfill those client desires.  But only to a point.  I draw the line at grotesque gore, suggestions of cruelty, and blatant sexuality, for example.

But back to fads.

To my eye, just like some extreme designs in a cars (Think of the giant fins on cars, which peaked in the U.S. in ’59.), fads date a piece of artwork, whereas a more classic handling allows that artwork to maintain lasting appeal. So, when a lasting design–a good, lasting design–works, the owner of the product that artwork appears for or on needn’t spend even more time and money a couple of years down the road to have new artwork made…unless, of course, they want to.


Graphic Art Means Making Final Decisions

When approached by someone who wishes me to work on a graphic art project, one of the things I try to discern is if the person querying me seems capable of making final decisions. Persons lacking an ability to make a final decision need to find a project manager with which to work, because they just don’t have the capacity to give the definitive nods necessary for a project to move forward toward completion.

A friend of mine, also a graphic artist, but one who works on a very limited type of project–decorative walls–has been really put to the test with one of his latest contracts. What started out as a relatively straight forward project has been mired down by an inability of the client to settle on decor. Between a frustrated decorator and an indecisive client, the whole project, which was supposed to have been long since completed, sits there in limbo. To date, he’s stripped and repainted that wall fourteen times, and is heading for change number fifteen. Doggedly, he persists, unwilling to terminate the relationship.

He is not me. I’m much more prone to terminate nonproductive relationships when indecisiveness or inappropriate persnicketiness gets in the way of forward progress. And what is inappropriate persnicketiness? Well, for example: fussing about minor details like color values and miniscule size adjustments of insignificant elements before deciding on a basic design or just what major elements are to be included in that design.

The Virtue of Surprising

Authors will email to ask what I think works best for a book cover. It’s a hard question to answer because, really, it all depends on the book. Given a free hand to design a book cover, I think about the book’s audience, and I think about the book’s competition. My aim when considering those criteria is to graphically design artwork that will, both, appeal to the target audience AND catch their eye as something surprising.

There’s virtue in surprising. It captivates with possibilities; it conjures anticipation; mostly, it stirs imagining. All these can stimulate spontaneous sales, even viral popularity, but only when supported by an impeccably written book description, a powerful first paragraph in a exceptional first chapter, founded throughout by excellent craft and story.

J. L. Maxwell Book Cover

The art and book cover for J. L. Maxwell’s book cover, created for her novel “Unlawful Intrusion”:

Here’s a look at the original version of just the front cover and spine art before it was adjusted for the novel’s front cover:

You can buy the novel, Unlawful Intrusion, at Amazon.com

You can visit J. L. Maxwell on the Net at http://unlawfulintrusion.blogspot.com/

Effective Art

As a professional graphic artist, when I work on a project, my job is to listen to what the client envisions and attend the client’s goals for that project.  The goal is usually common: get the target market’s attention, generate interest for the product, service, message, or entity that is the project’s focus.

The client’s goal usually falls into one of two or three categories, and, yes, sometimes several simultaneously:

  • FOLLOW: look a lot like something successful already on the market in order to siphon as much of the desired reward (money or interest) as possible from a clone;
  • COUNTER: provide an alternative to something successful, providing contrast, again to siphon reward;
  • LEAD: present something completely new and different.

Creating the artwork and design to effectively meet any of those goals is the graphic artist’s job…which is identical to the client’s–to fulfill a desire or a need…which is what most things boil down to in this life. 😀

Some Recent Artwork

Here are a sampling of two of my more recent art projects, one for a client, the other just for me.


This is the zentao logo emerging, shown in an earlier post and lines of inquiry, another of my digital conceptual art pieces combined here to make an interesting header for my personal website.  I like it because it does speak directly about my method and thought processes.

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This work, a variation of a DLKeur original called Conception, but with the green background you see here was used by a new client named Jane Karsten as part of a DVD cover.

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Here’s the actual DVD cover and disc label

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And here’s the disk label, how it looks after printing and, below that, the actual file

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And, of course, the insert

an artist speaks about art – fine art, digital art, & graphic art