Cover Design

Book Cover Design for Self-Published Work: A Beginner’s Guide

Table of Contents:

  1. The importance of a good cover
  2. Step 1: Define the genre and identify your target audience
  3. Step 2: Distill the key themes of your book
  4. Step 3: Conceptualise your cover
  5. Step 4: Find the right tools or specialists to create your cover

The importance of a good cover

Your book cover is the first point of contact between you and the reader. Once you let your book out into the wide world, you’re automatically signing it up for an intense speed-dating session with all the book readers out there, and it’s up to you to make sure it’s ready. Like many things in this world, speed dating is all about first impressions, so it falls to you to make sure that your book looks absolutely stunning. In this case, that means a killer cover.

If this article was anything like the other book cover blog posts out there, this is probably where we’d insert a lukewarm joke about how we all judge books by their cover, despite the oft-repeated preschool adage, isn’t that funny? Haha. Let’s not.

Now that we got that out of the way: books with eye-catching covers sell more copies than those without–it’s that simple. There are more books being published than ever before, and as self-publishing becomes more popular, this trend isn’t stopping anytime soon. This unprecedented diversity makes it more critical than ever to stand out. A genre-appropriate, attention-grabbing design can make the difference between success and failure. Your cover is therefore an essential part of your promotional toolkit.

So, what should you consider when designing a book cover?

Well, before you start creating your cover (or hiring someone to do it), do some research. Think about the message you would like to convey to your readers. Who’s your target audience? Does your book address a problem that your target audience has (it should), and how do you translate that visually? What kind of covers do books similar to yours have?

Sound boring? Well, the good news is that you’ve already started! In this article, we’ll help you plan and conceptualize your book cover design.

Step 1: Define the genre and identify your target audience

A good cover should immediately convey a book’s genre in an instant. Two instants are also fine. Three instants would be pushing it. To that end, you need to take several things into account when designing your cover: the genre, your target audience, your plot/themes, and–if you’re writing nonfiction–the topic of your book, plain and simple. Your cover should ideally incorporate and project information about all of these things.

This may seem like a tall order – especially if you’re not a visually creative person. Creating a cover that immediately tells a potential reader what they are about to pick up? A cover that has the ability to stand out from the hundreds of other books and make enough of an impression to catch the attention of a passerby? These can definitely be intimidating goals to set for yourself.

What does a typical book in your genre look like?

That’s why you start with the easy bits! The genre should be pretty self-evident to you as the author. Once you’ve determined the genre of your book, it’s easy to look up other books within that genre and study their covers. This should give you a pretty good idea of what types of designs are popular at the moment.

  • It’s a good idea to break down a cover into different components when analyzing it. For example:
  • Is there an image on the cover, or is it just a coloured background?
  • What kind of image is being used–a drawing, a photo, or maybe something else entirely?
  • If there’s no image, is it a monochromatic background, or something more colourful? Are textures being used?
  • What’s the colour palette?
  • What kind of typeface is used for the title? Is it the same one being used for the author’s name?
  • How much of the space on the cover is dedicated to text?
  • Do the spine and back cover differ from the front cover in terms of design?
  • How much space on the back cover is dedicated to the blurb?
  • Is there any extra information on the back cover, e.g. reviews?

Do this for as many relevant covers as you can, and then review your findings. Go to bookshops, either online or in person, and browse. Search for book covers on Pinterest. Are there any recurring design features in your analysis? If so, they’re probably worth incorporating into your own cover.

You could also intentionally break with the trends you observe, just be sure to do so strategically. Breaking with all conventions risks confusing your target audience.

Don’t forget your target audience!

If you’ve read our book marketing guide, you know how important it is to determine a target audience for your book. This helps you visualize the ideal reader to whom you’ll be directing all your outward communication, including the cover design.

How does your target audience affect your cover design though? Well, it depends. Some genres–like YA, for instance–have a fairly defined target audience by their very nature. Even then, however, your book is going to be focused on an even more specific demographic within that target audience. A YA romance novel is going to appeal to a different kind of person than a YA fantasy novel.

Do some research on your readers

The trick is to ensure that your cover speaks to your target audience. Try to put yourself in their shoes and figure out what kind of book cover would catch their eye. In addition to the cover analysis outlined in the previous section, you might want to dig through relevant online fora and social media platforms where your target audience congregates.

Doing this won’t give you any definitive answers on how to design your cover, but it will give you a better understanding of your future readers, including a general idea of their preferences. Don’t be afraid to engage with people in order to gain a deeper understanding of what they look for in a book and why.

For example, people who read self-help most likely look for a clearly stated solution to their problem when browsing for books. Hence the straightforward, text-heavy nature of most book covers in that genre. Similarly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find biographies without the subject’s face on the cover, as that is what will attract people who’d be interested in reading a specific biography.

If you’ve been following our marketing guide, you should already be active in various online spaces. Engaging with your target audience on social media well before publication is a great way to build an audience. If you’re doing this in good time, you can even present people with your book cover ideas and get feedback on them.

Step 2: Distill the key themes of your book

Themes are most definitely ‘a thing’, no matter how many ‘ maybe the curtains were just blue’ memes you’ve had the misfortune of seeing. Why are they relevant when it comes to your book cover though?

Well, determining the genre and associated target audience of your book will probably give you ideas about the general style of your book cover. However, to really nail down what to actually depict on your cover (and how), you need to think about themes. I.e., not what happens in your book (that would be the plot) but what it’s about.

That’s not to say the two can’t be combined visually. There are going to be events in your plot that communicate your book’s theme more clearly than others. However, it’s usually much easier, aesthetically pleasing, and more effective to hint at your themes than to depict events on your cover.

The images and colours of your cover should represent the key message or idea behind your narrative. Remember: people are not just visual creatures, but also emotional ones. To paraphrase Maya Angelou: people don’t remember what you say, but how you make them feel. So, you want your cover to be memorable and impressive, and to do this you need to evoke emotion. Make your reader feel something as they look at your book cover. The emotion you present through your design should reflect the themes, ideas, or essence of your narrative.

Fiction covers:

A common approach is to illustrate the problem or source of conflict that is at the centre of your story. This can be an abstract concept or something more concrete, like this portrayal of everyone’s favourite white whale:

Moby dick book cover
Cover by Rachael Shankman

Of course, Moby Dick is not about a grumpy sailor who really wants to kill this specific whale. That’s the plot, yes, but the book is about obsession and its consequences. Notice how the whale depicted on the cover is impossibly huge, reflecting how large it looms in Ahab’s mind. Notice how precariously the ship sits on the massive waves. Obsession will breed the kind of recklessness that puts you in a situation like that. The raw drama of this cover–the scale, the desaturated colours–tells you what kind of narrative tone you can expect from this book.

Dealing with themes as a nonfiction writer

Different types of books will come with different challenges. It’s often trickier to pin down a theme for a nonfiction book, for instance. For certain genres, like biographies, your options are also more limited than they would be otherwise. In cases like these, it’s often helpful to think of the point you’re trying to make with your book. What’s your angle? You may not be writing fiction, but you’re undoubtedly framing your facts a certain way. Ask yourself how you can make your cover reflect that.

Some examples of nonfiction covers:

Check out the cover of Charles McDougall’s love letter to running (yeah, apparently there are people out there who enjoy it. We were also surprised):

Obviously, the subtitle is doing a lot of heavy lifting here by providing contextual information. However, you shouldn’t discount the cues provided by the photo. A lone athlete standing on the summit of a mountain, against the backdrop of the massive blue sky. This picture is practically screaming the book’s central ideas in your face: overcoming challenges through dedication and discipline, and ultimately achieving freedom. Together with the title, you already have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for, and what the book is trying to make you feel.

You can also adopt a less subtle approach if the title of your book is impactful enough on its own. Minimalist covers that emphasise the title using monochromatic backgrounds and loud, bold text have become very popular in the last couple of decades:

The subtle art of not giving a fuck book cover

Steps 1 and 2 are all about reflecting on your goals and gathering ideas. Before continuing, it is important to keep in mind the literary genre, the readers, and the essence of the story. All these elements should come together in your design. If your design represents your story but does not appeal to your readers, your book will not reach as many people.

Step 3: Conceptualise your cover

After surfing the Internet for a little inspiration, it’s time to put the ideas you’ve unearthed into action. You can use Pinterest to create a mood board from which to work. Pin colours, fonts, and images that you like. When searching for images, you can look beyond the social networks we have already talked about. Some sites, for instance, offer copyright-free images such as PexelsUnsplash, Pixabay, and Pikwizard. You could even use an AI to generate cover art for you (more on that below).

Of course, a book cover is more than just a picture. There are several elements that you need to balance for the best possible effect. Try to synergise the following aspects of the cover with each other:

  1. The picture/main visual component
  2. Colour palette
  3. Typography

Finding a balance between your chosen visual, font(s), and the colours of these elements is the key to a professional-looking cover. You want the text to be clear and legible, but not intrusive or overwhelming – unless you have opted for a monochrome background of course.

If you plan to design your own cover, you can make your sketches or plans more or less detailed. Mental notes are also fine if that’s how you like it.

Step 4: Finding the right tools or specialists to create your cover

There are an ever-growing number of tools, programs and platforms that can help you design your cover, no matter what your budget may be. Here are a few affordable options:


We love Canva here at Bookmundo. It’s a great tool for authors who do not have design experience, and it’s free to boot! Canva offers pre-formatted layouts that you can implement directly or modify according to your preferences. There are even book cover templates for you to use to get started.

Nevertheless, the best way to create a cover on Canva is to create custom designs based on the requirements of your printer and/or publisher. Some will ask for a file that only contains the front cover, while others need the front and back cover, as well as the spine, individually. For some self-publishing platforms such as Bookmundo, the file you need to upload for your cover must contain all three: cover, back cover, and spine. The size of the spine depends on the number of pages and the type of paper you have.

As you can see in the picture below, Bookmundo calculates the dimensions of your cover for you, depending on the size of your book, the number of pages, and the type of paper, with a 3 mm bleed along the outer margin.

The bleed refers to the edges of your image, which the printer will trim off at the end to make sure everything is nice and even. This ensures that your image will reach the very edge of the cover, without leaving any white edges. Keep in mind that the bleed should be larger for hardcovers – for example, the bleed for hardcovers on Bookmundo should be 16-17 mm. This is due to the fact that the image is folded over the cover rather than simply being trimmed off.

Cover Specifications Mybestseller

We’ve written a detailed article on how to create a book cover using Canva, where we cover this in a lot more detail.

Other design programs

Of course, you may use more advanced programs to design your cover, such as Adobe InDesign and Photoshop or Microsoft Publisher. Here are some tutorials for each of those:

Keep in mind that this software can be rather expensive. A free alternative is GIMP, an open-source graphics editor with a lot of specialized functionalities. You can find some useful tutorials on how to use it here.

Use AI

How could we not jump on the AI bandwagon? Are you even a real company if you aren’t discussing AI at least 20 times a day? The answer honestly doesn’t matter, because this was just an intro to this section, which is about how to use AI to create a design for your book cover.

If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably given some kind of AI a go already. Even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with how it works–go to the website, type in what you want the AI to do, and Bob’s your uncle.

There are a bunch of different AIs to choose from and tons of articles written on the topic. We’re not going to pretend to be the foremost authority on the topic, but we’ve tried a bunch of them, including DALL·E, Picsart, and Craiyon, and they all have the potential to create book cover art. The latter two are free to use, whereas the former requires you to purchase credits and cash these in every time you generate an image.

AI still can’t do everything for you (unfortunately)

If you’re planning on using AI to generate your cover design for you, there are a few things you should keep in mind. The first is the same as with all the previous methods we’ve discussed: be aware of your cover specs! Even the prettiest design in the world is going to look terrible if it’s not scaled properly or is missing crucial details due to them being too close to the edges of the cover.

The second is that AI is still very new, and copyright legislation has not yet caught up. So while there’s nothing stopping you from generating content with AI and using it for commercial purposes (at least as far as book cover design goes), this may change in time. It’s a good idea to be aware of this if you’re planning on publishing and selling books containing AI-generated content.

Hiring an artist/designer

For some people, the best option might be to hire a designer. You can do that right here at Bookmundo, in fact: we’ve got in-house designers that can either create a cover for you using our cover designer for £49, or completely from scratch–if you’re interested in the latter option, we’ll send you a quote based on your specs and your design request. You can request more info about both of these services via our service page. We’ll get back to you with more info within 2 business days.

You can of course look for a designer on your own. There’s one for every conceivable budget out there, but the most important thing is finding someone whose style and personality mesh with your ideas. 99designs, and Reedsy are popular platforms. but you can also try to find designers you like and get in touch with them directly through social media. Most designers have an online presence these days, allowing you to look at their work before deciding to contact them.

We’ve probably covered most of it now

There’s always more to be said, but you’ve got things to do, like designing a banging book cover, for instance. This should be enough to get you started on your book cover project at least. If you’re still unsure about your ability to create a book cover and don’t see that changing anytime soon, we strongly recommend using our cover designer to ensure that everything turns out ok with sizes, bleeds, and margins.

You can create absolutely stunning covers with it as long as you customise your chosen template properly. You can also create a unique cover design using any of the methods we’ve just discussed and then simply upload the image to our cover designer. Read more about how to make the most of the cover designer if you’re interested.

Now get out there, do some research, and create a cover that’ll stop prospective readers in their tracks!


Links to the covers featured in this article:

Life of Pi cover by Path and Puddle

Le Petit Chaperon Rouge cover by Jazzberry Blue 

War and Peace cover by T.M. Salin