They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Maybe I’m superficial, but I do judge a book by its cover. And I suspect I’m not the only one.
Book cover design is a crucial part of your marketing effort. You can string together the most insightful, lyrical, delicious words ever connected in the human lexicon, but if your book cover looks like Photoshop amateur hour, no one will ever pick it up.
It’s already established that I’m superficial, so it’s no surprise that I get embarrassed when I accidentally pick up an ugly book. One reason is the social stigma of holding an ugly book in the bookstore, as I’m silently judged by fellow bookstore browsers for holding such a monstrosity.
But I’m also embarrassed for the author who chose a sad representation for what’s probably an awesome book.
Another concern is the notoriously ruthless online browser. A third of all book sales are eBooks. While there’s no shame in clicking on an ugly book cover online, there’s no reason why anyone would. With so much information competing for our attention, us browsers use visual clues to weed out inferior products. If you don’t package your book in an appealing way, you risk drowning in the sea of competition.
Design matters for two important reasons: It’s what gets people to pick up your book in the bookstore or click on the thumbnail when browsing online.
Design also helps you tell your story.
A successfully designed book cover will convey the tone of your book, will whisper hints without giving it all away, and will excite readers into actually opening up the book and reading.
Let’s look and learn from 50 fascinating book covers.
01. Use white space to create focus
In this cover by Helen Yentus, the designer has placed white boxes to mimic the sterile look of hospital lights. It also strategically anonymizes the doctor on the cover to make the book more universal.
The takeaway: White space doesn’t mean that the whole cover must be completely minimal. It can used as a device to focus the reader.
02. Use photography for a professional touch
A nice take on a traditional still life composition. Featuring a sweet, ripened pomegranate, designer Jason Ramirez uses figurative imagery to create a compelling book cover for a story about the early years of famed Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Using two images of trees at different stages of life, Vibeke Illevold tells a story of change indicative of the poetic theme of the book.
03. Set the tone before you start designing
Tokyo on Foot uses a colorful, cartoonish tone to express rich whimsy. Browsers know to expect hand-drawn illustrations in this graphic memoir.
Crown + blood equals intrigue of the highest sorts. This cover doesn’t go into details, but it does give away the idea that you’re in for power plays, suspense, and royalty.
It’s clear from the cover that this book is about obsessive compulsive disorder. There’s something so pleasant about the careful use of color and the almost perfectly lined up rows.
The Takeaway: The tone of the cover should match the tone of your book. Don’t betray your audience by showing a humorous cover design with grim content. It makes the reader distrust you as an author.
04. Stand out from the crowd with a 3D book cover
This Portuguese reboot cover image by Carlo Giovani for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth smartly plays up the various layers of earth’s crust.
Italian illustration studio Bomboland revamped the Treasure Island book cover with a fantastic use of layering to create movement.
The Flame Alphabet also uses the paper cutout aesthetic to add depth and interest.
The cover of this book is simply a photograph of hand-drawn images on loose leaf paper. The perspective and the positioning of the images and text make this cover pop off the screen.
The takeaway: There’s no need to stay flat with your cover. Adding dimension can make it a refreshing change.
05. Weave your narrative into your cover design
Looking at the cover of this book, the reader is immediately engaged in this vibrant, colorful world of Vietnamese immigrant Ha. The cover makes you wonder about the world she lives in.
The cover image of this book shows the antagonist slowly drowning, which indicates her struggle to find life.
In this cover brilliantly re-imagined by designer Tom Lenartowicz, there’s a sense of foreboding. The tip of the letter A becomes a shark fin, and the use of blue to gray gradient perfectly symbolizes the depth of water.
The Takeaway: Your story begins as soon as the reader picks up the book and looks at the cover. Studies show you only have eight seconds to persuade the reader to take a chance on your book. Make it count.
06. Design should make sense even as a thumbnail
The simplicity of this cover makes it the perfect candidate for a thumbnail. It is crisp and easily understood even at half of its size.
Even though the typography is too small to read at smaller sizes, Dept. of Speculation makes a great thumbnail because the puzzle engages our human need to solve. It makes a reader want to click to see what the puzzle says.
Even if you’re not familiar with the story of Dracula, there’s something entrancing about this image of a woman’s neck. It reads well as a thumbnail, and the text is perfectly positioned.
This cover works especially well as a thumbnail because it stands out with the clever use of books that represent teeth.
The Takeaway: With a growing number of eBooks on the marketplace, it’s more important than ever to create a cover that looks great in tiny thumbnail form. Test your design in various sizes to see if your cover makes sense when browsers are searching online.
07. Speak to your audience’s emotions
On this cover is a disjointed sheep and an open-mouthed wolf with sharp teeth, seemingly ready to attack. The wolf elicits fear, yet the sheep is not panicked which heightens the reader’s panic.
The idea of an empty food container is terrifying (at least for me). The End of Food cover design grabs the reader by presenting an unexpected image of a styrofoam package without food.
Aptly using light behind typography, the designer for How the Light Gets In captures the mood of inspiration and spiritual enlightenment.
Conjuring ideas of the Rorschach Inkblot test, the cover alludes to the murder and mind games to follow in this iconic book. The splattered blood is both eerie and gripping.
The Takeaway: There’s nothing quite like emotion to drive readers into buying your book. Use visceral emotional responses to create connection with the character or topic of your book.
08. Express the colors of your story
If Euphoria had a color, it would probably look like this book cover. Sometimes the most colorful cover wins because it demands the browser’s attention.
Another cover that uses colors without sacrificing maturity is The Sky Is Everywhere. Here, the raindrops come in various colors, and there’s a sense of movement, yet the color does not obscure the title.
The Takeaway: Colors convey tone. There’s no need to use attention grabbing colors if it doesn’t match the tone of your book. Use a color story that resembles the one you’ve told with words.
09. But keep colors simple
The green tint of this book cover makes reference to the story’s fictional Emerald City. As an aside, the cowardly lion’s eyes are spellbinding.
Using only pink and brown colors, the designer created a clever cohesive color story to mimic George Washington Carver’s 105 ways to prepare peanuts for human consumption.
Designer Jennifer Merritt keeps color simple yet uniform in this H.G. Wells series with a complimentary color scheme.
The Takeaway: I love lots of colors, but not every book needs a rainbow. In fact, only a few books should tackle more than two or three colors. If your book works with less colors, definitely go with less.
10. Make typography the star
This cover is a beautiful reimagining of a spellbinding classic by Paulo Coelho. The carefully random placement of the text simulates the scattered sheep in the field.
Using see-through text, the cover for An Object of Beauty literally gives readers a glimpse into the New York art scene.
The skinny type with interesting perspective toward the cover’s focal point makes this cover promising and different. Notice that the designer is not afraid to take up the entire cover space with text.
Beautiful in its restraint, Breathing Room shows underlined and evenly spaced out text.
In a collaboration between Rodrigo Corral and Tyler Comrie, this is a rare case where both the front and the back covers are exceptionally designed. The juxtaposition of the strict against the mystical also match the creepy tone of the book.
Designer Chris Welch cleverly capitalizes off of the titular idea by draining the type of its color.
Sometimes the simplest type makes the biggest impact. On this cover, the O’s serve double duty as functional type in the author’s name and book title and design elements that reference bubbles from a beverage (and maybe hiccups, too).
Using the loop and tail of the R, designer Sara Comer creators the hood and cloak of Little Red Riding Hood.
A fun twist on text, this type is stylized to mimic a twisted rope. The cover shows characters and props from the novel intertwined with each other, and some playing with the rope. The text also carries over to the back cover.
11. Use imagery to spark the imagination
The cover design for Tampa alludes to tawdry sex, and that’s exactly what you’ll get from the first sentence. It’s disturbing and psychopathic, and the cover is definitely your first clue. Who would’ve thought a buttonhole could look so vulgar?
Another buttonhole, this one decidedly less sleazy, graces the cover of Isaac’s Style Book. You can tell from this cover that the book is about fashion.
The Takeaway: Commit to keeping it as simple as possible. If you can convey your mood and story without an additional element, get rid of it.
12. Create a focal point
Climbing Kilimanjaro is the subject of Making the Climb, and this book features a muddy shoeprint. The focal point of the book is hiking this mountain, and the cover conveys that idea clearly.
The Takeaway: Always find one component in your story to focus on visually with your book cover.
13. You don’t always need to be literal
1984 is a classic, and this subtle cover reboot indicates suspicion and secrecy. It also references the idea that big brother’s always watching.
Using words to create the one half of the image, this book cover suggests that the character is part real and part imagination.
Designer Sebastian Andreas creates a fine focal point with this shackled fist, raised in indignation. You can see from the cover the promise of anger and injustice in the contents of this book.
The Takeaway: Use hints to add interest.
14. Create an interesting atmosphere
Creepy imagery fascinates the reader. With this cover image, Brief History of the Dead successfully grips the reader into at least reading what the book is about.
Not all foreboding has to be about death and gloom. Sometimes, a report card can conjure up all the feelings of fear, anxiety, and uneasiness. This cover by Evan Munday and Jon Paul Fiorentino and indicates raw honesty and sympathy.
The takeaway: What does your audience fear? Use this idea to craft your book cover.
15. Work awards and reviews into the design
This book cover prominently features a review to encourage you, dear reader, to read on. It uses social proof to validate the worthiness of a book. This feature is great for printed books, when you don’t have a chorus of reviews readily available.
Here is another example of social proof, this time featuring both the New York Times and USA Today. Who wouldn’t be interested to see what’s so “elegant” about this book?
The Takeaway: Social proof will make even the harshest critic take a second look at your book.
16. Use custom photography
#GIRLBOSS shows Sophia Amoruso as strong, in control, and edgy, which is the tone of the book.
The Autobiography of Elizabeth Shaner shows a rather sweet photograph of Shaner with actual excerpts from her handwritten diary in the background. Readers will expect to read an intimate account.
Designer Jessie-Jisun Lee presents famous film director David Lynch as straightforward on this cover. The blocked out text is revealed like a puzzle, which hints that the book will uncover defining details of the titular character.
The Takeaway: Sometimes, you should use your own image to grace the cover of your book. If you have face recognition in your field, or if you’re writing an autobiography, placing your face on the cover gives the reader another connection point to you.
17. Final Thoughts
A successful book cover is never an afterthought. It will lead readers to your pages and because of its role as an ambassador, your book cover deserves thoughtful planning. Use these tips to help you craft a winning book cover that you can be proud of. And, when you’re done, come back and share it with us. We’d love to see it!