What Makes a Good Book Cover?

What Makes a Good Book Cover?

What makes a good book cover?

This is a question I get a lot, when I tell people what I do. Particularly indie authors. They’re hoping, I think, for some magic design formula: place the type here, use this kind of image. The answer, however, is not so simple, and here’s why:

Book cover design is very subjective – there are few hard-and-fast rules.

Achieving a great book cover design is entirely subject to the circumstances of a specific book. A book’s team (author, designer, publisher) have to weigh all of the considerations, and come up with what works for that particular book. The priorities and emphasis can and will shift with different books, and its specific marketing goals.

That said, the main things you need to keep in mind regarding a book cover (those considerations you need to weigh) are the same each time. It’s just the answers that will change.

I like to break it down into 3 different areas:

The 3 A's of Book Cover Design Venn Diagram


  • Does it fit the content and tone of the book?
  • Does it need to fit visually within a series?
  • Does it need to fit in with a visual style you’ve already established as an author?
  • If you’re having depictions of characters or events from the book on the cover, do they actually match up to what’s in the book?

If the tone of writing is humorous, the cover should reflect that. If you have a character on the cover that is redheaded in the text, don’t have them appear with black hair. If you go into detail in the text regarding a specific scene’s setting or the general landscape, make sure your cover artist knows those details and sticks to them. If your nonfiction title is ambiguous, make sure the cover reflects the actual content to provide clarity. These seem like common sense, but the fact that I can easily point out instances where these weren’t followed is cause enough to bring them up.



  • Does it appeal to your target readership?
  • Does it fit within what the audience expects of the genre (with some wiggle room)?

The design for a history book aimed at older male readers is going to be much different than the latest YA teen girl read. Yes, there is a certain amount of stereotyping that goes into this. And yes, people outside of a specific audience can still read your book. But we have a saying in the design world: if you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one. You have to pick a marketing focus, and run with that, or you’ll just be awash in conflicting and ineffective messaging. There are exceptions to every standard as far as audience and genre, but the successful ones started from a place of knowing both of those well, and cut a different path from there. They didn’t just ignore them. You can’t push the boundaries of what your audience will tolerate unless you know who that audience is.



  • Is it unique to your book? (not a copy of or too similar to something already out there)
  • Is it beautiful or artistic in its own right, in whatever style? (VERY subjective)

There’s something to be said for just the pure pleasure of a book as an aesthetic object. The artistry of a book is not limited to cover design alone- if it’s a physical book, artistry can also be expressed through specialty inks, edge effects, layered covers. These are all more expensive, true, but do help a book stand out.

Also: please, please, please don’t just take what another successful author has done and copy it. A) everyone will know you copied. B) That’s really a disservice to your book. You put a lot of hard work into your writing, it deserves a cover tailored specifically to it.

If you miss Appropriateness, you’re misleading readers. This is the worst offense, it will confuse or anger buyers.

If you miss Audience, you’re losing sales and readers. Understandably not good for you in the long run.

If you miss Artistry, you don’t stand out, and you’re missing out on the social shares beautiful covers can generate. Also you’ll make designers sad. 😉

But keep these three A’s in mind, and try to hit all of them, and you should end up in the sweet spot: the perfect cover for your book.

Want more questions to spark new ideas for your book cover design?
Check out my free download of 50 Questions From Your Novel’s Cover Designer:

What do you think makes a great book cover? Was it covered by one of these A’s?


Design is a Vessel

Design is a Vessel with Purpose

“Design is a vessel.
There’s the whole Buddhist thing about the essence of a bowl being its emptiness—that’s why it’s useful.
Its emptiness allows it to hold something. I guess that means that design must talk about something else.
If you make design about design, you’re just stacking bowls, and that’s not what bowls are for.”
Frank Chimero

I love this quote. To me, the essence of what he’s saying is this:

Design is art with a purpose.

It’s not just there to ‘make things pretty’ (which is how some of my family members describe what I do for a living). That can certainly be part of it. After all, having aesthetics that are visually pleasing to your audience is part and parcel of the goal of design. But notice my wording there- goal. Design has a reason for being, and something to accomplish. It is strategy made visual.

Without that, it’s just art. It can sit there and look pretty, like the bowls in a stack. But as Chimero says, that’s not what design is for.

Is the design for your business acting as a vessel for your brand and message? Or is it just a pretty stack of visuals?

Color Theory: Blue

Color Theory: Blue


Color Wheel Tier: Primary.
Tonal Value: Cool.
Complementary Color: Orange.

Blue is the most popular color in the world, as well as one of the most prevalent. Our planet is mostly blue water. Our sky is blue. It is the easiest color to distinguish in the dark or across distances. I think its sheer pervasiveness in everyday life helps to make it a favorite. By no means is this a new trend, though. It is a bit of a latecomer to the art world compared to the reds and ochres we find in ancient cave paintings, but it has more than made up for it since. The lapis lazuli stone was much used in ancient Egypt for its rich color. In the Renaissance age, ultramarine paint made from that same stone was the most expensive pigment, prized for its vibrancy. Woad, indigo, cobalt, azurite: whatever its natural form, blue has been used in everything from fabric to painting, on stained glass windows and on pottery, across centuries, cultures and continents.

It should be no surprise, given this huge popularity, that blue is a pillar of all of our major color systems. It’s a primary color on the color wheel. It’s the B in RGB and the C (cyan) in CMYK. It has become the standard color for links in internet browsers. You’ll also see blue as a prominent color in branding across a wide swath of industries. Fun fact: dark blue is now the most common color for business suits worn by world leaders. You’ll find it dominant in uniforms, too: police uniforms, military dress uniforms, doctors scrubs. Sports teams, universities, and nations all show a decided preference for shades of this color.

Why does it work in such a wide variety of uses? A lot of it has to do with the meanings we imbue it with. Take a look:

Meanings / Associations


Water / Oceans / Rain / Life
Sky / Heaven / Eternity
Quiet / Peace / Serenity / Relaxation / Softness
Truth / Sincerity / Intellect
Cleanliness / Health / Fresh Air
Stability / Loyalty (True Blue) / Integrity
Confidence / Dignity
Depth / Expertise / Precision



Distance / Infinity
Bluejays / Peacocks / Robin’s Eggs
Seriousness / Power / Authority
Masculinity (traditionally)
Cold / Winter
Technology / Futurism



Sadness / Depression / Mourning / Loneliness
Insubstantial / Ambiguous
Austere / Formal / Aloof
Appetite Suppression
In China: Torment / Ghosts / Death / Villains


As you can see, blue is heavy on the positive meanings, and light on the negative meanings. Even the neutral meanings lean towards the positive. Is it any wonder, then, that this color is so universally liked and used? I’m certainly a fan. The wide range of shades make it an ideal color for design work – there’s almost always a shade that fits my project, and blue also pairs really well with other colors. If you want to see some examples of the many ways it can be combined and used, check out my color board on Pinterest.

What does blue make you think of? Are you in Camp Blue Favorite like most of the world?



Uncovered: A New Spin on Science Fiction

There’s a lot more to science fiction than spaceships and aliens.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of those, too. And there’s nothing wrong with them. I love a good space opera as much as the next sci-fi fan. And you can even stick them on your cover like the good ol’ covers of yore:


But science fiction has grown to include much more than just spaceships and aliens. You’ve got time travel and alternate dimensions, dystopias and cyberpunk, robots and space gods. Hard science military space empires, next to interplanetary lovers who are literally star-crossed. The bounds of what gets classified as science fiction are no longer so clear cut that the spaceship-and-alien cover works for every book.

Science fiction’s also grown in fandom size since its golden age heyday in the 1950’s. Today’s science fiction readers don’t need such overt signals to find your book. They already know where to find you in the bookstore or online. In fact, because so many covers do show spaceships etc., if you do something different it can help you stand out. It can even help you bring in potential readers who don’t normally read science fiction and may be put off by the genre’s stereotypical covers.

Here’s a round-up of examples of sci-fi books doing something a little different while still having a design that fits within the science fiction shelves:


The books that don’t have spaceships or aliens have to take a different route, of course, while still finding a way or styling that fits in with what’s expected of the sci-fi section. But even the books that do take place in space and show space scenes on the cover do so in a minimal way. That landscape for The Left Hand of Darkness could be Earth’s arctic (it’s not). The painterly treatment to the landscape on Luna gives it a nice abstraction. Arkwright is just a swoop of a planet’s ring with no indication of which planet, and not an alien or spaceship in sight. Armada, which does show spaceships, does so in a reduced way, to where they are just icons (like in a video game…). The Humans, whose narrator is an alien, goes the opposite direction and shows a human nose. Clearly, there are many, many ways to hint at science fiction tropes without just plastering them directly across the cover.

Now, obviously, if your story does indeed include spaceships and aliens, it’s worth considering whether they should appear on the cover. My point is that it’s not *required* to make a good sci-fi book cover. Science fiction is no longer a tiny box you have to try to cram your story and cover into. There’s room for all sorts.

What are some of your favorite science fiction book covers? Do they break the mold or keep within it?

Need more help brainstorming cover ideas?

I’ve got a list of questions for you to work through and talk about with your designer. Check out 50 Questions from Your Novel’s Cover Designer.


Core Design Materials to Get Your Business Started

Core Design Materials to Get Your Business Started

This post on starter design materials originally appeared as a guest post at Craveity Marketing.

You’re the owner of a brand spanking new business- yay! Congrats to you! Now you have to work on getting your new venture out into the world. You know that your visual branding and marketing materials are important, and you want them to be well-done. They have to live up to your awesome business idea, right? But as a small business, you also have a limited budget to get up and running. Instead of minimum viable product, you need minimum viable design. Where are you going to get the most bang for your buck?

Here are my recommendations:


Priority: highest
Recommendation: professionally designed

Your logo is the cornerstone of your visual branding. A well-designed logo sets you up with an aura of professionalism right from someone’s first interaction with your company. It shows that you take your business seriously, and implies that you’ll take your customers seriously, too. This is one of those times where you want to do it once and get it done right, even if it’s a bigger sticker shock up front. It’ll save you time and money down the road to not have to redo a poorly conceived or poorly executed logo again and again.

And once you have a logo, even if you stick to bare bones design for the rest of your materials, you will still have that unique, high-caliber mark to set you apart. It can guide the rest of your visual branding and will elevate any marketing materials or graphics you decide to DIY.

“Buy the best and you only cry once.” — Miles Redd



Priority: next highest
Recommendation: professionally designed if you can, but there are quality DIY options to get you started.

A web presence is obviously of top importance for any business whose primary service is online or location-independent. But even brick-and-mortar businesses benefit from having a good website. The yellow pages are a thing of the past. Now if a potential customer wants to find a new business, they go one place: Google. And if you don’t have a website, you are missing out on that huge potential for new customers. A Yelp listing or Facebook page gives you some presence, but it’s not the same. It certainly doesn’t give the same professional impression that an independent website with your own domain name would have.

And with how affordable it is to get a website going, you really have no excuse! Even if you can’t hire a designer at this stage of your business, you can still have a good website. Get a hosting plan for $11/month, and a domain for $12/year. Install WordPress (free!), pick out a free theme that works for your business, add your content and you’re set. Or you can go with something like Squarespace, or Wix. Even if you need to have an online shop, there are affordable and free options. I like WordPress, because it lets you customize more and gives you room to grow as your business grows, but pick what works for you and your business.

A DIY website can probably see you through the first couple of years with your new business, but, when you can, have a professional come in and revamp it.

Bonus: Your own website will also let you have a custom email address (yourname @ instead of having to use Gmail; again, just another level of professionalism.

Business Cards

Priority: low, unless you’re doing a lot of in-person promotion
Recommendation: professionally designed if you can, but there are great templates available too.

For the most part, printed design materials can wait until the need comes up. Brochures, sales sheets, etc. – those are not essential to launch for most businesses. Depending on what you do, you may not ever need any print materials other than business cards. If you have a little room left in your budget, business cards can be very handy, especially if you’re doing a lot of in-person sales or networking events. The small format is more forgiving for DIY design; you don’t need much more than your awesome new logo and contact info to get together a decent business card.

The quality of printing does make a difference, though. I would recommend Moo Printing for business owners starting out. Not only do they have a great array of templates to choose from and customize, but their paper quality is top notch. A first batch of about 100 cards will get you started and not break the bank.

If you can get these three design materials done well, you’ll have a solid basis for your business’ visual branding. And if you DIY any element now, consider having a professional designer rework it down the road as budget allows.

Do you agree with my recommendations? What would you consider a small business owner’s most pressing design need?

Need help with these core design materials?

I’ve got just the thing for that. Check out The Newbie Design Bundle, specifically for new business owners.


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Amanda Guerassio

From freelance designer to studio owner, I've been a self-employed, independent graphic designer for over a decade. I love helping people find the right visual voice for their businesses and projects. Let's talk!