Potential readers searching for their next book spend between three to five seconds looking at a cover on digital and physical bookshelves before they move on to the next one. That means you only have a few seconds to communicate what your book is about and intrigue the reader enough to give it a deeper look.
What does your book cover say in those three seconds?
Is your genre clear?
Are major themes clear?
Does it have the “x-factor” that will attract ideal readers?
As a professional book designer, I see many common problems with homemade or self-published book covers. Here are ten mistakes that discourage potential readers from picking up or perusing your book.
Trying to describe the whole plot
Many first-timers think that to intrigue readers, their cover needs to showcase every character, location, and event in the story. They assume that if they put as much as possible on the cover, at least one element will appeal to readers.
Instead, this approach removes the element of surprise and can often lead to confusion or overwhelm the reader instead. Just imagine if George RR Martin tried to sell Game Of Thrones by putting every character on the cover and alluding to each dramatic scene in the book. It would be utter confusing madness!
Be like George RR Martin’s cover designers and keep it simple. His current covers showcase a single element—a crown, a lion door knocker, a sword, a shield—that symbolizes a more significant theme in the book.
While you don’t necessarily have to reduce your cover to one single image or element, the cover should create intrigue and mystery. Ask yourself what scenery, person, thing, or theme best describes the essence of your book and work from there.
Give readers a peek into the world of your story but leave them room to wonder what else the book encompasses.
Not Using White Space
Have you ever squeezed into a claustrophobically full elevator and felt cramped an uncomfortable until you reached your floor? That’s how readers feel when you ignore the concept of “white space” (sometimes called “negative space”) on the cover.
Basically, white space is the breathing room you leave around each element in the design, so they stand out individually. White space balances elements like text and images, helping lead the viewer’s eye throughout each part of the cover.
Despite the name, white space doesn’t have to be white. It can be a color or even an image, but it should be simple enough to fade into the background and let your cover’s “hook” shine.
Not Conveying the Genre At All
A significant mistake DIY cover designers make is not clearly communicating the genre of the book. A sci-fi book generally looks much different than a book on marketing, since they target the interests of different audiences.
“Genre confusion” means the cover is so vague that it’s impossible to identify the book’s genre. Sometimes things as simple as a well written subtitle or adding the line “A Novel,” can clarify the content of your book. For example, the book cover below could be clearly viewed as a travel memoir, a self-help book, or literary fiction based on one extra line of text.
People are constantly flooded with information, so in order to understand the world, we use mental shortcuts called heuristics to separate things easily into categories. For example, if you see something with a seat, a backrest, and four legs, you can easily assume it’s a chair.
The brain of your reader will look for heuristics to categorize books, too. So, a cover with a bold red font and a woman holding a gun probably suggests it’s a thriller. An illustrated pig and a fun easy to read font means it’s likely a kid’s book. If there’s an old faded picture of an army battalion and a subtitle about D-day it’s probably historical non-fiction.
A good starting point is to hop on Google or visit your local bookstore and look at other books in the same genre of yours. Why not look for the best-selling titles in that genre and aim high? Never copy your competition exactly, just look for common threads across books that communicate your genre.
Accidentally Conveying the Wrong Genre
Worse than being vague about the book’s theme, a “genre mismatch” is when a cover accidentally conveys the wrong genre. Even if it’s unintentional, you’re likely to confuse or frustrate readers who bought the book thinking it was a different genre and not resonate with your actual target audience. In this scenario, you’ve missed out on potential sales and likely positive reviews.
Just as writing has familiar tropes that readers enjoy or even seek out, so do book covers. When readers see a cover with two attractive people embracing in front of a sunset and a title in a fancy script, they assume it’s a romance novel. But if someone bought that book only to find out that it’s a book on business to business email marketing they’d be (rightfully) disappointed or confused.
If you’re trying to be cheeky and play with genre tropes that’s ok. But be clear enough to get the reader you want. If you’re using a romance novel style for your email marketing book, it would only make sense if you also had a subtitle that says, “How to make your email marketing campaigns so good your leads are bound to fall in love.” The message here is, be intentional in your cover design.
Usually genre mismatches are less dramatic, like using a horror font on a sci-fi book or a romance font on a thriller. But this example illustrates why it’s important to research trends in your genre. Certain fonts, images, and visual tropes tell the reader what kind of book they can expect inside the cover.
Make sure you aren’t accidentally lying to them. The last thing you need is a slew of bad reviews from frustrated buyers.
Using too many fonts
A good rule of thumb is to use no more than three fonts on your book cover. The fewer the better. Using too many fonts can make your design look disjointed and confusing. Unless you’re writing a thriller about a serial killer or the like, you don’t want your cover to look like the infamous ransom note made from newspaper and magazine clippings that’s in every cop show.
A good alternative is to use font styles—like thin, bold, or italic—to differentiate or emphasize lines of text like your title, subtitle, or review quotes while using the same font.
When using two fonts, consider pairing contrasting styles like a serif and sans serif, or a serif with a script font. For inspiration, visit font specific design websites like www.fontpair.co/ or search for font pairs on Pinterest.
Poor Image Quality
It’s tempting to assume that all images are created equal, but image resolution plays an enormous role, especially for print covers. Many websites reduce the size (and therefore the quality) of images to make web pages load faster.
So, downloading a picture from Facebook or Google and slapping it on your book isn’t a good idea. As a rule of thumb, you can scale down a large, high resolution image without a problem, but scaling a small or low-resolution image up generally results in pixilation and loss of detail.
Most printers, including IngramSpark and KDP, require book covers to have a resolution of 300 Dpi (dots per inch). Meanwhile most images on the internet are only 72 Dpi, which is a significantly lower resolution.
Hard to Read Text
Nowadays it’s a good idea for your book’s title to be readable even as a thumbnail image since they are used by online retailers and catalogs. While that’s not a hard and fast rule, the title and subtitle are important parts of the cover, but it’s often difficult to make them stand out against the background if you use a busy image instead of a single-color background.
There are a few tricks, depending on the image, to make your text clearer. You can blur the area behind the text or reduce the contrast between light and dark. Sometimes choosing a font color that contrasts a busy background can solve the problem. Other times adding a stroke, drop shadow, or glow to the outside of the text is enough, but beware this can look campy or poorly done if you’re not careful.
You can also add a solid color box or decorative element behind the text. In some cases, this is a wonderful solution, but in others it can obscure or ruin the cover image. Often getting the perfect mix of art and text requires trial, error, feedback, and compromise.
Artwork that’s not made for a book cover
Many authors commission an artist or talented friend to create artwork for their book cover before they understand the unique requirements of cover design. To set the artist (or yourself) up for success, plan ahead and give them dimensions and directions that will help design the final product.
The art needs to leave enough room on the cover to add title, author name, and any additional text in a way that won’t detract from the artwork. It’s a good idea to bring your artist several illustrated covers that you like, so they have a reference to work from and see the important roles that the title and text play.
For printed paperbacks or hardcover books, you need to plan for bleeds and trim lines too. Since printers can’t cut every single book exactly the same, you have to build wiggle room into your design.
The trim line —a part of the printer’s book cover template which is usually downloadable from their website—is where the printer expects to cut off the excess paper around the outer edge of the entire cover during printing. Since printers aren’t always exact, you have to build in wiggle room that extends a few centimeters past the trim line, which is called the bleed. If you didn’t add a bleed, you might end up with random patches of white around the edge of your cover depending on what equipment is being used (similar to how a computer’s printer leaves a white edge around a document).
Though your background needs to extend to the end of the bleed, any important elements like characters, text, and intricate details should stay about a half inch from the start of the trim lines. Otherwise they risk being cut off or obscured during the printing process.
There are many other considerations when it comes to formatting and printing artwork or illustrations, but those are some of the basics to delve into before you start.
Not Asking for Feedback
When you’ve been working on a specific design for a long time, it’s easy to become blind to the problems it has or run out of ideas when it comes to finessing it to perfection. Even for experienced designers, outside feedback about the project is essential to making it the best it can be.
Not all feedback is created equal though. Friends and family will often be so kind and supportive that they won’t want to offer critical feedback or be the exact opposite and nitpick to an extreme. The best people to ask for feedback are those that are likely to buy your book.
After all, your grandpa who only reads tomes about World War II is hardly the right person to ask about your urban fantasy novel, because he’s never seen one in his life. You’ll get more relevant feedback by posting your design in a Facebook group for fans of urban fantasy novels, as long as it doesn’t go against the group’s rules.
That said, you don’t have to take every suggestion to heart. Trying to satisfy everyone will end up satisfying no one. However, you should look for trends in the responses. If multiple people suggest the same change or notice the same problem, it’s worth taking another look at your design.
Once the design’s been improved, you can create one or two variations of the cover and use social media to have people vote on which version they like better. It’s a great way to get feedback and begin building excitement about your book at the same time, especially if you have a large social following.
Unintentional Copyright Infringement
Generally speaking, if you use an image that you took yourself, or purchase stock photography with the correct license for your intended use you should be ok. Emphasis on “should” because I’m not a lawyer and this does not constitute legal advice (the very important small print).
It’s never wise to grab an image directly off a Google image search and throw it on your cover, as it could likely be a copyrighted image. The same goes for any image that includes a company’s logo. Even if you took a photo that includes the logo, you could potentially be in violation of copyright infringement or Intellectual Property theft (small print applies here, too). To minimize the chance of infringing on a copyright, Google search deeply enough to find out how to get permission from the copyright holder for legal use of any digital image: a photo, logo, etc.
You may be tempted to use free stock photo services like Unsplash that offer a blanket license for commercial use, but they’re not foolproof. In one case someone was sued for copyright infringement after using a picture that was uploaded to Unsplash without the copyright owner’s permission.
When asking someone to create artwork for your book, it is wise to have a written contract or service agreement that states who owns the artwork and how it is allowed to be used.
Tread very carefully with images you choose for your book cover because an image that you do not have full rights to could create a big headache for you down the road. The last thing you want is to schedule a big launch aiming for best-seller status and get a Cease and Desist Order the day after publishing the book.
Final Thoughts on Book Cover Design
Now that you know the common pitfalls of designing a book cover yourself you should be better equipped to start with a solid understanding of how to make a cover that shines in the crowded marketplace. If creating a cover still seems like a daunting task, never fear. We sell beautiful, affordable premade covers, and also offer custom book design services.
Here’s to your success!