Saturday, March 23, 2019

Cover Design Basics

July 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog, Publishing, Self publishing

Rule 1 for self-published book covers: They shouldn’t look self-published! What are some of the elements of a book’s cover design that could give it away?


920 O'Farrell Street

Take a look at the book covers for two recent books of lifewriting. Both books are listed on print-on-demand service 920 O’Farrell Street is published through a traditional independent publishing house. (Many mainstream book publishers now put their entire backlist on or other similar print-on-demand services.) The Daily Log of a WWII B-24 Pilot is a self-published book — or at least, it sure looks like a self-published book.

Good cover design works to convey the contents of the book in a mixture of visuals and type that will make the reader want to find out more. Let’s compare the type design, illustrations, and color palette of the two covers to see why the design of 920 O’Farrell Street tells you this is a mainstream publication with a professionally designed cover while the Daily Log cover shouts “self-published.”

Type design

Daily Log of a WWII B-24 Pilot

Daily Log of a WWII B-24 Pilot

The title of 920 O’Farrell Street evokes the time period of the story by skillfully mimicking the type design of the late 1800s. It suggests the viewer / potential reader can expect to be transported back in time by this story.

Notice, by contrast, that the title of Daily Log is in all capitals and all the letters and words are of the same weight (i.e., same size and font), making it look like it could be the title of a boring government report. I’m sure the contents are gripping, but you might not think so from the title and the way it is laid out.

Choice and Layout of Photos

Both covers include a photograph of the book’s subject. The size and placement of the portrait on 920 O’Farrell Street makes the penetrating gaze of Miss Harriet Lane Levy arresting and intriguing. We want to get to know her.

By contrast, the face of 2nd Lt. Harrison is small and difficult to see. Harrison, in the plane’s cockpit, looks like he’s just landed from a pleasure trip, though the B-24s he piloted were heavy bombers. There’s a subtle disconnect between the photo and the book’s subject matter.

Color Palette

The two covers use a similar color palette but to very different effect. The colors of 920 O’Farrell Street mimic old paper and faded sepia photographs, with a touch of gold. Again the designer has evoked the time period beautifully and subtly, using an old photograph of San Francisco in faded colors to create texture and depth in the lower half of the cover and to set the scene.

The plain beige background of Daily Log just looks bland. It says nothing about the spaciousness that a pilot might feel surrounded by blue sky, or the drama and tragedy of war, or the fear invoked by flying into an ambush of enemy fighters. Sadly, the author has missed an opportunity to use the background to set the mood of the story.

Cover design is as complex a subject as clothing design. But one thing is clear. It’s worth seeking input from someone who understands effective design to help make your book look professional and ensure that potential readers feel moved to learn more about your story.

In a future blog post we’ll look at the many layers — background, type and images — that together make up a book cover design.

The two books whose covers I’ve compared can be found on here and here.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!