At this point, I have published well over two dozen books for myself and other writers, and as a writer, I can say that covers are a pain in the ass.

So I thought I’d jot down a few notes to maybe help out other writers, including self publishers and people working with small presses.

Apart from either doing book covers myself, or being an active participant in the design of covers, I have a few other qualifications. Back in the day, when newspapers were laid out by hand, I was a production manager on small newspapers and magazines. Following that, I went on to design posters and promotional materials for stage plays, short films and arts and cultural events. As this was going on, I maintained a steady interest in art and audited art history classes. I don’t pretend to be some great authority, but I do know enough to make my way around a page.


In the old days, book cover design was pretty simple. Broadly, you had two sizes – paperback or pocketbooks about 4.5 x 6.5 inches, and trade paperbacks – loosely around 6 x 9 inches. Both had a width to height ratio of around 2 x 3. There was lots of variation, but those were decent rules of thumb.

The point being that you had a good idea of the space you had to work with, and the ratio you needed to work with, and subject to a little fiddling, you were fine. This may seem like mechanics, but the scope of the canvas dictates what you can and can’t do, or what works and what doesn’t work.

Now, however, it’s gotten more complicated. For books, we still have that 2 x 3 ratio, and pocketbooks and trade paperbacks. But now book covers are being presented in a variety of sizes, only some of which involve the physical books.

If you are browsing online Amazon or Barnes & Noble for instance, your first sight of the cover will be a tiny thumbnail, maybe 1.5 x 2.5 inches, and that first sight will be accompanied by a whole bunch of other similarly sized book covers competing for attention. That’s on a computer screen, if its on your phone, it’s even worse.

The key take-away is that for random online book browsing, your cover will be presenting under the worst conditions – a tiny image, with lots of competition.

Even when the prospective shopper clicks on your book cover, the just get a larger image, but not a full sized image, and there’s competing text all around (albeit it’s text about your book). Click again, you get the book cover alone, finally, larger, but still not full sized.

The bottom line is that on your computer screen or phone, you’ll never see the book cover in the full size it was intended to be. That’s just life. The only place you’ll see that cover full sized is in a bookstore or similar venue.

What this means is that when you’re designing or thinking about your cover, you need to consider that it will be seen in a variety of sizes, most of them reduced, some of them highly reduced. You also need to think about the fact that there will be competition for eye-space, lots of it, and in this dark era, attention spans are dropping faster than a hummingbird with lead weights, so sometimes you’ll have only a second or less to grab the prospective reader’s attention and interest them in taking a longer look.

As if that wasn’t enough, formatting is going to pieces. Used to be we could all count on the 2 x 3 ratio. But now, as audio books have exploded, they’ve utilized a square 3 x 3 cover format, so you either have to do a completely new cover, or make sure that your existing cover’s elements are fluid and flexible enough to reconfigure.

And that’s not the end of it – thinking about Kickstarter? The ratio is 16 x 9, not 2 x 3. Advertising on Facebook or other forums? Potentially different ratios, different audiences.

All of these are things you need to keep in mind when considering your cover.


What this means is that the days of complex, beautiful covers with the depth and detail of a painting are gone, if they were ever here. Or maybe the best way to put it is that an artist could get away with a lot more back then, than they can do now.

Because people are going to be seeing your cover in a variety of sizes, mostly small, on a variety of mediums, including your phone and laptop, and may only be looking very quickly, detailed beautifully covers aren’t going to do it.

Your cover needs a single strong arresting central image, something that the viewer will recognize immediately. When I say recognition, I don’t mean that they have to recognize or know the particular face or object. Rather, it has to be clear and strong enough that they can recognize what it is. It can be a figure, a person, an object, a couple of persons or objects – as long as it’s a strong clear image that “pops” or jumps out at the eye.

It needs to be distinct from the background. If you have a central image that blends with its background, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Muddiness is not your friend. If the background or parts of the background seem to bleed into the central image, that works against you.


If the background elements are strong, and clash with each other, that’s bad, because it undermines that central image. Suppose you have an image of a knight standing in front of a forest – half your background is a green forest, the other half is a bright blue sky. The eye doesn’t know where to look first. So maybe it just quickly scans over the image, jumping from one element to the other without attention… then it goes away. That’s not good.

Look, I’m not worried about backgrounds generally. You can not bother with them, and it won’t kill you.

Or you can have a background as detailed as you want, and as long as it complements and doesn’t undermine the central image, it works. In fact, it probably helps, because the viewer, if intrigued, may decide to look longer and deeper, and the more complexity they have to appreciate, the longer they may look. But that counts on hooking them first.


The element, apart from the central image, that needs to be prominent, is of course, the title. Put the title wherever you want. Top of the Book, bottom of the book, tucked into the side. It doesn’t really make a difference.

Well, maybe it does, or did – in book racks, the bottoms of books were often covered by the books in front, the tops never were, so it was a bad idea to put the title at the bottom – there are still book racks around, but I don’t think they’re as central to selling and marketing as they used to be. So you can take a chance.

What matters is that your title has to pop – so the biggest, boldest, showiest font you can legitimately get away with. It should be no more than a quarter of your cover at most. It should be relatively short 10 to 25 characters, you might get away with 35 – but beyond that I think you’re asking too much of the reader.

The title should be clearly recognizable and distinct – so no small, or delicate or wishy washy fonts. There are a lot of font choices out there, feel free to use one that complements your book or your central image. But make sure it’s clearly readable, if the reader glances and can’t tell if something is a Q or a T, then you’ve lost the game.

Use colors, outlines, shading to call attention to it, make sure it pops from whatever your background is. If it’s not popping out, immediately and clearly distinct from the background, then people might miss it.


Unless you’re Steven King, don’t worry about your name. Sure, have it on the cover, but unless your name sells books, no one is going to care. So obviously, small font, and less concern about placement.

Same thing with subtitles. Subtitles can be useful, a second chance at hooking the audience in. With the varying sizes, particularly smaller sizes, at alternate ratios, and with short attention spans, your subtitles aren’t even going to get noticed at first glance. They don’t do you much good initially, and they may even be a pain in the ass – particularly if you have to reconfigure your cover for an audio book or an advertising format.

I use subtitles, like I said, if you have the viewer even a little bit hooked, this may be good to reel them in. But they’re a subordinate element, perhaps a little more important than the background, perhaps a little less, depending.

By the way, purists might recommend that your title, your name, and your subtitle all use the same font and style, even at different sizes. My advice is not to worry about it. If you use different fonts and formats for each, it might be a little less elegant. But it’s not as if the Font Police are going to break down your door and take you to Style Jail.


Here’s something that a lot of people overlook: Sight lines. I picked this up in art classes, magazine layout, but basically, it means that when you look at a page or a painting, your eye goes all over the place, looking here, looking there, bouncing around, drifting away.

Sight lines are the art of guiding the viewer around a page or a painting, so that they see it the way you want them to see it. This can be achieved bluntly, simply by having a character pointing off in the direction you want them to look. People are funny that way, they see a finger or an arrow pointing somewhere, they instinctively look over there. It can get subtle, if we see a figure and that figure’s face seems to be looking somewhere, we look over there. Even if the face is neutral, but their eyes are looking, we follow the eyes. An acute angle, a bright spot can do the trick. It doesn’t even have to be an obvious angle, the geometry of a building or a street scene with trees will form shapes that unconsciously direct the eye around the page or the painting.

And of course, there’s a whole other effect when your figure or character is making eye contact – that is, instead of looking off in the distance or somewhere, the character on the cover appears to be looking out at the cover directly at you. It’s obviously not, of course, but even that illusion of eye contact can capture the viewer’s attention for a moment, which may be long enough.

People instinctively read from left to right, so in terms of building the geometry of your central image, and your supporting elements, this can be important for sight lines. You want to work with the reader, not against them. So this may affect which side of the frame you place which elements.

Seriously, this is fascinating stuff – spend time at an art gallery, or look up some people who delve into this, it will open your eyes.

For our purposes, there are two big take-aways:

(1) Your sight lines should always be trying to move the eye around within the cover, and take them to the important things – the central image and the title. That’s one of the things I mean when I say your background should complement and support the core parts, their subtle sight line elements should support you core image and your title.

(2) Try and avoid creating sight lines that kick your viewer out of your cover. Imagine a windswept but rather vague moor, a Wuthering Heights protagonist. She is looking and point down and to the left – Oops, she’s subliminally told your viewer to go look at some other book. If she’d been pointing right and up towards the title, you might have made a sale! Or if you have a character or an acute angle on the right side, and it’s pointing right, away from the rest of the cover – again, you’re directing people not to look at your cover.

Subtle stuff, and most artists should know this instinctively. But worth watching out for. Brilliant or effective sight lines will subliminally sell your book. Bad sight lines will subliminally sell someone else’s book.


One thing I’ve heard is that you should look up the 100 best selling titles in your genre, and see what the trends, the conventions, the staples are. That’s good advice.

Things go in and out of fashion. Used to be book covers had a lot of human faces, then figures. Now the fashion is objects. Sometimes fashion goes for concrete images, sometimes abstract. People get used to things, to particular kinds of looks or covers, and they get bored. So it always changes and evolves.

On the other hand, following the crowd and the fashion too slavishly may give you a book that looks exactly like everyone else’s. That can be good, it can be what people want. But it also means that there’s nothing unique or distinctive that would attract attention.

It’s a judgment call. Personally, sometimes I want to swim against the current. It may be worthwhile to look for a way to make your book different to stand out – sometimes in subtle ways, choice of font, shading the color scheme. Sometimes in radical ways, wildly divergent color scheme, everyone else does dark and gray, and you do bright and yellow.


If you have your own artwork, your own personally taken photographs or personally made drawings and paintings, then feel free to use them. You own those rights.

If you’re using someone else’s image, or someone else’s pictures, paintings or drawings, then that’s someone else’s intellectual property, and you need to get permission. Or you risk trouble down the road. If you know them, or can contact them, then ask, and if they give permission, get it in writing.

There are a lot of artists out there. You can commission someone to do art for you. Get it in writing, at a minimum, have an exchange of letters or emails. Or better yet, a contract.

There is a lot of stuff on the internet. Some of it is public domain, or accessible through creative commons and you can use it freely. A lot of it is not. Check carefully.

A major internet resource are places like Alamy or Adobe stock, which are reservoirs of ‘free images’ – sign up, pay a fee, and you get a huge pile of accessible images that you can search through. A lot of covers are generated that way.

Avoid AI artwork – there’s a huge backlash going on against that in the creative community, and you don’t want any part of that.


Ultimately, its your book, and your book cover. You need to be happy with it. Give it some thought. Give it a lot of thought.

Remember that what’s in your head may not be workable on a page – sketch it out. Rectangles where the title should be, make stick figures for the elements, experiment. It’s usually a bad idea to try and capture a scene from the book – that often requires context, and a good scene may not have that visual drama. Try for the flavor of the book, the strongest characters or situations, the relationships or the driving force, the symbol at the center.

If you have an artist, you have my pity. Writers and artists, I’ve discovered, think about things in fundamentally different ways, it can be hard to communicate. I’ve told artists exactly what I wanted, and they went and did something different. It can be frustrating. But make the effort to communicate, and whatever you do, keep communicating. Don’t just say ‘I want this’ and stop there, allow for dialogue. Be honest, if you hate where they’re going with something, say so. But keep an open mind, allow them the chance to express ideas.

It can be rewarding and risky, both my worst and my absolute best covers came from artists going off the leash and doing things I hadn’t even imagined.

For the best ones, I just fell in love with the covers immediately, even though they were the furthest from my mines, and they re-shaped the characters in my head. That’s a pleasure.