Ten tips for planning your book cover

By   Hannah Bickerton 4 min read

Editorial Director Julia Koppitz has nearly fifteen years of editorial experience across a range of narrative and illustrated publishing. Previously at HarperCollins, she worked on an eclectic collection of books by authors including, among others, Sir David Attenborough, Prof Brian Cox, Ben Fogle, Robert Macfarlane, Peter Godfrey-Smith and Alastair Humphreys, and she helped publish the prestigious New Naturalist Library, an influential natural history series with over 130 volumes published in over seventy years by William Collins.

The old adage holds true – most of us judge books by their cover, whether consciously or not – so it’s worth taking the time to think about how to get a great cover design to give your book the best possible chance of success. It’s a daunting task given how subjective book covers are: how we react to a cover design heavily influences what we think about the book’s content, whether we have read it or not.

Book cover designers are a special kind of designer with a very particular skillset: aside from being exceptionally creative, they also understand how readers respond to layout and typography and will be aware of genre expectations and other factors that need to be taken into consideration.

A cover has to communicate the book’s genre, style and content at a glance. Good cover designers will know how to communicate the right message with your cover, and they will work closely with you to bring the various elements together to create the most effective design (within a relatively confined space).

Putting the right brief together is crucial, so before you start the briefing process, here are some useful tips to help get you on your way …

 1. Set the scene and give some context. Are you a first-time writer? An established brand? Is this a tricky follow-up to a major bestseller (the dreaded second album/book/film)? Part of a series?

2. Summarise the book in a compelling way. Think about how you might describe your book to someone in a pub – in five words and then in three sentences. Think about themes – what is it about? What’s the basic plot? What’s the significance of the title? There is no shame in being reductive. You want to break it down for the designer so that they can get a sense of what they are dealing with and run with it.

3. Core target audience. Who do you imagine will be reading (and buying) your book? Of course you want everyone to read your book, but if there were one group you had to pinpoint, what would be the determining factors of that group? Think about gender, age and demographic … but go even further, and think about what kind of people they are, and what else they are interested in (TV shows; films; music; preferred social media platform).

4. Competitors… and reason to believe. What’s better about your book? What other similar books are out there, and what are you up against in terms of capturing the attention of your audience? What are competing titles doing with design and how is your book better? What’s your competitive edge?

5. Key strategic issue. What is the biggest thing to take into consideration? What do you need to get right? Is it a sensitive subject? Are you trying to launch a series? Is the main objective to make it feel like it’s part of a very specific genre or is the aim to play with readers’ expectations?

6. Communication objective. This is almost the most important part of the entire brief. You’re not asking for a visual, you are asking for a goal. What do you want to say and convey? Are you trying to communicate an emotion? A person? An idea? An activity?

7. Tone of voice. Here you are guiding the interpretation of the communication objective. Which words would you use to describe the tone and mood of your book, and what needs to be conveyed on the cover? Do you want it to be haunting and dreamlike? Urgent and chilling? Fun but not childish? The nuances can be subtle but important, particularly within genres (eg within crime/thriller).

8. Desired response. What do you want readers to say when they see your cover? How do you want them to react? This could be anything from ‘This looks intriguing’ to ‘This looks a bit like X, I wonder if it’s similar/by the same author?’

9. Mandatory inclusions. Don’t forget about the practicalities – remember to provide all of the information that MUST be included on your cover and think about what the hierarchy needs to be. Title; author name; strapline; quote; imprint logo; branding device if applicable. Given the limited space, making the most of each element will have an impact on the overall look and feel of your cover design. You will also need to take size into consideration – nowadays a cover design has to work in the size of a postage stamp given the majority of books are bought online.

10. Thought starters. Your opportunity to put forward ideas. These can help spark ideas and can be anything from another book cover, a music album or a film with a particular mood or significance, down to a crisp packet or any other product you feel visually inspired by or that you think captures perfectly what your book jacket should express or look like.

Hard as it may be to come to terms with, other people’s opinion of your cover matters far more than yours. Book cover design is explicitly commercial, so be aware of this at all times. You can (and should) give your designer specific thought starters for inspiration, but ultimately you need to allow them to make the creative decisions. They will come up with ideas that might not have occurred to you, and who knows? They might just end up creating the perfect cover for your book.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.