Why judging a book by its cover matters: the importance of professional book cover design for independent authors

By   Hannah Bickerton 13 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Book cover design goes far beyond just creating an attractive visual image to go alongside the title. The cover is often a potential reader’s first point of contact with a book, and can ultimately make or break a book’s success in the highly competitive publishing industry. It serves as a marketing tool that conveys vital information about the book’s genre, tone, storyline and content. A quality cover should create intrigue, generate interest and entice readers to find out more about the book. It sets the tone for the reading experience and will provoke an emotional reaction from and connection with the reader, making it a crucial aspect of the book publishing process that shouldn’t be overlooked. This is especially true for independent authors who don’t have the backing of a big traditional publishing house, so must take every opportunity to stand out against the competition and really make an impact on readers.

In recent years, book covers have garnered even greater importance in the publishing industry for a multitude of reasons. The rise of social media and visual culture is one of the key drivers behind the stronger emphasis on cover design, with platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest becoming influential channels for book promotion and discovery. These platforms thrive on visually aesthetic content, and eye-catching book covers have the potential to go viral, generating buzz and attracting a large audience. Just look at the attention R.F. Kuang’s latest novel Yellowface (Borough Press) has received – it’s hard to go anywhere, on- or offline, and not see the iconic bright yellow cover and illustrated eyes. The title isn’t even needed to know which book it is at this point in the campaign! Book covers have become key assets in an author’s marketing arsenal, so it’s important to have a really imaginative cover design to work with when creating shareable content and further assets to promote your book.

Why is it worth investing in a professional book cover design?

As an independent author, it’s tempting to think you might be able to cut a few corners by asking your graphic design-inclined friend to whip up a cover design for mates rates. But we can’t stress enough how vital it is to work with a professional who specialises in book cover design and understands the market. Here are a few reasons why it’s worth investing in this aspect of the publishing process:

Stand out from the crowd: The average number of new titles published annually is 4 million – an estimate of between 500,000 to 1 million of these new titles published through traditional publishers, and at least 1.7 million self-published titles. In a market flooded with so much competition, independent authors need to do all they can to grab the attention of potential readers. A professionally designed book cover that is visually appealing, unique, striking and aligned with the genre and theme of the book will instantly help to attract readers amidst the sea of competitors. You want your book cover to be memorable and stand out on both bookshop shelves and retailer websites.

Build credibility and convey professionalism: As an independent author, establishing credibility is crucial. A polished, professional book cover design sends a clear message to readers that your book is of high quality and worth their time. Self-publishing still has quite a bit of stigma attached to it, so a well-executed and impactful cover will help potential readers to overcome any preconceived notions and can make them more inclined to take a chance on an independent author’s work. The author’s clear display of attention to detail will also prove that books published independently can be of the same quality as those produced by traditional publishers. At the end of the day, most readers won’t know a lot about publishing houses and imprints or be able to ascertain if something has been self-published – it’s all about the quality.

Target the right audience: All books have a specific target audience they need to appeal to – a professional cover design can help attract that key audience and portray a book’s message effectively before consumers even read the blurb. Through the clever use of colours, imagery and typography, a cover can intrigue directly readers who are most likely to be interested in the book’s content and signal to them that this book is exactly what they’ve been looking for. Different genres have certain aesthetic design rules and conventions that readers have come to expect, with covers acting as visual cues that signal the genre, tone and style of the book. Professional designers will be aware of the genre-specific design trends and adhere to them while adding unique elements to make the book stand out, while effectively capturing its essence and mood and communicating with the target audience to improve the likelihood of attracting readers who enjoy the book’s genre and with an interest in its themes.

Marketing and branding: Independent authors will often handle their own marketing effort. An impactful book cover can serve as a powerful marketing tool to be used across multiple platforms, such as websites, promotional materials and social media, to create a consistent, memorable and recognisable brand. A distinctive and intriguing cover can help to generate buzz, attract new readers and foster a loyal fan base. It can even be developed as a symbol associated with the author and their work, making it easier for readers to identify and remember their books in the future. Take the cover designs for the works of Kazuo Ishiguro, Elena Ferrante, Mieko Kawakami and Jennifer Saint as examples – all are easily identifiable as associated with the authors.

Book covers in translation: Publishing is a global industry and many successful books will be translated into multiple different languages. International book editions will need a cover with a universal appeal that takes into account readers from diverse cultural backgrounds. Localisation and culturally sensitive design choices have become essential to reach broader audiences around the world. However, cover designs will often be adapted to appeal to foreign markets. You can read more about this in an article published on our blog in 2021.

What makes a great book cover?

Like anything creative or visual, what makes an appealing book cover design is subjective. But ultimately, a great book cover will have the following qualities:

Visually pleasing: A cover that immediately catches the reader’s eye and makes them want to pick up the book or click on it online. It will be bold, striking and often vibrant, with a well-balanced composition to make it stand out amongst others. The use of compelling imagery and/or illustrations will add depth and meaning, while still being relevant to the book’s story and resonating with the target audience.

Genre and tone representation: As highlighted in the section above, a cover should accurately reflect the book’s genre, tone and essence. Whether it’s a true crime thriller, YA romance or feminist mythology retelling, the design should give potential readers an idea of what to expect from the content. For example, the captivating cover design for The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern reflects the enchanting fantasy world of this novel, transporting readers into the magical atmosphere of the circus – the use of black white and red with intricate line art creates a sense of wonder and intrigue that invites readers to step into a realm of mystery and illusion. One version of the book cover design for Tara Westover’s Educated features a photograph of her as a young girl sitting on a swing looking directly at the camera, clearly depicting that this book is a memoir and that the central narrative will likely express the personal experiences and life story of the author.

Attention to detail: A professional book cover should have no mistakes or errors, paying close and careful attention to minor details that will ultimately contribute to the polished look of the finished product and overall sense of professionalism. Aspects like typography and composition are incredibly important – the title and author’s name should be easy to read and strategically placed, with the font choice matching the book’s genre and tone and the arrangement of visuals drawing the eye smoothly across the cover and avoiding clutter.

Cover consistency: If a book is part of a series then the cover design should most definitely maintain consistency across the volumes, creating a recognisable brand image for the author and making it easier for readers to identify related works. The Hunger Games series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Series of Unfortunate Events and Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths series are just a few great examples of book series with consistent and visually impactful cover designs.

Consider format: In the age of digital publishing, a successful book cover design must translate well to various digital formats and devices, while remaining visually appealing and engaging regardless of the platform or screen size. Whether it’s an audiobook or ebook cover, a professional designer will be able to adapt for the specifications of these formats.

Evoke emotion: A unique, aesthetic and well-executed book cover design should elicit an emotional response from viewers, especially those in the book’s ideal demographic. It should resonate with readers, pique their curiosity and provide them with a preview of the emotions they will experience while reading the content of the book. Really understanding your target audience, their tastes, interests, preferences and expectations, will be key in creating an effective design that sparks such a response.

Timelessness: Trends come and go, but a good book cover design will achieve a timeless quality that remains relevant and captivating for years to come. While there have been many iterations of classic literary works like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, there is usually one particularly iconic cover design that we will always associate with the it – the pair of eyes hovering over a cityscape with a single tear falling from one eye, representing an important symbol in the novel and a powerful metaphor for fate, lost dreams and moral decay as the consequences of the characters’ actions. The cover’s simple yet elegant design captures the essence of the novel’s themes without overwhelming the viewer, and the limited colour palette and clean lines add a timeless and sophisticated quality. This is a design that has stood the test of time, its enduring appeal a testament to its effectiveness in capturing the spirit of the novel.

Popular book cover design trends and the dangers of AI 

Design trends differ depending on a book’s genre and themes; some will stand the test of time while others will fade into irrelevance. Here are some trends you may have spotted recently:

Abstract blends: These covers will often be vivid and bright, overlapping different hues, colours and textures to give a sense of aesthetic chaos, randomness and illusion. This trend is usually applied to fiction written by women with a literary sensibility while still appealing to a wide enough audience to contend for the bestseller list. For example, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid and Little Gods by Meng Jin, the list goes on. The vibrant, swirling patterns will often incorporate figures emerging from the design, suggesting personal transformation and multiple perspectives or interpretations.

Complex, ornate patterns: Detailed and intricate elements, often illustrated, will cover the entirety of the book design, including a range of patterns, symbols and objects that are harmoniously intertwined. The typography will mirror the complex composition, most likely serif fonts with curls. This trend is often found in the fantasy, thriller and mystery genres, for example, Heather Fawcett’s Emily Wilde’s Encyclopedia of Fairies, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, Shannon Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and Madeline Miller’s Circe.

Busy backgrounds & big typography: In a similar vein to the above, but with much more focus on the typography – often large letters in block capitals stretching across the cover. The background will be less intricate and more busy, almost overwhelming, with bold, captivating images of maybe foliage and animals. Sometimes the text will be obscured by part of the image so it looks fully immersed within the design’s setting. For example, When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill and The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (designed by Emma Ewbank – you can read her Q&A with us here). They’re certainly eye-catching and leave a lasting impression, offering readers the chance to escape into another world, into the wild and unrestrained.

Colourful vector illustrations: A very popular style in the romance and cosy mystery genres, simple vector drawings will often depict the attractive main characters of the novel and evoke emotions central to the plot. This is a trend that has arisen from a strategy to bring romance to more mainstream readers, with light-hearted, steamy stories that focus on dating across racial, cultural and ability lines. For example, Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna, The House Swap by Jo Lovett, What the Hex by Jessica Clare and Book Lovers by Emily Henry, to name just a few.

Floral and botanical motifs: This is by no means a new trend, even if the ways in which it is used might appear slightly more modern and mystical, such as the obscuring of facial features like on the cover of Heather Darwent’s The Things We Do To Our Friends and Gabriella Burnham’s It Is Wood, It Is Stone. Flowers are powerful symbols with connotations of beauty and fragility, of blossoming and wilting. The continuous rise in the popularity of botanical themed covers is most likely emotionally driven, connecting to ideas of the natural world, of the spring season – rejuvenation and rebirth – and also the importance of nurturing ourselves, something we have all come to appreciate far more in this post-pandemic world. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is a dazzling example, a story full of lucid observations under the magnifying glass of an unnamed woman’s mind. Some more examples include Michelle Pugle’s poetry collection Space To Grow, Georgie Hall’s witty novel Women of a Certain Rage, Espic MCpherson’s herbal guide Grow Your Own and Emily Maguire’s deeply insightful and unapologetic novel Love Objects.

Collage, cracks & ripped pages: The visual effect of torn cover, rough textures and busy collages can be really eye-catching and transgressive. It offers a sense of depth and encourages readers to look below the surface, beyond the page, to find hidden meanings and truth. It works in stark contrast to the minimalism trend, and instead shows something raw and real, bad or beautiful. For example, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, You Belong To Me by Colin Harrison, The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara and Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor.

AI-generated: This is currently a very controversial trend, mainly due to copyright infringements, the loss of work opportunities for designers and the unoriginality of it all. You only have to look up Sarah J. Maas and Christopher Paolini’s AI-related scandals to see the type of outrage it has sparked amongst industry professionals and readers alike. This is a whole separate blog article in itself, but it’s important to note for independent authors that they shouldn’t rely on artificial intelligence to create the cover of their book. If anything, AI isn’t really a trend or a replacement for talented artists and designers with years of experience in the industry and expert insights on book markets – it’s a tool. Designer Micaela Alcaino has written an incredible LinkedIn article on this very topic, exploring how these new tools can be utilised in a healthy way – you can read the full piece here.

Although we all might be inclined to say that we don’t judge a book by its cover, in a digital and image-obsessed modern world, it’s quite natural that we do. Quality and aesthetics matter with the level of competition in bookshops and online; you want to make sure that your book stands out to the right audience and captures their attention and imagination before they’ve read a single line. And this is possible for indie authors too, with the right expert advice and professionals behind them.

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.