Judge the Book by Its Cover: A Book Cover Design How-To

A couple of weeks ago, I was (virtually) introduced to graphic designer Annie Hurst, and I was immediately drooling over her artwork. I invited her here today to talk to us about a subject I haven’t delved into yet: book cover design. She choose To Kill a Mockingbird as her subject of choice, and I hope you enjoy these excellent tips for creating a book cover that sells.

I was taking a stroll through Barnes & Noble the other day and walked past three different copies of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. To my surprise, all three copies had a completely different book cover design, and all three copies made me feel differently about the book. The first intrigued me enough to pick it up and consider purchasing it, even though I already have an older copy at home. (Back me up on this, fellow book nerds!) The second intrigued me enough to pick it up, study it, and put it back down. And the third didn’t pique my interest at all; I walked right past it.

So what exactly about these three different designs caused a different reaction from me, even though it was the exact same story I’ve already read over and over again?


Make the viewer ask a question about your design. Leave a bit of uncertainty in your design; something that makes them go, “What’s that?” or “I wonder what she’s gasping about?” Now of course they probably aren’t going to verbalize these questions, but you want them thinking these things on a subconscious level. This will be the difference between them stopping and picking up your book or two-stepping it over the latest dystopian.

Check out the examples. #1 is incredibly ominous, while the rest fall flat. The first example leaves the biggest question: What’s going on here?


The design has to tie into your book title and story. You can have a really awesome design that has absolutely nothing to do with your story. I’m guilty of buying books solely because I thought the cover design was fantastic, only to discover that the design had nothing to do with the book. (At least, nothing I could connect.) I felt swindled and taken advantage of. Yes, I take book reading very personally.

Example #1 is also the most relevant. Sure, trees are relevant to birds and stuff, but the book really isn’t about the tree or the bird. Spoiler alert: It’s about the girl being exposed to the stupidity of racism.


It’s time to get creative. You already know how to paint a unique picture with words, so now it’s time to paint it with the image. Don’t do the large red text on a white background. Don’t do the giant picture of Hilary Clinton’s face. We’ve seen it a million times, and We. Are. Not. Impressed. Don’t do the design we’ve already seen, because you didn’t write a book we’ve already read. This is your story! Make it your design.

So which design is the most original? This could be up for debate, but my opinion is #1.


If I can’t figure out what the title of your book is as soon as I look at it, I’m not interested. Get to the point, and don’t make me work for it. You want to use good contrast (keep in mind our color-blind peeps!), text that’s large enough to be seen by your target audience (the larger the age, the larger the font), and a readable font that matches the vibe of your book.

The first example may not have the easiest font to read of the three, but it is without question the most interesting and will intrigue your viewers enough to read it.

Drawing or Photo?

Ultimately, this one’s up to you. With a drawing, the sky’s the limit. You can be as creative or simplistic or ornate as you desire. Each of these has its own list of pros and cons. A photo may be a bit more challenging, but not without its rewards. It’s hard to choose the right scenery or person, but when it’s done right, you’ll know it.

So these are just a few tips. At the end of the day, everybody is different. What makes me pick up a book is different from what will make Bob, Tom, or Larry pick up a book. There is no be-all end-all design process that will make your book design awesome or sell better. But that’s what makes design, well . . . design.

And that’s why you hire a professional artist to do it. Hire someone who will take the time to learn about your book, so they can give you the best possible design options to reflect the story you’re telling. That doesn’t always mean you need to hire a graphic designer (though in most cases, you will for at least the final submission to print). Branch out. Go talk to a painter, a photographer, or a graffiti artist; then a graphic designer. Interview them, and find the person with exactly the right set of skills to achieve the look you need.

Voila! Happy designing!

Annie Hurst began Off-Center Graphic Design in 2013. With nine years of professional graphic design experience, she loves designing everything from websites to baby shower invitations for small businesses and individuals. Different from the average designer, she Annie truly enjoys taking the time to understand her customers’ businesses and goals. She’s driven by her passion to help others succeed through marketing, because she believes good design can solve the issue of boring, seen-it-before branding. She hopes to help small businesses succeed through design, and individuals shine brighter in their endeavors! 

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Shayla Raquel Bio Photo.jpg

An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has edited over 300 books and has launched several Amazon bestsellers for her clients. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, The Rotting (in Shivers in the Night), and her novel-in-progress, The Suicide Tree. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel and Wednesday.