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The #1 lesson to learn about book cover design

I’ve written before about how I’ve bought books based on their cover (and sometimes not bought them), but I don’t know if I mentioned that I also design book covers under the moniker Rook Book Designs.

When I started writing, I had some Photoshop skills but needed more practice before I could turn the ideas in my head into covers (especially around typography — fonts, treatment and hierarchy). But let me tell you, not being able to create covers straight away was a good thing: if I’d had the necessary technical skills to create those covers, I might not have learned the most important lesson in cover design.

The purpose of a cover

This is the most important lesson I’ve learned — and often the hardest for people to grasp. Some people think the cover is a piece of art that tells the story or represents a scene in it.

If you think that, you’re wrong.

A cover is not art…it can be but that is not its primary purpose. That purpose is to be a marketing tool — a piece of collateral that stops a potential reader in their tracks, whether scrolling through books online or walking through a physical bookstore. Its goal is to get that reader to pick it up and read the blurb.

It should give the reader a sense of the story they’ll find inside but should not — let me repeat — should not depict a scene in your story. That means nothing to a potential reader.

“But my book is different”

That’s great. But no one is going to know that if they don’t buy it. There are a few ways people find new books, such as recommendations, mentions on podcasts or TV shows, or looking for things that are similar to what they know they like.

In the first couple of example, the cover has less of a hurdle to overcome — I’m already predisposed to read the book.

In the last example, I’m looking by slices of genre based on what I’ve read before – urban fantasy with witches or magical space opera with quirky female leads, whether I’m in a physical bookstore or online. And the covers that stop me are the ones that are similar to what I know I like…but different.

You might think you don’t judge a book by its cover, but when was the last time you bought a book by an unknown author that no one had recommended to you? What drew you to read the description?

Testing your book covers

So how do you check if your book cover serves its main purpose?

Screen grab a bunch of covers in your genre and throw yours into the mix. Does it look like it belongs? If not, go back to the drawing board.

If it does seem like it fits, make it greyscale — how does it look? Is the image still clear, the title still readable? The contrast of values plays a key part in how “readable” an image will be in those milliseconds you have to grab a potential reader’s attention.

While you’re at it, turn all those other covers greyscale and see if yours still stacks up. Remember that many people are buying books on their ereaders where colour doesn’t factor in.

And what stacks up today might not next year. It’s probably time for me to refresh my Bloodborne Pathogens to adapt to current market expectations.

Covers that make me pause

I’ve gathered a few covers that make me stop whenever I see them. The first two share an aethetic; I’d love to be able to do something similar one day.


It’s vibrant and evocative, and reminds me of the NASA travel posters I love so much. However, this isn’t quite fair because there are people who will buy Dune because it’s, well, Dune. Sorry, chances are your book is not in that situation.


Not only is this visually striking, but conveys clearly the story you’ll find in the associated pages.


Getting away from that aesthetic, here’s another science fiction cover that clearly conveys not only the umbrella genre but the type of scifi story this is.

Three Mages and a Margarita

Subjectively, I love this cover. I want to read a book with this main character. However, it also demonstrates a) what you can do with photomanipulation and b) how to convey that you story is similar to other books in the genre but also show its uniqueness.

My favourite design of my own

So far, in September 2021, my favourite design is the masquerade series, designed with YA fantasy in mind. Here’s one of them.

What about you? What covers make you stop to read the blurb? Have you bought a book based on its cover without even reading the blurb?

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