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5 Critical Elements of Indie Book Cover Design 

"Five Critical Elements for Successful Indie Book Cover Design" by Jeffrey Abelson is a publishing guide on procuring the best cover possible for your indie book.

5 Critical Elements of Indie Book Cover Design” 

by Jeffrey Abelson

What are the keys to book cover design?

Let’s get this out of the way first: professionally crafted book covers outsell homemade designs.

You may have a knack for this. You may have a good eye, a strong keyboard-clicking finger, and a limited budget. But if you want to sell more books, there’s no better place to start than a professional book cover design. Your primary marketing tool is your book cover, so make sure it:

  • Grabs Eyeballs: Your book cover distinguishes your work from an endless stream of competitors.
  • Conveys Genre: Book buyers care less about reviews and recommendations than genre. If a buyer reads fantasy, they’re not looking for romance!  
  • Sells Your Brand: “Making the book cover identifiably yours marks your book in the reader’s mind. When you write that next book and the cover is similar, you’re building your author brand and your core readership.”

According to Reedsy, “it takes most authors six months to a year to write a book. A writer’s timeline depends on the genre of the novel, the word count of the story, the amount of research you do, and the time you spend editing the completed draft.”

Every writer and book is different. While Gone with the Wind cost Margaret Mitchell 10 years, Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight in three months!

While authors with a traditional publishing contract can concern themselves with simply turning in a finished manuscript, as a self-published author, you not only conceive, outline, write, edit and revise; you’re the creative director, marketer, and publicist.

Derek Murphy (writing for CreativIndie) claims that self-published authors “spend $2000 to $5000 to publish their books.” And while you can always do the work yourself and limit cash outlays for publishing and book cover design services, you may be hurting your chances for success.

Earning your living by writing books, particularly fiction, is highly competitive. Including self-published and commercially published, over 4 million new books were published in 2021.” According to Publishers Weekly, fiction represents about 11% of those 4 million, or a staggering 440,000 books including yours.

As an indie author, how do you distinguish your work and give yourself the best chance for optimum sales?

Assuming you’re not E.L. James, Paula Hawkins, Dan Brown, or another writer with a string of bestsellers and a distinguished author brand, you must rely upon a great book cover design to grab eyeballs and clicks.

Your book cover is your most important sales tool. Conventional wisdom (and market research) makes certain things very clear, among them being this: it’s the first thing anyone sees.

Whether you need a romance, mystery, YA or fantasy book cover (or ANY genre), a professional team of experienced book cover designers really is your best bet.

In a book cover experiment, the team at Reedsy ran competing book ads featuring covers created by self-published authors against identical ads featuring professionally redesigned covers. The professionally designed book covers:

  • Had a click-through rate that was 12.5–50% higher than their non-professional counterparts, across genres including YA fantasy, nonfiction, romance, and mystery/thriller.
  • The higher click-through rates indicated a 35% increase in a book’s marketability.

Before you get pursue book cover design

Make sure a developmental editor or beta readers have read your manuscript. You don’t necessarily need to get copy editing done before talking to a designer, but you should know your story well. Sometimes when you get big-picture feedback from betas or a developmental editor, you realize that your initial idea for the cover might have to be removed from the book completely.

Now it’s time to get a great cover, but before you do the folks at Scribe recommend you:

  1. Research the competition – Study book covers within and outside your genre, particularly recent and successful work. “Go to Amazon books and search in the category your book falls into. Search Pinterest for artsier titles if you’d like. If you want a classic, look to for the best, most avant-garde titles.”
  2. Bookmark the designs you love – When you’re ready to approach a designer, you can send links to your favorite covers and concepts that appeal to you. “Designers see the world visually, and the best way to get a point across to them is to show them.”
  3. Don’t limit yourself – Bookmark logos, ads, movie posters, websites, collect any visual design you can share with your graphics arts team. “You are essentially creating a collage (some people call this a mood board) of visual inspiration and ideas that can help your designer understand how to best get your book’s message across to your audience.”

5 Critical Elements of Book Cover Design  

Understanding the five critical elements of a winning book cover design creates a stronger partnership between you and your graphics art team. These elements include:

  • Composition: The artistic and harmonic arrangement and relationship between typography, images and colors  to create “symmetry, proportion, and rhythm.”
  • Genre: Utilizing specific design conventions to communicate genre, i.e., dragons, swords, serif types and decorative borders to convey fantasy.
  • Tone: “The suitable visual code to convey a certain genre of the book.”
  • Visual impact: The successful use of design elements to grab attention and “to trigger an impulsive and emotional response.”   
  • Clarity: Simply, accurately, and consistently communicating an intended message. That means indicating genre and an implied narrative.

Case Study

“For the cover, the author wanted to avoid a cliched depiction of a boxer. Looking to the story for inspiration, our cover cooks based the concept on an excerpt from the book…

“The interplay between the title and the illustrated ring, along with the stark, unforgiving color palette of bright blue and red against pitch black, suits the dark humorous tone. Exuding literary fiction, the cover is completed with the brilliant red blood spilled on the canvas.”


Book cover design is a complex and rewarding art form. These designers have been putting in the work and have seen how and why certain designs sell. If you take anything from this, I want you to know that great book covers are essential if you want to find success with your indie book.

About the Author

Jeffrey Abelson is a New York-based writer and editor. Though writing and editing pay the bills, Jeff loves playing his guitar and photography and used to run a home photo studio out of Inwood, in northern Manhattan. He currently resides in Niskayuna, a small town in Schenectady, about 20 miles northwest of Albany.

Thank you for reading Jeffrey Abelson’s publishing guide “Five Critical Elements of Successful Indie Book Cover Design!” If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

1 comment on “5 Critical Elements of Indie Book Cover Design 

  1. Pingback: Do I Really Need to Get More Book Reviews? | IBR Book Marketing Series (Part 4) - Independent Book Review

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