How to create a brilliant nonfiction book cover: tutorial

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Oh, yes, you should, because potential readers will. Especially when your book is going to be sold online.

article about how to design good book covers

Janis, The Body and Me book covers: with my sincere thanks to Simon & Schuster for the loan of this brilliant image.

A book’s cover has two jobs to do apart from the obvious one of sharing its title, tagline and author’s name: one, to indicate the book’s ‘genre,’ and two, to show that the book has been professionally designed and produced. Here’s a swift tutorial – both for self-publishing authors and their (hitherto uninitiated) graphic designers…

Is yours going to be a self-published business or self-help book?

If you have strong branding for your business or service, this can and should be worked into the nonfiction book’s cover design to maintain your brand homogeneity. Next, or often at around the same time, you will need to brief your assisted self-publishing service on what ideas you have in mind for the book’s cover – if you have any. If you don’t, then their designers will come up with some rough concepts.

In some cases, the publisher’s cover designers will work with the designers of your marketing communications material to ensure every- thing blends properly. However be warned; much as your marketing designers may be good, they usually don’t understand the peculiarities of book cover design and are not normally a good choice to work on yours. There are several elements of a book cover design that are unique to books, including the size, integration with the spine and back cover, and various other peculiarities (see below).

Important tip: because marketing begins at conception, not birth, and your book’s cover design is a very important part of its marketing mix, you need to get its design on the road as soon as possible – not when you have finished writing the book.

If you’re working with a traditional publisher they will dictate the cover design although you will be allowed to comment on it. As your book may well be stocked on the shelves of bricks-and-mortar bookshops, you may find that the main title of your book is in the top third or top half of the front cover. This is an old but still relevant requirement – simply so that when the book is in a rack in the store, the title can be seen above the structure of the shelf!

This is all fine and dandy but nowadays the majority of nonfiction – and especially business and self-help books – are bought online. Here we don’t stack books on shelves so we don’t need to worry at what height the title is.

However we do need to worry about what happens to the cover design when it’s shrunk down to a thumbnail or smaller shape on Amazon and other online booksellers’ pages. The most elaborate and beautiful cover design with a discreet, romantic-looking title may astound readers with its good taste and elegance at its full size.

But squash it down to the size of a large postage stamp and it can look like something your cat threw up, never mind the fact that you can’t see any words. And that’s another reason why, if you’re working with A.N. Other assisted self-publisher, you need to check out their previous publications very carefully. Shrink them down to mini-me size. Do their designs still work?

Key criteria to consider when designing a book cover

With fiction, you will usually find that each genre has its own unwritten rules about style and content, and readers expect books of a particular genre to adhere to the overall rules.

With nonfiction, cover design is not so pedantic, but even so the overall style of it should be appropriate for the subject matter. To get some ideas, browse through books similar to yours on Amazon and other online retail sites, to get a feel for their style and approach.

What size? If you’re self-publishing you’ll need to make a decision on what overall size your book will be. Various of the online print-on-demand (POD) platforms will only offer certain sizes but whichever you choose is an obvious starting point for whoever is going to design the cover.

Other media: if your book is going into eBook format as well as print one design should work for both, as both are “portrait” or upright in shape. However if you plan to make yours into an audiobook either now or later, you may want to tell the designers to create a layout that will convert easily to the square shape of an audiobook “cover” that will be displayed on online retail sites.

Important tip: your book cover shouldn’t really be seen as a single entity: it comprises six key components which each deserve attention.

 Main elements of a book’s cover

***Front cover text
***Front cover illustration
***Front cover layout
***Back cover “blurb”
***Back cover components

Front cover text: comprises the book’s title and tagline, the author’s name, and any truly outstanding endorsement, e.g. a few words attributed to a very famous person – especially if they have written the foreword … reference to an earlier success of the author’s … or similar. Be very careful not to include too much to be read when the image of the front cover is shrunk down to a small size. You may lose some of the less important text but it’s essential that people can read the title and the author’s name at the very least.

Front cover illustration: some books work well with typography only but more usually you’ll want a strong, simple image to go with the words. With business and self-help books, particularly, you shouldn’t be attracted to dark, swirling, moody, complicated illustrations because they suggest complexity. Assuming your book is about clarity, help and problem solving, keep those criteria in mind when putting your cover illustration together. Include a strong recap of your marketing branding; a good (professionally shot, high resolution) photo of yourself; a simple cartoon or other drawing; a powerful photo representing your topic; all of these work with your title to get over the fact that you and your book are there to make a very valuable contribution to readers’ lives. Keep everything light, bright and positive.

Front cover layout: as I mentioned above we no longer have to worry so much about how nonfiction books are stacked on shelves any more so keeping the title in the top third of the front cover is not as vital as it was in the past. However that’s not a bad place for it anyway. People have come to expect it to go in the order of title on top, illustration in the middle, tagline above or below or beside the illustration and the author’s name in bold at the bottom. Because potential readers are likely to be attracted to the familiar, it’s probably not worth deviating too far from the traditional formulae. Unless your book is unusual and quirky in nature anyway … in which case the quirkiness becomes a key part of the marketing mix!

Back cover “blurb:” I’ve always hated that word because it’s so condescending and throwaway, especially considering how important a piece of “blurb” is in the promotion of your book. (Don’t forget that Amazon and other online book retailers show the back cover of your book AND the front, so the back text is very important – especially as it can also be used as the introductory text to the book on its Amazon and other pages on online retailers’ sites.) This is the next thing people will look at after being attracted by the title and the tagline, and you have about 5 seconds to grab their attention and keep it. With business and self-help titles, by the time the reader gets to the second sentence of the blurb they already need to know what they’re going to get from reading this book. With other nonfiction (like memoirs and biographies) readers will still want to know what they’re going to get from this book that they wouldn’t elsewhere: the vibrancy of the Yorkshire Dales as no-one ever has described them before…the first ever insight into Lionel Blogg’s mind that shows just how advanced he was in his thinking … etc. Every sentence thereafter needs to reinforce that. The back cover blurb also can say a few words about you and why you are so perfectly well qualified to write the book and share your wisdom, but remember: it’s not about you. Traditional publishers usually write this for you, but nowadays when they have even less time/money to invest in their books, they may well ask you to have a go at it first.

Back cover components: this consists of the back office work for the book and it needs a good, experienced cover designer to know how to make the elements look anything other than ugly. These comprise:
***The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) with accompanying barcode
***A Quick Response code (QR code) (sometimes)
***The book’s recommended retail price (RRP – see below)
***The publisher’s logo and/or your own logo
***The publisher’s Uniform Resource Locator (URL) or your URL
***Credits for cover illustration/design/photography (sometimes)

Spine: this gives inexperienced designers headaches because its width can’t be finalised until the book has been edited, interior-designed and formatted. That’s simply because you don’t know the exact number of pages you’re dealing with until that point. Because of its restricted parking space the text will usually be the title with, perhaps, the tagline – or a mash-up of the two depending on space. Then there will be your name, the publisher’s name and/or logo, and/or your logo.

There are further (small) issues that you need to think about when determining the cover of your book, but those are easy to handle with some help from friendly neighbourhood advisors (like me, for example!)

Smartphone photos just do not work

The key issue you must be sure about is the quality of any photography you use. This can make the difference between a sharp, clear image on your book cover and something that looks crappy – and as such makes your whole book look crappy, too.

If you want images to be reproduced sharply and effectively on your book’s cover, any photos involved need to be of high resolution – which means done by a professional photographer or someone who has the skill and equipment to match that. This is not the place to go into further detail about the technicalities of photography but trust me: use a professional, or an amateur who is good enough to go professional. I have had too many experiences of clients submitting photos shot by “my sister who has just bought an expensive camera and knows a lot about etc. etc.” …and the bottom line is her shots are crap for one reason or another and usually through no fault of her own. But that must not become your book’s problem. Take my word for it and shell out for a professional job.

So how do you research for your right cover design concept?

Whether you’re a self-publishing author or an independent publisher, you need information about what your target audience wants so you can make sound, data-driven business decisions. Before you start on cover design, research 20 to 50 books in your genre, dissecting each cover into parts. Note the front cover, back cover, spine, layout, picture, fonts, and other elements of each cover. Make quick notes on each cover. Which made you want to read them? Look for themes shared by the covers that attract you most.

And then search for the designer whose expertise most closely matches what you want!

Any questions? Please drop them into the comments below.

Adapted from Suzan’s forthcoming title, “How To Write A Brilliant Nonfiction Book,” to be published later in 2020 by BetterBooksMedia.