The Secret to a Good Book Cover

What with the news last week about Simon & Schuster’s new plan to fleece self-published authors, I have been thinking more and more about how authors can publish their own works and do a better job than a legacy publisher.

I’ve heard from a number of authors who say that you can publish an ebook for a little as $400 (or even less), and while I wouldn’t go that low I have come to the conclusion this past week that when it comes to producing a good quality ebook money is one of the less important determining factors .

The secret to self-publishing isn’t the amount of money you spend; it’s the care and thought you put into the effort.

I suppose that might be obvious to some, but I only learned the lesson after I started looking at book covers which authors had had made and compared them to covers created for legacy publishers.

There’s a not insignificant number of authors who have gotten their rights back from legacy publishers. Many of these authors have then turned around and re-released their books as ebooks. What’s especially interesting about this is that these authors sometimes used the same cover designers that were hired by the legacy publishers.

But not all are using the same designers, which is another secret to a good book cover. There are many cover artists who do good work and can produce a basic cover image, one which can in fact be better than a cover produce for a legacy publisher.

Take the following book, for example. This book was originally published by Pocket Books and after the rights reverted the author then republished it. Two of the covers were paid for by the author and one of the covers is from Pocket. Take a moment to look at the images, and guess which is the original cover.


There is also another cover which shows the main character in leather pants, but the author isn’t using it because that one detail screams paranormal romance.

This book is supernatural action set in the modern era with current tech. Which cover gives you the best hints about the genre?

I would go for the cover on the far right. Between the blue accent color, font, and gun I have a pretty good idea what this book is about. The middle cover wins out over the cover on the left because the font and sword at least points in the right direction.

The cover on the left is the one which was put on the book by Pocket. It does offer some of the same hints as the other covers, but it loses a point for the generic font and another point for the sword and shield which you can’t quite make out as a thumbnail. And yes, in this day and age the thumbnail image is important; that’s what we see first when shopping online (both paper and digital).

I have a couple other examples, but due to the length of this post I will draw a conclusion here rather than proving my point again and again.

One, Rarely will an author find a publisher who cares about the book and understands the book as much as the author. This give the author the advantage when designing important elements like the book cover.

Two, Mr. Nassise has told me that the covers he paid for did not cost an exorbitant sum. His costs were under a hundred dollars each, but he got a deal which you might not be able to match. The important detail is that he worked with each cover artist. He gave the artists specific feedback on rough draft of the covers and helped make them better.

Three, If you are looking for a cover artist, ask other authors (Twitter would be good for this) or you can get a list of specialists from Smashwords: [email protected].

More Examples

The original cover is the one on the left. I don’t know about you but I have no fricking clue what the book is supposed to be about.

Update: I goofed. It turns out that the newest cover is the one on the right. Both of the other 2 came from traditional publishers.


For these next books, the cover on the right was paid for by the author after the rights reverted. The other 2 covers are from the US and UK publishers.


Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Ezekiel Carsella3 December, 2012

    great great information. also want to add. for all the NaNoWrimo people they have the NaNo Artisans who are very generous in making excellent covers.

  2. The Ogre3 December, 2012

    For “Thin Walls”, the name and image on the left imply overheard secrets/crimes. Second one is just some guy behind a chain link fence, saying nothing about what the plot might be. (never heard of the book, so no idea what it IS actually about) First cover also looks better – second is just too busy and even manages to obscure the author’s first name a bit, which is never good.

    For “The Fey”, none of the covers look particularly good. Image is too low-rez to tell anything about the appropriateness of the third cover, other than it’s a person on the deck of a small ship, and that it has the best artwork of the three. The first two are meh, but at least make it obvious that the story’s about elves, though the title already tells you that…

    1. The Ogre3 December, 2012

      Oh, and the first two also look like they were from the 60s-70s (despite, as a quick Wikipedia check shows, being from 1995). Definitely retro… 🙂

    2. Nate Hoffelder3 December, 2012

      I couldn’t get any detail from the first Thin walls cover, but the second one clearly suggested that this was a detective novel. That’s why I think it is better.

      Just a second while I go see if I can replace the last set of covers.

      Edit: Done.

      It’s interesting that you saw a subtext in the Thin Walls cover which the author and I missed. She hated it, and I immediately understood the second one. Perhaps we should have run it by more people.

      1. The Ogre3 December, 2012

        Well, the left “Thin Walls” cover looks like a whispering face, implying something not meant to be overheard – so a secret (most likely) or a crime – with the title implying that it *has* been (accidentally) heard. (so, being a mystery, I’d further assume it was a witness hunt story – either to get the information or protect them)

        As for a detective. Hmm. I guess that’s what it looks like on the right, going by the hat. Didn’t really notice the “A Smokey Dalton novel” on either of them.

  3. the rodent3 December, 2012

    This strikes a nerve. 🙂 Back in the day, I used a rip-off vanity outfit (cough Xlibris) and got 2 awful covers that I despised. When I re-published the books via POD under my own imprint, I hired artists by approaching people whose work I like. My first rule of cover art is: only work with an artist who will read the book before doing the cover art. Hah, sometimes it’s harder to find someone who will actually read the book and collaborate than it is to find a competent artist. Example:

  4. Robert Nagle3 December, 2012

    FYI: Joel Friedlander started a contest for the best ebook cover of the month. It’s a great column because I get to see what other artists are doing and what their names are.

    Although covers are less important for the buyer, they are useful for facebook, ads and announcements. Ebook covers must contain less text on it than print covers, which impose constraints on what the artist can do with typography.

    1. KarlB4 December, 2012

      What’s also interesting about Joel Friedlander’s monthly cover contest is that may of the entries were created by the authors, and many of those are darned good.

      Cover design is a learnable skill, as is editing, as is ebook formatting. IMO all of these are fairly easy to learn to an adequate level of competency. The one skill that I’m not so confident that most anyone can learn is the skill that’s most important of all for self-publishing authors: writing.

      1. LG4 December, 2012

        A pro cover generally has three people handling it: an artist, a designer, and an art director. There’s a reason for that; many different skills are involved in producing an effective marketing image. While there are definitely folks who own all of these talents and can work alone quite effectively, it’s insulting to imply that this is a lesser or easier to absorb skill set than writing. Seriously. And this claim is *not at all* born out by 99.9% of author-designed covers either, whatever your own subjective read.

        1. KarlB5 December, 2012

          Sorry, but I’ve seen too many “pro” covers that are awful, bad, misguided, worthless or just unremarkable to share your belief that they were created by magical beings with magical powers that none of us mere mortals can acquire.

          And BTW, “whatever your own subjective read” may be, I’m right and you’re wrong. (Argument by fiat — anyone can do it!)

  5. TLE3 December, 2012

    I don’t know. I really like the first Heretic cover, with the big letters and the blue, so much better than the other two, where the title and author name are both hard to read. The middle cover makes me think historical novel, although the one on the right is at least more modern.

    I also agree that the first Thin Walls cover looks better to me. The middle one does not make it easy to read the author name or title and the one on the right gives me no hints to the book type at all when I look at it.

    The last set though, I like the author’s cover much better.

    I think a book cover’s appeal is much more subjective than most people want to admit.

  6. Steve Wheeler3 December, 2012

    Hi, Mark Coker at offers a free list of ebook cover makers. The lady I use is excellent.

  7. Kevin4 December, 2012

    Hmm interesting. Though I do remember a story about an editor being asked “What is a good book cover?” and replying “Any cover, so long as it is the cover of a good book.”

  8. Richard Adin4 December, 2012

    Too many authors, I think, do not understand the heirarchy of importance of production elements of a book. Of course, the most important element by far is a well-characterized, well-written, well-plotted story, but those are discoveries that a reader makes after the purchase.

    I have always advised authors that the heirarchy for selling one’s book that they should keep in mind is, in order of dominance, cover art, copyediting, developmental editing. I know that many believe the cover art is the least important of the three, but it really isn’t. The cover conveys several messages. First, it conveys subject matter. If a cover looks like a romance novel is inside, even if the content is the tale of an alien invasion by mutant beasts with little to no romance, many people will pass over the book because of the cover. If the cover looks very amateurish, many people will pass over the book assuming that the content is also very amateurish and will require too much effort to read, if it is even readable.

    The cover is the author’s first opportunity to evoke a reader’s interest in the book, and authors need to take advantage of that opportunity to interest a prospective reader.

    Copyediting is next because for a lot of readers, seeing homophone errors (their when there is meant; scene when seen is meant; you’re when your is meant; etc.), especially in the first pages, is a sign that the reader has to put a lot of effort into just figuring out what the author intends rather than enjoying the book. It also sends a message of a lack of caring.

    Developmental is third in the troika because although annoying, readers are much more tolerant of the kinds of errors that developmental editing is intended to address, such as scene repeats, than of the other errors.

    Of course, in the scheme of trying to create a “classic” book for sale, the troika reverses itself in terms of importance. Developmental editing, copyediting, and cover art should be addressed in that order.

  9. Mizzbee4 December, 2012

    Mr. Nate, when I was in graduate school (History major), one of my professors would have the class look at the cover of the textbook. He then, asked us what did the cover say about what the author wanted to explore or tell the reader. He would ask us at the end of the semester if the cover had told a good story about the actual writing or not. We had some very lively discussions about how well the cover had informed the reader. Oh! and for those of us who appreciate a good looking man those covers on the romance books (Regency period especially), are worth the price of admission. Lord have mercy!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to top