Book cover design: why strong images are crucial

What makes a book capture the reader’s attention at first glance?

  1. History?
  2. The author?
  3. The blurb?

While these choices can push a shopper to make a purchase, there is a fourth option that prevents the reader from mindlessly scrolling through a retailer’s search results: the book cover design.

There’s a reason art museums attract millions of people every year. We love stories and art, whether hanging on a museum wall or displayed on the cover of a book, invites us to peel back the layers and reveal what is hidden beneath.

A great cover is more than a genre-aligned image. While readers look for specific elements on a cover in their genre of choice, getting those elements right is just the starting point. Even those rules can be broken if you know what you’re doing.

book cover design - The Night Ocean by Paul La Fargebook cover design - The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

Here’s what you need to know about strong images in book cover design:

How do you design a book cover?

Great covers create a visceral response, something that connects with us on a deeper level and begs to be explored.

So, what does this look like in the design process? How can we create book covers that connect with potential readers and move them towards action (e.g. look at the back coverread an excerpt, buy the book)?

You will find unique book covers sprinkled throughout this article for your consideration. What’s your first impression? You tilt your head to the side and think, “Hmm?”

The best covers make us pause, if only for a brief moment, to consider:

  • “What does this cover mean?”
  • “Why did they use this image?”
  • “I wonder if the story is interesting.”
  • “I don’t like.”
  • “Oh!”

There’s more to a great book cover design than a beautiful image. As we talk about book cover design, we’ll explore the different ways covers can attract readers through images.

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The psychology behind eye-catching covers

To explore the psychology behind eye-catching book cover design, let’s reframe the way we look at book covers.

The books are our products author brands-the colors, design and associated features that differentiate us from other authors. Just like General Mills has cereal, McDonald’s has french fries, and Starbucks has coffee, authors have their books.

The products (books) we create will fall into one of three categories:

  • generic – nothing fancy, just the basics
  • imitations of other brands – cookie cutters with little differentiation from others.
  • a category of its own: it follows the rules or breaks them, but still stands out from the competition

So what drives a consumer to choose one brand over another (for the same price)? Probably the brand, what they see with their eyes. Word of mouth and exposure can play a role, but branding (first impressions) can trump both.

How we package our books matters if we want anyone to buy them. If it looks like everyone else’s or, even worse, is unprofessional, sales can suffer.

One of the reasons companies spend so much money getting the branding right is because they know consumers will judge the appearance of a product before considering purchasing. The amount of weight they place on a product’s appearance can vary, but it’s still an important consideration.


In the article, The psychology of color in book design,We’ve carefully examined some examples of book covers to show how color can influence buyers’ decisions.

From color psychology we learn that people have universal responses to color (e.g. red representing anger or love) or individual responses where we associate colors with something specific. An example would be feeling positive about pink because it reminds you of the cotton candy you ate at carnival with your best friend when you were 12, or having a negative response to pink because of that time you had a food poisoning and you drank an entire bottle of Pepto Bismol.

Second Emerald Intuition research,

Color is omnipresent and is a source of information. People make a decision within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with people or products. About 62-90% of the rating is based solely on colors. Therefore, a prudent use of colors can help not only to differentiate products from the competition, but also to influence moods and feelings – positively or negatively – and therefore the attitude towards certain products.

Universal and individual responses to color are the same whether you’re looking at a new pair of shoes or a redesign of your favorite mystery novel. Thinking carefully about how a customer might respond is the first step towards choosing the right color scheme.

book cover design - Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennellybook cover design - Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly


When we refer to the elements in a book cover design, we are talking about images. There are multiple types of images. They don’t all relate to what you see. divides images into five sense categories:

  • Visual: what we see
  • Auditory: what we hear
  • Tactile: what we touch
  • Gustatory: what we taste
  • Olfactory: what we smell

In book cover design we focus on the visual, but as with good writing, a great image can involve other senses in the overall impression.

For example, the right cookbook image on the cover can activate our sense of taste (gustatory). We can almost taste the juicy apples and buttery crust of a well-photographed apple pie.

Our sense of touch (tactile) can be activated with an image of a St. Bernard (warm, soft and slobbery) or a snake like the one on the cover below (cold, slippery, heavy, strong).

book cover design - A Nest of Snakes by Deborah Levisonbook cover design - A Nest of Snakes by Deborah Levison

The images for your book should be selected carefully, giving careful consideration to your audience and how you want them to feel.

Ask yourself these questions when selecting an image.

  1. What are some themes in my book that will work well visually?
  2. What colors (previous section) can I incorporate into the image for greater impact?
  3. When a reader looks at the cover of my book, how do I want them to feel?

Once you’ve selected an image, keep things simple. A single image is best, but if you use multiple images, make sure they are consistent and don’t confuse the reader.


Make your book cover design stand out with contrasting layers (complementary colors). Not sure what complementary colors are? A great place to start is a color wheel. Complementary colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel from each other. These colors stand out when placed together because they have the highest contrast.

book cover design - color wheelbook cover design - color wheel

Book covers with contrasting colors are hard to ignore. Learn more about the color wheel and how to select the best colors for your book in this informative article from Canva.

book cover design - The Water Covenant by Abraham Verghesebook cover design - The Water Covenant by Abraham Verghese

Another way to create contrast is to pair images you wouldn’t expect to see together, like in the book below by Maryanne O’Hara: a waterfall fused with a woman’s hair.

book cover design - Cascade by Maryanne Obook cover design - Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara


Part of your cover design images include the typography: the fonts, their size, color, spacing, and how everything is placed on the cover. Although some book cover errors can be easily overlooked, bad typography it’s not one of them, so you need to understand the best practices before using it.

Is your typography the focal point of the book? What is the word hierarchy? Should the title be the largest or the author’s name? And the image? If you want your image to be your focal point, still follow the rules of typography but let the words take a back seat and enhance the image rather than detract from it.

book cover design - James Case Competitionbook cover design - James Case Competition

Whether you just use typography like in the book above or use it to draw attention to other elements, the way you choose to place letters on a page can increase a viewer’s response and enhance their experience or leave them at desire.

How do you create a book cover design?

Follow these steps when designing your book cover to ensure it has what it needs to engage readers and pique their interest in purchasing.

  1. Know your gender.We talked in depth about the importance of understanding your gender and the expectations associated with it.

    Each genre has certain elements that readers expect to see on the cover, just as there are specific tropes – common recurring themes like “enemies to lovers” in novels – that readers look for in stories.

    When designing a book cover, first consider the genre and what it means to your readers when selecting images. You should only break the rules if you fully understand the reader’s expectations.

  2. Consider your color schemes carefully. Even if you take a minimalist approach To your book cover design, color or lack thereof matters. Once you have the elements of your book in place (e.g. image, typography, background), don’t be afraid to try different color combinations to see which produces the best results.

    Don’t stop at your opinion. Ask others, preferably those who read your genre. They can give you a gut reaction and let you know if you’re on the right track or if you need to keep trying.

  3. Select the right image.Do your research and see what others are doing in your genre, but then do your own thing. You can let the creativity of others inspire you, but don’t forget to let your own creativity shine. Look for images that reflect the theme and genre of your book. When it makes sense, break the rules.
  4. Define your author brand.Think of your books as products that reflect who you are as an author, the genre you write in, and your professionalism. Branding is important at all levels, even in the publishing industry. Make sure whether it’s your first impression or your fiftieth, it’s the best it can be.

Final thoughts

Whether you design your book cover yourself or hire a professional designer (our tip for best results), understanding how to attract readers with design will give you the best opportunity to make sales. If you don’t give much value to your cover design or are content to copy others, you’re missing out on the opportunity to differentiate your book from the crowd.

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