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10 Ways to Make Your Cover Stand Out in the Crowd by Alicia Kat Dillman

There are bad covers out there; we have all seen them. The ones with the glaring, eye-searing colors, painful design, and horrid photoshopping that should be a crime against humanity. I could go on for days about the horrors I have seen lurking in the dark corners of bookshops, but I’m sure you’d all rather I talk about what makes a good cover. The kind that stands out on a crowded shelf and demands you buy it.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

10 ways to make your cover stand out in the crowd

1: Study real world examples

Assess your playing field–what’s trending? What catches your eye? What makes you cringe? When designing a unique cover you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot of good design ideas out there that could be used in new and interesting ways. That being said, don’t blatantly copy a bestseller’s style either. Remember we’re trying to stand out in the crowd, not blend in as a pale comparison to a currently trendy book.

Task: Make a design board or project folder of covers you like (Pinterest is really handy for this). Study them and assess why you were attracted to them.

2: Unexpected elements

Don’t select overused, cliched, or symbolic images for your cover unless you have a really creative twist on them. Pick elements that convey the story of the book without resorting to overused visual shorthand.

Task: Make a visual board of imagery that reflects your book. Select 3-5 of those items and explore cover ideas focused around them.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

3: Clarity of message

Think of your cover design like a billboard for your book, a really small billboard. Your book has to convey what the book is about in a matter of seconds and usually from only an inch or two in height, so a quick, clear visual read is important. That being said, don’t go for cliched designs.

Task: Sit down and think about your book. What is your story about? Can you boil the book down into a sentence or two? Okay, now that you have the essence of your story, what visuals could be used to convey that message?

Purgatory Reign by LM Preston
Purgatory Reign by LM Preston

4: Customization

Due to easy access as well as affordable price, the popularity of stock imagery has shot up in recent years. This is fantastic since stock photography can really save time & resources. However, without customization your cover could fall flat or worse, be mistaken for another book using the same stock.

So with the rise of stock imagery we’re also seeing the rise of new art forms like Photomanipulation and Enhanced Photo Imagery and of artists, like yours truly, that specialize in such customization of stock imagery. So if you can’t possess the tools or ability to customize your stock imagery yourself, there are plenty of professionals out there that can lend a hand.

Task: Take a look at the stock photography you have chosen for your cover. What creative ways could your chosen stock be altered? Come up with 3-5 different ways you could make the stock unique.

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan
The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

5: Dynamic elements

As a good friend pointed out to me recently: Nobody wants to read a book about a bunch of people just standing around. The elements on your cover should be seemingly in motion. Blurred images, fluttering hair, debris in the air, and sweeping clouds, can all lend movement to a static image. If your design doesn’t feature people, a lot can still be done to make the elements interesting, eye-catching and dynamic. 

Task: Take a look at the elements you have chosen for your cover. Are they interesting? Do they capture a moment in time instead of a static idealized portrait? Do the elements lead your eye around the cover? If your cover feels lifeless, what can be done to revive it? 

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

6: Colors

Arguably the most important ingredient in a cover design. It’s the first thing the potential reader sees in the pursuit of a new read. Limited palettes, contrasting color combinations, or color selections that evoke a mood can go a long way in conveying the tone, setting or content of your story.

Task: Look at the color scheme of your cover. Is it vivid? Engaging? Evocative? No? How can you improve it? Test out a few color variations on your design and see if it improves your cover's impact.

7: Title

Being that you’re indie you should have control over this (if not, I’m sorry and you can jump to the next one). When you craft a book title, keep it short and to the point. Make the title easy for a potential book buyer to remember and related to the content of the book. 

Task: Come up with 5 potential titles for your book. Ask members of your inner circle whose opinion you trust what they think a story with each of the titles might be about. Then select the one you think best fits your book.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis
Across the Universe by Beth Revis

8: Font Selection

Your font selections should reflect the genre and design of the book cover while also being clearly readable. If every book in your book’s genre is using the same font, don’t use it! Remember the goal here is to stand out from the crowd. Also remember you don’t have to use a font straight out of the box. Modern computer programs allow for a lot of customization when it comes to fonts. 

Task: Pick 5 potential title fonts and secondary fonts for your cover and play around with the various font settings in your program of choice. Who knows, it might yield something original and unexpected.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver
 Delirium by Lauren Oliver

9: Eye contact

I’ve noticed in the last few years that a lot of book covers have cropped out heads, covered up eyes , or characters with their backs to us, which is odd, seeing as magazines do the exact opposite. It’s been said that eyes are the windows to the soul, and to an extent they are. You can learn a vast amount about someone's personality and mood just looking at their eyes. With that in mind, your cover should be catching the eyes of the potential buyer, daring them to pick up your book instead of shyly hiding away. This is a pet peeve of mine so feel free to ignore this if cropped head covers don’t unnerve you. Task: Search compelling stock images and models that fit not only the physical description but the personality of your character(s).

10: Trust Your Designer

For those of you hiring out for your cover design, remember that you’ve hired them for a reason and this is their job. Thinking you know more about design than a trained professional is down right foolish. Likewise trusting the opinion of someone with no professional design training over your designer never ends well. Task: Research designers. Find 5 cover designers of other indie books you like and explore their work. Are they within your budget? Do they produce the type of cover you’re looking for? Having a hard time finding what you’re looking for? Ask your fellow indie others for recommendations.

Well, this is Kat signing off. I wish you luck as you traverse the labyrinth of cover design.


Indie author & illustrator Alicia Kat Dillman is a life long resident of the San Francisco Bay Area. Kat illustrates and designs book covers & computer game art by day and writes teen fiction by night.

The owner of two very crazy studio cats and nine overfull bookcases, Kat can usually be found performing, watching anime or hanging out in twitter chats when not playing in the imaginary worlds within her head. Visit Kat's website.

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This Post Has 66 Comments
  1. I think one of the mistakes authors make when coming up with the idea for their cover’s design is trying to include everything PLUS the kitchen sink, and the plumber who installs it. I frequently run into this with my author clients (I’ve been a graphic designer for over 30 years) and we have to reach a compromise. Busy is not good. Consider primarily the tone and style of your book and select only those elements that will quickly convey this to potential readers. You have barely a second to grab someone’s attention, so make it count.

  2. I love your advice. I want to create my own covers because I love doing design as well as writing… but I have no problem getting help from a pro if I need it!

  3. Great advice. If I see a cover in a shop I take a snapshot on my phone.
    My genre is action adventure/thriller so there are many following set rules.
    This advice will help me get an edge. Thanks

    1. yes a lot of the covers above are traditional pub covers but at least one of them is Indie. Can you spot it? No? That’s the point, indie covers should look just a professional as the big guys. But since I love you all so much, I’ll post a short list of some really great indie covers.

      Larkstorm by Dawn Rae Miller
      The Kiss Off by Sarah Billington
      The Pack and The Pack Retribution by LM Preston
      DESTINED by Jessie Harrell
      The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
      Sleeping Roses by RaShelle Workman
      Ethereal by Alivia Ander

    1. I feel you there. I’m planning all the covers for the Marked Ones Trilogy at the same time. Hoping to reveal the new Daemons in the Mist cover at the same time as the The Storm Behind Your Eyes cover.

    1. The beauty of indie is that you can change your covers as much as you like. Don’t stress getting it perfect your first time out the gate. You’ll just psych yourself out.

      For example, my novel Daemons in the Mist is on it’s third cover and we’re preparing to switch it out a fourth time when we reveal The Storm Behind Your Eyes’ cover.

    1. Oh that’s a little more fancy that I usually do since I’m not a font designer, though I do know of places that can make fonts for you. If you want that extent of customization with your fonts I would suggest using Illustrator to edit your font and then moving it to InDesign to do the rest of your layout work.

      If you’re not a font designer but still want font customization you can change the kerning, tracking, skew, or the vertical or horizontal scale of the text. You can also add layer effects to give your fonts that extra pop, but try to reserve that for only title text.

    1. Oh yay! Those are two things they really drilled into us in art school. Making the reference your own instead of just recreating an exact copy and the importance of dynamic movement in a visual.

    1. Seek out the policies page on the stock site. Or on the specific stock’s page. Or if in doubt, contact the creator of said stock. I use Fotolia, because they have a great range of stock and policies that protect you.

      If your photo manipulation style is more filter heavy, Photoshop is your program. If your photo manipulation style is more illustrative (like mine), Corel Painter is your program.

  4. The idea of designing a cover is both terrifying and exhilarating. I’d love to learn how to design covers, but I need to spend my time writing. Do you design covers for contemporary women’s fiction?

    1. Rebecca, I have designed covers for everything from Middle Grade SciFi to YA contemporary romance. Though I do tend to get asked to design the things that are harder to find in straight up stock.

  5. I ended up with two covers for my book, one that was completely my own work, and a second/current one that used a stock image and some of my own manipulation. Pretty much universally people preferred the first as being more unique but thought that the second would sell better…

    1. I’m glad you liked it =^.^=

      You’re not the first to comment on the colors. What can I say, I love to paint them. It probably has a lot to do with the over 20 years I’ve spent onstage.

    1. Hi Marcy, great question! There are two ways I would suggest doing series or trilogy covers based on the content in the books.

      For single POV books:
      I’d recommend using the same model or character design for each cover but using different colors, situations or background elements for each. For example, the covers I created for LM Preston’s The Pack series, featured this type of design. If instead you are using symbols or other non-human design element such as Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, all the covers should use similarly important symbols. Color isolation, like that used in the Twilight Saga covers, is another good example.

      For multi POV book:
      Use the same elements of design on each cover. For example, Daemons in the Mist, the first in my Marked Ones Trilogy featured the character, Nualla, in the upper half of the book and blended into the foggy city shot of the Bay Bridge. Book two will have one of the other characters, Patrick, and another shot of the city and so on and so on.

      When designing covers for a series or trilogy it helps to plan ahead for future covers and not design yourself into a corner.

  6. Very good post Alicia. I had previously read to keep people off of covers to allow the reader to see the characters for themselves. Maybe that’s why many keep the faces covered. But I also see you are right about the eye contact if you did need to use a person on the cover.

    1. I’d heard the same thing as well, which always struck me as weird because I seemed to have to opposite reaction. Maybe it’s juts personal preference.

      The first cover idea for my novel Daemons in the Mist had Nualla looking away from the viewer but she came off too passive looking which was counter to her personality. Because of this we changed the design for the trilogy to have all the characters looking out at the reader. So the personality of the character or the mood you are trying to convey can also play a huge role in whether your character is making eye contact or not.

  7. Altering stock images is a big one. I literally saw 6 books on Amazon’s free list with the same cover. Made me not want to buy any of them. When I worked on designing my covers, first I went to my bookshelf and looked at the covers of books I bought. Then went to the store and picked up those that caught my eye at a glance. I took pictures of my favorites (both store shelf an my home shelf) and showed them to my cover designer. She was able to find a happy medium between what I liked and what fit the genre.

    Melanie Macek

    1. I think this comment stands out, I like the article, and have been enjoying the articles of everyone at this internet gathering. I am glad that comments are enabled so that we can have dialog just like you can at other conventions.

    2. I’ve seen this as well all too often. Another trick to avoiding over-used stock is to take the stock in question and do a reverse image search with Google.

      I do the same thing myself while in stores and oonline.

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