Why you should not stuff your book cover with specific images from your story.

Is it important to have a specific scene or character on your cover, and to convey the exact  happenings in the book? If you don’t, how will readers know what your book is about at all?

Literal vs symbolic imagery is an ongoing discussion with the author’s I work with, and I’m writing this article to share with you why I think it’s better to go with the symbolic, suggestive cover than the literal translation.

What is my job, as a book designer?

I translate the text into a vision. That’s the most simple explanation of my purpose. I take what’s inside the book and put it on the outside in a way that will grab the attention of the reader.

What is the purpose of a book cover?

To suggest its genre and theme, and to seize the reader. It is not to tell the story, or to explain the sub plots, or even describe the complexities of the main character. Think of a book cover like the logo to a company.


  1. There will be a certain element about it that portrays what category the book/company is in
  2. It’s symbolic of the book/company, and can be carried on throughout other marketing materials (like a series of books) if needed.
  3. It’s immediately recognizable.

Your book cover doesn’t need to tell the reader any specific details about your story, but only to give it a face, and an emotion.

What do I mean by Literal and Symbolic covers?

A literal book cover: When it portrays something represented in the story. A literal interpretation of the story by showing a character, a scene, an object.


Sugarplum Surprises by Elisabeth FairchildThe Reluctant Viking by Sandra HillUnder the Dome by Stephen KingSome Girls Bite by Chloe Neill
















A symbolic book cover: Designed in a way that symbolises the story. Use of colour, composition, typography, and objects not originally associated with the text. May also use visual symbolism used in the book, that still doesn’t immediately give the plot away on sight.


Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater Twilight by Stephenie MeyerA Million Little Pieces by James FreyBeautiful Creatures

Why do I encourage symbolic covers over literal ones?

Genre-style: It is very easy to get swept up into a trend. Looking like everyone else ensures you have it made, but it also means you get lost in the crowd. When your thriller/horror/romance/paranormal cover looks like every single other cover in your genre, you’ll be easily pigeon holed and easily looked over.

aclockworkorangeLongevity: Uniqueness has its benefits in ensuring your book won’t go out of style (or trend, as above) too quickly. Looking like everyone else will give you an expiration date, but by designing with originality and symbolism in mind your book cover will stand the test of time.


The spoiler: Remember when Lord of the Rings came out? Remember that huge discussion about how they always thought Frodo looked like this, or Logolas actually looked like this. A more recent outcry was about how Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher, completely wrong for the part across the board.


A lot of people hate being shown what a character or scene looks like. I have a very specific image in mind of Roland, from the Gunslinger. I’m dying for them to make The Dark Tower into a blockbuster but can’t stand the idea of them casting anyone for Roland just because I know it won’t be anything like the guy in my head.

By showing real characters, you spoil the personal experience your readers create, and the chance to get closer to them by being them. Each time I read a book, even if the character is 6”2’ with short blond hair and willowy legs, I still manage to fit myself into her body. If I see an image of her straight away and visualise how different I am to her, that stops me from being in her shoes.

Consistency: You’ve got a series, you’ve got the perfect woman, and you’ve put her on your front cover. Readers have responded positively to her and that’s awesome. But that’s the only image you have of her… so you have to follow up book 2 with a different model.

This can be overcome by using a professional photography studio and thousands of shots of the one model. But unless you have that time and money to invest you’re going to be limited. This is the case with putting anything literal on a cover that is going to be a series cover. Even if it’s a loaf of bread that is eaten in both book 1 and 2, you still have to make sure that loaf of bread is the same looking bread for book 2 or readers will feel betrayed.

Creativity: I want to break out of the normal, standard design. I loooooooooooove brainstorming covers that are symbolic. Symbolic covers can be witty, impactful, and long lasting. And they’re just fun to do!

Think about Harlequin. The busty woman draped over the bare chested man. We know, deep down, that all of these stories are original but side by side our expectations are “man and woman meet, they have conflict, they fall in love, the end.”

It says nothing about YOUR STORY.

Recognition for the book, not the designer: When you see the same sort of stuff being produced by the designer, eventually that book cover will not be recognized for its story and creativity, but rather the designer.

Simplicity: Simple design right down to its core is stunning.

Heidi Durrow The Girl Who Fell From The Sky Piracy Adrian Johns








When an author requests for me to put a character on there, or a scene, there’s a level of expectation for it to be blended in with some other parts of the book. It’s rare to be able to draw from a book literally and display it with the balanced use of negative space and clean typography. More is not always best. ‘Less is more’, remember?


Today’s article does really come down to personal choice and likes. There is a safe appeal to being a part of your genre, and looking like the others, but your book isn’t like them and never will be. If your book has its own soul, why do you want to make it look like everyone else’s?

Did you go with a literal cover or a symbolic cover? What do you feel are the benefits on each side? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Do you know better than your designer about your book cover?

Authors and designersThe author bowed to the will of their publisher when it came to the design of their book cover, up until now. Some got a say, and were heard. Some got a say, and were ignored. And some didn’t get any piece of the cake at all. If they liked it, fantastic! If they hated it, well…

But now the tables have turned and you get a say in every aspect of your self-publishing journey. From the book size, to the font face on the interior, to how many rounds of editing are necessary before you decide the final manuscript is ready.

Some authors feel they know what’s best when it comes to the image on their cover, but do they? Is it a good thing for an author to have a say in everything?

Your purpose as a writer:

Authors are experts in one thing: writing. You are a skilled craftsman in story-telling and word flow. You know your story better than anyone else- but that’s the catch. You’re a little too intimate with the details, and when someone asks,

“What’s the book about?” How often do you get stuck three paragraphs down the track, flushed with fresh writer burn?

This puts you in a bit of a strange place. You’re the central nervous system of your book and yet when it comes to breaking down your story into a simple visual message, you might not be the best resource to tap.

You need to step away from your book.

Do you trust the skill and talent of your designer, or do you find yourself encouraging changes that your designer is against? Do you have elements you want to incorporate, characters, scenes, places that you want to put on there, because you have an intimate attachment to them or because that is what will work best for your book cover?

It is easy to get sucked into this hole. The relationship between the author and the designer can be tricky since the outline of the designer’s job is to create something that will make the author happy.

Is the designer’s job to satisfy you, or your readers?

Flickr-AdulauBut what if their responsibility is greater than that? What if the designer designs a book cover that hits all the right key points, and still doesn’t make the author happy? Does that mean the designer has fulfilled his duty, his responsibility, and provided the author with a product that will sell their book?

What a good book cover design does:

  • It portrays the genre
  • It gives a suggestion of the story behind the cover
  • It’s easy to read as a thumbnail
  • Is attractive
  • Stands out against its competition

If you cover successfully ticks all these boxes, how important is the author’s final say on the concept?

A case study of a best-selling author not happy with their iconic book cover:

A Clockwork Orange:

A classic book cover that is immediately recognizable and has been considered one of the best designs of a book cover in traditional publishing since its release:
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess This cover was designed by David Pelham. David designed the cover after seeing the movie, A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick. In the book, the main character does not have a bowler hat but it is so iconic since the release of the film David decided to incorporate it into his design.

There are so many layers of metaphor in this piece, why the colours are chosen, why he has a cog on his eye, why he has no mouth. This design is highly appreciated by both publishing and design industries.

Anthony Burgess, the author, hated it.

The gatekeepers (the publishers/designers), in this instance, said yes. In their experience the publishers, marketers and designers knew it was a winning design.

These are some other Clockwork Orange book cover designs:

clockworkorange3 clockworkorange4 clockworkorange5
clockworkorange6 clockworkorange7 clockworkorange2

If Anthony Burgess had full say over what the cover looked like, which cover do you think he would like most? Would he pick any of these at all?

Most of the time (most, there are always exceptions!) no, you don’t know better than your designer. You don’t know as well as they do what is good design, what is bad design, and what will sell your book for you. In my field I’m not considered a cheap designer. This is because I know my industry; I have experience with both traditional publishers and authors, and I understand my terrain.

I want my clients to trust me, but so far as to sacrifice their happiness? I’m not sure. And I think there’s a middle ground to be found.

The only thing I encourage you to do is take a chance, trust the advice and guidance of your book cover designer. Even if you have something specific in mind, do what you can to consciously separate yourself from all the ideas you’ve decided are best for your book cover. Your eBook competition is fierce, and to be a best-selling author you often have to place your fate into the hands of others who have the knowledge and the skill.

Remember: Give your book every opportunity for success. Sometimes that means being outside of your comfort zone. And publishing will always be changing!

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

5 reasons why you want to break tradition and go with a cover that is unique

When you look to have a cover designed you’ll probably think it’s best to make sure the design looks like the genre you’re writing. But is this the right decision to make? Is it risky? Is it a better choice to make? Well I’m here to help give you some direction and hopefully encourage you to take a chance.


Part 1: Lets assess the territory.

Lets have a look at some covers for Young Adult/Paranormal.

Paranormalcy by Kiersten White Torment by Lauren Kate Entwined by Heather Dixon Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick

The Reckoning by Kelley Armstrong  Nightshade by Andrea Cremer


And what about thrillers?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum Along Came A Spider by James Patterson Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett


Have you seen some of the Urban Fantasy books lately?

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs City Bones by Cassandra Clare Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning

You can see by my examples that in every genre you will find the trends. Think of design like fashion. There’s always a new black, a new beautiful way of laying things out. And just like fashion these things will pass and a new style of design will emerge. Some will be overused, others will fade.

Lets use Anne Rice as an example, what you could consider these days a paranormal/urban/fantasy writer.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice  The Witching Hour by Anne Rice The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

1990s vs early 2000s vs 2010+

Can you see styles of design that you recognize? The 1990s version resembles so many other painted style covers. Stephen King, L. J. Smith, Francine Pascal. Then they decide to take a very thriller/x-files direction with it. And now it looks like every other cover in its genre.

With the easy access that everyone has to digital art and photo-manipulation programs like Gimp, Photoshop Elements and the Adobe Creative Suite everyone can have a go at designing their own book cover. And it is natural that they will follow what is cool.

What does this mean for your book?

  • If you hire a designer that is moreso a hobbyist than a professional there’s a chance you will get something that looks like everything else.
  • This will mean you blend in, and your book won’t pop out when viewed on Amazon/B&N/Smashwords/Your local book store.
  • It will get old. In three or five years the design of your book will be so overdone that people will pass over it out of a sense of obligation to do so. Do you remember the last time you bought yourself a pair of Crocs, or wore a hyper-colour t-shirt, or got your hair cut in to a fabulous mullet? That’s the design of hair and clothes. This is the design of your book, the same huamn emotional responses apply.
  • It will be forgotten. When you get a book that has a book cover that leaves you breathless, do you find it easy to forget?

Part 2:  The 5 reasons you should break from your genre.

What is the purpose of design? To convey a message.

Creative, ground breaking book covers that ignore the standard of their industry convey a message in ALL ASPECTS. The choice of type face, of imagery, of lack of imagery, in the colour choices, in the placement of images and type on the page, in the legibility or illegibility of the text.

1. Unique covers have witty, smart design. It reaches your reader on many levels. 

Consider Naomi Klein’s book covers:

No Logo by Naomi Klein  The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Two poignant designs which have multi-layered concepts.

Capture the Flag by Arnaldo Testi  

This is another example of smart design. Typography used to lay out the American flag, and a light globe gives a foreboding impression with little to no extra treatment of the photo, or the font.

It trusts that the audience will understand the concept. 

An example of concepts in a single cover from my own work: 

The Rich book cover design

  • The combination of the title “The Rich” with a homeless looking man is the first concept I convey in this book cover design. The clash of rich/poor.
  • The placement of the title “The Rich” over the eyes of the man suggests he is blind to how the rich reach that level of prosperity, or that the rich people try and blind him to keep him down.
  • The type treatment (font face) I chose has a slight distortion so that we know being rich is always unstable. It doesn’t take much for your finances to collapse beneath you. But the font face is also bold, and stops us from connecting with the homeless man, which represents their power in guiding us in our relationships and our general lifestyle.
  • It is often confronting to be this close and intimate with people who approach you on the street, asking for money. It is our money that allows us to disconnect. To throw a dollar in the cup and keep walking- which was what I was aiming for with this cover. Feeling somewhat confronted.

2. You set your own level of standard when it comes to your book.

Is/Does your book:

  • Dramatic
  • Challenging
  • Faces confronting issues
  • Disturbing
  • Written to change the ideas of your reader
  • Have a direct, deep purpose
  • Written to seize the reader, so they can’t put the book down
  • A new style of writing 
  • A change in the standard format of story telling
  • Able to change someone’s life
  • Enlightening
  • Written to linger in the mind and the heart of your reader after they read the last page

If you said yes to any of these- wouldn’t you insist on your book cover delivering the same message? Your book will change someone’s life. It may be about a struggle of a teenager overcoming a life threatening disease, or a drug addict doing her best to overcome her addiction and heal her relationship with her family, or a middle-aged couple who are trying to fall in love but their past experiences stop them from committing.

Every book is unique and carries a message, and we always hope, as writers, to change someone’s life for the better. Your book cover should do the same.


3. You will create new trends, and break barriers. 

In business the most successful people are the ones who took risks. If you play it safe that’s what you’ll end up with, a safe little space to enjoy where no one notices what you’ve done, why you’ve done it, and won’t be interested. Audiences are naturally drawn to new and different ideas, and take that with them and replicate it. You need to take risks in your career because if you don’t you won’t ever find out what is possible.

Have you looked at the best sellers list? Have you seen the book covers that win awards? Have you noticed how many covers stay with the norm vs how many have original concepts?

The iPhone is a perfect example. Who would have thought of such a radical design? And now they’ve set the industry standard, they’re IT. And still not everyone loves the iPhone.

When you show your cover to your friends, family, writing community, you will always have “I love it!” and “I hate it.”

Ask yourself this:

Would you prefer a book cover that people like, but barely makes a ripple in the publishing pond? Or something that makes a dramatic impact, that some people adore with fanaticism and others hate with a passion, and will be talked about for many years to come?  


4. Your book is already categorized. 

So you want to make sure that your reader knows what they’re going to read, right? You don’t want them picking up your book and expecting a thriller/horror when it’s a sweet chick-lit. So having a book cover that doesn’t stick with your genre runs the risk of people misunderstanding what it’s about and you could get a bad review!

Lets look at this realistically:

YOU categorize your book: Most likely my audience who read this are self-published authors. This means your work is on the internet, listed on B&N, Amazon, Smashwords, Goodreads. When you upload your book you select the genre and sub genre it is listed under. This means when readers type in to Amazon “Romance” for literature- you will come up.

AMAZON categorizes your book: By offering a system that is “Readers of this book also liked…” It allows others to go on and tag what genre your book is so that it won’t get mixed up.

GOODREADS categorizes your book: Not only do they offer genre categorization but you can list your book in a ‘listopia’ with tens or hundreds of other books in the same genre.

BOOKSTORES organize by genre: If your book is stocked in a book store it will be amongst its peers.

YOU WON’T MISTAKE YOUR OWN GENRE: You have your book up on your website, in a signature on a forum, on your FB and your Twitter page and Tumblr and Pinterest and Pixel of Ink and on your Blog, and then you also have profile pages on all the POD sites like Amazon and Smashwords etc. This is where you state clearly what the blurb is, and therefore what genre your book is. You don’t have to say “my book is romance.” When people read the opening of your blurb:

“Louisa has deep feelings for her neighbour Gordon…”

They immediately get it. That is the purpose of your blurb. To inform(without giving away), to imply, to get the reader to open the book. You won’t write your blurb in a style that portrays a Thriller/Suspense if it is about a young boy finding invisible friends and ends up making real friends.

I trust that you have clarified as much as you can about your book at every point of contact with your audience.

Knowing that in almost every scenario, should you not even have a front cover, your audience will understand what genre your book is gives you the freedom to kick some book cover ass. 


5. Because it is better to try than not.

My previous points have come from a place of design purpose. Now I’m talking about YOUR purpose. It is important for you to be outside your comfort zone in order to grow, to create, to evolve. This applies in your writing, and it should apply to how you relate to your book as a whole. You’ll come across a lot of situations in your publishing adventure – and if you take the opportunity and make dramatic changes in your life, do things you never thought you would do, your levels of self-fulfilment sky-rocket.

There is nothing to fear.

You are allowed to challenge the status quo and have a book that says LOOK AT ME.    


Part 3: What does this mean for you now?

If you’ve come to this point and decided yes! I want a beautiful, thought provoking, smart and witty cover then I have great respect for you. I know it’s not easy to make that decision. I encourage all the authors I work with to move a little away from the centre of what is traditionally expected of their genre but I trust their choices and do my best to create the best, professional, high quality book cover for their book that they could hope for, and in the style they want.

Then the next step is getting in touch with me so we can talk about your book. It is a creative and fun part of book publishing and it’s all about you and I talking about ideas to narrow down the perfect one.

Everybody is afraid of difference but difference is the thing that triggers new waves of creativity and identity.

And you know the beauty of it? Covers aren’t permanent. If you decide 6 months down the track it isn’t working for you then change it! You always have choice. But give it a chance.

Everyone remembers difference.

What font or type faces should I use on my book cover?

The font face choice is where so many book covers are let down. You may have a lot of experience with Photoshop or Gimp, and your image might beat the pants of other book cover images but the wrong choice can make your cover turn from professional to amateur in a swift punch. You might have read my past article about what images to put on your cover, and if you decide to stick with typography so this is the next natural step in the process of design.

Type is just as important as the imagery.  

Don’t underestimate the impact of the right type face. And you know what? Not even I get it right every time. Type is tricky and you have to have patience, play with it, experiment.

Follow through and put as much time in to your font choices and placement as you do with your design.

Guidelines for using type and fonts:

  • Do not stretch your font face. If you want a tall font face, find a condensed font. If you want a stretched font face, find a wide font. These fonts are made for this look, and if you stretch a font you will make it a) pixelated and b) distorted and c) horrible.
  • Play with different weights of a font. Font faces often come in more than just bold and italic. Weights of a font face means it could be thin and light all the way down to heavy and bold.
  • Choosing the right font for your book cover has just as much to do with the font face as it does with placement and application. Consider where your putting your title and your author, and if you don’t know where it should go then use other covers in your genre as an example. Learn by example, draw on inspiration by the books on your bookshelf.

    So what fonts should I use on my cover?

    These are the basics. They’re not display fonts, or distorted decorative fonts.  These are font faces I am suggesting through professional experience and you can rest back on as a classic choice, and these fonts- if overused- will definitely gain a ‘Papyrus’ curse. So in the future this advice might not bode well. But design is just like fashion; Crocs were cool one time, so was Comic Sans.


    Font faces that can be used on any genre (also mostly applicable for non-fiction):


    Trajan Pro

    ITC New Baskerville

    Adobe Garamond




    Akzidenz Grotesk








    Gill Sans



    Examples of fonts and typefaces on a book cover:

    The following three categories are chosen because there’s a good chance your genre is connected to one of these, or is close:


    Romance and Chick-Lit:








    Examples of fonts and typefaces on romance and chick-lit book covers:

     Thriller/Sci Fi/Mystery/Crime:


    Century Gothic



    Akzidenz Grotesk







    Examples of fonts on thriller, sci fi, and crime book covers:







    Avant Garde




    Examples of fonts on historical and literary book covers:

    Remember- these are the fonts I recommend for your book cover, not the interior. The interior will come in a later blog post.

    As always I recommend: learn by example. Look at other books, and not just one or two. Look at twenty or thirty. The more influence you receive the more you have to work with.

    What font faces do you recommend for a book cover? Have you seen some really great, or really bad, choices?

Colourful books and electronic book reader

5 Things That Shouldn’t Be On A Book Cover

Colourful books and electronic book readerThere’s so much advice about what should go on a book cover, these are 5 easy points of what shouldn’t go on a book cover.

What’s lead me to these points? My own experience. I’ve broken every one of these rules in my path to being the Graphic Designer I am. It’s like picking up something you’ve written five years ago – have you ever done that? If you haven’t, do it. I promise you you’ll find a few rules broken in the early years. Everyone has to go through them to be great. No matter what career, what passion you have in order to be the best you sometimes have to do your worst!

Why shouldn’t these things be on a book cover? They can reduce the look of quality of the book, and professionalism. These are elements that have been used and abused over time and says to your reader before they even pick the book up ‘made by an amateur‘.

So for a self-publisher unsure what shouldn’t be on a book cover:

1. Comic Sans

Comics Sans came about because a Microsoft Designer decided children needed a new font face. It was shipped with Microsoft Office 95 and everyone wanted it. It was THE FONT.

No Comic Sans

Everyone wanted it and everyone used it. Posters, brochures, websites, business cards, logos and TV ads. It is fun and childish and a bit humorous. It’s also poorly designed and was never intended for mass use. If you don’t know it yet there is a very negative opinion of Comic Sans in the design community. Designers hate it. Hate it with a ferocious passion.

So if you’re looking for a font face that says ‘fun’, ‘quirky’, and ‘young adult/child’ turn to other fonts for header and title use like:




And use clean, classic fonts for your main bulk of text, for example:

Geo Sans Light

Century Gothic

Or stick with good, reliable Helvetica.


2. Low Resolution/Pixelated images.

What’s a pixelated/low res image? You can read up on this more at: ‘image size resolution and what images to put on your book cover‘. But to answer it super quickly it’s this example:

Imagine you’re browsing a website about cats, because cats pretty much own the internet, and you click on a cat picture:

pixelated image of a cat

This is what the picture looks like when it’s loading. It’s a bit distorted and has jagged edges. But a low res/pixelated image won’t get beyond this point. This is how it stays.


3. Rainbow/multi-coloured gradients

So you want to add a filter to your photo or your text to make it pop. Filters can make photos look nice and colourful, right? You can even make it look like a sunset light! Or beach light! Wrong. Wrong, so wrong. The only way you can make a rainbow gradient work is by not having one. Here, have some examples:

Rainbow book cover

Rainbow Text Book Cover









1. Do not use gradients to attract a reader.

2. Do not use gradients to make font pop out.

3. Use gradients with reluctance and awareness of its purpose.

I love gradients. I love their potential and how they can alter the atmosphere of a book cover.

I hate rainbow gradients. They remind me of a 1995 geocities website with a dizzying number of dancing baby gifs. If you know a little of design then I trust you can apply gradients with skill and tact. But I’m talking basics here, and the basics that I’ve seen consistently abused.


4. Drop shadow for text

A lot of self-published writers who design their own book covers find a great photo, overlay some text and are satisfied with the result. Until they get the feedback that their text is unreadable because it disappears in to the image. This could be because the image and text are the same colour or- as I experience quite often- the image I’m working with has so much going on that it’s hard to find the text on top of it.

The answer on a lot of book covers? Drop shadow. This occurs even when the text is on a solid colour background. And depending on what program you use sometimes you have access to adjusting the strength or opacity.

Drop shadow is a lot like gradient in that it can be used tactfully and with skill. But the drop shadow I’m talking about is a hard edged, obvious drop shadow which ends up working against the design of the cover. I recommend working with the colour of your font, and then trying alternate font faces, before using a drop shadow to make it readable. If your font is on a flat colour and has no conflicting image behind it then don’t use a shadow.

Stretched Font Book Cover

5. Illegible/distorted type:

If you can’t read your title and name change the font face and/or colour. Don’t stretch it, make it taller, make it shorter or wider. You can see what I mean by stretching it to make it taller in the book cover above. If you want it wider find a font face that is already designed wide, if you want it taller then find a font face that is designed tall.

Especially for scripted fonts there’s a fine line you gotta balance on between completely unreadable and somewhat readable. Some scripted fonts are beautiful but you can’t read them because there’s flourishes stretching out left and right and cutting through other letters. Other scripted fonts are cleaner and easier to read but can also look boring and flat.


There are exceptions to every rule, and a number of examples that prove me wrong. I’m aware of this and as in each example if you have the patience to learn design and can apply each element skilfully then I support you 100%. But this is just a guide to help break the cliché of amateur design. If you want a guide to find out what should go on your cover check out some of my other articles or get out there and research. Study other book covers you love and understand how type was used.

Do you have book design no-nos? What are some design elements that turn you off a book cover?