Top Cover Design Mistakes

1106 Design

September 20, 2020

Self-publishing is a personally rewarding and exciting endeavor for most indie authors, not to mention a good business strategy. The problem is when the final product ends up looking self-published. If a book looks self-published, reviewers, retailers and buyers will pass it by, and your content will remain undiscovered.

How does a book end up looking self-published? The key is exactly that: its looks. In this article, I talk about the top three cover design mistakes made by self-published authors—traps that can make a book look self-published.

Cover Design Mistake #1: Not understanding what readers want

Authors, and sometimes designers, begin the cover design process by focusing on what they “like”: a font, a color, a graphic, a photo…almost any aspect of the cover design.

The problem with this approach—going with what you like—is that it’s really risky. What you’re doing, in essence, is creating a product, presenting it to the market, and hoping that the market agrees with you.

What if they don’t?

Now you have a book cover that isn’t selling your book.

A much safer approach is to begin the design process by learning what readers want and then giving it to them. Fortunately, finding out what buyers want is easy; all we have to do is look at what they are buying.

Here’s a tip: start the design process at Select “Books” in the search bar and type in “bestsellers.” The search result will be a list of current best-selling books. Zero in on bestsellers in your genre (e.g., search for “bestseller business books”) and you’ll find the types of books in your category that people are buying now—not only buying, but buying in great numbers.

When you look at these books, you’ll begin to see patterns in the design of their covers. You may find, for instance, that the current trend is to use muted colors, rather than bright colors. You may find that other books in your category are primarily typographic, or primarily photographic. You may find that the current trend is simple and stark design, rather than ornate and busy. You may find more than one pattern.

Whatever you find, you’ll be certain that a lot of other people have responded favorably to it, and you can use this knowledge to guide the design of your own book cover.

Compare the self-published book at left to the bestseller beside it. See the difference?


shadows of cooks cover
Air Fryer Cookbook


By emulating the look of bestsellers, you’ll give your book instant credibility. You’ll tell the buyer that it’s safe to take a chance on an unknown author, and you’ll give your book the very best chance to sell.

Cover Design Mistake #2: Creating a cover that is too busy

Busy covers happen when you try to tell your entire story on the front cover of your book. The result is a mish-mash of so much “stuff” that nothing stands out to catch the buyer’s eye.

It sounds logical: tell the buyer everything about your book and they’re bound to be interested in something.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Busy front covers actually confuse people, and when people are confused, they buy something else.

Your book cover has one job: to make people look. The cover has to stop the buyer in their tracks and make them want to know more.

To grab and hold your buyer’s attention, the cover should have very few elements: a title (and subtitle, where appropriate), an engaging graphic, the author’s name, an endorsement. Most importantly, just one of these elements should dominate and serve as a “stop sign” to catch the buyer’s eye.

If you believe that additional information is crucial, consider placing it on the back cover or on the first inside pages of your book. The front cover should remain uncluttered.

Compare the self-published book below to the bestseller beside it. See the difference?


Book cover sample
the warmth of other suns


Cover Design Mistake #3: Designing a cover with a poor illustration

Of all the cover design mistakes, designing a cover with a poor illustration is probably the most damaging to your sales goals. This mistake happens when an author hires an illustrator before hiring a cover designer.

Sometimes a well-meaning author will provide illustrations created by a beginner. Or, an author will feel obligated or honor-bound to use an illustration created by a friend or family member who considers themselves an artist. The problem is that they aren’t professional illustrators and, more importantly, they don’t know how to prepare artwork for printing.

By committing to an illustration before speaking to the designer, you inadvertently tie your designer’s hands, especially if you’ve paid money for the illustration or want to avoid conflict with the artist. Once you commit to an illustration and insist on using it, we can’t do very much for you…we’re stuck.

Your cover designer is trained as an “art director” and a “creative director.” We are skilled at brainstorming with you to decide what to put on the cover, what style of art is most appropriate, what colors to use, etc.

Then, and only then, should the search for an illustrator begin.

A book designer can also recommend a professional illustrator and help you evaluate the skills of various illustrators to determine which one can best bring the cover to life.

Take a look at the self-published book below and the bestseller beside it. See the difference?


love of money cover
total money makeover cover


Hiring a book designer first, and then hiring an illustrator, will result in a much better book cover than choosing an illustrator without the benefit of proper pre-planning.

Check out our cover design library for more examples and inspiration.

What If I Made a Mistake Already? Am I Stuck?

Never move forward with a book cover with which you’re uncomfortable or that has received some negative feedback from those close to you. Designing a new cover will cost money but is a better option than wasting money on a book that looks self-published and risking the bad reviews that may follow. (By the way, the same goes for book interiors that look self-published. Read more here.)

Got that nagging feeling about your cover or interior? We are happy to consult with you on your book cover and provide you with some options. Contact Michele today.


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