How NOT to illustrate your book cover

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How NOT to illustrate your book cover

I saw it today… And my first reaction was winced distress; like unwinding to an soothing rendition of Beethoven’s Für Elise when suddenly the needle rips through the record…. It was a beautiful full color illustration—soulfully rendered with energy and detail—but violated with a plain, black title, centered and stamped and sent on to its fatal judgment at Unprofessional-Cover-Means-Unimpressive-Book land.

Because I looked at it and thought, Really? That’s it?

I know what happened. The illustrator was asked to render artwork for the cover, but then the cover copy was slapped on by someone else using Publisher or a Publisher-like program (Word, perhaps? Eeek…) without second thought. After all, the illustration is what they see… the style of the title and author name don’t matter, right?

Wrong. So wrong.

This is a common mistake I see with budget-minded self-publishers and small presses who decide to take a stab at their own cover without knowing basic design rules. The truth is, anyone can design an attractive cover—with a little education and sense of balance. If you can decorate a room, you can design a cover. Here we’ll discuss basics for designing with a full-cover illustration.

The illustration’s purpose is to serve as the focal point of the book cover, so the title and author’s name should enhance, not impede. If the illustration is in full color, and/or richly detailed, it’s crucial that integrity remains intact, and that copy and artwork pair in perfect harmony so the overall design appeals, not repels, the viewer. For example:

common design mistakes  design fixes

In the “True Colors” examples shown at left, you see the first cover with basic, seriffed black text typed on, flush center. The subtitle is a little difficult to read over the illustration. Overall, it’s a “stamped on” appearance that doesn’t really do the artwork justice. To the right is a suggested correction: I changed the title to white and lessened the font size for a softer tone. The subtitle was kept black, but placed over a semi-transparent white bar. These changes allow for easier reading while adding a little creative style. I flushed all the copy left to flow with the direction of the leaves in the illustration—The eye is now drawn from top right to bottom left. And then I applied a slight tracking (spacing) between letters for a more modern look and better readability throughout.

Here’s another example of cover copy placement over a large illustration. The copy has been separated by a semi-transparent “box” that still allows the illustration to pass through without hurting its integrity. The title is white for maximum visibility, and the author’s name is taken from one of the colors, which gives balance and separation from the title.

illustrate your book cover

On both cover examples, I used Minion Pro, which is a seriffed font. A sans-serif would also work if it’s thin enough. You don’t want to use a thick or extra bold font, as it would compete with the fullness of the image.

Illustrations are a beautiful way to design your book cover, and if laid out correctly, will be very appealing to the viewer, not to mention a better chance of prominent display at the bookstore!

To stunning design,



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