Things You Need to Know Before Designing Your Own Book Cover

by | Marketing, Self Publishing Services, Self-Publishing, Tech for Writers

Hello, Writers!


The other day, I watched a video about an author designing their own cover, which was great—I do that too. But what bothered me was the misinformation about printing and colour formats. And this is sometimes the problem with non-experts sharing information. Even as I write and edit this, I wonder if this is something I should be doing because the last thing I want to do is to add to the noise and drown out the voices of the actual experts. Later on, I’ll share more about my experience in this article.


But you’ve probably guessed that I’m a bit of an overthinker. 


So, in light of all this, I decided to share with you the things you need to know before designing your own book cover. I also touch on how long it takes to design a book cover when you’re just starting out and whether it really is as cost-saving as people are led to believe. Just to be clear, this blog post is NOT a tutorial on how to design a book cover but instead contains important things you need to consider before you get started.


About Me and My Experience

I started dabbling in cover design in 2015 when I wanted to create a temporary placeholder cover for my current work in progress at the time. Since that fateful day, I’ve been experimenting with design and purchased courses on cover design and Photoshop. I’ve designed seventy-seven covers and sold thirty-five to complete strangers online. So, while I’m new, people are buying my covers. And it’s also worth mentioning in the early 2000s, I worked as an assistant for a graphic design company and used InDesign in a few other jobs.


My Sources

In order to write this post, I not only relied on my experience but also used various sources to double-check that my knowledge was accurate and was not contributing to the sea of misinformation. Firstly, I have reached out to an expert with a master’s degree in image processing. That person is my husband. He doesn’t like me calling him an expert, by the way. But that’s the true test of an expert; they know there’s more knowledge yet to be acquired and often don’t like to be called an expert. We’ve had numerous conversations about printing images, why images appear different in digital and print formats, and what might have led to this occurrence—all civilised, of course. All of this information led me to create this blog post.


Sometimes, this post will be a bit technical, but I’ve tried to keep everything in layman’s terms to avoid unnecessary confusion. On top of this, I contacted Kindle Direct Publishing via chat and asked the obvious question, which I suspect the video creator did not do. Thanks to the chat feature in the KDP help section, I got my answer in less than 5 minutes. I’ve included the screenshot with this article. With the exception of my husband’s knowledge, I’ve listed relevant articles from reliable sources to provide further reading for those of you who are interested.


Disclaimer: Throughout this blog post, I will use examples of my own work where I can to avoid having opinions on work created by other artists just to be on the safe side of any legal issues. However, if I’m going to say something positive and I know who designed the cover, then I will show you that as an example with attribution given to its creator. I hope this makes sense.

The Difference Between CMYK and RGB Colour Models

CMYK is an acronym used to describe the colour palette used exclusively for print, and these are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key. By the way, Key is black. These colours also correspond to the individual cartridges inserted into a printer. All print colours are made up of a combination of these colours, including the laser and inkjet printers that you use at home.


I have read online that someone claimed that laser printers used RGB, but this is not true because the colour toner cartridges that you buy and install in these printers have four colour toners, these are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Technically the CMYK printing process removes colour from white which contains all colours. Whereas RGB is used on a black background because this is the background that the code for your computer is written on. It’s important to point out that black is the absence of colour, so in the RGB process, you’re adding colour, not subtracting it.


RGB Colour Model

The RGB colour palette is a device-dependent colour model made up of three additive colours, Red, Green, and Blue. Generally, these colours are added to a screen. One of the interesting things about RGB colour is the same colour may look slightly different from device to device, and this is due to how the device is created by the manufacturer and how it chooses to deal with colour management. These differences are slight, and I’m being very pedantic by pointing this out. On top of this, RGB has a huge colour palette and has 9,777,216 more colours than CMYK.


This is why you should NEVER print in RGB.


If you use this colour palette for print, you’re essentially playing Russian Roulette with a printer and letting it choose the individual colours in your book. The end result will often be muted and often darker than what you intended. As I was editing this article, I reached out to KDP and asked for their opinion on the CMYK vs. RGB for printing debate, and here’s what their representative had to say via the online chat feature.


What Happens to an RGB File at the Printer?

First, it’s important to point out that Amazon uses print-on-demand, and much of the approval and checking process is automatic. KDP Print checks that your cover fits the print-ready file, and that’s all of the checks. Everything else is automated. Amazon does not have time to check and convert every file before printing, so it’s safe to conclude that the colours are matched by the printer once your file progresses in the print queue. If you send an RGB file to your local printer, they may do these checks because they have the time, and the load on their printers is much lower than KDP Print. I have discussed this with my husband, and he agrees based on what he’s seen with me designing and printing my own books and the knowledge he’s learned from his master’s degree.


So, What Do You Do if You Create a Paperback Cover and the Colours are too Dark?

In Photoshop, you fix this issue by making a few changes, like playing with the saturation and vibrance of the image, adding a gradient map, or blending two layers/images together, then adding a gradient map. Be careful not to oversaturate your colours because this will not look good in print or in Photoshop.


Design in CMYK First

This is a tip I got from a graphic designer through a course on cover design. Design the ebook first in CMYK so that you can copy to cover over to the paperback, then go back and duplicate the ebook file and save it in RGB before exporting it. This is a tip I’ve seen echoed by other designers across various online communities and chat threads. Also, it’s worth pointing out that many graphic designers have a second screen that’s calibrated to show more accurate colours, and you have a better idea of how the image will appear on paper. On top of this, over time, you instinctively know the colour will be less bright and often a little duller than what appears on the screen and on the RGB eBook cover.


Consider the Mood of Your Story Before Choosing Your Colour Palette

A humorous, cozy mystery will require a brighter colour palette than a two-body murder mystery. The latter requires a darker overall hue; the first usually uses a brighter palette. See the covers below, which were both designed by me.


Font and Image Licenses

Before you start designing covers using images and fonts, it’s important to know how to use these products ethically. And this goes without saying: always read licences before purchasing. Before you purchase a font directly from a designer or a marketplace like My Fonts or Creative Market, please read the licence terms. Pay attention to whether you are buying a per-use or one-time licence. Also, check prohibited uses and limits on printing.


Many font licences state that you cannot share the font file with another person. This means when I design a cover for a client and use a paid font on the cover, I cannot share the font file with the client. So, if the client wants to use the font on their website, in a logo, or merchandise, they need to purchase a license. But if they don’t want to use the font outside the cover, then they don’t need to pay for the font.


So, what about those free-to-use fonts?

Fonts that come preinstalled into Adobe Photoshop are okay to use, provided you have purchased the correct version of Adobe Photoshop. So, do not purchase the student licence of Adobe Photoshop because this doesn’t allow you to use the fonts commercially. If you’re a sole trader or a one-man-band like me, purchase the individual licence option of Adobe Photoshop; this will allow you to use the fonts commercially. At the time of creating this post, the terms say that you can use Photoshop for commercial purposes.


All About Image Licensing

Please source your images from reputable stock image libraries and not from free image sites. Many stolen files end up on these free sites. The cost of using them on your book covers could be pretty high if you’ve chosen an image or images that have been stolen.


So, please don’t do this.


Okay, now you’re wondering if I’ll address the elephant in the room—A.I. images. In a previous blog post on my book cover design business, I discussed the hot-button question: Should You Use A.I. Generated Images for Book Covers? The answer to that question is long and very nuanced, so please go over to that lengthy blog post where I share my thoughts on this topic.


Paid Licences

In my small book cover design business, I’ve used Shutterstock, iStock, Deposit Stock Photos, and various other vector stock image libraries. Before purchasing images from these sites, please check the licence details and pay close attention to prohibited uses and print run limitations, just like with the fonts. If you’re planning on using the same image on multiple covers, then I recommend you purchase an extended licence. Also, some images of historical sites or famous landmarks cannot be used for commercial purposes but only for editorial purposes. Not all areas will point this out to you, but Adobe has created a list for you. So, keep that list bookmarked.


Genre and Its Conventions

What covers do you most frequently see in your genre? What sells well in your genre? This is important. The covers must sell well because you don’t want to design the wrong type of cover. Don’t just look on Amazon; check the websites of other bookstores because quite often, I’ll see books sitting in the cozy mystery genre that break the genre conventions, so it pays to be able to pick a story that isn’t too genre, based upon its cover and description. For instance, police procedurals do not go into the cozy mystery genre. This genre is more than mysteries being free of gore and overt intimacy; there’s humour and an amateur sleuth that’s usually female.


Understand the Purpose of a Book Cover

Getting that click is more important than recreating a scene from your novel. While getting that click is important, staying true to your story and its genre is very important. Just don’t get too hung up on recreating a scene at the cost of creating a great to-genre cover.


Keep the Design Simple

Don’t put too much on your cover. Simple is better. Below is an example of simpler designs that work well. Also, just a word of warning: the images below contain affiliate links to the Amazon UK store, so I’ll earn a commission if you click and buy them.


How to Use Fonts


Don’t mix serif and sans serif fonts on a cover. Maybe this is just a me thing, but it doesn’t look great. The point of serif fonts is they make reading on paper easier, whereas san serif fonts are often used digitally; inside a book, you’ll often find a serif font like Garamond for this reason. So, limit the cover to two or three different fonts, any more, and it’s going to look complicated.


It’s also worth pointing out that if you’re designing a cover that’s part of the series, then keeping the design concept, as well as the font types and sizes consistent across all covers, is a good way of making this obvious upon first glance. 

Time Required to Design a Cover

Below is a brief timeline of how long it takes me to design a book cover.


1 hour
2 hours
4 hours
1 hour
3 to 4 hours
1 hour
2 hours
Pull together all the information about your cover (title, series title, quote, author name, book description, mood/tone, main character, important objects)
Genre Book Cover Research
Stock image and font search based on your previous search results
Set up photoshop workspace and ebook template
Create your first mock up
Create other variations based on the original mockup (time is per variation)
Set up the template and create the paperback cover based upon the final ebook design


Based on my rough calculations in the above table, the total time is fifteen hours of design time, possibly longer depending on whether you’re using Photoshop for the first time. At present, it takes me eight to eleven hours to design an ebook and paperback cover or a trilogy of premade ebook covers, including exporting the final files. So, you’ll improve over time, but it takes practice. If you’re designing two book covers per year, then the progress you’ll make might be slow.


Is Designing Your Own Book Cover Worth It?

Now that you know how long it can take to design an ebook and paperback cover as a first-time designer, I have an important question for you. Is spending fifteen hours designing a cover so you can save £200 to £400 a valuable use of your time? Do you want to spend extra time and money learning how to design a cover using Photoshop and Illustrator? Are you better off spending this time writing your next book or marketing the book you already published?


The Price of Learning and Designing Your Own Cover

Please note, I’m not asking you these questions to deter you but because it’s worth considering. This will be super obvious, but it’s worth saying every choice you make has long-term consequences, and the time you spend taking these financial shortcuts adds up. In the time it might take for you to design a cover, you could be writing 15,000 words, if you can write 1,000 per hour, or learning how to use Amazon ads. Also, your time is limited; maybe you have a day job and a family, and you’re writing between these hours; suddenly, your time is more valuable. I guess the answer to this question depends on who you are as a person.


Do you like learning new skills? Are you prepared to watch videos and courses, read articles, and read comments written by other professionals? From a pragmatic standpoint, the time and costs involved might not be worth it. Trust me, your first few covers will be terrible and might hinder your book sales. I didn’t publish my first covers but used them as place markers on my website.


Concluding Thoughts

So, I hope this list of the things you need to know before designing your own book cover helped you make a more informed decision and helped clear up a few misconceptions and misinformation about printing and design. This article was not written to point the finger at well-meaning people, but there is an ongoing trend of misinformation or “fake news” thanks to the growing number of people online and the rise of so-called influencers. Because I have some understanding of graphic design and print and share my office with expert knowledge, I felt compelled to weigh-in on this topic. But that’s just the type of person I am; there’s a big part of me that cannot help but get involved. I even let time pass and still felt compelled to write this.


As always, I have an important question for you. Do you or have you considered designing your own covers? If so, share your thoughts or experiences below. And, if you are a designer and have any design tips or thoughts on how to fix a cover that looks too dark in print, then share your thoughts below. 


With Love,


Amelia Levillain

Written by Amelia Levillain

Hi, I’m Amelia Levillain! My last name is French and isn’t pronounced the way it sounds. It’s pronounced “Le-vi-lla.” I’m a London-based book cover designer specialising in affordable book covers within the cozy mystery, romantic comedy, and thriller genres. For new designs, deals, and coupon codes, sign up for my newsletter. It’s the best way to make sure you never miss out on new designs and specials.

Yes, I’m not just a podcast host and an author, I’m a cover designer too.

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