How to design a book cover on a tight budget

Before making the cover, you have to write the book. Writing a book is a gamble. First of all, your “what do you think you’re doing?” tirade sounds like you’ve taken a lot of mind-altering drugs and poured them into your Lizard brain.

Even though people are yelling and screaming, the antidote, which is like intense counseling and doses of Valium, is still being written.

You can show it you know what you’re talking about by putting it in writing. That spending time on this is a good idea and will help keep you safe and secure.

Good advice Before I began writing my book, I was told to come up with 200 reasons why I should do it. I spent a month writing 200 reasons to get up at 6 a.m., which I had never done before the birth of my daughters.

This was proven by John Cleese in a speech about creativity, which was a surprise. He said that Dutch researchers had found that people are most creative when they are in a state of play, which means they are in a certain place for a certain amount of time.

Every day for 30 days, I got up at 6 a.m. to play for two hours. I ended up with the manuscript.

Now to publish on your own. I should say that my husband is an editor and I used to be a graphic designer but no longer do. That took care of pretty much everything. I got along well with Excite Print as well.

In my previous job, I put out a lot of publications, so I know how the process works.

If you want to write a book and publish it yourself, you might learn something from this.

Cost-effective ways to design your book’s cover

Every author has a hard time with the book cover. How do you show what the book is worth with just one picture on the front? Even more frustrating, how do you get someone to pick your book based on the blurb on the back?

It depends on how good your brief is

The more accurate, clear, and helpful the instructions you give the designer, the more likely it is that the book cover will meet your needs. I knew this from working for years with briefs like “wave your hands around, I’m not sure what I want, that’s your job.”

Shopping for candy

It’s also less likely that you’ll end up going candy shopping with your designer, which is not only a waste of time but also harmful.

When you start to wonder, “What if the type was blue, purple, or red?” What if you just moved it to the left, right, up, and back? If you say, “Could the picture be smaller, bigger, or over there?” you’re in big trouble. From then on, nothing will ever be enough for you.

The designer will go from being helpful to resigned to uninterested, because once you mess with the balances, they’re no longer designing, they’re just doing the job to get paid. Everyone is in a bad spot.

Professional vs. hiring someone else

Your brief needs to start with a summary of the book and answer these questions for your designer: What does your book mostly talk about? Who are you writing for? (Telling a story about your ideal reader and what’s going on in their lives that your book is about would help here.) What does the book want that reader to get out of it?

Even if they don’t, a professional designer should still ask you these questions.

Before starting the design, they should also read more than just the “blurb.” If you’re sending your book to be written overseas, it’s up to you to give a resume of it.

Outsourcing is a different subject. I would suggest, though, that if you are hiring someone else to do the work, you post your brief and ask for answers to questions. If the questions aren’t mentioned or answered, take those designers out of the running. At least you’ll know that the people who answer them have carefully read your brief.

Write about it if you have an idea for the book cover

Give your designer both the images and covers you like and the ones you don’t like.

Design is personal, and your designer is an artist, not someone who can read your mind. Sorry, but old, hurt feelings are coming to the surface here. Still, if you want a good relationship and a good result, it helps to put yourself in their shoes a little.

Imagery is hard to do

A designer can do a lot with Photoshop, but the image they start with needs to be right, of good quality, visually appealing, and well put together.

If your book is about business, please don’t put on the front cover a group of smiling, happy, “diverse,” but posed business people having the time of their lives.

It just isn’t true! As bad as tired men and women with their hands in their heads and their desks so full of stuff that it looks like a war zone.

Stock imagery

If your book is about beekeeping, for example, you can use stock photos because there are thousands of them.

You can spend hours looking through all the sites for images (Adobe Stockphotos and Fotalia are two) that a designer could use to make something amazing. That’s true if you want to save money and your designer’s time.

Most of the time, a professional designer would want to choose the image based on what you told them to do. A designer you hire from outside will work with what you give them.

Most stock photo libraries let you download previews of the images you want to send to your designer as part of the brief and to show them what you like.

When they choose something, you’ll have the stock number to buy it. Often, I’ve found the perfect picture, but then I couldn’t find it again to buy it. Super frustrating.

A selfie cover

Some authors try to set themselves up as experts by putting a picture of themselves on the front of their books and writing a bio about themselves.

Then the way you are photographed is very important. The tone of the book depends on everything, but especially on the way you say things. Is it serious, funny, or thoughtful? If you get that just a little bit wrong, your reader will be confused before they even get to page one. (See my picture below).

Become a magpie

If you’re interested in what works on other book covers, that will help you. You’re in the zone, so while you’re writing your book, become a bit of a magpie. It’s a great time to start collecting images on your smartphone from other book covers, magazines, and the internet.

When you find a cover, image, or typeface that you like, think about why you like it. The designer’s brief will be better if you answer that question.


Even if the images are great, typography is still important. There are a lot of online resources that explain how type works to make people feel something.

You can help the designer understand what you want by learning how type works and by reading similar books that use type well.

There are three on this page

I used to write a tutorial on it, but now I’m not as interested in design, except when I see it being used wrong.

Especially on the cover of a book, that’s a sin. All the work you did to show the world what you have to offer was for nothing if what you wrote made your reader feel something completely different than what you wrote.

The more you know about how good type works, the better you’ll be able to tell your designer what you want, and the less likely you are to be disappointed or have to pay extra.

The backcover/blurb design

Too many book covers don’t match up between the front and back. The design of the back cover is just as important as the front. A good designer will put them all together so that your book’s brand, positioning promise, and readers’ expectations are consistent from front to back and inside.

Write your blurb and bio before you go

Nothing is more frustrating for a designer than making a design with placeholder text, getting the type size, weight, and spacing just right, and then having to change everything when the real text doesn’t fit, even if it’s only by a sentence or two.

Text in a block is a shape in a space

Designers make things by finding the right balance between shape, color, and space.

They often make up for it by making the type smaller. Bad move. Depending on the typeface, a good size for reading type is between 9 and 11 points. Type as small as 4pt is often used by designers, especially younger ones. Wait until they are 40 years old!


Maybe you wrote the book. You are still not a copywriter. A copywriter’s job is to write short, interesting copy.


If you can’t afford one, write one, sit on it, look it over, and make changes.

If a sentence can’t say what it needs to say without an adverb or too many adjectives, it needs to be rewritten. Every word has to work for its spot. Words like “in fact,” “obviously,” “really,” “very,” “basically,” and “of course” don’t add much to what the sentence means. Most of the time, they hide the truth. Remove them (in your book too.)

See how the sentence sounds without them

I promise it will sound sharper, more authoritative, or less like you are trying to say something else without saying it.

After 40 years of living with an editor, this is what happens.

If you write your own blurb, find a copywriter to help you make it better and shorter once you’ve written it. It’s amazing how rewriting a sentence can make it stand out without changing what it means.


Ask people in your target audience who don’t know what your book is about to read it. Then, ask them to tell you in a few sentences what they think the book is about and how it could help them.

If they don’t get it right, it needs to be rewritten. If they get it right, ask them what would make them want to read the book.

Your resume and photo

If you can afford it, I beg you to get a real portrait done, which will be more interesting.

Reject the stunned-mullet studio shot where you look up with an air of superiority out of the corner of your eye and are made up or dressed to the eyeballs, as if you were going to meet the queen or walk down a red carpet.

We no longer live in a world of “professionals vs. people,” especially if we’re self-publishing. If you want people to believe that what you’ve written is good and real, put your name on the back cover. A person at work. You can find out more about this important part of your book cover by going to Beth Jennings.

People will be interested and curious when they look at a great picture of you.

How important is your book’s cover?


Your bio

Too often, this sounds like a resume, which makes it hard for the reader to connect with you. You want them to like and trust you and want to know more about you. Test your bio the same way you tested your blurb. Ask people if your bio made them want to read your book.

The ISBN number.

ISBN Services is the place to go to get this.

Bowkers used to be there, but that seems to have gone away.

Please do this before you send everything to be designed. Again, if your designer has made all the negative, positive, image, and text spaces on your cover work, and then they have to find room for the ISBN number and barcode, that means they have to redo the cover, which takes more time and money. I’ll bet you a good bottle of pinot that you won’t like it as much the second time around as you did the first.

The backbone

When I taught book cover design 38 years ago, I made a fool of myself by insisting that the type on the spine should go from the bottom up.

From the top down. There are times when designers get these details wrong. I don’t seem to have learned this lesson yet. If you can figure it out. Blushing.

At least two meters away, the spine should be easy to read.

If your book does make it to the shelves, the spine alone needs to make it stand out.

That also means that your title should be catchy.

But that’s a different story for a different time.

The next one in this set. Your inner pages.

Please book a 20-minute “Let’s Talk” chat if you want a little more help getting clear on any of your communication opportunities.