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Graphic Design for Authors Part Three: What Makes a Good Cover? By Shauna Aura Knight

CoverLeaderWithinVisual design is subjective, so explaining what makes a “good” cover is difficult. For instance, there are a lot of covers that have a good looking, professional design, but they aren’t visually to my taste or aren’t for a genre that I read. The challenge with book covers, as I’ve addressed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, is that your book cover is the single most important part of your book marketing strategy.

Let’s also be totally frank—some people just don’t have a good eye for design, including some authors. What’s worse is that those folks often don’t know it, and they end up making some bad design decisions. If you think you may not have a good design aesthetic, it’s really for the best that you figure that out soon so that you can focus your efforts on choosing designers to work with. You’ll need to find designers whose opinions you trust. If you’re not sure about your eye for design, check in with a few graphic designers who will give you an unbiased opinion.

That is to say, they aren’t trying to get you to hire them by saying your design work or current covers aren’t good.

Importance of Covers

An axiom I offered earlier in the series: Do what you do well, hire out for the rest. Here’s another one: If you aren’t willing or able to pay for a really good cover, don’t bother buying advertising or printing postcards.


Well—think about it this way. Let’s say you come into a few thousand dollars and you can finally afford to print some postcards and buy some ads in the genre-specific magazine of your choice. What do you put on those cards and ads? Your book covers, of course. And if you have a bad book cover, it doesn’t matter how much you pay for ads, nobody is going to buy the book.

Some of the pre-made book cover sites do an ok job. Your cover won’t really stand out from the crowd, but it at least won’t look totally unprofessional. If you’re completely strapped for cash, and if you have some skill with graphic design, you may need to bite the bullet and design a cover yourself. In that case, it’s best to understand your limitations so you know what you will be able to do.

It’s often easier to explain what makes a good cover by illustrating what makes a bad cover. However, that would require me to pick on some authors by posting book covers that I think are poorly done, and that’s not really what I want to do here. What I can do instead is talk about some characteristics of bad book covers and design mistakes.

However, if you ever want me to take a look at a cover and offer my honest opinion, just contact me via one of the links below. I’ll offer a brief opinion for free with no obligation to hire me, but, be prepared for my honesty.

Bad Covers

Boring: Covers that have no contrast

Busy: Covers that have too much going on

No Clear Subject: Some book covers have a textural photo but no clear subject, or the image is of poor quality

Can’t Tell What It Is: Some covers are going for some kind of a concept but I can’t tell what the concept is.

Flat Areas of Color: This is also boring. I frequently see cover designs that are a flat color, with a small photograph in the middle, and indistinguishable text above and below. Again, there’s no contrast.

Title and Author Readability: Your book title, and author name, should be readable when the book is brought down to 150 pixels wide on a screen.

Three Dimensional Models: Just don’t do this. I’m talking about digitally rendered people and scenes. While there are some (very few) 3-D artists that can create beautiful images, most of the 3-D illustrations I see look amateur and atrocious.

Badly-Painted People: I’m not sure how else to put this, but sometimes I see covers that have people that just look slightly off. The painting is going for realism but misses it somewhere, and the heroine’s face is crooked or not to scale. If the painting is supposed to be realistic, it needs to be realistic. If it’s impressionistic, it should be impressionistic. Poorly-done in any artistic style stands out.

Bad Photoshopping: Not everyone is a whiz with photo editing programs. If you aren’t an expert, your images will look photo-chopped and that stands out in a way you don’t want.

Repeated Photo: Books are usually aligned vertically. I’ve seen some folks take a wide photo and just repeat it—once on the top, once on the bottom.

Same Photo Used for All Books: While I’ll talk more about design styles and tying theme and mood together within your author brand, and how using similar photos can tie a series together, I have seen some books that are by the same author and have the same exact photo on the covers, just different text for the title of the book. This is a mistake.

Cover Mood Mismatch: Your cover should match the title and the blurb. While I’m generally not a fan of romantic comedies (Single White Vampire being the only exception to that so far) your cover needs to match the mood of your story, your title, and your blurb. You don’t want a dark, creepy cover for a comedy. And you don’t want a cartoony cover for an angsty urban fantasy. If your book cover promises one thing, and your book delivers something else, your reader’s going to be ticked off. Ticked off readers leave bad reviews.

Different genres have certain tropes. Let’s play a game.

  • Highland romance? Kilt
  • Historical Romance? Period clothing
  • Erotic romance: Muscled, bare-chested guy
  • BDSM romance: Someone in handcuffs, fetish gear, blindfolds, riding crop
  • Urban Fantasy: Woman using magical powers or holding a sword with a city skyline in the background
  • Romantic comedy: Cartooney image
  • Science Fiction or Scif Romance: Planet or space ship

There’s a reason these visual cues are used; they let the reader know what to expect. They are playing off of the basic principles of branding. It’s worth pointing out that the tropes can get really overused and become cliché, so that’s something to be aware of too.


Romance novels, particularly historical, often feature script fonts. However, some of these are just plain hard to read. They are too thin to be legible at a smaller size and thus they don’t offer enough contrast. Also, there are a few fonts that are just bad and yet people continue to use them. There are other fonts that aren’t so bad, but they are available for free and thus get overused.

Comic Sans is one of those fonts that people use for a lot of things, and it’s just a terrible font. Papyrus is a font that isn’t so bad, but it’s really overused, particularly by metaphysical practitioners. In some New Age magazines, about a third of the advertisements use Papyrus. Worse, some people use Papyrus for a body font, vs. for a header or title.

You can use decorative fonts for book covers, or for the header of your advertisement or postcard as long as they are legible, but for body text (paragraphs, blurbs for books) you need something that’s easily readable.

Covers with People

It sounds simple; if you are writing a book about a relationship between two people, then you typically want a book cover that illustrates two people. However—getting photographs of people that look right in the correct pose…that can be an intense challenge. If you have a lot of budget to blow on a photo shoot or someone who can paint the characters from scratch, great.

If you’re working on the stock-photo budget, this is going to be a significant challenge.

Pro Tip: If you’re strapped for cash and planning to design your own cover, the very best advice I can give you is to pick a really good stock photo and let the photo do the work for you. Even if that photo is only of one of your characters. If you can find a decent photo with two characters that look right in a good pose, go for it. But, if you can find a really good photo of just one of your characters, go for that.

In fact, I’d say that most of the premade covers I see out there are just adding a text treatment (author and title, maybe some drop shadows and some decorative scroll elements to a single stock photo. The stock photo might have some Photoshopping done to add contrast, or to make the colors a bit more magical, but most pre-made covers are leaning pretty heavily on some good stock photos. How do I know this? I have a lot of those same stock photos in my library.

Pro Tip: Sometimes the cover doesn’t need to be fantastic. Sometimes, the cover just needs to communicate that it was professionally designed. An example? A lot of Emma Holly’s “Hidden” series have ho-hum covers, in my opinion. But, they’re clearly professionally done. They aren’t bad, they’re just not exciting. Emma Holly has a strong brand and reputation and I love her work, so I’m going to buy her books regardless of the cover.

Below are a few resources I pulled together. A few caveats: this list isn’t at all exhaustive, and I should be clear I have not hired any of these folks. I pulled most of them off of romance email lists or Facebook groups on cover design. Also, I have a penchant for dark, moody, mythic artwork, which fits my own design style. However, any of these might be designers whose style fits with what you’re looking to do.

Trust me when I say I know what it’s like to not have even $100 for a pre-made cover, but this is one area where you’ll really want to consider investing in the long-term success of your book if graphic design isn’t your thing.

Professional Covers and Nice Illustrations

Covers, Fairly Unique (These are all a little different than the standard pre-mades)

OK Pre-made Covers that are Clear and Clean. (Not the most unique, but basically professional looking.)


Bio200A graphic designer, artist, author, and presenter, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations.

She’s the author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels includingWerewolves in the Kitchen, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, and A Fading Amaranth. She is also the author of the nonfiction books The Leader Within,  Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, and forthcoming The Facilitation Handbook: Enchanting a Group

Shauna’s writing and artwork is inspired by the mythic stories of heroes, of swords and magic, and of the darkness we each must overcome. That the challenges we face shape us, and help each character—each person–to become heroes.  Shauna is passionate about creating experiences, spaces, stories, designs, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination.  Web Site:
WerewolvesWithChocolate_SmallGraphic Design and Consulting:

Shauna’s artwork and graphic design are used for fiction and nonfiction book covers and marketing collateral. Her work often has a dark, mythic, textural flavor. If you’re looking for an honest opinion on your covers or other collateral, she’s happy to offer a brief review for free.  If you’re interested in engaging Shauna for graphic design, mention this article for 30% off your first project (maximum of $200 off).  You can view her portfolio here: