Book Cover Design: Don’t Take My Word For It

by Cathi Stevenson I've been a book cover designer for more than 15 years and I've created over 2,000 book covers for traditional and indie publishers. If there's one thing I've learned along the way, it's that book cover design is subjective — very subjective. I can share my experiences with clients. I can tell them what worked in the past. I can explain what I’ve learned through hours and hours and hours of research, and looking at best sellers’ lists and losing myself for entire mornings in bookstores. But, at the end of the day, determining what cover style or trend is the best, is still subjective. The client likes what the client likes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it might be a bit narrow-minded. A book cover shouldn't simply reflect the tastes of the author. Its purpose is not to be the prettiest picture on the market — a book cover is supposed to sell books. While a beautiful cover is a great thing, an effective cover is more important. Many successful books don't even have images levenson_onlinethumnail2on the cover. A skillful use of typography and layout has taken many books to the best sellers' lists: There's Bill Bulford's Heat, and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl, which I wrote about in a previous post. Since I love designing nonfiction, I've created many text-only covers; one, The Essential Fundraising Guide for K-12 Schools, is getting rave reviews (and a book cover design award). Fortunately, the industry does have experts willing to share their knowledge. Chip Kidd is one such book cover designer. For 25 years or so he’s been creating memorable designs  that you've probably seen, like the dinosaur silhouette on Jurassic Park, and the “water smudged” look of Augusten Burroughs’ Dry. Kidd has several very informative videos on YouTube. If you’re designing a book cover, hiring a cover designer or managing a publishing project, this video is well worth the 17 minutes of your time.  I think the information at 2:50 is really important and exemplifies a common issue with many self-published covers. Random House also has material about the process of book cover design on YouTube  (Chip Kidd shows up in this one, too). Another well-known designer who generously shares his design process is Henry Sene Yee. I thought his cover for Smut was brilliant. His use of Comic Sans on Sam Lipsyte’s book was a great marketing idea. There's lots of good information out there. Take my word for it.

Tips for Formatting Your Book Cover for Lightning Source (or Any Printer)

by Cathi Stevenson The files you supply must be created properly, or you’re going to have issues. Some printers will print whatever you send, and don’t check anything. Others, like Lightning Source (LSI) are more particular and more expensive. But you get what you pay for and I think they’re worth it. You absolutely have to make sure your files are properly formatted. There’s no sense creating a cover in Word (it doesn’t work with the right color gamut) or even the beloved GIMP, which is an awesome software, but alas, it too will not work with CMYK files. You’ll have no problem creating an e-book cover with these programs, but print is a bit more technical. If you’re going to be paying money for print proofs, you might as well do it right the first time. WARNING: The following contains technical jargon which you should be familiar with (you are the project manager), so I’ve provided links that will explain them to you within the text.
  • If you’re using LSI, you will want to use their cover template generator. It will supply your customized cover template in EPS, PDF or InDesign formats, and your barcode will be in the file (you have to give them your ISBN). Color should be CMYK. Some printers will accept RGB files, but they’re still printing in CMYK. This means they’ll flip the color “on the fly” and you’ll be forced to deal with the results. As you can see from my link, they’re not always good.
  • No more than 240% black or color saturation on the cover. Again, some printers don’t care, but if you’re printing with LSI it’s necessary. They will send you a .csf file to use with all your Adobe programs if you ask them nicely, so you won’t have to worry about this, the software will adjust things as you go.
  • 300 dpi for everything. Don’t think that because you enlarged an image it will work. A 300 dpi image that was doubled in size becomes a 150 dpi image no matter how you’ve fooled the software into saying otherwise. So, while you might get by the prepress check, you’ll still end up with poor print quality. I wasn’t able to find a simple explanation of this online, so I created this image. You can see on the middle image that was simply enlarged to 300 dpi from 72 dpi that the quality is nowhere near as good as the one to the right, that was created at 300 dpi. But, as the one on the left shows, 72 dpi is fine for online purposes.


  • Good fonts. Use them. All fonts are not created equal.
  • Make sure to check that your fonts have embedded after you export the PDF. If you don’t, you could be in for some unpleasant surprises when a substitute font ends up in your printed book, throwing off your layout. In Adobe Acrobat Pro you can check this in Files/Properties/Fonts and beside the list of fonts it should say embedded or subset embedded.

Darker Covers Can Cause Problems

  • Putting a lot of ink or toner on a book will mean a longer drying time. Heavy inking/toner sometimes causes issues with the lamination or other finishes not adhering as well (remember, you’re not attaching the coating to the porous paper, you’ve putting it on smoother ink/toner).
  • Denser ink/toner creates a “layer” on the paper and that can crack and peel over time.
  • Then there are “hickeys” which often appear in large areas of solid color and are most prevalent on darker colors. While they are simply a fact of life in printing, since darker colors require more drying time, so there’s more of a chance dust particles will land on the paper and create a “hickey” effect.