10 Things I Learned Designing A Book Cover

A journey into the unknown…

I like graphic design. I like developing a concept and making it come to life. It doesn’t matter what it is, a logo, a business card, a website, a training presentation…a book cover. I am also a terrible artist. If you told me to use my imagination and draw a person, it would be a stick figure. However, give me an object or a model of some sort, and ask me to draw it, I can, no problem.

I learned technical drawing as an archaeologist in the 1990s. I loved it. It was incredibly satisfying to take a pot sherd, measure, draw, and extrapolate the shape of the vessel. I also learned how to draw 1:20 plans of excavations, and later, digitise that information into a computer mapping program. Again, very satisfying. So my creative drawing skills are very much linked to technical and digital design.

I’m just starting out as an indie author and I don’t have a lot of money to spend. Any money I’ve used to develop my brand so far has been budgeted out of my day job. At the moment, I set aside 5 to 10% of my monthly income for indie work. It goes towards domain name purchasing, website hosting, software, hardware, research materials, copyrighting, and promotion. As I’ve budgeted so little, if I find something for free, I will use it. Consequently, the software I use for graphic design work is open source or already on my PC. I use GIMP, Inkscape, Powerpoint, Publisher, and Windows Movie Maker, for the majority of my graphics. One day I shall buy a Mac and upgrade, but for now, these things may be a little more time-consuming, but they are sufficient and I already know how to use them.

I didn’t have the money available to hire a cover designer. I didn’t like Canva, it couldn’t do what I saw in my head because I didn’t upgrade. Therefore, designing the cover for my first collection of horror stories, The Passages of Melton Hall and other stories, was a steep learning curve. I knew very little about book cover design and the rules behind it. I made terrible mistakes, but I believe in failing upwards. My first four attempts were bad, really bad. Have a look.

cover evolution

I was clearly doing something wrong. I’m pretty adaptable, so I did what I should have done in the first place, research and learn what made a good book cover.

Some of the following ten points were pretty obvious once I got over myself and shut down that self-righteous ‘but it’s the words that matter’ writer’s voice. I learned:

  1. People really do judge a book by its cover. Your writing might be wonderful, but stick a crappy cover on it and no-one will ever look inside let alone buy it.
  2. Your cover design sets the level for the quality expected of your brand.
  3. A book cover must fit the genre style for which it is designed.
  4. Fonts matter, be consistent, don’t confuse the eye, keep it simple, no more than three. I found two a good fit for me.
  5. Colours matter, use complementary opposites on the colour wheel for a well-balanced match that does not scramble the brain or send the viewer cross-eyed.
  6. Your book is not a school essay, don’t put ‘by’ on it, you sound like a kid.
  7. Images should draw the eye but not overpower the title.
  8. Use layers to create depth and atmosphere.
  9. You can include a focus item that grabs attention and tells people what they are getting, especially if the book is a collection of stories or a box set/bundle.
  10. Tell a story or give a snapshot of something that is relevant to your content.

I did a visual survey of horror novels to get a general impression of what was typical for the genre, thereby developing a feel for what a prospective customer (reader) might expect. It wasn’t difficult, I typed ‘horror novel book covers’ into Google Images and got the following results.

cover survey

I then sat back and thought for a couple of days before trying again. To start, I used GIMP to create the central cover image and background. Graphics were sourced using CC0 images on Pixabay. Some I had to slice and dice. For instance, the image of the girl with the lamp had been part of a much larger scene, but she was perfect for what I wanted so I cut her out, fiddled with a few filters and added her. Once I had gathered all the pieces, I layered everything together, did some blending, fading, shadowing, colour highlighting, and transparency. There are a total of eleven layers in the final cover design, nine of which are for the background image. I transferred the background image to Inkscape and added another couple of layers for the title text and info sticker. The font I used for the title is a CC0 font I downloaded from 1001fonts.com. The font on the info sticker came with Inkscape.

I came up with two final designs I was relatively happy with, but I was on the fence about the fonts. By this stage, I had lost objectivity and needed outside help, so I created a side by side comparison and posted it to my Facebook feed asking everyone which font they preferred.

font test

I tallied the results. After a few changes in leadership, B was the eventual winner. I still wasn’t completely satisfied with the design. I felt the filter I’d put on the title thinned it out too much and my name just looked messy. One person also said I was obscuring the top of the building turret with the ‘and other stories’, something I hadn’t even noticed. So I stripped the filter, made my name the same as the title font, and adjusted the ‘and other stories’ to create the final image below. I think it is okay.

pass blog final pic


The basic skills I learned over twenty years ago work well with web design and marketing work for my author brand. It also saves me a lot of money. I’m not saying Passages has the best cover on the internet, but I am satisfied it does the job it is supposed to.

Finally, I have learned that you do not have to be a born artist to produce a decent design, you just need to learn how. It does take dedication and you have to enjoy it or you won’t put your heart into it. For people with little time or lack of interest, I would still recommend hiring a graphic designer if possible or arranging a quid pro quo with someone. For those who love it, dive in, the ink’s warm.

The Passages of Melton Hall and other stories will be available on Amazon and Kobo in the next couple of months. If you want to learn more, visit www.katiamdavis.com to read free extracts, learn more about me, and download a free copy of The Trunk.

Have you designed your own cover? What did you learn on your journey?

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