Posted On April 15, 2015 by Print This Post

Part 1: Ten Steps to a Great Book Cover – What I’ve learned from the experts at Sourcebooks and Smashwords by Kate Allure

Book covers. The good. The bad. And the ugly. Whether you’re designing your own or hiring an artist, your book cover is the first thing a potential reader sees. Kate Allure shares useful tips and advice on cover design. 

Welcome, Kate! 

Part 1: Best Practices for Indie Authors

I know firsthand that book covers can make or break your sales, having just gone through a rebranding of my debut book Playing Doctor. So the question—“What makes a good cover?”—is something I’ve thought a lot about lately. I’ll share what I’ve learned from the experts about the do’s and don’ts of creating a good book cover.

It’s not exactly news that this matters, but here are some thoughts on why. The Romance Writers of America reports that cover art is a distant seven on the list of what factors spur book buying, after plot, author name, price, friend recommendation, and more. However, when readers look for new books—especially important to debut authors or expanding a fan base—RWA reports that these are the top three methods: browsing in a bookstore or browsing online, and again personal friend recommendations. Further, a 2012 RWA report* noted that romance buyers are impulsive, with a combined total of 62% reporting their purchase at a given time was impulsive (32% hadn’t planned to buy a book at all and 30% hadn’t planned to buy that particular book). These factors point to the essential need to stand out from the crowd with a professional, attractive book cover that hooks the reader into pulling it off the shelf or clicking on it.

Here below are some ideas to get you started.

Best Practices for Indie Authors

Founded by Mark Coker in 2008, Smashwords became one of the drivers of the explosion in indie e-book publishing because theyKate+Allure+b&w made it easy for an author to typeset and upload their book for distribution to multiple retailers. As a vetter at Smashwords, AJ Mayall looks at approximately 1,000 books a week, checking each work’s typesetting and cover for functionality. He notes that they rarely reject a cover for design reasons. “We at Smashwords are very big on letting you do your cover however you want, and I will only reject for issues of functionality—can’t read it, image wrong size, too blurry to understand what it is. If that’s what the author wants, then we want to give them power to sell the book that they created.” After looking at more than 156,000 book covers in his three years there, AJ has learned what works and what doesn’t, and he hates to see all the author’s hard work come to nothing due to poor cover choices, saying, “Someone will write an amazing book, just phenomenal, and the cover’s not good.”

I asked what he considers the single most important consideration. Stressing that his statements are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Smashwords, AJ suggests that every “author should ask themselves, am I designer good enough to put together a book cover good enough to sell this.” If not, then he says that the most important thing you can do is find an artist. “You’ve poured you blood, sweat and tears into your manuscript, and you want the cover to reflect how good the content is inside. The concept of ‘never judge a book by its cover’…unfortunately people do judge a book by its cover and a bad cover will look lazy.”

He recognizes that many authors do not have a budget for this, so here are his personal top recommendations for things authors need to consider when making a cover.

1) Avoid Image Copyright Infringement
No matter how great the image you find, copyright infringement will get your book rejected by Smashwords and, worse, if you do get it published elsewhere you might eventually get sued. Only use free images in the public domain. “Wikipedia: Public domain image resources” lists many free stock photograph or image sites, and they have their own website of free images at Wikimedia Commons. If you do find an image you really want that isn’t copyright free, contact the owner and ask to use it; if they give permission, then get signed paperwork for worldwide rights.

2) Use High Quality Images
Make sure the image is of high-enough resolution that it will not look blurry or pixelated. It might look great as a thumbnail, but blown up it will look terrible (another Smashwords functionality rejection).

3) Simplicity Works Best
Do not clutter your cover. AJ notes that some debut authors are so excited about their new book that they want to put too much on the cover (long titles, reviews, back cover blurbs, multiple images) which looks amateurish and makes it harder to discern what it’s about. AJ says the best choice is a single “simple image that strikes to the core of what the book is about.” Think symbolism (Twilight’s two hands holding an apple) or subtext (Fifty Shades of Grey’s tie, mask, or handcuffs).

4) Author Branding
“Consider yourself a brand. Create a formula for how you like your books to look within a series or genre. If someone is looking for your next book, they will know this is what they look like. Make a uniform design. Then, do not hide your name in the corner. Give yourself space on the book cover.”

5) Careful Titling
Don’t make your title so long that the type becomes too small to read easily. While not a hard and fast rule, AJ says to avoid some overused typefaces that cheapen the image. Avoid Papyrus, Comic Sans, and Algerian. Unless you’re really skilled, don’t use more than three different fonts on a cover or it might look cluttered.

6) Go With What Sells
He adds, “If you want to try something new, go ahead, but don’t rock the boat too much. Going with what’s already been done works. Let’s be honest…Harlequin’s airbrushed ‘swooning woman and handsome man’ has been selling for forty years.” So within your subgenre, do some research on what’s selling as your starting point for thinking about your cover. Then find the right image to convey the symbolism or meaning of your particular book.

AJ’s boss, Smashwords founder Mark Coker calls it, “The promise of the book cover.” You want to promise something exciting that hooks browsing readers in a bookstore or on Amazon enough that they want to know more.

For the newbie cover designer there’s a lot of free instruction available. Mark Coker puts all his presentations on the Smashwords YouTube channel. AJ recommends all of them, noting that these are his full presentations that usually authors have to pay to hear at conventions, and Mark makes them available free for anyone to watch. This YouTube link will take you directly to Mark’s advice on book cover best practices. Additionally, sign up for a free Smashwords account and you can download his four free e-books on publishing strategies. AJ also recommends LousyBookCovers.Com for a serious what NOT to do guide.

My deepest thanks to AJ Mayall for his great advice! Next up, on May 1st watch for Part 2: Branding and Rebranding with the Traditional Publisher where I’ll talk with art director Dawn Adams and editor Mary Altman from Sourcebooks.

In the meantime, I would love to hear what pitfalls you’ve run into in the past with your covers?


Playing+Doctor+cover-300Playing+Doctor+cover-300Playing Doctor, Kate’s anthology about the fun you can have with doctors behind closed doors receives raves: “Debut author Allure launches her Meeting Men series of erotic romance collections with this sizzling and sensual medical-themed trio of stories. Readers will cheer on these strong women as they take the initiative, seeking (and finding) both sexual satisfaction and emotional fulfillment,” notes Publishers Weekly. “This trio of hot and steamy tales is escapism of the richest, most decadent variety. Kate Allure deals in pure fantasy, a spirited diversion from the mundane and a chance to explore some of the most titillating ‘what ifs’ readers can imagine,” says RT Book Reviews. And, Library Journal adds, “Fun, flirty characters abound, and there’s plenty of kinky action.”

Bio: Kate is the author of the Meeting Men and Club Exotica series from Sourcebooks. Kate has also launched, a new type of interactive author website which she hopes will become a fun meeting place for all things erotic romance. She has been a storyteller her entire life, writing plays, short stories, and dance librettos throughout her childhood and later for semi-professional theater and dance companies. Her non-fiction writing included working for American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. Beyond writing, Kate’s passions include traveling and exploring all things sensual with her loving husband.

Kate’s Website:
Twitter: @KateAllure
Pinterest: Check out photo albums for each of Kate’s books
Facebook: KateAllure.Sizzling.Romance

* Resource Cited: “The Romance Book Consumer in the Digital Age: A Joint Study with Romance Writers of America” Bowker/PubTrack Consumer. 2012.


Up next: Weapons expert Adam Firestone on Friday, April 17th. 


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7 Responses to “Part 1: Ten Steps to a Great Book Cover – What I’ve learned from the experts at Sourcebooks and Smashwords by Kate Allure”

  1. I won’t say I’ve NEVER bought a book for its cover, but I’ve definitely passed over a few books that sounded interesting because the covers were so poorly done. I didn’t trust that the book would have been edited well – or at all – if the author/publisher didn’t think it was worth investing in a decent cover.

    I’ve also bought some really good books with pretty awful covers because they were highly recommended to me. I feel bad for those authors.

    I haven’t been in the position of needing to create a cover, but I’ve traveled the journey with friends who either created their own covers and/or hired people to create covers for them. There were a LOT more things to consider than I’d realized!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 15, 2015, 9:31 am
  2. Great post, Kate! I’m a visual person, so I particularly appreciate a beautiful cover. I feel like a cover should always tell me something about the book. A cover of a couple in a clinch says “romance” to me, while a cover with man candy gives me romance and a huge cue as to “heat” level. Covers with landscapes usually say “women’s fiction” to me.

    When it came time to design my own covers, I hired a professional and I’m so glad that I did.

    Posted by Heatherly Bell | April 15, 2015, 11:41 am
  3. Afternoon Kate!

    I totally agree about having too many things on a cover…especially when it’s an ebook cover that you only see in the small size on amazon. I always recommend to my clients they look at the cover in the thumbnail size, because that’s what everyone sees first on amazon.

    Print covers? Yeah, I’ll buy a book by it’s cover, even when I wasn’t planning to buy a book – something just draws me to it…and then if the blurb is good, in the cart it goes!

    Thanks for a great post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 15, 2015, 2:28 pm
  4. Hi Kate,

    Reading tastes are subjective and after seeing so many covers gone wrong (in my opinion) the same theory applies to cover art. The two biggest misses are too many elements on the cover and using the wrong font. I wouldn’t trust myself to design my own covers. I’m fortunate that I have friends who are brutally frank.

    Looking forward to the second part of your post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 15, 2015, 9:19 pm
  5. I agree tastes are subjective and yet I think when something’s REALLY good—whether a story, a cover, or any type of art—we all sense it, even if we can’t immediately understand why.

    I was sitting listening to the first pages of finalists in a writing contest (mine was one, bye the way) and they were all of a certain caliber (some better, some worse, but roughly the same level). Then a story was read and everyone in the audience perked up. It was just better and it wasn’t just me—my two friends next to me started whispering the same thing. With time it would probably be easy to analyze WHY that story was better, but just like book covers there wasn’t that opportunity, we just sensed it. (FYI — it won the competition.) Book covers therefore take on great importance, because it is all snap judgement when we look at one—few people will analyze why one is better or worse, they’ll just move on to the next cover without giving the losing book a second thought. I know I could do a passable cover but not a good one, and it’s that fine distinction that is so illusive.

    I’m excited that the next part of my two part post on book covers goes up on May 1st. See you then,

    ~ Kate

    Posted by Kate Allure | April 26, 2015, 2:46 pm


  1. […] We welcome back Kate Allure for the second part of her post on creating an eye-catching book cover. If you missed her first post, you can read it here.  […]

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