Three Critical Components of DIY Book Covers

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Build a solid foundation for your book cover

By Tenesha L. Curtis

Book covers are one of the more important aspects of your book when it comes to sales. If you’ve decided you’re going to create your covers instead of hiring a professional, you’re in for a fairly tough task. Creating a dull cover is extremely simple and can be done in less than a minute. The struggle comes with trying to create a cover that makes readers want to buy. In order to make your cover fit in, yet stand out for all the right reasons, understanding how to use colors, images, and type is key.

Ready to Research

You’ll need to do a bit of research to create your own book cover. To prepare, open a new document where you can take notes or grab a pen and piece of paper. You’re going to be recording the title, colors, graphics, and text for each cover you’ll be looking at, so make a table or list where you can put all this information.

Component Number 1: Colors

The palette for any given book cover is going to vary from genre to genre and niche to niche. That means that the colors commonly used for Victorian historical romances are going to differ from the colors commonly used for New York-based contemporary college romances. To figure out what the most-popular cover colors are in your market, follow these steps:    

  1. Go to an online bookstore such as
  2. Search for your niche in the romance category (Vikings, workplace, love triangle, paranormal, etc.).
  3. Write down the titles of the first ten books on the results page.
  4. In the section of your table or list labeled “colors,” note the most prominent two or three colors used on the cover of each title.

When a color shows up repeatedly, just add a marker like an X or a check mark to track how many times it was used. You’ll normally be able to tell which colors are the most common pretty quickly.  But if you prefer, you can do this research for more than the top ten books in that category.

While you might not necessarily need to use every one of these common colors on your own cover, it would help to use at least one in a prominent way. For example, if your research tells you that workplace rom-coms generally use white, yellow, and pink on the cover, strongly consider using at least one of these. Maybe you’re not a fan of pink, but you wouldn’t mind working in the yellow or the white. You’ll rarely, if ever, want to arbitrarily use all of the top few colors because they may clash. Even if they are popular in a specific book category over all, they may not necessarily fit all being piled onto the same cover. You’re shooting for “eye-catching” not “eye-sore,” after all!

Component #2: Graphics

The next thing to consider is what images are shown on the covers of these books. For instance, workplace rom-coms may regularly feature cartoon couples, business attire, and city skylines. Medical romances may regularly feature photographs of bare-chested men wearing open lab coats. There could be a million variations on these graphics (which skyline is featured, what the cartoon couples look like, how hairy the chest is, etc.), but once you know what’s common, you can use that to create something that speaks more specifically to what your particular book is about. Instead of business attire, your workplace piece might happen in a factory, so both cover characters may need to have on hair nets, coveralls, or boots. If the workplace is a university, the characters might be more likely to wear items like cardigans or tweed jackets instead of suits.

For the same books that you noted the colors of, write down the major graphics that you see on their covers. I find it helpful to first note the style of the graphic and then follow that up with more specific objects. For example:

  • Watercolor, female lifeguard holding man in her arms on the beach at sunset
  • Photograph, shirtless man sitting on a motorcycle in front of a gated mansion at night
  • Cartoon, couple shaking their fists at one another with their fingers crossed behind their backs while standing in a chapel
  • Pencil sketch, heart broken into four pieces inside a woman’s open palms.

Component #3: Text

Now that you know the most prevalent colors and graphics that appear on the best sellers in your niche, take a closer look at the text. There are generally four types of text that you’ll see on book covers.

  • Sans serif. These are fonts that don’t have the extra strokes at the ends of lines. A sans serif capital letter I (as in, “I’m going to marry him.”) is just going to look like a vertical bar, which can easily be confused with a lowercase L (l) or a the “pipe” symbol (|). But a serif capital letter I will have two extra strokes at the top and bottom (like a capital T on top of an underscore). Typefaces like Arial Narrow, Geonik Pro, and Open Sans are all examples of sans serif text. Colleen Hoover’s Ugly Love has a cover with only sans serif text on it. You’ll see these kinds of fonts used a lot for the titles on thriller or suspense covers as well, though not normally for interior text unless it’s a textbook, self-help book, or other kind of informational literature.  
  • Serif. These are fonts that do have extra strokes at the ends of lines (the capital I that has horizontal bars on the top and bottom of it). Typefaces like Garamond, Times New Roman, and Merriweather are good examples. Julianne MacClean’s These Tangled Vines has a cover with only serif text on it.  You’ll see serifs used for titles of all kinds pretty regularly, and almost always as the interior text for a book (especially fiction).
  • Script. These are fonts meant to look like human handwriting. Print script might look like the title of In Five Years by Rebecca Serle. Other times, it might appear more like cursive handwriting, as with the first three words of Ali Hazelwood’s Love on the Brain. Script fonts are almost universally used for romance books that are more on the steamy side or are openly categorized as erotica. Freestyle Script, Hummingbird, and Sinisuka are some examples of script fonts.
  • Display. These fonts can include script fonts but often push the appearance of the text to a more artistic level. Some display fonts are custom made for a specific project. For instance, text could look like it’s made of molten lava or was created with a stencil. On top of serving as text for the title, the letters themselves are part of the “display” of art on the book cover. This kind of type is meant to be part of the message about what’s contained within the book. Example fonts would be Febre, Bigilla, and Highbinder Display Font. Lucy Score’s Things We Never Got Over is an example of a display font.

Review each of your researched covers again. Try to identify which of these four categories the cover fonts used belong to. Then put them in the “text” section of your list or table. You may list multiples for one title because there could be different fonts used for the title, author name, or other copy on the cover. Generally, it’s more common for the title to have a more eye-catching or fancy typeface. Meanwhile, the author’s name is often a sans serif font of some kind.

Bringing the Data Together

After doing your cover research, it’s time to tally up the most common cover traits for books in your category. Here are some examples of what you might have come up with:

  • Workplace rom-coms: White/pink/yellow - cartoon couples with no eyes, noses, or mouths wearing business casual clothes - sans, script
  • Sci-fi romance: Black/silver/green - photos of shirtless men in profile on / near spaceships - sans
  • Mermaid romance: Blue/lavender/mint - mermaids on rocks in the ocean surrounded by crashing waves - serif, display

Now that you have some idea of the major elements of a book cover for your niche, you can construct one on your own.

Where to Create a Book Cover

Currently, one of the easiest, fastest, and cheapest ways to create a decent-looking cover is to use a drag-and-drop graphic design app. Canva or Adobe Express are two popular options. These kinds of apps will have thousands of stock graphics, photos, sketches, paintings, and other images you can use. They will also have a wide variety of fonts that you can choose from. You can even sort through the library of typefaces by searching for terms like “sans” or “display” to only see the kinds of results you’re looking for.

Then, once you’ve put your graphics and text together, you can adjust the coloring of each element to fit the style that’s most popular in your category. For example, if the stock cartoon man in a suit that you found is wearing a black suit with a red tie, but your color palette research revealed that most of the books about bosses showed them in gray suits with navy blue ties, you can often change those colors for that particular graphic.   

Fitting in Outstandingly

Creating a solid book cover can be tricky. You’re essentially trying to balance three (somewhat mismatched) factors:

  • Looking like your book belongs on the same shelf as the best sellers in your genre.
  • Looking like your book brings something new or different to the table in comparison to the other books you share a category with.
  • Giving the shopper enough information about the book in the first few seconds of viewing the cover to help them understand what kind of reading experience it offers.

It’s an intricate balancing act. But by following the guidelines above, you have a better chance of achieving some or all of these three objectives. As the first, and possibly the only, impression that a buyer gets of you and your work, your cover design is an essential part of selling your books to the audience they are best suited for.

It’s DIY Time!

A book cover’s coloring, images, and text make up a visual representation that gives people more information about the book than you might think. Within the first few seconds of seeing a cover, shoppers are starting to decide whether or not they want to learn more about the book by clicking through to the sales page or turning the book over to read the blurb on the back.

It may be tempting to focus only on standing out (a designer’s version of waving your hands above your head and yelling, “Pick me!”). But this usually ends up hurting your project more than helping it. Standing out means looking different. That’s probably okay when it’s subtle (a small pop of color not often seen on covers for books like yours, for example). But some authors go so far as to do the exact opposite of what they are seeing from the bestsellers. So, instead of their rom-com featuring faceless, cartoon-style characters in suits and ties with colors like white, pink, and yellow, they opt for a photograph of a single staple on a brown metal desktop. In this case, the cover is so different, people may have no idea that it’s a romantic comedy (or a romance novel at all, for that matter). So they skip over it and keep looking for more of the kind of covers they are familiar with. This is simply because they aren’t certain that they will get the reading experience that they are hoping for from the staple-on-a-brown-desk cover. Buying your book becomes a gamble. Not many readers are willing to bet on a new author that they’ve never heard of. Especially one who is also creating covers that seem to be made for a genre the reader isn’t interested in.

While there’s no such thing as a “perfect” cover, following the steps outlined above keep you from shooting in the dark trying to figure out what’s going to work for the kind of book you’re writing. By understanding popular colors, graphics, and fonts of best-selling books in your niche, you have a solid foundation on which to build the kind of “must-buy” book cover design you’re hoping for!

Tenesha L. Curtis, MSSW is an indie author, screenwriter, and managing editor at Volo Press Books. She uses her formal training as a psychotherapist to inform her gripping fiction and easy-to-understand guidebooks for writers. Learn more about her work at