You know the mantra: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But that’s easier to say than do. A book's cover is your not-so-secret weapon when it comes to sales and the reader's very first impression of a book. Or, as famed designer Paul Sahre once put it in an interview with Penguin Random House:
“On a purely functional level, a jacket is there to protect the book, but I also like to think of a book cover as a door. It’s the beginning of the experience of reading.”
Basically, book cover design is one of the book’s most important assets and can have an enormous impact on sales — so you need to get it right. We cherry-picked 68 brilliant covers to give you some book cover ideas. (If you're looking to inspire a great back cover, read this post that's all about the book's back.) Happy viewing!
Illustration-oriented Book Covers
1. Minimalism is still trendy.
To quote Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “A designer knows that he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Minimalist covers strip a cover elegantly down to its bare essentials. Often characterized by a simple font and a marginal amount of content, these quiet, clever covers instead rely on white space to turn acres of nothing into something.
2. Employ the cover to convey the book’s “one idea.”
A great cover doesn’t necessarily need to be complex. In fact, the goal for many cover designers is simply to distill the essence of a book into one image — or “one idea,” so to speak.
This simple result can be spectacular. Take the cover image for Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, which features a lone brain-shaped rock. Or Anne Michaels’ book of poetry, All We Saw, which presents an outstretched hand draped under a night sky — an image that at once imparts the book’s theme of connection in the middle of a vast universe. To no one’s surprise, the designer will want to make sure that this “one idea” is the centerpiece, so you’ll find that the typography is more often than not restrained on these covers.
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3. The silhouette can turn heads.
Ah, the silhouette. There’s a reason why it’s so ubiquitous on covers: it’s really, really effective at getting a reader’s attention. Who wouldn’t glimpse a shadowy figure and automatically go, “Who’s THAT?”
That said, you could say that the silhouette is a victim of its own nebulous triumph. It’s so common that it can be tough to make it original these days. Designers who succeed often play it against the cover typography (as in David Nicholls’ Us) or make the silhouette itself exceedingly arresting (as in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.)
For Galloway’s Justice, it was important to convey a mysterious tone and the idea of a missing girl. I chose to create an empty silhouette shape on top of a photograph to portray a missing piece. I wanted the use of integrated photography, lettering, and illustration to make a compelling design. I try to create a cover that can sit within its genre while being striking and unique. — Jeffrey Nguyen on designing Galloway's Justice.
4. A collage is worth a thousand words.
Photo collages are an exciting trend in the world of cover design. Given the recent innovations in photomanipulation, they offer a vast sandbox of possibilities to designers. As you can see, photo collages give the cover a bit of a modern look. In a bit of a twist, you might see this technique adorning the covers of classics — giving books such as Charles Baudelaire’s Las Flores del Mal a very contemporary interpretation.
5. Hand-drawn covers add a personal touch.
We’re suckers for originality, which is one area that hand-illustrated covers certainly have covered. From the softness of the illustration for Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park to the gorgeously intricate cover of Runemarks, hand-drawn covers are so versatile that they’re present in pretty much every genre. Not to mention the way they allow designers to add that extra special touch! Where else can you find a cover upon which the “Y” is the wine glass that Gatsby delicately holds?
Typography-focused book covers
6. When typography met imagery...
Let’s start off with a bang: there’s no better illustration (!) of how powerful typography can be than a cover that turns its typography into an image unto itself.
Take the cover of Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, for instance: it does a brilliant job of conveying the book’s message in only a few strokes. You’ll notice that the o’s in the title end up creating the “small bombs” that are at the heart of this book. As LitHub points out, “While we expect explosions to create chaos, the impact of the bomb in this composition is very organized and evocative of networks. It is a timely interpretation of violence.”
7. Sometimes, the bigger and bolder, the better.
Big, bold typography on covers is another trend in recent years, and it’s not terribly hard to see why. This kind of typography shouts: “This is a book that you want to pick up.” That, or: “Here… we… go!” Like elephants in the room, these covers demand attention.
Expect to see this sort of typography splashed into the midst of bright colors, as subtlety isn’t exactly the game here. You’ll frequently find it paired with books with emphatic titles, too — such as Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am. Also: if it’s executed well, there’s a chance that the type can gain iconic status. (See: the typography for The Godfather, which became an instant classic on its release).
8. Simple typography shines a light on the illustration.
Let’s go now to the opposite end of the spectrum. Simple and understated typography is actually used with a lot of purpose on book covers — it elegantly balances the elements to best highlight the illustration. Great designers aren’t afraid to let the typography be restrained so that the illustration can take the center stage. Because of that, the end effect is stunning: covers of this kind allow the (often) jaw-dropping artwork to really grip the reader's imagination.
Make Way for Her was a book in the New Poetry and Prose series from the University of Kentucky Press. The design went in several directions before we ended up with the final: initially, the look was illustrative and abstract; then it switched to edgy and photographic. In both instances, I kept the typography clean and simple. It allowed me to integrate it with the elements of the artwork, adding to the depth of feeling of young women searching for themselves and making their way, and letting the illustration shine. — Kathleen Lynch on designing Make Way For Her.
8. Type can create visual magic.
Fun fact: not all magicians wield wands. Oh, you want proof? Take this set of covers, otherwise known as Exhibit A: Typography as Magic. Did the visual dynamism of Baci’s The Water Knife make you do a double-take? Don’t the extra letters on Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved escape your notice — until you realize that they exist to perfectly mirror the title itself? They’re so mesmerizing that they almost make you want to reach out and open the book (which is, of course, the designer’s goal).
“To minimize the themes of the book, I used a grid of boxes to write them down: playful, funny, young, chaotic, sexual, edgy, personal, feminine, and smart. I pinned this sheet of words up and stared at it for a few days before starting, and I tried to approach the design by only thinking about these themes.” — Janet Hansen on designing The Bed Moved.
9. Hand-lettered titles keep things real.
You know that feeling you get when a friend writes to you by hand? That’s the idea behind hand-lettered titles, which are currently trending in cover design. Hand-drawn titles radiate a sense of warmth, sincerity, and personality. Don’t be shocked to discover that this kind of typography works best with quirky or uber-original books that showcase a bundle of personality! Case in point: it’s pretty popular in Young Adult fiction right now, with one example being John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
10. Type that interacts with the design becomes immersive.
Placement is the key to this kind of typography, which allows the title to be a direct part of the design. Sometimes this might mean that it’s is obscured by the cover design, as in Brett Reetz’s Swimmer. Other times, it means that the title is an extension of the scenery. Look at the cover for The Girl on the Train, for instance: its combined elements create a sense of motion — replicating the point-of-view of the title character, peering out the window as the scenery races by.
Suspense and mystery books use this technique to great effect. By giving you only a glimpse of the whole scene, the designer makes readers wonder where the rest of the picture might just take them. And you can bet that it won’t be Kansas.
11. Fantasy covers show off (or strongly imply) the fantastical.
Fantasy covers often fall into two categories: the abstract or the extremely realistic. The latter sort is terrific at setting the mood, while realistic covers show readers exactly what they’re going to get. (Though it’s worth noting that recently the trend has moved away from the hyper-realistic.)
If you’re writing a fantasy series, your author brand is going to be a key consideration. The font you use for the cover, the style of artwork: these are all things that will make your series (and your name) immediately recognizable to the public. So it’s best to keep it in mind during your conversations with a professional designer, or as you design your cover yourself.
12. Whimsy and charm make children’s book covers irresistible.
It probably goes without saying that this will depend on the illustrations inside of your children’s book! If you’re interested in finding out more about the illustration process that goes on behind-the-scenes, we recommend you to take this free course on publishing a children’s book.
"This is a book about a young immigrant girl who doesn't know how to fit in at a new school. I wanted to cover to reflect her young mind grappling with the difficulties of living in a new world. I isolated an image of the main character from one of the internal illustrations, and added in a distressed background created with repeated scribbles." — Kim Fleming on illustrating Ayda.
There are more than 50 Shades of romance book covers.
Is that… steam rising off of the cover? Just kidding! This should be no surprise: romance is all about the people involved, so covers are going to put some element of that relationship front-and-center. What should change is the way this is depicted, tonally. Is it a beach read? Expect a wash of brighter, warmer colors. How about if it’s a sexy, contemporary romance? Time to turn to a darker color scheme. Is there a vampire involved? Don’t be amazed if a golden-eyed man with washboard abs shows up on the cover. Romance genres tend to have very strong conventions when it comes to cover design, so make sure yours doesn't venture too far off.
14. Memoirs don’t always need to display a person.
Covers for memoirs tend to be pretty straightforward: it’s the one-two punch of an author’s picture (or a picture representative of the author) over a solid-color background. Having said that, this method obviously works best when the author is famous. If you’re not as recognizable as, say, Amy Poehler, Malala, or Ted Cruz, there’s still plenty of room for you to experiment. See the covers for bestselling memoir The Gilded Razor and Wild for inspiration.
15. Contrast brings the thrill.
When in doubt, just remember Michael Jackson’s Thriller: dark, moody, and dramatic. That’s the atmosphere that a cover for a thriller will aim to create. To that end, they’ll tend to stick to a dark and contrasting color template. Meanwhile, the type is more often than not going to be sans-serif, so that the books seems modern, cutting-edge, and, most of all, exciting.
If you'd like even MORE inspiration, why not check out Reedsy Book Cover Art Gallery, where you'll find wonderful examples of the work being done by freelancer designers today.
Feeling inspired? Now go forth and create your own cover! Or leave a comment if you have any questions for us about the cover design process.