How to select artwork for your book cover

If your book were being handled by a mainstream publisher, you’d have little or even no say about how your front cover looks. In self-publishing, since you’re essentially doing all of the work of an editor, marketing department head, and the publisher, you get all the say. As most of us aren’t artists or marketing experts, we’re often at a loss where designing a good front cover is concerned.

We might begin by asking what makes good artwork? That’s a question scholars have been pontificating on for centuries. And during the past century, fads and styles come and go so quickly that many are synonymous with a specific decade (such as art deco in the 1930s and psychedelia of the late 1960s).

Perhaps the best (though vague) answer in publishing is that good artwork is a compelling image that represents a scene from the book or the main idea of book. For example, Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather” features a hand manipulating puppet strings, a perfect metaphor for the Godfather himself. Of course, pulp novels ran on the philosophy, promulgated by pulp magazines, that the cover didn’t need to have much at all to do with the story, but they did need to make clear to readers what genre the book came from.

Another question to ask is you should go with a photograph or an illustration. Often the latter works better as the artist can be more dramatic (as is the case with a romance or science fiction novel). Hiring an illustrator, however, can be expensive. If you can find a single common object that illustrates what the book is about, then a photograph of it can be just as powerful.

Should you opt for an illustration, you’ll probably need an artist to create it for you. When selecting a cover artist, look for these basic qualities:
• Experience – They should have done work not just in illustrating and graphic design but in book covers, for they need to understand how the shape and size of the book as well as the placement of the title and author’s name affects their work. Ask prospective artists to see their portfolio (Most have one online at their website.).
• Willingness to work with you – While you may suggest some general designs, the artist needs to bring his or her own creativity/artistry to the project. Before settling on a design, have them sketch two or three different ideas for you.
• Knowledge of basic software – Though the illustrator likely will use pen and ink or maybe watercolors to create the cover, she’ll need to know how to electronically get it to you. Given this, the illustrator at least should know Adobe Acrobat (to create pdfs) and probably Adobe Photoshop (to make jpegs).


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.