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How to Design an Epic Book Cover

If you want your book to succeed, it'd better have a pretty good cover, one that clearly and quickly communicates genre and attracts the right kind of readers. Fail to nail this, and your book could languish in obscurity, never finding the audience it deserves.


I'm going to show you how I took my book cover from mediocre to epic. I'll take you through the entire design process, and you'll find that with the right tools and knowledge, you can create the epic book cover of your dreams—for free.




Part I: Ideation


This is the book cover for my upcoming sci-fi novel Catalyst of Control.



While the prevailing advice is to hire someone to design your book cover for you, I wanted to see if I could make it myself and save some money in the process. I've been designing book covers for over seven years by now. My design skills have definitely improved. My early book covers were... not great.


Another reason I decided to design my book cover myself was that I wanted a lot of control over the process. Ironic, I know, it's in the title. Anyway, I had a pretty good idea of when I wanted the cover to look like. When I started writing the book back in 2020, I made a preliminary cover design. Here's what it looked like.



It's pretty boring, and it doesn't do a great job of communicating what genre the book is in. It does have some elements in common with the current cover design, but needless to say, this newer one is an upgrade.


The first part of designing a cover is getting clear on what exactly you want it to look like. This means coming up with different ideas for your cover, brainstorming elements and effects and styles you could use. In this stage, it's very helpful to look at the kind of book covers that you like. We're going to talk about this in a bit more detail later on, but it's important that your book cover clearly communicates your genre. That means you should take inspiration from book covers in the same genre. But you can take certain elements from any kind of cover.


Here are some notes I made on what the book cover could look like. I wrote, "Text and or snake and knife symbol are made of glass, dripping with raindrops. Green mist rises from the bottom, creating a gradient in the glass. Over a black background. Maybe symbol is large and offset."


I didn't end up using all of those elements, but there are certainly some recognizable ones that made it into the final version. The ideas I have here are mainly things that I took from the book itself. There's a lot of glass and a lot of rain. And in the opening chapter of the book, there's a chemical warfare attack on a town and there's a lot of green mist in the air. Green is also a recurring color throughout the novel, and it symbolizes the idea of control. I knew I wanted to go with a darker color scheme, because the tone of the book is sort of dark. The snake and knife symbol is an important symbol in the book itself.


When you're coming up with ideas for your cover, see if there are any recurring symbols or images from your book that could work well on a cover. Keep in mind that your book cover is going to be shrunk down significantly on places like Amazon, so make sure it's not too detailed or complicated.


The idea of making the symbol large and offset instead of centered was one that I didn't end up using in the final design, but I did make a test cover with that idea.



Part II: Design


Once I've got a few ideas for what I might want the cover to look like, then it's time to move into the design phase. This entails a lot of experimenting. You're going to want to make a lot of test covers before you land on a final design.


I use two tools to create this cover: Canva and Photopea. Both of these are free, although Canva has a paid version that unlocks more features.


In the beginning stages of the design phase, it's not about detail work. You're basically experimenting with layouts and sizes to see what works the best. One thing I would recommend when you're starting out is to create a big canvas to work on. In Canva, I created a design with a size of 40 by 60 inches. You're going to want pretty high resolution, especially if you're going to be printing your book. And the bigger your design, the closer you can zoom in and work on tiny little details.


I started with some pretty simple designs. I didn't use any metallic or 3D effects until later on. The reason for that is because I wanted to make sure I had all the elements where I wanted them before I started doing that kind of detail work.


I designed some preliminary covers back in 2020, but those were a completely different style. I also experimented with having a white background instead of black, although I decided that didn't match the book as well. I also played around with the orientation and sizing of different elements. But before we go on, I want to explain how I made some of the elements of this cover.


First things first: the title. I designed this using a combination of text and shapes in a different design in Canva. This design also has pretty big dimensions. That was necessary to make sure the shapes and text line up perfectly.


I had an idea pretty early on, and you can even see this in the initial cover, that the text wouldn't just be plain text—it would sort of bleed and blend together with these lines. The text is reaching and expanding. Some might say it's trying to take control of the cover. So what I did was first just type out the title, and I made sure to use a font that's appropriate for the sci-fi and dystopian genres. Then I simply added shapes to elongate and connect some of the letters. Just rectangles and triangles. It's that simple.


If you're doing something like this, you do want to make sure that everything is lined up to the pixel; otherwise, that could cause some problems later on.


I exported this as a PNG with a transparent background. You can just copy and paste this design onto your actual cover, but if you want to add some effects to it, you're going to need to export it without a background. Exporting images in Canva without a background is a paid feature, but you can probably find some workaround if you really have to.


The other special element I designed for the cover was this symbol. It's a snake wrapped around a knife, which is an important icon in the book. I'm not an artist, so I basically just made this image by combining a few different elements. Well, a lot of elements, actually. Like the title, I exported this with a transparent background, and then added some effects to it later on.


Once I had these elements, I started experimenting, playing around with different layouts. I decided that black background would be too plain, so I changed it to this marbled one instead. While I didn't end up going with the glass title idea, I did want to incorporate some element of reflection into the cover. To create the green mist effect I wanted, I found some fog images in Canva and changed them to be green. I used the Duotone effect to swap the original colors for green.


All right. So it's starting to look like a cover. But it's still lacking something. It's just not quite as epic as I want it to be.


Enter Photopea. This is basically a free, online version of Photoshop. Just go to photopea.com. It can be a bit overwhelming, but you can find plenty of tutorials to help you, and most techniques you can do in Photoshop you can also do in Photopea.


Now that I've figured out the layout I wanted, it was time for detail work.



Part III: Details


I used Photopea to add texture and depth to the title, symbol, and other text on the cover. Again, this involves a lot of experimentation. I played around with different lighting, different depths, different effects, until I came up with something I liked. In fact, the final title is actually a combination of two versions I made. One is stacked on top of the other, with the one in the back just providing a little extra depth. You can create the 3D effect in Photopea itself.


For the metallic effect, I added a few images of a metallic surface and changed the overlay until it looked right. For contrast, I made all the text other than the title silver instead of green. To improve the reflection of the symbol, I used Photopea to distort the image. I also added a bit of a blur and turned down the opacity in Canva.


Another part of detail work was adding shadows and interaction between the title and the symbol. I made the text weave through the symbol and added the shadow effect to make it look more realistic. Once I'd gone over every square centimeter of the cover with a fine-tooth comb, it was time to get some feedback.


So I got some feedback from people and changed some things accordingly. Nothing major, just a few small tweaks to improve readability. Like I said before, it's very important that your text is readable, even from a distance. I made some final improvements, and it was done.



Part IV: Key Principles


There were a few important principles I abided by during the design of this cover, principles that you should keep in mind, too, if you're designing your cover. Perhaps the most important thing is to pay attention to genre conventions. This means that your book cover should look similar to the covers of other books in that genre. Yes, standing out can be helpful to a certain extent, but readers often know what they're looking for, and if your book cover can clearly communicate that this book is for them, they're a lot more likely to pick it up. Like I suggested earlier, I took inspiration from other books in the dystopian and sci-fi genres. I even created a design in Canva where I laid out my book cover alongside a bunch of other popular books in the dystopian and sci-fi genres.


Your book shouldn't stick out like a sore thumb among other books in the genre. Ideally, your book cover will look at home among the best sellers in the genre. Though I should note that big authors and publishers can sometimes get away with doing more avant-garde cover designs than you can. Sometimes a name on a cover is enough to get readers to buy it. That's probably not the case with your book—no offense. In keeping with this idea, I made my name relatively small on the cover. It's arguably the least important information for any new readers.


Another principle I tried to abide by was taking my time. You'd be amazed with a little extra time invested into your book cover can do for it. I spent more time designing this cover than I have on any cover in the past, and I think it shows. Examine every element of your cover. Perfect the details, but also make sure it looks good from a bird's eye view. Your cover should look good when it's filling up your vision, and also when it's just a tiny thumbnail on a screen.


Another important consideration is to make sure you have the rights to all the elements you're using on your cover. I use Canva to get all my images, because they have a pretty extensive library and it's all copyright free. You can also go out and find public domain images if you want, or you can buy an image. Just make sure that whatever you do, you have the rights to all the parts of your cover.


Another guiding principle was having an intentional and relevant color scheme. Yes, you can have a multi-colored cover, but I prefer to have one or two main colors for my cover. Green is the most commonly occurring and thematically important color in Catalyst of Control.


Now, there's a lot more to be said about cover design. It's a big topic, and different genres have different expectations and guidelines. A lot of covers use real life images, but from my research, this style of cover is more along the lines of what sci-fi and dystopian readers look for. And we haven't even gotten into designing a paperback or hardback cover—that deserves a post of its own. Or two. Or three.


Now, let's get on to the final results.


New cover
Original cover

I think it's safe to say it's an improvement. This new cover does a much better job of capturing the style and tone of the book than the previous one did. From looking at the original cover, it's kind of hard to tell what genre it is. And a monochromatic color scheme can look good, but in this case, it's just kind of boring. It's pretty clear that a lot less time and effort went into this first cover than the new one. Also, for the new cover, I added a tagline at the top, which isn't essential, but it can be helpful. It gives the reader a taste of what the story is about in just a few words.


Also, an important thing to note is that this is book one of a six book series—possibly more, we'll see. So another thing that I kept in mind during the design process was creating a sort of template that I could use in the future. If you're writing a series, think about what future covers could look like. Series covers should match, but each one should be distinct.


During this design process, I went ahead and created preliminary designs for the next five books in the series. I won't show them yet, but they do look pretty cool as a set. They'll replicate the style and layout of book one, but each have their own unique feel.


If you got any questions about cover design, ask me in the comments—I'll be happy to help. I'm not an expert, but I have improved a lot over the past few years, and you can too. With enough time and dedication, you can create a pretty epic cover for your book.


If you want to watch the video versions of these blog posts, head over to my YouTube channel here, and subscribe for more videos on writing and publishing.


– Grayson Taylor

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