There are bad covers out there; we have all seen them. The ones with the glaring, eye-searing colors, painful design, and horrid photoshopping that should be a crime against humanity. I could go on for days about the horrors I have seen lurking in the dark corners of bookshops, but I’m sure you’d all rather I talk about what makes a good cover. The kind that stands out on a crowded shelf and demands you buy it.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

1: Study real world examples

Assess you playing field, what’s trending? What catches your eye? What makes you cringe? When designing a unique cover you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot of good design ideas out there that could be used in new and interesting ways. That being said don’t blatantly copy a bestseller’s style either. Remember we’re trying to stand out in the crowd, not  blend in as a pale comparison to a currently trendy book.

Task: Make a design board or project folder of covers you like (Pinterest is really handy for this). Study them and asses why you were attracted to them.

2: Unexpected elements

Don’t select overused, cliched, or symbolic images for your cover unless you have a really creative twist on them. Pick elements that convey the story of the book without resorting to overused visual shorthand.

Task: Make a visual board of imagery that reflects your book. Select 3-5 of those items and explore cover ideas focused around them.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

3: Clarity of message

Think of your cover design like a billboard for your book, a really small billboard. Your book has to convey what the book is about in a matter of seconds and usually from only an inch or 2 in height, so a quick, clear visual read is important. That being said, don’t go for cliched designs.

Task: Sit down and think about your book. What is your story about? Can you boil the book down into a sentence or two? Okay, now that you have the essence of your story, what visuals could be used to convey that message?

Purgatory Reign by LM Preston

Purgatory Reign by LM Preston

4: Customization

Due to easy access as well as affordable price, the popularity of stock imagery has shot up in recent years. This is fantastic really since stock photography can really save time & resources. However, without customization your cover could fall flat or worse, be mistaken for another book using the same stock. So with the rise of stock imagery we’re also seeing the rise of new art forms like Photomanipulation and Enhanced Photo Imagery and of artists, like yours truly, that specialize in such customization of stock imagery. So if you can’t possess the tools or ability to customize your stock imagery yourself, there are plenty of professionals out there that can lend a hand.
Task: Take a look at the stock photography you have chosen for your cover. What creative ways could your chosen stock be altered? Come up with 3-5 different ways you could make the stock unique.

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

5: Dynamic elements

As a good friend pointed out to me recently: Nobody wants to read a book about a bunch of people just standing around. The elements on your cover should be seemingly in motion. Blurred images, fluttering hair, debris in the air,  and sweeping clouds, can all lend movement to a static image. If your design doesn’t feature people, a lot can still be done to make the elements interesting, eye-catching and dynamic.

Task: Take a look at the elements you have chosen for your cover. Are they interesting? Do they capture a moment in time instead of a static idealized portrait? Do the elements lead your eye around the cover? If your cover feels lifeless, what can be done to revive it?

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

6: Colors

Arguably the most important ingredient in a cover design. It’s the first thing the potential reader sees in the pursuit of a new read. Limited palettes, contrasting color combinations, or color selections that evoke a mood can go a long way in conveying the tone, setting or content of your story.

Task: Look at the color scheme of your cover. Is it vivid? Engaging? Evocative? No? How can you improve it? Test out a few color variations on your design and see if it improves your covers impact.

7: Title

Being that you’re indie you should have control over this (if not, I’m sorry and you can jump to the next one). When you craft a book title, keep it short and to the point. Make the title easy for a potential book buyer to remember and related to the content of the book.

Task: Come up with 5 potential titles of your book. Ask members of your inner circle whose opinion you trust what they think a story with each of the titles might be about. Then select the one you think best fits your book.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

8: Font Selection

Your font selections should reflect the genre and design of the book cover while also being clearly readable. If every book in your book’s genre is using the same font, don’t use it! Remember the goal here is to stand out from the crowd. Also remember you don’t have to use a font straight out of the box. Modern computer programs allow for a lot of customization when it comes to fonts.

Task: Pick 5 potential title fonts and secondary fonts for your cover and play around with the various font settings in your program of choice. Who knows, it might yield something original and unexpected.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

9: Eye contact

I’ve noticed in the last few years that a lot of book covers have cropped out heads, covered up eyes , or characters with their backs to us, which is odd, seeing as magazines do the exact opposite. It’s been said that eyes are the windows to the soul, and to an extent they are. You can learn a vast amount about someone's personality and mood just looking at there eyes. With that in mind, your cover should be catching the eyes of the potential buyer, daring them to pick up your book instead of shyly hiding away. This is a pet peeve of mine so feel free to ignore this if cropped head covers don’t enerve you.

Task: Search of compelling stock images and models that fit not only the physical description but the personality of your character(s).

10: Trust Your Designer

For those of you hiring out for your cover design, remember that you’ve hired them for a reason and this is their job. Thinking you know more about design than a trained professional is down right foolish. Likewise trusting the opinion of someone with no professional design training over your designer never ends well.

Task: Research designers. Find 5 cover designers of other indie books you like and explore their work. Are they within your budget? Do they produce the type of cover you’re looking for? Having a hard time finding what you’re looking for? Ask your fellow indie others for recommendations.

Well this is Kat signing off. I wish you luck as you traverse the labyrinth of cover design.

Alicia Kat Dillman is the author of Daemons in the Mist, the first book in the Marked Ones trilogy. A professional illustrator and designer, Kat lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two crazy studio cats and nine very overfull bookcases. She can usually be found performing, watching anime or reading books when not playing in the imaginary worlds within her head.
*This article was originally written for IndieRoCon Feb. 19-21 2013. Head on over to the site and check out  fantastic content from the other guest speakers.
I appologize for the broken images, I'm talking with the web host right now to figure out what caused it. To see the images in this post now head on over to the actual post on IndieRecon.