Graphic of two book covers, one terrible, one well designed

7 biggest book cover design mistakes (and how to fix them)

So you’re thinking of designing your own self-published book cover, eh? Not so fast.

We’ve all seen plenty of terrible self-published books. You don’t want to join the ranks of those covers with bad typography, weird cover images, or even copyrighted photos on the cover.

Unless you’re a graphic designer, you should probably stay away from book cover design.

As well as being an author, I’m lucky to have worked as a graphic designer. There are seven key mistakes I see repeatedly in book cover design. So let me show you what not to do (and how to fix it)

Watch my video to see exactly how I transform this terrible book cover into a beautiful gothic romance novel.

The book cover is too busy

The first mistake I see on a lot of book covers is that they’re far too busy. There’s ten different things happening on the cover, and it means we lose the title under a pile of imagery.

It’s a good idea to keep a book cover simple with one key image or concept. That way readers can tell the genre and title at a glance. I’ve mocked up this terrible book cover so you can see the difference between a busy and less-busy cover. On the right you know exactly where to look, because there are far less elements.

Badly Chosen Typography

Many covers have fantastic images or illustrations, but they’re wrecked by a poor choice of font. If you’re designing a book cover, make sure you spend as much time on the typography as the image. The best titles work together with the images to say something about the book, sometimes replacing the need for an illustration. You should use a font similar to other titles in your genre – hard-hitting sans-serif fonts for crime novels, and flowy display fonts for romantic fantasy novels.

The book covers below are outstanding examples of cover typography.

Poor integration of multiple images

Usually this issue boils down to a poor use of Photoshop’s select and mask. Layering and masking images is a professional design skill, which takes experience to get right. It’s not just cutting the pictures out using a magnetic lasso tool and you’re done. There’s a lot of dodging, burning and fixing the edges so they blend seamlessly into one another. If you don’t know those tools, chances are you’re not ready to design a book cover.

Using images with different light sources and weather

You’ve seen this a thousand times – someone has photoshopped another head onto the body of someone else, and it doesn’t look right. Often this is because the images are illuminated from different directions. The cover hits this uncanny valley feeling, where the viewer is unsettled even though they might not know why. Be careful if you’re mixing images that they have similar light sources.

The same goes for weather – you don’t want one person in the snow cropped against a sunny background. These images below are good examples of using consistent light and weather conditions.

No uniform colour scheme

Another reason some images don’t work together is that they have different colour tones. The way to fix this is by using coloured blending layers and adjusting the hue and saturation of the original images until they’re similar. I often layer multiple colours in blends to the image to get the exact tone I’m looking for. You can see the difference in this image below – I used three different layers to get this tone right.

Using copyright images

No, you can’t just do a google search and use the first images you find. Chances are they’re copyrighted. And definitely don’t use images of famous people (I have seen this on a self-published book cover).

Instead, your graphic designer can help you license professional images appropriate to your cover. That way the photographer gets paid, and you get a much better-quality cover.

Your book cover fails to tell people what the book’s about

This is the worst mistake of all. No one can tell what your book’s about from the cover design. And if the reader can’t tell what it’s about, they sure aren’t going to buy it.

Make sure you look at examples of covers from your genre before you start the design process. That way a reader can tell what sort of book it is at a glance.


Anyway, the point of this is: if you’re not a graphic designer, hire a graphic designer to design your self-published book cover.

If you’re a graphic designer struggling with any of these issues, why not work on that skill? Take a course with that issue in mind, such as using painterly effects, blending images or sourcing excellent photographs.

While it might be cheaper to design your own book cover, you get what you pay for. A good cover designer is a professional investment in self-publishing.  A picture says a thousand words, and it’s no truer than in book cover design.