Traditional Publishing

Cover Design for Self-Published Books

The cover of your book will be one of the most important factors affecting its success. It will be the first thing people see online, and the first thing they see in a bookstore. It will be what forms people's first impressions, and will set their expectations for the kind of book it is, and perhaps even how good it will be. A well designed cover can help make a book successful, while a poor cover can sink even the best written book.

Free templates

Some self-publishing services, including CreateSpace, offer basic cover templates that you can customise with your own text and images. These make things really quick and easy, because all the technicalities of spine widths and bleeds etc. is worked out for you.

But is the cover of your book really the place where you want to start going for the quick and easy option? Was your book quick and easy to write? These covers are hardly inspiring designs, and – worse than that – they will already be being used by countless other self-publishers. Is that really the best your book deserves?

And then, once again, there is the question of control. If you use a CreateSpace template as your cover then you won't own your cover. You won't be able to use it on your ebook (other than, potentially, the Kindle version – but do you really want a different cover on Kindle than on iTunes, Google Play, and everywhere else?), and you won't be able to use it with any other printer you want to use, or move to.

Then there's the issue of what cover are you going to use on these other outlets, if you can't use the one from CreateSpace? Most of them don't have their own templates, so you're still going to have to face designing a cover, anyway.

We think it's better to get a unique cover that you can control, and use wherever you like, consistently across all platforms. It may be a little bit of effort, and may (depending on how much you can do for yourself) be a little bit of expense, but we think you'll find it's worth it.

Working out your spine width

The book cover is not just the front cover – it wraps all the way round to the back, and therefore includes the spine and back cover. Before you can create your cover, you therefore need to know how wide to make your spine, which will depend on how many pages are in your book. You therefore have to wait till you have finalised your press proof and know your final page extent before you can create your cover.

Once you have got your page extent (and remember – this is the total number of pages in the PDF, not the page number your book ends on, as this figure probably won't include the prelim pages), you need to multiply it by half the width of each sheet of paper (since each sheet will carry two pages).

For CreateSpace, you need to use the following figures:

So, for example, if you had a 200-page book on white paper, your spine width would be 200 x 0.002252 = 0.4504".

Different printers will offer different thicknesses of paper, so if you are using a different printer as well as (or instead of) CreateSpace you will probably have different figures to use, and will end up with a different thickness of spine. If you're using CreateSpace and another printer you'll therefore probably need two different versions of your cover, with two different widths of spine. The actual design can be the same, however.

Working out your cover size

Once you have your spine width you can work out your cover size. This will be your page size width, multiplied by two (for your front cover and back cover), plus the spine width that you've already calculated.

On top of that, you need to add a bleed. A bleed is a little bit of extra space all around the edge of the cover. You extend the background of the cover across the bleed, so that when the cover is trimmed to size you are guaranteed to have colour all the way to the edge.

The bleed needs to be 0.125", or 3mm, meaning that you need to add a further 0.25" / 6mm to the cover width that you already calculated, and to the your page height, to get the final cover width and height.

So, for example: if you had a 6" x 9" book at CreateSpace, with 200 pages on white paper, your total page width would be 6" (back cover) + 0.4504" (spine) + 6" (front cover) + 0.25" (bleed) = 12.7004". Your cover height would be 9" (page height) + 0.25" (bleed) = 9.25".

CreateSpace also allows you to create handy PDF guides that you can use as an outline for your design, and which are automatically built to match your book's page size and spine width. These are a great help as they will not only show you where the edges of your front cover, spine, and back cover will be, but also the areas close to these edges where you cannot include textual content. It's important that you stick to these guides, or CreateSpace will reject your cover.

Don't forget, however, that this template will only be of use for your CreateSpace cover, as the spine width may be different when printed elsewhere.

Front cover

The front cover appears on the right-hand side of your cover (which can seem counter-intuitive, as in our left-to-right mentality this can make it feel like it comes after the back cover), and has to both clearly broadcast the title of the book while at the same time grabbing readers' attention.

Choosing what to put on your front cover can be one of the most important decisions you have to make when self-publishing your book. The tendency is to think immediately of an image or a photograph, but you might be surprised by how many professionally published books use only text and shapes. Done well, this can be a safer option than trying to use an image, as images can be hard to get right.

Try searching for similar books on Amazon and get an idea of the kind of covers your competitors are using. Certain types of books do tend to use images on the cover, and so if your book falls into one of those categories you probably are going to have to find an image for the front cover, or your book risks looking out of place. However, if lots of your competitors have covers that only include text and areas of colour then this might be a good option to consider.

Find a range of covers you like and take some inspiration from them – but of course do not copy them outright, or you could find yourself in breach of copyright!

Whether you plan to use images or not, an important consideration to bear in mind is the size of your text, and how this will appear as a thumbnail on websites and in e-readers, or in a book catalogue. When you're designing (or having someone else design) your cover, and you're concentrating on a cover that's perhaps 6" x 9" (or at least significantly bigger than the screen on a smartphone) it's easy to forget that one of the most important ways in which people will encounter that cover is as a small image within that small screen of a smartphone. All too often, self-publishing authors use text that – while perfectly reasonable on the physical cover – is completely illegible when the cover is shrunk to a thumbnail image only an inch tall.

This is increasingly important, because many e-readers display only an image of the cover when listing titles in a person's library, or suggestions of other titles to try. If your title isn't legible on the cover at a small size then people will have no idea what it is.

So remember not to let your beautiful image or any other slick design element take over your cover. The job of your cover is to convey the title of your book, loud and clear, in large letters that can still be read even when significantly shrunk.


If you do decide to make use of an image on the front cover then you need to make sure you get it just right. A poor or unprofessional image will be worse than no image at all.

Consider where you are going to get the image from. You can't just take it from the internet! You might be able to get away with that kind of thing when you're printing your kids' party invitations, but this is a commercial book you are publishing which will have copyright claims and an ISBN and be distributed around the world. If you take an image off the internet for your front cover and don't get permission from the copyright holder then you could find yourself facing hefty charges or an appearance in court. Most of the good pictures on the internet – the ones you might actually want to use – are taken by professional photographers and/or stockpiled by commercial image licensing agencies, who have automated programs that scour the internet for unauthorised use of their images, and who can and do send out claims for thousands of dollars to people who use these images without permission.

So while you can use the internet to search for images, you need to be certain of the copyright position and obtain the necessary permissions / pay the necessary fees before making use of any pictures you find that way.

You can get around the issue of copyright by using a photo you've taken yourself, but you'll need to make sure you're using some decent equipment. Pictures snapped on smartphones are not going to cut it, regardless of how many megapixels you've got. The small lenses they use simply can't create the sharp images you'll require. More megapixels just means a more accurate record of the low quality image passed through from the lense!

So you'll need to use a proper camera, and you'll need to be mindful of other elements, such as lighting. Without proper photography equipment, you'll be unlikely to get an internal shot to come out sufficiently well, so concentrate on external shots on bright days.

Whether you try and get an image from the internet or take one yourself, you need to be realistic and flexible. There's no point expecting to be able to illustrate some precise scene from your book, so try and think tangentially. For instance, if you had a World War I book where an Allied and German soldier died in each other's arms in no-man's land, there's no point expecting to be able to get a picture of this. You can't take one yourself, and the chances of something so specific existing online are vanishingly small. But you might be able to take or acquire a picture of a field of poppies, or a single poppy on a white background, for instance.

You also need to make sure that your image is of sufficient quality for printing. This means it has to be at least 300dpi – and that means 300dpi at the size you are going to use it. You can't get a small 300dpi image, scale it up, and save it at 300dpi, and still expect it to produce acceptable results. It might still be a 300dpi image, but it will be one which is already distorted and pixelated. Like the megapixels and the smartphone lense, all you will have done will have been to very accurately record a low quality image. You might get this past your printer's quality checks and all the way to the printing press, but when you receive your proof you'll find that your cover will look awful.

Back cover

The back cover appears on the left-hand side of your cover, and if the purpose of the front cover is to grab a reader's attention, the purpose of the back cover is to persuade them that they absolutely have to read the contents – even if it means parting with some of their hard-earned cash!

The first thing you have to make allowance for, however, is the barcode and ISBN number, which must appear in the bottom right-hand corner of your back cover (next to the spine). If you're using CreateSpace then the PDF guide you can generate will show you the area where the barcode and ISBN will go. For CreateSpace, you just need to leave this area blank and they will apply the barcode for you.

If you're using other printers, you'll need to generate your own barcode and apply it in the same place. It's also a good idea to download an app for your smartphone which reads barcodes (there are plenty of free ones available), so you can check that your barcode is correct. The barcode is essentially just the ISBN number in machine readable format, so if your barcode reader reads the correct ISBN number from it, you know it's okay.

You may want to include the recommended retail price, though if you're selling in multiple currencies this can get messy. You can list out different prices in different currencies, though, if you want. This information often appears just above the barcode.

You may also want to include the genre of the book in top left of the back cover. This helps bookstores to put it in the right place on their shelves. Make sure you use a standard genre that a bookstore is likely to have a section for, and try and give just one genre; two at a maximum.

The rest of the back cover is yours to do with as you will. Common features include an author photo; author bio; quotes or recommendations; and of course the ubiquitous "back cover blurb".

For fiction books the blurb can be a brief plot synopsis or an excerpt from the text of the book. Concentrate on what your book is about, rather than just what happens. Connect with your readers on an emotional, human level, and tease them with questions that they'll want to read the book to find answers to.

For nonfiction the blurb may be a list of subjects covered, or a few paragraphs outlining the book's general argument, but focus on how your book will benefit your readers. Will it save them time? Money? Make them better at something?

Whatever the case, your back cover needs to pique the reader's interest and compel them to read on. Try and keep the design clean and the information minimal: a few key statements in larger type with ample white space around will be much easier to read, and engage more effectively with browsing customers, than dense blocks of smaller type.