Book Cover Design Ideas: Before And After

book cover design: before and after sample

Becky Rodriguez-Smith, director of design services at BookBaby, and Amy Epright, senior book designer, address five elements that make a great cover design, with before-and-after examples to drive home these book cover design ideas.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

When it comes to the success of your published book, cover design matters. An appealing design is going to attract potential readers and convince them to pick your book up off the shelf or click on your book on an online retail store.

As designers, we often find that book covers are lacking in the essential foundations of book design. It’s not just about creating a nice piece of art — skipping these elements can have a negative effect on your sales.

Here are five essential design elements that can really make or break your final product.

1. Design with genre in mind

The genre of your book has a huge impact on the approach to the design, and it doesn’t stop at the image: the font and the integration of the font into the fabric of the cover design make a big difference.

Look at this example, The Shadows of Miskatonic: Darkness Below, by Barbara Cottrell. Her genre is horror fiction, and we have before and after design samples that show how the font plays into book cover design.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: I look at the cover on the left and I see a really awesome illustration — there’s a creepy tentacle creature, there are lots of textures and lighting effects, it really screams “horror.” Unfortunately, the text feels a little bit like an afterthought. It’s shoved up at the top, it’s plain white, there are no interesting elements going on

Amy Epright: It’s definitely a missed opportunity to do something fun with this illustration.

The version on the right plays even more to the horror genre with the size of the font, the layout, and the texture of the lettering. It engages with the image and the letters play together and it’s really compelling.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: A common mistake is to separate the text and the illustration. As a designer, I don’t want to disturb the illustration — this one is great! But incorporating the text into the design and making that tentacle go through the letter “B” creates depth and really enhances that horror factor without detracting from the image.

2. Define your target audience

This goes hand-in-hand with genre in that they are both going to define the style and the direction your book cover design ideas take. Your designer needs to know the audience they’re designing for. Is it Boomers, Millennials, children? Are we designing for fans of the romance or sci-fi genres?

That said, you want to avoid too wide of a demographic. Often, when you attempt to reach too many different groups, you can end up with a cover that feels disconnected.

This example, The Wisdom Within Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan, is a collection of works that was gathered by Lou Armagno, and he describes his audience as “lovers of mystery novels” as well as “lovers of ancient philosophers’ writing.”

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: What I’m thinking is that the audience isn’t defined clearly enough. Mystery novel versus Philosophy are two different directions you could take with this cover.

Amy Epright: And it shows in what this designer did with the cover on the left. They tried to gear it to such a wide audience that it lacks focus and looks cluttered.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: Including the cover inset of the mystery novel and then including the list of aphorisms on the cover… you lose the focus.

The version on the right is how I picture this cover. First, go in the direction of the scholarly target audience. Going in that direction leads this cover into a more classic design approach with the type and the overall style and keeps it simple and classy

Amy Epright: This is a great example of “less is more.” Those aphorisms, which would be a great added element to the back cover, have been removed, and now the image can breathe. It’s a cool vintage image that was covered up by all of those other elements.

3. Choose the right image

A foundational lesson to learn when it comes to imagery is “keep it bold and keep it simple.” More often than not, these types of covers have the best effect.

Another thing to think about is how your cover image is going to translate in both large, physical versions as well as small thumbnails on an online retail gallery. With this in mind, you may want to avoid character representation or an overly detailed scene on your book cover. Beside it being difficult to see small details on an online forum, putting together a composite scene using stock imagery can be challenging for a designer.

Plus, you don’t want to give everything away. You’ve spent all this time writing your book — let the reader envision what those scenes look like and what those people look like.

Our third example is The Road to Lavender, by D.P. Benjamin. This is a mystery novel for younger women interested in science and detective stories.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: When I hear “younger women,” I’m thinking a really fresh, contemporary image will attract that audience. What I see in the example on the left is something a bit traditional. It’s a very scenic image: farmland, a farmhouse, some distant mountains, the lavender field, but I don’t know if this is something that would appeal to that target audience.

Amy Epright: I don’t really get mystery or sci-fi from this book cover design. This is a very rural environment, and while the mystery might take place in this setting, I think you lose the whole mystery/science element.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: Looking at your take on this cover, Amy, I see you went with an abstract image, and I think it nails it. It’s an interesting bird’s eye view of lavender and it’s unexpected in a really interesting way.

Amy Epright: You obviously get the lavender color right away, but it takes a second look to realize you’re looking at lavender from above. There’s that mystery — you don’t get the full story. You don’t typically get to see this angle, so it leaves a lot to the viewer to interpret before they even pick up your book. The text treatment was also updated to a more modern font that pops on the lavender background.

4. Typography for your book cover

When it comes to applying typography principles, first, obviously, the text should be legible. You want to keep competing textures and elements in mind when you’re putting text on top of an image, especially when you’re thinking about how it’s going to read at a thumbnail size on a computer or tablet.

You can also use hierarchy to break up the text: show important words larger and less important words smaller. You can play with fonts and size and weight to get that point across.

For this example, we have A Simple Tale of Water and Weeping by Kami King Larsen. This is a fantasy fiction for young adults, and after a little bit of research, we learned that it is based mostly in Ireland.

Amy Epright: We can assume this imagery is important to the story, so we’ll focus on the type. In my design opinion, I don’t think the type on the left reflects the fantasy feel the author is trying to get across. Plus, the font used, Papyrus, has a texture that competes with the texture behind it in the image.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: The text is on the longer side, so I think this could benefit from some hierarchy applications by de-emphasizing some of the not-so-important words. Looking at your solution, I’m definitely getting fantasy fiction now.

Amy Epright: I made it more readable by taking away some of those textures so they’re not competing, and there’s a slight shadow behind the text to make it pop. The knit sweater is a difficult texture to make your text readable on top of.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: I think the hierarchy has helped create a really nice, interesting layout. I’m focused on “water” and “weeping,” which are the more interesting words in the title, and my eye has a chance to rest while taking in those more important words. And as far as the font choice, I definitely get “fantasy.” There are some whimsical elements to it, and I also get a little bit of a Celtic feel.

5. Use color to reflect emotion

Colors can be interpreted as emotions: blue can be soothing and calm; red can be energetic and romantic. You don’t want to fight your genre when it comes to color. Sometimes authors will go for the brightest colors because they want the book cover design to pop, but yellow, for example, may not be the best color to use because it might not match the overall emotion you’re trying to achieve.

You can use color to your advantage — use complementary colors from the imagery you’re using. That’s a great way to add hierarchy to your title. This last example is actually a mock-up we received here at BookBaby. The title is Play Ball, and the genre is sports fiction.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: This is a tale of someone whose childhood was greatly impacted by baseball and what the sport means to them today.

When I look at the cover on the left, I’m not getting that sense of “then and now,” that nostalgic kind of emotion.

Amy Epright: To me it feels more like an informational book, like “how to play baseball” or “teaching your kid the basics” rather than a novel.

Becky Rodriguez-Smith: I think the red and blue are there to reflect the colors of the American flag, but in this scenario, I don’t feel like they go with the rest of the imagery. We have predominantly green images and then we have this bright red and blue that are sort of vibrating on the green — it’s making the text harder to read.

The design on the right provides a sense of nostalgia. The sepia tones evoke the sense that this is something older, something vintage. We’re talking about someone’s childhood and they’re reminiscing about the sport.

Amy Epright: And the text is much more readable, it’s clear, there are accent colors used — the green from that field is brought into the author’s name and it adds a nice balance. And the text in between the two images blending together is much more cohesive now.

— — —

We hope this helps you gain a clearer understanding of book cover design ideas from a designer’s point of view and how they can really strengthen your book cover design.

Remember to give your book cover the attention and planning it deserves. Think about how much time you spent on the content — you want your cover to feel like it’s had the same amount of attention and doesn’t feel rushed.

The responsibility doesn’t have to fall on your shoulders. There are graphic design professionals — including all of us in the BookBaby Design Studio — who are waiting to help bring your vision to life and make your book publishing dreams come true!

Your path to self-publishing



  1. these are great book cover makeovers! I’ve been sitting on a bunch of before/after covers that have double sales but I need to turn it into a write up explaining why the new covers are better like this, thanks for sharing!

  2. I’ve published 20 crime novels since 2011 and I was satisfied with most of the covers. I published A Murder in Brownsville in 2019, and I liked the cover – maybe because I understood what it represented: an NYPD radio car team finding a taxi stopped at a traffic light. When the officers investigate further, they find the driver slumped over the steering wheel. a line of blood streaming from the back of his head. As I mentioned, I liked the cover, but not everyone did. I’ve put 2 of my books on audio and was thinking of doing the same with A Murder in Brownsville, if I do, I think I should use a new cover. Do you think it’s worth the effort?

  3. Can’t agree with that lavender one. if you saw it as a thumbnail on a sales page, you wouldn’t know what the stuff was. Looks like an “off the rack” cover. Take the original photo, move it up so more lavender shows and the horizon isn’t smack-dab in the middle of the cover, and push the color a little to the red so they look more “lavender” than “blue.”

    • You wouldn’t necessarily need to know that it was lavender. You would see the lavender color, the modern typeface, and the fact that it echoes other books in the same genre and you would know what you were getting.

      The original cover image looks like something that would be put on the cover of a family history book or church cookbook. While the update might not be to your taste, it definitely fits better with the expectations of readers of the genre. The cover is for the intended reader and nobody else.

  4. I mentioned, to the supremely talented artists that rule the BookBaby cover design world, that I thought an owl motif might work for the cover of my novel. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I got a cover that should receive an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a lifetime of free coffee from their favorite shoppe. They did an owl, the likes of which you just don’t see on the printed page anymore. They even gave it gray eyes, establishing that they had actually read key passages, and probably more, of the book.

    While the book isn’t selling as well as I think it should (my fault, not theirs), I get comments from everyone about the Owl. Thanks again, Amy and Becky. I, and a small coterie of dedicated readers and art critics, will always treasure that weird Owl

  5. I have published my first book, ARE YOU READY FOR IT, and a revised edition with BookBaby. The covers are excellent. I am attempting to find an agent for my next book. Am I able to have BookBaby just produce the cover for the new book?


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