They say the eyes are the window to the soul… but hardly anyone talks about how a book’s cover is the window to its contents. The common maxim, of course, is “don’t judge a book by its cover”—but there are some sales-killing cover design mistakes that indie authors can’t afford to make. Readers will judge your book by its cover, and they’ll be looking out for certain design elements to indicate what’s inside.
As a result, most authors are best off hiring a book cover designer, someone with the skills and experience to produce the perfect cover for your book. If this isn’t possible, the next best thing is knowing what to do yourself—and just as importantly, what not to do! There’s plenty of advice out there about what goes into a standout book cover, but today, let’s tackle potential sales-killing cover design mistakes and how to avoid them when designing your own cover.
Mistake #1: Using overly familiar stock elements
Most online book cover makers rely on stock photos and other premade design assets. You select the image, colorize it, slap on some title text, and presto! The cover is done. But while this approach is certainly cheap and easy, it has one huge drawback: the best stock photos have already been used by many other authors, resulting in a deluge of eerily similar covers.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to create a unique, professional cover from a stock photo—only that you should do your own research instead of choosing from a cover maker’s image gallery. There are some amazing stock photo sites out there, some of which are relatively unknown, and you’ll discover a much wider range of possibilities than you would with a cover maker. Though you might struggle if you’re aiming for a more abstract cover, remember that you can do wonders with close-ups of “natural” images like water, land, and sky.
Stock photos aren’t the only amateurish cover design element to avoid—there’s also the matter of overly familiar fonts. The title is most crucial to get right, but your author name and a pull quote or two may also appear on the cover, and you don’t want any of them to remind readers of Microsoft Word! To that end, try to choose a font family you’ve never heard of before; when in doubt, stick to simple sans-serif typefaces that look good in all-caps.
Mistake #2: Failing to signal the genre
Now that we’ve covered those specific design sins, let’s move onto an equally grave error that can manifest in different ways. This would be the failure to signal your book’s genre, and it’s one of the most common—and dire—sales-killing cover design mistakes among first-time authors.
One frequent culprit here is the generic book cover, which is so bland that it’s impossible to glean any context about the book itself. This happens more often than you’d think: it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the more neutral your book appears, the wider an audience it can attract. Alas, an empty void of a cover won’t appeal to readers of any genre. To quote another publishing adage, “If you’re marketing to everyone, you’re really marketing to no one.”
The other version of this mistake is when a book’s cover indicates a different genre than what it actually is. Again, this is more likely than you think—you might look at books in many genres for inspiration, and accidentally end up favoring a design that points to another genre. You might even think that it doesn’t matter what readers think they’re getting, so long as your book is good. But if your pink, frothy cover implies a romance and you’ve actually written hard-hitting domestic fiction, readers are not going to be happy.
Luckily, there’s a simple way to ensure your cover stays on-brand: make an effort to emulate covers that are in your genre, as they’ll typically share signature colors, images, and various other aspects of design. Though you’ll have to strike a balance between “recognizably related” and “virtually identical” (again, steer clear of stock photos you see on other covers!), it’s better to err on the side of similar than to risk a cover that’s totally disconnected from your genre.
Mistake #3: Disregarding the thumbnail
Throughout the design process, authors tend to picture their cover in its final, full-size form—the roughly 625 x 1,000-pixel file they’ll upload to retailers, or even the cover of their physical book. But this makes it easy to forget about another critical sales factor: the thumbnail.
When people find your book on Google, Amazon, and anywhere else online, they’ll almost always see the thumbnail first. This means that even the sized-down version of your cover must look professional and, ideally, placeable within your genre. While it’s okay if readers can’t tell exactly what’s on your cover, the overall aesthetic (colors, shapes, text) should give them a clue.
And on the “professional” note, keep in mind that some design mistakes only reveal themselves in thumbnail form! For example, your title might turn out to be slightly off-center or too small to read in the thumbnail. Worse yet, you might have a complex design that appears dynamic and exciting in the full-size image, but totally chaotic and overwhelming in the thumbnail.
Again, the good news is that if you’re aware of this issue, it’s easy to avoid. Just keep checking your design to ensure it works as a thumbnail—after adding each new element, zoom out and see how it looks at roughly 150 x 200 pixels, then adjust anything that looks “off”. These extra few minutes could save you hours of frantic redesigning down the line!
Mistake #4: Inconsistent covers within a series
Finally, a common mistake among series writers is having inconsistent covers between books—that is, covers that differ in style, with one cover’s “signature” elements missing from the other. Yes, this can happen even when both covers are genre-indicative; imagine a photo-based romance cover and an illustrated romance cover in the same series. Though you’d likely be able to tell they’re both romances, you wouldn’t otherwise connect the two at first glance.
This is why you should consider not only what would look good, but also what would look cohesive across multiple covers. If you’re working with photos, try to source them all from the same photographer, and use the same title font each time (though different colors and other small, distinctive accents are encouraged!). And if you’ve gotten the first book illustrated, plan to hire an illustrator for later books as well—ideally the same professional, who will be uniquely qualified to craft a sequel cover that both stands out from and ties into your first cover.
One more thing: if you happen to be printing your series, don’t underestimate the power of dimension consistency. Having all your books be 6 x 9, with a cover to match, isn’t quite as important as what’s on that cover, but it’s definitely something readers will notice—and if BookTok is any indication, they may care more than you think.
And there you have it: all the major sales-killing cover design mistakes to avoid when designing your own book cover. Though hiring a professional is preferable, I know it’s not possible for every author; this way, at least you’ll know where the hurdles are and how high to jump. Happy designing!
Tell us in the comments below: What are some steps you plan to take to avoid these sales-killing cover design mistakes?
Savannah Cordova is a writer and content creator at Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the best editors, designers, and marketers in the business. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and low fantasy, as well as writing the occasional short story. She’s here to pull back the curtain on publishing so that every author can have the greatest possible chance at success.