Self-publishers: How to get your cover design right and stand out on the shelves

I volunteer at a bookshop – the wonderful Rosey Ravelston Books in Lawson, Blue Mountains. It sells new and used books (and has the best coffee and cakes in town, so check it out!). My main task is to shelve the books that come into the shop. This means putting them in the right category and then sorting alphabetically by the author’s surname. Sounds simple, right? Most of the time it is, but the experience has taught me to look at book covers with new eyes.

Especially if you’re self-publishing, it’s critical to get your cover design right so your book stands out on the shelves and online (around a third of all ebooks sold are self-published). A bookseller is also far more likely to stock your book if the cover is professionally designed and doesn’t look self-published.

Your genre should be obvious

You want your book to stand out and to signal straight away whether it’s  fiction or non-fiction, business book or memoir, travel or crime. Take a look at some websites and visit a range of booksellers to see what’s on trend in your genre, and then don’t stray too far from “the look”. Here’s a great look at what was trending in 2021 from the University of Melbourne’s Grattan Street Press.

Take care when designing the spine

This may seem like the least important part of your cover, but in a bookshop most books are displayed with the spine out.  So that’s the first thing the shopper sees. For someone placing stock in a bookshop, it’s frustrating to have the author’s name too small to read or, worse still, not there at all.

a stack of nonfiction books showing titles and authors on the spines.
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

For nonfiction, choose a subtitle that explains what your book is about

Often a title is chosen to be catchy, which is great. But a short, explanatory subtitle will sum up the book’s purpose. A history of … 12 ways to … My experience with … – you get the idea. The subtitle is what makes someone want to open the book. Including keywords makes it discoverable online. Here’s a great guide to writing a subtitle.

Write a clear blurb that piques a potential reader’s interest

Make it clear who your nonfiction book is aimed at, its approach to the subject and what it will do for the reader. Why are you the expert in this subject? For fiction, a paragraph outlining the premise (but no spoilers!) and a short description of how the reader might feel as they read it is a good approach. Try to use the same tone as the novel or story. For all books, quotes from pre-publication readers are helpful. Your blurb is a sales pitch. Grab your reader’s attention from the outset.

Make sure you have a barcode, an ISBN and a complete imprint (copyright) page.

This makes it easier for booksellers to stock  and sell self-published books. It looks professional to also have a cataloguing statement, which means your book is registered with the National Library of Australia.

Finally, using a professional designer is recommended, as there’s a lot more to book cover design, but if that’s outside of your budget online sites such as Canva, Adobe, Reedsy and Desygner offer customisable templates, some of which are free.

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