There is little in the book production process that creates as much excitement (and often, disagreement) as the design of the book cover. Every author wants a cover that conveys their enthusiasm for the content within, a cover that communicates perfectly what readers will discover upon reading it, a cover that catches the reader’s eye in a crowded marketplace and encourages them to buy and read it. So … creating a cover is quite a design challenge.

Often, authors have very little control over what their covers will look like, and quite often they are not offered any opportunity for input at all. And there’s a good reason for this: publishers know best what types of covers will succeed in their market and with their target audience. They have years of experience and data to show what types of covers work. They also (hopefully) hire professional, trained graphic designers to create the covers. So, my first advice is to leave it to the professionals.

However, in some cases you may have some power in the cover design process. You may be a super-important author who can negotiate cover approval into your contract, or you may be working with a small publisher that allows for input, or you may be self-publishing your book, which leaves you in charge of creating the cover yourself.

A good cover should do three things:

  1. Help the book stand out from others, but not be too different

Yes, you want your cover to catch people’s attention, but it still needs to fit within readers’ expectations for the genre. A cookbook needs to look like a cookbook. A memoir looks different from a serious academic work. There are certain conventions to book cover design within your genre that your cover needs to adhere to.

Three book covers: a cookbook, memoir, and scholarly book
  1. Convey the mood and content of the book.

This seems obvious, but it’s actually quite hard to achieve! The artwork, layout, and typography all need to work together to convey the mood and help people understand what the book will be like.

  1. Not be too obvious.

Book cover artists Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein gave an interesting interview for the Stanford University Press blog, in which they say:

There should . . . be a meaningful relationship between material and message – the image should make sense with the content in a smart and interesting way. That visual-verbal connection must be present and strong. A good book cover should also reward the reader – there should be a little bit of mystery to allow for personal interpretation, and enough depth in the image so the reader’s experience of the cover changes and grows as they make their way through the text.

The best book covers cue to readers what the book is about and what kind of book it is but move beyond the obvious to provide interest. It’s a delicate balance!

Three book cover showing intriguing or mysterious artwork

Legendary book cover artist Chip Kidd focuses on this balance between clarity and mystery in his TED Talk, “The Art of First Impressions.”

If you want to get inspired by some really beautiful book designs, check out the Association of University Press’s annual Book, Jacket, and Journal Show.

If your publisher does allow for input, then make sure you offer your opinion carefully and with great tact. At the Center for Engaged Learning, we try to work with our authors to create a cover that appeals to everyone. For example, the original cover design for our upcoming book Writing about Learning and Teaching in Higher Education didn’t do a lot to excite the authors:

original book cover design for Writing about Learning and Teaching, with gray geometric background

And yes, it was probably too boring for such an awesome book. So the authors sent some suggestions, including a few examples of book covers that they really loved. We scoured the internet for artwork that captured some of the energy and feeling from those examples, searching for imagery that was in the public domain or creative-commons licensed (after all, this book is in our Open Access Book Series). We came up with two new versions of the cover for the authors to choose from:

Two new book cover designs for Writing about Learning and Teaching, with bright and colorful artwork

The authors were happy with the cover on the left, and that’s what we went with. It’s bright and engaging, and it communicates the approachable and useful nature of the book. As Pat Hutchings said of the book: “Books about writing can be pretty pedestrian, but the authors have truly invited readers into a conversation. … More important, it’s beautifully written – with a great voice – scholarly but personal.”

Ideally, authors and publishers can work together to come up with a cover that meets everyone’s approval. If you’re an author who’s not happy with your cover, remember that design is to a certain extent subjective, and the content of the book matters a lot more than the cover!

We have more posts on the academic publishing process! Check out our posts on:

Jennie Goforth is the Center for Engaged Learning’s Managing Editor. She works with authors to shepherd their work from proposal through production in the Center’s Open Access Book Series. She also manages production of book websites and supplemental materials for the Stylus Publishing/Center for Engaged Learning Series on Engaged Learning and Teaching.

How to cite this post:

Goforth, Jennie. 2020, August 20. “Academic Book Publishing: Cover Design” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from