Cover Design – The Basics

Cover design is one of 9 topics planned for the next while on A Writer of History. So it might be useful to provide a few basics that apply to all cover designs with a bit of commentary on what might be unique for historical fiction.

The folks at IngramSpark – an award-winning independent publishing platform, offering indie authors and publishers the ability to create professional print books and ebooks – share seven ideas in a post titled Book Cover Design Basics. These seem like a good place to start.

Source: IngramSpark

Each of the seven is important. I’ve added a few thoughts on specifics for historical fiction.

Give readers a sneak peak of what’s to come“Your cover design should hint at the overall theme and plot of the story without giving away any major plot details or spoilers.” With historical fiction in mind, this sneak peak should let the reader know that the story is historical while giving a sense of the time period. In my opinion, all of the covers shown below convey historical fiction. To me, Adrianna Trigiani’s cover and title of The Good Left Undone convey a heroine with regrets as well as a sense of longing. Leslie Johansen Nack’s The Blue Butterfly suggests wealth and loneliness.

Let the reader know the book’s genre“While plenty of people like a little variety in their bookshelves, most people prefer one or two genres over others.” Many authors describe historical fiction as a meta genre. In other words, it’s a genre with many other genres like mystery, romance, thriller and so on as sub-genres.

Introduce your protagonist – “readers have to feel connected to your protagonist in order to feel compelled to read their story. If you can establish a connection with your protagonist before they ever even crack open your book, you’re ahead of the game.” For historical fiction, this suggests the inclusion of period-specific people on the cover. Have a look at the women in Natalie Jenner’s Bloomsbury Girls (great read, by the way) or the man riding a horse in Robert Harris’s Act of Oblivion.

Set the right tone“Your book cover design should match the tone of your book in order to attract the right readers. So, if your book is humorous, the cover shouldn’t include darkly contrasting imagery with a blood red title.” Some examples of tone include dry, light-hearted, humorous, nostalgic, uneasy, arrogant. I don’t think there is anything unique about historical fiction pertaining to tone. Notice how the tone of Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and that of My Fine Fellow by Jennieke Cohen differ, to say nothing of the ominous tone of Kate Quinn’s Diamond Eye.

Follow the rules of design in a way that makes sense for your genre – IngramSpark gives the following examples: “Use fonts that are genre-appropriate and easy to read. Use text hierarchy to emphasis the important text on your cover, like your title. Create contrast between the background colors and the text to make it pop off the page and grab your readers’ attention. Leverage colour psychology to elicit the right emotional responses from your readers.” Like any genre, historical fiction covers have trends: headless heroines and heroes, characters shown from the back, headshots, period accessories, somewhat muted colours, overlays and so on.

Pay attention to the details “Things like lighting, shading, image treatment, image arrangement, text hierarchy, and layering are what takes a book cover design from ‘ok’ to ‘epic.'” In the case of historical fiction, the details have to be authentic to the novel’s period. Check the helmet in Bernard Cornwell’s Sword of Kings or the jewelled woman in Vaishnavi Patel’s KaiKeyi.

Have a distinct style – what won’t help you attract more readers is “designing a book cover that looks like literally everything else on the shelf.” A distinct style “can also help build your author brand.” To that I would add especially if you are creating a series. C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series is a good example. His covers use somber colours. His titles are always (with one exception) single words.

Of course, there are many other elements to consider like font choice, colour scheme, imagery, layout, book description, title, tagline/teaser, and genre or niche conventions.

David Gaughran, an author who has become an authority on self-publishing, has provided his thoughts on cover design in How To Design A Book Cover That Sells. David’s article has lots of useful information. For today’s purposes, two points stood out for me.

  • Your book’s cover is not an expression of your soul as an artist. It’s a marketing tool – one which should be explicitly designed to get readers to click on it. And not just any readers, but the right readers.
  • In order to standout, especially given the small images offered online, “your book cover design should be simple rather than ornate. And it should be striking instead of subtle.”

You may also want to look at an earlier post and readers’ comments on Cover Design – 7 Tips from Readers.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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5 Responses

  1. Mary, what a GREAT blog post, I especially like the fact that I pretty much break/ignore every single (very good!) idea about book covers. Except possible “Have a distinct style”. But the point about the cover not being an “expression of your soul as an artist” is well-put. But I beg to differ, I guess, because I love creating my own covers SO MUCH that I can’t resist artistic expression over much-more-practical marketing rationale. Oh well! But I really enjoyed the post–it might even influence my next cover! Thanks.

    1. Hi Mary.

      Like you, really enjoyed this, thanks to Sharon – and maybe nobody will get my latest cover, WWII historical reference
      Three of us – family, work on ideas together, and love this.
      Bestseller might help with fixing the leaking roof ?

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