by David Gaughran

This is an adapted excerpt from the third edition of Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should by David Gaughran which is available for pre-order now from Kobo.


A knockout cover has two basic ingredients: a great designer, and a detailed brief. If you don’t communicate exactly what you need to your artist, you may end up with something technically competent, but targeting the wrong readers—which can be an expensive, slow-burning error.


This fate can be avoided with a little research and communication, instead of hoping your designer will wave a magic wand and somehow deduce all your unspoken desires. As a bonus, this process will also end up generating enticing blurbs and hooky taglines for your book.


You might think that finding a good pro is the tricky part, but you would be wrong; there are tons of talented, reasonably-priced designers putting out consistently good work. The troublesome part of the equation here is you. If you don’t brief your designer correctly — and haven’t already divested yourself of a few myths surrounding cover design and marketing — then you could be in trouble.


Let me explain how my research process works.


Author Name and Title

This might seem incredibly obvious, but I have actually managed to commission a cover without giving a moment’s thought to the title. In my defense, it was a box set, but those need titles too! And to comply with retailer rules the title must also appear on the cover.


Pick something short, snappy, and memorable. Ebook covers are usually encountered by readers for the first time at a smaller scale in places like search results. Yes, they are considerably bigger on the product pages themselves, but the great, unwashed masses who haven’t heard of you yet will likely encounter your book cover first in thumbnail, in a sea of others—either as one of many in search results, or among a strip of several competing for attention on the product page of another book.


There’s a reason you don’t see too many self-publishers leading with mouthfuls like A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. We don’t have a very large canvas and must stick to something simple and striking.


The one exception here is non-fiction, which should generally have a short and snappy main title, quickly followed by a keyword-rich subtitle. As with everything, check out what the bestsellers in your category are doing.



This can have all sorts of uses, from appearing on your book cover, in the description itself, in a tweet or other advertising, and so on. Trust me, you will find endless uses for it, and the exercise itself is useful as it gets you to boil down your book to its absolute essentials. If someone asks me what my novel Mercenary is about, I can tell them it’s the story of: “The USA’s most famous soldier of fortune, a hard-drinking drifter who changed the face of a nation.”


On some books, the tagline comes to me first. Other times, I pull a choice sentence from the book description—so if you get horrendously stuck with one, you can have a bash at the other.



Writing enticing descriptions is an art, but one at which you can improve immeasurably with a little practice. Well, some of you can. Others don’t seem to have the patience for writing any kind of copy. And nearly everyone struggles with summoning the requisite emotional distance. I come from a copywriting background, and I still have issues with that.


The typical author is (still, hopefully) in love with her story, and invariably includes all sorts of plot points and minor characters and Distracting Proper Nouns that have no place in a piece of sales copy — and that’s what this is, lest you forget. Its job is to sell the book, not summarize the plot. The sizzle, not the steak.


Have a look at bestselling books in your category. An effective description for a first-person steamy contemporary romance is very different from a third-person thriller or omniscient historical novel. And then non-fiction is a different world again. Narrative stuff might be more akin to a novel, showing a little skin without revealing all, but a How-To or Reference book will be incredibly wordy, trying to exhaustively cover every topic in the book.


Practice will get you very far. If you are one of the people (like me!) who finds this process incredibly painful, I must urge you not to settle for the first half-decent description you eventually summon up. I guarantee you it’s not as good as you think it is.


Workshop it with a few fellow authors. It doesn’t matter so much if they write in the same genre or not. Most effective blurbs follow similar enough pattern, a pared back version of the classic story arc: there’s a hero who wants something, an obstacle in his way, there’s much at stake and probably some flavor of peril, and he must overcome both internal and external foes to get what he wants. Or some variation thereof.


Very much like beta reading, returning the favor and helping others workshop their blurbs is something that will teach you a lot, and I highly recommend it. In fact, you can go one step further, as I have done a few times, and simply trade blurb-writing duties with a friend. If they give you a rough start, you don’t even need to have read the book! Now that will really give you emotional distance…


Target Audience & Comparable Authors

We’ll take these two together. It’s important to have at least some idea who you are writing for and to keep your target readers in mind when considering covers. You will get a better sense as your career progresses through experience, talking with your own readers, seeing who is reviewing your book, analyzing the data Facebook provides on who has liked your Page, and so on.


Over time you will get a better sense of what you are writing, who you write like, and which types of readers like those books but you must force yourself to start that process now.


If it helps, this isn’t a place to be demure, like a query letter. If you are aiming for Suzanne Collins’ readership, then be explicit about that. In any event, your designer will just need a couple of reference points. If you are writing sweet rock-star romances, with more chaste covers than the spicier end of the market, then make sure to say that to your designer.


Surveying Your Genre

There’s just one last step before you go bothering your designer: you need to look at the charts.


Kobo and Amazon and all the various retailers have all sorts of different charts, not just the overall Top 100 Best Sellers (where the titles at the very top are selling thousands of copies a day), but some also have incredibly niche charts reflecting the Top 100 in culinary-themed mysteries or even one for freemasonry.


What you need to do is:

(a) Identify two or three sub-categories where your book would best fit. I don’t mean top-level categories like “Science Fiction & Fantasy” or “Romance” but granular sub-categories several levels below that, like “Alien Invasion” or “New Adult.”

(b) Look at the covers in the Top 100—all of them! Note the similarities.

(c) Kidnap your Inner Artist and hide her away in some dark basement until your cover is designed and ready.


The reason you must take your Inner Artist out of the equation is that she will lead you astray. Your artistic side will chafe at the notion of approaching cover design in the manner I recommend. Your natural creative impulses will rebel against the idea that your cover should look (somewhat) like another. The artist in you wants to be different. To be unique. To color outside the lines.


This person cannot be trusted.


A book cover has but one job: to get people to click on it. And not just anyone, but the right readers. Remember the people you are writing for? Those are the ones you want clicking: your target audience. “But I want everyone to click,” is the kind of foolish thing your Inner Artist would yell if we hadn’t already taken care of that problem.


It’s simple, really. The place to dazzle readers with originality is inside the book — i.e. with your words. The cover’s job is to entice the right readers to your page on Amazon (where, one hopes, those much-vaunted words of yours will close the sale). Make no mistake: choosing a cover is a business decision, and one which must be hard-nosed.


I see authors spending crazy money on marketing and getting terrible results because they make a mess of this step. Don’t be future fodder for one of my anonymized, aggregated anecdotes! Look at the charts for your sub-genre and make your book look like that. Somewhat, at least. You don’t want to slavishly copy anyone, just make sure your cover fits with the others.


Remember the poor reader adrift in a sea of teeny covers? Be aware that she only has two seconds to glance at yours, if that. Make it easy for her to click. If you don’t, she’ll pass right over onto the next.


This is an adapted excerpt from the third edition of Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should by David Gaughran which is available for pre-order now from Kobo.


David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish and lives in Dublin, where it rains every day and conversation is a sport. He has helped thousands of authors to self-publish via his workshops, blog, and books. Visit DavidGaughran.com to sign up to his mailing list and get a free copy of Amazon Decoded.


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