A book has only seconds to capture your attention, and its attention-getter is the cover.

As an author entrepreneur, a professional book designer, and an independent publisher, I’m always looking at covers. Some catch my eye, but many more make me wince.

So let’s look at five steps to creating a great cover.

Find Good, Meaningful Art

Step 1: Hire professionals to help you find or create good art that relates to your book and your genre.

WarriorsRevenge-AmazonI design covers for nonfiction, but not fiction. So when I was working on my mystery novels, I knew I needed help.

In my books, a yoga teacher solves mysteries. For the latest in the Maya Skye series, Warrior’s Revenge, I bought the work of two professional photographers: Cathleen Tarawhiti of New Zealand and Greg Nimbs of North Carolina.

If you are looking for atmospheric and beautiful, Cathleen is a wizard. She introduced me to the model Monique Wanner, who became Maya Skye in the first book in the series, Down Dog Diary, and returned in Warrior’s Revenge. See more of Cathleen’s work here.

Greg’s photo of a church in Murphy, NC, caught my eye the first time I saw it on Pinterest and stayed with me the whole time I was writing Warrior’s Revenge. I just knew the church in Greg’s photo was the Chapel of the Forgiving Heart in my story. Check out Greg’s work here.

Note: Do not use clipart on your cover. Invest in quality art from a stock library or the library of a good photographer.

So You Have Good Visuals, Now What?

Step 2: Tell a story, not write a ransom note.

The sure sign of an unprofessional book cover is a bucket of images plastered on top of each other—with no finesse.

For finesse, I turned to digital artist Katt Amaral Quinonez. Take a peek at her work here and see why I chose her. I wanted a mystical and mysterious quality for Warrior’s Revenge, but not too dark and forbidding. Katt nailed.

Maya morphShe took the photographs by Cathleen and Greg and blended them into one coherent image that had a beautifully illustrative quality.

Take a look at the lovely Monique in the flesh and how she evolved under Katt’s artful hand into my Maya.

Note: When it comes to fonts, once again, avoid the ransom note. Use no more than two fonts on your cover.

But Will It Play as a Postage Stamp?

Step 3: Make sure your cover is readable in all sizes.

Your cover has to be intriguing—from the shelf of your local bookstore to the thumbnails displayed in online retailers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo.

Make sure the title is big and your name is big. Avoid fonts that are difficult to read (no matter how cool they look on the screen).

The Front Cover Catches Them, But the Back Sells Them

Step 4: Plan your back cover real estate.

The back cover is prime real estate, the penthouse of space on your book cover. It is a powerful marketing tool and should include the following:

  • Subject category at the top. This standardized heading helps bookstores shelf your book appropriately. Find a complete list of publishing categories at Book Industry Study Group.
  • Summary of your book: Tell what your book is about in 100-200 words. Remember you are selling, not writing a synopsis.
  • Endorsements from reviews.
  • About the author. Offer a brief bio with photo. Be sure to note where you are from. Local reviewers will look for that connection right away.
  • Website URL so readers can find out more about you and your books.
  • Barcode and ISBN to make the stores happy.

Here’s What the Experts Say

Step 5: Create a thing of marketing beauty by working with professionals.

When I was the chair of the Midwest Book Awards, I wanted to see covers that wow the judges (who are themselves cover designers). From the evaluations of recent year’s cover entries, we can glean the basics of good cover design.

  • Make it inviting, striking, and beautifully done. Those were some of the adjectives the judges used to describe the finalists in the book awards. Quality book covers stand out from the crowd.
  • Deliver on its promise. A cover is the beginning of a contract with the reader. It makes a promise of what is going to be inside. Does a cover promise fun, thrills and chills, or romance? A pink, fluffy cover with kittens on it will not sell a dark thriller.
  • Keep it balanced and integrated. The cover makes the reader feel comfortable (another part of that invisible contract) by integrating all the visual elements and balancing the images with the fonts.

Here’s one more tip (or rather 10 of them) from the experts at Writer’s Digest: 10 Tips for Effective Book Covers.

When you think about it, book covers have a heavy job. They have a function—to market the book—but the best ones are also works of art.