Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Judging books by their covers

Image from ninocare on pixabay

We all know the old adage: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” However, as much as we’d like to believe that our novels, short story collections, and other writing would be judged by the content and the craft, so much depends on that first impression, on getting people to pick up your book in the first place. Even with the rise in e-books, covers matter.

So I thought I would do a review of some of my mock e-book covers to explore what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to cover design. For aspiring authors looking to self-publish, having the tools to create your own book cover can go a long way for marketing purposes. For aspiring authors looking to get traditionally published, I’m not sure exactly where cover design happens in the process, but it’s probably good to know some basic design principles, just in case.

I’ll be using the mock covers I created for last year’s NaNoWriMo project, all of which were created using Canva1. Canva is a web-based design tool with a lot of free or cheap templates and images to create compelling graphics, not just e-book covers, but blog graphics, infographics, social media graphics, and more. I’ve been using it for a few years and I highly recommend checking it out.

Without further ado, onto the review!

Mock Cover #1: “Moody’s mood for love”

Hide And Seek 1

This cover is a bit dark, a bit mysterious, and I think captured the tone of my NaNo project quite well. Because the story takes place in a forest, I used a photo I had taken a few years ago of the sun shining through some tree leaves, passed it through a few filters, and slapped it into Canva. The result, I think, is pretty haunting.

Why this works: The letters are bold, the background is compelling without being too distracting, and the title is more prominent than my name.

Why it doesn’t: The way the text is placed in the photo, the light makes the “Hide” difficult to read at a distance or in a small thumbnail. Also, there’s a weird mixing of fonts here, from all-caps to lower case to serif versus sans-serif. The font mixing isn’t a deal-breaker (many great designs can mix fonts to great effect), but it doesn’t quite work here.

Mock Cover #2: “Modern art”

Hide And Seek 2

Because there was a nice symmetry to my title (4 letters, 3 letters, 4 letters), I thought I would give this one a try. The effect, I think, was pretty interesting and I do like how unique it is as a cover, even though I would probably never use this one myself.

Why it works: It’s a pretty compelling design, from the mirrored image and text. Because this novel has a few parallel storylines, this cover captured that in a unique way. The main characters have a bit of a “falling through the looking glass” moment, and the mirrored text captures that as well.

Why it doesn’t: The text of the title is too thin and difficult to read. While the background photo might be interesting, it’s too chaotic and distracting in this iteration. And finally, there’s the font mixing again, and this time it’s not that great. The serif author name combined with the sans-serif and thin lines of the title make for a weird cover.

Mock Cover #3: “What was I thinking?”

Hide And Seek 3

For this one, I used a photo I took in Central Park of a pretty enchanted spot. I was searching for a layout that would work with the photo, and came across this one. The effect is…not my favorite. But! I was still experimenting with covers at this point.

Why it works: The yellow is pretty bold, and combined with the de-saturated background, the title stands out.

Why it doesn’t: To be frank, this cover is quite ugly. The colors are all wrong, the placement of the byline and title is wrong, and the photo isn’t displayed in all its glory. Of the covers I created, this one is my least favorite.

Mock Cover #4: “The runner-up”

Hide And Seek 4

I took the same photo from Mock Cover #1 and instead of passing it through a black-and-white filter, I boosted the color and darkened it to get that same kind of grunge look. The result, again, matches the feel of the work, how the characters find themselves in this different, but similar, world.

Why it works: The colors are great. The title is bold and readable. Though there’s font mixing, it works here, because the fonts are both so different and serving the purpose they’re meant to serve. (The title is meant to be big and eye-catching, and the author name is meant to be clear, but still understated.)

Why it doesn’t: No big red flags here, in my opinion. The title font might be a little more unique, but I think that it’s perfectly fine as it stands.

Mock Cover #5: “The final form”

Hide And Seek 5

This was what I eventually went with for my NaNoWriMo project. The photo is a free stock photo from Canva, and looking at this again it’s somewhat reminiscent of the covers for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy2. Though I have some mixed feelings about that trilogy, the covers are pretty damn compelling.

Why it works: The font is clear and readable, and the image is eye-catching without being distracting. In many ways, the font and the photo work together, and neither element is really fighting for dominance. The image is also very dramatic and mysterious, a good choice for a fantasy novel.

Why it doesn’t: No red flags, in my opinion. I chose this as the cover, so it probably works, right?

Final Thoughts

Cover design is something that professional designers spend days and weeks getting just right, and so if you’re looking to create your book cover yourself, be sure to take your time and really consider what’s working and what’s not. The next time you’re out and about buying books, take a few moments to consider what works and what doesn’t. When you find yourself drawn to a book, aside from looking at the title and the author, examine the cover. What appeals to you? What made the cover eye-catching?

What are some of your favorite book covers? And what makes them work, in your opinion? Leave a comment below!

This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.


[1] CanvaΒ β€” web-based design tool,
[2] The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Additional Links:

Published by Caroliena Cabada

Caroliena Cabada is a writer currently based in Lincoln, Nebraska. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, Fiction, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her writing has been published in online and print journals and anthologies, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.

53 thoughts on “Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Judging books by their covers

  1. I like the final cover art too! Some of my favorite covers have lovely textures and symbols overlapping the images. Great unique post πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks for commenting! Texture layering is certainly effective. I’m curious if you have an example of a book that does this really effectively. Let me know! I’d love to see. ^_^

  2. I use Canva (Love it!) for my short story covers and hire a professional for my novels. I wish Canva did more, or I’d learned Photoshop at one time (I’d be an expert by now).
    Great job on explaining what works and what doesn’t.
    p.s. “human dynamo, Raimey Gallant”. Love it!

    1. I love Canva because, at some level, it removes choice paralysis and has restrictions. I’ve worked with Adobe products to create documents and while it certainly has a lot of functionalities that can create fantastic digital images, for me, there’s just too much.

      Thank you for commenting! And yes, Raimey is always doing something dynamic πŸ™‚

  3. I love this illustrated walk through covers that work and don’t work. It’s very helpful! I’m working with an artist/designer on the cover for my first novel. Educating myself so I can give her useful feedback is a must!
    I really like the cover you went with. The fog coming through the trees is intriguing!

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope this helps you decide on the cover of your first novel! Congrats, and best of luck. πŸ™‚

  4. I love both the final cover and the runner up, really different but both are eye-catching. I use Canva all the time, it’s such a great tool for blog graphics and social media posts. I’ve had a go at designing covers myself just for Nano, but they’re pretty terrible. I’ll follow your tips and have another go πŸ™‚

    1. Yes! Canva is so useful, and I’ve only explored a small portion of what they have to offer. πŸ™‚ Thanks for your comments! I hope you give cover design another go!

  5. Covers are what get someone to pick up the book to read the jacket. They are essential to getting people to notice your book. Great breakdown of each cover. Some great design notes for people to pick up. Although I agree with all of your assessments, the first cover you showed drew me in a bit more than your final one, even though it was hard to read.
    So one of the tips/ tricks that I noticed from some professional designs that add interest is to use different font alignments to add interest. Like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The text of Harry is aligned at the bottom and Potter is aligned at the top. One of my cabin mates at Camp NaNo was a graphic designer and made a cover for my novel project. His cover did this and then I started noticing it other places.
    One of my favorite techniques in recent covers has been incorporating the text into the design like in On Trails by Robert Moor.

    1. Thanks for commenting! It’s interesting that the first one drew you in more, despite the difficult-to-read title. Maybe there can be the best of both worlds? I’ll maybe try another version! And I just looked up the covers you mentioned (I honestly haven’t looked at the HPatCC cover that much, haha), and yeah, the sizes and alignment of the text makes it interesting. The one for On Trails is also beautiful. I like the minimal illustration around the words.

      Thanks again for commenting and for pointing out some interesting covers!

  6. I love how you self-critiqued for the benefit of other authors, and I completely agree with all of your interpretations. For me, if readability of the title isn’t there, the cover doesn’t work. I started a Pinterest board on book covers I like actually. If you want to collaborate on it, let me know. Or maybe you already have one I should be following. Let me check. No, I can’t find you. Are you on Pinterest? Here’s the link to the board: I have one thought about your final winning cover, and I do really think it is lovely. For the e-book version though, the sky has no separation from the white of the websites where you may be selling it. If Canva can handle it, is is possible to add a touch of color to the sky? If not, no big deal. I’d offer to do it for you, but I’m afraid my graphic design skills aren’t fantastic.

    1. Hey there! I am on Pinterest, and I’ll check out your board! Cover design is an interesting topic, and having them all in one place is a great idea.

      Great point about the white of the sky as well! I’m not sure if Canva has the capability to adjust the tint of the sky specifically, but I can probably play around with filters and get something similar. I’ll probably do another round of cover edits and see what works πŸ™‚

      Thanks for commenting! I really appreciate the feedback!

  7. I love Canva! I use it to create social media posts – I’m not yet confident enough to attempt a book cover!

    I think your final cover is great – and agree with you about the others. The images are fine, but it’s the fonts that make or break the cover as a whole. Thanks for showing us the progression from so-so to Wow!

    1. Canva is so useful for social posts! I haven’t explored it as much as I should, but the designs are really great.

      Thanks for commenting! And definitely try out a book cover. Even if you don’t use it anywhere, it’s fun to put something together!

  8. Although I never plan to dabble in making my own cover art- the artsy gene in my family skipped me, I can write and that is all (seriously, my mother, sister and all 3 of my children can art…I cannot)- it was still incredibly helpful to learn about what works and what doesn’t. It will help if I ever buy my own covers, and if I’m ever in a place to help another author choose.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m glad that you still find this useful, even if you don’t plan on designing covers yourself! And I hear ya about skipping genes. So many members of my family are athletic, and then there’s me, the girl who sprains a wrist just from leaning on it in a strange way while cleaning πŸ˜›

      Thanks again for commenting! I appreciate it πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks! I’m glad that you found this format useful. I had some difficulty figuring out how to talk about this topic, so I’m glad this works πŸ™‚

      Thanks for commenting!

  9. This is so interesting πŸ™‚ I’m leaning towards self publishing, and I will be designing my own cover, so it’s good to know what works and what doesn’t! I loved seeing how your cover developed too. I’ve never used Canva, but I have used Photoshop.
    As for traditional publishing, I wrote a bit about cover design in my Author toolbox post this month. At least where I worked, the publisher seemed to do all the work!

    1. Thanks for commenting, and best of luck designing your cover! If you’re familiar with Photoshop and have access to the software (I don’t use it because it’s too expensive to buy 😦 ), then by all means, use it! Canva does have some limitations to what it can do, though considering that it’s a “freemium” web-based design tool, it’s pretty powerful. And thank you for the insight on how traditional publishing handles cover design! From what I’ve read as well, the publisher does take on a lot of the creation of the physical book, so that makes sense that they do all of the design work.

      Thanks again for commenting!

  10. I use a book cover designer. I could never create something as beautiful as you’ve done above. This is one part that I don’t mind having some else create. I guess we all have to know our own strengths and where we could focus our time.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I totally understand being willing to give up some creative control to let the experts handle different aspects. If I am ever lucky enough to be in a position to hire a professional designer, I would definitely let them have a bit more reign. I have some sense of aesthetic rules, but I also didn’t study this area in great detail.

      Thanks again for commenting!

  11. Thank you for self-critiquing your work. That can be hard to do sometimes. I loved all of your advice and tips.

    I also love Canva and Adobe Spark. They both create lovely designs.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think self-critique comes pretty easy for me, because I’m always seeking feedback on how I can improve, not just from myself but from others. πŸ™‚ Anyway! I’ll have to check out Adobe Spark! The whole Adobe suite can be pretty intimidating because there are so many tools and the programs are so powerful, but they also put out high-quality products.

      Thanks again for commenting!

    1. Thanks for commenting! That’s so interesting that the publisher ends up just using your friend’s mock up. That’s pretty incredible! I don’t think any cover I’ve created so far would get that treatment πŸ™‚

      Thanks again for commenting!

  12. Great post! I love how experimentally you approach and assess your writing goals and issues. Even with last month’s hop post, you had your scheduling set up with clear objectives. Totally admiring the brain work πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks for your comment! I studied science in college and so I have a tendency to think and organize in systems, even for creative pursuits. Reproducible results! Multiple experiments! It’s the only way to go πŸ™‚

      Thanks again for commenting!

  13. Wow, it’s so cool that you took the time to make all of these and then share your thoughts on them! They are all fantastic for mock-ups. Great composition skills. I think the first one would work even better if the background image was inverted, putting the text in the darkest areas. And the one with the backwards SEEK really told part of your story for you. Well done all around, and thanks for sharing. Serious food for thought!

    My post:

    1. Thanks for your comment! I definitely agree that the first one can probably be fixed by changing the word placement slightly. I’ll have to give it another go.

      Thanks again for commenting!

  14. You’ve done a really good job here of explaining with words what I can normally only capture in a vague sense of “ehhhhh it works for … reasons ….” πŸ™‚

    Also, thank you for reminding me that Canva exists! I’ve used them before and loved the results, but I keep forgetting that they’re available. Seeing what you came up with reminds me that they’re worth checking out again!

    1. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad that you found the post useful. And putting specific words to those “ehhhhhhhh, yes?” feelings can be a great writing exercise…I find myself trying to make fewer noncommittal noises and instead use my words πŸ™‚

      And hooray for Canva! Definitely let me know what you think of it when you go back to it. They’re always adding new formats!

  15. To be honest, I’d never heard of Canva until reading your post (I can be pretty clueless at times), but I think I’ll have to check it out. I have made some basic images for short stories and the like to go online but maybe that will help me make something even better. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for your comment! And I’m glad to be spreading the good Canva word. I came across the site in a post on, I think, The Daily Post run by WordPress and I’ve been hooked ever since. Let me know what you think of it when you check it out!

  16. You were spot on with positive and negative comments for each cover design (my thoughts exactly), and you certainly chose the best one. Love it. Interesting and informative post. πŸ™‚

  17. Nice covers! It was really interesting seeing the thought process behind the different cover creations. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! πŸ˜€

    1. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found the post interesting. I had a tough time figuring out the right way to talk about the pros and cons of each cover, and I’m glad that this was a good way of presenting it.

      Thanks again!

  18. It is interesting to see the progression of the covers you tried and the final result. One thing I always ask my clients when doing cover design is what is the emotion they want the cover to evoke when someone sees it?

    1. Thanks for your comment! Having that idea of what you want the cover to accomplish in that first impression is definitely necessary to creating a compelling one. Without that, it’s hard to create something that will really stand out.

  19. Oh wow, I LOVE this post. As someone who can be graphically challenged, it’s ridiculously informative. Seeing how it both worked and didn’t work makes it so easy to wrap my brain around the concepts. Thank you!!!

    1. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found this useful! Being able to sit down and put into words why a visual piece “works” or doesn’t is really helpful, not just for cover design, but also for thinking about writing and how to convey visual information in a meaningful way.

      Anyway! Thanks again for commenting! I’m so glad you liked the post!

  20. Hi! I like your choice! I’ve been using Canva lately for graphics and have been discovering a lot of your why it works/why it doesn’t work reasoning!

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