Judge a book by its cover: 3 Golden Rules for Designing an Eye Catching Book Cover

 Guest blog by Scribbly Roo, a freelance Illustrator and Graphic Designer working from her home studio in Norfolk, UK, where she writes and illustrates her own graphic novels and children’s picture books.

Part Three: Building Blocks

In parts one and two of this series, I’ve given tips on how to use pre-existing visual tools to help guide you in your designing. This final part is about creating your own elements in order to realise a unique and effective cover design.

Let’s begin. If you had to make a list of key features that occur in your book, what would they be? Think in terms of characters and objects in the plot, colours, themes, things you can portray visually. The idea is to break down the book’s content into more bite-sized chunks that can be put into a design. This is particularly useful if you are having to re-design a cover for an already well-known book that people have pre-established associations with. It gives you a visual language that viewers will instantly recognise, while still bringing something new to the mix.


For instance, most people by now are familiar with Bridget Jones’s Diary. Whether you’ve read the books by Helen Fielding, or watched the movies, you’re bound to have a few ideas in your head that you instantly associate with Bridget. Cigarettes, alcohol, failed diets, comedy, romance. And thanks to the movie, the bold, uppercase typeface is intrinsically linked to a lot of cover designs for the series, along with Renee Zellweger’s iconic pout.

When Picador released an ebook of Bridget Jones’s Diary in August 2009, complete with an eye catching new cover design, it already felt familiar to most of us. Why? Well, the typeface is the same bold uppercase that we already subconsciously link to Bridget. Also, there’s the wine (check), a cigarette (check), the image is somewhat romantic in style (check) and the handwriting font is quirky, relating to both the diary itself as well as the humorous aspects of the book (check). So you can see although the design looks very simple on the surface, it is filled with visual cues that are already iconic.

But what about designing for a book that’s new or relatively unheard of? The same rules apply, but no one has any preconceived ideas linked to your book, so you’re now in charge of creating the building blocks from scratch. So have fun!

To give you a working example, I’m going to take you through my process for developing the hard-back cover design of Joshua Fenner’s Arcana: The Devil’s Mandrake which I showed you last week. First off, the book is about Sean Foster and his two sidekicks Lucas and Kurt. They are arcana treasure hunters, searching out desired magical artefacts for a price. This is the bare minimum you need to know in order to understand where my design is coming from. To read more about the book itself, visit their Official Tumblr Blog.

Having read the book, my list of key elements or building blocks were as follows:

  1. Arcana magical symbols
  2. Foster (main character)
  3. Lucas and Kurt (sidekicks) possibly Foster’s little sister
  4. The devil’s mandrake itself
  5. Other key objects- a) Foster’s book, b) Kurt’s E.M. bomb, c) Lucas’s top hat, d) the magic rug
  6. Colours- Light glowing blue of the Angel Tear stones
  7. Original font for title

As you can see, that’s a lot to fit into one design. But it is a good start. From this list, I could narrow down what I could include in an effective design. In my initial draft, I was a little over ambitious, wanting to include all three main characters, with them each holding an object mentioned in the plot. I also designed my own typeface for the title. As discussed in my previous blog, this ended up being far too complicated and messy. I hadn’t put the other golden rules into use, so I hadn’t been as selective as I should have been.



My second and final design was far more successful. Instead of trying to use everything on my list, I cut it down to a few things. I used Foster on the front, holding his book as an added detail. Instead of having him looking out at the viewer (this can look very static if you’re not careful), I put him in ‘action mode’ looking sideways as if he’s on the run from the bad guys. Instead of illustrating Lucas and Kurt as well, I settled for putting their hats on the back cover. This is both a nod to them and a hint at the humour throughout the story.

Here is the full hardcover wrapper so you can see the whole design:



To represent the magical aspects of the book, I created a simple version of the symbols used on the paperback version. On the end pages, I put the pattern into repeat for further effect. I also simplified the title, ditching my own typeface for the one I’d used for the subtitle and author lines.





Last, by reducing the colour scheme to four colours (light blue, dark blue, white and black) everything became a lot cleaner and bolder. Just to summarise, here was my final list of building blocks I used:

  1. Sean Foster with book
  2. Blue Colours
  3. Hats for Lucas and Kurt
  4. Magical symbol motif
  5. Charlemagne Std font throughout

This is a great way to generate effective design ideas. Give it a go with your favourite books! Or try to challenge yourself by doing it with a book you’re less familiar with. Remember the other Golden Rules too and have fun!

Next time: Now that I’ve concluded my 3 Golden Rules, I’m going to take a look at a few book designers who put these ideas into practice and create fantastic original covers. My next blog will be about the amazing Teresa Monachino.

Picks from the Web: Top Stories Under 1000 Words


If you haven’t entered our short story contest to win $100 in Amazon vouchers, maybe a few picks from June’s newly released lit mag editions will give you some ideas. These shorts show that you don’t need a twist in the tail or a punchy style to give the reader a transforming experience:

Hotel by Monica De La Torre in The White Review

“The women at the gym enjoy talking to hotel guests at the fitness centre.

A man carrying his fresh dry-cleaning complains about the slow elevator.

A man carries bulky photo equipment and drags a console on wheels.

A woman at the coffee bar admires my shoes. ‘Comfortable,’ she says.”

In the current issue of the White Review, Monica De La Torre shows her prowess in the short form, placing prose and poetry next to one another, she uses the space of the page with freedom, laying her objects and subjects out as if drawing rather than writing them. Very quickly but without pressure to come to a conclusion she presents her setting, letting it speak for itself.

Geographies by Sayantani Dasgupta in Contrary Magazine

“He dumped her via a terse, two-line email.”

So begins this story about a long-distance relationship carried out over letters and messages. Our narrator thinks her lover, though she’s never really “met” him, is perfect, his words are “sweet like the segment of a perfect orange,” each little thing that he does from a distance is beautiful. But after this email, the break up, she becomes dissatisfied and longs to make an actual memory of him. Dasgupta uses a short form to present the ideal and real relationship, but the schism between manages to be a hopeful rather than sad realisation.

iphone by Charlie Latan in Litro

This tiny weeny story shows you don’t need long with a simple idea and a resonant ending. Latan conjures an absurdly realistic idea, of a little person living inside his phone, dropping his mother’s calls.

Pig Out by Heather Villa in Bartleby Snopes

After Paula drops a precious ceramic pig belonging to one of her mother’s friends, the pig is put behind glass, and Paula becomes known as the girl who breaks things. The heat of this gossipy suburban environment is created by the repeated whispers about Paula.

“Isabelle looked up at Paula’s mother and said, “Before you come over Mommy puts away fancy things. Paula breaks things.””

Drive by Aaron Gansky in Apeiron Review

This one isn’t technically from June, but I couldn’t help it. A beautifully succinct story about a boy whose dad sometimes leaves him in their car under a blanket reading comics while he goes to do some kind of mysterious work. This time though, he comes back to the car more shaken up than usual…

Give us your best shot! Send us something under 1000 words, of anything, scene, shocker, monologue, anything. And I’ll be revealing the short listed entries next week. 

Happy Father’s Day! Literature’s Top 5 Dads


I hope this finds you scribbling away preparing your entry to the Towerbabel short story contest but when you take a break today you might want to toddle down to the last day of the London Short Story Festival if you’re in the area. Tucked away in Picadilly’s Waterstones, the Short Story Festival is one of the most unintimidating festivals around. You can easily just drop in and hear a story and drop out again, or get a book signed by your favourite short storyist.

Or take your papa along if he’s got literary leanings, cos it’s Father’s Day! (In the UK and US at least; don’t panic everyone else.)

So in honor of bookworm Dads, here are a few of our favourite literary father figures.

Atticus Finch 

Not every dad can be a crime-fighting revolutionary and a Southern gentleman at the same time, but Atticus Finch manages it, not to mention he’s also single dad to Scout and gives her some of the best advice any girl ever got, including never to give up: “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

Ashoke Ganguli 

One of my new favorite dads of literature appears in Jumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Gogol’s dad Ashoke was in a train crash, and was reading a collection of stories by Nikolai Gogol at the time, so when his son’s family name, which is supposed to be provided by his grandmother, never arrives, Ashoke gives Gogol the name that will come to define him, for better or worse, but mostly better. Surviving the crash where others aren’t so lucky, Ashoke passes on his luck to his son. Even as he becomes distanced from his son, his influence remains.

Marie Laure’s Papa

Marie Laure is a brave and vulnerable protagonist in Anthony Doerr’s prizewinning novel set in World War II France, but she owes much of her strength to her papa, who brings her up single-handed, protects her and challenges her when she loses her sight, even when he’s not around to do it in person. The scenes in the book where Marie’s father is building miniature scale models of the neighbourhoods Marie needs to navigate or intricate puzzles for her birthday are some of the most touching fatherly scenes of recent literature.

Grandpa Joe 

He’s not Charlie’s actual Dad, but Grandpa Joe Bucket goes the extra mile to help his grandson, getting himself out of bed for the first time in decades to accompany the lad to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. His sense of fun and joy influences Charlie to seize every rare opportunity he gets, until finally his luck changes.

King Hamlet

Sure, Hamlet Junior is a bit messed up from start to finish in Shakespeare’s opus, but King Hamlet does stick around where other dads would have given up, haunting poor old Hamlet to warn him of the murderous events to come. Even if the ghost is a mere figment of Hamlet’s imagination, it shows what an important figure he was.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddies!

Judge a Book by its Cover: 3 Golden Rules for Designing a Book Cover

 Guest blog by Scribbly Roo, a freelance Illustrator and Graphic Designer working from her home studio in Norfolk, UK, where she writes and illustrates her own graphic novels and children’s picture books.

Part Two: Stand out!

In my previous post I talked about trends in book cover design and how you can use them to your advantage. This week, however, it’s time to think outside the box!

Fitting in with a genre’s design trends works well when the book is displayed in an A – Z format, common both online and in bookstores. But it’s just as common for books to be categorised into genres. This is when you need your cover design to really stand out and grab people’s attention. So what’s the best way to do this?

During my time at University, one of my favourite lecturers and talented book designer, Teresa Monachino, divulged a simple but fantastic trick to ensure your design stands out on the shelf. I’ve used it ever since…

First, pay a visit to your favourite book stores- especially the ones that you think the book you’re designing for might appear in when it’s printed. Photograph some of the shelves where your book would be found (you may need to check with the store manager that this is ok first). Make sure you get at least one wide shot of the shelves and one that is slightly closer. If there are also books displayed on tables, get a shot of these too.


While you’re in the store, have a look to see if any particular cover designs stand out to you. Ask yourself why they are catching your eye. How might you use this as inspiration in your own designs? Equally, think about the books that don’t stand out so much. What is making them blend in? Back home, you can review the photos you’ve taken and go over these conclusions.
To give you an example, while I was hovering in the ‘Sci-Fi and Fantasy’ section of my local bookstore, I realised a lot of the cover designs were very dark. The result was that they all blended together in some areas, especially as the shelves they were sat on also happened to be dark. I noticed the books that stood out the most to me were the ones that used one bright, bold colour. A shocking-red copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was practically jumping off the shelf compared to its neighbours.


I found the books with one strong graphic symbol or image on the cover (like the April 2005 edition of ‘Stormbreaker’ by Anthony Horowitz) stood out a lot more than the ones with photographic images due to the simplistic nature of the design, which felt a lot less demanding on the eye when confronted with so many competing covers.

You can see immediately how this is useful when making design decisions about your own book cover. During this particular venture, I was designing a cover for ‘Arcana’, a comedic sci-fi by Joshua Fenner. My initial design was complicated, involved a dark moody background and a complicated highly detailed image. After my visit to the bookstore, I realised my design needed a complete re-vamp. I changed the image to a much simpler, more graphic illustration, and I changed the background to bright blue. The transformation was dramatic, but definitely worth it.


Finally, when you’re in the process of creating your own design, use the photos you’ve taken to superimpose your cover onto the shelves. Teresa goes one step further, taking a physical print of her cover designs into local stores in Bath and wrapping them around other books on the shelf. Arguably, the Photoshop version is quicker but I love her boldness! Either way, the result is you can tell if your design is working. By doing this with my own designs, I can instantly see that my initial ‘black and complicated’ design doesn’t work nearly as well as my ‘bright and simple’ one. In this way, you can also check your design doesn’t stray too far from the genre trends, therefore alienating itself from its neighbours. I think my final design for ‘Arcana’ fits in nicely with the surrounding designs, but is also satisfyingly eye catching. The bright blue really jumps out at you from the dark shelves while the illustration style is far more on trend than my initial coloured drawings.


To find out more about Teresa Monachino, look out for my blog about her work and experiences, which will be posted here after the third instalment of my 3 Golden Rules!


Next time:

2 Golden Rules down, one to go. In my next blog, I’ll be talking about how to best utilise a book’s content in order to create a great cover design that reflects the story without giving anything away.

The First Towerbabel Short Story Contest IS OPEN FOR ENTRIES


As you may have heard, The First Ever Towerbabel Short Story Contest opens for entries TODAY.

Your story can be about ANYTHING, but it must be under 1000 words long.

To enter, simply log on to Towerbabel and post your story as a new topic on our dedicated Forum thread, “Thousand Word Contest” and get your entries in between now, Monday June 15th, and Monday June 29th at midnight. The winner will be awarded $100 in Amazon vouchers and the runner up will win $50.

Full guidelines can be found here.

As one of the judges entrusted to whittle the entries down to a short list, I can tell you what I look for in a short story and perhaps give you some tips for making your story the best it can be.

Use dialogue for realism and energy

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about using verbatim dialogue and overheard conversations for an injection of natural pace and realism into your writing, and in a short short, a well chosen burst of conversation can encapsulate the relationships and conflicts you’re trying to show quickly and vividly.

Don’t worry about roundness

Often stories, especially very short ones like we’re asking you to write for our contest, can suffer from being too deliberately rounded-off. Writers often feel like they need to loop their plot to give a neat beginning, middle, and end structure but I find that a story that is under no pressure to end often makes the most profound impact.

Don’t scrimp on detail

It’s tempting to skim over details and go straight for the key points of your story when you haven’t got many words to play with, but your story will end up feeling like a paraphrased version of itself if you don’t spend time conjuring the atmosphere and mise-en-scene of the world you’re creating.

Cut in to your story to find it’s real beginning

This often happens with novels during the editing process, the author will realize that he’s spent so long writing and rewriting his first chapter that it’s become stuttery and unnatural, and that the real beginning of the story has moved somewhere else. Editors will often recommend cutting into a more active, immersive part, where the story really gets going, and use this as the first chapter instead. You can use the same editing technique on a short piece. Find your way in to your narrative and then look back over it and try finding the best place to begin.

Follow the story to its natural end

Don’t worry too much about finding the perfect last line for your story. It can be the most difficult task in the writing process, knowing when a story’s done, but try to follow your narrative to its natural conclusion, whether that takes the form of an explosion or a quiet fizzling out. I’ll be looking for stories that move me at every sentence rather than with the perfect twist or culmination at the end.

Best of luck, writers!