Designing covers that sell online

We’ve produced an ebook but there’s one more important piece: the cover. This will be needed for both the ebook itself and its distribution and marketing. We’ll take a look now at how to produce an ebook cover and some special design considerations.

The importance of ebook covers

ECDA April 2012Publishers and authors know how important cover design is to the success of a printed book, but ebook covers are often an afterthought. It wasn’t long ago that many ebooks, including titles from large publishers, had a simple text cover or no cover at all. Thankfully, most major ebook retailers would reject these ebooks now.

Like its print counterpart, an ebook’s cover is very important to its success. But some of the promotional work done by a printed book’s cover, such as endorsements, call-outs and subtitles, is now taken over by the ebook metadata. This is because:

  • Most text is unreadable on cover images that are displayed in selling situations, such as ebookseller websites
  • The text inside images is not searchable so the selling messages are lost when people are searching for ebooks

The ways and places that ebook covers are used differ from their bookshop counterparts but their impact on sales and quality ratings remains high.

An ideal ebook cover will frequently differ from its print counterpart designed to work well in-store because of these important differences in how and where they’re used. But many of the lessons from ebook covers can be applied to making better printed book covers that will improve their online sales.

What not to do

Take a look at the email below. It was sent to members of the world’s largest social book site, Goodreads, which reaches more than 7 million book lovers making it a very important promotional opportunity. The thumbnail cover images had to do all of the promotional work (a common thing in the digital marketing world).

Goodreads Email

How many of these covers missed this great selling opportunity because you really couldn’t tell anything about them from their covers? The single biggest reason for their failure is that they were taken straight from their print book covers without any thought to how they would translate in the digital world.

So here are a few tips on ebook cover design, highlighting ways that it differs from printed book covers — and things that might help your print cover designs too.

Shape and size

ECDA Mar 2012

Printed book covers come in a multitude of shapes which are usually dictated by standard paper sizes and bookshop display units. With ebooks, these norms don’t have to apply but there are other considerations that lead to the three basic shapes you should use for ebook covers:

  • Rectangle 3:2 ratio. This approximates the shape of a typical printed book. It’s also the optimum shape for a Kindle or iPhone screen.
  • Rectangle 4:3 ratio. This is the ratio of an iPad screen and is a common ratio for digital photos and video (but not HD video which is a 16:9 ratio — also a common ratio for many smartphone and tablet screens)
  • Square 1:1 ratio. While not a screen ratio, the square is a common shape for product images on websites. This is primarily to accommodate both vertical and horizontal designs but a square cover shape allows you to maximize your online display space.

ECDA Jan 2012Within these shapes, there are four size variations you need to consider with an ebook cover. Remember that digital image sizes are measured in pixels not in centimeters (refer to our earlier discussion of the basics of digital images).

  • Thumbnail. This is the most common view of your cover and it’s very small. It’s also arguably the most important since it appears in the search and browse results pages when readers are shopping for your book online. On, this is typically 80 x 115 pixels which displays at about 2 x 3 cm on a computer screen.
  • Product page. This is the expanded view that readers will see when they click on your ebook in search results. On, this is typically 200 x 300 pixels.
  • E-reader screen. This is the image that readers will see when they open your ebook on their e-reading device. Arguably, it’s the least important because it’s only seen after your book is purchased. On a Kindle, this will be 600 x 800 pixels which will also work fine on an iPhone. On an older iPad 2 or iPad Mini, the optimal image would be 768 x 1024 pixels. Remember that a full screen iPad image is not just a different resolution, it’s a different shape. Later iPads introduced much higher resolution but the shape is the same.
  • Future-proof. As with all of your images, it’s good practice to retain a master copy in the highest resolution possible. This will allow you to re-generate your cover to take advantage of improved technology. We’re early in the ebook revolution and the average screen resolutions we target keeps getting higher, just as they did for the internet as PC screen resolutions improved.

Velvet Dogma Cover

The ‘best’ size for an ebook cover image

The short answer here is that there is no best size. The specifications differ among ebook distributors and change regularly as new devices, with better screens, come on to the market.

Minimum specification (will work well on older and low-resolution screens)

  • The best size today is about 600 x 800 pixels (the Kindle screen size)
  • Acceptable variations are in the range of:
    • 550–700 pixels wide
    • 800–1000 pixels high

Newer specifications (will look good on newer, high resolution displays)

Apple changed its requirements when it upgraded its screens to the high resolution retina display. Many users are now opting for e-readers with high resolution screens on which the minimum specification above looks poor.

  • The best size to design for today is 1400 pixels wide. This will meet Apple’s requirements.
  • Other distributors allow (or require) smaller sizes.

There are two other aspects to ebook cover size: the file size and the resolution.

  • In most cases, there’s a limit of 1-2MB. In most cases, avoid large file sizes since they can slow or crash some devices.
  • Files for screen viewing are generally best at 72 or 96 DPI
Important. Check each distributor’s requirements before uploading an ebook, and re-check their requirements regularly.

Elements of a cover

It’s important to pare back an ebook cover to its essential elements and to make some hard choices, given how little cover real estate you have in ‘shopping’ situations.

You should try to narrow your cover to a single focus. While you might be able to highlight several selling points in a printed book cover, your ebook cover should do one thing well.

Your cover design will essentially be built up from three layers:

  • Background
  • Image
  • Type

When you’re thinking about the overall concept, keep these three layers in mind and try to build a design in which the three layers work together to convey the mood and the message.

Mood and context

Once Upon A Tiger CoverYour overall design should convey a broad sense of the ebook’s subject matter or style. The place to start is a review of books in the same genre or subject. A romance, a thriller and a fantasy novel will each have a recognizable style. A military history will look different from a spiritual self-help genre. While you’ll want your ebook to convey its genre, try to avoid using cliches or obvious images to achieve this.


Your cover should have a background color, texture or image rather than being plain white. Plain colors can be a bit dull so consider using a graduated color background or a background image. A good quality image will add a professional look provided it doesn’t conflict with other elements and provides strong contrast for the typographical elements.

If you want to give your cover a professional lift, throw away your home snapshots and buy an image or two from a stock photography library. A good example is iStockphoto ( where you can search millions of professional images and buy one for a few dollars. These services let you try before you buy by downloading a watermarked ‘comp’ image to test on your design.


Some book covers can work well without an image if the other elements work together. But a strong image can lift your cover design, give it a focus and convey something important about the book’s subject or style. As with background images, make sure this image is of high quality and consider using a stock photo library if you don’t have anything suitable. The image must work with both the background and, importantly, the type. If you need to use an amateur image, you can often improve it with smart cropping or special effects such as fading but don’t overdo these: Like the use of too many fancy fonts, it can end up looking, well, amateurish.


ECDA Feb 2012Typography is a real art and sets the best book designers apart from the rest. On covers, effective typography is perhaps the single biggest success factor. It must suit the book’s genre and, most importantly, be clear and readable at the smallest scale.

The top half of the cover is prime real estate so, as a general rule, use it for your main type area. You’re unlikely to be able to fit in much more than the title and author, with perhaps a short subtitle or series cover line visible in the larger images. Non-fiction titles might be better to drop the author to free up space for a subtitle unless the author is well-known.

Covers are the one place you can forget about working with the narrow range of e-reader- and web-friendly type styles because the cover type will only appear in an image. The sorts of fonts that work for covers are quite different from the fonts that work best for body type. For instance, readable body type is fairly open while strong headline types are tighter with less white space and, often, more height. You should only use one or two fonts on a cover and they need good size and contrast against the background and images.

There are lots of great sites for fonts on the internet. One which specializes in good quality free fonts is Font Squirrel (

Learn what works for your genre … then leave it to the professionals

Viridus Cover

It’s tempting to try your hand at cover design, or to use the simple templates some of the automated services use. But if you aspire to sell your ebook in a competitive marketplace, this is one area where the professionals really are worth paying for.

Study lots of covers in your category and get an idea of what works in each of the contexts in which a cover image appears. You can use the tips here as a starting point to brief a designer (and ensure that they understand the differences from print covers). But your readers really will judge an (e)book by its cover so make it one that they’ll click to open rather than scroll right past.

Acknowledgement. All covers displayed here are winners from the Ebook Cover Design Awards. Visit The Book Designer for more inspiration.


Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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