How to Make a Book Cover Stand Out: 5 Best Practices for Nonfiction Authors

by Bennett R. Coles

Make a Book Cover

To make your nonfiction book cover stand out from the crowd, you’ll need to learn and apply the best practices in the genre. In this article, I’ll teach you five perennial best practices that are used by the pros year in and year out to create compelling covers for their books.

The Five Best Practices for Nonfiction Book Cover Design:

#1) Make your Title Short and Catchy

Over the last twenty years or so, there’s been a trend in the nonfiction genre from longer titles and shorter subtitles to shorter titles with longer subtitles.

A classic example from the old days is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Even though this title is a bit of a mouthful, it does say all you need to know about the contents of the book.

However, with the migration of book discovery from the offline to the online worlds, ruled by small smartphone-sized screens, you’d now find it challenging to clearly make out all these words from a tiny thumbprint image.

As a result, books put out by publishers and self-published authors alike have been trending toward short titles in the 1-5-word range with longer subtitles used to expand on the book’s main premise.

Here are some examples:

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
  • Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive
  • The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It

Also, in this age of digital minimalism coupled with excessive marketing noise, it’s important to ensure that you take advantage of your cover imagery to complement your message, which brings us to our next best practice.

#2) Use Book Cover Images that Reflect the Aspirations of Your Target Audience

In order to compensate for the limited physical real estate of book covers viewed online, and the limited mental real estate of customers who are bombarded with marketing messages day in and day out, you’ll need to rely more than ever on your cover imagery to paint a clear picture of your book.

This wasn’t an issue when The 7 Habits was released back in the late 80s – in fact, the original book cover had no imagery whatsoever, just a background color behind the title with some strategic underlining.

But today, you have to lean more than ever on book-cover visuals to complement your title. In fact, for maximum effect, you want to choose illustrations or photographs that clearly reflect the aspirations of your target audience.

In other words, you want to reflect back to them the way they’d like to see themselves after they put the strategies of your book into action.

For example, the book The 90 Second Fitness Solution: The most efficient workout ever for a healthier, stronger, younger you naturally shows photographs of very fit people during a workout, and the book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the new rich shows an image depicting a person lounging on a hammock with the sun setting behind.

#3) Use a Color Scheme in Line with the Expectations of Your Niche

When it comes to the color palette for your book cover, there are unlimited choices and combinations available to you, making the task of choosing the right color appear to be overwhelming.

Since colors are very subjective, you certainly don’t want to make a mistake and risk being labeled amateurish or inappropriate by the buying public.

Fortunately, different niches tend to gravitate to specific color patterns that align with the expectations of their audience.

For example, you wouldn’t want to use red for the cover of a book on investment advice, since red is typically associated with financial loss. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to color a cookbook in a way that’s not reflective of the type of cuisine that your book conveys.
Keep in mind that colors have the ability to trigger an emotional response in your readers and you want to make sure that this response is always positive and in line with your niche.
Seek advice from your professional cover designer. They’ll know from experience what colors work well in your niche and what colors you should stay away from.

#4) Use Custom Photography and Illustrations

Nonfiction books must always look professional because they’re a proxy for your expertise and reputation. This includes any photographic images on your book cover.

Also, your photographs must be unique to your book. If you choose a photo from a stock photo site you’ll run the risk of overexposure – from other books as well as websites and other online content sources.

Make the investment to hire a professional photographer for your book cover, and ensure that your written contract stipulates that the copyright of the cover photograph will fully transfer to you on payment.

The same goes for cover illustrations. Never buy images from stock sites. Hire a graphic designer to create unique art for your book and ensure that the copyright of the artwork fully transfers contractually to you on payment as well.

#5) When it Comes to Book Covers, Less is More

Finally, since all book cover elements need to contribute to your overall messaging, you need to ensure that you don’t have any spurious cover elements that can clutter this message in any way.

In other words, when it comes to nonfiction book cover design, less is more. Your book cover needs to clearly convey the thesis of your book without any visual distractions.

For this reason you should never be wedded to any cover images or elements because they have a symbolic or personal meaning to you. Remember, your book cover shouldn’t be a reflection of who you are but a reflection of the aspirations of your target audience.

This is another key area where a professional cover designer will be able to advise you. A good nonfiction cover designer will know from experience how to reflect the aspirations of the readers in your specific niche.

Follow their advice and you’ll be able to connect your book cover with your target audience in a way that’s clear and compelling.

Next Steps

In order to formulate initial ideas for your cover, search Amazon for bestselling books in your niche and inspect their covers for visual and textual messaging. Observe and analyze what you find compelling about them, how they make you feel and how they align with the book’s thesis and the aspirations of their intended audiences.

Then make notes about those design elements that you think would work on your book and present them to your cover designer as seed materials for inspiration. The goal here is not to mimic what you see in other books, but to use those books as an idea generator for yours.

If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.


Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.

Here are some related posts I highly recommend:

How to Write a Compelling Book in 12 Steps: A Must-Read Guide for Nonfiction Authors

How to Grow Your Business Writing a Nonfiction Book

Write Your Own Book and Become an Expert: 11 Reasons Why You Should

Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get Our FREE Definitive Guide To Creating A Nonfiction Bestseller Here!