By Olivia Croom Hammerman, Collaborative Designer

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The book-cover design process can feel intimidating. After all, as an author, you’re a wordsmith and (most likely) not a graphic designer. Once you’ve reached the point of being ready to hire a cover designer, you’ve probably become familiar with editing terms and maybe even some marketing jargon, and now there’s this entirely new set of vocabulary. Don’t panic! There are steps you can take to make those opening conversations with potential cover designers productive and efficient.

No book exists in a vacuum. Whether it’s in a library or store, a digital or physical bookshelf, your book will sit next to other titles in the same sales categories. Within those categories, book covers often share characteristics that tell a potential reader, bookstore employee, or librarian what type of book they’re looking at. These visual cues are how we know the difference between a horror novel and a biography on sight.

It’s important to know what other books potential readers will be seeing while browsing books like yours. The industry term for this is “comp covers.” Before contacting potential cover designers—or at least before design begins—it’s helpful to research titles in the same sales categories as yours. Spend some time shopping for books conducting market research at your favorite bookstore to get an idea of what books you’ll share bookshelf space with.

Design conversations often start with: “I want to capture the feeling of [comp book A’s cover], but I like the font on [comp book B’s cover].” This format is a great way to start a conversation with a potential cover designer. It gives them visual references and communicates your aesthetic. A good cover designer will be able to distill the qualities you like from the comp covers and your ideas for potential cover art into a cover that both stands out within its sales categories and belongs with the other books on the shelf.

To help kickstart that conversation, it’s a good exercise to look at the pile of comp covers you’ve accumulated through your shopping market research and break the cover-design down into smaller pieces. What covers inspire the strongest reactions, good or bad? What specifically are you reacting to? Is it the color palette? Is the placement of an image? Is it the fonts? The placement of the title and author name?

These questions will also help you while browsing cover-design portfolios. You’ll be able to see if a particular designer has done covers in your sales categories and if their covers share characteristics with other covers that you like. All of this will help lead to the strongest possible cover for your book.

Olivia Croom Hammerman is an award-winning independent book designer and pre-press expert. She’s worked with clients ranging from self-publishers to the New York City Big 5. She spends lots of time shopping compiling market research. You can learn more about her at and view her portfolio at