Thinking concepts for book covers

For writers who are traditionally published, the publisher is generally responsible for cover design – and this can lead to disappointment when the cover doesn’t really match the author’s expectations. But in self-publishing the cover design is the solely the responsibility of the author. This is both good and bad. You can create a cover that is true to your book’s contents, but if you’re not a graphic designer or artistic, you’re in danger of creating a cover that doesn’t look professional, even if it’s conceptually correct. So you should probably get help from someone who knows what they’re doing.

But let’s talk concepts. You know your book better than anyone. Aside from the major story, you know the little things, and even the symbolism. One article I read recently strongly advises against getting caught up in the symbolism, because the cover is really a kind of sales pitch and not art for the sake of it. At the same time, your book cover must reflect something about its core message. What is it about? What is it saying?

From Jinnah to Zia and Secular Jinnah coversMy first two books were non-fiction and the design was relatively easy. For SJ1, since the focus was on Chief Justice Munir’s From Jinnah to Zia I decided on a cover that would imitate the style of his cover as a gentle jibe. So I used a black silhouette of MA Jinnah on the front, and picked fonts that made the reader think about an exposé. 


Secular Jinnah & Pakistan coverSJ2’s cover took me a little longer. I thought: what is the central theme? The obvious answer was the Pakistan idea, but unlike SJ1, this title was also a biography on Jinnah. And yet I also didn’t want Jinnah on the cover a second time. Eventually I hit upon the idea that since the book discusses Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan, this is what needs to be on the cover. The result was what you see to the right: Jinnah’s famous monocle containing the crescent and star of the Pakistan flag (the crescent is the right way round!) and a pen indicating Jinnah’s constitutional approach. Vision. Get it? Now these were just my ideas. A professional graphic designer created the artwork based on what I described to him.

As for Systems, coming up with a concept was the most difficult. With fiction, you have literally created a universe and so you have endless possibilities. The core of the story may actually seem elusive to the author for a while (hard to believe, but true). For a long time I was going to put a devil and angel design on the cover. There’s an oil painting in the novel where the devil is white, and the angel black. This was a metaphor for the idea that things are not always as they seem. But whilst this is close to the core of the story, that’s not absolutely the statement I was after. In the end I went with something simple. Trees are everywhere in the novel. The opening line makes a reference to a tree. Place names likewise point at trees, and some key scenes take place in a forest. They represent the core of the story, as borrowed from an ancient metaphor linking trees and systems.

Systems coverI had a public domain image on my machine of a tree in a foggy sunset. When I added a certain kaleidoscope-type graphic effect, it turned that tree into the closeup of a neuron network. Or at least, that’s what I see. It could be the centre of a nebula. Or the tiny roots from a germinating seed. At any rate, it’s a familiar and recurring pattern in nature. It’s simple, it represents the metaphor nicely, and it has a mysterious mood (since there is a great deal of mystery in the story). The title uses a mix of bold fonts that make it at once old-looking and modern.

Whatever concept you come up with for your cover design, be sure it’s true to the inside of your book – its heart. At the end of the day, that’s what your potential readers want to know about.

And of course, a well-written blurb helps too. But that’s another subject.



  1. This post is both helpful and inspires independent creative thought.
    Your writing on Jinnah and Pakistan interest me greatly. I also look forward to reading “Systems” and love your cover for that one. I was wondering how this was accomplished…thank you for letting us know.

  2. Thank you Connie. Enjoy the book! 🙂

  3. Covers are so tricky – especially with fiction. You’re absolutely right that it somehow has to echo the emotional experience of the novel, but doing that often takes a lot of mining. Yours is a lovely image and suggests hard science fiction, where the ideas are going to be what keep the reader’s head spinning, rather than the characters. Don’t know if that’s what you intend…
    I think I’d have treated the type differently, though. Although the black bands look nice, I think I’d try using the graphic over the whole cover and have the lettering in tall, condensed capitals. Or maybe you tried that and it didn’t work out. Also, that would make it look more firmly like SF, and maybe that’s not accurate. Just a thought.

    • Thanks Roz! On the black bands, I can honestly say I hadn’t thought of leaving them out. I’d been focused on creating contrast. But I like the suggestion. I might try that for a future edition. 🙂

      Interesting that you’ve guessed the image suggests hard sci-fi. There is some hard sci-fi in there, but not overwhelmingly so (or at least I hope not). Btw, do psychics take away points from hard sci-fi? I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere.

      • I think you can have psychics in hard SF. If the ‘hard SF’ fan is going to be the best fan, I’d go for that approach.
        Another thought: have you thought of putting a human figure in? Then that would suggest a character having the fractal experience.

        • Thanks Roz. 🙂 I’m not aiming specifically at hard sci-fi readers, but it’s good to know the psychics wouldn’t be an obstacle.

          I never wanted to put a human on the cover because I preferred to let the reader imagine them. Of course, there are humans in the trailer, but that was unavoidable.

  4. BTW, where can I subscribe to your newsletter…? (Blog police nagging again…) 🙂

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