It’s November, which means thousands of writers are typing furiously to complete a 50,000-word novel in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to the cool kids). Maybe you’re using NaNoWriMo momentum to write your book.

I’ll admit there’s a guilty pleasure that helped me through three years of NaNoWriMo madness. When writer’s block hits, I start daydreaming about seeing my book stacked high and proud at the front of the bookstore. People snatch copies off the stands as quickly as employees can restock them—and then someone spots me.

“The author!” the crowd cries in delight.

Hey, it’s my fantasy. The point is that my daydream only works if I can imagine every detail of my cover.

Artists and designers have a similar project to NaNoWriMo, where they challenge themselves to create 30 Covers in 30 Days. Check out some gorgeous examples on 99designs’ Instagram feed. Then start dreaming of your own, with these handy guidelines in mind.

1. Imagine your book cover early

Photo by bernat (via Flickr)

Don’t wait until your book is done. Get your cover ready, and you can start promoting it on your website and social media. Plus, framing your elegant cover and hanging it over your writing desk is an awesome way to beat writer’s block.

Commit to the overall content of your book first, though. If you design a cover for “10 Rules to Break” and end up cutting three, you’ll be in trouble. I’d recommend starting work on a cover when you have a firm outline in place and about half the content written. You’ll have material to draw from and a clear idea of what the finished product will look like.

2. Make thumbnails your rule of… well, you know

Audible highlights different books with various size thumbnails

It’s easy to blame the Internet for shrinking a book cover to clickable size, but thumbnail-sized covers have been around for decades. I know I wasn’t the only kid drooling over the Scholastic catalogues!

Both then and now, readers often buy books based on a small image, whether it’s in the pages of a catalog or in their e-reader store. Catch their attention! Choose colors with strong contrast and a clear font. Size matters, too.

Think about your favorite bestseller. Chances are, both the title and author’s name are prominent. Your book’s title should be large enough for people to read easily, even at thumbnail size. If you’re well-known in your field, your name might also be a draw. If your design looks great small, customers will want to take a closer look.

3. Discover the positive in negative space

Photo by Martin Wessely (via Unsplash)

Negative space sounds like a room filled with your exes, but it’s actually fabulous for your book. The term refers to the empty space left without images or text in a design. Negative space lets the eye rest and gives the viewer a chance to process the meaning of the design. Sometimes authors are eager to fill every inch of their covers, but this approach gets cluttered quickly.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book covers make great use of negative space. There’s one powerful symbol, the necessary text, and clean white background for the rest.

Not every cover has to be as spare as Gladwell’s, but resist the urge to squeeze in another blurb. Decide what elements you really need, and then trust the design.

4. Look for the deeper meaning

George Orwell's 1984 book covers
Over the years, George Orwell’s 1984 book covers often used a symbolic eye (via Flavorwire)

Your reader is already taking in information about the book’s tone, subject matter, and style before reading the first sentence. So how do you choose one image to set up an entire book?

It helps to take a figurative rather than literal approach. The beauty of sending your book into the world is that each reader will have his or her own favorite moment. Readers may imagine characters differently and relate to different problems. Rather than simply depicting a scene, the best book covers use a symbol to capture a feeling or theme that the book invokes. George Orwell’s 1984 often features an eye to represent Big Brother, for example. One of my favorite business book covers uses dull and sharp pencils as symbols of competitors.

Remember that your font and color choices carry symbolic messages, too. An all-caps, sans serif font feels bold and modern. A more ornate font suggests formality and tradition. Many designers use all lowercase for an irreverent, friendly effect.

5. Add your printer’s mark

Photo by Leeroy (via Life of Pix)

Get ready to add “publisher” to your résumé! When you self-publish, you’re creating a new identity for your business. That new identity deserves a logo.

The little printer’s mark on a book’s spine is a tiny detail with a huge impact. Even if readers can’t consciously pinpoint the difference, that logo adds a stamp of professionalism.

Deciding on a publishing identity can feel almost as personal as picking out a baby name. I’ve seen printer’s marks that hinted at family history or went lighthearted with literary puns. Whether you lean toward the silly or sentimental, choose a design that resonates with you and connects with your business values. You’ll likely use this same mark for any future books you write, so take the time to create something you really like.

6. Trust a professional

Photo by kaboompics

As a writer, you’re a wizard with text. We all use the same 26 letters, but your stories, characters, and ideas are unique. What’s more, your words have the potential to inspire new ideas and emotions in your readers.

Designers aim to do the same thing, but with images instead of words. They start with the same spectrum of colors, but the right designer can find the perfect match for your book. Your designer is actually one of your first readers. It’s amazing to see someone else connect with your work and then collaborate with that person to prepare for your book’s official debut. A great designer may even come up with ideas you never imagined to bring your book to life.

It’s worth it to hire a professional to work on your cover. The unfortunate truth is that readers do judge by the cover. You can have mind-blowing content, but if the design is clearly amateur, you’ll lose out on a lot of sales. A professional cover is a much better indication of the dedication you put into every paragraph. That extra polish can make all the difference when you’re competing with big publishing houses.

Want to see what your book will look like on the shelf? Start a contest with 99designs.

is a freelance business and magazine writer living outside Washington, DC. She enjoys using writing as a way to teach, encourage, and inspire, so Web writing was a perfect fit. So many people are using the Internet as their main information hub, and it’s great to help people find what they need. When she’s not writing, Jessica enjoys visiting art museums, swing dancing, and reading her way through an ever-expanding list of great books.