Choosing a Cover Image

“I want to choose the image(s) my designer will use on my book cover. But there are millions of photos and illustrations on the royalty-free stock photography websites! How do I find the right one?”

Finding the right image  can be a long, drawn-out, frustrating process.  Almost as bad as writing the book! Here are some steps to help ease your pain.

Comparison Shop

Go to your favourite book vendor website and select the category and sub-category(ies) where your book is most likely to fit. Or select the best-selling author in your genre.

Consider the following about the images in the background of the books presented:

  • Is there a common pictorial element? A person running away, a couple embracing; a forest, small town, or city; an isolated item like a coffee cup or handcuffs.
  • Are most of them photographs or illustrations? A combination?
  • What sort of font is being used? Script, quirky, block, heavy, light. For my information on fonts, see What the Font?
  • Does any colour stand out; dark or light tones?
  • Is there a common theme/emotion portrayed? Happy, threatening, mysterious, romantic.

Non-fiction can be especially hard  to pin down. Is there a theme to your book? Self-help, poetry? A specific topic?  A specific location?

Now that you’ve analyzed the other books in your category, let’s talk technical.

Cover Layouts

A print book cover has a front, spine, and back. The companion ebook will be just the front cover. There are several types of cover layout as shown in the figures below. (Note: all covers created by Woven Red and used with permission.)

full-wrap single image with right-side focal point

sample of separate images for front and back covers

separate images for front and back covers

sample of cover with vignette on plain background

vignette on plain background with overlay

All covers have the front cover image on the right side. This can be problematic for the full-wrap image. Sometimes, an image can be flipped on the vertical axis without issue. Or it could look completely wrong.

Sometimes the focal point occupies a large portion of the centre of the image and there’s not enough image to manipulate to create a back cover. A possible fix is to crop and resize the focal point to fit just the front cover. The back cover could be plain or textured or another image.

sample cover with two images cropped to fit

two images cropped to fit with a plain-coloured spine

And sometimes, the image just won’t work and you have start shopping all over again. Sigh.

Using Your Own Images

In two of the samples above, the author provided their own images; one is original artwork, the other is personal photographs. This is completely fine as long as the images are high resolution of 300 PPI, otherwise the image will print blurry. For more information, see Pixels and Dots and Why They Matter to Writers.

Search Tips

All stock photo websites have search option (filters) you can use to reduce the number of images you have to sort through to find just the right one. My personal favourites are and, and

  1. Start with shape: horizontal/landscape for full-wrap cover or vertical/square for front cover only
  2. then select photograph or illustration
  3. then enter words or phrases that match your notes from the comparison above, e.g., happy couple, running man, yoga, mountains, forest and river, cuff links, handcuffs, sunset, sunrise, city horizon, Wales, Italy, Rocky Mountains
  4. some sites offer a people-based filters; no people, a certain number of people, people of colour or ethnicity
  5. if you see an image that appeals but isn’t quite right, follow the links to the artist or to similar images
  6. some sites have an online editor  where you can experiment; the options are limited unless you want to pay extra
      1. to experiment further, download the free watermarked image and play with the photo editor on your device; options are still somewhat limited
  7. still can’t find what you’re looking for?
    1. add more search words
    2. refine your phrase
    3. add a filter for background colour
    4. reset all the filters and start over again

Yes, it’s time-consuming and the fun wears off real quick, but you get the cover you want.

Other Websites Have Images, Too

The royalty-free sites aren’t the only places to find images. Places like pixabay and Creative Commons offer not only royalty-free bunt no-cost images to download.

Wherever you go, look for the licence to verify you can indeed use it. Also check that the resolution of the selected image is 300 ppi or greater. Sometimes, you don’t find this out until after you’ve downloaded the image.

Do NOT, under any circumstances, just copy/paste an image from a random website and attempt to use it on a cover. It likely won’t have the required resolution and you’re committing copyright infringement aka piracy. You don’t want to get sued.

Crediting the Creator

Many distributors will ask that you show or print a credit on or near a purchased image. In a book, the credit goes on the copyright page, e.g., seashore cover image © photographer via See what else goes on the copyright page.

This includes images created by the author or a hired illustrator. For illustrated children’s books, the illustrator’s name may feature on the front cover (check the contract).

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