One of the main complaints both readers and trad publishing purists make about self-published books is about the quality of the covers.

They’re often right.

While there are hundreds – nay, thousands – of authors who are following best practice, there are just as many who aren’t.

What is best practice, anyway? I’d say it combines:

Using an expert to design your cover

An actual designer. If you are or you’ve been a designer, that’s fine, but if you’re not, don’t think you’re able to design a cover just because you have Photoshop on your Mac. I’ve recently seen authors in Facebook groups posting up their absolutely terrible covers and bristling at the honestly-given negative responses of their peers with comments like, “But I did it in Photoshop.” I have a paintbrush in my house, but I’m not Caravaggio.

Researching your genre

This is easy. Look at what sells in the Amazon categories in which you’re going to be listing your book. Don’t copy them, but look for themes and trends. You might think you or your designer have a ground-breaking idea for subverting the norm with a left-field cover that will change the game in this genre – good luck with that, you’ll need it.

Road-test your cover

Stick it on KBoards. Stick it on whatever Facebook author group you’ve joined. Set up a free SurveyMonkey poll and ask your friends, family, readers, blog subscribers etc. to vote on it. And listen to what the people say. Yes, taste is subjective, and you may well post two covers and have 50% of people like one and 50% the other, but the comments will help you to build up a picture of what people like and expect. And don’t get testy about negative comments. If 20 comments out of 20 are constructive about colours, positioning, font choice etc – great. If 20 comments hate your cover, your cover is probably terrible. And this isn’t just about layout and design, it’s about the subtitle and any other text you have on there – people will help you hone that.

Kill your darlings

Many authors let their personal taste override sensible book cover decisions. They get too attached to favourite fonts, or a picture they desperately want to go on the cover because it inspired the book or was taken by a friend or a beloved family member. Fine, but does it work? Does it look like a book you’d see in an actual bookshop? Do you just have a grainy old low DPI scan to use? It’s important to divorce what you want from what readers will want. After all, they’re the people spending money on your book.

Road-test your cover again

But this time in the sizes that people will actually see it. It’s okay zooming in on it on your computer or tablet to ensure all is as it should be, but consider most customer’s buying journey. If you’re lucky enough to be sold in a bookshop, or if you’re selling copies yourself at events, you need to make sure your book looks good in the flesh. Vibrant colours, perfect bleed, images at a decent DPI. So order a copy of your book from Createspace, Ingram Spark or whoever else before you even think about putting it on sale.

And perhaps the vast majority of your sales will be digital, bought by people browsing on tablets and smartphones – so make sure your cover looks good as a thumbnail. It’s a key consideration. Tiny type sizes, especially if you’ve got an all-important subtitle or a great quote from a newspaper, magazine, prominent author or website, won’t be legible in the only way most potential buyers will ever see your cover.

Don’t be afraid of cliche

Me, personally, I hate those over-used images of vague gentleman seen in the distance passing into a foggy street/alley/passageway etc (and are an example of the creative redundancy of many mainstream publishers). But they work. They do. The best-selling self-published authors have nice covers, but they cleave closely to genre cliche almost without exception. A good cover is settling on what works rather than what you like – let your words do your talking while your cover does the marketing for you. At no point should you be complacent or think that what’s inside the book is all that matters – most people won’t even get that far if your cover is useless. If you’re a self-published author, marketing is a large part of what you have to do, like it or not.

Take advice, but not all of it

Bear in mind that no blogger, no author, no publisher, no designer, is flawless. Many of the industry’s big players make marketing, editing and design cock-ups on a regular basis. And the same goes for the soothsayers of the self-publishing world. While many of them won’t steer you wrong often, what they say isn’t necessarily gospel.

Joel Friedlander’s excellent The Book Designer blog is a great resource not just in terms of book and cover design, but also for self-publishing generally. However, I often disagree with their judgements on their monthly design competition (especially when they have guest judges). Sometimes the ones they pick as winners are borderline awful, while gems languish in the also-rans. This isn’t a slight on the peerless Joel, it’s a comment on subjectivity. No opinion is absolute, but if Joel, your friends, family and everyone on your Facebook group hates your cover, you really need to go back to the drawing board.

Get your text right

Happy with your title? Great. Got a good author name, whether real or pen? Perfect. You’re going to put them where? Arrrghhhh!

A book cover isn’t just about design, imagery and typography, it’s also about the words themselves. People need to be able to read the title, the subtitle, your name and any quote you’ve been able to get on the cover. Again, do some research and look at where these things usually go and what size they are. Best-sellers and critically acclaimed books should be your guide, not the book of poems your mate from the local writing club knocked out on Page Plus.

Fonts can be genre-specific too. Non-fiction, educational and self-help books usually opt for sans-serif fonts. Unique, stylized or heavily designed fonts are used more often in genre – think of some of the dripping, distressed or broken up fonts used on horror books. They really won’t work on your book about your relationship with your dog.

Whatever you do, don’t overload your cover. Don’t use three, four or even more fonts for different bits of text. Don’t make it minuscule. Don’t be random. Less is often more when it comes to a cover – if you’ve got the design nailed, your title and your name are often all you need.

Quotes. Yes or no?

Having a cover quote can be a great way to add authority to your book, to you as an author and to convert would-be buyers into readers who’ll take the plunge. But there are quotes and there are quotes. A quote from a leading publication, from a noted author in your genre, or from a well-known review website can really give you a lift in terms of authority and conversion.

Yet some quotes don’t cut the mustard. You really shouldn’t lift reviews from Amazon for your cover – no matter how glowing. First, it’s ethical to ask permission to use them. Second, and much more importantly, it’s really not that hard to get a great 5 star review on Amazon. It doesn’t impart much authority. As a book buyer on Amazon, a large amount of positive reviews could sway me. One plucked out of that and plonked on a book cover? Not so much.

Whether you think it’s worth paying that bit extra to have a quote from professional review sites from the likes of Kirkus is not for me to comment on. I haven’t done it so can’t comment on the effectiveness. As a book buyer, I’d be wary – I don’t regard them as a definitive or authoritative reviewer, but only because they’re not on my reading list, not because of any perceived or actual lack of thoroughness or credibility. I read book reviews in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Times, The Guardian, several consumer magazines. Do I take Kirkus seriously? No, for the reasons laid out. Do some readers or buyers? Quite probably. I’d recommend asking around, and I also have a feeling reviews from Kirkus and their ilk might be useful for some genres more than others.

The boring legal bit

Not all fonts are created equal. Some require you to pay for them for use both inside and outside the book. Make sure you and your designer have crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s when it comes to the t’s and the i’s you use. Same goes for pictures. If it’s not yours or you don’t know where it’s from, double check you can use it.

Friends can be your worst enemy

Those supportive Facebook groups you joined? Wonderful. I heartily recommend them as a place to interact, to make new friends, to learn new information and to share what you’ve learned. But there are those that go too far the other way. I’m all for positivity, but there are many groups where that’s the guiding principle, rather than quality. When you’re preparing a book for release and you’ve had a cover designed, you need a dose of reality, not a boost to your morale for the sake of it.

I’ve seen countless ‘What do you think?’ posts with truly awful covers that tell me that not only does the author not have a designer on board, he or she is probably working with a design program last updated when the Berlin Wall stood. Yet the comments are all ‘love it’, ‘go for it’, ‘best of luck’. There’s a time and a place for well-wishing, but preparing your cover for launch isn’t one of them. For new readers, it’s the gateway to your book, your writing, your career. My advice? Get yourself a tough carapace and head over to a group or a forum where people are more honest with their opinions. If they comment – however negatively – it shows they care. If they love it – even better. Echo chambers are no place to be if you’re striving for the best.