This is a guest post by Lucia Tang.

You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but everybody does.

That’s probably not what you want to hear as a new author. You’re not a designer, after all—you’re a writer.

Maybe you’ve got that part down: you’ve honed your craft through contests, studied your genre’s greats, and learned to turn out prose so strong and elegant it leaps off the page like an Olympic gymnast.

But while it’s tempting to believe that strong prose speaks for itself, the publishing landscape is glutted with other books.

Most readers will only spend a second deciding whether to read yours and like it or not, book design is a key factor that will go into their decision.

It’s not just a matter of potential book-buyers being shallow. A polished cover is a sign of investment in your book, signaling to anyone who picks it up that you cared enough to put out a quality product. The same goes for the rest of the design, from the pagination to the typography.

You don’t need to commission oil paintings for your cover art like some sort of Renaissance baron, or poach Vanity Fair’s design team to lay out your text—there are plenty of options for scoring some professional assistance without breaking the bank.

And, luckily, if you’ve determined that professional design isn’t for you, you can still produce an elegant volume that doesn’t scream DIY. Just be sure to avoid these five rookie book design mistakes.

Mistake #1: Your cover art doesn’t follow genre conventions

Spend some time walking between the aisles of a bookstore, and you’ll quickly get a sense of each genre’s visual tics. For science fiction, you’ve got spaceships and sans serif; for fantasy, glowing backgrounds and flowing hair. For romance, it’s an attractive, suggestively clothed POV character in the arms of an equally beautiful, similarly (un)dressed love interest.

You might be tempted to break away from these conventions. But you should be careful not to stray too far. You see, these visual tropes aren’t chains, imprisoning you in a dungeon of visual cliché—they’re signposts, letting your readers know where they’re headed and what to expect.

Deviate too much in the hopes of making your book stand out, and your play for uniqueness could seriously backfire. Either you’ll mislead readers—potentially leading to bad reviews—or you’ll turn off the ones who would have actually loved your book.

Mistake #2: You forget about the thumbnail

We’ve established that people judge books by their covers. They also judge covers by their thumbnails.

You’ve come up with an eye-catching cover design that signals your genre and drops some hints about plot and theme. You’ve made sure to pick a high-quality image that you won’t get in legal trouble for using. There are no watermarks, and it’s large enough to look crisp at full size.

But does the cover still work when it’s minimised? Consider it at thumbnail dimensions: no bigger than 107px x 160 px, and often quite a bit smaller. Does the image still make sense? Do the colours go muddy? Does it all kind of…congeal into a vague blob? If so, you’ll want to go back to the drawing board.

Most readers will encounter your book for the first time as a tiny cover image—you’ll want that first glimpse to draw them in. Simpler is almost always better: intricate details can wow at full size, but as thumbnails, they get lost.

Mistake #3: You don’t pay enough attention to readability

This one applies to the cover—front and back—as well as the copy inside. It goes without saying that a book is meant to be read. But a surprising number of rookie book designers seem to forget this when it comes to typography.

Make sure that any font you use, whether it’s on the cover or in the book is, well, readable. It’s best to keep it simple, especially with the body text—when it doubt, stick to serif standbys like Baskerville and Caslon.

When it comes to additional textual elements like your chapter titles, drop caps, and of course your cover copy, you can afford to be a little more creative.

Feel free to play with typefaces that gesture at the theme and genre of your book—maybe a script font for romance or a subtle blackletter for high fantasy. Still, even these display fonts need to be readable above all.

It’s also important to ensure that the sizing and spacing of your text leads to an unobtrusive reading experience. You don’t want anyone to notice the style of your body copy at all—whether they’re squinting because the font is too small or idly wondering why it’s so comically large, typesetting-related musings will take readers out of the story.

The actual pages of your book will, in all likelihood, be black on white. But when it comes to your front and back cover, you’ll have to be careful about colour contrast for readability. The text has to pop against the background. So no pastel pink on pale grey, no matter how cool the visual effect is.

Mistake #4: You don’t follow industry standards for pagination

Flip through any book and you’ll notice that A) the odd page numbers are always on the right-hand side and, B) the right page is never blank (even if the left one can be).

This is true of all books—crime novels and cookbooks, YA fantasies and dense academic monographs—and it should also be true of your book.

These pagination standards might seem arbitrary, but not following them is one of the biggest tells of amateurish design. It’s these little details that will make your book stand out among other indies.

Mistake #5: Your text isn’t fully justified

Like proper pagination, justification is a marker of professional book design that’s relatively easy to achieve—as long as you know to look out for it. Open any traditionally published book, and you’ll notice that the text is fully justified. It’s like an invisible line runs down the margins on both the left and the right, and the text is flush against it.

Compare this to what you get when you fire up an ordinary word processor and type out a paragraph. The text will be justified left but rag right, meaning the rows are of uneven length on the right-hand side. This is exactly why you want to make sure your text is justified on both sides: neglect that part, and you’ll look like you slapped it together MS Word, like a sixth form research paper. You’ve written a real book, and it should be treated like one—design and all.

5 rookie book design mistakes