Printing effects: a guide to making your cover special

Book cover with a foil stamping printing effect used on the title.

If you thought that self-publishing doesn’t offer much in terms of printing effects that can make your cover SCREAM – you were wrong.

…or at least partially. If you decided to follow the print-on-demand route, then you probably won’t have the opportunity to use any of these – sorry. However, if you decided to print independently, then there are only two limitations – the technical capabilities of the printing company of your choice, and your budget.

Here’s a short guide to the most common special effects – from the simplest (and most budget-friendly) ones, to the ones you don’t commonly meet in nature.


The basic thing you get to choose is whether your book cover will have a matte or glossy finish. In case you’re wondering, there’s no guide to what genre uses which. Non-fiction books tend to be matte a bit more often than fiction, but you’ll find just as many with a glossy finish.

Moving towards the less obvious things – with a matte finish you have an additional option, which is called soft-touch lamination. This lamination type will make your cover velvety to touch. It is, however, a bit more expensive, and can make colours appear slightly dull. It might not be the best choice if your design depends on intense, eye-catching tones. In this case, it’s the glossy lamination that’s your friend.

Gloss and matte lamination on book covers - printing effects.
Gloss and matte lamination.

Spot UV

The effect most commonly used on covers is spot UV coating. Used properly, it can look quite impressive – and you don’t need to win a lottery to pay for it! It’s a clear varnish, which you can use highlight specific parts of your cover. Often, it is placed on the title and author’s name, or a part of the illustration. This way, the coated part catches the reader’s eye every time the book is moved, since it gains a reflective quality.

An example of a spot UV effect used on the title banner on a book cover.
Spot UV coating used on the title banner.

A small surprise, though – there are many different types of UV coating. You probably only ever saw the basic kind in actual bookstores – and there’s a very simple reason for that. Printing costs grow exponentially if you decide to use the ones that are less common – UV coating can also be glittery, pearlescent, raised, or fluorescent. It can also glow in the dark, change colour based on temperature, or even emit a smell after being rubbed.

Example of a glow in the dark UV coating – a book by Riley Sager, “Home Before Dark”

Embossing, Debossing & Letterpress

Embossing is a process that results in an element being raised. This means that you can feel a convex surface when you touch the cover. It is usually used on hardcover books, especially the ones published at a bigger expense. An opposite process is called debossing – its result is an area that is depressed, lowered.

You can choose to cover the pressed elements with foil – usually gold or silver. However, it is possible to use all kinds of colours. This process we usually call hot foil stamping.

Gold foil stamping on a fantasy book cover - "Language of Thorns" by Leigh Bardugo.
Gold foil stamping – “Language of Thorns” by Leigh Bardugo.
Green foil stamping on a book title - a cookbook, "Jadłonomia po polsku" by Marta Dymek.
Green foil stamping on the title.

Naturally, you can also emboss or deboss something without foil at all, leaving only a bare impression.

Blind printing - a logo of a publishing house and price of the book debossed on an old album.
Blind printing – a logo of a publishing house and price of the book on an old album.

This effect is usually called blind embossing/debossing, or blind printing.

You can also run into the term letterpress. This word is often used interchangeably with embossing/debossing, and it also leaves a raised/depressed area as a result. With letterpress, you can use regular inks – they won’t have the shiny finish of foil, but they are less expensive.


The last of the effects I wanted to show you is die-cutting. You can use it with both softcover and hardcover books. During the process, a machine cuts out a specified shape in the material of the cover or the dust jacket. Often it’s a square or a circle, but it can also be a much more complicated pattern. It’s an incredibly attention-grabbing effect, but it also means that the half-title page of the book becomes part of the cover – and that they have to work together.

Book cover with die-cutting. Design: Olga Kominek.
Book cover with die-cutting. Design: Olga Kominek.


Would you like to make your book stand out even more? Then you can “dress” it in a faux-leather or textile cover, and use silkscreen printing or foil embossing. This, however (especially in the faux-lether case), is best suited for special, limited editions – as it can be quite expensive.

Endpapers & self-ends

The final thing you can do with your cover is to work on the endpapers or, in case of soft cover books, self-ends. An endpaper is what we call the pages pasted to the cover board on one side, and serving as the first free page (sometimes called also the free endpaper or flyleaf) on the other size. They are often made of a bit thicker paper stock than the rest of the book. They can be coloured or patterned. Another option is to use them as additional space for an illustration, a map or another decorative element.

If you’d like to use this effect with a soft cover book, then you’ll likely use self-ends. The difference between endpapers and self-ends is that the latter ones are part of the book block itself. In the print-ready files, they should be included in the same file as the main layout. Endpapers are printed and placed inside the cover board separately. If you are using those, you will be needing separate files for front endpapers and back endpapers.

Keep in mind that different printers print differently! Your printer may use end papers with a softcover book as well as a hardcover.

Endpaper on a hardcover book (Polish edition of "Circe" by Madeline Miller).
Endpaper on a hardcover book (Polish edition of “Circe” by Madeline Miller).

That’s it!

The effects described above are the most common and so the most accessible – things like scented UV coating are rare and expensive enough that your average person isn’t really likely to see them in person.

There are, of course, also other design elements that you can decide to add – like a colourful headband or endband (a colourful strip of cloth attached to the spine), or a ribbon bookmark.Those, however, would belong in a different article – which will appear one day soon!

Other links and resources – printing effects

Here’s a few more sites that can help you understand particular effects:

  • PrintNinja – Printing Academy – a US printing company sharing a veritable treasure cove of printing knowledge on their site – from printing effects, to industry standards, and detailed descriptions of the whole printing process.
  • Brandbook – Materials and Effects – a German company specialising in creating books and notebooks, using a variety of both common and uncommon special effects.
  • Livonia Print – Finishing – a Lithuanian printing company offering a wide range of printing, binding and finishing options. On their website, they explain and show their offer

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