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How Self-Published Authors Get Their Covers Right

Design-it-yourself or hire a pro? Either way, you want to weigh your options carefully.

By Andrew Pantoja

For self-published authors visibility is key. Generating visibility takes time and persistence and includes everything from a Twitter feed to commissioned book reviews. But a great book cover can generate more buzz and visibility than most social marketing plans and pay-to-play endorsements.

E-Book Editor is one of many service companies offering cover design services

And in today’s online world, a book’s packaging -– binding, paper stock, etc. –- is thrown out the window. Online, the only distinguishing feature is the cover. With online book sales growing, and e-books taking off, cover design has become more important.

“If an e-book cover appeals to someone and speaks well on the book’s behalf,” said Chris O’Byrne who heads up The E-book Editor, “I think it could have a huge impact on whether a reader buys it or not.”

Without the budget or marketing team of a big publishing house, self-pub authors have to weigh their design options carefully. Options vary depending on the author’s skill set, time frame and resources.

A convenient option is to work with outfits like The E-book Editor that include a cover design as an add-on to their editing and digital conversion services. The E-book Editor charges $99 for e-book covers and $199 for print book covers. But only about 50% of the authors O’Byrne works with request a cover design. What are the other authors choosing to do?

The most affordable and in some cases cost-free option is to do it yourself.

Keith Robinson went from this...

Self-published author Keith Robinson self-designed the covers of his Island of Fog fantasy series. Using images from stock photo websites, Robinson manipulated pictures to recreate scenes from his books.

“Ideally, an author picks a scene from their book that best sums up the story, and a cover artist is employed to paint it to specification,” said Robinson. “But this approach is rarely possible for self-publishers. Cover artists cost a lot of money.”

In his first book Island of Fog, Robinson went with “simple but effective.” He found an image of foggy woods, tinted it blue, and added the title and author credit.

However, Robinson admits that there has been a learning curve.

“Today I see [Island of Fog] as my weakest cover simply because it has nothing in the center to grab the eye.”

In his subsequent books, Robinson seized the attention of his YA audience with flame-breathing dragons. For the cover of his latest book, Lake of Spirits, Robinson transformed a woman into a jengu, a water spirit with pointy ears like an elf, using graphic design tools.

...to this.

“Sales come from word-of-mouth about the story itself, not about the cover,” said Robinson. “I won’t be spending a lot of money on the cover until I’ve achieved huge success in selling the story.”

But some authors see the need to invest in winning cover art from the beginning.

“A good book jacket should be worthy of the words on the pages,” said self-publisher Jennifer B. White, who is releasing three new books (Dead Asleep, Otherwise and Hummus for the Holidays) by November. “It’s also paramount for the book to sell.”

White, who works as a tagline writer for Universal Pictures, believes book covers are analogous to movie posters.

“A movie poster can often determine whether a film gets buzz, or fizzles at the box office. Likewise, a well-conceived, well-executed book jacket design translates into a book cover that motivates readers to crack the cover or download the e-book,” said White.

Unlike fantasy author Robinson, White does not self-design her books. Her friends and colleagues at Universal and photographers at the car auctioneer Gooding and Company are helping to create her book covers.

“Designing a book cover starts with brainstorming,” she said. “We communicate ideas and create a design that stays true to the story and considers its target audience.”

Authors without pre-established relationships with designers, or graphic design skills, are left to other devices. Often the first stop in finding help is online directories, forums or message boards. But this time-consuming option yields few results.

“Sites like Elance and Craigslist can help you with your hires, but it’s really hard to find folks specialized in the e-book space,” said Miral Sattar, founder of Bibliocrunch, a self-pub platform which facilitates relationships between book professionals.

“I joined all the Linkedin groups and often saw postings from writers who were looking for good cover design,” she said. “Their requests often got lost in the noise. So I thought, why not offer it all in one place.”

On BiblioCrunch, professionals can sign up as an author, designer, editor, copy editor, publisher or reader. Authors can convert their books for digital distribution while searching the site for a cover designer.

One key feature of Bibliocrunch is the rating and review system where designers, and other professionals, are given testimonials on their work. “Most authors like to work with someone whose work has already been vetted or vouched for,” said Sattar.

While specialized online communities cut down on the riff-raff, developing professional relationships online is difficult and takes patience. For authors who are eager to enter the market quickly the answer may be crowdsourcing.

A 99Designs sample cover

On 99Designs, authors can commission book cover designs. The first step is drafting a design brief which provides the crowd of designers with a better understanding of the project. This includes a description of the author, the book, and specific technical guidelines like file type, document size and resolution.

After setting a price, which can range from $195 to the project’s budget limit, authors can kick back as dozens of designs are submitted from around the world. 99designs already has over 100,000 registered members.

In 2009, author Tim Ferriss ran a design project through 99designs to generate ideas for The 4-Hour Body. In 7 days more than 450 designs came in. Ferriss awarded 4 finalists $250 each.

With varying price points and a multitude of resources online, self-pub authors have more options every day.  Whether they opt to crowdsource, outsource, collaborate with friends, work with new online contacts, or go it alone, the goal is clear -– maintain the same level of quality consumers have come to expect from the industry giants. This begins with the cover and ends with the story.

“Of course, a great cover doesn’t make the book itself great,” said fantasy author Robinson. “But it’s important not to make a potential reader wrinkle up his nose before he’s even read the first page.”

Andrew Pantoja is Associate Publisher at Practising Law Institute (PLI) in New York City. PLI is a non-profit organization that publishes books and produces seminars for lawyers and business professionals. Andrew oversees the day-to-day operations of the publishing division, plans and coordinates book acquisitions, book marketing and financial planning, and assists in the production and design of PLI’s books. He is on Twitter @andrewpantoja.

DISCUSS: Who Are the Best Service Providers for Self-Publishers?

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13 Comments

  1. Posted September 23, 2011 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Option to highlight is that self-publishers help each other. This general pattern of self-publishing is working also in case of ebook covers – especially that there are a lot of new tools which help to design covers for free (or almost for free).

    The only question is the quality, but there are at least two great destinations to check:
    – Ebook Cover Design Awards – a great initiative from Joel Friedlander: http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2011/08/monthly-e-book-cover-design-awards/
    – Your Cover Uncovered – a site by Sarah E Melville, where you can submit a cover for professional review: http://yourcoveruncovered.blogspot.com/

    Plus a lot of advice, including Joel’s blog and my series of articles about opportunities which arise if you design a cover specifically for ebooks: http://www.passwordincorrect.com/tag/ebook-specific-cover-design/

  2. Posted September 23, 2011 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Excellent advice! I didn’t know about Bibliocrunch, they sound very good. I would just add to your list BookBaby: I’ve used them for my covers and I’ve been very satisfied with the result. I furnished them with a painting of my own and in my (humble) opinion they did a very good job of turning it into a cover that works both in color and in grey scale for the Kindle, using excellent graphics and design.

    It’s important to keep in mind that for e-books, the cover has to “work” even in reduced format (for the Kindle it’s a thumbnail size!). You need different design criteria than those used for printed covers: a lot less detail, more punchy, simpler colors, and very clear fonts of good size for the title and author name, so they remain legible in small size.

    I also think it’s rather important to use your own illustrations, whether paintings or photographs if you can’t paint. That would be my advice. First because I like to keep full control of the illustration used, but more importantly, this ensures that no other cover across the globe will be similar!

    If you use stock photos, there’s always the risk that someone else has used or will use the same. Sure, they will tweak it with photoshop, but still it will be the same starting point. Undoubtedly why you see so many dreary, wintry woods on the covers of YA paranormals!

    Because to stand out, you need to do something really different!

  3. Posted September 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Until or unless an author starts making money from their books, up front investing in covers is not likely to be something they will look forward to. Fortunately it is possible to make your own. Many do. I did a blog recently on how I made mine. A link is provided below if you wish to see it.
    http://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/how-to-create-covers-for-ebooks/

  4. Posted September 25, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    I use a talented and affordable graphic artist who understands the challenges self-publishers face with cost concerns. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Creative-Covers/278624312165415?sk=wall&filter=1

    Posting again since my last post never showed up. Censorship for the win?

  5. Posted September 30, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    First impressions are everything. How people perceive your cover impacts how (and if) they perceive your content. Consider your cover like the film trailer. If you’re not emotionally grabbing your audience, don’t expect them to Jump for your book. You invested all that time and energy writing. Why would you not work with an expert on your cover? If you’re swinging… Swing big.

  6. Posted September 30, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    My cover for my book Song of the Fairy Queen is in the top four of the Epic Ariana book cover awards. I, too, took a stock image I found and altered it to fit my story.

  7. Posted September 30, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    The old saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover is true, but people do anyways. I designed the cover for my recently self-published ebook, The Paragon: A Quest Begins, using some CG rendering software that can be downloaded for free. It took a lot of work, but I think it was rewarding. Stock photography is also a good idea. Anyways, you can see the cover artwork this website http://spaceforswashbuckling.blogspot.com/ and on Amazon.com
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005M5PFO4 .

    I’m looking for some feedback. Anyone?

  8. Posted October 2, 2011 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    I’m thinking of trying 99 Designs for my next cover. I’ve used them for business design stuff before, and I love the idea of having multiple choices to choose from.

  9. Posted October 4, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I absolutely love my book cover. I loved being able to have total control over it. I talked to a graphic designer who wanted thousands. Instead, I bought the rights to the photo for $35.00 and paid someone another $30.00 to modify it for the ebook version. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    As you say, covers are so important. It makes sense that the author, who knows more about the book than anyone, get input. My friends who are traditionally published do not get much of a say.

    This is who I used:

    Rita Toews,
    http://domokos.com/ebook_cover_design.html

  10. Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I tend to do my own book covers but I am lucky in that I trained and worked as a graphic designer for many years so know Photoshop and Illustrator extremely well. I am actually thinking of offering cover design as a service and might start doing some free covers for authors I am friends with on Twitter or maybe as a giveaway or something. Let me know your thoughts on my debut cover here: http://andrewbutterworth.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/ebook-cover-design-from-initial-concept-to-latest-version/

    The final version has changed slightly from this (mainly the sizing and positioning of text) but yuo get the general idea.

  11. Streamlinedbiz
    Posted January 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Alternative way to get your book right. j.mp/BkRecipe

  12. Posted July 16, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    An interesting and inspiring piece about book covers and designs. Of course, people get to see the book cover and title and blurb before anything interior. For my 6th book, The Purpose and Power of Identity, published by Xlibris UK, I self published and did provide the ideas and concept for the book cover, but they did the design and interestingly, cost for design was built into publishing cost, wich without marketing bundle, on a 50% discount as at the time I signed on was 199 Pounds. The 131-page book came out excellent. Amazingly also, I have sold about a hundred copies of the book and just granted a leading traditional publisher in Nigeria a five year license to publish, market and distribute printed book copies from China in Nigeria. No one sees the landmark and beautiful book title and cover and not want to read.

  13. Posted July 19, 2012 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    A professional book cover design will stand out. This is why it’s called “professional”. Sometimes I get the feeling people don’t really understand the importance of book cover art made by an artist. Here’s an example: would you go to a shoemaker to get your haircut done? I don’t think so, you’d go to a professional, to a hair stylist, someone that has experience in this field, that can guarantee you good results.

    It’s the same with illustrating a book cover, you need someone with experience, someone who has had good results before – don’t sacrifice the future of your book for a couple of $. It is not worth it.

    That being said, if you want gorgeous book cover design that is worth every penny visit books-design.com
    You won’t regret it.

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