How Self-Published Authors Get Their Covers Right

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

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. 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.

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.