Self-publishing tip #4: Hire a professional to create your cover


This post is part of a series on self-publishing. You’ll find links to all posts in this series in the first post.

You know that expression, “you can’t judge a book by its cover”? And yet we all do it when it comes to books. Your book cover is part of your marketing. You only have one chance to make a good first impression. Your book cover is your first chance to intrigue people enough to pick up your book and look inside.

If you want your book to look professional, and if you don’t have the graphical chops to create your own cover, hire a professional cover designer/firm.

A cautionary tale about bad covers

As a favor to a friend of mine who is the friend of an author, I once read that author’s self-published book. The cover is terribly amateurish. Because of the cover, I expected the book to be as badly written as the cover was drawn.

Surprisingly, the book is good. Not just passably good. Good in the sense that the author could go places with her writing. But, because of the cover, I would never have read the book.

To make matters worse, the writer skipped the step of hiring a professional editor, and it shows. From page one, typos and grammatical errors abound. Again, if I hadn’t been reading the book as a favor, I would have stopped after the first three pages because of the numerous grammatical errors.

Don’t be that author. Give your readers a reason to open your book. Don’t skimp on the cover.

Book covers for softcover and hardcover books

Your book cover needs depend on the type of book you want to self-publish.

  • If you’re self-publishing a paperback book, you need art for the front, back, and spine. (If you want flaps, you’ll need art for those as well.)
  • If you’re publishing a hardcover book, you won’t normally need art for the book’s cover (though you might), but you will need art for the dust jacket: front, back, and spine, plus flaps.

You’ll also need to decide what size your book is going to be (6″ x 9″, for example). You’ll need to know this for the cover, for the interior, and for the printer. A cover designer can work with you before your book is typeset, but will need to know your book’s final page count before they finalize the spine, because the size of the spine will vary depending on how many pages in the book.

Finding a professional cover designer

Shop around and find several people or companies who do good work. A quick Google search using the keywords “book cover designers” results in thousands of cover designers. Skip past the ones marked “Ad” and choose the top ten. Browse those sites, look at their samples, then get competitive bids from at least three to five designers (more, if you want).

Once you have the bids in hand, compare what’s being offered and choose the one you feel the best about. Notice I don’t say “choose the cheapest.” Instead, I recommend choosing someone ethical (as far as you can determine) and whose work draws you.

Once you decide to go with a bid, I strongly advise you to do the following:

  • Get the agreement in writing. A signed contract is best. Make sure the agreement spells out every detail.
  • As part of your agreement, ask the artist to give you at least three options to choose from initially. After you see those options, choose one and ask them to start refining it.
  • Make sure you have the right to ask for a reasonable number of revisions. (“Reasonable” can vary, but you should be able to ask for at least three major revisions and a larger number of minor revisions.)
  • Super important: in your agreement, specify that this is a “work for hire,” which means that you are buying the copyright; that is, you are buying all rights to use the work as you see fit. This means the artist can’t use the work in any way without your permission. If the artist balks at this, ask them why. If they just want the right to show it as an example of their work (for example, in their portfolio), they only need your permission to use it in that way; they don’t need the copyright. If they refuse to do the work as a work for hire, look for a different designer.
  • Make sure they agree to deliver their own original work and not clip art. They might need to purchase a photo, which is fine, but the photo should come with the right to use it.
  • Make sure that when the work is delivered to your satisfaction, you will get the source files so you can use them again. For example, if you are writing a book series, you may want to use similar covers.

What to expect to pay for a cover design

On average, cover designs range from about $500 to $700, though prices can be as low as $150 and as high as a few thousand, depending on what’s involved. (Dustjackets, flaps, and so on will cost more.)

For example, text plus a solid-color background and maybe a stock photo should be less expensive; original artwork, as in drawings and paintings, is going to cost the most.

A cautionary tale about paying upfront

Learn from my mistake: I strongly recommend that you do not pay anything until the work is done to your satisfaction. Many years ago, I got burned by a logo designer. He demanded $600 up front, then delivered crappy options, which I naturally rejected. I’m not a graphic artist, but I know bad work when I see it.

Two very similar logos--the original on teh bottom and the copied version on top--show what can happen if your designer isn't ethical

A logo designer delivered the top logo to me. I found the bottom one on the Internet. The two logos have too many points of similarity: if I had unknowingly used what he delivered, I would have risked a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

Then suddenly he delivered a wonderful, professional logo (at the top of the figure). I loved it and was quite ready to pay the balance of his fee. Only problem was, he had delivered a logo that was a copyright infringement of someone else’s logo.

Fortunately, I found this out before I paid him anything more. I don’t think he expected me to find the original, though I still shake my head at the fact that he submitted something that would have gotten me into deep legal trouble had I accepted and used it.

I asked him to stop working on the project and to refund my money, but I never heard another word from him. I was out hundreds of dollars that I could ill afford. In retrospect, I should have insisted on only paying after delivery of an acceptable draft.

Of course, the flip side is that sometimes people take advantage of a designer: they make the designer do a lot of work, then don’t pay them. So if a designer asks for a down payment, be cautious but reasonable. Get references from others who have worked with them (and make sure the references are genuine clients, not the designer’s cronies). If the references pan out, consider giving some earnest money upfront, with the balance due on acceptance and a guarantee that you don’t have to pay if the work isn’t to your satisfaction. (But don’t think to refuse the work, then copy it yourself. That’s dishonest and unethical.)

Some resources

I know someone who used JD&J for his nonfiction text. The results were crisp and professional and the price quite reasonable.

The Creative Penn is a great blog-based resource for all things self-publishing, including lists of cover designers she recommends.

If your budget is super tight, you might have some luck on Fiverr. However, use extreme caution. You might hit pay dirt, but you’re more likely to get what you pay for; that is, cheap, disappointing, and unusable work, work that is most likely a ripoff of someone’s copyrighted work.

On the topic of logos, if you want an excellent, top-notch, professional logo from an ethical designer, you can’t go wrong hiring Jeff Fisher LogoMotives. I can’t afford Mr. Fisher yet, but when I can, I am totally going to hire him to design my logo. (He’s also ferocious about protecting his designs, so when he designs that killer logo for you, he’ll do his best to find and challenge the miscreants who try to copy it.)

Working with a designer

Be very specific about what you want, but also give the artist leeway to apply their expertise to the job. If they are truly professional, they know what they’re doing, and they know what works and what doesn’t. Yes, graphics are a matter of taste, and there’s nothing wrong with having taste that is different from the mainstream. But you want to sell your book. Unless ransom is a key theme in it, you don’t want ten different fonts on the cover (for example).

If you and the designer really can’t work together, don’t be afraid to walk away and keep looking.

Are you an author?

Hey, if you are self-publishing (or if a publishing house is publishing your book), feel free to post a link to your book in a comment to this post (or any of the other posts in this series). Thanks!

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