Reflecting on the Cover Design Process… As I Get Ready To Do It Again!

One of my favorite parts of self-publishing is working on the cover design. Since the moment I took over publishing Modern Persuasion, I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing designers and learn something about the process. Now that four books are published, the four-novellas are in publication, and more are coming, I want to share my experiences with you so you can find the right solution for you.

I Did It Myself

Here’s a secret: I believe I can learn to do anything. Okay, not a secret. Yes, I can make a book cover. No, it’s not that great! I had a week and I had ideas. I looked for other covers I liked, I had the drafts my defunct publisher had created, and I had a subscription to Canva (an amazing website and app for graphics creation for those of us who aren’t graphic designers). I went through stock photos, looking for the perfect image. I didn’t want faces and I wanted to convey reluctance or secret desires. I picked a very cute couple holding hands. I did what I set out to do and I still love the cover I designed. The problem was that it wasn’t a market cover. It didn’t trigger something for readers. The cost of this was the price of the stock photo (about $12) and the cost of the premium Canva account (I want to say $150 a year, but I use them for EVERYTHING).

Unless you understand your market and have some knowledge about modern graphic design, skip doing it yourself. Don’t worry if you ignore this advice. I did too! I knew I shouldn’t do the cover myself when I published a short story collection a few months later.

Working With An Illustrator

Phi Alpha Pi CoverFor my second novel, I knew what I wanted and accepted the reality that I shouldn’t do this. This was mostly because I wanted an illustrated and lettered cover. I didn’t want an illustration with fonts as text, I wanted the lettering to be part of the illustration. I knew who I wanted to work with and when she said no, I went looking for others who triggered my emotions the way she had. That’s when I found Risa, who created a cover that was more than I ever imaged it could be. I will try to work with her again, especially for the other books in the 21st Century Austen series. I want the books all to share the same aesthetic, but it will come with a cost. Working with Risa, who creates covers for traditional publishers and is a talented artist, has a high price tag. It’s one I’m willing to pay because I know her value. If you want to work with an illustrator, especially a professional one, be prepared to pay about $1500. For that price, I got the ebook cover, the full wrap for the paperback, and an audiobook version.

Working with a graphic designer

Purim Fling coverFor the Yom Tov Romance novellas, I wanted to work with one cover designer for all four covers and I wanted my covers to match the market. There were two options, but since I was dealing with holidays associated with a religion, I decided to focus on someone who would make custom covers. Since so few people are writing Jewish holiday romances, I wasn’t worried about the graphic designer using stock photos.

Let’s pause here and talk about stock photos. They are popular, they are good, and everyone seems to use them. When someone volunteered to re-design the cover of Modern Persuasion (the one I originally created myself), she had me pick a better stock photo to use. I have seen that image on other book covers. You can’t stop or avoid it. That’s the nature of stock photos. If you use a graphic designer, they might reuse some images or elements from images for other covers. They have the right to use that image as often as they want. It will be more economical for them to do this. Images aren’t expensive, but you always want to maximize value. You can find graphic designers who have their own collection of images or will take photos that you might need. It will be more expensive.

Back to my experience. I hired a graphic designer for four covers at once. She used Photoshop, layering elements of multiple photos into a cover. They are amazing and very professional. I paid $200 for the first cover and she gave me $50 on each of the other covers. This is why I did all four covers at once. In fact, when I go back to Risa for illustrated covers, I’m going to consider asking her for the same. While I might see elements from these covers in other ones, I won’t see the same exact cover.

Premade covers

Kraulaak CoverIf you’re on a budget, premade covers are a great option. Graphic designers will create images with placeholder text so you can see what they imagine for fonts and placement. There are a few webpages that allow designers to be found in one place and will manage the sale. Others can be found on Facebook where they will have pages and groups. I used a pre-made cover for Kraulaak since its a one-off, short story collection. I knew the mood I wanted and some elements I might like. It took me a while to find the cover I liked. They might be cheaper, mine cost $75, but it requires a lot of hunting. You also run the risk that you will see the cover on another book. Not all designers sell the cover just once. Some will keep it up for sale, but the good ones will only sell it to one person.

These covers might be made with free stock photos, maximizing the profit for the designer. Mine was and I found the main image, allowing me to use it in promotional images.

Do your research

There is a ton of research to do before launching into the cover design process. First, know your budget. Don’t hire a professional illustrator if you just have $100. Look at other covers in your genre, specifically the best sellers. Search Amazon for your topic and see what comes up. You will know an amateur cover design when you see it. Most cover designers will want to know what covers you like to get an idea of what you’re looking for. Consider their portfolio as well as the other covers in your genre. Go to a bookstore and see what gets shown on shelves. Not the spine, but the cover. Think about what types of covers you need. Are you not doing an audiobook or only doing an ebook? If you’re writing a series, what should be on the cover to reveal that? If you’re doing the full paperback wrap, what’s the blurb for the back, what images or details need to be added? I have an author picture, quick bio, and my publisher’s logo to add to that. How big will your paperback be? Are their size requirements for the ebook? Know all of this when you hire someone.

Consider the contract details

I keep learning this as I go, but there will always be a contract of some type. Even if you create your own photos with stock photos, there will be limitations on the license. For example, are you paying enough to be able to put the image on merchandise? How many times can you print the image? That could someday impact how many copies you can sell with the image on it. If you hire a graphic designer who uses stock photos, ask them these questions. It may require you to pay more for your cover if you need the increased license.

If you’re working with an illustrator, also ask to have merchandising details written into the contract. Generally, you will be able to use the image for promotional purposes, but check if you’re worried. Professional illustrators might have an agent you need to go through and they may be better able to answer those questions.

Last, there is always a debate about source images given to an author. The idea is that, if something changes in a series or blurb, the author can quickly go and change it without bothering the graphic designer. Think of this as akin to people wanting your word document or unprotected drafts of the book. Nearly every illustrator or designer will refuse unless you’re willing to pay… a lot. There is a risk, like authors have, of someone taking their work and changing it without their consent. There is a chance someone takes it, alters it, and claims they own it. It’s a huge ethical violation for people, but there are authors who want those files enough. If you’re that author, negotiate it in the contract. DO NOT assume your artist will give you the source files.

Our own Sara Marks is a self-published author. She primarily writes chick lit and contemporary romance books. In 2017 she decided to focus her efforts on self-publishing over traditional publishing. This monthly series is about her experiences publishing and promoting her own books. You can learn more about her and her books on her webpage.

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