How To Get A Unique Illustration For Your Book Cover

With the explosion of creativity that is the indie publishing revolution, you may have noticed the array of book covers that use similar stock photos in their designs.


Selection of the initial key designs submitted. All copyright belongs to the designers.

Some authors these days have private photo shoots to ensure their cover images are unique, but what about if you have a smaller budget, or you want something uniquely special in terms of an illustration?

This type of approach can also work for art that relates to your book, e.g. world building and maps, or artwork for marketing purposes

Using 99 Designs to get a custom illustration

Full disclosure here. 99 Designs now sponsor 50% of my podcast, so I was encouraged to try them out. After hearing great things from other authors, I thought I would do something a little different.


FINALIST: Copyright 99 Designs designer lucky bast(art), previously vandamme99

I already have a book cover designer in the wonderful Derek Murphy from Creativindie, so I decided to get an image done for my next book, Gates of Hell. I’m just heading towards the end of the first draft and the book features a hunt for the Key to the Gates of Hell. It should be out before Christmas if you’re interested!

My original brief: Create a key to the Gates of Hell. Let your creative darkness loose!


FINALIST: Copyright: 99Designs BelleIllumina

I wanted to be quite open with the brief, as at that point I hadn’t decided what the key would look like. Here’s what I wrote:

I want an illustration of a key to the Gates of Hell – with the aim that the image is used on the book cover of the book, titled “Gates of Hell,” and also in promotional material.

And also that I can use the illustration to get a pattern made to actually 3D print the key.

I have visions of screaming open mouths and mis-shapen deformities and demons and oozing blackness – but basically, I want a creative image that is still recognizably a key and I want you to use any images that conjure up hell. I am using a group called the Misshapen in the book, so that word may also help. The book is a thriller with a supernatural edge, so dark/scary is good – edge of horror is fine. I don’t mind black & white or color.

Changing my mind based on the designs

Copyright 99Designs designer josephnovi

FINALIST: Copyright 99Designs designer josephnovi

As the designs started to come in, I realized that I was confusing the issue by saying I wanted to turn the image into a 3D printed design as well as a book cover. The two are quite different, and the book cover was always the most important thing, so I narrowed down the requirements as the competition progressed. I also created a Gates of Hell pinboard on Pinterest for the book to give another flavor to the design.


FINALIST: Copyright 99Designs MadMaxx

I had 125 entries from 48 designers in the end, ranging from some really amazing elaborate designs to some striking images.

You get to rate the images as they come in, and that helps the designers consider another iteration. You can also engage in private or public conversations which helps everyone move closer to the desired result.

With 99 Designs, you only pay if you are happy with the design, so there is no risk. Of course, guaranteeing the payment may make the competition more attractive :)

You can also do Polls by selecting the images and then enabling a shareable link for email and social media so people can vote on the designs. I sent the link out to my J.F.Penn fiction newsletter subscribers, as well as sharing on social media and had several hundred votes on the final Poll.

key to the gates of hell

WINNER! Thanks D.C – Danniel Soares

The Key to the Gates of Hell

And here’s the final design, which I love!

It looks like a real key but also captures the desperation of a soul in Hell (in my mind at least) and it came out top of the final poll as well.

Next, I need to finish the book and we’ll work on the full cover design. Since it will be ARKANE Book 6, there are elements of the cover that are fixed. This illustration will just add another dimension, and in fact, provided a story twist that I’m currently writing!

It was an added bonus to have other creative minds that jump-started my own thoughts as I wrote! I just LOVE collaboration with other artists – it’s so rewarding.

I asked the fantastic designer of the winning illustration, Danniel Soares, a couple of questions:

How did you come up with the design based on the (very loose) brief?

I particularly like this sort of brief, giving enough direction ideas, while not being strictly defined. The downside is that you’ll probably need to narrow down on one or two ideas relatively fast, in this contest scheme, so you can present something that already have a reasonably good rendering. Other important consideration is the time it will take to develop it.

Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to do a 3D sculpture in the foreseeable time (I’m not really “fluent” with the 3D software I have, and I’m not sure my current hardware would be powerful enough for this sort of thing as the 3D mesh grows in complexity), even though this consideration also had some influence on that particular idea, which is relatively simpler, while still at least just as good. The other idea, actually came first, and morphed more or less gradually into the final one.

What are your tips for authors who want to get designs for their books?

An important thing to have in mind before anything are the different sub-domains of graphic artists. In an ideal world people wouldn’t take jobs they don’t really feel ready to do, but that can happen, and the final product will probably suffer as a result.

The main distinctions among professionals who would do the final work are perhaps “illustrator” and “designer” (who will often have their sub-specialties, based on genre, technique, and intended use). The latter deals more with the overall layout and structure of the whole, while the former is more concerned with “isolated” details, even though it’s helpful to have a notion of the planned design, to make it match appropriately — but perhaps some designers would prefer to have the illustrations roughs to see how to layout things around it! The specialty of one will tend to be the weakness of the other, even though there will be some people who do both equally well.

The best way to proceed then is to take some time to look through several artists’ portfolios, trying to find a few who work in styles that match the book.

Maybe while still writing the book, perhaps it could turn out to be a form of inspiration. And make some inquiries along the way, or at some allotted time.

Established professionals, whether they’re solo, a team, or subcontractors of an agency, will likely have a well defined process, describing their obligations and conditions in a more or less standardized contract. With people who are just starting out things can be probably be somewhat more complicated and insecure, due to inexperience, and a natural lack of expertise in the business and administrative side. But that probably can be dealt with some precautions from the author, like coming up with a reasonable contract beforehand, to be filled in eventually. That’s definitely somewhat more complicated, but may worth the extra work.

Services like 99designs can be seen as an intermediate way, since they’re literally being the intermediaries between the artists and the client, offering some aspects of “insurance”, even though I’m not totally sure about the details. I hope it didn’t sound too much like some sort of infomercial, because I’m not being paid to make this sort of advertisement. But even with this sort of backing it’s perhaps interesting to study how to do a briefing that is specific enough and clear in scope, in order to avoid misunderstandings and frustrations from both sides.

What else can you use 99 Designs for?

99designsIf you need visual work done, then there are lots of options for what the designers on 99 Designs can do for you. The services include:

  • Book cover design and custom artwork and illustrations
  • Logos and business cards
  • Web page and mobile apps as well as banner ads
  • T-shirts (I am seriously considering this at some point!)

You can get a PowerPack upgrade if you use my sponsorship link: which will supercharge your contest by highlighting your listing, bolding its font, and bumping it to the top of the page. Basically, you can get more entries from better designers.

I found the whole process pretty addictive and since I love collaboration, it’s definitely on my list to do again.

OK, I’d love to know what you think of 99 Designs, or if you have used custom designs/illustrations from other designers.Please leave a comment below and join the conversation.


Indie Author Power Pack. 99c For 3 Of The Biggest Books In Self-Publishing. Plus An Exclusive Interview.

Cue exciting music … dim the lights …

Indie Author Power Pack And get ready for all the writing, self-publishing and book marketing advice that you can handle in the super-duper …

Indie Author Power Pack!

Including 3 of the top-selling books for indie authors

PLUS/ a 1 hour exclusive conversation – never heard before – with me, David Gaughran, Sean Platt & Johnny B. IndiePowerPackAuthorsTruant from the Self Publishing Podcast in audio, video and transcript format.

The PowerPack is at 99c for a very short time in an exclusive deal, and even if you have all the books already, it’s worth it for the extra audio in my humble opinion!

amazon-iconKobo_Icon-150x150ibooks iconnook-icon

Here’s what you get in more detail:

Second Edition of How To Market a Book.

how to market a book second editionI haven’t announced this before now, but in the last month, I released a new edition of How To Market a Book. I kept it (mostly) secret so you could get the new version in this fantastic deal!

I always intended the book to be more about strategies and attitudes to marketing, rather than specific tactics. The second edition is not a radical change to the first, and I’m pleased that most of the information still holds true. However, I have changed so this edition includes updated information about what has worked in my own author life.

There’s a new chapter on the pros and cons of exclusivity, as well as using box-sets as part of author collaboration. There’s a new section on marketing with visual content, as well as the specifics of SlideShare, and the video and multimedia chapters are updated with new examples.

There’s a whole new chapter on using ACX for audiobooks and information on how to market audio specifically. Pre-orders are now included in the launch section, although this is a recent development and the best practices have yet to be teased out in detail.

PLUS/ The Second Edition of Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran

lets get digitalDavid’s popular book on everything you need to self-publish successfully has been completely rewritten since the first edition in 2012.

It includes details on how the publishing industry has been disrupted and practical, hands-on advice on the very latest best practices on editing, cover design, formatting, and pricing.

It gives you proven marketing strategies that won’t eat into your writing time and are actually effective at selling books. It also shares tips on platform building, blogging, and social networking, and explains which approaches are best for selling fiction versus non-fiction, and what writers should really focus on.

This new updated 2nd edition now has more options for those on a tighter budget, teaches you how to get your book into print (and why that helps selling e-books), tells you why you should start a mailing list immediately, and shares the pros and cons of going exclusive with Amazon.

Even if you’re an experienced indie, you’ll find some fascinating insights in the interview section of the book where some of the indie success stories share their tips.

PLUS/ Write, Publish, Repeat – from Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt with David Wright

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 6.39.34 pmIn 2013, Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt published 1.5 million words and made their full-time livings as indie authors.

In Write. Publish. Repeat., they tell you exactly how they did it: how they created over 15 independent franchises across 50+ published works, how they turned their art into a logical, sustainable business, and how any independent author can do the same to build a sustainable, profitable career with their writing.

Write. Publish. Repeat. explains the current self-publishing landscape and covers the truths and myths about what it means to be an indie author now and in the foreseeable future. It explains how to create books your readers will love and will want to return to again and again.

It details expert methods for building story worlds, characters, and plots, understanding your market (right down to your ideal reader), using the best tools possible to capture your draft, and explains proven best practices for editing.

The book also discusses covers, titles, formatting, pricing, and publishing to multiple platforms, plus a bit on getting your books into print (and why that might not be a good idea!). But most importantly, Write. Publish. Repeat. details the psychology-driven marketing plan that Sean and Johnny built to shape their stories into “products” that readers couldn’t help but be drawn into — thus almost automatically generating sales — and explores ways that smart, business-minded writers can do the same to future-proof their careers.

This book is not a formula with an easy path to follow. It is a guidebook that will help you build a successful indie publishing career, no matter what type of writer you are … so long as you’re the type who’s willing to do the work.

IndiePowerPackAuthorsPLUS/ Exclusive conversation in video, audio and transcript

To make this promotion exciting for even the people who already have all 3 books, we organized a private Google+ Hangout and the four of us talked about a whole load of things for both new authors and more advanced stuff.

The chat is available in audio, video and text transcript and includes:

  • The epic fails we have had as authors and how to reframe failure
  • Tips for people with just one book
  • How to begin building your publishing empire
  • Thoughts on KDP Select, Kindle Unlimited and Amazon Publishing
  • On making assets and a long term career as a storyteller
  • How to build your own confidence as an author and as an entrepreneur over time
  • Author branding and reinvention

PLUS/ some personal things that you might not know about the four of us … even if you’re a long term listener of my podcast or SPP!

I know you want this deal :)

Please pre-order or buy now on one of these fantastic stores!

amazon-iconKobo_Icon-150x150ibooks iconnook-icon

PLUS/ You can ask us all questions live on the March to a Bestseller Facebook event – Fri 7 Nov

Just join the event page here: and then come to the page on the day and you can win prizes, ask questions of all the authors and get an astonishing number of amazing books for 99c.

march to a bestseller


From The First Book To Running A Multi Genre Story Studio With Sean Platt

For some authors, this creative life is about seeing their one book in the world.

Others have a vision of their stories reaching the world in many forms, over many years. Today I interview Sean Platt about the beginning of his story studio, and his journey from co-author of one book to the multi-faceted creative business he runs today.

In the intro, I mention the history-making deal that Barbara Freethy has made with Ingram for print distribution to bookstores – exciting times for indies as the final frontiers come tumbling down! I also recommend the new book, ‘Discoverability: Help readers find you in today’s world of publishing‘ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch – it’s a goldmine for fiction authors. Plus I mention my design competition for the key to the Gates of Hell, which I ran on 99 Designs :)

99designs-logo-750x200pxThis podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to:

sean plattSean Platt is a storyteller, creating myriads of bestselling fiction through his story studio Sterling and Stone with co-writers David Wright and Johnny B Truant, as well as being one of the hosts of the fantastic Self Publishing Podcast.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, watch the interview on YouTube, or read the notes and links below.

We discuss:

Sean’s journey from his first book to running a story studio.

  • I interviewed him first in Nov 2011 and it’s taken iterative steps to get to the point of having so many books available now, it’s getting hard to count! Sean talks about his copywriting and internet marketing background and how that helped get him started. How the foundational books have led to more experimental work by layering and building on the steps before. Film and TV and all the rest are for the future, but it’s important to take each step at a time.
  • the beamThe long term view. The next 5 to 10 years in the business of publishing. Long term thinking is a mindset thing. We talk a bit about Kindle Unlimited and making choices for the short term vs the long term. Sean mentions that someone will figure out some kind of tool for discoverability in fiction that rivals the way non-fiction is sold. This will disrupt the way books are sold.
  • On gaming and other media. I mention the gaming advert ‘This is for the players,’ and Oculus Rift. We talk about getting our stories into gaming and other media, as well as 3D printing. We’re both super excited about this in the future. On bleeding edge activities for indies – like translation. Sean mentions that people shouldn’t copy his methods e.g. not worrying about sales but focusing on the big picture. We talk about growth hacking and how you need awesome product in order to grow something.

On switching your head from introverted storyteller to CEO of the global publishing empire.

  • Sean’s business model: I build stuff, and I talk about it. That’s two different things, and they go in that order. Every morning he creates beats, creating story and then spends time on the business side of things. There’s a lot of moving parts and all of it is valuable.
  • How to work effectively and collaborate with others and on leaving the ego behind. How to trust your gut when talking to people you might collaborate with. Some tips for knowing when you have a partner you can work with.
  • On finding inspiration in order to keep going with helping other people. On not wanting to be the smartest guy in the room. Making time to have a break, but the reality of a start-up is hard work and long hours. Lucky we love our creative work!

You can find Sean at Sterling and Stone story studio, as well as on the Self-Publishing Podcast and @seanplatt on Twitter.


How To Be Successful In Self-Publishing

Last week, I spoke at the Frankfurt Book Fair on the Kobo booth and talked about what it takes to be successful in self-publishing to a small group of indie authors. Thanks to Camille Mofidi from Kobo Writing Life Europe for inviting me and also getting me a star on the walk of fame – see the picture at the bottom of the post!

kobo booth at Frankfurt

With Camille Mofidi at the Kobo booth at Frankfurt Book Fair

Here are my slides from the event and a list of notes with more links is included below.

It is 95% relevant to all authors, with a little bit of German specific info throughout.

Here’s my top tips:

What do you think? Does this sum up what you consider is necessary to be successful self-publishing?

Please do leave a comment below and join the conversation.

Six Figure Success Self-Publishing Non-Fiction Books With Steve Scott

If you want a six figure income from your books, it’s a good idea to model people who are already making this kind of money.

Steve Scott seemed to burst onto the indie non-fiction scene in early 2014, but in fact, he has 42 books and has had an internet business since 2006. I interview him about his (not so secret) strategies for success.

In the intro, I talk about my impressions of Frankfurt Book Fair and some of what I learned there, as well as an update on my writing.

This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets kobo writing lifethrough the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.

Kobo’s financial support pays for the hosting and transcription, and if you enjoy the show, you can now support my time on Patreon. Thank you!

Steve ScottSteve Scott is a bestselling non-fiction author of self-help books focusing on habits, including the mega-bestselling Habit Stacking: 97 small life changes that take 5 minutes or less.He has 42 books available right now under Steve Scott and SJ Scott. You can watch the video on YouTube here, or listen above on on iTunes or Stitcher.

  • Lessons Steve has learned from his first internet businesses and affiliate marketing, which he started in 2006. Focusing on one business niche and genre, and specifically around building and nurturing an email list. His views of what works in publishing has changed, and now focuses on the hard work over the long term and little things on a daily basis. Steve has become very visible in the last year, but he has been habitstackingworking on this since 2006. The success he has had off the back of Habit Stacking was due to the years of ground work before that.
  • On sharing income in public. Steve posts his income in public, part of a trend online as people openly share how their businesses work. For April – June 2014, Steve reported $125,857.37 and he breaks down exactly what that consists of. If you want this kind of success, based on this kind of business model – then copy what Steve is doing! (and when I say copy, I mean in the sense of modelling, not plagiarism!)
  • Practicing the fundamentals every day is the way to this kind of success. Write a good book. Consistent butt in chair at least 5 times a week and write. Very good cover images. Building an email list and understanding good email marketing. There is no secret and it’s not rocket science. Produce good books and connect with your audience consistently for years.

It’s hard work, more good product and time.

  • The process of writing a non-fiction book from ideas to finished product. You can also get Steve’s checklist for book publishing here. Steve uses physical index cards for ideas, especially as it gets him away from the computer.

What do non-fiction audiences want?

  • Steve talks about splitting big topics into micro-topics, which stems from his blogging background. His books are around 15,000 – 25,000 words and delve deep, rather than being the ‘be all and end all’ megabook which is more like the traditional publishing model. I talk about how, as a speaker, my business model for non-fiction includes professional speaking, which means having a chunkier book is something that enhances your authority. Steve’s model is NOT about speaking, sell more non fictionit’s about selling bulk thinner books so he doesn’t need to concern himself with longer books. It’s all about what you want as your business model.
  • How to stand out in the huge volume of new books. It’s a matter of building up your products and your platform, and asking your audience what they want and what they like. Keep trying different things. This is a long term game and you can’t stand out with one book. There are a few outliers, but most people only make a good living with a lot of books. Focus on what you need to do, not on what others are doing. Stop comparing yourself. I talk about how I met Alexis Grant online 5 years ago, and how many people have disappeared along the journey. If you stick with this long term, success will come. Most people will drop away.
  • The tipping point into a full time income came when Steve fully committed himself to the model of Kindle publishing in Sept 2012, and wrote a book every 3 weeks. The tipping point to the big league earnings was in May 2014 when Habit Stacking took off, and having 40+ books available helped make more income from the back list. Focus on the genre and the niche and write content within that and build up a brand and a series. Be consistent in your writing. Make it a habit.

You can find Steve at and Steve also has a new podcast coming soon at