Readers do judge a book by its cover, as Sara Voorhis points out in this article. She offers tips for writers who are considering their book cover design options carefully.
Your book cover is one of the most important pieces of your product (besides your awesome writing, obviously!). Covers are meant to be judged–despite how much we’re warned against it! It often feels impossible to create a cover that catches the eye, seems unique, yet still fits your genre and your author brand.
In this article, I’ll share the most important things to consider before jumping into design your book cover and how to know what’s right for you–whether you’re going DIY or hiring a full team!
DIY vs Pro
The big debate when it comes to covers is whether to make your own or hire a pro. Both have great perks and big drawbacks.
If your creativity includes visual art, DIY is often less expensive and you have full creative control. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the artist being unavailable when you’re ready to produce the rest of the series!
Of course, the clear drawback here is whether you’ve got rose-tinted glasses on when it comes to your own work.
Hiring an artist or book cover designer is often the most expensive option. Remember, cover design refers to the layout, text, and format of the cover, while cover art is the actual art and images, sans text. This means you can commission an artist or photographer, then add text and format it yourself. (I do this with my fantasy series.)
As photo editing and stock photos become more accessible and diverse, we see an increase in “cookie-cutter” covers. While these nail their genre branding, they also don’t stick in your mind after you’ve seen them.
If you’re going DIY or working closely with a designer, make sure they offer a variety of poses or stock images. Don’t just paste the image on your book as you downloaded it. Add effects, filters, swap out hair and clothes to help your image stand out.
The Golden Rules of DIY
- Emotional distance from your book
- Have a good grasp on comp titles within your genre and demographic
- Find folks who will provide honest feedback
The Golden Rules of Hiring
- Make sure you pay your artists
- If you invest in your book early you won’t need rebranding right away
- Quality is worth the wait
Cover design revolves around who your readers are. You want to catch their eye and make them feel as if they have to read more.
Your book won’t please everyone, and that’s fine! Just like your newsletter, it isn’t purely numbers that count. You want to find your die-hards–the people who will auto-buy every subsequent book you write.
The first step is attracting them.
I’ve heard so many authors claim their book doesn’t really fit into any one genre or demographic. That’s simply not true–these authors often haven’t delved into market research or read widely enough.
As much as we all want to think our work is the most special, unique take on an idea ever in the history of books, let’s get real: it’s not. It’s still fantastic, and fun, and engaging, though! The sooner you put aside the idea that it’s in a league of its own, the sooner you can get down to business.
Pre-made covers can be a great resource. The benefit, of course, is you have your cover quickly (often all they do is swap your name and title for the stock ones). If you have a deadline or your original artist fell through, this is a great option.
If you’ve got a series, it’s tricky to maintain consistent branding when it’s not a custom piece–through many pre-made artists also do custom covers if you want to recreate a certain look. Buying a pre-made is a great, less expensive way, to test a cover on your audience before you make the custom plunge.
There are many buyer-beware stories out there about the cookie-cutter stock photos on pre-mades, so–like everything–do your research. Check out the bestsellers in your subgenres and make sure you’re not seeing the same figure or layout too frequently, or that they are suitably customized.
If you’ve decided to hire a designer or artist, make sure you do your homework. I’m sure there are great artists who’ve thrown their hat into the Fiverr ring, but it’s much easier to weed out low quality if you start with other sites.
A good place to start is popular authors within your subgenre. Check out their most recent work–I say recent because old, traditional cover trends are fine when you have a million-dollar marketing budget from one of the Big 5, but few of us are so privileged.
You should be reading what you write, so if you’re able, wander the stacks at your local indie book store. What catches your eye? Why?
Scroll through the first few pages in your Amazon categories. What are the common themes of the best-sellers? See something you love that a colleague published? They should be happy to tell you who their designer was! I love promoting my artists’ work. (Thanks, Ben Donahue and Aaron Bolduc!)
If you’re more interested in a custom photo cover, look into models and photographers who are trying to build their portfolio and hire them.
Once you’ve confirmed your commission, write up a brief. It should be clear, concise, and descriptive. Include two pieces of their work that you’d like them to emulate with your cover, any color schemes, and reference photos for characters, weapons, or buildings. The more you do for them, the more time they can spend actually creating, and the more accurate it will be.
While this is mostly directed toward paintings, the same is true for photo covers as well–but make sure you ask for copies of all the rights to each photograph to cover your legal bases and don’t expect your artist to use the exact photos if they aren’t comfortable with the legality.
[Note from Joanna: You can find my list of book cover designers here.]
Every indie or hybrid author has to face the harsh reality of a budget. It’s hard to determine where to invest your money. Like everything, having money helps, but it’s entirely feasible to create a stunning cover for free.
I’ve had great luck with my sci-fi series using a combination of photoshoots and stock images (both free and paid) in Krita, a free photo-editing software. My sci-fi covers cost less than $100 each.
On the other end of the spectrum, I commissioned custom full-spread artwork for my two fantasy series. A single book cover can cost between $250 and $1000.
I took a good, hard look at what readers expected from my subgenres, what was selling, and then figured out what was the best investment. If you think custom art is the way to go, however, you don’t need to drop a grand.
Check out artist hashtags on Twitter and Instagram. Explore Artist Alley at your local convention (that’s where I found Aaron and Ben). There are thousands of quality, up-and-coming artists to hire and many offer a package deal for a series.
Remember, though: artists, designers, models, and photographers are creators just like us. Always pay them and always give credit on the back cover or copyright page.
We all know branding is a huge piece of the author platform, and often one of the key places for branding is your covers–especially those of us who write series or shared universes!
One of the best pieces of advice I heard when I was struggling with my own branding was actually from Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” This goes for your author brand, series, or book. Define the core of your book and lean into it.
Like every market, books and their packaging follow trends–examples include the dramatic item on a black field from the Twilight era, stylized, script titles on a colorful, patterned background in YA last year, and the fit, white women clad in jeans and leather that still reign in urban fantasy titles.
So do you follow the trends? Being an independent or hybrid author, we often have to consider our budgets, and the risk of following a brief trend is being forced to re-cover or even rebrand completely each time the market changes.
Like everything in this industry, the right answer varies by author and project: I re-branded one series half-way through the release of the 6-books. Another, which I spent significantly more on, art-wise, underwent a slight design change, but the art and branding is essentially the same.
Regardless, investing in quality art that fits the tone of your work is essential, and, in my experience, is the best long-term solution. A great cover means less frequent re-branding, regardless of market trends.
Each time you’re designing a cover, or choosing a designer, do your research. Like I mentioned above: check out the best-sellers in your category. What’s eye-catching that might be a good style for your work? How would you make it unique?
And as Joanna says: your book is not your baby. It’s your employee, so even if your cousin made a sweet character sketch and offered to do all your book covers for free forever, make sure you’re considering marketability.
Those of us who write in series, or connected stand-alones, need our books to be recognizable, not only as ours, but as a collection, so readers who enjoy the first one can easily find the others even when Amazon forgets to link them.
So how do you do stay on-brand without getting stale? The key to this is consistency. I’m a bit rigid on matching and coordination, but despite my friend’s teasing, this is good when it comes to branding!
Choose one or two aspects and make them consistent across the board! This could be the color scheme–V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series is entirely red, black, and white–or design and figure placement.
Other options include text/figure placement or theme. The best and easiest branding option, regardless of your color or art, is using the same font, color, and placement for your title, name, and other information.
Taking all of this into consideration, sometimes the best option for you is to blaze your own trail. If you find fantastic art that conveys your genre and story but is wholly unique–go for it. You might start a trend of your own, and if sales aren’t what you hope for, re-branding is always an option!
It’s important to get feedback along the way. Having a few critique partners who you can show in-progress shots–either your own or your designer's–is key. They know the story, and hopefully your genre, so they can let you know where it’s perfect and what isn’t working.
There are tons of genre-specific groups for authors where you can get advice and feedback, though sometimes the number of opinions is overwhelming!
Your cover doesn’t have to be an exact scene from your book. It has to accurately sell what’s inside. Being honest about your skills and your limits will make a world of difference when deciding the best route and getting feedback.
Regardless of what you decide is right for your project, remember: it’s ultimately your project. Trust your instinct if something isn’t right. How can you passionately promote a book if you secretly cringe whenever you look at its cover?
Once you’ve got a great cover, make sure your branding is consistent across your platforms and you have your links or pre-orders up, then go ahead–gush about how awesome it looks!
What have been your experiences with book cover design? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Sara Voorhis is the creator of Amphibian Press, a hybrid press dedicated to giving authors creative control over their work and boosting voices. She writes SFF under V. S. Holmes (the award-winning REFORGED series and LGBTQ+ archaeological NEL BENTLY BOOKS) In addition, she has a blogging residency at Aspiring Authors where she discusses writing disability and mental illness.