Two years ago, I did a four-part series on this topic. I’ve learned a lot since then, and at least a couple of things have changed in that time. One change is that I’m seeing more advertising from cover designers, notably higher-priced ones. In my previous series I quoted a general price range for covers from $100–$500, with most falling in the $150–$250 range. Of course you can pay more. A lot more.

While there are still budget designers out there, I’m seeing the average prices go higher. One reason for this, I believe, is due to the second change I’ve seen happening. Indie authors seem to be taking covers a bit more seriously (probably because the competition is stiffer), and they are willing to pay more. Therefore, we’re seeing the higher-priced designers surfacing. I’m guessing, but perhaps these are designers who formerly dealt primarily with traditional publishers.

I am not going to summarize what I covered in the previous series. You can find those articles on the blog under the Book Cover Design category on the left of the blog. However, I will call upon some of those points in this new series.

I recently saw an ad on the Reedsy blog site for a free course dealing with cover design. Here’s the quote that struck me:

“Think you can design your own cover? You’re wrong. This free course will tell you why, and teach you how to publish a beautiful, professionally designed book.”

And here’s the article link:

BOOK COVER DESIGN: HOW SELF-PUBLISHING AUTHORS CAN DO IT BEST

Reading that quote (especially the “you’re wrong” part) hit a nerve. I will agree that a number of indie authors who have designed their own covers have gone horribly wrong, but to make a blanket statement implying that NO self-publishing author should attempt it…? I wonder if that attitude comes from the same people who claim that indie authors cannot (and should not) edit their own work and that both editing and cover design are best left to the professionals. But we’re also still hearing from those who say that indie authors shouldn’t be self-publishing because they’re hurting the reputation of the publishing industry.

Think about that attitude for a moment. What if we all, as human beings, adopted the attitude that everything is “best left to the professionals.” Where would we be if Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had left computer design to the professional engineers? And it doesn’t end there.

Okay, enough of the soapbox. I’m not saying that every author should design his or her cover, but I am saying that if you’re willing to work at it and learn how to do it right, there is absolutely no reason you can’t do your own cover and do a good job of it.

But trust me on one thing: It will not be easy, you will likely stumble many times during the process, and you may end up hiring a professional designer in the end. None of these reasons should stop you from trying, though, because I can almost guarantee that you will learn a lot. While your first attempt may fail, subsequent ones may succeed. And the really great thing about self-publishing is that you have full control. If you determine down the road that your cover needs to be better, YOU CAN CHANGE IT! If a traditional publisher screws up a cover (not that will ever admit they did), they you can’t fix it, and your book suffers.

The only reason not to try doing your own cover is that you don’t have the time to spend on it (and you have the money to pay someone else to do it). However, I will offer two options. One is to do it all yourself, which means learning to use the appropriate software (Photoshop or GIMP—see the previous series to learn about the free Photoshop-like software called GIMP). The other option is to do the design work yourself and find someone who is familiar with Photoshop or GIMP to do the grunt work.

If you’re serious about learning GIMP, I can highly recommend The Book of GIMP: The Complete Guide to Nearly Everything by Olivier Lecarme and Karine Delvare. I just purchased it recently. It’s around $35 on Amazon (go for the paperback, not the Kindle version, because you’ll want to flip back and forth in it). It is worth the cost, and it is a very meaty book (and heavy) book with heavyweight paper stock and plenty of full-color illustrations. Even with this book, GIMP is not easy to learn, but if you’re a good self-teacher, you should find it sufficient. There are also many excellent GIMP tutorials online on You Tube. I had been playing with GIMP for over three years before learning about this book. It’s already taught me a lot of new things.

Anyway, back to cover design.

One thing I agree strongly with in the Reedsy article above is the importance of having a good cover brief (regardless of who is doing the design). A cover brief is sort of an outline for the cover design. Doing one even for yourself can help you home in on what’s important in the book, hence for the cover. In an ideal world, the cover designer has read the book and therefore would be intimately familiar with it. With few exceptions (namely, you have a good friend doing the cover for you, and he or she has read the book), your cover designer has not read the book and is relying on your guidance. If you misguide the designer, your cover won’t be what it should be.

I cannot stress this enough. The most important aspect of a good cover (other than not looking as if a half-wit designed it) is that it MUST convey the substance and flavor of the book. This means it should depict the correct genre or type of book. The Reedsy article talks about David Penny’s covers looking as if they belonged to thrillers rather than historical mysteries, and he attributed this to conveying the wrong information to his first designer.

You must begin with the right cover concept no matter who is designing it. The wrong brief will sabotage your or your designer’s efforts. For our cover for The Mosaic, Chris Keaton and I tried many ideas and variations on those ideas before we finally conceded and went with a designer.

It wasn’t that I was incapable of doing a good cover. By this time I had most of the skills to do a good job. The problem was failing to find the right combination of elements. We were too close to it. Based on our input, the designer came up with three different initial choices), all very different. We made the mistake of asking too many other people for input—and naturally there was little consensus. Once we homed in on a suitable starting design, it took several rounds of modifications to achieve the final result. After seeing what the designer had done, I was able to duplicate the cover almost exactly starting from scratch, proving that I had the skills but had lacked the right inspiration.

A second factor in our decision to seek an outside designer was that the novel was done and ready to publish and was coverless. Even then, we worked with the designer over a period of several months before we got to the final design. What we learned is that you should not wait until the last minute to get you cover designed.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll show you some of the covers we tried for The Mosaic, along with the three the designer presented. I’ll critique the first book cover I did, the one for Scott’s novel Martyr’s Inferno, and I’ll show you what I’ve learned since I first did it in terms of making it look more professional.

I’ll finish up this post with some preliminary steps on how to zero in on a decent cover design for your book.

Step 1: Think about what kind of book it is. Brainstorm some things you might put on your cover to convey that. I’m not talking about story elements, but genre or flavor elements. One of the biggest mistakes amateurs make is putting some story element of the novel on the cover. The problem many times is that unless the person has read the book, the cover either doesn’t make sense or is confusing. How many times have you seen a picture of a house on a cover and you had no idea what it was there for? It might represent the house the character grew up in or lives in, but how does that tell you what kind of novel it is? Same with a gorgeous landscape. Gorgeous sunsets make for great photographs, but a book cover? What does it say about the story? Or how many times have you seen a cover with an image or group of images and you had no idea what they were? Maybe if you studied the cover long enough you figured it out, but if you have to study a cover to figure it out, then the cover fails to do its job.

What if you had a vampire novel showing a vampire standing in the middle of a gorgeous woods in the daylight? While that might tell you reader that this vampire can exist in sunlight, having him in the middle of a woods might make it more confusing. A good cover should pose one or more questions for the reader, but they must be the right questions, ones that intrigue, not puzzle, the viewer.

Step 2: Think about a central focus for your cover, something that immediately grabs the viewer’s attention and makes the reader want to know more.

Step 3: Think about the rest of the cover. What can you add that supports your focal point without cluttering the cover? Too often I see authors trying to stuff “relevant” pieces onto the cover and they end up with a mess. Note the David Penny covers in the Reedsy article. Even his “wrong” covers are not cluttered. All four of the covers have a central focus with other images reinforcing it.

What you put on the cover it must be clearly discernable and make sense to the viewer, irrespective of its relevance in the novel. For example, if you have a shadowy figure who’s supposed to be a vampire, but the cover is so dark that you can’t see he’s a vampire, then your cover fails.

In the Reedsy article are several possible covers for A Banquet of Crumbs. Check the book out on Amazon to see the final cover chosen. Read the book’s synopsis. Do you feel the cover properly represents the book? If this cover were lined up with a bunch of other books, would it stand out? Would you pick up the book to learn more? If these three answers are yes, then the cover succeeds. If not, the cover fails. (This covers fails for me. You may not agree.)

The question you have to answer for your own cover—or any cover—is whether it would stand out in what is becoming a large and growing crowd? It’s one thing to have good-looking cover that you like; it’s quite another to have a cover that stands out among myriad others. If a book’s cover fails to grab a potential buyer’s attention, then the author must work in other ways that much harder to get the book noticed.

As a final exercise, while you’re out on Amazon, browse some of other covers that show up underneath and to the side of the one you’re checking out. Pay attention to how small those images are and which ones have visual impact, regardless of whether they are the type of book you would be attracted to.

In the next part of this series, I’ll start dissecting some of my own covers and give you my thoughts on how to come up with cover ideas as you start the design process.

–Rick