From Rick:

In posts 2 and 3 in this series, I shared some thoughts and the motivations, for the design and redesign of the cover for Scott’s Martyr’s Inferno. I’m not done with that one, but I haven’t had more time to work on it since, so I’ll pick that back up later.

This time I’d first like to discuss what I see as pressure being put on authors to engage “professional” cover designers in the same way that they’re being told to hire a professional editor. Granted, some authors really do need to hire a pro for these jobs. At the same time, editors and designers are seeing new market opportunities and are trying to take advantage of it (as are the Vanity Presses).

I’m not at all implying that cover designers and editors fall into the same category as Vanity Presses, nor am I saying that hiring a cover designer or an editor is a bad idea (after all, I do editing myself). And there’s no doubt in my mind that a crappy, amateur-designed cover can hurt your sales. A lousy cover screams “self-published” and warns the potential buyer that what’s underneath may be suspect.

On the flip side, while a good cover will probably help sales, I’ve seen little compelling evidence that such a cover will markedly boost sales as much as a bad one will decrease sales. In fact, I have one friend who admits that he pays no attention to the covers of the books he buys, and I suspect that may be the case with other readers as well.

I have heard stories of redesigned covers helping sales, but some of those stories involved not so much bad covers as covers that simply gave the wrong impression of the novel (a romance-type cover on a thriller, for example).

When is it wise to pay a professional design as opposed to designing a cover yourself? If you’re a known author who has decided to go all or part indie, then your covers need to be worthy of your reputation. In such a case, cost may not be a major factor in your choice of designers.

If you’re not an established author, price likely is a strong consideration. The cost of a cover can range from around $100 to $1000 or more. At the low end, you’re likely to get little more than a stock design onto which your title is slapped. I strongly suggest you NOT go that route. One, you’re likely getting a crappy cover, and two, you risk having the same cover as some other author who used the same “designer.” In my opinion, you’re better off designing your own because at least them it will be unique.

So, how much should you pay? Well, in my experience excellent covers can be had in the $200-$400 range. Even if your budget allows for more, realize that $1000 spent on a cover design does NOT guarantee sales commensurate with spending that much, especially if you’re a new author. I firmly believe that if you’ve spend more than $500 on your cover, you’ve spent too much. And even $500 is pushing it, in my opinion.

Therefore, be sure you calculate how many books you need to sell to recoup your investment in your cover (editing costs aside), and don’t overestimate your assumed sales success. You can view the difference between a $300 cover and a $600 two ways. One, the difference is only $300; or, two, will a $600 cover generate twice as many sales as the $300 one? It depends on the design, not the designer. At $300 you could well end up with a cover superior in sales potential to one costing twice as much.

Just because you decide to use a professional designer (cost aside) does not guarantee that your cover will be the best one or that the cover will make a significant difference in sales. While you need to be happy with the final cover, you aren’t the one the cover is aimed at.

Also, don’t forget what I’ve said previously in part one of this series: In large part, the success of your cover design depends on the information and guidance that you supply to the designer. Unless the designer has actually read the book, he or she is relying on your input to be unbiased. You need only look through the Book Designer’s monthly cover design contest entries to cases where the author asked for a particular type of cover instead of letting the designer have some freedom of design. If you’re going to tell the designer exactly what cover you want, you may be simply paying someone to give you an inappropriate cover, no matter how good it looks.

So far in this post I’ve talked a lot about using and choosing a professional designer. Let’s move back to designing your own cover. bear in mind that even if you do decide to use a pro designer, my advice on designing your own still applies because it can help you to evaluate what the designer gives you. The more you know about good design, the better—in my opinion.

In the first article in this series, I suggested that you brainstorm some cover ideas. Because there are so many types of books, I can’t give you any specific advice, but you should come up with several ideas for the central focus of your cover. As I’ve warned before, do not put something on the cover that makes sense only after reading the book. It’s okay to use an image that makes more sense after reading the book because if the cover doesn’t make any sense, it’s not going to attract readers. A confusing cover is worse than a bad-looking cover. It is okay to use a cover image that has deeper meaning after reading the book. Again I say that the original Twilight cover (two hands cupping an apple) violates this principle completely.

For each central focus that you’ve considered, think about other possible elements and the cover’s background. The background can be a plain one that simply ties the elements together; it can be some sort of texture or general image; or it can be a background picture. Look at the professionally designed cover for The Mosaic below as an example.

This consists of a central medallion against a mosaic tile backdrop. Because the background is relatively complex, you don’t want too much else on the cover to clutter it and complete with the background. The designer used that medallion with the runes to give the feeling of the fantasy for cover.

In contrast to many covers, the designer chose to put the title and author names inside that medallion instead of at the top and bottom of the cover. This choice works because he kept the central background plain (with a slight texture) and because the medallion is the central focus, the viewer’s eye is pulled there instead of up to a title at the top and down to the author’s names at the bottom.

The alternative would be to put something else in the center of the medallion to avoid the blank space. The designer had put another image behind the text in earlier versions, but Chris and I weren’t enamored with his choices of images and didn’t feel they added anything. This is how you work with your designer, remembering that you know the novel and he doesn’t.

When all is done, you must ask yourself three questions:

(1) Is the cover visually compelling?

(2) Does the cover (including color choices) convey the flavor and genre of the novel? (Part of this may rest with the title)

(3) Is the cover balanced? (Meaning that the proportions are right for everything and everything is properly positioned so that there are no gaping blank areas.

As far as I’m concerned, our Mosaic cover does this. The designed used a vignette technique to darken the corners to eliminate any feeling of blankness there and keeps the viewer’s eye where it belongs.

When it comes to finding background images for your cover, I’m going to recommend some places you can look for ideas.

NOTE: On these sites you will see the term “royalty free.” This doesn’t mean the images themselves are free. It means that you don’t have to pay royalties or a percentage to the contributors for each sale of whatever you use the image for. You pay a flat fee (or nothing in some cases) to use the images.

www.shutterstock.com. [These stock images are very inexpensive to purchase ($10-$15 each), and what’s nice is that you can browse the site for free and even copy the watermarked images to experiment with before you purchase them.]

www.istockphoto.com [Similar to Shutterstock in cost, although I’ve only used Shutterstock so far.]

www.pixabay.com. [These images are free to use, and the image quality is very high.]

On Shutterstock and iStock, you simply purchase the image. Although if you have HUGE—over 500,000—sales of your book, you’ll need to pay for an extended license. Most of us won’t have to worry about that.

www.textures.com. [Smaller images are free, but if you need higher-resolution or larger ones, you purchase them with inexpensive premium credits. These textures can serve a variety of uses, and the site also has some good stock images as well.

www.morguefile.com. [These are free images, but not all of them are as high in quality as on the other sites. Still, they will be fine in many cases.]

There are other sites that offer images, but these I’ve found to be the most convenient to work with.

*** A WORD OF CAUTION: Remember that everything on the Internet is protected by copyright. The absence of a specific copyright notice or symbol does NOT mean you can use it. Some images can be used non-commercially (such as on your blog), but you need to verify that, and almost certainly if you’re using them for a book cover, you may need specific permission. Do your research and be sure you can legally use the images.

Now you have some places to go look for more cover design ideas. In future articles in this series, I’ll be showing you more thoughts and will be talking about font choices for the text on your cover.

–Rick