The Importance of Book Cover Design for Self-Publishing Authors

Have a wander through any of the myriad writing groups on Facebook or dedicated writing forums and you’ll invariably see the same questions being asked repeatedly by countless authors: “Why am I not getting many reviews?”, “Why aren’t book blogs accepting my submissions?”, and, of course, “Why are my sales so low?”
The answer to these questions, and many like it, usually boils down to the same thing—you don’t have a professionally designed cover, and so people are either not taking your work seriously or they don’t think you’re taking your own work seriously.

Imagine you were an aspiring model, desperate to get your face out there and eventually strut down the catwalk at Fashion Week, or you were a musician who hoped that you’d one day be making Ed Sheeran look like a nobody as you play to hundreds of thousands in Rio. Exactly how far would the model get if they submitted photos where they’d just dragged themselves out of bed, hair all over the place, dark bags under their eyes, and drool shimmering in the light from the morning sun? Or what if the musician passed around a video of them playing with an out-of-tune guitar, croaky voice from a night on the town the previous evening, and randomly forgetting words?
As ridiculous as it may be to cite these examples, that’s exactly what authors are doing when they draw a line under their hard work, decide that it’s ready to be unleashed on the general public, and then fall face-first into the mud at the final hurdle because they opted to slap some text on a random image from a stock library, or believe the marketing spiel from Canva and think that they’ll do great by using one of their templates. You might, but you probably won’t.
It’s important to understand that your cover is not merely a placeholder image whose sole purpose is to encase the words that you’ve carefully woven together; it is your first impression. If your book were a business, then your cover would be your building frontage, your reception area, and your receptionist rolled into one. It’s there to give a good impression, pull people in, and then greet them in an inviting way so that they are encouraged to continue.
If you consider that your name, or your author name if you write under a pseudonym, is now a commodity then you also have to understand that every little thing you do under that umbrella is now open to scrutiny from all sides. Your first book might be the greatest story ever to be told, but if your cover looks amateurish or homemade, it’s more likely to end up being the greatest story never told. Just as you wouldn’t lift a product down from the shelf in a store if the packaging had been poorly designed and made it look as though it would break down within weeks, your potential readers aren’t going to look twice at your cover if it looks as though you don’t care enough about your end product to spend money on a professional cover design.
But the costs likely aren’t as much as you’d think, despite that being the main reason so many authors opt to produce their own covers.
If you’re lucky enough to be writing within a genre that is already heavily catered to by the many designers offering premade covers, you could quite easily walk away with a professional cover design for as little as $150 to $200, including full paperback wrap. Authors for whom a custom cover would be required would typically expect to pay anywhere between $400 to $600 for a full wrap. For those authors with more specific requirements, and with a desire for an illustrated cover, you should start by setting aside at least $1000 for professional artwork. Let’s now explore the difference between the three main subsets of cover design.

WHAT IS PREMADE BOOK COVER DESIGN?

As the title suggests, these are covers that already exist in their entirety, designed based on genre expectations and popular tropes that are known to attract readers and garner legitimate sales. A premade cover designer has studied the best-selling books in a genre and has gathered all of the aesthetic attributes to create a formula that will work as a generic foundation for other covers within that genre. They understand which directions to avoid, which typefaces work well within that genre, and what is more likely to catch the eye of a potential reader. If you, as an author, are writing to market, you will already have taken these aspects into consideration when writing your manuscript. The goal, then, is to find a premade cover designer who not only matches your genre expectations, but has already created a cover that will slot neatly into place with your finished work.
Typically, a designer of premade covers will expect their client to make changes to all aspects of the text—the title, tagline, series name, and author name. Any changes beyond that are at the discretion of the designer because, as you’d imagine, “premade” means exactly that—you’re buying what you see. If you want to change the colour of the protagonist’s hair from the cover, or you want to include something that’s specific to your story, or you even want to just alter the hue to something that you’ve mentioned within your book and relates to this particular novel, you should expect to pay an additional fee.
It’s also important to point out that expecting them to make changes to the aesthetics of a premade cover without being compensated for the extra time is a major no-no. For any artist, whether it’s 3D modelling, airbrushing muscle cars, or book cover design, time is their greatest commodity. If you’re using their time, you also need to pay for it—premade is not prepaid.

WHAT IS CUSTOM BOOK COVER DESIGN?

Authors who want to stand out a little from the crowd and who desire a cover that is specifically tailored to their own needs will undoubtedly require a custom book cover. This is where, rather than buying an off-the-shelf, prêt à lire cover and making only textual changes, you will enter into a full consultation with your cover designer. This will invariably be through a form that you’d complete, answering as many questions as possible about your work and giving as much information as you can to help form an image within the mind of the designer. It may also take place as a remote face-to-face conversation, allowing for a more free-flowing experience.
One thing, one very important thing, that you have to remember when approaching someone for a custom cover design is that they not only know graphic design, but they know the market. You need to trust the cover designer and believe that they know what they are doing. When you tell your cover designer that you want the cover to portray a specific scene from your book, because you think that scene will really sell it, and they tell you that it’s not a good idea… they’re, not being obstinate or trying to control you, they’re correct.
Your cover design should convey an overall message of what the reader can expect from your book. It will demonstrate genre, intent, mood, and give an idea of the target audience’s age range. The typography will further reinforce this, and will complement the cover art to bring everything together into a single cohesive work. The more specific you want to be with the cover, the greater the risk of turning potential readers away. Is it really that important to have someone chopping wood in the background while a heron watches on from a pond to the right? Let your artist breathe, let them pitch concepts to you based on what you’ve already told them about your manuscript, and work with them rather than against them. Despite it being a custom cover, they still have your own best interests at heart and will tell you when you’re perhaps taking an idea too far.
To further emphasise this, I have to look at one of my own clients. When they came to me in February 2020, they’d never written a novel before, yet they knew exactly what they wanted. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had to use the covers they’d created in Canva but make them look more professional, and that I absolutely hadn’t to make my own suggestions. Normally, this would be a red flag, because when the book ends up not selling, they’ll immediately blame the cover designer, despite the designer having no say in the actual concept. I did exactly as they asked, to the letter, but I also included a set of four images that I thought would serve them better and attract more sales for their series. Reluctantly, they agreed with me, and we went with the covers I suggested—loosely based on their rigid ideas, but geared more towards an audience than the writer themselves—and each one has reached best-seller status in multiple categories on Amazon. To reiterate… trust your cover designer’s instincts, reputation, and experience.

WHAT IS ILLUSTRATIVE BOOK COVER DESIGN?

While the illustrated cover is typically looked upon as something reserved for high fantasy, it really is a very versatile style and translates well to all genres. In a sea of photographic romance covers, a hand-painted image would stand out above all others. Similarly, with no stock image limitations, your sci-fi cover would take on a life of its own, using planetary systems, atmospheres, and crafts the likes of which we’ve never seen from any stock library. The world of the illustrator is limited only by the budget of the client, but the heftier price tag also means more creative freedom.
Typically, the journey with an illustrator would start off similar to that of an asset-based custom cover designer—consultation. Once you have reached an agreement with the artist on how the cover will look, which elements are being included, and the general point of view you’d like, your artist will come back to you with a very rough outline of what they’d like to deliver. You shouldn’t expect to see much detail at this stage, nor any colouring, just a greyscale rendition to let you see placement, perspective, and how everything would relate to each other within the finished piece.
Your journey would take place in stages, with each milestone showing a greater level of detail, lighting, shading, and colouring. The end result would be an image that you would absolutely not find anywhere else, nor would you see any assets commonly found on other covers. At this stage, your illustrator will either work on the title and typography themselves, or pass it on to someone who specialises, if their abilities don’t extend beyond the artwork itself. This would have been discussed at the outset, though, and not something that would be sprung upon you at the end.
The most important thing to remember about embarking on a relationship with an illustrative cover designer is that it takes time. A premade cover could be turned around in under an hour, if all you require is for the text to change, and a custom cover could quite easily come to fruition within a day or so, depending on the experience of the artist and the agreed-upon concept. With an illustrated cover, however, you would really be expected to allow for at least a few weeks and as long as a few months, depending on the complexity of the concept. And, because of the time involved, an illustrator will tend to be booked out as far as a year in advance. Don’t wait until your manuscript is finished, edited, proofread, and formatted before seeking an illustrator—start looking and submitting enquiries while you’re still writing.

BE PROUD; BE PROFESSIONAL

Whether you’ve written a 30,000-word novella or a 500,000-word tome that would give War and Peace a run for its money, you have to ask yourself one simple question before taking the final step towards publication, “Do I want my book to sell, or am I only writing it for myself?”
It may actually be that you are writing because you need to scratch that creative itch, and you genuinely don’t care whether one or one million people read it. Chances are, however, you’re writing because you want your stories to be told. You may even want to reach a point where you quit the rat-race and your sole source of income is from book sales, allowing you to sip expensive wines by the side of your rooftop pool in the French Riviera while you contemplate the next move for your protagonist.

IN CONCLUSION:

A professionally designed cover is the first step on that road to financial freedom. It doesn’t matter how great your writing is or how charismatic a character you’ve created if nobody ever gets as far as opening your book, and it’s the cover that flicks that initial switch. When you have a great cover with great typography, your book becomes infinitely more noticeable than the homemade covers that surround it. The browsing reader immediately knows that you’ve taken yourself seriously as a writer, and they are more likely to take the all-important first step to click through and find out more about your book.
Your blurb may be the clincher, and might actually be the best blurb on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but without that captivating cover design, nobody will ever know, and your book will remain the greatest story never told.

Article written by Mark Reid of Author Packages.

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