How to Get a Book Cover

I’ve done my outlining and prep for Razor Mountain. I wrote my author profile and my book description. I’ve got a couple of chapters in revision, just about ready to go. But I don’t have a book cover.

Why Yes, I Am an Old Man

I grew up in a time where traditional publishing was effectively the only publishing. Self-publishing was basically a scam where unpleasant little corporations tricked authors into spending a bunch of money to print a tiny run of their book that would be available nowhere and bought by nobody.

In that strange and distant age, there was an oft-quoted adage: “In real publishing, money always flows toward the author.” If you’re in traditional publishing, that’s still generally true, but we now live in a world where self-publishing is definitely real publishing and a viable strategy for many authors. But self-publishing means that the author is taking on all of the tasks that were once managed by a publisher, and taking on all the risk that entails. In self-publishing, money doesn’t always flow toward the author. In many cases, you have to spend money to (try to) make money. For me, at least, that takes some getting used to.

Those costs can include a variety of things: copy editors, content editors, proofreaders and sensitivity readers; indexing; book design and formatting; marketing; and cover design. The folks at Reedsy have a good post on how these costs can add up, although they should be taken with a grain of salt since they make their money as a marketplace for exactly these kinds of services.

As an old man who still thinks traditional publishing is pretty cool, I ended up accidentally backing into self-pub in the form of an experiment. I wanted to write a serial novel, putting it out into the world as I wrote it (more or less). There are only a handful of authors that could get a traditional publisher to sign on to a project like that, and let me tell you, I am not one of them. Publishing a serial novel has its own unusual considerations, but at the end of the day, it’s self-publishing, and it involves many of the same considerations that self-publishing any other novel would.

If you’re looking at self-publishing and you need a book cover, what are your options?

DIY

You can do it yourself. But should you?

The obvious advantage of this strategy is that it costs no money, and you have complete control of your cover design. The disadvantage is that it will cost your time, possibly materials, and the quality of the output is going to depend entirely on your skill. If you are a visual artist, this might be feasible for you. Just remember, book covers are a specialized art. Even if you are great at painting, drawing or visual design, it won’t necessarily be easy to create a great book cover.

Before you embark on crafting a book cover, look around for good reference material. Browse Amazon or Bookshop, or go to your local independent bookstore and snap photos of covers you like. Consider your book’s genre and the feel you want the cover to have — thrillers are going to have very different covers from romance or memoir, for example.

There are also services that help to make the process easier. For example, Canva has a book cover design template, along with a variety of pre-built cover designs, free and paid. You can change any of the elements to suit your own needs, from fonts to colors to pictures or illustrations. If you need pictures, you can try searching a free stock photo site, like Pexels. These sites have photos that you can use without paying royalties. Don’t use any pictures without a clear statement of copyright and conditions of use!

If you have experience or are willing to put in the time to learn, professional design software can give you even more creative control. Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are industry-standard tools that require a purchase, or you could use a free tool like the powerful (and goofily-named) GNU Image Manipulation Program — GIMP.

Canva book cover templates

Friends, Family, and Freelance

For most of us, it’s just not feasible to create our own book cover with a high-enough level of quality. However, you might know someone with the artistic skills you lack. Do you have an artist friend, family member, or coworker whose work you respect? Consider offering them a commission. For the amateur artist, it may be fun to work on a project that actually pays, and it’ll be far less expensive for you than other options.

Be aware though, that you’re going to have to collaborate. You don’t want to end up poisoning an existing relationship if you end up disagreeing on the design. Treat this as a professional relationship — make sure to be really clear about what you want, how much you are paying, and how much freedom you’re giving your artist to adjust and improve the design based on their own artistic sensibilities.

And yes, you should almost always pay. Even if your artist is a friend or family member, they’re doing a professional service for you. You’re trying to make money by publishing — it would be a disservice to your artist to not compensate them for their contribution to your success. Look at freelancer and professional rates, and make sure you’re offering a reasonable fee that you both can agree on. (Occasionally, you may have a hard time convincing your artist to accept compensation. Consider something more personal than cold cash — take them out for a nice meal, or give them a gift you know they’ll appreciate.)

Professionals

This is a broad category, but I’m considering this to cover any artist you do not personally know, who gets paid for their art in any way. This includes amateurs who take commissions, professional freelancers, and commercial services.

If you want to find a freelancer, you can browse sites like Reedsy or Fiverr for artists who are specifically advertising their book cover design services. These are the folks who are mostly likely to have experience in this specific field of design, and some examples for you to look at.

If you have favorite artists on an art site like DeviantArt, you might consider asking them if they’ll create a cover for you on commission. Just be aware that many excellent artists will have never created a cover before, and may not be interested. Even if they are, you’ll want to have a detailed description of what you want.

Finally, there are the corporate options. These are companies who employ professional artists who specialize in book covers. This can be the priciest choice, with some cover options costing upward of a thousand dollars.

On the cheaper end of these services are pre-made book covers. These are somewhat like the Canva templates: professionally-designed covers that can be customized with title and byline. Some services will let you specify minor tweaks to things like the font and sizing of the text, but these are mostly what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

If you’re willing to pay for the most expensive options, you can buy a custom book cover design from one of these services. You provide your input to the company, and they come back with one or more designs. You then pick what you like and make adjustments until it’s just right. This is the most expensive kind of cover design service, but you’re paying for strong creative control and high-quality art and design to get a professional product.

When Ryan Lanz, whose blog I follow, posted his cover reveal, he shouted-out his designers, Damonza, who offer pre-made and custom-order covers. There are at least half a dozen other companies who do similar work that are easy to find with a Google search. I won’t recommend any of these, since I haven’t worked with them and can’t vouch for the quality of service. However, they all have galleries of their work that you can browse to help you make a decision.

Making the Right Choice

Many writers, myself included, want to spend as much time as possible refining their craft — writing! But if you’re going to self-publish, there are business considerations, and you have to take them seriously if you want to maximize your chances of success. As often as we say “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” people do exactly that.

Remember that a book cover is a business decision. You have to decide how important your cover is, and how much time and money you want to put into it. You also need to consider the resources available to you. Maybe you can’t afford a custom professionally-designed cover, but you have an artist friend who is eager to help. Maybe you can sock away a smaller amount of money for a commission or freelancer. Maybe you’re an artist as well as a writer, and you’re willing to put in the effort to make something great in Canva, Illustrator or GIMP.

How about you? Have you self-published? If so, how did you get your book cover? Were you satisfied, or would you try something different next time? Let me know in the comments.

Shea Serrano and the Perfect Mailing List

Shea Serrano is a journalist who has written for all kinds of publications. He has written a lot of things — most of which I haven’t read yet — but I assume it’s all stellar. He writes articles, he does podcasts, all great, I’m sure. He writes about hip-hop and basketball and movies and TV, and it’s clear from everything he puts out that he does it because those are the things he loves.

The way I discovered him was through his little e-book about the TV show, Scrubs. It’s sold as a collection of essays, but it’s really just an extended love letter to a great show.

Anyway, Shea Serrano is one of my favorite people to get email from.

Now you can go searching online and find lots of advice about how to set up an author newsletter or mailing list or SubStack. How you can connect with people and grow your audience. All that smarmy business stuff about growing your brand.

Really, I think all you need to do is be like Shea Serrano. Every couple of weeks, he sends out an email to his list. Each one is just a short story, probably only a few hundred words, about something funny or weird that happened in his life. Things like his kids insulting each other at the breakfast table, and then proceeding to roast him with devastating insults that don’t really make sense.

At the very end of the email is a link with mildly insulting text that takes you to the page where you can buy his latest work. The most recent one sends you to pre-order his upcoming book, and says “If You Don’t Click This Box And Preorder The New Book I’ll Really Fucking Fight You.”

That’s it. It’s fun and a little bit ridiculous, just like his books. It’s a little gift in my inbox, with a zero-pressure note that points me toward something I could buy, if I feel like it. And honestly, the next time he writes something that aligns with my interests, I’m going to click that insulting button and feel great about it.

I think the best kind of marketing gives people something they want, and then does the absolute minimum to make them aware of what you’re selling. If they like you, and you bring them joy, they’re going to be happy to throw some money your way.

(If you want to subscribe to Shea, click this and then click “Follow.”)

How to Write an Author Bio

As I get close to launching Razor Mountain, there are a few side tasks to take care of. Last week, I delved into the process of writing a book description, and then wrote one for Razor Mountain. This week, I’m working on my author bio.

I’ve already spent some time on this here and there, because a bio is required pretty much everywhere you might want to publicly be an author. My blog has a bio. Twitter has a bio. However, a book bio is just one more little tool that you can use to get potential readers interested. Now is as good a time as any to really polish it up and make sure I’m putting my best foot forward.

What’s in a Bio?

If you’ve read author bios before, you probably already intuitively know a few things about them. They have to be short, they are always written in third-person, and good ones give the reader some small insight into the author.

If you search the internet, you’ll find dozens of articles about writing an author bio, and they’re all mostly variations on these themes. For my money, a couple good ones are:

As with book descriptions, you don’t want to get bogged down with a list of rules or requirements. Author bios can vary quite a bit, and part of the charm of a good one is that it reflects your personality.

“Short” here means about 50-100 words. Much like the book blurb, this is a tool to get the reader interested, and attention spans are limited. The third-person perspective is long-held convention, perhaps because it feels less weird to imagine someone telling you about the author, than to imagine the author describing themselves to you like this.

Building Credibility

If you have achievements, awards, bestseller listings, or any of the other things the kids like to call “street cred,” the bio is a great place to list them. Just know that the average reader is going to start skimming if you list more than one or two.

For non-fiction, you want to establish your credentials in a field related to the subject of your book. If it’s about history, being a history prof is great. If it’s a cook book, you should probably be a cook of some sort.

Non-fiction writers have it easy. For fiction, credibility is a little more nebulous. You might luck-out and be able to establish a link between your experience and the content of the book. The fact that I’m a professional software developer might grant me some cred for a book about hackers. A background as a physicist might be relevant if you’re writing about time travel or spaceflight.

If that doesn’t work, you might want to focus on the particular perspective you bring to the work. It’s time for some soul-searching. What are you interested in, and why? What drives you to write? What do you think a reader will appreciate about you or your work?

These can all be difficult questions to answer, looking at yourself from the inside out. If you have trusted beta readers, critiquers, or family and friends who are familiar with your work (and able to be honest), it doesn’t hurt to ask them what they think.

Finishing it Off

Finally, once you’ve got all the difficult bits sorted out, you’ll probably want to add a link to website, social media, or other ways that fans can virtually stalk you. While a good bio can sometimes help sell the book, it’s also the easiest way to point excited readers to more of your stuff when they finish reading.

It’s also worth noting that we live in a digital world. You can’t rewrite the bio or blurb on a published book unless you get a fresh print run or new edition. When it comes to self-publishing, print-on-demand, e-books and other digital avenues, it can be much easier to change and tweak these things. Just don’t get stuck in a loop of constantly updating and second-guessing yourself. You can always update that bio when your next project is done.

Next Time

Later this week, I’ll work on updating my author bio for Razor Mountain. See you then.

Aside

Thing Number Zero: Write the Book

I came across this article recently, A Pre-Launch Playbook for Debut Authors, and I couldn’t help but laugh. A mere fifty-six things you need to do before launching a debut novel. Social media, website, bookstagrammers, goodreads, bookbub, newsletters, travel and networking, interviews. A YouTube channel.

As if it wasn’t exhausting enough writing a good book, this is what the business side of writing is like nowadays. God help you if you’re not independently wealthy and have to have a non-writing job. You can sleep when you’re dead, right?

I do like the idea of dropping a few copies of your book in local Little Free Libraries though.