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?
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.
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.)
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.