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January 26, 2024
By Sassafras Lowrey
A Lambda Award winner has design advice for indie authors.

We’re all told that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but most of us do! In fact, judging a book by its cover might not be such a bad thing. A cover can help readers get a sense of what a book is going to be about, or pique their interest in the story. In fact, one of the benefits of self-publishing your book is the ability to choose a dynamic cover that you can be proud of and will make readers want to purchase it. So what are the potential avenues for getting a cover designed?

Designing a Cover Yourself

Self-publishing authors can create their own book covers, though it’s not always the best option, especially if you don’t already have a strong background in graphic design. If you’re choosing to design your own cover to be budget-conscious, or if you want the hands-on experience of making each part of your book, you can use graphic design software to create book covers. Some print-on-demand companies offer cover creation templates with stock imagery, but keep in mind that other books may be using these same designs and images. Finally, if you decide to make your own cover, you’ll need to research and understand the legalities of using certain fonts and images to avoid copyright problems.

Dedicated readers of genres like fantasy, romance, or mystery are used to books of that genre having some visually recognizable qualities. To get a sense of what other books look like it’s helpful to visit a library, bookstore, or online retailer and find genre comp titles for your book. Take notes on what the covers look like, and what similarities there are between the covers. Look at the colors, fonts, and images that authors use. You’ll probably find that a fantasy novel is going to have a different visual look than a romance novel, or poetry collection, or a book of literary fiction. Having a genre-aligned cover will help readers find your book.

Bringing in a professional

For me, one of the joys of self-publishing has been the opportunity to hire some of my favorite artists to create original art for my book covers. You can reach out to them directly to find out what their rates are for cover design work. You can also find independent artists that specialize in cover design work on sites like Fiverr. Some of these artists also do cover layout and formatting.

"Having a genre-aligned cover will help readers find your book. "
Another option is hiring a cover designer. This can be a great way for a self-published author to get a high-quality cover. If you’re looking for a cover designer, ask self-published friends of yours who they have worked with and liked. You can also look at the acknowledgments pages of self-published books you like to see if they list the cover designer.

A designer will ask you for information about your book’s genre, themes, and story. They will likely also ask you about what you want your cover to look like and whether you have examples of book covers you connect with. Regardless of where you are in your writing/editing/publishing process, it’s helpful to keep a running list of covers you like to refer to when it’s time to create your own.

Deciding on the right cover

When you have some possible cover designs, show those designs to trusted people close to you, including authors writing in the same genre as your book. Get their perspective on which cover they are most drawn to. It’s also a good idea to look at the cover in different sizes. Readers need to be able to fall in love with a book when they see it on a bookstore shelf, but it should also stand out to readers if they see it thumbnail-sized when online shopping.

Historically, one of the ways that self-published authors were unfairly judged and dismissed was the stereotype that our books had “bad” or unprofessional-looking covers. Thankfully, authors today have many options; it’s very possible to produce covers for your books that look as professional as any traditionally published book. Best of all, because you’re publishing the book yourself, you’ll have full creative control.

Sassafras Lowrey writes fiction and nonfiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for emerging LGBTQ writers.