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June 23, 2014
By Paige Crutcher
Great books deserve strong covers, and no indie author wants her cover to be a dud.

People read books not to admire their covers, but to inhabit their pages. That said, great books deserve strong covers -- images that capture the feel of the story and engage readers. I doubt any author would be pleased to have the famous Charles Dickens comment about covers (“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.") applied to her work, but that doesn’t mean an author wants her cover to be a dud.

To be sure, there is a litany of great designers working for traditional publishers. Designers like Theresa Evangelista, Alison Klapthor, and Peter Mendelsund -- to name a few -- rarely fail to wow readers. But, the question every indie author faces is this: Can I secure the same reader reaction? And how?

The answer, as it always seems to be, is yes -- and do your research. Designer Jeremy West advises authors to start the process by carefully looking through an artist’s portfolio. “Do your research when hiring, and don't hire someone because they are cheaper or a friend that knows some Photoshop," he says. "Hiring the right designer is key because you need to find someone who can bring out the same mood and feelings you want for your story.” It’s also important to remember the cover is the face of the book -- so stay within your budget, but try to allot enough to help achieve a look that's market appropriate. As West says, “You need to know what type of covers work best for New Adult vs. Young Adult or Romance vs. Fantasy. Following trends and looking out for new trends can make or break your project.”

When it comes to seeking a top designer or artist -- of which there are many out there -- it’s important to remember there are do's and there are don’ts. “Do have an idea of what you want, and more importantly what's appropriate for the genre and audience,” says Morgana Gallaway, director of book design and production at The Editorial Department. “Don't enter into a cover design arrangement without terms of agreement. Know what's your responsibility to pay for, for instance, stock image licensing, and what the cover designer is responsible for, for instance, delivering the design within a certain amount of time. An agreement gives both of you firm guidelines for a creative, collaborative process.”

"In today’s new era of self-publishing, if you can dream it, you can achieve it."
With over 20 years in marketing and design, Kimberly Killion, of The Killion Group, notes the differences between realistic and idealistic expectations an author may have for a designer. “Don’t expect to put every detail of your story on the cover," she say. "This will not turn out well. You need a focal point, whether it’s a single model, a couple, or an object. Keep in mind that your book will be competing against other books on the e-tailers sites at a height of about 1 inch at best. Too much or too many details won’t be seen and will take away from the overall impact of the design.” Killion also advises authors to be aware of the nuances of typography, and remember, “If the type of font used isn’t legible at thumbnail size then you will be hard-pressed to sell your book.“

Designers go about their process in different ways. Some read manuscripts; others work off author instruction with only a summary of the book. Artists like Jeroen ten Berge embrace the totality of a novel in order to bring its interior subject to exterior life. “Reading parts of the manuscript is where I start the design process," he says. "The genre and story may be clear, but there are major differences in style and tone between individual writers.”

Once he understands the voice and tone of a work, Berge moves on to doodling an idea on paper before uploading it onto his Mac. “I typically only show one design to an author -- the one of the bunch that I thought was best -- and then we go from there," he says. "I always set myself the goal of trying to convey the essence of the story. This is sometimes achieved by visualizing a pivotal scene. The cover I did for Blake Crouch's Run is a good example. Other times, my cover conveys the overall feel of the book, and the covers I did for Markus Sakey's Brilliance and A Better World reflect this idea.”

Not all authors rely on designers for their final product. Some have degrees as graphic artists or are more comfortable taking classes to learn to create their own covers. New York Times-bestselling author Jennie Bentley is a hybrid author who admits she finds the process of creating covers relaxing -- especially considering the creative endeavor takes a much shorter period of time than writing her novels. “I use a free program called GIMP for the photo manipulation, and I hunt for photos on stock sites. My favorites are Depositphotos and Fotolia, although I've been known to cruise Dreamstime and Shutterstock and Bigstock and 123RF before, as well,” she says of her go-to image sites -- which she admits come with a few hiccups. “The problem is everyone uses them, publishers and self-publishers alike, and the best photos are usually already on someone else's cover, so it can be difficult to find a photo that really stands out. I could afford to pay someone to do my covers, but I enjoy playing with the images. It's a nice, relaxing thing to do when I don't feel like writing, but at the same time it's useful and will help me -- hopefully -- sell books.”

The many options in the book cover world and numerous gifted cover artists and designers available for hire reassure and inspire me that great covers are born every day, perhaps even every hour. Personally, for my own vision, I lucked out by having a talented photographer as a sister-in-law to help me come up with the cover image for my novel, The Odyssey of Falling. I’m still moving through the process myself, and am grateful there’s no shortage of information and designers to help me.

While cost does vary -- from around $135 to $4,000 depending on what you’re looking for; experts Jane Friedmen and Joel Friedlander did a detailed breakdown on covers and cost here -- the conclusion I’ve arrived at is this: In today’s new era of self-publishing, if you can dream it, you (or someone more skilled) can achieve it. Anything is possible.