Thursday, April 17, 2014

Finding and Working With a Cover Designer

By Jordan McCollum, @JordanMcCollum

Part of the Indie Authors Series

They say you can't judge a book by its cover. But they're wrong. A cover's there for readers to judge the book—it's a major factor in sales—so getting your cover right is extra important in the competitive market today.

Professional cover design is a major quality indicator for ebook readers. A poor quality cover that looks homemade often makes readers think the interior of the book is similarly unprofessional.

Finding a Cover Designer

As with editors, finding great covers and asking who designed them is the best place to start. Often cover designers are credited on the copyright page of a book, so be sure to check there if you love the cover.

This is how I found my cover designer. I saw my friend RaShelle Workman's original cover for her debut, Exiled, and my jaw dropped. This was back in 2011, and I'd never seen such a beautiful indie book cover.

(She's since had her cover redesigned to better fit with the other books in the series, and it's also gorgeous.) When I found out how awesomely affordable her designer was, too, I knew exactly who to hire as my cover designer: Steven Novak.

What to Look for in a Cover Designer

Before you hire a designer, of course, you'll want to check them out. Most cover designers have a website with their portfolio. Look through their previous products and testimonials to make sure the cover you loved isn't a fluke. Aside from overall quality, look at the covers critically, asking if they entice you to read the book, or simply look good.

Genre is another consideration. A cover should look good, hook your reader and help to indicate your genre. If the cover designer has never worked in your genre, they may not be familiar with the conventions and clich├ęs in your genre. If you're already familiar with your genre's cover conventions and you have a solid concept, you may be able to overcome this. Otherwise, you might want to keep looking for a designer experienced in your area.

Before You Begin

Whenever you contract a designer, you'll want to start by establishing terms. They may or may not have a standard contract, but it never hurts to establish baselines. A few things you'll want to be clear about before you begin:
  • Whether you're looking for a cover for an ebook, a print book or both formats
  • Price, including who pays for any purchased stock photos
  • Exact services (photographing/illustrating custom cover, conceptual consult, etc.)
  • Delivery date
  • Revisions
With revisions, you want to be clear how many rounds of revisions the price includes, as well as what constitutes a revision. ("Make the text bigger" or "PhotoShop out the earrings" might be minor, but "Find a different font and model" would be more major.)

Before you get started, it always helps to have a concept. Your designer may be helpful in developing your concept (which may entail an additional fee). Even if your concept is as simple as "a couple kissing" or "a dragon scaling a castle," giving your designer a starting point really helps.

This was one thing I didn't do well. I had a concept in mind, but it frankly wasn't clear. My designer worked hard to bring my concept to life, but the results were underwhelming. I talked it over with a friend and beta reader, and she shared a concept idea with me—and it was perfect. I wrote out the concept for my designer and he came back with something amazing. A few tweaks later, the cover was done, and I'm still thrilled with it nearly a year later.

Working With a Designer

Remember that your designer is a service provider. Bottom line, they want you to be happy with your cover. At first I was scared to tell my designer when I wasn't thrilled with my cover (which he'd made according to my original concept, so it wasn't a failing of skill). But finally, I remembered that he was only trying to do what I wanted, and wasn't likely to be offended by my requests. Be straightforward.

Still, be sure to be professional in your communication with your designer. You don't have to say, "I hate it." It also helps to be specific. "I don't like the color of her dress" is much easier for your designer to address than "I hate it."

This is more of a preference, but especially as you get closer to the finished product, I think it's easier to give the small tweaks all at once. Inspect the cover very thoroughly, both thumbnail size (how big it will be in ebookstores) and blown up. If my list of minor tweaks is longer than two or three items, I like to use a bullet list to enumerate them for clarity. So for only a couple changes, I'd say, "Let's delete the Furby and can I see it with the title in purple?" For a few more, I'd send back a list like this (prefaced with a please of course!):
  • Make the neckline a little higher.
  • Delete the Furby
  • Make her hair a little darker
  • Put a transparent background behind the text
  • Change the word "extricate" in the back cover copy to "extract."
The list of course comes with praise and happiness ;) .

Can You Do Your Own Cover?

Yes. I'm not going to tell you you can't. I have friends who have created their own covers and they turned out good (nicely placed text in a good treatment over a stock photo) or even great (custom art, photo manipulation, gorgeous stuff). If you feel so inclined, seriously study good book covers in your genre and familiarize yourself with a good photo editing program. I also recommend reading the comments on the Book Designer's eBook Cover Awards each month.

If it's price holding you back, you could also look into pre-made covers. Many designers offer pre-made covers at a cheaper rate, as low as $35. They'll add your name and title and may even switch out a stock photo or two. The result may not be as customized and unique as a full cover, but it should still be professional enough so that, at the very least, the cover doesn't hurt your sales.

A cover is your reader's first impression of your book. Investing the time, effort and/or money to get a professional, attractive cover is well worth it. Good luck!

Jordan's new book, Character Sympathy, is out now. Check out her blog for a peek.

Jordan McCollum is the (indie!) author of the romantic suspense series Spy Another Day which begins with I, Spy. She enjoys teaching writing craft through her writing craft blog at, as the Education Director of Authors Incognito (an online writers' support group with over four hundred members), and through her book CHARACTER ARCS (with a foreword by Janice Hardy) and CHARACTER SYMPATHY.

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  1. Jordan McCollum nice article and thank you. I have an offer from a well known designer to do my cover but my first conversation with him was a disaster. Wish I had read this article first.
    That said. Make sure your cover is not too busy. (look that up)
    A picture is worth a thousand words, don't have a cover with ten thousand words all over it, no one wants to plow through all that.
    Look at great AP news shots that tell a story fast, that will drill into you just how quick and simple any design should be.
    Design, think Nike swish, past that is a mess...(~smirk)
    Focus, if someone can't remember the title after quickly glancing but think the cover has Tamy Fey's daughter on it then someone pooched it. Start again.
    Ninety percent of everything is crud. ~ (Theodore Sturgeon). Flint down like a synopsis then design to that.
    Simple is vastly more effective than complex.

  2. Jordan, you offer some great advice for working with a cover designer. Thus far, I've had a wonderful experience working with the designers I contracted with before. I think I lucked up on using much of the advice you provided without realizing it :-)

  3. I don't know if you're still reading comments, but this was an amazing article. I'm sorry I didn't check in sooner!