Thursday, November 19, 2015

7 Tips to Make the Most of Working with a Cover Designer

By Marcy Kennedy, @MarcyKennedy

Part of the Indie Author Series

Work with your designer to get the best cover for you novel.

Last month, I talked about how to find the right cover designer for our project. Unfortunately, once we’ve selected our cover designer, it doesn’t mean everything will move forward smoothly or well, even if our cover designer is both talented and professional.

Why? Well, a business relationship is still a relationship. That means a large part of the success of the relationship depends on communication. We need to clearly communicate our needs and desires to our cover designer.

So this month I’m sharing my top seven tips for making the most of working with a cover designer.

Tip #1 - Be ready to describe—briefly—the main story of your book, the “look” of the main character, and any key symbols.

Our chosen cover designer won’t have the time to read our book, so all they’ll know about our story is what we tell them. Every minor plot twist won’t matter to the cover, and it’s actually usually a bad idea to try to take a scene from our book out of context and put it on our cover.

When we’re trying to decide what elements are important enough to include, here are some of the ones that actually matter:
  • location (city vs. countryside, in a specific country or setting such as forest vs. desert)
  • time period (since it influences how your characters dress and what technology can be pictured)
  • distinctive features of our main characters (including their race)
  • major themes or symbols (e.g. the mockingjay pin in The Hunger Games)
  • the main plotline of our book (e.g. an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunter finds a mind-control diamond)

Tip #2 - Make a list of 3-5 “I like these” covers in your genre.

This list gives our cover designer a better idea of what appeals to us. But it’s essential we choose covers in our genre because different genres have different conventions, so our cover designer needs to know what we like that will also fit our book.

When we send links to these covers, it helps if we’re clear on what we like and don’t like about them. Is it the color? That there are characters on the cover? That there aren’t characters?

We should also be ready to tell our cover designer anything we specifically don’t want on our cover, especially if the content matter of our story might make that item an obvious choice.

Tip #3 - Clarify your tone.

The tone of your writing won’t necessarily be obvious from the description of your plot. Our Indiana Jones-style tale could be humorous or it could be dark and gritty. The tone we’ve taken with our story affects the tone our designer gives to our cover.

Tip #4 - Tell your cover designer if the book is part of a series.

This is about branding. Our designer needs to ensure that the cover they create with this book can work with future designs as part of a series. (In other words, all the covers in a series should be easy to tell apart and yet should look like they belong together.) They can’t do that if they don’t know we’re writing a series rather than a standalone book.

Tip #5 - Write down everything you’ll want on your cover.

Obviously, this will include our name and title, but those aren’t the only text elements that often appear on book covers. You might be an award-winning or bestselling author and want to include that on your cover. You might want to include a tagline or the name of the series.

Our cover designer needs to know everything we want on our cover before they start because a large part of graphic design is spatial layout. There needs to be room for everything on the cover without it looking crowded. The images a cover designer chooses for a cover where there will be only the author’s name and book title will often be different from what they’d choose if they also need to fit in a tagline and the series name.

Tip #6 - If you’re also having a print cover done, be ready with all necessary information.

If we’re having a print cover done, we’ll need to know how many pages will be in our book (allowing our graphic designer to create a correctly sized cover).

We’ll also need to be prepared to provide whatever we want on the back cover. This could be as simple as giving our cover designer the book description (also known as back cover copy). It might also include an author photo and short bio and our book’s category.

Additional Tip: We don’t need to provide a bar code for our print book. That’s generated by the printer (either CreateSpace or Lightning Source for us indies).

Tip #7 - Trust your designer.

If we’ve done our research, then we love this person’s designs and we know they’re a skilled professional. We should let them do their job rather than telling them exactly how to design our cover, what should be on it, etc. Most of us don’t have the skills to design a great cover, and that’s why we’ve turned to a pro in the first place.

When we receive our “comps” from the designer, we can (and should!) tell them what we don’t like about it or what we want changed, but it’s often better to tell them what we see as the problem and allow them to figure out the best solution.

For example, if we feel like our name isn’t clear enough, that’s what we should tell them. We don’t need to say something like “my name needs to be bigger, outlined in black, and given a drop shadow.” That might not be the best solution to the problem depending on the other elements in our cover.

In this sense, hiring a cover designer isn’t much different from hiring an accountant. They have more experience in a specific area than we do. We need to trust their experience.

Do you have any other tips you’d like to include for working with a cover designer?

Marcy Kennedy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance fiction editor and teaches classes on craft and social media. She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at

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About Point of View: A Busy Writer’s Guide

Point of view isn’t merely another writing craft technique. Point of view is the foundation upon which all other elements of the writing craft stand—or fall.

It’s the opinions and judgments that color everything the reader believes about the world and the story. It’s the voice of the character that becomes as familiar to the reader as their own. It’s what makes the story real, believable, and honest.

Yet, despite its importance, point-of-view errors are the most common problem for fiction writers.

In Point of View in Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you’ll learn

  •  the strengths and weaknesses of the four different points of view you can choose for your story (first person, second person, limited third person, and omniscient),
  • how to select the right point of view for your story,
  • how to maintain a consistent point of view throughout your story,
  • practical techniques for identifying and fixing head-hopping and other point-of-view errors,
  • the criteria to consider when choosing the viewpoint character for each individual scene or chapter,
  • and much more!


  1. Excellent advice! Speaking as a cover designer, I couldn't agree more with this particular tidbit--"Every minor plot twist won’t matter to the cover, and it’s actually usually a bad idea to try to take a scene from our book out of context and put it on our cover."

    Recreating a scene from the book rarely works out well, unless the hero and heroine are getting *ahem* happy on a beach together. ;)

  2. Excellent suggestions, Marcy. I hadn't thought about the Clarifying the Tone. So helpful! Thanks!

  3. Great advice, and for me quite timely. I'm going to get started putting an outline together now. Thanks.

  4. While it'll be a LONG time before I can exact these tips, I happily know I can do all of these, and I've thought about that since selling my novel "Gabriel" in 2012.

    I'm in the hybrid author situation, I'm responsible for getting the illustrations I feel would add to the book, plus would help my marketing efforts nearing launch (and frankly I want to see my characters outside my head), but in return I get the editing and print run I can't give myself, or hire out on my own, again due to my limited finances.

    I'm turning to crowfunding (which I know some indies don't like/want to do, but this is what I need to do) if it doesn't succeed, I've got a Plan B.

    On that note, here are my additional tips-

    1. Credit your illustrator on the cover, and make sure's it's NOT overshadowed by your name.

    This is a no-brainer for picture books (when author and illustrator are not the same person), but some novels (like mine, I hope...) do have illustrations, and often illustrators aren't credited for the illustrations in a middle grade novel. I don't mean those little doodles (which are cute), but full scale, sometimes in color (but usually black and white) illustrations.

    One of my favorite novels "The Wainscott Weasel" by Tor Seidler (now in paperback, reissued in hardcover last year after being OOP* [*Out-of-Print] for decades!) is an excellent example, with GORGEOUS illustrations by the late and great Fred Marcelino. I made a fan trailer for it celebrating the book's 20th anniversary of it's original publication.

    2.When Marcy mentioned "Print Cover Consideration" I'd add to be sure you notate how the spine of the book will look like, which is often the first thing some readers may see if it's now displayed front and center, and again, make sure your illustrator (if your book has illustrations) gets billing on the spine, and you may have to ask you illustrator if you can shorten his/her name if it's really long.

    (Example: Alonzo de la cruz Alvarado-Campello or Hironobu Sakaguchi [坂口*博信)

  5. Great advice, and for me quite timely. I'm going to get started putting an outline together now. Thanks.

  6. Marcy, thank you sharing your expertise. And this additional tip "we don’t need to provide a bar code for our print book. That’s generated by the printer (either CreateSpace or Lightning Source for us indies).", is something I didn't know. And thank you, Janis, for having Marcy share again. :-)