Why I designed my own book covers – and still wonder if I’ve done the right thing …

messy paint

Do you design your covers, or pay for someone else to do it? The advice available on this (as with most things) varies a lot. Some will say you should always use a professional designer; you won’t do a good enough job yourself, and you’ll just end up with the dreaded ‘self-published look’.

I have some sympathy with that view. You could say it’s slightly delusional and even kind of demeaning to designers, to believe that I can knock out a cover as good as an actual, real designer could produce. After all, graphic design and typography are real skills, just like writing – and, like writing, experience and practice makes you better. Someone who’s designed dozens of covers is bound to be better at it than me, aren’t they?

And I think most of us can agree on one thing: the cover is important. Along with the blurb, it’s one of the few things that potential buyers see before they buy (or not). So why compromise?

Well, the main reason is obvious: cost. It’s tempting to save the money by doing it yourself. It’s possible to spend hundreds of dollars or pounds on a cover; some top designers may charge even more. However, you can also spend a lot less, for example by using Fiverr to source a low-cost design. I’ve yet to try this myself, but I’ve heard good things. Then again, I wonder if there’s an element of ‘you get what you pay for’.

My own feeling is that producing your own cover is a bit like doing home improvement or DIY. I’m not a professional architect, builder, electrician or plumber, and there’s a lot of what they can do that I wouldn’t even attempt. But there are things I can do with minimal risk of disaster or death. I can wire a plug, fill small cracks, sand and paint, all in relative safety and producing acceptably good results. I learnt to do those things, followed some simple rules, and have done them enough to attain a reasonable level of competence. I know my limitations, and provided I stay within them then I’m probably OK.

With both Falling Girl and BASIC Boy, I had good ideas of what I wanted the covers to look like. Furthermore my ideas were quite simple, not requiring expensive professional graphics software or a high level of design expertise. They were concepts that I was reasonably sure I could execute to an acceptable standard, and so was comfortable having a go. Now, I’m fairly happy with the results. I don’t think they scream ‘look at me, I’m so self-published!’ (or maybe they do? If I’m deluding myself, I hope someone will put me right. The covers are below.)

Anyway … from the research I’ve done, I would say it might be worth having a stab at your own cover if one or more of the following apply to you:

  • You really can’t afford to pay even a low-end design price.
  • You have a very good idea what you want to do – and it’s not too ambitious.
  • You are aware of, and stick to, basic layout and typography good practice. If you don’t know what they are, there are a lot of resources and advice (much of it for free) available online. See for example my references below.

I won’t go too much into ‘good design practice guidelines here’ – but, I will share just a few that I’ve used as guidance for my designs of my two covers:

  1. Try to use a simple, striking image, rather than over-complex, over-busy design.
  2. If you use your own image, ensure it’s good quality; if you use a downloaded stock image or photo, make sure it’s not an over-used one.
  3. Use contrasting covers.
  4. Use an asymmetrical design.
  5. Don’t use a common text font like Times or Arial – rather, use a less common, display font (many of which can be downloaded for free) (Comic Sans? Don’t even think about it … unless your book’s an ironic meditation on the evils of Comic Sans – and even then I’d think twice.)
  6. Space the text out, rather than squash it up, for an easier-to-read and more professional look. (Sorry about the technical typographic jargon … you can just tell I’m an expert!)
  7. Your overall design must reflect the book’s genre / subject well – and as the market is today, not twenty or thirty years ago.

No doubt there are many other ‘rules’ too – and some are in the books listed at the bottom of this post – but the above seemed the most important to me.

Points 1 to 4 are about making your cover stand out – bearing in mind it must catch the eye even at thumbnail size (as it will appear on an Amazon search results screen for example).

Points 5 and 6 are about the typography looking professional and easy-to-read.

Point 7 involves having a good working knowledge of the genre and market. What do the covers of other, similar books look like? You want yours to stand out – but not look so different that the casual browser won’t recognise the kind of book it is.

With my two covers, I tried to follow the above guidelines – but a couple of weeks ago I decided to refresh the designs. In particular I noticed that they weren’t very good on point 6, i.e. the text was a little ‘squashed’. So I opened it up a little for Falling Girl:

Before:

fg-cover-24mar14

After:

FG cover Oct14

It’s subtle I grant you, but a little better I hope.

I did the same for BASIC Boy – but, more noticeably, also blew up the ‘demented ghostly space invader’, making it more ‘in yer face’:

Before:

bb-cover-april-14

After:

BB cover Oct 14

But, for goodness sake, if you think that (1) either cover sucks or (2) the ‘before’ is better than the ‘after’ in either case, please tell me. I’m a self-published author: I can take criticism, in fact I expect it. (On the other hand, if you like the covers, that would be nice to know too.)

For my current project, Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, however, I’ve yet to find much inspiration re the cover – and the one vague idea I have had so far I’m not sure I’d be able to execute very well. So that may well lead to my first foray into Fiverr. Mind you, I’m not even yet sure whether I’m going to self-publish or to propel myself into the gruelling agent/publisher-query marathon. If the latter, it’s probably not worth spending time or money on a cover at this stage.

Do you design your own covers? How do you think you did? Any experience of using designers, on Fiverr or elsewhere? Comments welcome as ever.

Footnotes

In Make A Killing On Kindle. Michael Alvear is very much of the ‘you must get a professional cover design’ school of thought. He has no time for do-it-yourself – he thinks your efforts will inevitably suck. I don’t necessarily agree, but looking at some of the covers of self-published titles on Amazon, I can see where he’s coming from.

On the other hand, both Derek Murphy in Book Marketing is Dead and Rayne Hall in Why Does My Book Not Sell? allow for the possibility of decent self-produced covers and give some useful design tips.

 

10 thoughts on “Why I designed my own book covers – and still wonder if I’ve done the right thing …

  1. I plan to design all my own covers for my current “series”. (Not a series, all just set in the same universe, but they all will have match-y covers.) It’s all very simple with an image on a black background and then fancy font with the title, so I can handle that much. The cover I design sometimes looks low-quality on the computer, and I have no idea why, but it looks great in print. I’ve been working on my graphic design skills so that the only thing I’ll have to pay for is a stock image to make future covers.

  2. Falling Girl: an improvement I think, although these images look about 4* the size of an Amazon thumbnail so I wonder how legible the text is when reduced down?

    Basic Boy: I actually prefer the earlier version, sorry, as I think the text shows up better. Mint green v orange is not conducive to contrast in the way that mint green versus ‘chocolate’ is (I cite mint choc chip ice cream as evidence). The image is a trade-off between getting the digital message across (first version has recognisable space invader, to those old enough to remember them), and being scary (second one works better there).

    I think they’re both fine. Neither would put me off buying. I think it’s actually really important to try to do this sort of thing for zero or negligible cost when self-publishing, as even as little as a hundred pounds paid to a graphic designer could be hard to recoup for an indy author. I’d guess that’s about a hundred books you’d have to sell just to break even, never mind other costs incurred.

    As someone who will try at all costs to try to sort his own cover for nothing, that’s given me food for thought. Thanks for posting.

    • Thanks for your comment. Interesting feedback re the BB cover – I’ll have to give that some further thought. You also make a good point about recouping (or not) the cost of cover design – you’d have to sell more than the majority of self-publishers currently manage to do so.

  3. Thanks for the post, good frank discussion on options. I think “Fiverr” is like buying a lottery ticket. You might get lucky and pick one of the designers that manages to pull through for you. If I had no graphic art or design experience, I would try them first. You can tell who has professional graphic design experience from their ‘past jobs display’ but whether they achieve the ‘feel’ of your book in the cover is where the lottery comes in. I think $5 is a fair price for a gamble.

    I adore the “Basic Boy” cover, it’s simple and effective. The second version looks more like a digital pumpkin head than a space invader but I think both of them work. Would a colour-blind person be able to read your title or name on the close-up version? I really can’t say, I’m not colour-blind. Both versions would have me investigating the blurb. Yay!

    Warning: I’m going to be very picky now.

    The “Falling Girl” cover looks unfinished. The concept is GREAT, but the text gets lost. There’s no moving eye-line; the block of text looks like it’s been slapped up in the corner by the hand. Negative space works against you with a big chunk of emptiness on the bottom left corner. I suspect these issues would be fixed by a line of flash across on the bottom, such as a tagline “Every time she fell, she took someone with her” (or whatever suits your story, of course). That tagline (or whatever you choose to put there) would underscore the cover for it to look complete. I notice you also have a single pixel black border around “Falling Girl”. The border makes the hand look cut off at the wrist rather than falling off the page. Borders are better used for preventing bleeds (i.e., If “Falling Girl” appeared on a black background, your cover would hover in the middle of nowhere. You’d need a white 1 pixel border to prevent this).

    I did work as a graphic artist for 8 years, but I’m only one opinion. TBH I think you’ve done a great job because a cover is supposed to reflect the story within and attracts readers of that genre. I think you’ve done that.

    • Thank you very much for your comments – much appreciated. Re the BB cover – you’re the second person to point out that in the new version the image is no longer recognisably a space invader, which is possibly not a good thing given the book’s computers / 1980s themes. And also there’s the reduced readability of the title. I do like the second one better though. I wonder if I should play around with it a bit more – maybe the image size should be somewhere between the two.

      Re FG – again, thanks for your comments. Picky is good! Your idea of adding a tagline is interesting (and I like your idea, “Every time she fell, she took someone with her” – it actually does fit in quite well with the book). One of the books I listed under Footnotes (can’t remember which one, but might have been Derek Murphy’s) was very keen on taglines, the argument being that they can generate interest and also that many professionally published books have them so it can help your cover to look – well, more professional. I’ll have a think about that.

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