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.

 

I think this is the funniest book cover ever – see if you agree …

When I spent a year as an exchange student at the University of Illinois, (ahem) years ago, I took a British History class. (To be honest, I saw it as a route to some easy credit.) One of the recommended texts was an American-published book about Winston Churchill. Whenever we saw this book, the small group of Brits in the class tended to snigger quietly to themselves, while our fellow students looked on with some bemusement. We tried to explain why we found it so funny, but I don’t think they all understood.

Here’s the cover:

Churchill cover

If you’re British you’ll understand instantly what’s wrong with this picture. If you’re American, you may not. (Not sure about Australians – I’m not an expert in antipodean hand gestures – maybe someone could enlighten me?) If you don’t understand, here’s the thing: in the UK at least, the two-fingered ‘V for Victory’ salute, so beloved of dear Winston, absolutely has to be done palm-forward. If you give the ‘salute’ as shown on this cover, showing the back of the fingers, it means something rather different. I mean, completely different.

Actually, I’m not completely sure exactly what it does mean. But it sure ain’t ‘victory’. It’s more like the one-fingered salute, which is pretty much equally insulting on both sides of the Atlantic and probably in many other places across the globe too. In short, it’s not nice, and old Winny would never have dreamt of doing it. (Certainly not in public anyway. I’m guessing he may have deployed it against Hitler though, had they ever met.)

Of course this book was published in the US, where the mistake would have been entirely innocent and which probably 99% of the book’s readers would have seen nothing wrong with. Until a British student stumbled across it, that is.

I like to think of how this cover may have come about. Just imagine …

Designer:        Hey, I’ve got this stock photo of Winston Churchill. Can I just sketch from this?

Publisher:        Sure … though it’s a shame he’s not doing that ‘V for Victory’ thing. Can you add that in?

Designer:        No problem. I mean, how hard can it be …?

Some heavyweight theses have no doubt been written on the whole subject of hand gestures and how they vary between cultures, and how something totally innocuous in one country could lead to a major street brawl in another.

I’ve still got this book, one of the few I’ve kept from my student days. Not for the content of course, but for the cover which still makes me giggle like a smutty teenager whenever I see it.

One final thing: this book is still available on Amazon, though it doesn’t look like a new edition has been published since the 1980s – but there’s no cover image. I wonder why …