Designing a Book Cover: An Author's Options

Among the myriad decisions an author must make, one of the last ones that I seriously considered was book cover design. That may be because I procrastinate decisions that are not easily made or because it seemed trivial compared to the content on the pages. Cover design became a point of focus for me when I decided to self-publish my book series. Since the cover would not be a job I could hand off to the professionals at a publishing house, I dove into the world of book cover design. The more I learned about cover design, the more I came to realize that I had better get it right if I wanted anyone to bother reading my work.

I'll spare you from rehashing my months of research and agonizing on the subject and instead concisely explain what I learned:

  1. A book cover should fit within its genre. Pick any genre--SciFi, Historical Romance, Dystopian YA--and you will quickly realize that the covers look similar and have similar color schemes. Readers expect this and tend to stick with what is familiar.

  2. If a book cover appears to be created by an amateur, a reader will expect the writing to also be amateur and move on to the next book.

  3. A book cover should represent the story, but it needn't be an exact scene from the book. As authors, this may be difficult. When choosing a cover for your Sweet Romance, you might agonize over finding that exact farmhouse you pictured while writing the meet-cute. Do not do this. If you find the farmhouse, wonderful, but it is not as crucial as it feels. Find a similar farmhouse that fits your cover design or go with something slightly abstract (Check out Katherine Center's novel Happiness for Beginners to see what I mean; the first edition is a scene from the book, the second edition is abstract and a current market style for the Sweet Romance genre). Same goes for choosing cover models. Do your best, but, very likely, you will not find exactly the person you imagined. Close enough will work. Keep with the style of your genre and tone of your story.

  4. Make your book covers cohesive if you are writing a series. Excellent examples of this from different genres: all of Tamara Leigh's series; Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas and her redesigned covers of A Court of Thorns and Roses; the Red Rising Series by Pierce Brown; the original covers of the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer; and the Misty River Romance series by Becky Wade.

As to the actual process of creating the cover, there are several paths you can take. My husband likes to say this when we are making purchases: "If you are buying something, you can get it cheap, you can get it fast, or you can get it well-made; you can choose any of those two, but you can't have all three." Bearing that in mind, let's discuss acquiring a book cover and the pros and cons of each option.

1. Buy a Premade Cover. Pros: Cheap and Fast. Cons: Possibly not "well-made."

Premade covers are a great option for self-publishing, first-book authors. They are readily available, the cover designers usually have a set price for their premade covers (I found the average cost to be $75 for an ebook), and they can quickly add your title and author name to the cover, allowing you to get on with publishing if you are anything like me and wait until the last possible moment to choose your book cover. They oftentimes have options to buy a coordinating series of book covers.

However, some graphic artists sell their premade covers again and again, meaning you may see another author who has the same book cover as you (I did find some graphic artists who retire a book cover once it has been purchased). The design options you have, even something that is seemingly simple like changing the title font, are extremely limited with premade covers. You get the cost savings of a premade cover because the graphic artist has already done the work. Essentially, you buy the cover, tell them your title and author name, and they send it to you. I have not personally gone this route, so I cannot vouch for any companies, but this company has many options that are reasonably priced and have the option to make a print book version: Paper and Sage.

2. Work with a Graphic Designer to Create a Bespoke Cover. Pros: Well-made and can be fast depending on your designer. Cons: Expensive.

Having a Bespoke cover made just for your book according to your specifications is swoon worthy. If you work with an accomplished designer and you have a clear picture of what you want, the results can be impressive. Big publishing houses have their own cover designers and can even hire models for their covers. This is what Bethany House Publishers did for the Misty River Romance series by Becky Wade. For an example of what this process looks like for an indie author, I defer to Tamara Leigh's blog where she describes the cover-evolution of various books within her multiple series (she works with the graphic designer Ravven). The coherency of working with a graphic artist cannot be overstated if you are creating an open-ended series as is often the case within the Mystery genre (take a peek at Anna Lee Huber's series to see what I mean).

However, the cost for an indie author to work with a graphic designer on a bespoke cover can be an insurmountable hurdle. Price tags can range from $300 to $1000 depending on your desires for the cover and the graphic designer's resume. If you want your cover done quickly, it will likely cost more. If you choose a designer in high-demand, be prepared to wait 2-6 months for your bespoke cover.

3. Make your own Book Cover. Pros: Comparatively Fast and Cheap. Cons: Might not be Well-made.

Let's talk DIY Book Covers. If you have some graphic design skills in your back pocket, this is a fabulous option. If you have a good eye for art (like my husband) then you will be able to mimic other book designs using a tool like Canva and create a book cover for a small cost. These are two watermarked covers I designed using Canva when I considered going that route. With a couple of tweaks to the title layout, they could be perfectly acceptable covers. I believe the cost for each including the stock images and fonts was about $10 and they were created on the website without needing any graphic design software. It took me about 8hrs to design four book covers with Canva. Other companies like Book Brush have DIY book cover design options as well. Both of the companies even have premade templates where you simply insert your title and author name onto their template and you're done. Purchase these templates for a small fee (much smaller than going through a graphic artist) and you have a cover for your book.

However, if you have spent any amount of time looking through the free ebooks on Amazon, you can easily spot some DIYed book covers. They do not look professional, they do not convey that the author takes his work seriously, and they do not make a reader want to learn more about the book. Thus, I strongly encourage you to partner with someone who will tell you honestly if your DIY book cover looks like a DIY book cover. If so, consider option one and purchase a premade book cover. After all the work you have invested in your novel, do not sell yourself short by using an inferior cover.

Being a thrifty-minded, die-hard DIYer and someone who considered pursuing a career in graphic design, I chose to design my own book covers. Read more about my process in the next blog post...

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