How to commission a cover design for your book or e-book

17 tips (and every one of them awesome)

If you are planning to e-publish your book on Amazon and elsewhere – as an ebook and/or in print – you’re going to need a cover.

And needless to say, getting that cover right can make a huge difference to sales. The right cover can make the difference between a book that works, and one that falls flat.

But commissioning a cover design is not easy, and can easily become very expensive.

I’m Harry Bingham, and I make six-figures annually self-publishing my work. And truthfully? I think commissioning your first book cover is hard. And it’s especially hard when you’re starting out and don’t have a lot of moolah to spend.

So what follows are the tips I’ve derived from my own personal experience – and from hanging out in the industry a long time, and seeing a lot, a lot of successes and failures.

Hold on to your hats, and let’s go design that cover.

Where do you find a book cover designer?

First up, where do you source your designer?

There are basically five possible answers to that question.

1. You Google “Book cover designer” (or similar)
Nothing wrong with that. Do some proper research though: it may well be that the right person for you is on page #5 of a set of Google search results. Remember that Google ranks websites, not book cover design quality! Remember too that designers tend to have specific genres, they’re most comfortable with. So a designer who’s great for upmarket women’s fiction may be awful for genre romance . . . and may not even want to touch space-opera type SF.

2. You Google “Pre-made book covers” (or similar)
Same idea, except that here you’ll be buying covers that pro designers have designed for a particular commission, but then not gone on to use. So you can get pro covers for (typically) $49 to $99, some of which are just excellent. A good site to start with is Self-Pub Book Covers. I’m not always convinced they have the best material out there, but they certainly have a lot of it!

3. You run a competition
99 Designs offers a design-based solution for your book cover needs. So does Design Crowd. So do others in that arena. The idea here is that you set a prize. Different designers from around the world compete for your prize. You award it to the design you love the most (or pay nothing if none of the designs pleases you.) Don’t low-ball this, though. A bottom-end sized prize will get you bottom-end type entries. And you don’t want bottom end.

4. You create your own design
Probably using Canva, which is, by a country mile, the best design-tool-for-idiots out there. It’s got some good book cover templates, and the service is free, so what’s not to like?

5. You use a friend or relative
And I don’t mean Auntie Ira, who likes messing about on her laptop now and again. I mean a friend or relative who has actual design skills (as in: makes a living as a pro designer in some way.)

All of those options can work. In the rest of this piece, I’m assuming you are actually commissioning someone . . . but even if you use one of the other routes, the basic tips & advice apply in just the same way. Two last comments:

Golden Rule #1
Get this right! If the first design isn’t good enough, spend more money.
Almost good-enough isn’t good enough.

Scary, right? Because covers matter a lot, because the quality of competition (from both indies & trad publishers) has increased, and because design processes are necessarily open-ended.

But that brings us to the second, and more reassuring rule:

Golden Rule #2
Your first cover is (nearly always) your most expensive

How come? Because that’s where you evolve the look which will apply to all the titles you ever do. So, for example, my book covers are stark black-and-white images, with bright text. The basic look is fixed. The fonts are fixed. The only real variables left are (a) what image to use? and (b) what colour are we going to go through this time.

Some of my later-in-series covers have taken just a couple of hours to build at a fraction of the original cost.

OK. Preamble done. Now let’s turn to the design guidelines themselves . . .

1. Don’t be too specific

Unless you are a designer (and maybe even then), you should avoid thinking that you know what you want. You probably don’t. The perfect book cover will be one that you only know when you see it. If your design brief is hyper-detailed (“I want a kitchen table and a silver coffee pot, and an range cooker in front of a cottage window …”), you really aren’t giving the designer any room to use their best imagination.

2. Don’t be too literal

Let’s say your book is called ‘The Parting’, you might be tempted to depict a parting on the front cover. So you might go for two lovers, with outstretched arms, torn apart. Maybe you might even have a tear-line ripping down the middle of the book. That says Parting, doesn’t it? So it must be a good cover, right?

Well, actually, no, not at all. It’s way too literal. You need a cover to convey a mood, not a word. So a much better cover would be a cafe table with two seats, but only one cup of coffee. Perhaps one person (a woman, probably) in the shot, but only half seen. And that gives you all you need. The title – which conveys loss – and a picture which in that context tells you something about the post-parting atmosphere. Beautiful, simple – and oblique.

Anything too direct will almost certainly feel heavy handed.

3. Do be specific about atmosphere

Your cover designer is not going to read your book, so they won’t know about setting, atmosphere, mood, protagonist or anything else, unless you tell them. So let’s take that idea we just discarded (the coffee pot and an range cooker one), a good way of sending the right kind of message to the designer might be as follows:

“This book is a quiet domestic drama set in rural Ireland. The protagonist is a 34-year-old Irish woman, living quietly alone in a pleasant rural cottage.”

You might even want to offer more texture than that, but you can see what you’re trying to do. You’re giving the kind of guidance that might indeed end up with coffee-pots, range cookers, cottage-windows, but which also might express the same kind of domesticities in a million other ways, too.

Give the designer creative freedom within boundaries that you set. The boundaries give you what you want. The freedom gives you the best possible ideas. Here for exampke is just such a cosy/domestic cover that evokes exactly the right ideas, but without the specific images we first thought of.

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4. Do offer sample images

By all means, include a section in your design brief which says, “The following images evoke the kind of landscape I have in mind,” and then includes let’s say 8-12 smallish images, copied from Google images, which convey the kind of landscape you have in mind.

And of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to landscapes. Just offer a collection of the kind of images (cities, people, homes, lakes, whatever) that cover the approximate territory you have in mind.

Again, don’t be too specific. Don’t search for the perfect image. For one thing, the perfect image may be copyright and not available for purchase. For another thing, you are the author, not the designer. Give the designer room to breathe. Offering a wider spread of images is a good way to encourage creativity in your designer.

5. Do mention authors who write in your niche

If you are writing a quiet Irish-set romance, then refer the designer to a handful of authors who write in the same area. Partly, there may well be designers who know those authors and who will get instantly what kind of book you are writing. But partly, too, any competent designer will head straight to Amazon to see what others are doing. That means that a designer stands the best chance of being able to create a design that acknowledges the current market trends, while adding a genuinely original tweak or two.

6. Do refer the designer to book covers, in your genre, that you like

It will really help a designer if you say, “I like the following book covers”, and include thumbnails of (let’s say) a dozen or so books that you rate. If you come across covers where you really love the image but don’t rate the typography, for example, then say so. It doesn’t matter if you find yourself liking both pale-and-mysterious images for a crime novel, let’s say, and dark-and-bloody ones. If your taste includes both areas, then it’s fine to let the designer know. It’s their job to interpret your guidance to come up with a cover that pleases you. If you try to hard to be consistent in your choices, you are quite likely excluding some possible covers that would, in fact, delight you.

7. Do include all cover text

The designer needs to know what elements they have to handle in the cover design. So if you want title and author name and shout line and puff or review, then you need to tell the designer upfront. If you don’t, you risk evolving a brilliant design which then becomes cluttered with an excess of text.

(A shout line, by the way means something like this: “In rural Ireland, nobody hears you”. A puff or review is something like this: “Literally a genius.” – Maeve Binchy. Never make up reviews. And remember that jokes which seem funny to you at the time don’t tend to seem funny on the page.)

These thoughts bring us to rule 7a:

7a. Keep cover text very economical

Title, fine, but don’t let that title exceed six words or so, unless you want a purely typographical cover. Author’s name, well, yes, you’re not going to leave that off. Shout line or puff: it’s easy to decide to cram text in, but remember that the more text you have, the simpler your actual design needs to be. You can’t have any real complexity in the image if you have a lot of text and for most books, the image should take priority. Note that you’ll see lots of successful commercial covers that do have a fair bit of text, but that’s because they’ve many quotes from major national newspapers. If your text is not equally strong, you probably want to prioritise the image.

8. Be open to purely typographic covers

There are some fantastic text-only covers out there. Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson is one example (below). If your book could handle a text-only design, don’t write a design brief that blocks that route. If your genre is commercial fiction, you probably need an image. But upmarket fiction and anything non-fictiony can certainly handle a text-only design.

9. Keep the image simple – Think thumbnail

Simple images work. Complex ones don’t. Complex ones don’t even work at full-size – but they are car-crashes when seen at thumbnail size. And if your thumbnail view doesn’t work, you will get no eyeballs on your book page anyway. So keep it simple.

That means, probably, two main visual elements only:

  • A woman’s coat, plus a flight of steps. Bingo, that’s a cover.
  • A guy’s back, walking away from a burning building. Bingo, that’s a cover.
  • A rowing boat, rocking at a misty jetty. Bingo, that’s a cover.

A woman walking up a flight of steps, while a flock of doves fly overhead, a rosebush smothers a garden wall and a pair of wedding rings glint from a silver bowl, shown in inset format … that’s not a book cover, it’s a car-wreck. It’s a total mess and will never work and never sell your book. For an example of the simple, complete cover, try this, for example. No doves, no rosebush, no rings . . . but it works, right?

10. Clichés are good

Well, sort of, since we sort of hate clichés. They’re like a red rag to a bull to us. We will rewrite text a million times rather than allow the merest whiff of cliché to invade our precious text, but that’s the text.

On the cover, we love cliché. Or, to be precise, we love the instant communication that the clichés offer. So you can laugh all you like about the familiar clichés of the front-of-store book tables – but if you follow that link, you’ll see that nearly all the covers they’re laughing at are really good covers. Man lurking by fence: yes, a cliché, but what atmospheric covers! Woman in long white dress: yes, a cliché, but what lovely, buyable covers those are! And so on.

Clichés work because they quickly (i) identify the type of book, (ii) appeal to the right kind of audience, and (iii) encourage a casual browser to click through to find out more about the book itself. (You’ll also notice, by the way, that the clichéd covers keep it simple, reinforcing our earlier point about the beauties of simplicity.)

11. Be realistic

Nearly all books put out by publishers use stock images from image libraries, that are combined and tweaked and textured and layered in ways that make them look amazing. Your designer will have access to commercial image libraries and should be able to find things that you love that impose no additional cost on you beyond that initial design fee. And a good designer will be able to use those images to create something every bit as good as those produced by a traditional publisher.

But that’s all. If you want a hand-crafted illustration by a professional illustrator or painter, you are talking about an investment, plus you are sort of committed upfront. So if you bought £500 or £1,000 worth of an illustrator’s time, you kind of have to use the image that results, even if that’s not really quite the image you had in your mind.

Unless you have stupid amounts of money to throw at this, forget about commissioning an original illustration. You don’t need to do that to create a wonderful cover. Most professional covers never use anything beyond stock images. I’ve had more than a dozen books published, and those have typically been published in multiple countries across the world, and not one of those book covers used an original illustration. (Plus, those stock libraries do include drawings, so if you want a drawing of Paris, let’s say, ask the designer to find one. Don’t commission your own.)

12. Don’t ask your cousin, brother, aunt, or friend for help

They probably aren’t professional book cover designers, and this, remember, is the project on which you are now professionally engaged yourself. You can’t say to your them after they’ve spent twenty hours on your cover, “You know what? I know we’ve put a lot of work into this, but on reflection, I don’t think that cover looks right. Do you have any other ideas at all?” And you have to be able to say that. If you feel you can’t, you have the wrong designer.

13. Don’t please yourself, please the reader

You aren’t always the best person to make the final decision on cover, as the book is highly personal to you. Do get the views of other readers, but don’t allow the final choice to be decided by a simple poll. When you get feedback from readers, you need to think hard about how much weight to give each bit of feedback. If you are writing gentle chick-lit, then the views of someone who reads that kind of thing are much more significant than someone who doesn’t. Equally, someone who is trying to please you is much less useful than someone who just expresses their view and doesn’t give a damn about what you think. You want honesty, here, not touchy-feeliness.

14. Demand the hat

I read a book by a sell-a-million-on-Kindle type author, which contained the following anecdote (and apologies for not referencing the book: I just haven’t been able to place the quote).

A Jewish grandmother takes her grandson to the beach. He’s wearing his swimsuit, his sunhat and all is well … until he is swept away by a giant wave. The grandmother shakes her fist at heaven and shouts at God, “Have I not been your faithful servant? Have I not kept the law? Raised a family? Honoured you in all that I do? Now give me back my grandson.” Sure enough, the clouds part, there is a rumble of thunder, and a second giant wave deposits the grandson on the beach unharmed. The grandmother inspects her child, then once again yells upwards, “HE WAS WEARING A HAT!”

Moral of that fine story: don’t be satisfied until you are really, truly satisfied in every detail. If you have any kind of personal relationship with the designer, you can’t be obstreperous about the very last shade of red in the shout line. And you have to be that obstreperous if you want a perfect book cover.

15. Always consider the thumbnail

Some designs look great at full size and just dwindle down to nothing when they get to Amazon’s thumbnail view (which is a mere 160 pixels high).

Find thumbnail covers you like and figure what works. You need intelligible text, images with clarity.

16. Put the assignment out to tender

More controversial, but I personally would recommend using a contest-based service to select your designer. The idea of these services is that you put your brief online, and thousands of designers review that brief to see if it’s something that appeals to their creativity. With a good service, you’ll get 100+ designs to choose from. You can rate them, discard them, encourage modifications, and massage your way to a shortlist, then a finalist.

Many of the designs you get will be, quite frankly, poor – but unless you really try to low-ball the budget, you should get a slew of really attractive designs from which to make your selection. Services that offer this kind of system include 99designs, Designcrowd, elance and others.

There are two huge advantages of this service: (1) you get a massive range of ideas and approaches to choose from, and (2) because you will start working in detail only with an idea that is very close to cooked, from your point of view, you won’t suffer from the don’t-demand-the-hat problem mentioned above. In terms of budget, I would think you should be setting aside about £350 or $500 if you are genuinely ambitious for your work. You can get the job done for less, but your odds of a not-quite-good-enough cover go down the more you low-ball it.

17. The final tip

And finally.

Covers are essential to piquing the reader’s interest, but no book has ever sold well on Amazon unless it tells a good story and is presented properly. If you want to be a professional author (and that includes any indie author who genuinely wants to make sales), you must be even more obsessive about your text than you are about your cover design.

That means getting professional feedback on your text and it means making sure that the copyediting is up to scratch (even if it doesn’t quite have to be as good as a professionally published text.) We offer both those services and we are excellent at both things. If you really want to make a go of your book, don’t get a perfect cover that encloses a so-so text. Get both things right.

Click for more on our editorial services – and go get yourself a fabulous book.

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