Figuring out cover art for indie writers

Among my side projects are a pair of novellas. The first is American Sons, which ties into my upcoming story universe. The second is At All Costs, a standalone story in what might be another story universe. The first drafts were completed in January, and they are in the final phases of editing. There’s just one last thing to do: cover design.

Authors who sign on with publishing houses have access to their art departments. Independent writers, on the other hand, have to source their own covers. It can be a frustrating process. I’ve been doing this for a bit now, and there are some things I figured out along the way.

DIY? Really?

There are two ways to get a cover. The first is to do it yourself. The second is to hire someone to do it for you. Unless you are a graphic designer as well, the former is not an option.

The single most important element in a book (after the actual story!) is the cover. A good cover nets lots of sales, reputation and reviews. A bad cover will attract negative comments, and few to nothing sales. Between an interesting-looking cover and a plain- or amateurish-looking one, people tend to look at the former. The latter may also prejudice a customer against the quality of your work right from the start.

Digital publishing and electronic storefronts raises its own set of problems. In an online bookstore, the customer will be looking at one-inch thumbnails at best. If they’re lucky, they may even see a blurb, but don’t count on it. Amazon, for instance, only shows blurbs when a customer opens the page dedicated to a book. In other contexts, such as recommendations and random searches, it only shows the cover. To be noticed, you need a cover that attracts attention in the face of multiple recommendations and search returns, especially if your book is listed alongside books from large publishing houses with proportionately large art departments and art budgets.

You need someone with expertise and experience. You need a professional.

Unless you are one…hire one. Your book is worth it.

Size matters

The boon and bane of indie writing is total control. You get the rights to everything, including cover design. That means you are responsible for conceptualising it, if only so you can communicate it to a designer.

There are many, many, many blog posts out there on the principles of cover design. I won’t touch too much on this. What I will say is that you have to think about size.

Your cover will have to appear in three sizes: full size, perceived size, and thumbnail.

‘Full size’ is the actual image you’ll upload on the storefront. Many distributors, such as Apple and Smashwords, have minimum size requirements, so your cover ideas must fit inside that page. ‘Perceived size’ is the cover your customer will see when they pick up the book or enter the book’s URL. ‘Thumbnail’ is what they’ll see when they search for your book online.

The cover has to work in all three sizes. You can conceptualise a sprawling, magnificent city with gleaming mile-high skyscrapers, but it won’t be particularly useful if the thumbnail shot reduces it to a blurry mass of browns, yellows and a hint of white.

The best approach I’ve found is to use large, outstanding objects, simple but elegant designs, and high-contrast colours. Fine details will simply get lost. If you have a cover artist, give her the barest minimum of details — character description, keywords, reference images, similar covers, important themes or colours — and then get out of her way. If you ARE a graphic designer, then you’ll know more than I do about mixing colours, placing objects and text, and other things like that. All you need to keep in mind is size.

You pays your money, you takes your chances

Let’s assume you hire a pro to handle your cover. There’s old saying that comes to mind: Fast, cheap and good. Pick any two. It applies in this field too. There are three kinds of professionals out there: the cheap, the good, and the graphic artists.

The cheap professionals deliver covers on a budget, roughly USD$40-80. These are good for people with a very tight budget, simple cover ideas and hobbyist writers. Generally speaking, they buy stock images, move them about until they fit your cover idea, then add the title and your name. While it can be good enough for some writers, you do get what you pay for. Professional writers who need high-quality cover art are advised to pay more for better art.

The good professionals spend more time and energy on covers, and charge somewhere between USD$100-400.  Like the above, they also work with stock images for the most part. However, they also offer artwork: custom-made backgrounds, modification of stock images to your liking, special fonts and colours, and so on. The higher-end ones tend to drop stock images and just focus on art, sometimes working with images if you provide any. If you’re a pro, this is the minimum quality you should be shooting for. If your budget is still pretty tight, some of these pros have premade covers for sale, of equal quality but at a cheaper price, and are worth looking at. But do understand that these designers primarily work with stock images, and the cover will be limited by available stock images. If you are, like me, persnickety about details, working with stock images may prove challenging.

If you absolutely, positively, want your cover to be done precisely to your specifications, that’s when you turn to a graphic designer. Suppose you’ve designed some very special high-speed gear for your protagonist, and you want the reader to visualise it the way you do. That’s when sourcing a graphic designer is your best bet. They’ll work closely with you, creating the image completely from scratch. As a bonus, the art looks more naturalistic and in tune with the background. However, these designers are really expensive. I understand market rate is around USD$900-1000 for real pros. Plus, while you can get your designer to produce a super-detailed cover, all that detail will be lost on a one-inch thumbnail. It’s fine if you’re selling paper books, where the reader can admire the cover in its full glory, but not so much if you’re just publishing strictly digital.

When thinking about prices, think investment. A cover is an investment, and the sales it generates is a return on investment. That means you should have an idea of yourself, your audience and expected sales. If you’re just writing for pleasure, a cheap artist will allow you to pursue your hobby without burning a hole in your pocket. If you’re in writing for a long-term career, a good cover designer would give you the quality you need to attract customers — and repeat customers. If you have a ready audience willing to buy your books, and if detail is very important to them and you, the graphic designer will meet your needs.

Timing, timing, timing…

Everything takes time. Including cover design. Sitting on your hands, waiting for your next cover, is generally not conducive to a smooth writing career or mindset. Generally, budget at least one month, preferably two, for the artist to finish your cover. Then ask yourself what you can do in a month.

These days, I start thinking of the cover when I’m a quarter to halfway through the story. At the three-quarter mark, I have the concept finalised. The moment the first draft is done, it’s off to the cover designer. Different people have different work schedule and time needs, so think about what you do and how long you need to do it, and plan accordingly.

This is, of course, assuming things go well. Strange things happen. I’ve had emails mysteriously disappear, cover designers meeting with accidents and falling ill, covers that were difficult to conceptualise…the list goes on. Factor in time for delays too. That way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if your designer delivers ahead of time.

Final thoughts: Your writing and you

The kind of cover you want depends on your approach to writing. If you’re a hobbyist, you want to minimise the cost of writing, and a cover is one of them. If you’re a pro, though, a cover is an investment. Think about covers with an eye for the long-term, to attract customers both now and in the future, to gain a return on investment. If you’re small-time, start small; if you’re established, investing more generally makes more sense.

A cover shouldn’t just reflect your story. It should also consider your approach to writing, your financial situation and your level of reputation. There may come a time when you need to compromise somewhere. As a rule of thumb, little details can be dropped, character design can be flexible, and prices negotiable. But covers must always reflect the story and the people in it. That is the one thing you cannot compromise.