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A Good Cover Designer is So (Not) Hard to Find

I admit I toyed with the idea of creating my own book cover. I have a degree in advertising and a past career in marketing so I felt confident I knew enough about targeting audience for my genre (literary short story collection). Scrolling through photo services on the internet I found an image I thought would work and decided on my title. I quickly realized that design programming was not an aspect of publishing I wanted to invest time into when I could pay a professional who designed covers for a living.

If you research “book cover design” you’ll find everything from tips on do-it-yourself to full-service companies. I clicked on an article that linked to The Book Designer monthly e-book cover awards. Contests like this are an excellent resource. Which covers stand out to you? Start with these shops as possible candidates for your own book. There were three designers that captured my attention, so I went to each of their websites to find out their three Ps: packages, pricing, and portfolios.

Basic packages consist of either an e-book cover or both an e-book and print cover. Some have different social media images (like a banner for your Twitter page) tacked on or marketing services. According to Bibliocrunch you can expect to pay between $500 and $1200 for a cover that looks like it came out of a top publishing house and anywhere from $100 to $400 from a less expensive route.

Choices, choices, choices

All three shops I was considering had won multiple design awards, displayed a diverse portfolio, and listed straightforward fee packages. But, there were differences. Two were single one-person designers while the other was a group of designers. The first one was the most expensive. He had more marketing services tacked on to his packages and the wording on his website seemed slick and slightly glib. I ruled him out.

The next designer worked with a copy editor in a two-person shop based in Oregon. They had bios and their website was clean and inviting. It felt authentic. Their pricing fell in the middle range. I liked several of his covers; some had a literary feel that I was looking to achieve. I wasn’t totally blown away, though. I did like the sample copy edit on the website and since I was in the market for a copy editor, I sent an inquiry for contracting line editing.

The website of the third shop, the one with multiple designers, was darker and grittier. It felt like they took more chances. They had the best pricing. There was one designer whose covers I identified with, so I sent them an initial request for information on the process and timeline.

The main reason I chose the shop in Oregon, Bookfly Design, was because of the discrepancies in the initial responses to my inquiry. Bookfly’s editor, Kira Rubenthaler, responded quickly in a professional, courteous, and error-free email. She answered my questions, estimated how long it would take to complete, and gave a start date when she could add my project to her work list (about three months from when I contacted her – this is common to have to reserve a spot with editors and designers and should be factored into your search and production timeline). I sent an initial email to Bookfly’s Designer, James T. Egan, and he replied in a like manner as Kira.

The other shop’s reply contained many grammatical mistakes. She said she would be the contact person, not the designer. The entire email made me leery. I knew they had cranked out many covers, but I needed the security of working with a small team that listed very clearly who they were, where they were located, and exactly what was expected from them and from the client in contract form. Everything was upfront. I also liked the idea of my editor and cover designer working together during the process.

Questions to ask when narrowing the field

  • What is their price point? It may be tempting to go the cheapest route, but the old adage “You get what you pay for” needs to be considered. Alternatively, if the shop is at the high end perhaps they overinflate their promises as well as their price.

  • Is their website professional looking? If the website is designed well and inviting then they will probably show as much care with their book designs. If the website is sloppy or confusing it may be a good indicator that their work will be, too.

  • Do they have their portfolio readily available? They should have numerous examples of their design work. What genres are represented? Do many of the covers have a “look” that you want in your own book?

  • How does the back-and-forth work? Who will be your contact person – an account coordinator or the designer? Does this matter to you? Whoever is your point of contact they should be quick and professional in responding, and open to suggestions. Just keep in mind that you are not their only client and be reasonable and courteous in your requests. The excitement of seeing your manuscript transform into a “book” can lead you to shoot off email after email with each additional thought – better to jot down all your notes and then compose one efficient email.

Cover Elements Check-List

Your cover work starts well before you’re ready to hand it over to a designer. Think about your timeline for compiling all these elements and have them ready to go before the cover project start date.

  • Where are you going to publish this? Distributors require different formats and/or specs. For my book, The Strangeness of Men, I wanted two print-on-demand publishers (Create Space and Ingram Spark) that each have their own file formatting. I also wanted an Epub version for Smashwords to distribute to retailers like B&N, Apple, Kobo, etc. And I needed a Mobi version for Kindle. Do your distribution research and know which versions you need to have your designer create.

  • Title, Name, and Subtitle if any – You know this already, right? Look closer, there’s so much more going on in a cover.

  • Trim size – For a print book there are numerous sizes from which to choose. Examine your bookshelf. Check that the trim size you select is one of the standard sizes offered by your chosen printers.

  • ISBN and Price – Purchase your ISBN from Bowker and have your designer create a barcode for you. Select your print book price to be embedded in the barcode and listed on the back cover.

  • Genre – Know what direction you want to give your designer. Where would your book be placed on the shelf of a brick and mortar bookstore? What do you want a potential reader to takeaway from his first glance at your book?

  • Back cover summary – This can be very difficult to write! Spend time on this. Give it to friends who are readers and ask if it piques their interest. Read back summaries of books in your genre and get a feel for the tone and wording.

  • Back cover blurbs – You should have requested blurbs months in advance of the cover design. These can be hard to get for new authors. Since mine was a collection of pieces, I requested blurbs from many of the editors that had run one of the stories or poems in their journals. Most were happy to help and sent me fantastic blurbs. One was from an editor that had not selected my piece but had been open with advice and approachable. She gave me a great review. A couple were too busy with other commitments to read. Remember to always be gracious in your requests even when they go unanswered. (Everyone that agreed to read and blurb me was okay with an electronic file. If a reviewer prefers a paper copy you can print and simple bind it at a local copy shop.) Don’t be afraid to ask. Another place to seek these is from published writers in your genre that you have meet through writer groups and conferences. You can try local newspapers or organizations that might be relative to your book. If you can’t get any blurbs, don’t stress; they are not necessary but they are always good to include.

  • Author photo and bio – Indulge in a professional photo shoot. It does not have to be someone that specializes in author photos. Hire a local photographer for headshots. Take time writing your bio and make sure to include a directive to visit your author website.

  • Logo – The publisher logo should be included on the back cover and spine. If you are self-publishing and have created an LLC, invest in a simple logo design for your company name. James was gracious enough to include a stylized version of Quick Wit Lit for me to include on the cover. It’s one of those small details that add a professional edge.

  • Cover design credit – Make sure to give credit either on the back cover or on your copyright page.

Typical Timeline Steps

  • Get an estimated start date – They should be able to give you an approximate date they will be able to start your project. This is huge to ask because sometimes they are so backed up with projects that it can be many months. Make sure this date works for you and ask for an estimate of how long it will take to finish it (bearing in mind that the more changes you have the longer it will take).

  • Sign a contract – Once you’ve selected your cover designer they should send you a contract that is simple to understand and spells out exactly what is expected of the designer and you, the client. The contract may limit the amount of revisions and design concepts created—read your contract carefully up front—this may help you decide between shops.

  • Pay an initial deposit – I paid half the fee upfront and then the remainder was due at the completion of the design after I signed off on the cover. I paid through PayPal.

  • Tell the designer what direction you are thinking of – I filled out an “About Your Book” form, which included many elements that would be included on the back cover as well as the tone I wanted to portray to readers. Point him to several covers you like.

  • Wait for your turn – This can be very hard to do but you have a lot of elements you need to be double-checking during this time.

  • First design(s) – The designer will present you with their initial concept for your cover. This is when the back-and-forth starts in full. James at Bookfly did an image search on the photo I had given him to consider and found it was already in various places including attached to a book, so he went in a totally different direction than I had given him. When I first saw his look I loved it. It was not something I would have thought of and that’s why we pay people who do this everyday.

  • Changes – If you don’t like the concept then speak up (this is your book)! When James presented his first concept he said he’d be happy to switch back to my original direction if I wasn’t satisfied. Give specific direction. Tell them exactly what details don’t work for you. Even though I was happy with the initial concept, there were several images I wanted swapped out for others. Usually there will be one main image for a cover, but since mine was a collection of 38 short stories and prose poems, James sliced together a whopping ten images that pertained to ten of the stories to make a sort of collage of intriguing bits. Needless to say, with that many images there were a few that didn’t work. One was a close up of the flu virus, but it looked too sci-fi so we swapped it for a more photogenic germ.

  • Tweaks – Once the major concept and changes are complete make sure you proofread the cover closely. You should have already examined many other covers to make sure all the elements you want to include are represented. I almost left my logo for Quick Wit Lit off the spine but included it last minute when I caught the mistake. Triple-check your back copy and any names attributed to blurbs. Check for readability. Do your title and name pop out? Does anything need to be brightened? Will the cover standout in thumbnail size? Check every detail—even though you’re working with a professional—it is up to YOU to ensure the finished cover is exactly how you want it.

  • Completion – When you are thrilled with the cover you will pay the final bill and your designer should email the digital files to you. One of the bonuses of working one-on-one with a designer was even after this final step James was happy to provide me with a file for a poster size cover image and a file of the logo he’d created. Don’t expect extras not in the contract, but sometimes with a gracious working relationship you can get lucky.

The process of publishing your book can seem overwhelming. Take the steps as they come and educate yourself as much as possible on the process. In the end you just have to go for it! Good luck and follow me at KIMDREWWRIGHT.COM for more writing and publishing advice.

Kim Drew Wright is an award-winning writer with fiction and poetry published internationally in numerous journals, including, The Pinch, The Milo Review, Circa, Sixfold, and in an anthology, What We Carry Home. She graduated in journalism from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and enjoyed a career in advertising. She currently resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and three children. The Strangeness of Men is her debut collection of quirky short stories and prose poetry.

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