The newbie indie author’s guide to a great book cover

Just like we first eat with the eye, we also choose what to read with the eye. (I mean, what else would we choose with?) Basically, the consensus is that a good cover is essential to publishing success.

But ‘good’ is very subjective. What I really mean is ‘obvious and eye-catching’. Obvious in the sense that the cover accurately depicts the story within, and eye-catching enough to grab a readers attention even when the thumbnail is teensy-tiny – which it will be to people reading/buying their books on their phone.

Traditional publishing takes the cover-design stress away…right?

I confess that I’ve had a few moments of envy for people pursuing the traditional publishing route. Whilst it’s a much slower process (if you get representation and/or an offer on your manuscript in the first place) at least you will end up with savvy professionals who know their stuff, can zero in on your specific niche and genre, and utilise a whole marketing department to give your book the best chance of success.

Except…that’s not always true. I listened to a podcast months ago about a writer called Polly Courtney who got her books picked up by an imprint within the Big Six, and immediately started to regret it. The publishers were pushing her stories into chick-lit, a genre she didn’t think they suited, with covers that were chasing the zeitgeist of the day (at the time, the X-Factor/Pop Idol hype) and didn’t reflect the stories she’d actually written. In the end, I think she either fired them or broke out of her contract at the earliest opportunity to publish them herself, on her own terms. You can read about it/listen here on the Creative Penn site – I found it pretty eye-opening!

Doing the whole thing yourself might be more work, but at least you have complete control over the design and how it relates to the novel itself. Which leads me to:

Know your market – and market to them!

I know, here are some eggs, suck ’em. But this is actually something I’m struggling with when it comes to my novel, Tilted. I’ve had mixed feedback on exactly what genre it fits into. Initially in my mind it was kind of romantic chick-lit, but the themes in it make it less light-hearted. It’s got a fair whack of suspense, but putting a thriller-style cover on it would be misleading – it’s a definite romance. It’s not women’s fiction, either, thanks to my main love interest, Max, having his own point-of-view.

Romance would be the clear contender here, but the romance market is SATURATED with very similar cover designs: topless man, couple laughing at each other, suited man looking broodingly at his hands…..sigh. It’s hard to stand out in romance unless you can narrow it down.

This – in large part – comes from my desire to be different, and to produce something that feels authentic to me. Admirable traits, but totally useless if you want to sell books to busy people who just want to know: is this book the kind of thing I want to read? The only way they can possibly tell that in a hurry is if it has an appropriate cover on it.

The lesson I am learning (slowly, and probably the hard way) is that as writers our own personal design preferences will probably only hinder our progress here. The answer, clearly, is:

Hire a professional cover designer

They know what they are doing, they know the book cover market, and they have their finger on the pulse of current cover and design trends. They also – and this can’t be overlooked – know all the nitty gritty involved in designing something that works for books of different sizes/print styles/digital formats etc.

Designers don’t come cheap though, and from my research it’s about £150 – £400 for a cover, and that doesn’t always include print AND ebook. It can add up – BUT a cover designer can do add-ons like promo materials for ads and social media, which is pretty useful.

If your pockets don’t stretch that far, and you’re feeling brave though, you could:

Design your cover yourself – if you dare

There are some great tools to use. Software like Photoshop would obviously be spot on IF you have it AND know how to use it. If you don’t, though, then online tools like Canva are brilliant. Intuitive and free, and with some great pre-made designs to use as inspiration, it’s a good choice if you’ve got vision and creative flair. There’s a new Design School within Canva with video tutorials about how to get the most out of the deceptively simple tools.

I designed a few mock-ups for Tilted on Canva a few months ago, and if nothing else it got me really motivated about seeing my book enrobed in something other than a Word doc with the title and word count on it!

I came across a cover design course the other day, and whilst it’s a fair amount up front, I guess it’s a good investment if you plan to use the skills you learn on all the books you write. It still depends on you having faith in your design skills though, and besides, not everyone wants to. The course creator, a designer called Stuart Bache, also wrote a book on cover design for authors, so there’s another option if you’re really committed to doing it yourself.

If your design skills aren’t great, though, and you’ve got a little cash, then:

Split the difference and get a pre-made cover

This would be my preference, as you get the benefits of a professional cover design from as little as £50. Designers post their pre-made designs – usually fairly generic, but it’s surprising how many you can make work for your novel with a bit of squinting and open-mindedness! – and once you buy them, they take that design down so nobody else can use it and insert your own title and author name before sending it to you to stick on your book. Some designers will make small changes to the font/colour for no charge, but others ask for a supplement for any changes.

Some good sites include Rocking Book Covers, Coverquill, and the massive database The Book Cover Designer, which is comprehensive but terribly overwhelming. There are thousands of covers to choose from in the Romance genre, for example, and my mind melted around page 24.

Places like Etsy are also pretty good – and any decent indie author forum will have links to cover designers who offer pre-mades.

Personally, I’m still figuring it out. I’ve tried my hand at Canva, I’ve requested quotes from designers who never responded, and I’m half way through a conversation with a designer to see if some of her pre-mades might work for Tilted. I’ll get there, but it’s not the straightforward process I fancifully imagined it would be! Partly this is because I don’t fully know what I want it to look like myself, and lack confidence in where it sits in the market.

(In fact, if ever I could pass on one piece of advice to writers from my experiences so far, it’s…. KNOW WHAT GENRE YOU’RE WRITING IN FROM THE START. God. I hope I take my own advice next time around. Spoiler: I probably won’t.)

Whatever route you choose to go with your cover though, this is not an area you should overlook, at any cost. I’ve even seen advice suggesting that a cover designer is a better investment than an editor, because whilst your writing without a pro edit might be shocking, your book without a pro cover won’t ever get opened, at all. Bleak.

So, watch this space – my currently nude novel will be enrobed in something suitably gorgeous any day now. I won’t let it strut it’s stuff on Amazon’s storefront totally naked….


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