When self-publishing, the average Indie author wears many hats while transforming the words of a manuscript into an ebook or paperback. This means handling multiple jobs of the publishing biz that would normally be done by specialized pros: editing, interior formatting, cover design, marketing, etc. The Indie dilemma–you can’t just write unless you have deep enough pockets to hire out for many professionals.
Enter discussions in forums and you’ll likely hear energized opinions of what authors should or should not do for themselves. Editing probably stands out the most, but another heated debate is on cover design. Should an Indie author design her/his own cover? Well, the tools exist online to do it for free, so is that reason enough to give it a try?
It was for me. I’ve done it 7 times, and although my covers haven’t been nominated for awards (nor will they), I do sell books. Ultimately the reviews and referrals sell more than the covers, but let’s not get off track. This post is not intended to be an argument for or against doing it yourself; it’s just to give examples from authors I’ve met in cyberspace who made their own covers and are willing to share experiences. This is not a contest nor is it meant to be in any order, and for those who still insist on hiring out… at the bottom are affordable solutions.
Before judging these books by their covers it’s important to recognize that plenty of Amazon best-sellers have less-than-stellar front faces. http://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/books/ is a list of top 100 paper-books, not ebooks, and it may surprise you to find many simple designs (basic photo or graphics with text) on best-selling books. Seems about 20% of the books on this top 100 list are simple enough to be reproduced by the average Indie.
Here are some covers made by Indie authors using (mostly) free resources.
Title: Love of My Life: Memoirs of a Love Lost
Author: Angie Russell
Description from author: Cover was made using Adobe Photoshop CS2. Basic elements were applied like text, cropping of photograph, soft glow, etc. I’m a novice in Photoshop but was still able to make a cover I was proud of. Took me about 2 weeks and 8 drafts.
Author’s blog: www.angienrussell.wordpress.com
Amazon Kindle page: www.amazon.com/dp/B004YQDPR6
Title: Baba’s Kitchen: Ukrainian Soul Food with Stories From the Village
Author: Raisa Marika Stohyn
Description from author: I used a Kodak digital. I brewed a pot of traditional borshch, with hand cut vegetables. As I have no experience in food photography, it took ten days to get the shot! Days 1-9 were frustrating. I got complicated, adding a head of garlic, a lemon slice and bread. I soon discovered that cold borshch looks unappetizing; I heated and washed utensils daily. Lighting, props, even spoon angle had to be precise. Once I was happy, I used Picasa’s free photo editing program to fine tune and add text.
Author’s website: www.ukrainiansoulfood.ca
Amazon Kindle page: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006WPZE6M
Author: Shawn Cannon
Description from author: I created my book cover for free. I used an open source program called GIMP. It is very similar to Photoshop, without any cost. Google was a terrific resource to find royalty free images. There was one photo, that I did ask for permission to use. Custom fonts were found online for free as well. After that, it was just trial and error. By no means am I an artist. I was just dedicated to playing around with GIMP until I found some looks and features that I was ultimately pleased with. I did not want a cover that looked like it was created by an amateur, and I was determined to keep my costs down in the process. I probably spent ten hours in all from start to finish.
Author: Jonna Ivin
Description from author: I knew what I wanted for the picture, so I asked a friend to pose and another friend with a good camera to take the shot. The rest I did in photoshop. Found the text on line and downloaded it for free. Painted her sign myself. All free!
Author’s website: http://www.jonnaivin.com/ (Still working on website. I don’t know much about them.)
Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Will-Love-Crumbs-Memoir-ebook/dp/B006V1KQLU
Title: The Red Poppy
Author: P. Alan Davis
Description from author: The making of this cover was very simple. I used a photo of a Maui Poppy I took last year. Because I needed a more vertical image for a book, I rotated the image 90 degrees. I posterized it using Nero and adjusted the color from lavender to more of a red hue using the same software. The image was inserted into a MS Publisher file and the title and by-line were added. I saved it as a PDF then converted it to JPG. I did two separate covers–one for Kindle and one for paperback using the same image but different layouts and text.
Author’s blog: http://padaarch.blogspot.com/
Amazon Kindle page: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00652M1G8/
Title: From Interviewed to…YOU’RE HIRED! A Short Guide to Interview Success Strategies
Author: Dr. Angela Massey
Description from author: First, I studied some of the book covers on Amazon to get a feel for what’s selling and would probably work. Second, I paid for the cover picture from iStock.com. Third, I created the cover in myeCovermaker.com. Since I’m not a graphic artist, I wanted something easy to use, yet sophisticated enough to provide a nice looking cover. I went through four revisions before settling on the current cover, and I’ll probably change it again! All in all, creating the book cover was the most demanding part of my book writing process.
Author’s website: www.lifeonpurposellc.com redirects to www.drangelamassey.com
Amazon Kindle page: http://www.amazon.com/Interviewed-YOURE-Interview-Strategies-ebook/dp/B006UXUVUK/
Author: C. S. Einfeld
Illustrator: Aaron Einfeld
Description from author: Aaron designed it originally in pencil, then using CGI, primarily DAZ studio and a bit of Bryce.
Author’s blog: www.authorcseinfeld.blogspot.com
Amazon Kindle page: http://www.amazon.com/Neverdark-ebook/dp/B0069TD5AI/
Title: Desert Harvest
Author: Wando Wande
Description from author: I used open source software, Gimp. The painting is a public domain image by Federick Remington.
Author’s blog: omnifish.wordpress.com
Amazon Kindle page: http://www.amazon.com/Desert-Harvest-ebook/dp/B006OEVPB4/
Title: Twilight of the Bald and other stories
Author: Robert Challis
Description from author: I wanted a striking image featuring a smooth cranium, for which I was the ideal model. After taking a digital photo and adding the text, I experimented with photoshop effects rather randomly. The effect I used is from filters/stylize/glowing edges, then adjusting the fine controls to the degree of brightness I wanted. A self photo removes any copyright issue as well as being satisfying to the vanity!
Smashwords book page: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/75022
Title: Extreme Skiing and Psychedelic Mushrooms: The Art Of Chasing Fear
Author: Jason Matthews
Description from author: Mostly proud of this because I made it in 20 minutes. The photos are freely available from Flickr’s Creative Commons. I used Inkscape for everything including the photo transparency and text graphics. This cover is from a free short story, and it’s the example in my video class teaching e-publishing with free resources.
Author’s website: http://ebooksuccess4free.webs.com/
Amazon Kindle page: http://www.amazon.com/Extreme-Skiing-Psychedelic-Mushrooms-ebook/dp/B005OZJ1JC/
Now for those who really want some affordable professional solutions, here are some ideas:
- If you email firstname.lastname@example.org, you can get a list of cover designers as well as ebook formatters–experienced, inexpensive and approved by Smashwords.
- Contact Bradley Wind via his Flickr page – http://www.flickr.com/photos/bwind3/sets/72157617997470513/ and see about an affordable cover.
- oDesk.com specializes in hiring out for small jobs with people from all over the world.
- 99desings can have multiple artists competing for your job, though expect to pay more for it.
- Some of my favorite free online programs useful for making book covers include: Inkscape for graphics editing, Flickr Creative Commons for photos, and Picasa for simple photo editing.
- In the comments sections, feel free to either offer your services or recommend a cover designer.
I titled this post part 1 because I believe many other Indies might show up in the near future with covers and stories of their own to feature. Look for an update here if it’s out.
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January 24, 2012 at 8:10 am
Good job as always, Jason, waiting for part 2.
And congratulations to all these authors for their hard work. May be I’ll take a look at those 100 best selling books on Amazon BEFORE creating my first cover…
January 24, 2012 at 8:17 am
January 24, 2012 at 9:30 am
*Severance* and *Will Love for Crumbs* are great covers, especially the latter! But as someone who’s been in publishing and design for 25 years, and taught publication design, I do have to add a few points of caution (before I add some low-cost suggestions to Jason’s great list).
Simplicity isn’t necessarily simple to achieve. Many of the top-100 covers cited have an appeal to them that is more than just the type, imagery, and colors on a page; composition, weight, contrast, tone, and much more go into the magic of an appealing design. Cover designs often “fail” because one these elements wasn’t given enough thought. Perhaps the type is too big or too small, perhaps the image has been excessively altered, perhaps the “look” doesn’t match the genre or content, or perhaps it’s using the word “by” in front of the authors name (which is 99.9% only done with “a novel by….” and not in non-fiction). While the examples shown here (in your post… not the top 100) are better than average, I’ve seen many cover disasters that render the books virtually unsellable. Also, very important to note… the cover design for a known author of a major publisher does *not* have to be as good as that for an unknown, self-published author.
The danger for a book that sells with a bad cover is that you don’t know how well it would’ve sold with a better cover. Of course, if it doesn’t sell at all, then it’s pretty clear (though there could be other factors). I’ve had clients or authors I’ve met defend their self-designed covers in terms of sales, but again… how do they know their books wouldn’t have sold twice as many with a better cover?
Self-publishing is struggling (but winning!) in a decades-long battle to overcome major prejudice and stigma. The #2 complaint I hear from readers and publishing professionals that perpetuates this is, the books are poorly designed and produced. (The #1 complaint is poor writing and/or editing.) We owe it to our profession and craft to create the best books possible. I fully realize cover design is subjective and “best possible” isn’t necessarily (nor should be) award winning or stunning. But we also have to be careful not to let the art of book design (especially in print form) slip to mere functionality. And all things being otherwise equal, a reader will choose a beautiful-looking book over a lesser one 97% of the time.
To be clear, I rarely do cover designs anymore—and those I do for myself I test with my trusted focus group of readers, pros, and designers—so I’m not writing any of this from a posture of defending the design profession. What I *am* trying to do, however, is defend the profession of self-publishing, as I expressed in the prior paragraph. Just because we have the tools to easily put type over an image, add some effects, and save the image as a PDF does not mean that’s all we should do. And I’m not implying self-published authors try to skimp on design; rather, they don’t know the importance of design in the *subconscious* of the buyers’ minds and have a hard time assessing if their own designs are not good enough. A bad cover design combined with the expense of printing a thousand books can be a very expensive lesson.
Okay… so off my soapbox… here are some other inexpensive ideas for authors who have no way to do their own designs, don’t want to, know they’d have an easier time selling snowballs in hell, or have little money to spare:
1. Work with a design student at your local high school or college. Contact the art instructors there for suggestions.
2. Pay a consulting fee to a pro book-cover designer to critique or review a design done by yourself or a non-pro. Many designers will gladly offer feedback for the rate equivalent of an hour ($25-65). As long as you or the person doing the design can capably incorporate their suggestions, this can be very helpful.
3. Hold a contest for your cover design. Publicize it on your blog, website, and social-media profiles. Offer three prizes (one winner, two runners-up) of decent value and let the public vote on the entries. (You, of course, have final say!) Just be sure to check your state’s laws on running contests.
4. Be careful hiring designers, even pros, who’ve never designed book covers. There are issues when designing book covers, especially for printed books, that don’t come up in other types of design. They won’t know what they don’t know. But if you want to go this route for whatever reason, keep in mind #2 above as a supplement.
5. Make sure to run all your cover designs, whomever does them, through a circle of trusted advisors. These should be people with good design sense (pros or not) who are willing to tell you the truth. Bring them in early in the design process, not at the end when your emotional investment in your design is at its strongest.
6. Sell your book in multiple cover designs to start. Offer them as “limited, collector’s editions” and then eventually roll out and sell (for the long run) the version with the cover that’s most popular.
7. Use Google AdWords (or Facebook’s ads) and do A-B testing. This is where the ads are run randomly, with one featuring one book cover and the other featuring an alternate book cover. You track which sells best by connecting each ad to separate websites or sales points. And you can certainly do this with more than two cover concepts. I know this is more complicated, but it can be inexpensive—Google and Facebook allow you to set a budget for your ad campaigns. You’d have to read a book on Google AdWords or Facebook ads, however, to do this right.
Sorry I wrote a book here—got carried away!
January 24, 2012 at 9:41 am
Fantastic additions as always, Andrew. You can write a book here anytime.
January 24, 2012 at 11:05 am
Thanks. Great. And thanks for the forum. I want everyone to have their best shot at self-publishing, and you’re helping that to happen.
January 26, 2012 at 9:49 pm
Thank you Andrew! I appreciate the shout out.
January 24, 2012 at 5:20 pm
Love the article, Jason.
Here’s my story:
With the false confidence of a former portrait artist (and one year of graphic art design from a local community college) I believed I could create a cover for my own book. I mean … how hard could it be? I know my way around Photoshop. I have a Wacom tablet. So I took two weeks off from writing to create my masterpiece. Yeah, right.
It was pretty good (even if I say so myself) but it wasn’t appealing to the right audience. The book is a Young Adult Paranormal Romance, but the cover screamed Middle Grade. I took a “cover art and product description” class from The Indie Book Collective and learned what wasn’t working.
I redesigned the cover to make it more attractive to older teens and adults and received lots of ego-boosting praise on Twitter and FaceBook but I still preferred the first cover. Sales spiked the very day I changed covers. Maybe it was a fluke, but I don’t think so.
About a month ago I started working on the cover for the second book (releasing this Friday #YIKES!). Feedback was mixed at best. It was even rejected for a juried promotion because of the cover design. I did a super-fast throw it together cover that passed, but I Did. Not. Like. It.
I’d heard good things about 99Designs so I hosted a contest to see if they’d come up with something marketable that I also felt represented the book accurately. They have a money-back guarantee so it was a no-risk venture.
I got a couple of designs on the first day but I wasn’t impressed. I refined my instructions and commented on the designs letting the artists know what I liked, what I didn’t and WHY.
The back and forth dialogue between artist and client is very important and downright fun. (I can now check my “art director fantasy” off my bucket list).
By the middle of the week, I was completely blown away. Over 120 designs by 13 different designers. I panicked, thinking I’d never be able to choose just one when the most amazing design appeared.
It literally took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. The model on the cover is exactly how I imagine Channie. Problem solved. The designer even sent me her layered Photoshop files so I can “play” with them. (Don’t worry, I’m keeping them separate from her originals 😉
I’m now working with her to redo the cover for the first book. I’m also working on a blog post featuring the top three designers with links to their website/portfolios, but don’t look for it until late next week. (I still have a book to launch.)
I learned a lot during this process, but the most important lesson I learned is that I have no business designing my own book covers. I’ll never settle for a “homemade” cover again.
Psst … Andrew … we should collaborate on a blogpost book 😉
January 24, 2012 at 5:32 pm
Charlotte, I saw the designs they came up with and was seriously impressed. The million dollar question is–how affordable was it?
January 25, 2012 at 9:17 am
The fee was a bit hefty ($300) I could have offered $200 but I wanted to attract the best designers. I now have an amazing artist I can work with. She’s redoing “Enchantment’s” cover for much less.
99Designs takes a rather large cut of the artist’s fee so once you get that first design, it’s better for both parties to work with the artist directly. I consider the initial expense a combination finder’s fee and rush order surcharge.
It was worth it for me.
February 3, 2012 at 3:18 pm
I just beat my head against the wall trying to redesign my book cover. I have it on KDP, and am about to publish it through CreateSpace. I think the cover is ok, but I think it could be improved. Like you, I fancy myself as the artistic type, but I can’t do it. It takes me two hours to pick a pair of men’s business shoes (i.e., there are like two kinds). I will never be able to come up with a decent cover. I would like to have your person’s name. Or give her my information. mhender668 at gmail.
February 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm
Very funny. Thanks for commenting, Mike. Best wishes for your book.
January 25, 2012 at 7:05 am
thanks for the link Jason. Happy to help those in need.
February 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm
February 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm
Still banging my head against a wall trying to learn how to do this
February 26, 2012 at 8:29 pm
Thank you for featuring my Baba’s Kitchen book cover, Jason! Great blog. Thanks for all your support. Baba’s Kitchen is currently #4 Cookbook on Amazon’s KDP Select Program, and #46 Nonfiction. I wouldn’t be doing this without your help. Everyone, you MUST pick up Jason’s excellent book. He even pointed me towards the best web design and hosting program out there for non-techies.