Book Cover Design: How self-publishing authors can do it best
Book cover design, also known as ‘book jacket’ design, is a favorite topic of conversation in the Reedsy office. Since we opened our digital doors over two years ago, we’ve seen hundreds of authors collaborate with designers — and much more join our regular ‘cover critiques,' when our professionals offer feedback on self-published book covers.
Despite our fascination with the art of cover design, we were surprised how little we actually knew about the process and, crucially, its cost. In 2016, we published a report on the costs of self-publishing a book by crunching real quotes offered by Reedsy editors and designers over a year. We were able to give practical guidelines for the cost of editing, but when it came calculating an average price for a professional cover, the costs ranged from between $300 to over $1,500.
In this article, we take a closer look at professional book cover design. In revealing how various Reedsy designers approach each project, we’ll uncover the actual cost of getting a professional book cover design and show you how to get the best value for money.
If, like our designers, you think a picture is worth more than a thousand words (literally), you can click here to scroll down to our infographic, where we distil most of the points and data gathered below.
1. Why should I get a professional book cover design?
At the most basic level, a professional-looking cover will help readers take you and your book seriously. Online retailers like Amazon do not distinguish between traditional and self-published books in their search results. That means independent authors must compete against traditionally published books and ensure their designs match or, if possible, exceed those the big boys are putting out.
You may have a friend who’s great with photoshop and has offered to help you for free. As enticing as it may be to work with a friend (for free!), a professional designer brings more than just photoshop skills to the table. Book cover design is a complex balance of images, text, and information — and you need someone who understands how each of these elements interacts with the others to best sell your book.
A designer who specializes in book jackets will understand how readers respond to layout and typography. They understand the current trends and can see how your cover will compete in the market. Most importantly, they will know how to communicate the right message with your cover.
Let’s take a look at a real-life case study.
Case Study: The Thomas Berrington Series
David Penny is the author of the Thomas Berrington books, a series of historical mysteries set in 15th-century Spain. After publishing the first two books, David made the tough decision to rebrand his novels and commission new covers.
“If anything, this was my fault,” David told us in an email interview. “I gave a fairly detailed brief for my original covers and the designer did what I asked. And I still think they did a good job.
“It was only later I realized that there was a disconnect between the marketing I was doing and the original covers. My books are historical mysteries, and the covers gave an impression of a thriller instead.”
Indeed, a cover has to effectively communicate what the book is — its genre, style, and content. If your jacket is misleading, promising a Da Vinci Code type page-turner but delivering something else, you will only attract (and disappoint) the wrong type of readers.
“One of the benefits of hiring a professional cover designer is that he/she will have an intimate awareness of design trends within a given genre,” says U.S. designer Kevin Barrett Kane. “Emulating the designs of other titles within a given genre can make a book look generic, but being too original with the design risks confusing readers about the subject of your book. An experienced cover designer knows how to thread the needle between the overdone and the ambiguous.”
When it came time to rebrand his historical mysteries The Red Hill and Breaker of Bones, David Penny took a more hands-off role in the process.
“I left the brief deliberately vague this time. I chose the central image, and from that, [my new designer] Jessica Bell produced three samples and I chose the one I felt was most aligned with what the books are about. After that, I gave her complete control over how the finished product would look.”
How will a cover affect your sales?
A stunning book cover is great to have but if it doesn’t help with your sales, it’s pure vanity. David Penny tracked the efficacy of his new covers by comparing how his Facebook ads performed before and after the redesign.
“I started experimenting with Facebook ads in November 2015, almost 6 months before the cover redesign,” said David. “By February I had lost somewhere around £300 on an ad spend of over £1,000.”
David found that while many Facebook users were clicking on his adverts, few of them ended up buying his book. Based on this result, he had a theory that his ads had a message and image (the book cover) that didn’t reflect the book being sold when people clicked through.
“Since changing the covers – but also soon after adding a third book to the series – I have made little changes to my advertising but suddenly, from June 2016, I started making significant sales. In June 2016 I had my first £1,000 income month. In September I had my first £2,000 month and at present, I am predicting income of slightly over £3,000 for January 2017.
“My advice to indie authors is to get a professional cover designer and allow them to make most of the choices – it’s what they do, and you’re too close to your own book to make rational decisions in this area.”
Now that we know exactly what an effective cover can do, let’s look at how authors can go about giving their books the professional design they deserve. And for that, we need to search for designers with the right experience.
2. How to find the right book cover designer
There are plenty of places on the internet where you can find designers advertising their services. Some of them will be legitimate freelancers with years of great experience, but a vast majority of them will not be. With that in mind, your first priority is to seek out designers with a great portfolio and a track record of creating great covers within your genre.
We mention genre for a reason. You want a designer who’s well versed in the tropes and trends employed by books similar to yours.
At Reedsy, we vet all our freelancers to ensure their experience and high work quality and have made it easy for authors to search for them by genre. However you choose to look for designers, it’s advisable to create a shortlist with multiple candidates. Good designers will often be booked up for weeks, if not months.
Once you’ve narrowed down your candidates, it’s time to start thinking about your brief.
A well-written brief will pay dividends. Not only can it help you secure your designer of choice, but it lays the ground for a smoother collaboration and will often result in a lower quote. A good brief doesn’t just describe the book in stunning detail; it’s also your first (and often only) chance to pitch yourself as a collaborator.
“I worked in advertising for 18 years so I can smell it on the air when I know I’m heading into a mire of endless demands,” says illustrator and designer Chuck Regan. “I know who’s going to get the blame when their book does not sell because of a cover they didn’t like.
“Ultimately, my decision to work for an author is based on a sliding scale. What’s the subject matter? How much detail is required? What’s the timescale? And how much fun do I think it will be to render the cover?”
If the designer starts to think they might not enjoy working on your project, they can either decline your proposal or quote a higher price than they otherwise would. So don't just knock out your brief in 20 minutes — put some time into it.
Top Tip: Avoid the urge to be prescriptive in your brief. You can show designers other book covers for inspiration, but allow them to make the creative decisions. After all, that’s what you’re paying them for.
3. Different techniques used in book cover design
Even though authors won’t need to know exactly how book jackets are made, you should try to understand the cover design process. In this section, we’ll look at the three basic techniques used by cover designers and discover how much Reedsy’s designers will charge for each.
Stock image manipulation
This is almost always the most cost-effective way to design a cover, as it doesn’t require your designer to create images from scratch. A quick look through your local bookstore will reveal this to be the most common technique used in modern book design.
Professional designers have access to (literally) millions of photos, graphics and illustrations through image libraries like Shutterstock and iStock, as well as more niche image archives. They can license these images, digitally manipulate them, and often combine them with other images to create a unique design. The designer will then lay over the title, author name and any other text to finalize your cover.
In the example above, the designer of Angela Morrison’s Sing Me to Sleep has used a licensed stock image from Shutterstock and ‘manipulated’ it. The woman’s sleeve has been recolored and ‘atmosphere’ has been added in the form of digital snowflakes.
If your designer takes this approach, you should first find out who will pay the image license — the fee paid to the copyright holder for its commercial use. In most cases, the licenses will be paid for by the client in addition to the designer’s base quote.
“There are a lot of libraries out there and their prices can range from $1 per image to $15 and up,” says designer Jake Clark. “Personally, I stick to the lower end of that range to make my services more affordable. There are occasions where I have specifically sought out certain photos that cost more. I usually know that going in and let my client know and adjust my quote accordingly."
In exceptional cases, image licenses can add up to $150. If you wish to use less expensive imagery, simply tell your designer upfront.
Top Tip: When briefing designers on Reedsy, you can choose to only use ‘Royalty Free’ images, for which you won’t need to pay a license. Bear in mind that this will limit your designer’s choices.
Covers created with manipulated stock images will almost always result in the lowest quotes from Reedsy designers.
Average costs of stock image covers for self-published authors on Reedsy:
- Relatively new book designers will charge between $300 and $500
- Experienced designers will charge between $500 and $800
- Top-tier, ‘rockstar’ cover designers will charge between $800 and $1,500
Working with a 'rockstar' designer might seem like a lot of money, but where else can you hire the best in any business for just two-to-three times the cost of a relative newbie? Imagine if Paul McCartney only charged twice as much as a Beatles tribute act to play your birthday party.
Did you know that illustrations can also be obtained through image libraries? When designers create an illustration-style cover, they often base their designs on stock illustrations. But if your book calls for something a bit more specific, your designer will likely spend more time on the project and charge accordingly.
“The amount I’ll charge really depends on what type of illustration I'm doing,” says Jake Clark. “If it’s going to be similar to a Christopher Moore book cover design that is relatively simple, then I likely won't charge anything more. But if it’s going to end up being something similar to a fantasy book cover then I'll charge anywhere from 1.5 to 2x my usual rate.“
Cover design and illustration are, for the most part, different disciplines. Some of the most amazing illustrators on Reedsy have little experience with typography and formatting, while the vast majority of designers do not profess to be skilled illustrators at all. If their prospective clients require an illustration, many designers will either reject the project or tell you that they’re outsourcing that part of the work to another freelancer.
“I've sourced illustrators and brought them in on projects I'm working on,” said Ben Anslow, a UK-based book designer. “The bill’s always been picked up by the publisher, but a lot of variables aside, I work on the assumption that illustrators work on a day rate of about £150–£250 (approx $180-$300).”
If you ask your designer for a complex illustration (like the ones on Scholastic's original Harry Potter covers), you can reasonably expect your budget to double — which will account for either the extra workload or the cost of commissioning a freelancer.
Top Tip: Hire an illustrator to create a cover image first. Once that’s done, you can work with a specialized cover designer to create your layout and arrange the text. This will often result in a lower overall cost and a better outcome.
Plenty of fiction and non-fiction books use original photography for the book cover design. Romance novels and memoirs both spring to mind. However, organizing a photo shoot is no small feat.
“It’s not as simple as hiring a man with a camera,” says London-based portrait photographer Idil Sukan. “A good photographer’s day rate might run to £400 or £500 ($500-$620). They might have their own studio which you can use, but then you still have to factor in licensing fees, models, as well as hair and makeup. The cost of a seemingly simple shoot can rack up to over £1,000 ($1,200).”
Even with this lower-end estimate, professional photography can increase your cover costs by three to four times. But depending on your needs — and how guerilla your designer is — this amount could be less.
“Some designers have small lighting kit setups in their office or studio,” says Ben Anslow. “Also, I know a few designers who often just use themselves — or their wives or girlfriends — as models to save money. Especially if it's just something quite generic, like the back of someone's head or a hand holding an object.”
As a general rule of thumb, a photo shoot should be the last thing on your mind if you’re trying to manage a reasonable budget.
Top Tip: The majority of books published by the Big Five will use pre-existing, licensed images — whether photographs or illustrations. It’s simply the easiest and most cost-effective way to create a cover. Most designers will recommend this approach, unless there’s an unavoidable need for bespoke images.
4. The process of creating a book cover design
Getting the most out of an experienced book jacket designer means understanding their standard approach to working with publishers. This usually involves multiple rounds of designs and refinements.
Stage 1: The First Concept Round
At the initial concept stage, the designer will usually submit a variety of broad concepts. According to our poll of Reedsy professionals, most standard proposals include between three and five initial concepts for the client to choose from.
The author might be torn between a number of covers that they really like, at which point they might ask their friends for an opinion. Some authors will even share the concepts with their social media following before pulling the trigger on a design.
It’s important, at this stage, to be honest with your designer. If you’re not happy with any of the covers, a quick conversation can help you home in on why those concepts didn’t work and allow your designer to return with ideas closer to what you had in mind.
Stage 2: Final Iterations
Once you choose a concept, the next step is to refine that design and polish it into a final book cover design. Some designers will provide you with variations on the original concept so you can see how the cover will look with other fonts, or with a slightly different color or layout, as in the example below.
In our poll, the majority of Reedsy professionals said their standard offers account for two to four rounds of iterations once the concept is chosen. After that, you can still ask for changes but if they are significant, expect to compensate the designer for the extra time.
According to our poll, designers will charge an average of $50-$100 per extra round or an hourly rate of $25-$50. For ‘rockstar’ cover designers, this may be significantly more. However, their level of experience should theoretically limit the need for extra changes
Stage 3: Is it just an ebook, or will you need print covers?
Most self-publishing authors, especially in fiction, only need a front cover for the ebook. If your intention is to also sell paperback and hardback copies, you will also require a cohesive design for your spine and back cover.
“Communications with the client about the actual layout for print with bleed, safe areas, and spine width is much more time-consuming than delivering a front cover design aimed for online use,” we were told by designer/illustrator Anita Sølver. “When designing just the front cover, I don’t have to worry about how it will connect to the spine and back.”
Print-on-demand (POD) services offer dozens of formats to choose from, each of which will have unique dimensions. With each of those formats, the width of the spine will also vary, depending on the precise page count — the longer the book, the wider the spine. Each POD service will also have separate guidelines for submission, which complicates matters further.
Designers with a traditional publishing background have mainly with dealt clients who require a full range of formats. When working with self-publishers, who often only require an ebook cover, they tend to reduce their quote to reflect the work required — hence the difference in price between web-only and print covers.
Some designers are happy to include print layouts as part of their package, but if you’re certain you only need an ebook-only cover, they will often reduce their quotes by 20-30%. Equally, freelancers who offer quotes for just a front cover may add another 25-50% if additional formats are needed.
5. How to get the best cover for less money
To get a clearer picture of how you might keep your cover budget reasonable without losing any creativity and quality, let’s recap some of the points above.
Improve the quality of your brief
We’ve already mentioned the importance of a good, clear brief. If designers feel that you are a sensible collaborator with an exciting project, there’s a greater chance they’ll want to work with you at a reasonable price. At the most basic level, you need a well-written brief with no spelling and grammar errors.
Allow your designer to use stock images
If you’re on a tight budget, let your designer show you what they can do without expensive photo shoots and bespoke illustrations. Most books from top publishers will have designs created by manipulating library images, and this should certainly be your first consideration — unless you write in a genre (epic fantasy) where most of the covers are illustrated.
Be flexible with your timescale
As the old maxim goes, you can pick only two out of three: good, cheap, and fast. Don’t leave your cover design to the last minute; if you ask a designer to create a cover by the end of the week, you will sacrifice quality or end up paying more for the rush job.
Take into account your designer’s level of experience
Talent and creativity are hard to quantify. However, someone's experience is pretty easy to see — especially on a platform like Reedsy’s. As designer Lauren Harms puts it: “The designer's quote will hopefully give you a clear picture of the experience you will get working with them.”
Consider how many concept rounds and iterations you need
Discuss with your designer how many concepts they’ll be creating for you, as well as the number of iterations they expect for your project. Some designers may be happy to reduce their quote if you don’t require as many initial concepts and design rounds. Bear in mind that this leaves little room for error. Any additional work you need will have to be paid for at a rate negotiated with your designer.
Seeing how book cover design is mostly about visuals, here's an infographic that distils a lot of the points made above.
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Have you avoided hiring professional designers in the past? Do you feel it’s more important for books to stand out in their genre, or blend in and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with bestsellers? Let us know your thoughts and questions in the comments box below.