Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert and advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. At an event where I was talking about getting started with self-publishing, one of the attendees told me that he went to a "get your book done this weekend" type seminar. The seminar leaders encouraged attendees to get a book cover design done BEFORE the manuscript. What? Why? Their rationale for this cart-before-horse suggestion was that authors seeing their beautifully designed book covers would be motivated to get their books done. Did it work? Well, this guy STILL didn't have his book done, which was why he was attending this event on getting started.
So I'm gonna call shenanigans (or self-publishing scam) on that strategy.
Book cover design...it's the one thing I see so many self-published authors agonize over, often needlessly, and spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on hiring graphic designers to create covers for them. But is a stellar book cover really necessary to be successful at self-publishing? Well, yes and no.
Traditional Book Cover Design Focuses on Retail, But Should Focus Online for Self-Publishing
Let's get something straight right away. Book cover design is a critical element for marketing books in retail settings. Traditionally published book covers seek to grab attention from shoppers who will physically wander by stacks and shelves full of books.
Are most self-published authors in retail? Of course not! Designing for brick-and-mortar retail appeal is futile and, in fact, is not what's needed for self published books that will primarily be sold online! That is a completely different animal when it comes to design.
Online, a book's cover will be seen in a thumbnail size, maybe around an inch or so in height... and in pixels. So simplicity is key.
Sadly, graphic designers will often show authors their designs in print at full-blown brick-and-mortar retail size. If the book will be sold in physical locations, such as at the back-of-the-room (BOR) at events, this might be a bit of a concern (a very little bit as we'll discuss later). But the design should be evaluated as it would be viewed online.
Tip: If using a graphic designer for a book cover for online sales, ask to view any potential design as a JPEG at thumbnail sizes (about 1" to 1-1/2" high).
Online, a book's cover will be seen in a thumbnail size, maybe around an inch or so in height... and in pixels. So simplicity is key... the design should be evaluated as it would be viewed online.
— Heidi Thorne
Do Readers Really Buy Your Book Because of Its Cover?
Fans Buy Because You Wrote the Book
Scenario: You're an author speaking at an event. Throughout and after your talk, you tell your audience about your book that they can buy at the back of the room. You've primed your audience to be interested in buying your book. Do you think they're going to go to the book table and scrutinize whether it looks like a book worth buying because of how the cover looks? Of course not! They want it because YOU wrote it and want a memento of their time with you. And chances are it'll be one of the ONLY—if not THE only—book for sale at the event.
Again, because self-published books are usually not sold in traditional physical retail settings where "shoppers" must be visually lured to products, a self-published book cover design is important but secondary.
Interestingly, this applies online, too, where authors may be featuring one or a few of their titles on their websites. If visitors are interested in you and what you have to say, they're interested in your book, regardless of the sophistication of the book cover. Usually, the low cost or free tools and services offered by a self-publishing platform are sufficient to create something usable, but not pricey.
Tip: Don't feel that an expensive graphic design is required to make your book sales-worthy in a nontraditional selling scenario. Build your author platform so that readers will be more inclined to buy what you say and sell, even if your design isn't perfect.
Professionally Designed Book Cover versus Profits
Self-publishing platforms have come a long way. Today, sites such as Amazon's Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) have cover creation tools that are not only easy to use, but often low cost or free. With income from self publishing being a gamble, using as many of these budget-saving tools as are available can help keep costs from spiraling out of control and can quicken your return on investment (ROI) from your book. Even better is that the book cover layout templates available do not require design skill to achieve an acceptable cover.
Also be aware that every little alteration you make to a designer's book cover layout may be at a cost to you. Those alterations may be charged to you at the designer's hourly rate which can add up quickly. A number of my clients discovered this issue when they hired designers for various graphics projects, then were annoyed at the couple hundred bucks they'd be charged for every future change.
Tip: Experiment with low cost, or even free, cover creation tools offered by self-publishing platforms to see if you can create an acceptable book cover without hiring a graphic designer. This will help you make more money if you're just starting out. If the book is successful, you can explore hiring a professional designer for future and revised editions.
Is There a Case for Hiring a Graphic Designer for Your Self-Published Book Cover?
With all the above being said, there may be occasions where a designer should be called to assist with a self published book. If the book must match some branding elements and/or if a designer is already handling the business' advertising and marketing work, it might make sense. The designer already has all the colors, logos, fonts, etc. on tap and can easily create a cover that coordinates with existing materials and branding.
In addition to being familiar with book cover design, make sure that any designer you hire is aware of and designs for the environments in which the book will be sold, such as online which was discussed earlier. Need an example of how relevant this point is? One need only look at all the billboard bloopers obviously designed by graphic artists unfamiliar with their media.
Also, getting the opinion of a design professional on a cover you personally created with free cover creation tools might be helpful if you're really unsure of a finished design you created yourself. But be aware that these pros may try to sell you on how they could have done it better (and why you should hire them to fix your "mess"). Respecting their professional opinion and time by paying them a fee to professionally review your design might help quell the sell... and you'll learn something from a pro's opinion.
Tip: If hiring a book cover designer, look for those that are familiar with book cover design (not all are!) and with designing for self-publishing and online sales. If you can locate one that's familiar with the self-publishing platform and cover creation tools you're using, that's a plus.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: How do I find a designer that is doing the interior design of the book and not just formatting it? Is the price supposed to increase just because you have text in a border or bullets?
Answer: To determine whether your designer candidates will be "designing" your book, as opposed to "formatting" it, you have to look at some samples of their work. They should be willing to show that to you, or even have that on their website.
If you're looking on sites like Fiverr for designers, they often show their work. And they're usually pretty clear about whether it's formatting or design. If you have a question about which one they do, ask! You might want to ask what program they'll be using. If it's Microsoft Word, it's formatting. If it's the likes of Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, etc., then it's probably designed.
And, yes, the more styling (borders, bullets, etc.) that you require, the more expensive it will get.
© 2016 Heidi Thorne
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 21, 2017:
Hi again aesta1! Agreed, simple is always best. Thanks for the kind words. Have a great day!
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 21, 2017:
These are really helpful. Simpler is better. I see your cover and I think it is great.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 01, 2016:
Happy Monday, Teaches! Glad you found it useful. Thanks so much for checking it out. Have a terrific week!
Dianna Mendez on August 01, 2016:
Another great post on writing. I will keep this in mind when the time comes to hire a graphic designer.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 25, 2016:
Thanks again, AliciaC! Happy Monday and week ahead to you, too!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 24, 2016:
Thanks for sharing some more excellent advice, Heidi. I hope the week ahead is a good one for you.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 24, 2016:
Billybuc, the key, as you note, is a "working relationship" with a designer. Then it does make sense to offload a duty like graphic design to the pros. They understand your needs and can, almost always, do it cheaper, better, faster than you can by yourself. But for those starting out with no budget and no connections, blindly hiring an expensive graphic designer can put them in the no-profit zone.
Glad it's "perfectly pleasant" in your neck of the country. We're on maybe day 5 of 90-ish temp highs with 100+ heat index ("it's not the heat, it's the humidity") here in Chi-town. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 24, 2016:
Great points as always. I have a working relationship with another writer from HP...we kind of barter for each other's services, so book covers really don't cost me that much, and they always end up better than I could have done......Happy Sunday from the perfectly pleasant Pacific Northwest.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 24, 2016:
True that, Flourish! I'm just dumbfounded by some of the stories I hear about self publishing scams and programs. These "creative" scam masters know that people are so anxious to get published that they'll believe almost anything. Thanks for chiming in and chuckling with me! Have a great rest of the weekend!
FlourishAnyway from USA on July 23, 2016:
Good points here! I hadn't thought of it this way! You do have to give creativity points to the scammer who came up with the cart before the horse idea. I like that one.