17 Tips on how to commission your ebook cover design

If you are planning to e-publish your book on Amazon and elsewhere, one of the biggest questions you’ll face is how to commission a cover that will sell your story, or non-fiction book, as hard and as effectively as possible. Needless to say, this is a game without rules – but it’s certainly an area where guidelines will help. Here are our top tips.

Utterly simple. Instantly communicative.

Utterly simple. Instantly communicative.

1. Don’t be too specific
Unless you are a designer (and maybe even then), you should avoid thinking that you know what you want. You probably don’t. The perfect book cover will be one that you only know when you see it. If your design brief is hyper-detailed: (“I want a kitchen table and a silver coffee pot, and an Aga-style cooker in front of a cottage window …”) you really aren’t giving the designer any room to use their best imagination.

2. Don’t be too literal
Let’s say your book is called The Parting, you might be tempted to depict a parting on the front cover. So you might go for two lovers, with outstretched arms, torn apart. Maybe you might even have a tear-line ripping down the middle of the book. That says Parting, doesn’t it? So it must be a good cover, right?

Well, actually, no, not at all. It’s way too literal. You need a cover to convey a mood, not a word. So a much better cover would be a cafe table with two seats, but only one cup of coffee. Perhaps one person (a woman, probably) in the shot, but only half seen. And that gives you all you need. The title – which conveys loss – and a picture which in that context tells you something about the post-parting atmosphere. Beautiful, simple – and oblique. Anything too direct will almost certainly feel heavy handed.

Look how un-literal this cover is (for a domestic thriller). An upside-down flower. Genius!

Look how un-literal this cover is (for a domestic thriller). An upside-down flower. Genius!

3. Do be specific about atmosphere
Your cover designer is not going to read your book, so they won’t know about setting, atmosphere, mood, protagonist or anything else, unless you tell them. So let’s take that idea we just discarded (the coffee pot and and Aga cooker one), a good way of sending the right kind of message to the designer might be as follows:

“This book is a quiet domestic drama set in rural Ireland. The protagonist is a 34 year old Irish woman, living quietly alone in a pleasant rural cottage.”

You might even want to offer more texture than that, but you can see what you’re trying to do. You’re giving the kind of guidance that might indeed end up with coffee-pots/Agas/cottage-windows … but which also might express the same kind of domesticities in a million other ways too.

strange-death-of-fiona-griffiths-high-res

The right image – plus a little texturing & typography – is often all you need.

4. Do offer sample images
By all means, include a section in your design brief which says, “The following images evoke the kind of landscape I have in mind,” and then includes let’s say 8-12 smallish images, copied from Google images, which convey the kind of landscape you have in mind.

And of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to landscapes. Just offer a collection of the kind of images (cities, people, homes, lakes, whatever) that cover the approximate territory you have in mind. Again, don’t be too specific. Don’t search for the perfect image. For one thing, the perfect image may be copyright and not available for purchase. For another thing, you are the author, not the designer. Give the designer room to breathe. Offering a wider spread of images is a good way to encourage creativity in your designer.

5. Do mention authors who write in your niche
If you are writing a quiet Irish-set romance, then refer the designer to a handful of authors who write in the same area. Partly, there may well be designers who know those authors and who will get instantly what kind of book you are writing. But partly too, any competent designer will head straight to Amazon to see what others are doing. That means that a designer stands the best chance of being able to create a design that acknowledges the current market trends, while adding a genuinely original tweak or two.

If you like this, tell your designer. And if you half like it (Great image, don't like the typography), then say that. It's all key info.

If you like this, tell your designer. And if you half like it (Great image, don’t like the typography), then say that. It’s all key info.

6. Do refer the designer to book covers, in your genre, that you like
It will really help a designer if you say, “I like the following book covers” and include thumbnails of (let’s say) a dozen or so books that you rate. If you come across covers where you really love the image but don’t rate the typography, for example, then say so. It doesn’t matter if you find yourself liking both pale-and-mysterious images for a crime novel, let’s say, and dark-and-bloody ones. If your taste includes both areas, then it’s fine to let the designer know. It’s their job to interpret your guidance to come up with a cover that pleases you. If you try to hard to be consistent in your choices, you are quite likely excluding some possible covers that would, in fact, delight you.

7. Do include all cover text
The designer needs to know what elements they have to handle in the cover design. So if you want title and author name and shout line and puff or review, then you need to tell the designer upfront. If you don’t, you risk evolving a brilliant design which then becomes cluttered with an excess of text.

[A shout line, by the way means something like this: “In rural Ireland, nobody hears you … make cream”. A puff or review is something like this: “Wonderfully dull. Literally nothing ever happens.” – Maeve Binchy. Don’t make up reviews. And remember that jokes which seem funny to you at the time, don’t tend to seem funny on the page.]

These thoughts bring us to rule 7a:

Brilliant! Text only – but fabulous.

7a. Keep cover text very economical
Title – yes, fine, but don’t let that title exceed six words or so, unless you want a purely typographical cover. Author’s name – well, hell, yes, you’re not going to leave that off, are you? Shout line or puff: hmm. It’s easy to decide to cram text in, but remember that the more text you have, the simpler your actual design needs to be. You can’t have any real complexity in the image if you have a lot of text – and for most books, the image should take priority. Note that you’ll see lots of successful commercial covers that do have a fair bit of text, but that’s because they’re saying things like ‘#1 international bestseller’ or quotes from major national newspapers. If your text is not equally strong – and it won’t be – then you probably want to prioritise the image.

8. Be open to purely typographic covers
There are some fantastic text-only covers out there, like the one just above. If your book could handle a text-only design, don’t write a design brief that blocks that route. If your genre is commercial fiction, you probably need an image. But upmarket fiction and anything non-fictiony can certainly handle a text-only design.

cover-vincenzi

Coat. Steps. Done!

9. Keep the image simple. Think thumbnail.
Simple images work. Complex ones don’t. Complex ones don’t even work at full-size – but they are car-crashes when seen at thumbnail size. And if your thumbnail view doesn’t work, you will get no eyeballs on your book page anyway. So keep it SIMPLE.

That means, probably, two main visual elements only:

  • A woman’s coat, plus a flight of steps. Bingo, that’s a cover.
  • A guy’s back, walking away from a burning building. Bingo, that’s a cover.
  • A rowing boat, rocking at a misty jetty. Bingo, that’s a cover.
  • A woman walking up a flight of steps, while a flock of doves fly overhead, a rosebush smothers a garden wall and a pair of wedding rings glint from a silver bowl, shown in inset format … that’s not a book cover, it’s a car-wreck. It’s a total mess and will never work and never sell your book.
Woman looking at water

Woman looking at water

10. Cliches are good
You know us. We’re the Writers’ Workshop. We hate cliches. They’re like a red rag to a bull to us. We will rewrite text a million times rather than allow the merest whiff of cliche to invade our precious text.

But that’s the text! On the cover, we LOVE cliche. Or, to be precise, we love the instant communication that the cliches offer. So you can laugh all you like about the familiar cliches of the front-of-store book tables – but if you follow that link, you’ll see that nearly all the covers they’re laughing at are really good covers. Man lurking by fence: yes, a cliche, but what atmospheric covers! Woman in long white dress: yes, a cliche, but what lovely, buyable covers those are! And so on.

Cliches work because they quickly (i) identify the type of book, (ii) appeal to the right kind of audience, and (iii) encourage a casual browser to click through to find out more about the book itself. (You’ll also notice, by the way, that the cliched covers keep it simple, reinforcing our earlier point about the beauties of simplicity.)

This was an original illustration commissioned for the purpose. But this book one the Costa Prize. Yours is not that book. Keep the budget sensible - you'll get better results.

This was an original illustration commissioned for the purpose. But this book won the Costa Prize. Yours is not that book. Keep the budget sensible – you’ll get better results.

11. Be realistic
Nearly all books put out by publishers use stock images from image libraries, that are combined and tweaked and textured and layered in ways that make them look amazing. Your designer will have access to commercial image libraries and should be able to find things that you love that impose no additional cost on you beyond that initial design fee. And a good designer will be able to use those images to create something every bit as good as those produced by a trad publisher.

But that’s all. If you want a hand-crafted illustration by a pro illustrator or painter, you are instantly talking loads of dosh … plus you are sort of committed upfront. So if you buy £500 or £1000 worth of an illustrator’s time, you kind of have to use the image that results, even if that’s not really quite the image you had in your mind.

So, unless you have stupid amounts of money to throw at this (in which case, you might possibly be stupid), just forget about commissioning an original illustration. You do NOT need to do that to create a wonderful cover. Most pro covers never use anything beyond those cheap/free stock images. I’ve had more than a dozen books published, and those dozen have typically been published in multiple countries across the world, and not a single one of those book covers used an orginal illustration. Heed the lesson! (Oh and those stock libraries DO include drawings, so if you want a drawing of Paris, let’s say, then tell the designer to find one. Don’t commission your own.)

12. Don’t use your cousin / brother / aunt / friend / drug-dealer / reiki masseuse
They aren’t pro designers and even if they are, they almost certainly aren’t pro book cover designers. And that, remember, is the project on which you are now engaged. And also, you can’t say to your cousin / brother / aunt / friend / drug-dealer / reiki masseuse after they’ve spent 20 hours on your cover, “You know what? I know we’ve put a lot of work into this, but on reflection, I don’t think that cover looks right. Do you have any other ideas at all?” And you have to be able to say that. If you feel you can’t, you have the wrong designer.

13. Don’t please yourself, please the reader
You aren’t always the best person to make the final decision on cover, as the book is highly personal to you. DO get the views of other readers, but DON’T allow the final choice to be decided by a simple poll. When you get feedback from readers, you need to think hard about how much weight to give each bit of feedback. If you are writing gentle chick-lit, then the views of someone who reads that kind of thing are much more significant than someone who doesn’t. Equally, someone who is trying to please you is much less useful than someone who just expresses their view and doesn’t give a damn about what you think. You want honesty, here, not touchy-feeliness.

This designer got the hat ... or turban, anyway.

This designer got the hat … or turban, anyway.

14. Demand the hat
I read a book by a sell-a-million-on-Kindle type author, which contained the following anecdote (and apologies for not referencing the book: I just haven’t been able to place the quote.)

A Jewish grandmother takes her grandson to the beach. He’s wearing his swimsuit, his sunhat and all is well … until he is swept away by a giant wave. The grandmother shakes her fist at heaven and shouts at God, “Have I not been your faithful servant? Have I not kept the law? Raised a family? Honoured you in all that I do? Now give me back my grandson.” Sure enough, the clouds part, there is a rumble of thunder, and a second giant wave deposits the grandson on the beach unharmed. The grandmother inspects her child, then once again yells upwards, “HE WAS WEARING A HAT!”

Moral of that fine story: don’t be satisfied until you are really, truly satisfied in every detail. If you have any kind of personal relationship with the designer, you can’t be obstreperous about the very last shade of red in the shout line. And you have to be that obstreperous if you want a perfect book cover.

15. Always consider the thumbnail
Some designs look great at full size and just dwindle down to nothing when they get to Amazon’s thumbnail view (which is a mere 160 pixels high). Take a look at these covers for example:

cover-kindle

The first of those three covers has text which is more or less illegible, and the image itself seems muddy and unappealing viewed at this small scale. The second image at least achieves clarity – we can see the window, the old man, and the colours are bright and clear.But the text itself is illegible. Yes, you can check the title from Amazon’s own text, but the cover here isn’t fully doing its job. In fact, it’s only the third image which actually works in thumbnail view – it basically works as well as the full size version of that image.

(OK, arguably, the second cover also works because that book was a bestseller, so a good number of people seeing the thumbnail will be reminded positively of the book’s fame and popularity. But that doesn’t apply to you – and the first image is just a fail.)

This is the cover I purchased via 99designs. It is, in my view, much better than the cover originally given to the book by HarperCollins.

This is the cover I purchased via 99designs. It is, in my view, much better than the cover originally given to the book by HarperCollins.

16. Put the assignment out to tender
More controversial this one, but I personally would recommend using a contest-based service to select your designer. The idea of these services is that you put your brief online, and thousands of designers review that brief to see if it’s something that appeals to their creativity. With a good service, you’ll get 100+ designs to choose from. You can rate them, discard them, encourage modifications, and massage your way to a shortlist, then a finalist.

Many of the designs you get will be, quite frankly, poor – but unless you really try to low-ball the budget, you should get a slew of really attractive designs from which to make your selection. Services that offer this kind of system include 99designs, Designcrowd, elance and others.

There are two huge advantages of this service: (1) you get a massive range of ideas and approaches to choose from, and (2) because you will start working in detail only with an idea that is very close to cooked, from your point of view, you won’t suffer from the don’t-demand-the-hat problem mentioned above. In terms of budget, I would think you should be setting aside about £350 / $500 if you are genuinely ambitious for your work. You can get the job done for less, but your odds of a not-quite-good-enough cover go down the more you low-ball it.

17. The seventeenth tip
And finally: covers are essential to piquing the reader’s interest, but no book has ever sold well on Amazon unless it tells a good story and is presented properly. If you want to be a pro author (and that includes any indie author who genuinely wants to make sales) you have to be even more obsessive about your text than you are about your cover design. That means getting professional feedback on your text and it means making sure that the copyediting is up to scratch (even if it doesn’t quite have to be as good as a professionally published text.) We offer both those services and we are excellent at both things. If you really want to make a go of your book, don’t get a perfect cover that encloses a so-so text. Get both things right. Click here for more on our editorial services – and go get yourself a fabulous book.

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3 Responses to 17 Tips on how to commission your ebook cover design

  1. What about giving some guidelines to help establish a brand? Not everyone will release a series of books, but isn’t that worth keeping in the back of your mind? Seems to me that if you ever release a sequel, having some commonality between the covers is not a bad idea.

  2. Pingback: How to self publish a book on Amazon Kindle (KDP) | Literary Agents Advice

  3. Pingback: Author website essentials: a 9 part writer toolkit | Literary Agents Advice

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