DIY book cover design—Part 1: Should you design your own cover?

This is the first post in a string of entries about do-it-yourself book cover design. I'll be writing new entries in the series over the coming weeks and months. Considering how many authors are creating their own book covers these days, how many times I've been asked to share tips about the same, and the fact of my "retirement" from book cover design, it seemed appropriate to write this series now, and leave a few helpful pieces of advice in my exiting wake. 

Let me start with a couple of things: why you should listen to anything I say, and why you should stop reading this series now and go hire a cover designer.

Why you should listen to anything I say: 
I'm a career designer. Since 1998 I've designed everything from web sites to mobile apps, and just about everything in between, with the exception of billboards. No, wait—I've done billboards, too. I've been a grunt designer and I've been a creative director. I've done work for clients from Netflix and Apple to Samsung and HP. Since I began self-publishing my own novels in 2013, I've designed a few hundred book covers, not only for my own books but for other indie authors and for traditional publishers and established authors as well. (You can poke through a selection of my cover design work here.) 

...and why you should stop reading this series now, and go hire a cover designer:
Book cover designers are a special breed of designer. They're often exceptionally skilled at conceptual design, and yet take into consideration a number of external factors when creating their work: cover design trends that are played out, tropes and expectations of specific genres, at-a-glance readability of a cover, and so forth. They're usually seasoned professionals with a deep understanding of their tools as well as the market's expectations and a target audience's pleasure receptors. Book cover design is explicitly commercial; there are two entities whose opinion of a cover matters far more than yours, the author of said book: book buyers, and book readers. In other words: the people who buy inventory for physical bookstores, and the people who want to read a good book. Book cover designers consider all of these factors when creating a cover design. If you're casually interested in book cover design, or you're interested because you once designed an invitation for your grandson's christening, I strongly advise abandoning this series now, and hiring someone to work some magic for your book. (I recommend my exceptional friends at The Book Designers, or perhaps the talented Mike Corley.) 

Still here? Alright. Let's talk about why you might want to design your own book cover.

Here are a few common rationales I hear from authors:

  • "Hiring a designer is expensive. My books aren't bestsellers yet; how could I justify spending $500 on a cover design?"
  • "My cover designer is unresponsive, or maybe just lazy. I haven't seen a single concept in weeks."
  • "Look at how simple these other book covers are. I could do that. I've got this "Paint" program on my computer. I bet I could use that."

These are all valid reasons to question hiring a book cover designer, but I'd argue that none of them is the right reason to undertake designing your own cover. If your cover design budget is small, there are plenty of affordable cover designers to be found on sites like Kboards or community-sourced design sites like Fiverr or 99 Designs. (Often you get what you pay for with these kinds of sites; keep that in mind.) If your current designer isn't working at a pace you're comfortable with, or hasn't learned how to manage the administrative side of their business, then perhaps firing them is a good place to start. And it's admirable that you might consider yourself capable of designing a cover, but in most cases, this is something I strongly advise against, for many reasons, not the least of which is that you're probably not a designer by trade. 

The posts in this series assume a few things:

  • That you're a reasonably artistic sort (meaning you understand when something is aesthetically pleasing, and that you immediately know when it isn't)
  • That you currently have access to graphic design software (I'll specifically be referring to Adobe Photoshop throughout the series, as this is my own tool of choice)
  • That you're willing to iterate on your design, not immediately publish your first effort
  • That you sincerely want to create a cover that might reasonably be mistaken for a professional one, and not simply a 'passable' one

If that describes you and where you're coming from, then this is the right series for you. I'm going to follow this now with a disclaimer: There are literally hundreds if not thousands of different ways to design a quality book cover. In the series, I'll be sharing how I do it, which does not mean that this is the only way or even the best way to do it. If you're a fellow designer, or if you know of a more efficient way to do anything I describe in these posts, then by all means chime in with a comment, and share your own point of view. Be nice about it, of course, but we're all here to learn, and there's no one perfect teacher for this sort of thing. 

In upcoming posts, we'll look at each of the steps that I take when I consider a cover design project, and when actually creating the cover. I'll share the essential tools that I use, show you how I set up a design file, talk about how you decide what you're designing, discuss how to find useful artwork, simple ways to composite images into a scene, how to select the appropriate typeface, and how to export your work in the proper format. Along the way I'll use examples from my portfolio and from my own books to show you how these things come together. 

If that sounds like fun to you, then stick around! There's fun stuff to come. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter or Facebook, and subscribe to my blog so you don't miss future installments of the series. 

Click here to see all of the current entries in this series.

Thanks for reading!

DIY book cover design—Part 2: Tools and essentials

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