Top Tips, Help and Thoughts on How to Design a Good Kindle Book Cover: 01 – The Function of a Book Design & Author Branding

I’m James, the designer of over 10,000 pre-made books covers at GoOnWrite.com. I’ve been in the game for many years and I enjoy it immensely and now it’s time for me to share my thoughts on book cover design with you in this weekly blog. This blog is aimed at everyone; whether you’re a budding cover designer, an author designing your own covers or authors who commission designers and want to know what to look for. Get regular updates by either following me on WordPress here, Twitter @humblenations or by signing up for my mailing here.


Book Cover Design Functionality

Before we get into the real meat of my guide as to what makes good cover design,  want I want to do is start at the beginning and give you a solid foundation with regards to design in general, to work from, before you even decide what you want on your book cover. To achieve that I’m going to have to (probably) change your mind as to what design actually is.

Of course, you know what design is, you’ll be saying to yourself at this point. Okay. What’s good design? Stop reading a moment and give yourself to think.

Right done that?

Okay, you’ve probably said to yourself something along the lines of “Good design something that looks good / pretty / beautiful.”

Wrong.

Yes, wrong.

That’s not what design is. What something looks like is a by-product of something that is professionally designed but it’s not the design itself. This is probably sounding a little odd to you here. So let me try and explain.

Let’s take the design of a chair. What’s the point of a chair. It’s something to sit on. So what makes good chair design?

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You may say to yourself, “oh, I know that, a well-designed chair should be comfortable.” But is that really the case? What happens if I’m designing chairs for a fast food restaurant maybe I want a fast turn-over of customers, so I require the complete opposite of your ‘comfy’ concept. Uncomfortable seating is good design for our fast-food restaurant. Or I’m fitting seats in a football stadium, then I need to design something where I can fit as many as possible in the given space and the durability is important. These are the functions that the design needs to fulfil.

But why all this talk of chair when we’re talking about book covers?

The answer is simple, I’m illustrating that good design is less to do with its aesthetic qualities and has a greater grounding in the function of what design is trying to achieve. If it better fulfils the function for which it is intended then by definition it is a superior design. Whether it’s getting bums on seats, bums off seats or squeezing in as many bums as you can into a space.

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This is the first step in understand what good book cover design is, by taking apart the functions it needs to achieve. And that, and that along should be your starting point for thinking about what you want on your cover and how you’re going to design the cover.

Function. Function. Function. Function. Function. Nothing else.

But you say, the function of a book cover is simply to look good. We need to erase that concept from your way of thinking and we’ll start from the ground up. And as you’ll see from the first few weeks of this guide, there are more things to consider. Merely looking good doesn’t cut it. And it’s the wrong way of thinking about it.

And by way of showing you’re wrong when you say “looking good is the function of good book cover design” let me show you some good examples of ugly covers that have wonderful designs because they fulfils their function pretty well:

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So it’s not all about having pretty pretty designs. That’s not what good design. I see I’m going to have my work cut out with this concept here but over the space of the next five weeks I’m going to cover the five most important functions of what good book cover design should be.

  • Author Branding;
  • Catch the Eye;
  • Reflect Quality;
  • Set-up Reader Expectancy; and
  • Confound and Intrigue.

Let’s make a start this week:

Function 1: Author Branding

It’s nice to start here because as a book cover designer it really winds me up when it’s not considered an important function by authors. To me as a design I feel it’s vital. If I’m being honest her with you I can’t stand it when an author comes to me for a new cover and they change their author branding from one book to the next. So their shelf of books they’re offering ends up looking something like this.

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Rather than a nicely matched version like this:

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Although a book cover is no more than an advert for selling the contents of the book, the real art is your writing, and with that in mind let me ask you a question: how often does a big successful brands change their logo? Are their adverts all different? And the way they present themselves? Nike? McDonalds? Apple?

“They never change their logo,” I’ll here you say, “it’s always that swoosh, the gold arches, the apple with the bite out of it.”

Well done you!

They look like this:

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You’re right of course, or you are to a certain extent, if we’re being pedantic, those swooshes, the arches and the apple have been slightly altered over the years. But this proves one really important point here. They never do a complete rebrand, maybe some subtle evolution. Nothing really changes when it comes to these brands. The swoosh, the arches and the apple are all instantly recognisable simple symbols that are just there everywhere.

Big business knows the psychology of this and the importance of brand awareness. You see the swoosh on the trainers and tops, the apple on backs of laptops, phones and tablet and those crappy arches advertising crappy burgers everywhere, and on all the packaging. It’s like Chinese water torture for the eyes, simple shapes trying to submit the consumer. And it works.

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Now, you’ll be saying to yourself, “But I’m not in the business of big business, I’m just a writer.” Why should this matter to me? It should matter because it’s a crowded market place. And it’s simply a numbers game. Let’s do some fun maths to show you what I mean.

A Little Game for You

Imagine there are five writers that have written five books each and let’s hypothetically say that out of the five writers only one of them has branded all their books the same and all the other four writers have completely different covers. Who has the written the most books? You’re going to say all people have written the same amount of books. Five. But really is that the way a potential reader see it? Look for yourself at an example.

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And if someone keeps coming across the same standard form on a cover what will happen is that the author’s branding will start to go into a potential reader’s brain. And then we’re in the land of confirmation bias, because I see that style of book a lot, and the memory can recall them all, then it must be good – because why would have the brain remembered it. Or that’s the way the psychology works. It seems as though that author is everywhere and really good we’re tricked into thinking.

Now of course when we’re talking about ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million people all writing books for Kindle you’ll say that it doesn’t make a difference. But why not give yourself the best chance of people locking onto your brand by doing this. By saying … this is ME! This is always ME!

Not Just Books

And when it comes to reinforcing your author branding it also doesn’t just mean your books themselves, this should also include your social media, your blogs, other things that potential readers might see. Once you’re doing this you’re starting to ingrain who you are in people minds with just simple shapes or a house style in the form of standard fonts and colour palette you use for all your work.

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It’s a good way to reinforce your author brand before you have a big well-heard-of name, because people remember shapes and colours better than they remember names.

MYTH BUSTING: Author Branding Only for a Series

So at this point I’m going to have some authors reading this saying to themselves, “yes it makes if all the books are in a series. What if I have different sets of books in different series? I write erotica, I write thriller, I write some paranormal romance. These all need to be be different.”

To that I simply say: poppycock.

Are you saying that you don’t want people to remember you and you want to defragment and dilute your ‘numbers game’ presence out there? You don’t want your readers to read your different genres of book? How dare my erotica following read my thriller novels! They should know you for the author that you are and should see that.

So if our, now infamous, ‘Mark Dale’ start writing a more Cozy Mystery instead of his more hard line thriller he should change his branding. Nah.

This is what it would look like.

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Or, if he was smart he’d keep his house style … yes the books look different but it’s his font and his placement on this new series. He’s still using his brand. And this the way it should be done.

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This is Odd: The Branding Inverse

Now big publishing house understand Author Branding all too well. Which is why you’ll see book after book all with the same branding of an author. But something else curious happens when it comes to bestselling authors. You’ll get, what I’ll call “the new book design cycle” when all the covers are redesigned together again. Which is why you see so many books with different covers. Personally I’m a massive fan of this and all authors should do the same, because that would give me a loads of work … ha!

Here are some good examples from a couple of my favourite authors. Will Self when releasing The Butt got a nice make over from his publisher on many of his books:

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And the ever popular Murakami seems to get lots of make overs and they’re always lovely (they’re not a series … they’re just his novels):

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So why do publishing houses go through expensive exercise of doing this? Well that’s pretty simple really, humans like order. We tend to feel a great amount of satisfaction when we have everything neatly lined up and matching.

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So when a new books comes out, it’s reviewed in the press, the author does the rounds of book signings, it will be advertised everywhere, and people who get into this author for the first time will see the book they’re been hearing all the good things about, go out and buy that book. But what’s this here on the shelf right next to it. A whole stack of other books that look same. Interesting. They look that same, they must be as good as this book I’ve been hearing about. They have to be. Look they’re in the same style of cover. How nicely they’ll look together on my shelves. And I bet they’re as good as each other. I’ll buy a couple more.

Believe me I’ve done it before with the Murakami books. And I’m one of those annoying sort of people that think they don’t fall for marketing gimmicks. But wait a minute I did!

Even if we’re talking kindle books the same thing happens. Readers love to look through their library and see that all the books are linked together in some way.

Do as I Say, and as I Do

If you don’t believe I take Author Branding deadly seriously, and that I think author branding is utterly vital (if you’re writing more than one book), then just take a look at the branding on my books (I write myself too). I have my own branding style, my own font I used all the time, I have a strong playful palette and the name is always in the same place in the same font, like a logo.

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And it’s not just fiction, there’s a memoir in there, a comedy self-help book and there is a non-fiction book (the one that this blog will be turned into). I don’t really care that the style doesn’t fit the accepted norm of what that genre of book should look like. What’s more important for people to know that they all came from me. And my style of writing is playful and whimsical in all my books. So I try and embody that in the ‘Reader Expectancy’ of my brand’s style. I prize this function of good cover design probably higher than any other, but that’s just me. I mean look my covers are hardly masterpieces but they are functional from a branding point of view.

Cynical, Moi?

And if you think that branding is a cynical marketing way of approaching getting other people to experience your art and you feel that all the pieces of art you create (i.e.  your books) are all different, let me put it this way: were all of Picasso’s or Van Gogh’s painting different pieces of art work? No, you exactly know who made their art. It’s right there on the cover (i.e. the painting itself)! If you don’t brand yourself as an author you’re killing your sideways selling. Imagine if Picasso painted just one cubist painting?

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Do you think he would have sold more or less works of art, or become as famous? Take a hint from the masters of the twentieth century and reinforce the style you develop.

A Final Word: Have You Noticed Someone Whilst Reading This?

It’s no coincidence that I’ve been using the same completely made up author throughout this article. Can you remember his name? Maybe, maybe not. But through repetition you start to know exactly what his Author Branding is for all his books. Close your eyes and I bet you can see his style. Go on, do it. That’s what branding is. Our little piece of Chinese water torture. And you should be doing it.

Next week … Function 2: Catching the Eye.


Take Action: With Me

If you want me to brand all your covers the same I can do that. There is something called a ‘Brand Lock’ on my Design Extras page. If you’ve already got covers from and you already have lots of non-branded covers from GoOnWrite I can apply this retrospectively to all your old covers and re-brand them in a single style for you for the same price. And if you’ve never used my services for cover design, you can always start to do so, just email me at humblenations@gmail.com, or visit my website:

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How Fiction Works

Before I start the fun task of getting down and actually writing in long hand, at my desk, with a good old pen and notebook, when I start a new project (usually a short story), I have a little ritual. But this always includes the task of going through my favourite book on writing How Fiction Works by James Wood. My copy is heavily annotated and I can quickly get my head in the writing frame of mind within a twenty minutes this way.

Yes, there are plenty of good books about writing out there but 90% of them are utter tosh (believe me I’ve read them all). If you’ve not read this one … I would say it’s the bible in terms of wrapping your head around the right way to write.

My other good recommendation is The Art of Fiction by John Gardener – it’s worth a read also.

Good luck with your writing, fellow writer.

14 Tips for Good Kindle Cover Design

I have been a professional graphic designer for more years than I can now remember and have designed more things than I care to name (but will): T-shirts, CD covers, packaging, Ebay listings, websites, flyers, posters, letterheads, signage … the list goes on. But strangely enough, until I decided to put some of my own stories on Amazon through KDP, no book covers.

Through my lurking on the KDP Forums, and checking out the competition in the last 4 month, I’ve seen hundreds of terrible, hideous,  trashy, horrid, nasty, vomit-inducing book covers that break every rule of good design.

Boy these people must really love losing potential readers, I thought to myself at first.

But then more kindly, thought: well they probably don’t know about design.

So rather than being a Mr-Know-It-All, I figure it’s about time I sat down and put some of my thoughts down to help out my fellow writers.

My tips are by no means exhaustive and like any art form, design can be a rather subjective subject. So please respectfully disagree – comments very welcome.

But before we begin, let us talk about what design should be, this is easily summed up in one word: functional. So what functions should a Kindle book cover fulfil?

  • In the traditional sense, it should stand-out on the book store’s shelf saying to the potential reader, “Take me down and have a look inside of me.”
  • It should set the mood for the story (the Vintage Murakami Covers a perfect example).
  • Establish a brand (if part of a series).
  • Show that there is a high-level of quality in the writing. If a cover is poor then the potential reader will not have high hopes for the writing.

1. Photos: Set The Mood and Don’t Be Literal

The worlds of the visual arts and the written word collide on a book cover, and this is the first real big problem we run in to. If we are talking about fiction, the reader dreams the world in their head from the words the writer has put down on the page. The moment you put something too literal on the cover you run into the problem of the reader having that image in their head.

It spoils the glorious affect reading gives us.

If you have selected an image that simply tells us what a character or a place looks like you have made a mistake. You might say to yourself – but the photo I have found looks exactly how I see the characters in my head – can I not use it?

Well, I’m sorry, no you can’t, that’s rude – you’re taking away the reader’s imagination from them.

Literal pictures should be avoided at all costs. So, you want to use a photo, but don’t want to be literal – what can you do? It’s simple use an image to set the mood. Make it abstract. Take a step sideways – as a writer you should already have these skills in your toolbox – the simile and the metaphor. Use these to come up with a good metaphoric or abstracted idea for your cover.

The above example is a Noir Pulp thriller I’ve made up called Kidnap! Avoid the obvious: if we have a victim on the cover, we’re seeing what she looks like before we’ve even discussed her in the book, we’ve given the game away; likewise, if we have a Private Detective on there, we’re saying, he looks exactly like that (it’s lazy, it’s as bad as Dan Brown saying the hero in The Da Vinci Code looks a bit like Indiana Jones – before anyone tells me out there that yes he did say that in the novel – I know).

So in this instance I have abstracted the concept of the hard drinking PI – and thought something ominous and dark that fits – right, whisky moodily lit. That image took all of 5 minutes to find on iStock. It works, it’s simple strong and gives a flavour of the story.

Here are some more examples, I quickly knocked up, of imaginary covers that set the mood. Each gives a feeling for what the book will be like rather than telling you out-right.

2. Photos: Avoid Stocky Stock

I don’t know how I can explain this well to none-designers. But there are some images out there which just have the feeling of stock images. The top right example above might be one, something that everyone would think is cool and is used over and over again – because it’s so obvious.

As well as the written cliché, there is the visual cliché.

As a good example there’s a famous case of a stock image that has been used for so many different album covers it’s untrue – yes it’s a nice image – but when you find certain images you know they’re going to be re-used. I think we should leave the explanation of this particular no-no to another designer I admire – he’s very eloquent on the subject of avoiding stock clichés.

3. Photos: Pay For What Works

If you don’t have permission to use a photo or you don’t know who owns it, then chances are you can’t use it. Would you want someone stealing your writing? You need to show the same respect to your fellow artists; the photographers. Having said that, there are free places out there to get photos but you will end up getting what you pay for: poor images.

Fear not, there are some very cheap effective solutions – my favourite for commercial work is probably iStock because they have excellent quality control and a vast archive of images. Their pricing is also reasonable, you’re looking at $2-$10 or something of that order, depending on what size of image you want from them. Their “terms of use” allowed you to use any images on you cover upto selling 499,999 copies.

If you’re selling more – you’ve really designed yourself a good cover and written yourself a good book.

iStock

Alternatives: Shutterstock   Dreamstime

Free Site:   Stock.Exchange

Feeling flush:   Getty Images   Corbis

4. Photos: Don’t Create Composites

Unless you are master with Photoshop (or it’s free equivalent GIMP), then I would steer well clear of this technique. Photos are lit from different angles, have different colour saturations and styles.

Let me tell you what lots of images put together on a single cover will look like: like you have cut pictures from different magazines and glued them onto a piece of paper – and unless the theme of your book is Scrapbooking, it will look amateurish and denigrate the quality of the masterpiece you have written.

Is your novel a jumble of styles? Does it skip around in tense? Have you just thrown words down randomly? No, I thought not. So don’t do it on the cover because otherwise that’s the message you’re sending out.

Another thing you need to consider is the more complex your image is the harder it will be make out on the thumbnail.

One great image is more powerful than 5 different competing ones that you think encapsulates your book.

5. Avoid Home-made Drawings

There are very few people that are as talented at drawing as they are at writing but there is a temptation to want to write, act-in, direct and compose the music for your own film; and say to yourself – I can paint an amazing cover, sitting down with some water colours then scan your creation and use that. Or worse get your friend who is just “brilliant at drawing” to draw a picture of the main character or a scene.

This too is a no-no.

You might think it gives it a personal feel. But that’s just what it will feel like, some sort of craft-circle vibe. People are judgemental; they won’t even bother looking at your writing if they feel the cover is poorly drawn by an amateur.

So what if you do want a drawing rather than an photo, it’s not a problem, those stock sites I listed above have illustrations as well – all quality controlled. Pay a few dollars and get something professional that fits.

Here are some examples I quickly knocked up using stock drawings:

6. Layout: Colours

Here’s were we run into big problems. It’s very hard for me to teach you how to use colour well. It’s something that you feel, it’s something that you need to experiment with with over and over again to get colours to gel well together.

I’ve been designing for more than 20 years and I still only just feel I’m getting to grips with it.

My advice here would be to use a some software that allows you to change the colour on-the-fly as you’re designing your cover. I personally use Xara Xtreme Pro Version 4 – which is a vector application from years and years ago – to design. It’s just what I’m used to.

But the simplified advice I would give is this:

  • If you use something bold have something that contrasts.
  • Don’t use more than 3 colours.
  • Avoid primary colours you find on MS Paint (full blue, full red, full green).
  • Mix your own colours yourself – shades of strong colours.
  • Find out what colours work  by testing testing and testing again. Try different combinations next to each other to see what works.
  • Google ‘Beautiful Colour Palettes‘ ‘Colours That Work Well Together‘ or something similar.

I’ve been working on my own covers for my short stories and they’re from all around the world, so I have a starting point for my palettes because I am using a colour for the flags of each country. But then I want something bold and attractive that stands out. They might look simple but I can spend anything up to a hour fine tuning the colour on one cover, so it really looks good and works for me.

7. Layout: Don’t Be Afraid of Space

Like colour, when it comes to designing layout, it’s a lot of trial and error until something just looks right to you – looks balanced. But one of the main problems that I’ve seen a lot with covers I’ve come across is that people think because it’s going to be a thumbnail it must fill the whole of the canvas.

With design what happens is, the eye is naturally drawn around what it is seeing; all the elements compete for priority. The best way for a design to work is to give the elements lots of space to breath.

It’s no different to writing – if you put in too many complicated words or adjectives in the same sentence, or too many elements into a metaphor or simile it becomes confusing. Good writing is balanced by space. So is design.

On the design below, the right design is the final design design, but a designer worried about using all the space might do something similar to the left or middle. I’ll let you make up you mind which has the most style and sets the best mood for a short story.

8. Type: Use Commercial Fonts

There is a temptation to use a font that “looks cool” downloaded from somewhere like Da Font, like a nice horror style font for your vampire book. As well as fitting into the “no-no” of being too literal, the greater consideration is the quality of the tools you’re using: free home-made fonts are usually designed very badly themselves – not weighted properly, illegible at small sizes (think about the thumbnail), not kerned or spaced properly. I would avoid them at all costs.

Always go for something classical, clean and easy to read. It makes all the difference. You might think the two first options, in this speedily put together example below, look cool! But if you can’t read the title straight away they’re not functional – as design they don’t work: design should always be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing.

But I don’t want to pay for fonts – I hear you cry. No problem, there are some commercial fonts that foundries will give away for free – modern, clean, well designed. And Free. The Posts on Smashing are fantastic – some really excellent stuff there:

My Fonts   40 Fonts   Other Smashing Posts   Squirrel Fonts

9. Type: Don’t Be Afraid of Typesetting Only

“Do I have to have a picture on your cover?” This is a questions none of your have probably thought of asking. That would just be boring wouldn’t it. What no picture?! Think again. If something is typeset nicely it can just be effective as good design. And can be powerful and arresting.

For book covers, a little voice in my head says, “CL this is the best option because it says – this book is about words.” How more conceptually correct can you get? It all comes down to selecting the right colours, using the right fonts, and spacing them nicely (my top tip is learn about kerning).

The examples below are typeset covers I found on the Book Cover Archive that I liked:

10. Type: Using 3D Effects & Drop Shadows

If you look on the above examples, you’ll see that none of them have 3D Effects, Drop Shadows or any other special effects on them to make them look “cool”. There’s a very good reason for this, you might think 3D Effects and Drop Shadows make your text stand out – but this isn’t the case, it actually makes the design more complex – harder for the eye to understand.

If you want your text to jump off the page then pick the right colours and a nice clear font. If you are using gimmicks to try and make your design sing because it’s not standing out then it’s more likely a problem with your colours or font. Go back to the drawing board and pick new ones. Experiment. Experiment. Experiment.

11. Type: Size & Placement

There are no hard and fast rules about where you should put your text and what should be given more prominence. But I would say this, to make a memorable or engaging cover – your name, the name of the author doesn’t have to be in massive letters on the front covers, as I see a lot.

You might say – yes, but I want people to remember my name.

People will remember your name from becoming famous for your writing, not for your name itself. In a way, the bigger the name, if you’re not well established, the more egotistical and desperate to be famous, it makes your look. It might work for James Patterson or Dan Brown or Ben Elton when they’re all vying for attention in an airport book store.

Likewise, is the novel title that important? Not necessarily so. It’s all about what you want to say with your cover. And I would take it back to that simple mantra – the most important thing is to set the mood – so someone gets a feeling for the writing and entices them to ‘Look Inside’ or click ‘Buy’. Does your name massive on the cover do this if you’re not famous? I think not.

12. Take Inspiration From The Past

Like all good artists – whether they are graphics designer, painter, musicians or writers – we will steal a little inspiration from elsewhere. We are affected by other people’s work we enjoy. To this end there’s nothing wrong with finding a style you like and coming up with something similar.

The only thing you need to make sure of is that you’re not just lifting their images and taking their design wholesale. So people confuse the two covers and your run into copyright issues.

The links below are a great starting points to see some of the best cover out there. The really “amazing site” has links at the bottom of the page to yet more great sites with covers on them.

Google Search   86 Beautiful Covers   Book Cover Archive (Amazing Site)

13. Remember: Keep It Simple

As a final point here, I would say this, the strongest point I can make is this – good design is simple, or based on a simple concept – it’s more relevant than on Amazon because you have small images in the thumbnails, lots of products vying for attention and lots of messy, badly designed covers – so keep it simple and clean and your cover will shine like a diamond in the junk yard of mess. But only if you follow the points covered above.

And if all else fails … 14. Get a Professional In

You can have all the tools at your disposal: good fonts, the time to mess about with colours and spacing, bought the perfect mood-setting image but still come up short on your design and it might not look right.

This is because you’re not a designer.

You’re a writer. You’ve perfected your own craft – maybe over years and years.

It’s no different with graphic designers – they’ve worked long and hard to get to the point where they’re at: collected ideas in their head, always thinking visually; paid thousands for fonts over the years; developed a perfect eye for what looks right.

There are plenty of good designers out there. Picking the right one could be difficult. But I would proffer this as a piece of advice: If you are going to shell out for a nice cover for your little baby make sure they ask you the right questions.

What a good designer should be asking:

  • What feeling are you trying to get across in the book (name three emotions you’d describe your books as)?
  • Is there an item or concept that is thematic in the piece?
  • What sort of colours do you see the book as?
  • Are their any great covers from books you have seen that you like?
  • If your book was a famous film what would it be?
  • Etc.

A good designer will always confidently ask the right questions before starting work because otherwise they’re wasting their time and yours.

Is it worth paying $100 or $500 for good cover design?

Well that’s all down to you. If you think your book is good enough and it would double your sales because it’s eye-catching and makes your look professional – you have to ask yourself if you’re going to sell more than a hundred or a thousand copies of your book. If not, it’s just vanity to pay someone to design a cover.

But on the other hand, if you are selling lots of books with a bad cover, then chances are the right cover will allow lost potential readers, who have been put off before, to judge a book by its cover and make a purchase because they see quality from the get go.

My offering …

My commissioned work starts at $200 and you can find all the details here Commissions or if you are running to a smaller budget why not try my pre-made covers, there are thousands to choose from and they start at $45 … you’ll find them here Pre-made Book Covers.

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