10 Things to know when hiring a book cover designer

Print Version with designed back book cover

For self publishers:
10 Things to know when hiring a book cover designer


So you’ve revised and edited your book, listened to your beta reader’s feedback, hired a freelance editor to help you polish it up, done a copy-edit pass to make sure each comma is in place and every word is spelled correctly, and you’re ready to release your book into the wild.  But you want your art-child well dressed when it leaves home.  It needs a good book cover.

You could always design a cover yourself, of course.  Even if you don’t own any graphics software,  Amazon and other places provide online cover creation apps.  But unless you’re an experienced graphic designer, you’re better off hiring a professional.  Seriously.  It doesn’t have to be Corvid Design – book cover designers abound on the web, and they vary greatly both in the quality of their work and the prices they charge. But get a professional, and no, your brother-in-law who fools around with Photoshop, or the cousin who puts out the local library’s newsletter doesn’t count.  I mean a real professional.  When you’re surfing through Amazon, and that “People who bought this also bought…” slideshow shows you four elegant, beautifully designed covers and one that looks like a flyer for Building 19, which one are you going to click on?

Whether your designer is a big name or a newbie art student, there are certain things they’ll need to know to deliver the appropriate final file for your book, and certain things you’ll need to know to ask about to be sure you get the cover you want for your book.


1. Budget

For self-publishers, this is often the first consideration.  I’ve heard new self publishers protest (cue sad violin music) “I can’t afford a professional cover.”  The harsh reality is that if you’re serious about building a career and an income from your writing and publishing, you can’t afford not to.  Hey, you ate ramen for a month so you could afford to hire that editor, didn’t you?  (If you didn’t hire an editor, return to Square One – you don’t need a cover yet, because you’re not ready to publish).

Big mainstream publishers may spend thousands on cover illustrators and graphic designers, but a decent professional cover for an indie or self pubbed book doesn’t have to break the bank.  Many designers do as Corvid does and offer pre-made covers for $100 or under.  Some – often those who live outside the US, where the cost of living is lower – may even offer custom covers for similar prices.  Here in the US, custom covers for indie books tend to run $200-600 for designs that use stock photos and photo-manipulations, a bit higher for custom painted illustrations.


2. Format

Are you publishing as an ebook, or print?  Well, duh –  of course you’re doing an ebook, what books today appear in print only? But many are published as ebooks only.  The requirements for each format are different, and often the requirements of various publishing services, whether ebook or print, may vary slightly.  Most good designers will be familiar with the different requirements of the major services, and it’s a good idea to let your designer know ahead of time what service you’ll be using, so they won’t have to tweak the thing to fit a particular service when it comes time to submit.

You’ll also want to let them know the size, if you’re doing a print book.  Standard sizes for trade paperbacks (the most common range for indie and self publishers) run 5.5 x 8.5″ or 6 x 9″.  Some printers will offer other variant sizes.  Whatever size you choose, be sure to let your designer know.

Ebook only covers are generally less expensive than print, because preparing a print cover involves quite a bit more work, with somewhat more precise tolerances.  Also, it requires a knowledge of the ancient and secret language of CMYK, killer graphics skills, and the sacrifice of a newborn to a Lovecraftian god.  (Well, okay, maybe not so much that last bit.)


3.  Title and Byline

Obviously, you know the title of your book, right?  How do you want your byline to read?  Your first initials and last name?  First name, middle initial, last name?  All three names?  Or are you using a pen name?  Let your designer know – don’t assume they’ll intuit this from your email address.


4.  Other Words

Besides the title and author, most books have other words on the covers – a subtitle or series title (you know, “Book I of the Elven Plumbers Chronicles” or whatever), a tagline, a quote from a review or blurb from another author (“This book is awesome!” — Big Name Writer); for print books there’s back cover copy, sometimes an author photo and brief bio, price, bar code, and ISBN.  You should have as much of this material prepared beforehand as you can, so your designer can accommodate all of it when laying out your cover.  Some services, like Createspace, will provide the ISBN and bar code for you, so your designer only has to provide a blank space for that.  If you’ve bought your own ISBN & barcode, be sure and provide that to your designer.

Also, be sure to proof and copy edit everything before sending it to your designer.  Even though the stereotype of the spelling impaired art director may be a myth, finding your spelling or grammatical errors is not part of your designer’s job.  If your designer makes a mistake, they should correct it for free.  If you made a mistake, and come back to have it corrected after the fact, the designer may charge you extra.


5. Genre

Many authors get frustrated with the apparent limitations of genre labels, but genre distinctions are very helpful in marketing a book.  Your book may include elements of a variety of genres, but it’s a good idea to focus your marketing on the one or two  that most accurately reflect your content, because some readers are less forgiving of genre crossover than others.  Not everybody likes peanut butter with their chocolate.  Readers of paranormal romance, for instance, practically expect the story to include some elements of a thriller, but there are thriller fans who might resent elements of the supernatural cropping up in their spy story.

Genres tend to have their own cover conventions, which signal to their readers what they can expect.  Of course, just as with your text, it’s possible for a cover design to incorporate elements suggestive of more than one genre.  Let your designer know what your main genre is, and how attentive you want them to be to that genre’s cover conventions.


6.  Story

Some designers want to read your book before starting a cover design, while others prefer a simple synopsis and descriptions of the main characters.  Fair warning, certain designers will actually charge you extra for reading the book.  I suppose for some folks, that makes sense – you could argue that it means they’re spending billable hours reading.  Personally, I always prefer to read the book, and I don’t charge extra for it, but I’m a very fast reader.


7.  Imagery

What sort of image do you see on your cover?  Pure graphics?  Photography, or a photographic-looking image?  Realistic illustration?  Stylized illustration?  Something cartoony?  As mentioned above, many genres tend to develop certain conventions around this.  For instance, just now (2016), there seems to be a tendency toward using photos or Photoshop manipulated photos on romance and paranormal romance covers, while fantasy and science fiction books most often feature painted illustrations.  Thrillers often rely primarily on type and graphics, while humor and borderline humor (like the women’s books that until recently were referred to as “chick lit”) tend toward vector graphics and cartoonish figures.

Oh, and all those weasel words – “tends to be,” “seems,” etc., are there intentionally, because these are not written-in-stone rules, or even rules at all, just tendencies I’ve noticed, and you could undoubtedly head over to B&N or Amazon and find counter-examples.

Talk to your designer about your own preferences in this regard.  It’s not a bad idea to have a few covers you admire from other books to show them as examples of the sort of feel and imagery you’d like to see on your cover.

By the same token, if you’re hiring a pro, they’ll be bringing skill and expertise to the table, and you probably don’t want to micromanage what they’re doing.  It’s your book, and you’ll have to live with it, so of course you have the final say on what goes on the cover – but be willing to be guided by your designer.  If you don’t trust their skills and judgement, why did you hire that particular designer in the first place?


8. What’s in the package?

Make sure you understand not only how much your designer is charging, but what exactly you get for your money.  How many rough sketches will they be doing?  How many revisions are they willing to do on the sketches?  How many on the finished cover?

Some cover artists only do graphic design, handling the type design and book layout, either subcontracting illustration or photography, or buying stock photos or illustrations from artists, photographers, or stock services.  Others illustrate or create photo-manipulations as well as doing type design.  There are also artists and photographers who will sell you license to use their images, but you’ll have to come up with the type yourself, or hire another designer to do it.


9.  Rights

Be sure to understand what rights you are purchasing.  Illustrators and designers make their daily bread by selling the rights to use their copyrighted designs.  Many designers will hand over all rights to a graphic or type design, but illustrators and photographers frequently limit the rights they are licensing to book cover usage.  Since such contracts usually allow you to use the images for advertising and promoting the book as well as on the cover, this isn’t really a hardship for most self publishers.

Many designers use stock photos.  Most seem to include the price of the stock in their fee, but some bill the stock fee separately.  Also, the stock rights which designers purchase often have usage limitations – a standard license that allows only a certain number of copies of the book to be sold before the purchase of a more expensive extended license is required.  Fortunately, those numbers tend to be in the range of 250,000 to 500,000 copies, and if you actually sell that many books, you can probably afford the extended license fee.


10.  Deadline

Delivery time for a finished book cover may vary from one designer to another, and from one book to another, and can run anywhere from a week or two to a couple of months, depending on a number of variables, including what sort of cover you want (painted illustrations, for instance, tend to take longer), and what other work is in the designer’s queue at the time.  Plan ahead, and consult with your designer about scheduling.


Getting a good professional cover shouldn’t be a complicated nightmare.  Being aware of these ten points will make the whole process much smoother and easier, when hiring a book cover designer.