Tips for Commissioning Book Cover Art

Photo by Kate Hiscock

A few weeks ago I commissioned an ebook cover for the first time. At first, I made my own, but I soon realised that my own skills weren’t up to scratch to do the story justice. A book cover is a reader’s first experience with a book. Readers do judge a book by its cover, especially if you are a relative unknown.

So if you are new to this process, what steps can you take to ensure your story does not stumble at the starting line? There are slightly different rules for print covers, e.g. typology and pictures won’t be shrunk to thumbnail size. This post deals primarily with ebook covers though there is overlap between the two.

Choose your design route

You can:

  • design your own cover art if you have the rights skills to do a professional job by using software such as Adobe Photoshop, GIMP, Canva and Microsoft Publisher. Be sure you are meeting copyright rules for image and font use
  • buy a ready-made cover, where your title and name can be added to an existing, original cover in a designer’s portfolio. These covers tend to be less expensive than custom-made ones. Advantages are a speedy turnaround and that you know what you are getting. However, you are more likely to compromise on your vision with this route, though luck may be on your side
  • use a design contest, through websites such as 99designs and Designcrowd, allowing you to see a huge breadth of talent and whittle down the designs through to an eventual winner
  • choose a designer. It is a good idea to follow pages of designers you like as you are writing your book. Plan for a good lead in time as many designers may only be able to accommodate you at short notice for a high premium

Your decision will be influenced by budget, expertise, timeline and how much money you expect to make with your book, i.e. you probably don’t want to spend £100s on a free e-book. For my own free short story, which you can sign up for here for a limited time, it seemed vain to spend a lot of money on a story I would not be selling. I decided to commission a cover artist through Fiverr. You can see thebooklady’s creation below, together with my self-made cover. I’ll let you decide which you prefer.

Cover art by thebooklady via Fiverr

Cover art by Nillu Nasser Stelter

As the name Fiverr suggests gigs start at $5, and you add items to the bundle as you require. I asked for spine and back cover to be included, and paid extra for a high quality image. Be sure to purchase the final design in the most flexible/high quality formats in case you want to retain the cover for later editions but the picture requirements need to change.

Commissioning tips

  • Provide the genre of your book and a brief synopsis focusing on the most essential details. Ideally you want to get across the setting, mood of the book, the main character and central dilemma
  • Be as clear as you can upfront. Make sure your designer has all the information they need up front including: title, author name, back cover blurb (generally tag lines and recommendations should be saved for print book covers or inside pages)
  • Ensure your designer is aware of your style preferences, ideally by providing examples of book cover styles you like and those you don’t. A good way is to pick some examples of existing covers to use as reference points to send to your cover artist. It was through this process my cover artist picked up on my minimalist style and preference for illustrated covers rather than photographs
  • Mention authors in your niche. That way, your designer will be able to ensure your cover both meets market trends and is original
Photo by Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon
  • What the reader finds inside the story should match the expectations set by your cover. For example, if you are commissioning a cover for a series or short story, make sure that the cover makes this clear. Setting expectations is one way to avoid bad reviews
  • Outline your cover ideas but do not be too specific. The same applies to images. If you have found some you think would perfectly suit the story, provide them, but leave the artist room to use his/her imagination. They are the professionals in this field and might come up with something better than you. Inflexibility on your part may result in a poorer result
  • It is a good idea to choose your cover design so that your branding ties in across all your books. This is especially applicable to series. For example, you might choose the same style of cover and same fonts across all your books. This makes work instantly recognisable as yours when readers return to it
  • While you may be tempted to commission an original drawing or a model shoot for the book you have spent so much time nurturing, the costs for this can be substantial. It pays to weigh up your costs against the return you will make on your book. The upside to arranging your own pictures is that there is no doubt your cover will be unique
  • Good images can usually be found within professional picture archives, and be layered and tweaked with good results. Check you meet copyright rules for the pictures you use, and be willing to pay a fee for ones that are just right (you can look to sites like Shutterstock, iStockPhoto and GettyImages)
  • Check the dimensions and pixel quality work for the requirements of the various sites your cover will be uploaded to
  • Be aware how many adjustments are included with the commissioning price, as you want to be able to go back to the designer and ask for changes
Photo by Pen Waggener

Assessing drafts

  • Is your typology readable and does it stand out? Look at the size of the font, and how it contrasts with the background colour. Make sure you don’t forget to proofread. You want to make sure there are no errors at the point of sale and beyond
  • The best covers convey a mood and steer clear of literal translations of your novel
  • Strong lines and simple images work best, especially at thumbnail size
  • Make sure your cover does not alienate parts of your readership. For example, my initial self-made cover for ‘Flashpoint’ included silhouettes of two women. The story is about every day abuse and heroism that is likely to appeal to both genders. The final cover features burning houses, and conveys the mood of the story much better and prevents male readers from potentially writing it off
  • Don’t be tempted to fill all the available space on the cover. Sparse designs can work wonderfully
  • You may love your cover but external opinions are a good idea, especially from readers within your genre. Weigh up the feedback and then the final decision is yours

Next steps

Hopefully, by this point you’ll have a book cover that stands out from the crowd, looks professional and gives readers an immediate feel for what kind of story the pages hold. Use your ebook cover across your branding such as on business cards and headers, and look to sites like 3D Box Shot Maker to make 3D versions for free in your promotions. While your cover will entice readers, it’s your words that will keep them coming back. Wishing you every success.

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