Why I’m so expensive (how much should you pay for book cover design revisited)

When I started designing book covers a couple years ago, I remember looking at designers who were charging over $700 for a print cover and thinking they were charging way too much money. How could they possibly justify such high prices when there were cheaper options? I can make a full print cover in a few hours; why does anyone deserve to earn that much money?

Now I’m in a very different position.

I’ve kept raising my prices to keep up with the demand. Every time I raise my prices I’m surprised when I get my first few orders – surprised people are willing to spend so much on book cover design. And sometimes I think I’m not worth it – that authors could (and maybe should) buy a cheaper cover elsewhere.

But when I look around at other book cover designers charging less money… I can see why people keep coming back to me.

Though they have glossy and stylish websites, they only have a few dozen samples and most are boring, average or are heavy on stock photography (I also use stock, but I try not to use those photos I know other people are going to use… or I try to photoshop enough that it won’t be so obvious… still, stock happens).

The difference between a mediocre, not bad, pretty good book cover and an amazing piece of art that makes your soul dance, is potentially huge. It’s hard to measure two covers side by side and say why one is better than the other. It’s something you feel. The design just works. The art is moving. The text layout feels clean and well spaced. You can’t see it, but you feel it instinctively.

Here’s something I worked on recently – after reading “WormWood” I wanted to help the author by redesigning the cover. A lot of the story takes place in high places, and I had this painting by Friedrich (1818, “Traveler above a Sea of Clouds”) in mind as I worked on the art.

(Mine is the one with the crossbow).

book cover art

I love the art for this cover. I want to print a poster just to put it on my wall. But I made a few options, including this close up.

The close up (in the middle) is more powerful and immediate. It does a great job of enticing the right readers who like the genre (paranormal/angel romance), and is simple enough to let them know what the story is about. It would probably sell a ton of books. But the scene with the mountains is more distinctive, more memorable, more touching somehow – there’s so much emotion in that space, so much tension and conflict and longing.



Compared to the original (simple black cover, using William Blake’s renders of Paradise Lost) I expect either of the new covers to easily double or triple the author’s sales – we’ll have sales data in a few months.

High prices improve the quality

Here are a few things I’ve learned in the last few years.

1. When I charge lower prices, I have a ton of work. I’m stressed and busy. I can’t finish everything. I don’t remember things. I don’t enjoy it so much.

As of June 2014, I’m still getting enough work but maybe half of what I got a year ago. I feel more relaxed. I still have a lot to do, and I still have trouble getting everything done and staying organized, but all my clients are happy and the quality of my covers are improving. I have more time to reflect and improvise. If we don’t get things right the first time, I’ll come up with new ideas.

2. The second thing I’ve learned, is that entering a relationship with a client is personal, and long-lasting. I have some clients that took a full year to decide what they wanted. Sometimes, after rejecting all of my samples, they want me to try a lot of other stuff, and sometimes we end up with something better. Other times, in the end I convince them that my earlier samples were the best and will perform the best for their book, and we use what I had made originally.

Then they need help with their marketing plan, uploading files, preparing their ebooks and POD formatting, navigating distribution services, editing their sales copy. After the interior is finished we’ll rework the print cover – then there are problems, or the page count changes, or they want to start over and use a different picture. I’m not just describing a few needy clients – this is a pretty typical client/designer relationship for me.

Some people tell me I need to say no more often, or charge for revisions, or stop giving away so much free help and advice… but I’m not going to do that. I like helping and I love designing books. My high prices are kind of like a retainer; I become an always available publishing consultant.

(And damn, really when you compare my covers to Createspace or Selfpublishing.com or the other “big” author services offering cover design, I’m still charging less! Maybe next year I’ll be charging double.)

When not to pay for a cover

A cover is really important, and can make a huge difference, but it won’t make a mediocre book successful. If you’ve written a book with no audience, in an unpopular genre, and the book isn’t amazing but just ho-hum, or the writing isn’t great… investing in a cover isn’t a good idea. Fix the writing. Hire and editor. Write another book. The story matters more than the cover, ultimately.

If you’re unsure, get a cheap cover, publish the ebook, and advertise enough that you get 100 buys or downloads… then watch the reviews. If you start getting glowing reviews from genuine readers, it’s time to double down and invest more.

If you need a cheap, DIY book cover solution, check out www.diybookcovers.com.

Right now, there are MS Word templates, but I’m building the WORLD’S BEST online book cover designing software, it’s going to blow you away.

Another long (but satisfying) book cover design process

I’ve been working on Brian Smith’s thriller “Purified” for a couple of months. Like most challenging projects, we reached a few dead-ends before pushing through and finding something that really works.

There’s a sci-fi element – a new being of humans is being created, and they have wings and four arms and legs (kind of). I thought I could pull it off, but these are two literal and the author didn’t like them.


So we focused more on the subtitle (and changed the title name to fit)… “Imagine waking up Purified.”

We focused on a top secret bloody hospital bed….


Brian wanted to mix a couple covers and add this guy:


For awhile it was our final choice, but I thought it lacked action (he’s just sitting there) and was a little boring.

I tried a few more and really like the strong contrast in the first one below.

creep9 creep12 creepnew3

I told him if he wasn’t going to use it, I would – because I’m confident it would outsell the others. I probably still like my version, with the lighter text (stands out more) and the syringe replacing the “I”, but with compromise we ended with this – a little darker, a little more subtle:


More about the book:

I would call Purify a thriller.  There’s some sci-fi, crime, fantasy, love; but above all of that, it’s a thriller.  As far as target audience goes, it’s adult fiction, but I think it would mostly appeal to non-skilled, non-professional earners who aspire for something better.  Mason was a factory worker who only wants his old life back, but he arches into someone who is ready to deal with being better physically than anyone else.

Purify is the name of the drug–the protocol that is being developed in an unauthorized, underground experiment.  It takes a living body into a sub-coma state, then repairs it, totally purifying the immune system to create a body that will never become infected with any disease again.  That’s the theory behind the drug, but the story is really about a man’s struggle to deal with the effects of the drug after being forced into the program when he thought he died.  Purify also relates to the theme which is “forget the past; live for the future.”  All Mason really wants from being alive again is to get his old life back, but Purify is not about that.  It’s about a new start with a new, purified body that will change mankind.

Oh the difficulties in choosing a final book cover design!

A problem I often face with authors is paralysis of having too many options. 3 options to choose from is good. But I usually make at least 10 samples, in each round. So we are always selecting and dismissing different versions of the cover. And sometimes, what we end up with is unexpected.

Here’s an example from a rather challenging cover I did for Isabel Burt’s Toxics.

The book itself is a YA fantasy/adventure, with sapient plants and talking animals (sort of, I’m really not doing it justice). Mystical, fantasy, and romance. Based on a beautiful world – very raw and natural. Female teenage heroine. Lots mystical energy and light.

This was my first batch. Some are not great.

toxics4   toxics20  toxics15   toxics8      toxics13 toxics10

My favorite are the last two: in fact I’ll save one and write the book for it later, because I’m sure the cover would sell like crazy.

But Isabel didn’t like them, so I made some more:

toxicsnew9  toxicsnew11 toxicsnew12 toxicsnew2 toxicsnew3  toxicsnew5 toxicsnew6 toxicsnew7 toxicsnew8

It was hard to choose between these too. The solid yellow with the bold title is appealing. So is the pink forest. Isabel really loved the green forest path (with yellow text), but after checking with the artist, it wasn’t available to use, so we hired him to make something custom for us. First he made this one, with a dark river valley and sunrise; he hadn’t finished all the lighting yet, it would have been pretty cool, but Isabel didn’t like it (too manga/cartoon). He made another one that I quite like (still my wife’s favorite):


But neither were right for the author, who wanted to go back to an earlier version which had tested well in a group of children.

And so now we’re just playing with font and text choices for the title.

In the end it’ll be really hard to choose – the title text and color matters and will attract different kinds of readers, but it’s hard to guess which will sell better or which matches the book the best.

toxicsfinalB toxicsfinalC toxicsfinalA

I love these final covers. I think we made good choices and the evolution was continuously towards improvement (often authors will go the other way, and direct changes that lead away from good design and towards something less than ideal).

But some readers will have preferred the earlier illustrated version, or different layouts. Side by side, everybody will have different opinions about what’s the “best” cover. But between several very different but equally well-designed covers, choosing is very difficult. Get a ton of feedback. Run one for a couple weeks and then try another one to see if sales pick up. Little differences can impact sales, and cover art matters, so choosing can be difficult.

What you don’t want to do is obsess over little details and keep changing and changing based on your own preferences. Don’t trust your gut or mood. Get the best designer, let them do their best, then get a lot of feedback (from hundreds of people, not just your friends and family).



Felicity Penfold, a girl of 14, finds herself mysteriously deposited into an alternative world. In the misty opening scene she links up with Reuben, an ‘Orion’ embarking upon a quest in which it seems Felicity is prophetically implicated.

This ‘Old World’ is in a state of impending crisis. Its entire ethos was one of balance; this has been irrevocably altered by the illegal birth of a new species, called ‘Toxics’. Each plant or beast has an ‘enharmonic’ which is its counter-species balance. The Toxics had none. Their exclusion over the years has led to them becoming bitter and by the time of Felicity’s arrival, very dangerous. Their leader, Arrass, seeks the destruction of the traditions of the Old World which he feels has betrayed them. His final destination: the Sacred Caves.

These caves contain the roots of all knowledge, and they are guarded by the ‘Taureau’.

The story follows Reuben and Felicity as they are joined by other key troupe members who seek to save their precious world by joining Reuben’s quest to protect the Roots, and shift the Old Ways to include the Toxics; thereby restoring its balance. The salvation of the Old World and ultimately of the Toxics becomes a race between the gathering of the quest troupe and the gathering of the Toxics.

What I’m giving everybody for Christmas (book cover design makeovers for indie authors)

I’ve had an exciting year. I keep raising my prices, and people keep ordering, and my book cover designs keep getting better… which means it’s a constant upwards spiral. I started out a couple years ago as a cover design amateur with better-than-average skills.

Right now my skills are well above average and improving all the time. My most recent 20 covers are pretty amazing. But they also take more time and attention to detail, which is why I can price higher than other designers. But I also keep up my policy of trying to do free cover makeovers for indie authors, if they ask and if I have time.

These are authors with ugly covers who know they need something better but can’t afford it right now. It’s fun for me to try and do a quick makeover – on the condition that they can’t be picky and I basically get to do what I want (a freedom I don’t also have with my regular clients, which allows me to really have fun and be more creative).

Unfortunately I haven’t had time for awhile to do any makeovers, and I probably have 25 requests right now.

So my Christmas goal, even though I’m working on a bunch of new orders, and the DIY book covers package, will be to finish all those requests. Ideally I’ll just take a holiday week off and focus on makeover projects only. I’ll add them to my ‘makeover’ section when I’m done.

If you have an ugly cover and want to send it to me to redo, you’re welcome to – although I probably can’t add many more requests to my plate.

How long does book cover design take? Until it’s DONE: lessons from a challenging cover design case study

Most of my covers take a few weeks. This one took almost a year.

The author paid in November of 2012.

The title is “The Oppressor’s Toolkit” so I started with these:



Karim wanted to focus more on a toolbox, so I made these:



But he thought the toolboxes looked out of place and would be better on a road, maybe with blood, set against a background of ruins.



I really liked these, but he didn’t.

I made some more:


My favorite was the purple one with the T’s as hammers.

He liked the shadow hammer and wanted to focus on that:




I thought those were pretty good. He wanted the shadow hammer to be coming from a microphone – more symbolic.



But neither of us really liked those either.

At this point we were stumped. I offered him a refund so he could try some other designers; we were also thinking about putting the project on 99designs.com to see what they came up with.

But then, freed from the responsibility of producing a cover based on Karim’s suggestions, looking back over the project with fresh eyes and a deeper understanding of what the author was looking for, I made these.


tools916Btools916E tools916Dtools916C



These are much nicer covers  than anything I’d come up with before, and Karim agreed (although he requested the silhouettes be specific historical figures).

The final will probably be something like this…


Why I’m jealous of other book cover designers (but shouldn’t be)

I’ve been designing covers for a couple years – and in that time I’ve done a few hundred. I love the work. And I’m getting better all the time. But I still feel insecure when looking at other book designer’s portfolios. I see a lot of amazing work that I like. I’m hoping to improve my skills until I’m up there with the very best. But I still get a little jealous of other people’s awesome work.

Here are the things I tell myself when that happens:

1. Everybody has a different style

I’m a messy person. I tend to be careless about the details, so my covers can seem more visceral, raw, and rough. Usually what I like about other cover designer’s work is how clean and polished and pretty it is. And I can work on being neat and tidy. But… I also need to embrace my own personal design style. I make a ton of rough samples (usually more than ten – sometimes pushing fifty!) until the final idea is hammered out. Other designers spend a lot of time making things pretty but may not give as many options (which is not necessarily a bad thing: I often feel I give authors too many choices and they get paralyzed, or choose poorly).

2. I build scenes

The covers I like are also usually just using one big picture. That means very little Photoshop work. If they’re using one stock photo, all they did was add some text and maybe some design elements. So even if it looks awesome, it was pretty easy. Oh how I wish I had more projects like that (and I probably would, if I made fewer samples and didn’t listen to my authors).

My authors are usually very descriptive about what they want, and I try to do it. I know that other designers say “That’s a bad idea, it won’t make a good cover, let’s do this instead.” I know that those designers are probably helping the authors more than I am – because really busy, complex covers don’t usually sell as well as simple, powerful covers.

I make some simple strong ones as well, but most authors push on towards their vision, and we get into scene-building – which means, constructing an entire 3D reality with all the objects, locations and characters and magical powers and what-not. It can take dozens and dozens of hours to get everything right, and make the authors happy. Why are my finished covers not as neat and pretty as other designers’? Because I’m still listening to my authors. Maybe I need to stop, but it’s fun and they’re happy with the work, so…

PS) I just noticed an author I worked on a brilliant cover for, and we spent a long time on, has gotten a redesign and gone with something very bold and simple. One large image rather than a scene. The new cover looks great. Bold and simple is almost always best. My portfolio is full of ‘scenes’ because that’s what the authors chose, rather than what I favored.

3. Lots of variety, and they appeal to different folks

People have different tastes. I look at my portfolio and there are some I like and some I’m not fond of. I feel the same about other people’s portfolios. I’m tempted to clean out my portfolio and just focus on what I consider my strongest work, but every time I get a new client I’m surprised by what they say they liked in my portfolio. Everybody likes different stuff. There’s no accounting for taste.

So at least I’ve got a ton of variety.

4. It’s not all about pricing

I’m especially jealous of cover designers that charge about the same as I do. We all package our services differently. They may throw in free bookmarks, Facebook banners or posters and other stuff. It’s hard to comparison shop for book cover design because – regardless of the extras in the package – what matters most is having the best cover for your book: the one that’s going to appeal to your target readers and suck them in enough to read the description. It’s got to be beautiful and bold and fit the genre well. I was about to say something like “how well you work with the designer” is also important, as in you should feel comfortable with each other… but I’ll admit I’m not as positive and supportive as some other cover designers. I want you to sell books. I want your investment in me to pay off. I want you to earn a return.

So I’ll give you straight up opinions and advice, and push you in a direction I think will be most successful, but I’m brief with my words and pragmatic in my direction. I’m not a hand-holder. I’m not cheery and garrulous. I know it can come off as rudeness sometimes; chit-chat is not a skill I find useful, as I’d rather be making things that will help you achieve your goals.

Do you have feedback for me?

Like I said, these are the things I tell myself. I like to be aware of my shortcomings so that I can improve, and I’m constantly seeking to be more helpful to authors. I’m open to any critiques or suggestions on how I can make this site, my services or my covers better.

Can you use Indesign to format books? Want more clients and extra income? Job opportunity for book formatters!

Hi there. Are you an interior book formatter, who helps self-publishing authors layout their books in InDesign?

Want to find more clients and increase your income?

I’m developing a package of InDesign templates and requesting submissions from talented book layout experts.

First of all, I’m not asking you to work for free or spend a lot of time.

All I need you to do is take some of your previous, finished client work, strip out the original story, and change the fonts/unique decorations.

I don’t need a full book, just the basic elements and 2 chapters.

“Why would I do that? What do I get out of it?”

First, I’ll choose the best submissions and put them together in a package of 50 InDesign templates, with bonuses, hundreds of graphic elements, and extra perks. I’ll make a high conversion website, get lots of rave reviews, and sell it online for $50. I’ll set it up as an affiliate product that you can sell from your own site and get 51%.

You probably know only a fraction of your website visitors order your book formatting or layout services, and that many indie and self-publishing authors aren’t ready to invest $300~$500 to get their book ready for print and publication.

Tons of indie authors are searching for ways to make their own books; they’re downloading free InDesign book templates. Even the use of Word book templates have become popular, simply because it cuts costs.

Having a lower priced product on your site for $50 will let you earn something from those visitors who land on your site but aren’t ready to order your services.

Save time on book layout and design

This package will be most useful to other book formatters (like yourselves). You can do light customization of the 50 templates (change some of the fonts and graphics) and show them to your clients, which will greatly speed up the design process. As a graphic designer, I’m also going to add in hundreds of ready to use dividers and decoration images; you can just ask your client to pick one and match the chapter fonts with the cover, and create a quick and unique layout that your client likes.

And it will also turn into more client work because…

Authors who buy the package will probably not have InDesign themselves, or it will be frustrating for them to use.

They will need to hire a book designer or layout expert to customize the template for them. One of the package’s selling points will be a list of talented interior book formatters that can help authors customize the templates.

If any of your submitted InDesign templates is chosen for the 50 book layouts, I’ll add you to the list.

I’m not asking you to work for free

I’m asking you to partner with me, earn the majority share (51% of sales sold from your website), and get your website listed in an exclusive list of interior book layout specialists.

All I need you to do is take some of your older work, spend 20 minutes tweaking it, and send it to me. I won’t use it myself. I won’t put it in the package unless I’m also promoting your website.

My own time and investment will be more significant; I’ll design the website, create all the product graphics, prepare bonuses, find partners, advertise heavily, and offer it on my book cover site (which is getting a ton of traffic already).

I do book cover design, so I’m not a competitor, but I can be your ally.

One more thing

I would like to set up the package with a coupon for customization; so that they could buy the package knowing that they will also save some money if they need to have an interior book formatter finish it for them.

I’m hoping you’ll agree that, if they already have the package (which includes graphics), on the condition that they’ve already chosen which template, fonts and graphics to use, that your work will be greatly reduced.

I think giving a $100 discount to authors who’ve already bought the package and know what they want, is reasonable.

I’d like to offer this discount along with the list of interior book formatters, saying that the designers on the list have agreed to finish books from the templates for $100 off.

I believe the discounted rate is fair for the time saved… and if you want to sell the package on your site you should be making extra income anyway, but please tell me when you submit if you are OK with this.

If your submitted designs are not chosen for the 50 layouts included, or you don’t think this is worth your time, you’re still welcome to sell the product as an affiliate to make some extra cash (you’ll be seeing it everywhere once it’s done; I’ll make a bunch of stylish adboxes, it won’t take any effort to sell). I’m putting a lot of time and resources into developing this, it’s going to look amazing and get a ton of traffic, but I understand if you’re not interested.

If you want to participate, I’m putting a very simple layout below of what I’d like to see (front matter, dedication, TOC, 4 Chapters, About the Author, etc.) It’s very short (about 25pages). You can use the same dummy text (Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet). Here’s the template: creativindie-indesigntemplate.

I’m doing them all at 6″x9″ but please change the margins, location of the chapter headers and page numbers however you want (they’re in the top in the sample, but the bottom is fine too). Would like to see lots of variety in layout: font size, line spacing, indents vs. no indents, some with drop caps, some without. Simple changes, nothing fancy. I’m sure you already have several designs from past projects that you can use, just copy/paste the dummy text and you’re done.

Don’t worry about decoration or dividers, you can just use the  * * * I’ve already added under the chapter titles and the section breaks. I will go through later and replace them with decoration choices from the large collection I’m including with the package.

The only problem is the fonts: I can’t include fonts directly in the package.

You’ll need to use free fonts, or Google fonts, and then provide download links to those fonts (you could add those to the end of each InDesign template?) I’d like to see a variety of nice, fun chapter fonts (even though authors will probably change them later). I’d like you to send 10 variations if you can, with different genres in mind (horror, romance, fantasy, etc.) That way I can select unique ones from all the submissions and make a strong and diverse collection.

You can tweak the template, save as “number1”, tweak for 10 minutes, change the fonts, save as “number2” etc. You could finish 10 variations in a couple hours.

I could pay for someone on Elance to do it for me (and I will if I have to) but that’s such a wasted opportunity, when you could be getting a ton of free publicity and marketing for your business. I wanted to make it a community project that we will all benefit from.

PS) You may think using a template is cheating, and you prefer to do everything from scratch. That’s understandable… but authors almost always prefer to look at several samples, and with no basis, you’re just guessing and trying things until you get lucky. Starting from a template, just to get the basic layout right, and having hundreds of dividers and graphic elements for them to choose, saves a lot of time. And when you change the fonts and decoration, it will be 100% unique (depending on the project, you may find something more specific to use for the dividers anyway).

No hard feelings if you pass on this, like I said, I’ll get it done anyway. I’m just trying to spread the wealth and encourage collaboration between artists.

If you’re ready to put some of your old designs to good use, spend an hour or two, and get more clients and a ready to go product you can sell and increase your income, just send your tweaked designs to me: [email protected].

PPS) I’m only going to accept designs until August 15th, so that I can try to finish the product and have it selling by the end of August. So please send them in the next 2 weeks.

PPPS) If you still don’t feel comfortable contributing, and would like to email me a bid for paid work (just in case I don’t get enough samples) that’s fine too.

On Elance I would put this project up, probably for about $100 for 10 variations (since they’re small and very simple; 10 variations should take maximum 5 hours). The email link to your business in the package would be worth much more than that. If you need the cash, let me know, and I’ll contact you if I still need more designs after the other designers have sent in their work.

Regardless of whether you to decide to join, I wish you well in your business, and I’ll keep your link/contacts on my resources page.

UPDATE: I changed the template file, so it has 4 chapters and an automatic TOC:

Here’s the template again, excited to see what you come up with!



Hard-boiled crime fiction / spy thriller book cover design

I’ve been working on THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR, a hard-boiled spy thriller.

From the author, “Emphasis on the hard-boiled. The cover should appeal to readers who like hard-core hardboiled fiction, not espionage buffs. If you like staring into the gritty maw of flawed humanity, you’ll like this book. But if you love Le Carre, that’s no guarantee you’ll want to touch this book. Dig? Readers who love wisecracking dark anti-heros will eat this book up.”

Here’s what we came up with. I think we’re going with the first one – bolder text, very clean and powerful. The others are a lot of fun, but probably too confusing/distracting.







The Lust Boat: Erotic Cruise Ship Book Cover Design

I’m working on a fun Romance book cover design for “The Lust Boat” by Cathryn Chapman.

Opening line:
“24 hours onboard the ship and I’ve shagged someone already. Not the most auspicious start really, given that I just left Daniel, my fiancé of four years, sobbing in a rather embarrassing fashion at Heathrow airport.”


Ellie is a nice, normal English girl who suffers a broken heart and runs away to sea… to work on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. She discovers that working at sea is not as romantic and wonderful as it sounds, because when people are away from home, they often behave like they are living in a moral vacuum. All around her there are parties, crazy sexual exploits, drinking, good times and fun… and also a lot of lying, cheating, backstabbing and politics.  She makes a few good friends, and together they navigate the rough road of cruise ship life – although not everybody gets out unscathed.