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:

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

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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.

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I really liked these, but he didn’t.

I made some more:

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

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

 

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

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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.

 

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These are much nicer coversĀ  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…

toolsfinal3

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.

What should I put on my book cover design? Characters, scenes, etc?

For the past year I’ve been super busy working on book covers. During that time I’ve struggled, often, with competing visions for the book cover design. I want something that looks awesome and sells like hotcakes. The authors usually want their main characters and a specific scene. The requests I’ve gotten have verged on the ridiculous, but I always try to make it work. It’s frustrating for me to know I’m making complex but subpar covers when I could be making stuff that blows people’s minds. It’s frustrating to see a very happy author who loves the cover and know another cover would have moved more books off the shelf.

So I felt some solidarity and happiness when I read this post over on Damonza Covers, “Write a Great Book but Leave the Cover to a Professional.” Damonza’s work is beautiful and you should definitely consider him as well for your book cover design. And his work flow is a lot different from mine. He’ll make 2 sample covers and if authors don’t like it, keep going. This lets him present the two strongest options first.

In contrast, I present about 10 very rough samples, including several stabs at the scene the author described, and we work up from there. My process gives the author more control and involvement, but that’s probably not a good thing. I tell the authors which ones are the best, and they routinely ignore my advice.

I love my job and hope to see my author’s succeed, so I’m not complaining about them, just a challenging situation – and a situation perhaps that is critical to the success and failure of indie published books that nobody else is talking about.

As a side note, and this is kind of depressing, I’m noticing I get a ton of work, even though personally I find Damonza’s work equally awesome. Is this because many of my covers have the scenes and characters that he urges against using? Do indie authors see in my work what they want, because I try to listen to and use their ideas, even if they aren’t the best from a sales and marketing perspective?

(I don’t mean to denigrate my covers, most of them I’m very happy with and they’re all selling quite well.)

Anyway, I know this is a complex and uncomfortable subject, but deep down I want you to succeed, and for that you need to be informed and aware of all of these elements.

Some tips before you get started on your book cover design:

1) Characters rarely work; especially because everybody is using the same stock photography, so your model will end up on dozens of other books. On the other hand… they are usually more engaging and emotionally than a cover without.

2) Bold, beautiful and simple is best.

3) Specific scenes from the story are nearly impossible to recreate with accuracy using stock photography. Try to boil a scene down to one, specific element or item, a symbolic representation of what’s going on in that scene.

4) Sincerely listen to your book cover designer’s advice. His/her opinion should be given preference to what your family and neighbors like. They have more experience than you do, and they are trying to help. They also want to see their best work out there.

5) Don’t hire a cover designer who will just give you what you want and listen to your ideas. Your book deserves more than that. Hire a designer that pushes back, tells you what will sell better, and advises you towards greater publishing success. As an indie-published author, the team you put together to publish your book is as close to a professional marketing team as you’re going to get, and their advice may be invaluable.

Should I start making my book cover design before I finish writing my book?

writingI used to tell people that you can never start your book cover too early. On the one hand, having a great cover can motivate you to write a quality story that lives up to the picture. On the other hand, you need to get your story out there and create demand for it, even if you haven’t finished. So hiring a book cover designer or making your own book cover early can work really well for indie authors.

However recently I’ve been noticing something less advantageous: some of my clients hire me to make a book cover for their book when they’ve just gotten started writing their book. Maybe they’re 30% done. So they think they know some things about the characters and the plot… but as every writer knows, books have a life of their own. Characters change and evolve. New directions and plot twists spring up.

I’ve had clients start with a main character in a certain costume, change ethnicity, age, costume, hair style and location as weeks (or months) progressed. Rather than one book cover design, I’m doing the work of four or five different ones, waiting for the story to take final shape.

So my new advice is this: start as early as possible on your book cover design, but not until you know for sure what your book is about. At least have a solid first draft.

You can hire a cover designer about the same time as you hire a book editor. That way, the cover will be ready by the time you start formatting for publishing.

More Things to Consider
Before you hire a designer or start the book cover design process, here are some things you should have ready:

1) The Perfect Title. Although this is easy to change later, knowing your title will really help direct the style of your book cover. Have variations. Use Google Adwords to test what gets clicked. Get tons of feedback. Innovate.

2) The Perfect Tagline. Summarize your book in one sentence. Note the key conflict, the key setting/location, the transformation journey or challenge, the main character(s). Write down all of the keywords that readers might use to discover your book. (The genre and sub-genre, the setting/location, the topics, vocations, and issues that are dealt with directly or indirectly). Once you have those checklists, try to put them all together (as many as possible, choose the strongest) in one or two sentences that tell readers what the book is about while also hooking their attention.

These same lists can be given to your book cover designer.

3) Examples of 5 book covers that you like, and why. Your book cover doesn’t have to copy, but knowing what appeals to you will make it much easier for your designer to make something you like, and save some time. A good designer will probably make a few samples of what you think you want, and a few samples of what he thinks would look good – the final result will hopefully be a collaboration between both.

4) Help search for your own art/photo.

Your designer will search through thousands of photos on stock photography sites. You can save a lot of time by looking for things you like as well – you may find something you love, or at least help him narrow down what you’re looking for.

WARNING to indie and self-published authors: A book cover design is not your soapbox!

This is a rant I wrote a while ago, which I didn’t publish, but I’ve decided to now. I love my authors. I want the best for them. So it’s frustrating when I know they’re going away with less than my best work. I feel like I’ve failed them. There is no remedy.

Being a book cover designer can be frustrating.

I don’t believe a cover design should make the author happy. I think it should sell books.

My typical process goes something like this:

1. The client tells me they are “not visually creative” or have no idea what to do with the cover – they are word people, not picture people.

2. The client tells me what they want. I get as close to possible. I show them a dozen great ideas, and a few mediocre ones. If they have a vision in mind, I try to match it, but also show them some alternatives that are visually more pleasing. I tell the client which ones I like best.

3. If I’m lucky, the client agrees with me, we finish the cover, and we’re done. But about half the time, this happens: The client picks a mediocre design – actually they will probably pick four mediocre designs and then go through several rounds of revision on each cover, continuing to change what they want as their whims change. We are braving brand new territory. I dutifully carry out all of their suggestions so they can see how it looks (not being visual people, they can’t just imagine how it would look, they have to see it).

This is absolutely fine – it’s all part of the process. Hopefully I’ll convince the client at this point to post some of the designs on their platform to get some feedback, to see what people respond to. Unfortunately, sometimes the final-final-final cover we come up with is much less appealing and powerful than my original design ideas from the first batch.

Think of it like this: the typical author’s graphic design skills are probably “C-“. A great designer’s are “A+”. So when they collaborate, and the designer does what the author wants, the final cover will be a strong “B”.

Your book cover is not your soapbox

The main problem, invariably, is that authors want to fit their whole message in the book cover – they want to COMMUNICATE their ideas, their vision, their plot, the characters’ personalities, everything, into the cover. Getting “The Message” right is the most important thing.

However, your book cover is not your soapbox. Your BOOK is your soapbox. The cover is the packaging. The cover is the “ooh, shiny” pretty/colorful thing that makes people want to impulse-buy your book and read your content.

That’s not to say that the cover shouldn’t reflect your book, of course it should. You don’t want people to enter your book with false assumptions and be disappointed. But you can’t fit everything on your cover, and in the end, LOOKING GOOD and having clear, easy to read text is more important than everything else. Aesthetics is king, and that should translate to, “listen to your cover designer.”

Why did you hire a cover designer?

A lot of authors hire a cover designer to make them a beautiful cover, but then take over the process and tell their designer exactly what they want them to do. A “bad” designer is someone with amazing graphic design skills who will give the author EXACTLY what they want.

The author will love it – they will be ecstatic. At least until a year later when they can’t sell any books, and begin to realize that nobody else likes their cover design. A “good” designer is somebody who says “I could do that, but I’m not going to, because it would be ugly and nobody would buy it.” That’s the designer who has your best interests at heart.

Of course the tricky part is that while professional book cover designers work for publishing companies, and can design selling covers without even getting the author’s input (who cares if the author likes it, if it sells more books?), independent cover designers like myself are paid directly by the authors, and “the customer is always right.”

This creates a moral dilemma. For my part I always let the authors know which cover designs I like, and which ones I think will sell better. I hate to complain (because my job is awesome), but how can I not feel bad about knowingly delivering sub-par covers to my authors?

This is not to say that I am always right and that my clients are design-challenged; sometimes my authors spur me on and on to make changes, and what we finally come up with is really awesome. Sometimes what I think is “good design” may really not be attractive to the authors’ target readers, in which case what I think is pretty shouldn’t matter much. So what’s an author to do?

First, always err on the side of simplicity – don’t make the mistake of having a way-too-busy cover with everything going on.

Then, when you have some cover samples (hopefully your book cover designer will give you at least several options to choose from) get some feedback. Post them on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. Offer free books for cover critique. Getting feedback on your cover is also a great way to start generating interest for your book.

If it’s a YA book – offer to talk about publishing at your local middle school and show the class your samples, see which they like best.

Finally, realize that your designer’s opinion doesn’t have equal weight against your brother’s, mother’s and neighbor’s. If you choose a design that is different than what your designer recommends, slow down and think very carefully about what you want your book to do: Make you happy, or be read by lots of people.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cowboy Western Book Cover Design

I’ve been working on what I think is my first really cowboy-western book cover design: Beyond the Crazy Mountains by Charles Hackenberry.

I was stuck for awhile, because the author has a really specific idea for what he wants on the cover design:

Three figures on horseback in front of this: the lead
figure (who looks like a cross between Brad Pitt and
a younger Jeff Bridges) is looking back at the second
figure, so we see him nearly full face. The second
figure is a woman with long blonde hair, mens’ garb,
looking straight ahead, so we see her in profile. The
third figure, a little ways back, looks like a cross
between Ernest Borgnine and Chevy Chase. Figure three is
looking toward the other two figures in front of him.
All figures are riding toward the left.

I dutifully spent a couple weeks trying to find the perfect images to make this happen, but ultimately gave up.

Even if I had found the right faces, in the right poses, and clothes, I would have had to cut and paste them together, strip out the background, and try to fix all the lighting (nearly impossible if the lights in the originals were coming from different angles.)

I hate saying “no, this can’t be done”, and I actually got surprisingly close with a few of these, but this is probably one of the times I should have stressed that a simple, emotive cover is stronger and more powerful than a busy cover that accurately portrays the author’s view of his characters.

Still, although these are very rough samples, we should be able to clean one of these up into a winning book cover design.

Elusive: An International Thriller Book Cover Design

Tonight I’m working on an update/makeover for Sara Rosett’s International Thriller “Elusive”.

Here is the original cover.

Some things I don’t like about it: the original background image (street) has no styling, same with the gun/money. I would have run a filtered action once I put them both together to make the colors more cohesive and a little more dark and mysterious. Doesn’t look like a thriller book cover to me.

Not loving the Red text ( a little hard to read). The title is transparent, and has a white stroke and a black stroke/drop shadow… there’s too much going on.

Here are some of my samples: