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.