Home : Sewing Your Own Parachute – Advice About Book Covers

I recently responded to an article on Publishing Perspectives by Andrew Pantoja that innocently advises self-publishers about sources for cheap book covers. It is technically easy to create your own cover; therein lies the problem. It’s also easy to sew your own parachute. I have seen successful covers made by amateurs but I’ve seen plenty of authors proudly displaying horrible design abortions.

Why hire a pianist for a wedding when you can get a digital piano cheaper? This same flawed logic is often embraced by do-it-yourself cover designers. It substitutes obtaining a tool for solving a problem. It’s even more embarrassing when the purchaser of the piano can’t hear the difference; a guaranteed room-clearer.

Graphic Design is not about making something “pretty” or even finding something you personally “like.” Design is a craft practiced by professionals who not only understand how to use their tools, but how to choose and mix typefaces, combine colors, achieve tension and balance, and avoid cliches. Graphic design uses text and images to solve a problem or achieve a goal. As with dentistry, there’s much to be said for working with a professional.

The article suggests crowdsourcing as an approach:

99Designs Sample Cover

For authors who are eager to enter the market quickly the answer may be crowdsourcing.

On 99Designs, authors can commission book cover designs. The first step is drafting a design brief which provides the crowd of designers with a better understanding of the project. This includes a description of the author, the book, and specific technical guidelines like file type, document size and resolution.

After setting a price, which can range from $195 to the project’s budget limit, authors can kick back as dozens of designs are submitted from around the world. 99designs already has over 100,000 registered members.

Outfits like 99Designs may produce useful results, but their fundamental liability lies in the qualifications of the judge of the design contest; you. The example cover depicted in the article is attractive, but the style is used all the time and the text is dangerously close to the edge. An uninformed author may be seduced by the comfort offered by the design’s latent familiarity, only to find that the text on the spine or back is cut off because it fails to accommodate variances in the printing process.

Many DIY cover designers buy a suitable stock photo and then fall immediately into setting blocks of centered type on top of it. Notwithstanding the fact that their type choices often suggest timeframes irrelevant to the book, setting type over the broad range of tones in a photo is not always easy. Solving the problem with glow, bevel and dropshadow filters is another open manhole cover that leads straight to book cover hell.

Like logo design, book cover design is about creating a unique visual presence that tells a story. Like good writing, book cover design is a craft that requires time, practice and the help of a capable professional (an editor or designer). You wouldn’t send your story synopsis to 99WRITERS, would you?

If you’re a serious writer, work with a professional designer. If the only thing they offer is technical skill, you found a production artist. Try again until you find a designer; they trade in results, not pixels. Evaluate the offers of ebook conversion firms and printers very carefully. They only offer design services to feed their core production businesses and are generally not qualified to judge quality.

If you can’t afford a professional, understand the risks of DIY. At very least, get some design books and make sure you work with historically groundbreaking work in front of you. I have a library of design books going back to the 1870s and I use them. The last place I look for design inspiration is the Internet, a realm where 99% of the images are created by techies who have no design training at all.

Even with cheap image manipulation software available to anyone and plenty of sites offering free fonts, there’s a reason people will spend six figures to get a design degree. There’s a reason serious writers will pay $500-$2500 for a book cover that says what it’s supposed to say and does what it’s supposed to do. There’s a reason self-published books are stigmatized as universally crappy.

If you spent the time to write and edit a book, you understand the incredible effort that goes into polishing a manuscript. Why take the low road when it comes to sharing your work?


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