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How to Work with a Cover Designer

How to Work with a Cover Designer

Seeing your book cover for the first time is an exciting milestone as a debut author. After months of slaving over a manuscript, the cover makes the whole project seem real. That’s why it’s such a big deal to many writers. It represents the realisation of a dream. When you consider your book, it’s impossible not to imagine it on a supermarket bookshelf, billed as the next Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code.

In your fantasy, your cover probably looks slick and mainstream. Most writers think the same way but, lacking any design skills, they seek help from professionals to realise their vision. That’s when the dream crumbles. They see the price. Depending on how you source your cover, it can cost anywhere between $99 and $999. Wincing at the potential invoice, this is where many self-publishing authors make their first mistake. Unrestricted without a publisher, they do one of two things:

  1. They design their own cover to save money.


2. They pay a designer and micromanage the process.

Neither are useful reactions. While creating a good book cover is a learnable skill, lots of authors don’t take the time to learn how to do a good job and, as a result, design a cover that either doesn’t sell or sells to the wrong audience and gets negative reviews. In contrast, new authors who pay designers commonly fight with their designer to get a cover they like rather than one that sells to their intended audience. Inevitably, both outcomes end with the author out of pocket having learned a costly lesson.

Thankfully, you don’t need to learn it the hard way. Work effectively with a professional cover designer early in your career and this will pay dividends over the long term. Today’s blog post will explain what top-level actions you can take to establish a clear and lucrative working relationship with your designer from the outset to save money, get better covers and enjoy a more successful career.

Manage Your Expectations

Unrealistic or misguided expectations often ruin newer authors’ experiences of working with professional designers. New to publishing, they don’t understand how to conduct a typical author-designer relationship. They also don’t know what’s considered normal; that you need to book an in-demand designer months in advance and prepare to pay professional rates. They also don’t know that they probably won’t own the cover’s copyright or have access to layered source files unless agreed in advance.

A good way to work around this issue is to discuss all of the details with your designer over email before you begin to ensure everyone is informed and all agreements are clarified in writing. Questions you may want to ask include:

  • How long will the process take?
  • How many mock-ups will you get?
  • Will you own the cover copyright?
  • Will you have access to the final cover’s source files?
  • How many formats are included in the quote?
  • Does the designer’s price include VAT?

It’s important to answer these questions before you go into business with a designer because a lack of clarity can potentially cause you problems down the line. Remember, cover designers have a business to run too. They value their time, profit and IP rights, just like you. Cover all of these questions early and encapsulate the agreed answers in a contract before working together. That way, everyone will know exactly what to expect as the process unfolds.

Give Specific Briefs

Problems also arise when an author commissions a cover without knowing exactly what they want from their designer. Having approached a designer with vague ideas, they feel cheated when they get concepts that don’t match their vision. But how is the designer supposed to know that your cover has cyberpunk undertones when you simply said it was a sci-fi novel? Likewise, if you say it’s a thriller, is that a domestic psychological thriller or a terrorist one? Your designer will create a very different cover depending on your answer.

Being clear and focused is the only way to ensure you get exactly what you want. For best results, do prior research and write a detailed brief they can use for inspiration. Take a look at bestsellers in your genre on Amazon and the categories they inhabit. The books you find on those digital chart walls will give you a good overview of the colour schemes, images and subject matters that appeal to readers in your genre. Be as specific as possible because this will result in you getting better mock-ups and ultimately a better final cover that sells your book to the right readers.

Consider Your Brand

Branding is the overall image a business creates for itself – its logo and the colours it uses on product packaging. It’s the identity that shapes how people view it. You might not believe branding is important for authors. After all, we aren’t Nike or Tesla. But branding is just as vital for us as it is for big businesses. For instance, your books’ branding indicates their genre. Use the right fonts and colours and readers will know what sort of books you write before they even read the blurbs. Getting that right is essential because the wrong brand can attract the wrong readers, which will lead to bad reviews.

It doesn’t stop at genre either. Once you have readers, your branding only grows in importance. If you write in several series, could a reader instantly recognise which ones are linked? Establishing a theme from the beginning makes it easier to funnel readers through your fictional universe. This is also true if you don’t write in series. Take Stephen King, for example. Not every reader will pick up a book about a pet cemetery and a village stuck under an impenetrable dome. These concepts attract different readers but King’s pen name – always huge and in the same font across his covers – helps him to guide readers from one book to the next. Considering these options early will stop you from having to return to your designer later with update requests, disgruntled, having realised your mistake.

Trust Your Designer

Experienced authors who monitor their sales in great detail and know which of their covers resonate with readers often test the impacts of cover redesigns on their sales. As a result, they learn what aspects of their covers attract their ideal readers and sell books. As a newer author, you won’t have this experience, so you may be inclined to insist on a graphic, font or style that you like rather than one that sells. Often, that’s a mistake, and good designers will say as much to their clients. Even with their good intentions, though, this sort of nudging can cause frustration on both sides. Authors don’t like feeling like their vision has been overpowered by an arrogant designer and designers don’t want their name associated with a cover they believe will miss the mark.

Always remember in these situations that cover designers have valid experience. Professionals aren’t always right, but they often know what sells in the market better than most new authors. It makes sense to listen to their suggestions. If your designer has supplied two mock-ups and you don’t like them, consider why that’s the case. Are they actually bad, or do they just match your readers’ expectations rather than your vision? If it’s the latter, trust your designer and help them to develop the better of the two mock-ups rather than scrapping your plans altogether. Keep in mind that they want your book to sell almost as much as you do because its success will directly impact their businesses. After the first few weeks, once you’ve gotten over the honeymoon period, whether you like your cover won’t matter as much to you anyway. What will matter is the income it generates.

Don’t Expect Freebies

If your designer supplies you with a pre-agreed number of mock-ups on time that follow your initial brief, and you absolutely can’t bring yourself to approve one for development, then expect to pay more for extras. After all, they’ve upheld their side of the deal. What you shouldn’t do is throw a tantrum and refuse to pay. Doing so will only tarnish your name in the design community and ruin your chances of finding another quality cover designer in the long term.

You don’t have to roll over every time you disagree with your designer and expect them to make no changes, but neither should you demand a complete overhaul half-way through the process. Just remember to remain professional, as you expect them to behave. That means paying on time and playing within the rules of the original contract you both agreed. Designers are busy people. They don’t want to work with awkward authors just as you would rather not argue with unreasonable readers who demand more books for free. Think about it from their perspective. If you wouldn’t go the extra mile for free then they shouldn’t be expected to either.

Whether you work with one designer or multiple is up to you. Just know that authors who nurture a relationship with their designers find it easier to produce books than those who start from scratch on every title. Getting to that point can take time but, once you’re on the same page, you can enjoy a more streamlined, stress-free process over the long term.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.