DIY covers, often poorly done or simply ineffective, are one of the biggest hurdles for indie authors hoping to get more reviews and sales. This month, we’re thrilled to feature this ultimate guide to making great book covers with 99designs, written by TWA client William Ray and based on his experiences using the service. We’re so excited to bring this to you–we love 99designs so much that TWA became an affiliate a couple years ago (all product and service links in this article are affiliate links, FYI). We hope you’ll find this thorough collection of tips helpful as you prepare your book for publication or consider upgrading your cover art on your already published book.
When I finished my first book, I was exhausted with the whole project. I put together some simple cover art with the help of a few friends and posted it up for sale. The cover I had was serviceable, but it looked like history, or historical fiction, rather than fantasy, and it didn’t scale well at Amazon’s thumbnail size. Sales were sluggish. With a second book in the series nearly finished, I knew I needed a unified and more professional look. I needed a professional who could design great book covers. That’s where 99Designs came in.
For those unfamiliar, 99Designs is a website where people seeking graphical design services (logos, book covers, illustrations, etc.) pay to set up a contest and have various artists compete with proposals. If all goes as planned, you pick out your favorite submission and they are awarded the prize money you put up. As a match-making service, it can give you a lot of bang for your buck, which makes it a powerful tool for starting authors who, like me, may not have much luck just surfing the Web in search of designers with the right price and aesthetic.
Covers using original artwork can run hundreds if not thousands of dollars; what I originally wanted was estimated at about $1500. A skilled designer, however, can work absolute wonders and create great book covers very quickly and at a fraction of the cost of entirely original artwork through the subtle use of pre-existing elements (“stock images”).
The entire 99Designs book cover process takes a week and consists of five main parts that I’ll explore here based on my own experience. To get the best results, you need to be extremely engaged throughout the process.
- Describe the sort of design you want and decide which package you want (i.e. how much you want to pay).
- Review the initial entries over days 1-3.
- Select finalists on day 4 – or walk away.
- Award a winner on day 7.
- Finalize details and download your files.
PART 1 – Filling Out Your Brief & Choosing Rewards
The participating artists know all about creating great book covers, but none of them know anything about your book. Decide who your audience is and what you want that audience to know from your cover at a glance. Pour all of that into your brief. If yours is a print book, be sure to tell them the trim size.
[TIP: In retrospect, I wish I had written and reviewed my brief in Word and then pasted that text into the relevant sections. It’s much easier to review your instructions this way as the small boxes on the form restrict your view.]
My brief told the artists I wanted to sell the ideas of epic fantasy with 19th century society, and to show a scene of three soldiers heading across a snowy plain towards a tower, and that one of the soldiers should have a two-handed sword across his back.I could have said much more though, and so here are some lessons I learned:
- Tell them what emotional impact the art should have. My brief was specific on imagery, but when a few early submissions matched and yet still felt strangely off-base I discovered something to Western audiences, who read from left to right, when you show a character journeying to the left side of the page, he seems to be returning, but facing to the right, he seems to be going somewhere new. That minor difference in the composition made a big difference in my initial impression of whether the soldiers were going home or invading a strange fortress. A good designer knows all these little tricks, but they don’t know exactly how you want your cover to feel until you tell them. Even though the imagery stayed the same, I got more tailored results after I announced to the group that it was a story about an epic journey into a mysterious place.
- Include visual references. Scour the Internet and find book covers or other works of art you like and put those in your brief. You can include art that shows styles you enjoy, similar framing, similar props or costumes, and you can even put in your own sketches of suggested layouts.
- Tell them who your audience is. A book for children has a different tone than one aimed at teens or adults. If you want the book to look like part of a series, it needs to match (or create) the style for others in that series.
- More detail on your work is better. Specifics from your book can be hugely helpful, even if you don’t necessarily think they are important to the composition. I asked for my cover to show one guy with a sword, and so the entries all included that. But on a whim, I mentioned to one artist that, in the book, the sword had ribbons on the hilt – when she added that detail not only did that make it more accurate, it drew more attention to the sword, and also made the snowy scene feel colder by virtue of the wind blowing at the ribbons. Great book covers sell books—while the goal isn’t to merely illustrate your vision, but specifics that match your vision are also more likely capture the attention of the right customers, so give the artists more to work with.
- Expect the artist to interpret artistically. While you want to give your artist as much information as possible, it’s also important to understand that doesn’t mean the artist will simply translate your instructions. Nor should she. You want a cover to sell your story, and the broad concepts may not be best communicated by a literal depiction of your story. My book needed to show 19th century elements and fantasy elements. One of the covers I rejected depicted a tower that looked far more like what I described in my book, but the finalist I chose depicted it as a crazy fantasy building, which is less accurate but does a far better job of conveying the ideas I needed to sell.
Once your brief is filled out, you’re ready to decide how much you want to spend.
There are three basic award tiers and a plethora of advertising options. I picked the middle tier, spent about $70 on advertising, and got over fifty participants, with ultimately over 80 designs submitted (although many of those were revisions). All totaled, that cost me a little over $500, so that’s a lot of work done on my behalf for that amount of money.
Since the artists have no guarantee their work will be chosen, a higher award can attract more involved submissions. Advertising an interesting description can also spark the creative imagination, and the artist I liked best was also the most enthusiastic about my subject matter.
You’ll be given the option to make your contest a “blind” contest, which means that only you can see the submissions. This encourages artists who are worried their ideas will be stolen, but the downside is less context for the participants: when artists see what you rate different styles of things, they begin submitting works more like the submissions you are scoring highest.
I have not run a blind contest, so I cannot speak to the differences there, but it’s worth noting that 99Designs encourages you not to do so until you have more experience with the process. Several artists requested that I change it to a blind contest, but I politely declined those requests and most of them still submitted anyway.
PART 2 – The Initial Entries
The first stage of your contest may take a little bit to get going, but by the time it ends on day four, you’ll probably have quite a few entries to choose from. All these people are good at what they do, so your job in the early stage is to get as many of them moving in the right direction as possible.
Some of the early entries will be wildly wrong.
Feel free to decline those outright, but I found the most effective tool was to give star ratings and use comments to guide the other participants and encourage revision. For the first few days, I didn’t rate anything over 4 out of 5 (and there was only one 4!). Submissions that were off in some serious way I didn’t rate more than two, but I always left a statement explaining my rating. If it was close, I’d leave suggestions for what might make it better. One of my finalists started the contest with a generic 1-star that was terribly off-base, but after my feedback, he came back with very strong proposals.
Here are a few tips to help guide you in getting the best results during this stage:
- Tell them everything you can think of. It’s considered bad form to discuss or point to another artist’s submission in the contest, but feel free to borrow ideas you like and mention them more abstractly. For example, once I realized it looked better to put a ribbon on the sword, I told everyone. What I did not do is say, “Hey, Artist B, Artist A chose a great font, give me something like Artist A is doing.”
- Always write your suggestions for improvement before submitting the ratings. I received a brilliantly designed piece that was just totally off base, but I strongly suspected the artist could adapt that same style, and many of the same elements, into something I’d really love. Unfortunately, I rated his work a 2 before commenting. In the few minutes it took to write my explanation, he withdrew it entirely, which meant I couldn’t comment on it anymore, and he submitted nothing else… even his name disappeared, so that chance was lost forever!
- Get a little help from your friends. If you like, you can run a survey of sorts, posting up entries and asking friends and social media followers to peek in on your contest, leave comments, and vote on which of the entries they like best. You can run more than one poll, but you cannot change the entries in an existing poll if new versions come in. You’re the only one who sees the poll results and you can totally ignore whatever advice is given to you there.
PART 3 – Select Your Finalists!
If all goes well, by the time you need to pick finalists, you should have several great book covers that you feel would be perfect with just some slight tweaks.
If you get to day 4 and don’t have a handful of very close prospects to choose from, you can end the contest with no winner. The prize is refunded to you, so you’ll only be out your advertising and administrative costs. Once you pick finalists, you are guaranteeing to pay the prize money out to one of them, so make sure you think you have at least one final contender in the bunch.
- Do not pick any finalists until the deadline on Day 4. A lot of people sweep in at the last possible moment with new revisions or totally new submissions. It’s best to wait it out even if you have clear favorites – you don’t want to miss something promising! You can nominate up to six finalists and you can pick a winner from among those at any time. However, once you select a winner, you can only get minor tweaks to the awarded cover.
- Keep giving feedback. The finalists will continue to work until you select a winner, so you should continue to give as much feedback as you can, as frequently as you can.Every time a revision comes in, comment on it. Say what works and what doesn’t.
- I repeat: Feedback is key. No serious changes can be made to the submissions after day 7, so give each artist every opportunity to improve their entry. Once it’s over, the winner owes you only minor typographical corrections or similar small adjustments. For example, the text of the back-cover blurb can be adjusted a little, but no major layout changes made to it. So again, comment early and often, and don’t call it early.
PART 4 – Award A Winner!
You do not have to pick your winner on day 7. The designers are not allowed submit anything new, but you still get 14 days to make up your mind. You can run more polls during those 14 days if you like, to get opinions from friends and followers.
It is possible to pick more than one winner, but you’ll have to pay the prize money out for each winner (although at a discounted rate).
The losers get nothing.
I want to make that last point clear because the finalists are all going to be people whose design work you liked. There’s no reason to lose them just because the contest is over.
- Build your contacts list. If you go back to your contest page, you can click on the individual profiles of each artist who submitted something. From their profiles, you can click on the heart icon to add these artists to your 99Designs contacts. That way, later, you can message them through 99Designs and commission future work directly without having to go through a contest for it.
- Say “Thank you.” I suggest sending the non-winners a quick note after the contest ends to thank them for participating. When I sent mine, I also mentioned what I liked best about each design. It’s flattering, and always a good idea to keep warm communications with someone who could be a future resource. More importantly, those compliments will serve as a handy notation of why you liked that artist when you later scroll through your contacts list and messages.
PART 5 – The Technical Necessaries.
Get any last adjustments (I constantly alter the cover copy), and make sure you receive the file formats you need (check with your printer/publisher for details!).
Once the designer has sent you all their “deliverables” and you have everything you need for your publisher to print with, click on “approve files and release payment” to conclude the transaction.
Then you’re done!
…with that book.
PART 6 – Wait, there wasn’t a part 6!
If you do them right, the contests are exhausting, because you’re conducting analysis and writing responses to dozens of submissions. Luckily, you really don’t have to run more than one contest. That’s because after your cover is done, you can keep in touch with any of the artists you liked (see Part 4). If you want, rather than doing another contest asking for spec work, you can hire an artist directly through 99Designs.
I really liked the cover my winning artist created for Gedlund, and I wanted her style to carry over in my series’ second book, The Great Restoration, so I asked her to design my second cover without running a contest. Dealing with one artist instead of dozens meant far less work for me.
Even without a contest, we used the 99Designs website to communicate, share files, and arrange payment. By doing so, 99Designs got a percentage of her fees, but since there were no contest fees I was able to pay her more than she won in the original contest anyway. And even though the new cover I wanted was a far more complex project than the first one, it was still cheaper for me overall.
Plus, as mentioned above, if she’s ever too busy or I want to change styles, or anything else, thanks to those farewell messages to my other finalists, I can now approach a handful of other artists I know can create great book covers.
The Finished Product
As an indie author, being professional—and looking the part—is critical to sales. My new covers have caught far more attention than my original did because they look far more professional and better fit the style of the market. Having a relationship with the designer has meant I have pro help for website banners, Facebook and Twitter covers, business cards, and anything else I decide is a little bit too far beyond my design skill set. So not only do my covers look more professional, now I do as well.
For me, finding a good designer to work with has not only meant steadily growing sales beyond my friends and family, but more importantly, I’ve seen a lot more attention from bloggers and other influencers. These are critical components of audience growth.
The 99designs service allows you to interact with many different artists, find experts in exactly the styles you’re looking for, and importantly, locate professionals who are immediately available. To manage it properly requires a week of heavy attention for that first contest, but for me, the benefits have been lasting and worthwhile.
Still not convinced? Check out this experiment in which four book covers were redone and tested against the originals to see which got more click-throughs. The results may surprise you!
William Ray is a fantasy novelist and the author of both Gedlund (named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2016) and the recently released The Great Restoration, which are both Tales of the Verin Empire. His work can be found in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon.com, and you can find him on either Facebook or Twitter @VerinEmpire.