Cover design, part 1

Part 16: decide if you have the skills to design your own ebook cover, or whether you should hire a designer.
Picture your own actions, the last time you entered a physical bookstore. Did you move through most of the store? Which section did you go to first? How long did you stay there? How many books did you pick up? How many did you open and browse? What made you pick a book up? What made you browse it? What made you buy it?

A question of covers
Don’t bother asking him about what your cover should look like; I already tried     (source)

Which factors sell a book?

To sell books, you have to think like the consumers who buy them. (Do you see the aforementioned role creep from plain old ‘writer’ that indie publishers face?) I know from my own experience that three things will make me pick up, browse and ultimately buy a book:
1. The author’s name: if I know the author, or have previously read them, or there is media and social buzz about them (such as good reviews).
2. Price: hey, unabashed cheapskate here, but we’re getting up around $30 for a new release paperback in Australia. Something on the bargain table will always be more likely to catch of my eye, and I’m much more likely to take a punt on an unknown book in this section.
3. Cover: there are some stunning covers out there that make you want to browse the book purely on the basis of the small moment of delight they give you when you notice them. The Book Designer will give you an idea of what is considered the cream of the ebook market.
Now, transpose your hypothetical consumer in the opening section from a physical bookstore to Amazon. People in a physical bookstore have their attention focused on one thing – searching for, justifying and then buying a book. People on Amazon have their email open in the next tab, Facebook on a third. They’re listening to a radio stream. They have IMs popping up in chat windows. Then they have the distraction of what’s going on around the computer: workmates, friends, and family. Pets, children and television. I mean, you use computers regularly. You know that they murder attention spans.
This means that indie publishers have less room for error than traditional publishers, and have to be in control of every aspect of a book’s presentation to maximise its appeal. Look back at that list of points which generate consumer interest in a book, and apply it to an ebook. As indie publishers, we can work towards doing something about #1, and this will be covered in a later article. We can’t do a thing about #2. Compared to physical books, everything on Amazon is on the bargain table. However, it’s #3 we can really control.

Self vs professionally produced covers: a dilemma

Here’s one of the mistakes I made during the production of Saving Davey Gravy – I designed my own cover. What’s wrong with author produced covers, especially when the whole point of indie publishing is to be as self-reliant as possible? By and large, they will look amateur. It’s not our fault, just that we haven’t spent years studying and implementing design. And this amateur veneer will infect the potential customer’s opinion of the rest of the book, no matter how strong the writing, editing and other marketing. It is, after all, the first thing they see.
So, I’m just going to come out and say it. Unless you have a strong working knowledge of Photoshop or GIMP, an eye for design and plenty of time to experiment with elements and fonts and the placement of these, save yourself the heartache and find a freelance designer.

The folly of covers designed in Office software

Any design guide which tells you that you can design an ebook cover in Word or Writer isn’t worth the pixels it’s printed with. Sure you can, if you like the look of solid slabs of colour (filled text boxes), weird borders, stretched photographs that lack borders, blank areas either side of centred objects, horrible fonts, elements of the image misaligned because of the limitations on placement, and pixellation. Plain ugly covers.
People can produce stunning layout results in word processors with enough specialised knowledge of the program, but for all the time you spend learning the nested commands you might as well either be learning to use the right software, or working for the cash to pay someone who knows what they are doing.
There are plenty of these guides out on the market, precisely because they are pandering to (and are bought by) people who want to hear that they can, with no prior experience, bash out the cover for a bestseller in Word. Things like community newsletters are designed in Word. Would you pay to read something that looks like a community newsletter?

Freelance designer costs

Just because writers are willing to work on their own projects for a very low hourly rate doesn’t mean that other professionals should be willing to do the same. If someone came to me offering $10 an hour to write and edit copy, I’d politely but decisively shut them down. You should not expect that designers will want to work for next to nothing.
So, how much will they work for? There are nearly as many answers as there are articles on the subject. However, when designers talk of book covers being made for $75, and with all due respect, I’d call bullshit. A basic photographic image, licenced for limited commercial use, will run at least a third of that, which leaves two hours @ $25 per (or, more realistically, 1 hour @ $50 – just enough time to resize the image and splash some text across it, really).
A more honest pricing structure is given by Shaun Hensher, which tags a bare bones cover job at $200 (I’d suggest the upper limits of his “good range” prices of $500 – $2,500 applies more to the deeper pockets of publishing houses and their need for covers that incorporate spines and backs).

An investment in vanity?

When does an author’s financial investment in a cover become vanity spending? This answer will be very much up to the individual author. I know I’d be uncomfortable spending more than $500 on a cover right now, simply because I know I’d have to sell 250 copies of the book (at KDP royalty rates: 70% of $2.99) to even recoup the cost of it. According to Mike Cooper’s numbers, this is north of what the average Amazon release will end up selling, especially for new authors who only have one or two books published.

Proceed to Part 17: ‘Cover design, part 2’, or return to the article index.
Return to Re: writing
While I’ve endeavoured to provide you with accurate information, what is considered ‘accurate’ will change over time. If I’m wrong, or you’d like to ask a question or share your thoughts, I’d love to hear your take on things.

Rhys About Rhys

Teacher, writer, editor, cook: a bit like that nursery rhyme, really.
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  1. I guess these are Australian dollars you talk about?

    • Shaun’s article deals in US$ (and it’s interesting to note that, in the comments, a number of designers talk about dropping their prices to deal with the economic downturn there).

      While the US$ and AUS$ are close to parity, I believe it would be more difficult to get an Australian designer to work for similar hourly rates, if only because the much higher minimum wage here tends to echo up through the pay scales.

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