I recently had a number of conversations with other authors regarding their book covers. The question always comes up about whether to DIY (Do It Yourself) or buy a professional book cover. New authors face this problem all the time due to money restrictions or lack of knowledge on how to find good covers. The issue comes down to, how badly do you want to sell your book? Most authors are so engrossed in writing and worrying about publishing that they are sometimes too close to the problem. Covers can become the bane of their existence, yet authors need their covers to speak for them when they aren’t there to promote their works. So which option is the best?
Do It Yourself - If you decide on the DIY method, there are programs out there that can help you design your cover beyond Photoshop. My suggestion, if you decide to go this path, it to have reasonable expectations. Are you a graphic designer or have some artistic abilities? If so, you can make the DIY option work, but if not, you will need to have a great concept and way of making it visually pleasing.
Choosing stock art or stock photos can be more cost effective than buying a cover, but you still need to have a basic understanding of layout and fonts. If you can’t figure out how center a photo or add a text overlay, stop now. You run the risk of failing before you even begin. Picking a legible, but interesting font can be an even tougher challenge than finding the right photo. The reader needs to be able to read the title of the book, even when it's a tiny thumbnail on sites like Amazon! Don’t forget to make sure that your photo is size properly; otherwise, it will be distorted. I saw a book cover that used a selfie from a camera phone and they stretched the photo instead of resizing it. The cover turned out looking like a drunk person’s view of a woman. I doubt that was the intended idea based on the title.
If you are using stock photos, find the right photo. You want readers to be engaged by your cover, not confused by what you are trying to accomplish. The main idea of the story, the main location, or the main character should be the focus of your cover. If you lose sight of the main idea of your book or don’t properly represent it, readers will walk or scroll right past your cover. Don’t be vague or understated. This is your only shot of grabbing the reader’s attention. Make them want to stop to read your description or blurb.
Take the time to think about what theme you want readers to associate with your book. If the tale is about dragons, don’t use a field of grass with a mountain range in the back, without a dragon. People like reading about dragons! Give them a dragon to use as a model while they are reading. If the book is about hot guys, don’t use a random cityscape. Put the hot guy front and center on your cover and your female readers will line up just to see the cover. Make sure that the cover wordlessly invokes your blurb or gives the reader the genre/tone of the book. Express magic and light for fantasy books and outer space for sci-fi. Tie the cover to the book. Don’t pick a pretty picture you fell in love with when it has nothing to do with the book.
Personally, I tried the DIY route, but I just couldn’t make it work. The fonts were wrong and I had trouble the sizing the photo to fit the requirements for ebooks. I had created multiple websites over the years as a hobby, but even I had a tough time with it. I was honest with myself and admitted defeat. Though I have seen some amazing DIY covers, you need a truly amazing cover that will stand up to professional covers. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be unique.
Buying a Cover - If you decide to purchase a cover from stock cover sites, or through professional sites, perfecting a cover can still be a challenge. There are varying levels of “professional” cover artists out there and they may not always have the answers either. Graphic artists and authors have different ideas on art. Authors want to visually explore the world that they are creating. Graphic artists choose one part of this world to capture, but it might not be the right part. Even graphic artists may have a limit to their abilities. Again, you have to be realistic in your expectations. They are worried about color and light, you are worried that the main character doesn’t perfectly match the person that you dreamed up in your head. Odds are, the person you envision is prettier, or uglier, or thinner, or greener than the artist’s rendition. Compromise will be important. The model has brown eyes, but your dream guy has blue, but he is handsome and has an amazing smile. You may have to allow some details to fall to the side, as long as the image captures the essence of what you are trying to accomplish. Also, trust the graphic artist if he tells you certain colors will clash or if some details will feel out of place if you try to incorporate them. They usually know what they are talking about.
Choosing a Premade Cover - If you find a cover from an online premade cover site that you are happy with, you may want to contact them to see if they can make minor changes to their cover if something is out of place. Sometimes choosing a premade cover feels like a compromise. It’s less expensive than a custom cover, and typically better than a DIY, but it may not be exactly what you are looking for. Many of the graphic artists are willing to make changes for a small fee. They can also add the fonts to the cover and may take suggestions if you have a font that you have used before. See if they are willing to work with you. If they want to make a sale, they should be willing to put in some extra work.
Personally, I went this route for both of my covers. For my first book, I had a hard time finding exactly what I wanted, because I didn’t know what I wanted. I scrolled through literally 3000 covers and bookmarked only three or so that I sort of liked. In the end, the one I chose started to grow on me, but I still wasn’t happy. (You can see the cover on the upper left side of my blog.) The artist wanted to use red font, so I requested that he give me the artwork without the title and did the font myself. The original photo had a deep blue filter that overpowered the photo. I used Photoshop and toned down the blue. What I found surprised me. The blue receded and brightened the background giving the water and the lightning a chance to shine. I’ve received a number of complements from strangers on how beautiful the cover is, which lets me know that I made a good choice.
Premade doesn’t have to mean limited. When searching for my second cover, which is still being worked on, I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted, so I took my own path. I found two different covers that interested me, each capturing one part of the cover that I wanted, and I merged them together. Thankfully, both covers were designed by the same graphic artist and she was willing to work with me to combine the two covers. They layout of both covers helped make my vision work. The left half of cover one had the guy I wanted, and the right half of cover had the background I wanted. A little cutting, pasting, a minimal fee, and I got the cover that I wanted.
Turn Clichéd Covers into Exciting Covers - “A picture is worth a thousand words,” so use those words wisely and avoid covers that say the exact same thing as the next book. Avoid using the same image that everyone else uses for the same genre. Pick something unique to show the readers. Grab their attention in some way. Every vampire story has sharp teeth on the cover or a powerful woman ready to slay it. Find a way to make your cover stand out. Research the main idea or the genre of your book and look at all the covers that come up. Find a new angle and make people stop to look at your cover.
I will cite an example. I have seen many book covers with a muscled guy wearing a hoodie. In the search for my cover, I tripped over a bunch of them. It’s a known image, but it can be changed into something unique. When I saw Lisa Medley’s “Reaper Series,” I saw the hooded jacket guy, but her covers made me stop and look. She took a known image and used bright colors and interesting backgrounds to stand out. She employed visually pleasing, and interesting font to express her titles and her names. In a sea of Twitter posts, these images captured my attention.
Find a Test Audience - Regardless of the method used to make your book cover, all of this effort will be wasted if readers don’t like the cover or don’t understand what you are going for. It was suggested to me by another author to have multiple people look at the cover and give their opinion. I’m not talking about your mom and your boyfriend; I’m talking about people from different cultures, different background, and different age groups. It’s important to find out how different demographics will interpret your cover. A 20 something male will likely have a different opinion than a 50 something female. Decide who your main demographic is and make sure they like the cover.
After finding the cover I wanted, I took it to my test group. I was interested in seeing their reactions. While the men nodded their heads and understood that my book was a romance novel, they didn’t have much to say, just as I expected. When I showed the cover to my 20, 30, and 50 year old female demographic, 4 out of 5 of them had the intended reaction. Their mouths dropped on the ground and they stared delightfully at my Angel of Death. Most were speechless for a few seconds, followed by, “WOW!” Their responses ranged from, “now that will sell books” to “where do I get one like him?” I knew I had a winner. As one woman said, “the guy on the cover gives me a person to imagine while reading.” That’s the response you want!
If you don’t have a test audience, post your cover ideas on your Facebook or Twitter accounts for feedback. You can also run a contest for people to vote on their favorite cover and choose between two covers. If you still aren’t sure, reach out to other authors for suggestions on author sites. Other authors are usually good at giving you their honest opinion and advice since they have been in the same spot as you.
There’s Always a Second Chance During a Reprint - First time authors learn a lot about readers and promoting their books after their first book launch. Even if you have a team of promoters and publishers, sometimes a cover just doesn’t work out the way you thought. After speaking to readers and getting feedback from reviewers and critics, there is always the opportunity to change a cover during a second or third reprinting of the book. Figure out what was missing from the first cover and incorporate the suggestions and new ideas. If you couldn’t afford a professional cover, hopefully, you will be able to work with a graphic artist the next time around. Don’t be afraid to try something new.
In speaking to Lisa Medley about her “Reaper Series,” I found out that the hooded reaper was not her original cover. While there is nothing wrong with the original cover, the second one is more visually interesting. See the original cover and the reprint cover below.
At the end of the day, the decision is yours on how best to create your cover, but be honest with yourself regarding your talents versus your expectations. Be willing to listen to feedback, criticism, and praise. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The best covers are ones that readers remember. Even if they are simple, they need to express some aspect of your story.