Yes, A Book Is Always Judged by Its Cover

Originally Posted October 04, 2020 by Joe K.
Last Updated November 20, 2020

The adage that a book is judged by its cover is absolutely true. Perception is everything.

I remember looking at a cover that was so bad it actually made me curious about what the author wrote. The grammar was terrible, and I never figured out what the book was really about. This is not the first experience you want your readers to have with your novel!

An unprofessional book cover sends a very clear message, although I’m sure the author didn’t intend it. If you don’t properly invest in a book cover, you didn’t take the time needed to produce the best book possible.

If you are self-publishing, there are three things you should always plan on hiring out:

  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • A book cover

These three services ensure your book is a polished final product. If you skip any one of them, you’ll pay for it dearly in lost book sales.

A book cover has the most significant immediate impact on sales. It’s literally the first (and sometimes the only) thing people see. If people see a book with a cover that looks like it was slapped together in WordART, they’re going to assume the person didn’t bother to hire an editor either and keep scrolling through options on Amazon.

Is that fair? Perhaps not. But if they hate the cover, they won’t read the front matter to see if the book is worth downloading.

How Much Does a Book Cover Cost?

Book covers that are designed specifically for an author run between $250 and $500 USD. They can run higher, but they shouldn’t unless there are extenuating circumstances (like an aggressive timeline or excessive change requests).

Premade book covers can cost as low as $30 USD, but there are things to watch for such as copyright, whether the design will be resold, and a lack of flexibility.

You pay a premium for a designer for more options, which is ideal if you have a specific look and feel in mind.

What to Expect

As an author, you’ll be expected to provide the book title, back cover blurb, a professional headshot, and author biography to include on the cover. The back cover blurb usually runs between 100 and 200 words, and a short bio is around 250-350 characters.

If you’re planning on purchasing a premade book cover, the seller may specify a word or character count. You’ll likely be stuck with the font on the sample, which means you can’t change the character and word limits. These covers are typically sold as-is, which means you better be happy with what you’re buying—colors, fonts, and all.

If a designer is creating a book cover for you, you have more flexibility. This includes the font type, color schemes, and art or stock images used to create your cover. You should be prepared to give them guidelines on what you do and don’t want. I’ve found providing covers I want to take elements from—or covers I hate—can help the express what I do and don’t want in more concrete terms.

Copyright Matters

When contracting a designer or purchasing a premade design, it’s important to research whether any stock photos were used in the cover. Stock photo vendors have various licenses that last for different timeframes. Make sure the designer purchased a lifetime license or that they give you the image details so you can purchase the licenses yourself.

Stock images are one thing I push designers on because stock photo companies are notoriously litigious. Check to see whether any buildings or artwork were used in the piece that may be copyrighted. For example, the Space Needle in Seattle is a copyrighted structure that can’t be featured in any products (including books), photographs, or artwork. Photographs and artwork with the Space Needle in the skyline are allowed, but it can’t be the focal point.

Also, inquire as to whether the cover has been sold to an author in the past or will be sold to an author in the future. You may risk offending a designer, but this does happen and should be avoided. It’s confusing branding and can create a sticky legal situation with the first author to use the cover.

The last thing an author wants to be worried about is being sued over a book cover.

Why Use a Designer?

If you’re on the fence about what kind of book cover design process to use, go to your local bookstore or browse your genre on Amazon. Take note of the covers that draw your eye and make a list. Compare the covers you enjoy and see if there’s a theme. Is there a complex scene portrayed on the cover, a single character featured in a heroic pose, or do you prefer plain color backgrounds with strong fonts?

Once you’ve analyzed covers and decide what you want, the level of detail will drive whether you go with a designer and custom cover. If you’re going to feature your character on the cover or an elaborate scene, a designer is a good choice. If you want a general scene or plain cover and the focus to be on the title, a premade book cover may be for you.

Using an established designer with experience in the publishing industry can help first-time authors manage expectations and provide guidance around choices that may negatively impact sales. For example, a gothic font may look amazing on your 16th-century Romanian vampire thriller, but it can deter buyers if it’s difficult to read. Open sans is great for web copy but may look odd on a Western book cover.

A designer should be able to guide you through what kind of colors and images to use. Choose a designer with a portfolio that matches the cover you’re hoping to achieve. If you write horror, a gothic illustration may be ideal. The same look probably won’t work for middle-grade fiction (although, there are some brilliant exceptions).

What About Premade Book Covers?

Several years ago, I recommended staying away from premade book covers. The options were limited, and there was a risk of another author using the same cover. Now there are sites dedicated to premade book covers with a wide range of covers that are impossible to distinguish from something a publishing house would commission.

If you decide to use a premade cover, explore what kind of assurances you’ll get that the cover won’t be sold a second time. If they won’t sell a cover as-is a second time, will they vary the fonts and colors and sell something very similar? What do they consider an exclusive sale?

As mentioned above, you’ll also want to inquire about stock image rights and where you can use the book cover images. Some authors attend conventions and create book banners, use images on their website, and more. These marketing tactics should be allowed.

Contracting a designer to complete a paperback book cover is a bit of a pain. Make sure you ask whether they’ll provide a full cover if you intend to make the book available in print. You'll need to know the cover's size to determine how many pages your book will be, which will help the designers determine the width (and design) of the spine.

Determine whether or not you’ll need any special software. If they provide a design, but it’s your responsibility to alter the text, you may be looking at a software license expense.

Why Don’t I Just Build My Own?

If you are a graphic designer, this is a feasible option. Otherwise, leave book design to the experts.

It’s hard to be objective about your own work. That’s why we hire editors. The same is true for cover art. What takes you hours will take a designer much less time, and the odds are excellent that their final product will look a lot better.

If you go down the book cover rabbit hole, make sure you get a lot of opinions from brutally honest people before running with your design.

What Do I Do If People Don’t Like My Cover?

It’s possible to do everything right and then get consistent negative feedback about your cover. Perhaps the designer didn’t do a great job, or what you envisioned wasn’t appropriate for your genre. It happens.

You have options.

If it was a self-designed book, the solution is obvious. You can contract a designer or purchase a premade book cover. If a designer worked with you on an image that you enjoyed but everyone else hated, ask a friend that’s good with design elements to help you pick something out from premade book cover websites to use a baseline. Personally, I’m font blind and know that I need second and third opinions when it comes to title fonts.

If you change one cover, consider changing your other covers, particularly if the book is part of a series. Sticking to a theme is essential for series, and only overhauling one cover doesn’t make sense unless it’s changed to look more like it’s predecessors in the series.

Finally, you don’t have to view change as a bad thing. You learned a lesson and will apply those learnings to future novels. Besides, you can use your book’s new look as an excuse to hold a relaunch party and get a little extra buzz for your book.

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