Is Your Cover Designer Really a Cover Designer? By Cathi Stevenson

Most people agree that cover design is one of the most important ingredients in marketing a book. Professional book cover design is essential because readers, retailers and reviewers glance at a book for only a few seconds before they make a choice.

Hiring a cover designer can be tricky, though, because there are so many people claiming to be cover designers. It’s difficult to determine who has the skills to get the job done and who does not.

In trying to sort through the various freelancers and companies, the first thing you should do is look for a designer whose work you like. Online portfolios are usually fine for this purpose and a quick search on Google will yield a long list of candidates. Asking members of publishing forums and online writers’ groups for recommendations will also help, and ask your printer or self-publishing company who they recommend.

Once you’ve found a few companies you like, weed them down according to skills. All designers are not illustrators, and if you require a blue-eyed woman riding a gray horse, wearing a green dress and carrying a rose, you’re going to need an illustrator (or a photographer and a very expensive photo shoot). Likewise, all illustrators are not book cover designers and it may be necessary to hire both an illustrator and a professional cover designer who will take the illustration and add the text, do the layout and format the file for press. These are things you will want to determine before hiring someone.

You will also need to read the company’s contract and ensure you can use the cover design in the ways you have planned. Every designer has a different contract. Some are work-for-hire, but most are not. Some have royalty-free images they can use on your project, and others will require you pay for the image license yourself. These are all perfectly valid ways to run a design business, and what’s right for one author might not be right for you.

After you’ve commissioned a designer, things change a bit. You’re now working on trust. You have to trust that the cover will be formatted properly and that the designer will finish the project on schedule. Unfortunately, the Internet has made it very easy for anyone to put up a website and offer services as a book cover designer. In the last year I have seen at least five freelance companies come and go. This is difficult, because no one wants to discourage legitimate designers who are just starting out but, on the other hand, authors can stand to lose a lot of money when deadlines are missed or files are not formatted properly. Sometimes the designer has the best intentions, and even talent, but finds herself in over her head with the specifications for the technical side of cover design. So, it’s essential that you do your homework and take every precaution to protect yourself from unscrupulous, unprofessional or inexperienced people.

If a company has been in business a long time and has many cover designs to its credit, that’s a good sign. Avoid anyone whose experience is in web design, but says print design is no different. Designing for online purposes and designing for a press is like night and day. A book cover designed at screen resolution or with screen colors will print terribly. In addition, a print designer must understand terms like bleed and jump, font embedding, rich black and many other technical details. It’s not rocket science, but mistakes can get costly when the printer rejects a file or it doesn’t print properly.

Consider if the designer provides traceable references on her site, upon request, or provides references at all. Most legitimate designers will have quotes from satisfied clients posted online, otherwise they should be happy to supply them upon request.

And lastly, is the price too good to be true? This point could well be the most important. Prices vary widely in this business, so keep this in mind: the software for designing a book cover costs hundreds, even thousands of dollars. If you’re using a digital or print-on-demand press, also called a POD press, then it is possible to create the cover in less-expensive software, but if you ever want to take that cover to an offset printer, you could have problems. The industry-standard programs for cover design and layout are: PageMaker (now discontinued), InDesign, Illustrator and Quark. In addition, almost all book covers will have some imaging – usually the front cover, done in PhotoShop or a similar product.

Other costs include font licenses which are approximately $20 – $80 each. Royalty-free image CDs and memberships to online stock image agencies usually cost hundreds of dollars. Unless your designer is creating the cover image herself, she will need to use licensed images.

(And by the way, in case you’re worried about using “stock images” because they’re not unique – don’t. Even projects I’ve worked on for major publishers have included the same royalty-free images that are available to any self-publisher. So, there’s really no excuse not to have a professional book cover.)

And don’t forget the time factor. It takes roughly 10 to 40 hours to create a book cover. If you have received a quote for $100 or $200, chances are that the person providing the quote has no idea how much work goes into designing and formatting a book cover. Sometimes it is possible to find a self-publishing company that has an agreement with a designer who provides services inexpensively, and as long as they’re a reputable company, things should be fine; But no independent, legitimate designer can afford to run a freelance business on $10 an hour. When you think about it, it doesn’t even make sense. Working at the local Caffeine Addict’s Hut would probably pay more and offer benefits.

Most designers are professional, knowledgeable and dependable, so chances are you will not experience any problems. Just watch for red flags such as too-good-to-be-true prices, fly-by-night companies or people who don’t understand the difference between online and print design.

Cathi Stevenson is a former journalist and newspaper editor. She now works as a freelance book cover designer and has created more than 700 book covers for traditional and independent publishers. Visit her site at: