The Designing Hat: To Hire or Not to Hire a Cover Designer

 This is a continuation of my Self-Publishing Hats series. Click back to read the Introduction and post on Editing.

My newest cover by for THE SINGER.

My newest cover by for THE SINGER.

When it comes to book covers, I’ve basically done it all. I’ve designed my own, worked with a friend (or a significant other) for free, hired a couple different designers, even gone as far as picking my own cover model once. (Sadly, not the guy on the front of THE SCRIBE, everyone asks that.) I’m going to give you a mantra, and you’re going to remember it from now until the time you retire from this book business:

Book covers sell books.

They don’t sell them all the way. Reviews and samples are going to clinch that sale. But that first click? The thing that gets readers to your book page to read the reviews and the sample? That’s your cover. So yes, it’s really, really important.

Book covers sell books.

Seems simple, right? It’s not.

What do I recommend? DIY? Professional? The answer is going to depend entirely on your circumstances. When I first started out, I had zero cover budget. The small budget I did have for my first book was going toward proofreading after my friend did the edit. But cover? Nope, I had to figure out something on my own.

Luckily, I had a husband who was a photographer and had a great eye for visual design and a deft hand at photoshop. (You may have a friend or family member who is a good graphic artist or photographer. Ask for help if you can.) My husband created some great artwork for my first cover, which I then proceeded to mess up by “putting words all over the front.” (I did warn him that that was part of the whole “book cover” thing.) I fiddled around with the cover copy for a while and eventually came up with something like this.

AHF Cover

Not bad, right? I was totally happy. I had a book cover! With my name on it! And my title! For the book that I wrote! That’s a thrilling moment for every author, and you have every right to get excited about it. So be excited. But don’t forget our mantra:

Book covers sell books.

See, as the book went on the market, I noticed some things through trial and error. The cover for A Hidden Fire was kind of hard to read in miniature, and it was dark. It was an intriguing image, but didn’t give many genre clues. It wasn’t selling the book as well as it could, even though I liked it so much. So over the months, I tweaked it. I made the title bigger. My name bigger. After a while, I noticed that most of the readers I was getting were in Paranormal Romance and PNR covers (for the most part) had people on the front. So I added stock photography to the existing cover. I took it off. I put it back. I’d say I tweaked it about five or six times in six months, and in the end, it looked something like this:

Fire Relaunch Final copy

My name was bigger and easier to read. There was a hot guy on the cover and paranormal romance readers like that. I still had that image that I loved (even though my now-ex was even less thrilled that I’d covered up that wonderful art with a half-naked dude), but it fit within the genre better than the old cover. A couple simple tweaks and the sales went way up. Why?

Book covers sell books.

Will you have to do all that to your cover? Maybe. Hopefully not. I hope you get it right faster than I did. But don’t be afraid to change your cover. I think my book The Genius and the Muse has had three different covers over the years. Two of them, I designed myself, and then I hired to revamp it, and I’ve stayed with the cover they came up with.

I still design some of my own covers and graphics because I enjoy it. But I’m not great at it. At the end of the day, now that I do have the money to hire someone, I do. Because there is a lot more going on with a book cover than just your name and title on top of a pretty picture. As you can see from my own experience, a book cover tells the potential reader a lot more than that. A book cover tells the reader what kind of book they’re getting.

  • Is it contemporary fantasy or romance?
  • Is it a thriller? Is it mystery? Is it literary fiction?
  • How well known is the author?
  • Have other authors or well-known reviewers blurbed this book? (Take a look at all the cover copy on your average paperback bestseller. There are a lot of words on that cover.)

If you have the budget, I highly recommend going with a professional. How do you find one? It’s kind of the same as in editing. ASK. But it’s even easier to ask about cover artists, because usually, they’re listed in the front of a book and instead of getting a sample edit, you can see exactly what quality their work is. Most have websites and you can go  see other covers they’ve created. I found my cover artist, Gene Mollica, because I liked the covers for Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles so much. I looked Gene up online and had a wonderful experience with him designing the cover for Shifting Dreams, so I plan to use him to design the other covers in the Cambio Springs series, as well. I found the artist I worked with on the Irin Chronicles through a friend’s recommendation. You have to ask.

Shifting Dreams cover

Original photography and cover art by Gene Mollica. This is the one that I got to pick the model on.

And don’t be shy asking about price. You can pay anywhere from $100-$4000 for a professional book cover, so ask around and find the one that meets your needs. Some use stock photography, and use it well, but you have to buy the pictures (and good ones are not cheap). Some cost a little more, but photo costs are included. Some take their own pictures and you’ll get an entirely original image that is unique to your book. (Those are the ones that cost in the thousands instead of the hundreds because of model and studio costs.) Some cover artists do entirely original artwork by hand or on the computer.

Ask around. If you have any kind of budget, you can usually find someone great in your range. But don’t be afraid to spend some decent money on your cover, either. Why?

Book covers sell books.

If you are going to design your book cover yourself, or you have to because of budget restrictions, aim toward simplicity. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is putting too much on your cover. Too many elements makes your cover look unprofessional. I highly suggest going to online retailers and looking at the best-sellers in your genre. You are going to notice some common elements. Don’t ignore them, thinking that you’re going to stand out by being totally different from everyone else. Those common elements are proven to sell books; that’s why they’re used.

BLOOD AND SAND: One of my DIY covers

BLOOD AND SAND: One of my DIY covers

A big gritty font and a one word title in capital letters lets a reader know that this book is a thriller with blood and guts and a hardcore former special ops soldier who’s just trying to live a quiet life on that ranch in Montana until they pull him back into the game. (Might have gone off on a tangent there.) A classical font with a passionate couple in period clothing on the cover is going to let that reader know that, if you don’t like Regency Romance, you should probably look elsewhere. Pay attention to what your book is selling! Yes, you want to make your cover stand out from the crowd, but don’t make it stand out in a way that will confuse readers.

Remember, the point of book covers is not to make you, the author, happy or feed your ego. The point is to sell books. You have to put yourself in the mind of the reader you want to attract and figure out what that reader is looking for.

You shouldn’t hate your cover. Heck no. You want to be proud of the book that has your name on it! But usually, if you’re working with a professional who knows what they’re doing, you’re going to be thrilled with what they come up with. Once upon a time, I sent a very vague idea to Damonza about what I wanted on THE SCRIBE cover.

“Uh, yeah, so I want it pretty simple. I mean, just like… a guy’s back. With tattoos. but not like tribal tattoos. Like… words and stuff. But not in English. In a completely made up script that looks a little like this. *attached pictures of various written languages* And oh yeah, it’s set in Istanbul.”

Damon sorted through that gobbledegook and gave me THIS:


And that, my friends, is why I recommend you go with a professional if you possibly can.

Book covers sell books. 

Next week, I’ll talk about formatting, which is something that, if you’re willing to put a little work into it, is entirely doable all by yourself. What is your reader going to see when they open that sample online? We’ll talk about how to close that sale next week.

Posted in Books, Publishing, The Many Hats of Self-Publishing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Great post! 🙂 I’m gonna totally admit that as much as I try not to judge a book just on its cover, I absolutely do. If I haven’t read and liked the author previously or someone I know specifically recommended the book to me – I am more likely to not pick up the said book if the cover didn’t catch my eye.

  2. Interesting stuff. Why is the book title on top for some of the books and the author (your name) on top on others?

    • Sometimes that’s just a visual choice, Anne. Does the name look better at the bottom or the top depending on the artwork. But it’s also a fact that, after a certain point, one of the biggest advertisements for your book is going to be your author name, if you’ve built up any sort of reader/fan base. Do you have readers that are looking for any old shapeshifter romance, or an Elizabeth Hunter book? If you’ve gotten to the point as an author where you have really dedicated readers, then one of the best advertisements for your book is going to be your name at the top. Great question!

  3. I love all your covers, and I have to say as much as I love them I would buy anything with your name on it now. But I totally get the cover thing, when I go to my local library books aren’t in many categories, it’s all A-Z. I read mostly urban fantasy these days and when I was starting out in that genre looking for ideas and authors I browsed the shelves and picked out all the books with black spines, had a quick look at the cover and made probably a 2 second decision whether or not to read the back. I discovered Ilona Andrews and a few other authors that way because their covers are typical of the urban fantasy genre. I’ve since bought a lot of them.

  4. I thought you were the artist behind all of your work using Photoshop. But the artwork still stuns me every time I look at it… Book Covers sell books… I will definitely keep this one in mind. Thank you for the very helpful advice.

  5. E- love your covers. I wanted to touch on the subject of video advertising. I think I saw a video promo for an Elemental Mysteries book on YouTube. Is a quick 30 sec. to 1 min. promo video on your radar when you are ready to launch?

  6. Hi Elizabeth, I’m new to your work, just fell in love with “Scribe”, pre-ordered “Singer” and am working your backlist. Yes, I’m a stalker. 😉
    I’ve been very against self publishing, mostly because of the work involved. (You mean I have to write, it, get it edited and market it too? sheesh! )
    I learned early on that I was not good at all this graphic art stuff (among many other aspects of being a writer), but I am learning to reach out to others, offer trades and build a “team” I can trust.
    Your blog gives me hope that somehow, with enough effort, patience and >insert your anxiety manifestation of choice here< that self publishing may not be as big, bad or overwhelming as I once thought. 🙂

  7. I will not only judge a book by the cover but also by the title. A totally weird title will garner a second look from me each and every time. I discovered the brilliant Christopher Moore because he titled a book The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. How do you walk away from that? The same holds true for covers with me 🙂

  8. As a reader, I do not like stock photos. I have seen multiple covers of different books by different authors—all with the same girl/couple/scene on it. Yes, it may be appropriate for that genre and a great photo, but do you really want a book cover that looks like 6 others in your genre? It’s confusing to a reader as well–“Did I read this book already? Or is this a different one? The picture is the same, but I think this is a different book……”
    I have liked all your book covers, BTW. I especially like the Irin Chronicles covers! 🙂

  9. My quick rule of thumb is if I’m in the mood for a kick ass heroine who’s usually annoyingly argumentative, and sexually confused with ambiguous morals and ethics, I scan PNR for a high rating and a cover showing a hot chick with some kind of weapon (Rachel Morgan, Jane Yellowrock and Anita Blake).

    I usually try to stay away from covers with the traditional 1/2 a guy’s chest/jaw w/slinky woman attached unless I’m in the mood for a minimal plot with lots of breasts being alternately suckled and neglected, body parts that are soo hot/sooo wet, and guys whose fingers are extraordinarily “clever.”

    If I’m in the mood for a solid, creative but romantic plot with strong heroine AND hero I check to see if Elizabeth Hunter, Ilona Andrews, Karen M Moning v2.0 or Jeaniene Frost have anything new– no matter what the cover looks like … Or I go shop in fantasy

    That said, I didn’t get pulled in by the Element covers. They didn’t really speak to me of the fantastic story inside. I might not have bitten if not for catching the amazing reviews. The Scribe cover was perfect though. The ink saved it from being the trite hot boy body formula and sucked me right in. Cambio covers hint at the right theme and compel without being trite.

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