8 Things Cover Designers Wish Authors Knew

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  1. We want your book to succeed almost as much as you do.

Every author hopes their newest release will be The One–the unanticipated, runaway success that changes everything and catapults their career to Hugh Howey levels. Chances are, their designer is hoping for the very same thing. When a client’s book hits a bestseller list, not only is it a huge point of pride for the designer, it can have a significant, positive impact on the designer’s career.

A good designer doesn’t just want you to have a pretty cover–they want your book to SELL. Trust that instinct. As authors, it’s easy to get caught up in attempting to represent the intricacies of our stories, and capturing all the facets that make THIS story unique. More often than not, this will be counterproductive to actually selling the book.

To give your book its best shot at that Hugh Howey stratosphere, find a designer or illustrator that not only produces good art, but who understands the business of selling books. That’s the name of the game.

  1. Originality is overrated.

I get it. Most authors start writing because they’re creatives. You put a lot of effort into crafting a story that is new, fresh, and uniquely yours. Then, all these people start telling you to stick to accepted genre tropes on your cover.

Ugh, right?

Here it’s helpful to understand that a cover is much more a communication tool than it is a form of creative expression–kind of like spoken language. Say you’re at the bank trying to negotiate a lower rate on your mortgage (or whatever it is that grown-up people with steady jobs do at a bank), but you don’t want to just default to the commonly accepted pronunciation for all those English words. That’s a little cliche, right? After all, isn’t that roughly how everyone says them?

You can probably come up with new ways to pronounce the English language that sound much more interesting than what’s commonly accepted… but you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting anything useful done, because no one will have any idea what you’re trying to say.

Contrary to some claims, most readers don’t buy a new book because the cover strikes them as new and unusual. They pick up a book because it’s using language they recognize to communicate that this is their kind of book. That’s what you’re aiming for with your cover.

Book covers = language, and each genre has its own dialect, which you ignore at your own peril.

The right designer is someone who is fluent in your genre’s dialect, and can help you get your book in front of the right audience.

  1. Designers are people.

Before writing this post, I polled a large group of designers on the topic. The fact that designers are people seems obvious, but judging from the responses I received, this bears repeating.

Designers are people with lives, families, other clients, and occasionally other jobs. They also have the same basic needs you have–food, sleep, time with loved ones, dignity, etc. In a professional relationship, ideally personal lives won’t impact a project a great deal, but remember that this works both ways. Don’t expect your designer to respond immediately to your 3am requests for revision, or keep the email chain going over the weekend. Some designers do work this way, but it should never be the expectation. Most of us who have been in the business long enough have learned to establish some firm boundaries between work and life, in order to maintain some semblance of sanity. If you’ve been a working writer for long enough, this is probably a familiar process to you.

Find out what time zone your artist is in, and what their in-office hours are. If you ever utter the words “I need this within the hour”, I want you to repeat this mantra:

“I am not the center of the universe. I am not the center of the universe. I am not the center of the universe.”

Yes, you’re paying for a service, but even if you’re paying your artist a retainer to work exclusively with you, that only gives you rights to their working hours.

In all cases, treat your designer with the dignity and respect you would want to receive from another professional. Not only is this important from a not-being-a-garbage-human standpoint, it has practical value because…

  1. Designers talk to each other.

While it’s easy to feel self-contained in any business where you don’t commute to a workplace during set hours, reputation is as important in the indie-publishing industry as it is in any other industry. If a client has a habit of behaving badly or being particularly difficult, they will find the pool of designers willing to work with them rapidly shrinking.

  1. Custom work isn’t an impulse buy.

If you have three weeks left before your preorder goes live, you’ve missed your window to book a cover artist, and you’re probably going to have to settle for something “off the rack”. Books of any kind take an incredible amount of planning and effort, and it doesn’t make sense to invest all of that work only to drop the ball just before the end zone.

The really good designers and illustrators usually have equally full schedules, and will likely need to be booked weeks or months in advance–so keep that in mind when planning your release schedule.

  1. We (probably) won’t read your book.

This misconception comes from a misunderstanding of what a cover’s purpose is (see items #1 and 2, above,) and a poor grasp of the concept of hourly ROI. For the first point: a cover is not a representation of your book so much as it is a representation of your intended audience. Because of this, a thorough brief can be much more helpful in orienting your artist in the right direction than the actual text of the book.

For the second point: reading a book before creating a cover would likely double, triple, or even quadruple the amount of time it takes to complete a cover project, and as all entrepreneurs know, time is money. If you’re really curious, ask your artist what their hourly rate would be for reading the book. You can expect it to at least double the price of the cover work, if they’re even willing to consider it.

  1. Paying for art doesn’t mean you own it… but you probably can.

I’ve covered this pretty exhaustively in previous posts, so I’ll just hit the high points here. Modern copyright affords the creator of the work a certain set of rights. Those rights can then be licensed or transferred to someone else (like you, the author,) for an agreed-on price.

Because not every author requires all rights to everything forever and ever, amen—and because indies are, more often than not, on a shoestring budget—the contract price for custom work in the indie world doesn’t usually include All Rights–and no, they’re not automatically yours because the art was based on your idea. That’s not how the Force works. Read your contract to see what’s included. If there’s a right you want that you’re not getting, you can usually negotiate for it, but expect it to come at an additional cost.

When commissioning photo-sourced cover art using non-exclusive stock images, a designer can’t transfer all rights for this kind of art to you, because the original photographers of each stock photo has licensed them conditionally to the artist.

Even with purely original art, artists tend to want to hang onto attribution rights (the right to claim they made it, not you,) and modification rights (the right to make changes to it,) because these rights directly impact the artist’s business and reputation, so transferring those rights to you incurs a meaningful risk. Most artists are willing to accept that risk in return for adequate compensation, but the dollar value is going to vary depending on the artist, the work in question, and the level of risk.

Another angle to this is that an artist cannot build a backlist that will continue to pay out over the coming months and years, the way a writer can. Because of that, a smart artist will want to find ways to diversify their income streams. That means they’ll probably want to be able to make money on their art in a variety of ways. Obviously, a good artist won’t sell the same art to more than one person for the same purpose—but an artist may want to sell a limited run of fine art prints, display them in a gallery exhibit, or include them in a coffee table collection of their works. Retaining some rights will allow them to do this. If you’re not comfortable with the above, be sure to make that clear in your contract agreement, and be prepared to buy the artist out of any future interest that they might have in the work they’ve produced for you.

Educate yourself about copyright specifically as applies to visual arts. It’s complicated, but a good grasp of the basics will save you a world of stress and headache in the future.

  1. Always have a contract.

Springboarding off the last topic… it’s important to have a written agreement of some sort in place before your designer or illustrator begins work. Contracts protect both you and the artist, eliminate misunderstandings, and clearly lay out what you can expect from the other party.

In addition, without an agreement, you don’t have any legally defensible rights to the work, even if you paid for it. Because copyright automatically falls to the creator, it requires a written agreement to transfer those rights to another party.

It may seem like an unnecessarily formality in some situations—but a written agreement has saved countless professional relationships, friendships, and marriages.