Covering Up

Writing Magazine – September 2021

We might not judge a book by its cover, but we all jump to certain conclusions when we see one. 

Book covers work hard. Not only must they convey the title and author but also whether our book is fiction or non-fiction, its genre, and if it’s part of an existing series. All this within the blink of an eye.

With self-publishing, getting our books written is only part of the process. Sorting the cover is another challenge. And let’s be honest. Most of us are writers, not graphic designers. The two are completely distinct skill sets. When it comes to the business of writing, should we create our own covers or should we commission a specialist?

Budget Buy

The temptation to do it ourselves often revolves around cost. DIY covers are cheaper but, without the design skills, the result may not be what we imagined. However, we all have to start somewhere, and the benefit of self-publishing is that we can easily change a cover. If our first design doesn’t work, we can do something about it.

Technology is helping. Websites like and have themed templates we can browse and adapt. They take care of the overall design; we simply change the words and images. Options vary, but some templates are free to use. Prices for others can be as low as a takeaway coffee.

I used Canva to update the covers of my non-fiction The Practical Writer series. With non-fiction books, the title and sub-title may be enough to grab readers’ attention. Many non-fiction book covers are text-only, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to design. Great templates can help with suitable fonts, font sizing, and positioning.

Novel covers have a higher graphical design element because of the extra work about genre, style, and tone they must convey. Websites like and offer pre-made covers. Simply browse, select, provide your title and author name, click and buy.

Marketplaces like and connect writers with graphic designers offering a variety of services and prices, ranging from less than ten pounds to several hundred. So, it’s possible to create a suitable cover on a small budget.

Commissioning Covers

Commissioning a cover from a graphic designer is not just an investment in that particular book. It’s an investment in our whole writing business. A reader attracted by the cover of book one could become a fan of the entire series.

It’s daunting looking for graphic designers, as I recently discovered when I needed a cover for my cozy crime novel, Blooming Murder. As a member of Alli (Alliance of Independent Authors), I used their Approved Services Search to find potential designers. Knowing these suppliers are trusted Alli partners reduced the anxiety a little. 

Other options include looking for personal recommendations. Chat to other self-published writers. Who do they use? If you like a book’s cover, check the author’s acknowledgments inside. Many mention their cover designer here, and a quick online search will soon connect you.

I drew up a shortlist and browsed their websites, looking at examples of their work. One was Catherine Clarke (, who I later discovered lives in my home county. 

Catherine suggests authors commission their covers as early as possible. A good time to start is once we’ve got our first draft sorted.

‘If an author has a definite deadline for their book to be completed in order to be ready for a launch date they have scheduled, then get in touch with a designer as soon as possible,’ she explains, ‘regardless of whether their book has been edited yet. Of course, the final edit impacts the page count, which in turn affects the spine size, but most designers should be able to adjust the final artwork’s spine width to accommodate this. However, they will need to know the intended size of the book.’

Book Brief

Catherine sent me a design brief questionnaire, which helped me focus on what I wanted from my cover. Obviously, she needed the title, subtitle, my author name, and genre. However, not every author decides upon their title until much later in the production process. This can have implications for a cover’s design.  

‘The author should decide on the title of their book,’ Catherine explains. ‘This seems pretty obvious, but it’s something that needs to be set because the title needs to fit beautifully with the rest of the artwork and, in some cases, can be integrated with the main image.’

Tell your graphic designer if there’s a chance your title may change.

Catherine’s brief also asked for the blurb (because this will go on the paperback’s back cover), the plot, and a description of my principal characters.

‘I find it helpful,’ says Catherine, ‘if the author can provide a brief outline of the plot of their book with a description of any characters or elements they’d like to see on the cover, along with the blurb, even if it may be altered at a later stage. If it’s one of a series of books, you will need to let your designer know this too.’

Cover Coveting

A great tip for all authors, whether commissioning a graphic designer or creating a cover themselves, is to see what’s already out there. Key tropes appear in book covers of the same genre. Blue and yellow is popular with psychological crime at the moment. Thrillers tend to be dark and have a character walking or running away into the distance. Historical family sagas frequently have women looking face out, while some fantasy novels use reds and oranges with fire or flames and sometimes a mythical creature in its centre.

Look at your competitors’ covers. What common themes do you see?

Catherine asked me for Amazon links to covers I loved and loathed. ‘It’s helpful to know what book covers the author likes or dislikes, so sending some examples of these can be helpful. It’s a way of making sure we’re on the same page, excuse the pun.’ 

Developmental Designs

Catherine produced three initial designs for me. The best author/designer relationships are built on honest communication. If there are designs or elements you don’t like, say so and explain why. Similarly, share what you love. It’s this process that helps the designer achieve the look that makes your heart sing.

‘When the author receives the first set of proofs, they should take their time to look over them,’ Catherine advises. ‘One design may be “the one” or sometimes the author likes elements of one and elements of another which can be discussed and I would bring these ideas together in another proof. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t like a concept a designer has done for you. The book is yours and you’ve put your heart and soul into writing it so the cover has to be perfect.’

Seek feedback from others. I showed Catherine’s initial designs to members of my writers’ group, friends in the publishing industry, and the owner of my local independent bookshop.

Maximising Material

Most graphic designers offer extras to help authors with marketing. Catherine’s package included a 3D mock-up of the book cover design, the ebook cover, paperback cover, audiobook cover, and social media banners. 

Catherine also suggests you think about other marketing materials. ‘If someone can design book covers, then they have the skills to design other promotional material. So if it’s not mentioned on their website, don’t be afraid to ask them. I also offer videos to help the author promote their book as videos are becoming so popular and effective in marketing.’

Catherine suggests taking one more step when you’ve found the design you like. ‘Printing it out and wrapping it around a book will help you get a better idea of what it looks like.’

Covers should not be the last thing we think about when self-publishing, because it’s the first thing our potential readers see. Working with a graphic designer provides flexibility over the design and the finished product, and can be an extremely rewarding experience. 

That just leaves our readers with the most important job: judging our book by its cover.

Business Directory – How Free Are Free Images?

Some stock image websites offer free images but exercise caution if you’re looking for a book cover. Not all uses of the image may be free.

Many ‘free’ images are free for editorial use, such as in newspapers, magazines, websites, and on social media. A book’s cover is for a commercial purpose, for which you may need to pay a fee. 

If an image includes a person or a private building, you’ll need to check there is a model or property release before using it as a book cover. These releases mean the person/property grants permission for their image to be used on a commercial product. Therefore, you may need to pay a fee to use the ‘free’ image for a commercial book cover.

Most stock agencies offer two licenses: standard and enhanced. Numbers vary from site to site, but a standard license can cover you for 250,000 or 500,000 uses as a book cover. We need enhanced licenses for usage above these limits, but we only pay for that when we need it. (If we’ve sold 250,000 copies of our book, we can afford the enhanced licence!)

Some agencies occasionally offer free images under their standard license, which includes book cover use. However, their choice of ‘free’ images may be limited. It’s a marketing technique to tempt us into becoming a regular customer.

Always read the license conditions. If you’re unsure, contact the site’s customer services, quote the image reference and explain how you want to use it (e.g. print/digital formats). Ask if they allow your usage under this offer.  

Never risk using a free image. It’s better to invest in the right image for your cover than select one just because it’s free.