Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

Why Should Self-Published Authors Pay for a Cover Design?

If you publish professionally, the publisher will pay for your cover. If you self-publish, why shouldn’t you just make your own?

If you publish professionally, your publisher will arrange cover design for you. But cover design is expensive; if you self-publish, why not do it yourself? Hard truth here: most people can’t make a cover that attracts readers, as a captivating image and a captivating title, on their own, aren’t enough.

Book cover design is one of the most difficult types of design you can do. Readers can tell the difference between a well-designed cover and a garbage cover. They know.

The thing is, they don’t know how they know. They just…know. A well-designed cover looks and feels attractive. An amateur cover looks…well, amateur.

Professional cover design starts with a cover brief and a cover hierarchy. A cover brief is a written description of the elements of the cover. A cover hierarchy is a ranked order of what’s most important, second most important, third most important, and so on, and it’s ordered in such a way as to take into account everything from how well-known the author is (if you’re a famous author, the author name might be the first thing in the hierarchy; if you’re not well-known, it might be third or fourth) to the genre of the book (romance covers, for example, are very constrained, with certain elements pretty much always expected to be there).

The cover designer then arranges the elements in the cover brief on the page, using design cues so that when you first look at the cover, your eye tracks the parts of the cover—illustration, title, author, and so on—giving emphasis to each element according to the cover hierarchy.

This is very, very, very hard to do. It is an incredibly challenging type of design.

This is a gorgeous cover to illustrate what I mean:

Iron Widow book cover

This is a beautifully designed cover.

I’ve highlighted the elements of this cover to show how the cover hierarchy works. If you are a native speaker of any Western language, you will naturally begin in the upper left and scan the cover left to right, top to bottom. Look how the elements in this cover guide and steer your eye:

Iron Widow book cover hierarchy

You scan the author’s name, but it’s in small type, not very pronounced. The illustration curves from right to left guide your eye to the face of the character, then another curve from left to right guides your eye to the title.

The character is first in the cover hierarchy, the title second, the author third. Even though you encounter the author’s name first, the design and shape of the elements all steer your eye to the character’s face, then from there to the title.

This cover uses the same layout: author’s name on top, character illustration, then title—but it isn’t well-designed, and feels quite clunky:

Ghoulish cover

The authors’ names are broken up, which makes the cover feel cluttered. No design elements guide you to the figure in the center, nor away from it. The title is too similar in color to the figure; the letters in “Ghoulish” are partly lost against the illustration.

The subtitle, “witching after forty,” is grafted on as an afterthought, with no design connection to the title, and is set in a typeface that makes it difficult to read, with no stylistic connection to the title.

And for all those faults, this cover is still much better than most self-published book covers. Cover design is hard.

For The Hallowed Covenant, the novel by Eunice and I, the publisher hired a talented professional.

The Hallowed Covenant book cover

Since we aren’t well-known as authors, our names are the lowest element in the hierarchy. The cover artist chose a Dutch angle for the illustration to create a sense of motion.

If you look at the A and the V in Hallowed and Covenant, the descending stroke of the A precisely lines up with the initial stroke of the V to create a continuous line that goes up, then down, then up again. This is an intentional part of the design. This is the third book in the series. The books alternate; odd numbered books are upbeat and Utopian, even numbered books are dark erotic horror. Three books: up, down, up.

The Hallowed Covenant logo outline

The Hallowed Covenant logo up/down

The viewer’s eye scans the title from left to right, then the tilt of the skyscraper directs the eye down and to the left, to the character’s face. Her arm then leads the eye toward the second figure.

The Hallowed Covenant cover closeup

Neither Eunice nor I could have created this cover. I’ve done design professionally for decades, but I’m nowhere near this good and never will be.

Cover design is hard. A good cover is so much more than words over a picture.