A cover is your number 1 marketing tool, and it not only has an impact on whether or not your book will sell, but it has a psychological impact on the reader: if they like the cover, they are more likely to open it, and more likely to actually enjoy the story; if they don’t like the cover, they are less likely to read it, and less likely to enjoy the story (I made this up, but it’s true. Test it on yourself sometime).
Covers are critical.
I personally find searching for cover designers to be extremely stressful. There has been a lot of drama in the author world with cover designers taking money and disappearing, not finishing projects, doing a terrible job, being non-communicative—but for every non-professional cover designer, there are at least three extremely professional, skilled cover designers out there, ready and willing to work with you to create the perfect cover for your novel.
So here is my very-own (sorta) three-step process.
Step 1: Make a list.
Make as long a list as you can. There are lots of places to look for recommendations for designers. Google, for starters. Just search, “list of science fiction cover designers” or “list of best cover designers for romance” and you’ll find hundreds of bloggers with lists on lists on lists of designers. Pick your favorite author Facebook group and search through past discussions. Facebook has an easy search button in groups; just type in “cover design.” If you really want to get into the weeds, join Facebook groups about cover design.
If you can’t find any posts like this (you’re not looking hard enough), then just ask in a group of authors: “who does your cover design?” People are all too willing to share.
If you’re not a member of any groups, here’s a Facebook group I help manage (answer the three questions!!!) you can request to join. Tons of discussions about cover design there.
You can also find these same conversations on Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, Instagram, or wherever you like to hang out online.
Ask your friends. Ask your neighbors. Ask other authors. Look in the copyright for cover design attribution.
Make the list as long as you can stand it.
Step 2: Vet them.
Now you have a list of designers, how do you choose?
Here’s my list of qualifications I run through when trying to choose. You may have other things that are more important to you, or maybe you don’t care about all of these, but it’s a good place to start.
Do they have a website?
The first thing I always look for is a website. This seems to be less important to other authors I’ve talked to, but because I write series and writing is my career, it is important to me that the designer takes their work seriously. I need to know that they are going to be around for a while, able to design covers for books 2, 3, 4, 5 of my series. Even if they work another full time job, I want to see that they are willing to put the most basic investment into their business. Websites are cheap to own and easy to make—there is no excuse for a designer not to have one.
That said, there are plenty of cover designers that operate fully off of Facebook. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but I prefer to hire someone that has at very least invested in a website.
If they don’t have a website, I cross them off my list.
Do they have a portfolio?
Cover design is a visual representation of my writing. I won’t hire someone unless I can see samples of the work they have done. They don’t have to have a lot up, but there should at least be five or six samples. And I have to like the samples. Every artist has a different look, a different voice, a different style—I want their style and voice to appeal to my own personal tastes, and look like something that would fit well within my brand.
If they don’t have an accessible portfolio, I cross them off the list.
Do they have a pre-made gallery?
Pre-made covers are essentially covers the designer came up with off the top of their head. The covers usually reflect a particular genre and tone, and authors can buy them at a cheaper cost than a custom-made cover.
I like to look at pre-mades because cover designers are graphic artists. And I know that as a creative person myself, I do my best work when I am allowed to freely create whatever appeals to my sensibilities at the moment. The writing I have done for clients in the past has never been as high quality as the writing I do for myself—and I think the same is likely true for graphic artists. The work they do because they want to do it is probably going to be better than the work they create with an author breathing down their neck and trying to change every little thing.
So, I browse the pre-made gallery. I probably won’t buy anything, but I want to see if I like the art in their pre-made gallery as well as their portfolio.
The other thing I like about pre-made galleries is that it demonstrates that the graphic artist practices their work outside of client work, and I think that’s a plus, too.
If they don’t have a pre-made gallery, I cross them off the list.
Do they have examples of work in my genre?
This is critical, especially in scifi/fantasy/paranormal—the more speculative genres. I have found found plenty of cover artists that make their entire living off of creating covers for romance authors. It’s awesome that they can do that, but I don’t want to hire a designer that has never done science fiction or fantasy before. I want someone that knows and understands the ins and outs, the trends and reader preferences of my genre.
If they don’t work in my genre, I cross them off the list.
Are they transparent with their pricing?
I think it’s important to understand that prices can vary based on what you want or what you need. A hand-painted custom illustration plus the graphic design of a book cover is going to cost a LOT more than some text on a stock photo (like for a business text).
But we all have a budget—I want to know what the general range of prices is going to be before I reach out and contact a graphic designer. I want to know that I can actually afford their services.
All the cover designers I have used offer packages: $X for an e-book cover, $X for an ebook cover + a paperback wrap; $X for more iterations of changes; $X for marketing graphics to go along with a book. If they have to ask for more because I asked for some special artwork or an expensive stock photo, that’s fine—I just want a general idea.
If a cover designer doesn’t include prices on their website, I cross them off the list.
Do they offer a contract?
The thing about contracts is that if the other party chooses not to follow through on the terms, most of us can’t afford a lawyer to go after them, especially if we’re talking in the realm of only a few hundred dollars. But a contract means that the designer is trying to be professional and willing to hold themselves to a standard. The contract protects you and it protects them. And, if you’re trying to get the bank to stop a payment, or you want Paypal to refund money for services not rendered, having a contract gives you leverage.
Always read the contract up front. Don’t sign anything if you don’t agree with or understand the terms.
That said, even a simple contract is better than none.
If they don’t offer a contract of some kind, I cross them off the list.
Do they require payment up front?
Some designers require a 10% or a 30% or a 50% deposit up front. This is fine. They are protecting themselves—it means they take their work and your project seriously.
Some don’t require any upfront payment. This is fine too, but don’t be the jackass that asks them to design a cover for you and then decide you don’t like it, paying them $0 for their time.
Some designers require payment in full up front for a custom design (not pre-mades—they’re different because you’re buying a completed design). If you encounter a designer like this, run like the wind.
If a designer wants full payment up front, I cross them off the list.
Step 3: Reach out.
By the time you’ve vetted your list of cover designers, you will probably have gotten it down to only a few. Last time I went through this, I got down to three designers, and picked the one whose designs I liked the most.
At this point, you can also make judgement calls about their communication—do they respond to emails? Are they timely? Do they ask you for information about your genre and your work and what you’re looking for? Do they send you invoices or just request money? Do you like their communication style? Do they make sense? Is this someone you are happy to work with for the entirety of your series?
If so, congratulations! You’ve found a cover designer!
If you’re one of the unlucky few that ends up crossing off EVERY designer from your list, then just start over. I guarantee you—there are thousands of cover designers in the world. One of them will meet all your criteria (as long as your budget is reasonable).
Did I miss anything? What criteria do you use to choose your cover designers?