Importance of Cover Design in Self-Publishing (a.k.a. my mistakes and foray into graphics design)

hotshot cover evolutionFugitive cover evolution

At first, I was ashamed. Then, I felt triumphant.

At first, I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing when it came to covers. But now, I see mistakes, experimentation and most importantly, growth. 

What you see above are *almost* all the changes I’ve made to Hotshot (a.k.a. ‘Landlady’) and Fugitive. (I lost a lot of my original files when my old MacBook died)

I’ve changed the covers on those two books at least 10 times each in the past year. I’ve also changed the covers of all my other novels (Villain (2x), Sinner (1x), Love Affair in Venice (4x), Crescent Hill (2x), Firestarter (1x), Fireproof & Firecracker (1x)).

I can easily say I’ve spent more time on tweaking and updating covers than writing books. As in, I’ve probably spent over 250+ hours on them in the past year. Wish I was joking.

I spent more time learning about Photoshop and graphics design than actually making books. And I’m supposed to be an author!

I’ve always loved graphics design. But I never set out to become a graphics designer. My dream is to be a full time, professional author. But since money was tight (and still is), I opted to design my own covers to save myself some money. After all, $100 CAD worth of stock photos from DepositPhotos and a $15 CAD/month subscription to Photoshop to create 10 covers and many teasers/graphics etc, was cheaper than shelling out upwards of $150-$1000+ for ONE professionally-designed cover.

They say packaging matters.

Your cover is your book’s biggest marketing tool. (Everyone knows this, but how many people really take this seriously?)

I knew this. Everyone told me this. But I still thought, “Fuck it, I could probably do it myself. How hard could it be to make some decent covers?” This was Fall, 2016. Exactly one year ago, I started my foray into graphics design. I made my own teasers, banners, logo, covers–you name it.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 6.44.43 AM
My teasers

At first, I was too cheap to shell out money for Photoshop, so I did all my design work in Pages and Open Office Draw. I watched and read a few tutorials, and it was surprisingly easy to design graphics in a word processor. But those were still very limiting, hence why my early covers looked like shit.

But I didn’t know this.

Take a look at the evolution of my covers. The earliest (far left) I made in September 2016, and the newest (far right) I made in August 2017. In between, you can see all the new covers I made approx every 1-3 months. (I will dissect my errors in detail down below, for those interested)

I was convinced for a whole year that my covers were okay. That they were good enough to compete with the millions of other books available. That my book alone would attract the masses and that the readers wouldn’t hesitate to buy the book because my blurb was so awesome (it wasn’t, and that’s another post in itself). These books did all right, but they never took off. I didn’t know a thing about marketing, ads, book launches–nada.

Fast forward a year later, here I stand.

Humbled.

I look back at my old covers and cringe. I can’t believe readers had told me those early covers were fine; passable, even. Nobody–nobody–pointed out how shitty they were. They’d always say, “Loooove it!” or “Ooh, you changed your cover! It’s awesome!” Nobody wanted to tell me the truth. Maybe they didn’t want to hurt my feelings, or just couldn’t be bothered.

I had to figure it out myself. It wasn’t until spring/summer of 2017, when I made a few prominent author friends, that they were frank with me and told me my covers were no good. They weren’t too market, they didn’t convey the right mood/feel of the book, they were just plain bad.

That’s when it finally clicked.

I didn’t want to admit it to myself. Until then.

For a year, I’d continually changed my covers, but they didn’t seem to be getting better. Then, an author friend told me to put my cover next to the bestselling covers and see if they could compete. Once I did that, I realized that mine could not compete.

I basically sabotaged myself by launching my first novels with shitty covers and sabotaged myself further by continuously changing those covers. I’m sure my earliest readers won’t even recognize the same book if it hit them in the face.

But you know what? These were growing pains. The cover changes, the blurb changes, the ad designs, marketing strategies…I didn’t understand any of that last year. But I understand A LOT more now. And growth never would’ve happened if I hadn’t felt discomfort first. If I had never sought to continually improve my work, and ask for feedback from fellow authors, I would’ve never improved as an authorpreneur and as an individual.

To new authors who are wondering if cover design is important…the answer is YES. YES, YES, YES, YES, YES. 

If you’re thinking of going down the route I went (designing your own covers), you better know what you’re doing or expect some big failures. If you’re thinking of hiring a designer, don’t cheap out. You get what you pay for.

Here are some designers I’ve heard GREAT things about:

Letitia Hasser from R.B.A. designs does very professional and quality covers for $100. (www.rbadesigns.com) She books months and months in advance, though. Another good one is Kasmit http://www.kasmitcovers.com. They start at $60 USD. If money isn’t an issue, check out Hang Le www.byhangle.com/ and Perfect Pear Creative www.ppccovers.com/. They’ve done A LOT of bestselling covers.

If you’re unsure, ask around! Check out the most popular ebooks and see who’s listed under cover designer in the credits.

Do your research. Study all the covers in the same genre as your book and ask yourself:

  1. What do these covers have in common?
  2. How do their use of color, font, layout, layers, stock photos, filters convey the book’s mood/tone?
  3. Study the authors’ branding. How do their covers stay consistent with their brand? If you don’t know what this means, check out Skye Warren, Bella Forrest, Michael Anderle, Robert Bryndnza, James Rollins, JK Rowling, Penelope Sky, Victoria Quinn, LJ Shen, Lauren Landish and Willow Winters’ books, just to name a few. Their branding is top notch.
  4. Does your cover convey quality? Does it tell the reader what to expect from your book?
  5. Sign up for Pronoun (https://pronoun.com), a free self-publishing distributor similar to Draft2Digital and Smashwords, and compare your cover with others in its genre using their free cover tool.

If you have any questions about covers, branding, graphics design etc, comment below! I’ll try my best to answer them. Hope you found this useful.

Thanks for reading!

Jackie


Extra Content

What’s wrong with my covers–a step by step analysis, starting from the far left (2016 covers) to the far right.

  1. Stupid fonts. Too hard to read. Doesn’t convey the right mood. Just plain ugly ones.
  2. Dumb color filters. Why was I so convinced for almost a full year that a blue, alien-looking man on the cover of Fugitive (a bad boy contemporary romance) would sell?? And that a red filter added to Hotshot would sell?
  3. Bad overlay. For a long time, I overlaid my shirtless blue man with a cityscape in the background. The result was messy and confusing.
  4. Poor quality stock photos. The problem with stock photos is, they’re too generic, and if you don’t dig hard enough, you’ll end up with the same cover models as thousands of other ebooks. Notice how the current (2017) covers for Hotshot and Fugitive have MUCH more attractive cover models. The colors convey the tone of the book, and the fonts are easy to read, even as a tiny thumbnail.
  5. Incorrect sizes. My earlier covers were too wide, and ended up looking squashed when I uploaded them to Amazon. The correct dimensions for ebook covers are 1600x 2500 pixels at 300dpi. I use those dimensions when uploading to Amazon, iBooks, Nook, Kobo and more.
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