Some Thoughts on Book Covers

I have friends who swear by using professionally-done covers. And some of those friends do very, very, very well. Much better than I do. (Although I suspect that’s down to writing skill and speed of publishing more than cover quality.)

Me, I tend to do my own covers. And I’ll tell you why. Because coming from a corporate background it drives me absolutely batty to deal with cover designers.

This last week I redid two series’ worth of covers. It was 20+ covers and I was able to create them and upload them and be done within a few days. At the same time I’ve been paying to have the covers redone for my YA fantasy series by one of the really good cover designers out there and it’s taken six weeks (?) so far to get three covers done. If I’d gone with one of the other top designers out there I’d still be waiting for them to get started because most have waiting lists of three to six months, assuming they’re taking on new clients.

So let me walk you through my cover designer experiences. I’m not naming names, because that’s not the point there. The point is to understand some of the challenges of dealing with cover designers and why, if you can do it at all, it might make sense to do your own instead.

Cover Designer #1: Pre-Mades

As with all things self-publishing, I ventured into paying for covers the cheap way by buying a couple of pre-made covers. One was for a romance novel, one was for my SFF short story collection. And they looked good. I have no complaints about the appearance of the covers. I mean, I chose them after all, they were a completed product before I paid for them.

The cover designer was also easy to work with and provided my files within a few days of my placing my order. I had no complaints about that designer’s responsiveness or professionalism.

All good.

Until I started poking around on some stock photo websites and realized that the cover designer had literally taken existing stock photos and just slapped text on them. No edits to the photo whatsoever. It was the same exact image, not zoomed in or cropped in any way. No extra border. No combined images. Nothing changed.

Which means that the pre-made they slapped up on their website probably took ten minutes to create and another ten to customize it when they got my order. They needed an eye for placement and font choice, but that was pretty much it.

Now, granted, that’s probably all you can expect when you spend $35 for a cover. But it made me realize that I could probably do that myself. And when I did the next romance cover I did buy that original stock photo and put new text over it to match my second romance novel cover rather than go back to that cover designer and pay for them to create a custom cover to match the first one.

So decent to work with, decent result, but something anyone could slap together with minimal design skills.

Cover Designer #2: Custom Cover

When I published my first fantasy novel I decided it was time to quit playing around and do things “the right way”. I’d seen a trade-published cover designer’s work that I thought was really good and I reached out to them about what it would cost to have them do my covers. Turns out the answer was $650.

That was a lot to spend, but I wanted to give that book all the chances in the world, so I paid it. And the cover is gorgeous. The artist actually did a photo shoot with a local girl who worked at Starbucks and turned her into exactly what I was looking for. It was an illustrated cover and that artist nailed it. The first draft had a bad font and the image needed moving a bit but we fixed that easily enough.

I really had no complaints about that first cover. (Later when I had that book on display at a convention I realized it didn’t look as good from a distance. My homemade covers on other books on that table drew in far more readers than that very expensive cover did.)

Of course, there was no way to do the second cover in that series without using the same artist. So I had to go back to them a year later and see if they were available and what timeline I was working with. They said it would be a month to get the cover done, but they missed the deadline and I had to delay my release while I waited for them to finish.

We also had some back and forth on that one that was a bit painful. But I was stuck with them at that point. Fortunately design of the third cover went smoothly but I do seem to recall that they were late on that one, too.

The bigger problem was that when I wanted to change the back cover copy on two of the print versions a year or so after that I was told it would cost $200 to do so. I don’t sell enough in print on those books for that to make any sense.

So gorgeous covers but production delays and high costs to make edits.

Cover Designer #3: The Designer That Never Was

When I decided to publish my first cozy mystery I looked a the covers in the genre and found that most of the best in the genre were a style I couldn’t replicate myself. So I looked around to see who did covers in that genre.

One top designer was booked out six months but another said they just needed a month’s notice and to let them know when I was ready to go. They were about $250 a cover I want to say, so reasonable for what they did and available in a workable timeframe.

Great.  I reached out about a month later, and…nothing. They never replied to me again. Not via email, not via their website. They were just gone.

Fortunately I hadn’t paid them so I wasn’t out any money, but it frustrated me enough that I just went ahead and did my own covers for the cozies.

So one man shop, disappeared without notice.

Cover Designer #4: High End Cover

This year I had some money to spend on my business so I figured it was time to try new covers on the fantasy series. (Even though it took two and half years to pay off the first set of covers. I sometimes don’t learn my lessons.)

I poked around and most of the top designers were not available or had a long wait time, but one had a website that said they’d send through options within a couple weeks, so I submitted with them.

They don’t have a series option so I had to do each cover one at a time even though my ultimate goal was three covers for a completed trilogy. Again we were in the $600 range.

First, I had to chase them down after that two weeks passed without any response. It took a few more days but then they sent through some ideas which were…okay? But not worth $600.

I had specifically said I didn’t want a cover that looked muddy from a distance like my first fantasy one had turned out to be. I even gave them the link to that cover, but one of the options they sent through was mostly brown colors that would be muddy from a distance.

I ran the options by a private group I’m in and those folks agreed that, no, not worth continuing if that’s what I was going to get. I could’ve paid a third as much to a different designer and had covers on par with what they sent me in that first round.

I gave them one more try with much more specific guidance based on work I’d seen them do for others and they finally came back with something much, much better, so I stuck with them.

After that little hiccup the first cover was fine.

But then the second cover–which was part of the series–was done as if the designer hadn’t thought “hey, this cover needs to fit with the other two”. It was fine on its own, but not as part of the series. It was like someone hadn’t liked aspects of the first cover so had decided to fix those aspects with the second cover. But that didn’t work because the two covers had to sit side-by-side and I already had the first cover.

(My other expensive cover designer actually changed the font on my on my second book, too. It was a better font, yes, but it meant anyone who already owned the first book was stuck with books in a series that didn’t match.)

This lack of continuity with the first cover really frustrated me. This is the type of thing that if I’m paying you $600 for a cover I expect you to handle without my guidance. But I was stuck in at this point because I’d already paid for the first cover. So I told them all the fixes that needed to be made and they were done.

But now we’re on cover three. There were some fixes to the central image because the first round of choices were not good, but that was pretty simple. And they made a basic error they shouldn’t have, but that got fixed, too.

When they sent me the print proof the coordinator pointed out something to me about the text on the back cover that I agreed needed changed. It was a simple fix and since they’d pointed it out to me, I figured it would be done within the day and done right. But the next proof I got they’d fixed the wrong thing. It was even worse than before. And it took three days to get that first fix back. And then another two days to fix the bad fix. So five days for a change that literally was a five-minute change that they identified first.

And I’m still waiting for the final files.

So beautiful work but long delays in getting it and challenges in getting a product worth what I paid for it and in having to manage someone who wasn’t managing themselves well.


Those are my cover designer experiences. I’ve also had a few cover designers I reached out to who said they couldn’t do the type of cover I was looking for, which is fair enough. I hold nothing against them for saying that. It is what it is.

I do believe that covers matter. My mom is one of those people who will buy a book just for the cover. But I also believe there’s a “good enough” standard for most genres and that there are ways to do good enough covers in most genres that don’t require massive design skills.

Just like with writing, I think it’s a process of leveling-up over time as you see and think about what works and find ways to get the appearance you want. And, this will sound sort of strange, but I figure all of it has to work together and sometimes a non-million-dollar cover is actually the better choice because it more accurately conveys to the reader what they’ll find inside.

(One of the reasons I gleefully use alright instead of all right in my books is because I know that the Strunk & White purists will be turned off by that and leave my books alone which is a good thing for both of us.)

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres.

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