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146 - Book Cover Mistakes & Lessons


Today’s Topic: Book Cover Mistakes & Lessons - There’s Far More to the Cover Than Meets the Eye!

OK first off I’m gonna just spill the beans! I just got fired! I’ve been doing all things book for a long time and I’m fine making myself vulnerable for both of us to learn. I’m good at what I do, but occasionally I’m just not a fit for someone. I have no hard feelings so don’t get me wrong. Not all relationships are bliss.

Since my client fired me I think its pretty safe to say we can talk about what went wrong without doing any harm. In other words, I don’t think she’s tuning into my podcast! And, I can share some lessons she and I both learned in the process so this kind of thing doesn’t happen to you in the future!

It’s been so long I can’t remember the exact date, but I think its safe to say that about 3 years ago this client came to me to let me know she was writing a book and planned to hire me through another coaching system for cover design and interior layout. But, even though we had many several hours of phone conversations about price, process, and scope she still backed out from working with me right at the point when it was probably the most important time to stick with me… but, she unfortunately, doesn’t know that yet. Let me tell you what happened and what went wrong and how we can both benefit from this lesson.

First, let me tell you that there is a massive difference between a book designer and an artist doing custom artwork. If you were to go to a New York publishing house you would figure this out pretty quickly. Its pretty common that custom artwork is not done for book covers these days. What that means is that it is far more common to use stock images than to work with an artist that brings the characters in your novel to life on the cover. I know this seems a little bit strange if you are new to the book publishing business but, generally it’s quite expensive to hire an artist to paint, draw, or otherwise render your book cover. It’s the unfortunately reality of time is money. An artist is going to need you to commission them to work for you and if you are buying an original art piece from an artist you are going to pay high dollar for anything that is not a reproduction. If you were to go to an art auction, for example, you will find art being auctioned off based on how limited or rare the piece is. If you go to an art fair even you will find some limited editions. An artist might decide they only want to reproduce the image 50 times before they retire it. If it’s an original there is a higher dollar associated because it’s a one-of-a-kind. Its the same kind of thinking for a book cover.

Generally the cost to produce a book is high enough without custom artwork. You are going to pay your coach, your editor, your layout person, your printer, your publisher, and your cover designer. In a self-publishing model it very common you are going to end up paying a minimum of $6K for the editor, the coach, and layout person before you even get to cover design or printing or buying any kind of imprint.

Since most authors are on a budget, a good self-publishing team is aware and they want to keep costs reasonable and not break the authors budget. This means stock photos are very typically used as cover art. Even large New York models use stock art to keep the cost per book down. Oftentimes the stock art is manipulated to make a one-of-a-kind cover image but it all begins with stock art. It can be re-colored, cropped, cut, flipped, and drastically changed or layered with other images so it’s not like anything else. Note: I generally recommend that be done by the way.

But, when a novelist comes to the table they may have made up characters and there is no stock piece that looks like what they have created in their heads. They are generally the most confused at the cover design stage. Of course, a business book doesn’t require as much customization because there are no fictional characters. When the novel’s characters can’t be created using stock images, it’s oftentimes the emotional attachment to the characters that makes it hard for the author to see beyond something they’ve created in their head and what gets presented on the cover. And, even if the author tries to relay what’s in their head or have the artist read their manuscript (usually there will be an extra cost for this) to get an accurate depiction, the professional marketer or cover designer might even argue that what the author envisions wouldn’t make for a good book cover image.

In the case of my client, she first came to me wanting a creepy hand holding a lotus-shaped crystal. This is what I created for her. She wanted something slightly different but we could never quite get what was in her head into the design. I guided her to perhaps begin looking for an artist she liked that might be able to do a custom art piece for her. She found someone and a few months later sent me an image that looked much like what I had already done (but not as high quality) and I placed it on the cover. In all honesty, I thought what I had done was more professional looking. Either way, I’m thinking if she’s happy then I’m happy and I re-send the invoice to get started on the interior layout. I generally don’t argue when a client is happy, unless it’s just really really bad. Because this was rather touchy, I stayed quiet.

A few more months go by and I hear nothing. Then she pops back in with an entirely new image that she created herself—a red-haired girl in some kind of green cloak. Once again, I insert this into the cover and re-send her the invoice to begin working on the interior. Again, months go by and I hear nothing.

Finally, I get a call out of the Blue… at a very inconvenient time when I’ve just returned from sleeping in my car for 4 days with my dog Bella’s rescue (I shared that story a few episodes back). I’m exhausted but take the call and say nothing of the rescue. She tells me she’s unhappy at the whole system and she doesn’t like anything for her cover. I talk her through everything and she seems balanced again and she’s going to think on her approach. She didn’t seem like she was clear on what was blocking her.

Another few months go by and she sends me a completely new piece of artwork. It’s a dark black background and some kind of back-lit red pendant. There’s a complete departure from the other two designs. Unfortunately, these colors are very sensitive to print and what is seen as backlit on the screen isn’t when it’s printed. The cover will likely be very dark overall. This is exactly what she told me she didn’t want, but until she gets there she won’t know this.

This was the moment where I realized she had absolutely no idea whatsoever what she wanted on the book cover and no matter my skills as an artist there was not anything I could do to keep up with her changing mind. Honestly, this is the most costly mistake an author can make - not knowing what they want! This generally happens when their ego gets the best of them and whatever they have produced isn’t good enough. But, it’s more common this happens on the interior…usually they are re-working the manuscript and second-guessing what they wrote and wondering if it’s good enough.

There is a stage where many authors want to pull back. Unfortunately, for me and for this author, this was happening now, but it probably started with poor coaching or a misunderstanding at the beginning coupled with a lack of self-confidence and huge expectations. She was upset I wasn’t able to give her what she thought a book cover designer would, yet neither could all the other designers she hired. This had nothing to do with talent or design.

As a first time novelist, it’s understandable to be a bit nervous but, when you are lacking focus and working with a strong team that has been in the business of bringing authors to publication for more than a decade, the real issue isn’t a poor system or a lack of skill-set, but a desire for unattainable perfection.

I had made it very clear to this author that my job as a cover designer is to work with stock images. I’ve said this before on a few podcast episodes but usually it’s not understood til the author is right at this stage in the development process. I know that I do beautiful work, but honestly, it’s not in my bandwidth to do custom artwork for each client and especially not at the price point I charge for cover design. I do my best to get every author a custom cover even with the use of stock images, but the model I follow is one very consistent with the big publishing houses. Even the big publishing houses have to pay an artist top dollar to do something custom. The only reason they would do this is if they can envision a large return from the sale of the books. You might also find they are willing to do this if the author has invested some capital into the project. (There are many sneaky ways publishers do this through advances.) In many cases, the author ends up paying something out of pocket either up front or in the royalties down the line when the book goes up for sale. I’ve also said it before that nothing in this business is free! You get what you pay for.

I’ll be honest, as a cover designer, I have no desire to do custom artwork for my clients. This is why I price things as I do - affordably! When I first began in this business it was an honor to work hand-in-hand with a client simply to have my artwork on a book cover, but in all reality it was extremely unprofitable, massively time-consuming, and not very productive or rewarding for me. I’d pour my heart and soul into a design and they wouldn’t like it and we’d start over time and time again. Meanwhile, client after client would get back-logged in my system. It was stressful! So, now I’m very clear that I dedicate about 20 hours to each project. I tell clients we will be using stock images that can be manipulated to appear more custom. In fact, this is exactly what I told this client from the very beginning some 3 years ago. I explained to her that it’s not so important to me where the image comes from for the cover, but I still have to compile all the moving parts together and get a proper template for the printer. So, if she wanted to hire another artist or use stock images I’m fine either way. I think, in this case, however, there really was just a lack of clarity on her book cover no matter where the image came from. She wasn’t discussing with her coach what would be appropriate. She wasn’t clear what image best represented her book or reached her target audience.

I generally prefer to work with business-minded authors verses novelists because, to be honest, they usually have a bit more clarity on their desired end result, goal, and audience. But, I do have a general formula I use when working with a novelist to help them gain clarity on a proper book cover and, if this particular client had hired me as a book coach we would have had this discussion in the early stages of development so that she had great focus going into her book cover design and layout. If you’re writing a novel, let me give you 3 tips for developing a book cover:

3 Tips for Developing A Book Cover for Your Novel:

  1. Identify Your Main Character - When you really work to define your main character(s) then you have a pretty good idea whether or not placing them on the cover of your book is reasonable. Is your character strong enough to carry the book cover alone? Do they need to be explained with more detail? As you build out your main character(s) you will know whether or not they are the center of interest in your novel. But there are a few other things to consider too…
  2. Identify A Pivotal Scene In Your Novel - perhaps more detail is required for a reader to know where the story takes place. Perhaps a place is more important than a character? Perhaps the main character goes front and center on your cover with the pivotal scene in the background? Note: I had a sci-fi author describe to me a planet where his characters were visiting and we did use stock images to create a fictional place. You can look up both of his novels over in my portfolio on my website - click on the “design” tab then on “portfolio” and scroll down to Chris Shockowitz. In his book Silent Invasion the place was more important than the character. But, in his other novel Colonizing Trappist - Trappist was a planet so the place was also important but so was the character that was visiting it. All of these images are stock photos. Although, not one of them ever existed as it appears on the cover. So, it was a custom cover but using manipulated stock photos.
  3. Identify Your Target Audience - whatever your genre, you want to identify who your target audience is. This will be the most valuable exercise as it not only helps with your book cover but also how you are speaking to readers as you write. Note: For my client that fired me… the red locket she placed on the cover as her final choice… it gave me no indication of what her book was about, who she was speaking to, and what to expect when I read it. Personally, I would have gone with the red-haired girl because she made the idea of reading the novel a bit more exciting. I have no idea what I’m getting into with a red locket. In general, this wouldn’t be a book I’d read anyhow as I prefer to read more self-help books than novels. But, honestly, this is where her coach failed her. He should have guided her on all of this well before she got to the design phase.

Outside of the cover design, I was also going to do the interior book layout for this client. During the three years we had talked she was quite clear on my process and pricing. I was very open about all of it. She had no question about what I could or couldn’t do. But, she was hoping for more. Back in my early days as a Designer I might have fallen into this trap of working for free for countless hours just to make her happy, but over the years I’ve learned to set very clear parameters and boundaries. Just as we were about to finally begin doing the interior layout was when she sent me an email deciding not to work with me. She went over to another design group that charges much less. They do a great job, but there are many things lacking that she will be unaware of until she’s on the other side of the layout and ready to go to print. I might also note that she needed to pay less for the interior design, as she must have paid out some extra $2500 in cover designs because she simply didn’t know what she wanted.

There are Designers that can do a beautiful cover for you and there are layout people that will get a functional interior, but as I always say - you get what you pay for in this business. Since the Designer she went to doesn’t specialize in books she doesn’t know yet that they don’t have an arrangement with a book printer. Many book printers have gone out of business during covid and until they get everything completed they won’t know this. They will have to go on a search to find a printer. Of course, this will delay timing to bring it into production. And, the design group also doesn’t know that many now are requiring hands to be held through pre-flight servers. Printers don’t want to hold any liability to a book gone wrong so they are oftentimes now requesting that a client log into a digital system to validate and approve the job going to print. Since I do this full time I generally guide my clients through this process. Her coach may avoid this all together and encourage the design group to send her job to a more costly printer. Either the design group looses time and money working through the approvals or the client looses by going to a higher cost printer that doesn’t require digital approvals. Either way, because neither of them do this full time, it’s a touchy process.

Honestly, I really do always feel bad when someone backs out at this stage because they really don’t understand the relationships I have forged with printers and the like to make the printing, production, and marketing more seamless at this point in the publishing process. It truly breaks my heart when they can’t quite see what I offer and they step away. It may sound strange to hire a cover designer and for her to tell you that cover design is such a small piece of what they do, but in reality, a good cover designer is going to have there hands in the process as a project manager also. Honestly, I can’t understand how it would be done efficiently any other way. But, I also understand…as an author of multiple books, that there is far more to being in good partnerships during the process than meets the eye.

Many new authors look at the expenses involved in self publishing and try to cut costs, but this is where great mistakes are made. I can tell you that I am not the most affordable cover designer because I’m not just a cover designer. In fact, I’m really not an artist. I’m more a project manager capable of giving you a beautiful book cover as I manage all the relationships, assets, and navigate the steps in the book publishing process.

Since I’ve been in this business for awhile, I can’t begin to tell you how many people walk away just before their book goes to print! Actually… even before it goes to layout! The ole ego and pocketbook get most authors here! When a book isn’t well thought-out it becomes an expense! When you understand why you are producing it and are fully onboard its not viewed so much as an expense but an asset. Of course, a business book is going to line up a bit better financially for most. The profit made outside of the book… because you have written the book… will far exceed the cost of producing it if you get it in alignment with your platform. But, a novel… the item for sale is a story. Profits can be a bit harder to realize. If you are standing there with books in hand and a $20K debt and you have to sell a $25 item… its going to take a bit of time to pay that back. It’s going to take a good 800 books sold to break even. The average author sells about 300 books. So, keeping the costs very low for a novelist is pretty important. To reimburse yourself for up front investments, you have to offer a service that perhaps the book helps to highlight… and it’s got to be far more than the book’s selling price of $25!

Unfortunately, for this client… she investing some $2500 in book cover designs she didn’t use and spent $2500 on a coach she barely called. At $5K in and still needing to pay out a layout fee and print her books… I believe she had no choice but to go to a less expensive designer than me.

Without clarity the publishing process is a costly one! I guess this will be her greatest take away. I just lost some business. I will gain another client. But, for her, she’s going to be hard-pressed to turn a profit on her first novel and it unfortunately may cause her to never soar her creative oats and write the next book in her series. It’s so hard to watch people struggle in the process of writing and publishing a book!

I used to just do book design and interior layout until I saw stories like this happening over and over through a coaching system I was a part of… the same one she came out of… and that’s when I decided that I owe it to new authors to step up as a coach and guide them from the beginning so they can avoid these costly mistakes and issues. It really does hurt my heart to watch anyone suffer or limp over the finish line. Being creative is hard enough, but I don’t like seeing dreams crushed because of misunderstandings or poor publishing systems. At the same time, I always give honesty and tell people truth. Not everyone wants the truth. They will go looking in a thousands directions for the answer they wish to hear before then either learn the hard way or circle back around and contact me after they can’t find a way to get published.

Over the years most of my clients that make it to me get over the finish line but occasionally they don’t. I have a list that I keep of those that are stuck somewhere in the processes. Generally they are the ones that never make it to me. They get close and I see them coming through the system from other sources I partner with but when they don’t hire me they oftentimes get stuck. I’m not saying I’m a miracle worker, but I am saying that there are many ways to navigate through the self publishing process. I’ve seen them all. Lots of people come and go. I’ve been around awhile. So I know what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help everyone and some don’t see my value right away and don’t give me a chance, but I can say that there is a giant difference between hiring someone to design and layout your book and hiring a full-time professional that does nothing but books. There is a difference in hiring someone that is not an author verses someone that is. There’s a difference working with someone that has a “one and done” mentality verses working with someone that holds your hand through all the stages of development and into marketing and sales.

Until you are in the position to be working with a professional book designer you probably will think all designers are the same… until you learn they are not! And generally, the only way you learn this is when you’re well along on the path. Its generally when you’re holding your book in your hand and your preparing to begin marketing and sales and you realize there’s a problem. When a novelist is wrapped up emotionally in the characters and story line and the vision they’ve created but doesn’t have expertise in the marketing and sales of the book it can be quite detrimental to the outcome.

Some of the biggest mistakes that happen to talented writers is poor self promotion or an uninviting book cover that’s poor quality or misaligned with its target audience. A series author can also go wrong launching without the first book geared toward the promotion of a series. You see… a writer of a novel is in the business of selling books…telling and selling stories… perhaps inviting readers into a world of make-believe and imagination… and if this book is the first in a series you must be positioning the series with the launch of the first book… since you are, in fact, in the business of selling books.

Since it’s the author that knows the story line of the book written…and the books to come, it’s important for the author to get very clear on the goals they have for the cover design and to make sure that if there is a series to come there is a clear message showcased on the book covers. In order to do this it’s up to the author to share with the designer the progression of a character, the shifting of scenery, or some other main sequence of events that are occurring in the book so that it can be showcased creatively. A non-fiction book is much more straight-forward than a novel in most cases, but it is still up to the author to relay something to the designer for them to grab a hold of for proper representation on the cover. The most successful book covers are those where the author gives the designer the clearest guidance.

Book designers aren’t mind readers and most aren’t going to read your book, so as an author, it’s up to you to give clarity to the designer and for the designer to relay the contents to the audience. Personally, as a book designer myself, I can do just about anything for a book cover, but when an author is too hands on, too involved, not clear on their direction, or tries to play designer that’s when I lack the ability to do my job. You’ve really got to let a designer run with things once you provide them clear guidance.

Well…to wrap things up for this episode, I am still awaiting the outcome of the young authors novel. I’m pretty sure she’s going to have some issues getting through print at minimum, but I do hope she finds a way to land on her feet and doesn’t give up writing.

I’m here to help you if you run into any of these challenges on the production of your book. But, for now… I’m wishing you peace, love, and light…

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