9 Tips for Working with a Book Cover Designer

Congratulations! You finished writing your book. The months or years of agonizing over the characters, setting, plot, language, and grammar are over. If you landed a publishing contract, congrats once again! You are among the small fraction of writers who do. But I’m assuming – since you’re reading this – that you are planning on self-publishing your own book. If that’s the case, the writing stage is over, and your focus now will be very different – sales! And the first thing you need to do is hire a book cover designer. But if you’re an author the idea of working with a book cover designer may seem intimidating. Where do you start?

First things first: You’re going to have to take off your Writer hat for a minute. Just take that thing right off and put it in a drawer somewhere. I promise it’s not going anywhere. Time to put on your Art Director hat.

Your first job as Art Director is to hire the right book designer for your book. This is not a job for a novice. This is no time to finally learn Photoshop and try to take matters into your own hands. Your book cover is no place for your niece’s color pencil drawing. You need a professional.


Choosing a book cover designer

Would you take your child to see a brain surgeon if they have an ear infection? No. So don’t hire an artist who designs catchy chick lit covers to create your science fiction book cover. Peruse their portfolio carefully to make sure their art style matches what you want to see for your book cover. If you really like a book cover you see, find out who designed it and see if you can reach out to that designer.

Before deciding on a book cover designer, talk to them on the phone, Skype, or meet in person at least once if possible. Your working relationship and communication will be much more unified and open as a result. And trust your designer once you have chosen them. They have experience designing covers that work, and will be able to help you create one that works for your story. That might require letting go a little control over “your baby.”

Before you press “go” on the design project, make sure you know what you want. Don’t skip the research and planning phase of your book cover design project. As the Art Director, you will need to know who your target audience is. Research books in the same genre as yours so you understand the competition. Look at the design of their book covers – what are some unifying elements that are being used on book covers in your genre? Gather these visual examples.

Now that you have defined the WHO and the WHAT, you can move forward with the design phase of your book cover!


9 Tips for Working with a Book Cover Designer


1. Submit a Design Brief

Professional designers are accustomed to working from a design brief, which is a document that outlines all of the important details about the project – from deliverables to design direction to budget. There are many examples you can use online, such as here. It’s a good idea to provide this to the designer before you actually sign a contract so both parties are clear about what is expected. So much of a successful designer-client relationship is based on clear communication, and clarifying all aspects of your project in the beginning will go a long way towards avoiding issues along the way.

Make sure you define your target audience, genre, and the mood of your story in the brief so that the book cover designer can create a cover that is engaging to the readers you want to reach. Define if the beginning if you want a photographic, illustrative, or typographic cover. If you don’t know, state here that you would like to see design directions for various solutions. If you want a print book cover (front, back, spine, and flaps if necessary), make sure you also ask for an eBook version of that cover – read here for more about effective eBook cover design.

Your book cover designer will need to know “file specifications” for the design. This means the height, width, bleed, color mode, and file format. This information will come from whoever is printing your book, whether its CreateSpace, IngramSpark, or a traditional printer. Don’t have a printer picked yet? Decide on that first before you begin the design process! Every printer has different specifications.


2. Agree on a Timeline

As a part of your brief, establish a realistic timeline for brainstorming and idea generation, first draft, final proof, and print-ready files to be delivered, and remember that design can take much longer than you think. A last-minute addition or change to a book cover can mean hours of work for a designer. As a rule of thumb, I calculate how long I need to deliver each phase of the project, then double it (some designers triple it). That is a realistic timeframe. Anything sooner is considered “rush” and may be subject to increased charges and/or you risk creating a book cover won’t be happy with in the long run.


3. Sign a Contract

A professional book cover designer will most likely have their own contract for you to sign, and will likely include the terms, specifications limiting the number of changes and revisions, rights to the finished work, contract termination procedures, and other legal language. Make sure you read carefully before signing. Many times some of the points can be negotiated, such as number of revisions. Some book cover designers will charge you one price and will continue to revise the design until you are satisfied. Others will limit the number of revisions that are covered under the agreed-upon fee, and tack on additional fees as necessary. 


4. Give the designer the book to read

The book cover designer you contract with should read your work. If it’s a non-fiction book, they may only need the description and table of contents. If it’s a work of fiction, they should read the story (or at least a few chapters). While you may have ideas for your cover, a designer thinks differently than a writer. He or she may be inspired by something in your book that you never thought of. This is especially true if you are working with an illustrator. So much of what comes out of an artist’s brush (or Wacomb tablet) is intuitive, and rather than trying to fill in the visual blanks from your design brief, their art can flow freely based on their first-hand experience with your words.

TIP: consider having the designer sign a non-disclosure agreement if your work is confidential. You can read more about this here.


5. Send Specific Examples

If you already have an idea of what you want, give the designer as much information as possible about that idea. This should be spelled out in the design brief, but you should also send them an example of a cover that is similar to what you want (or several), some color schemes you like, or a photo you’d like to include (remember, you will need to have the rights to any images you use, and they will need to be high-resolution -- not pulled from the web). Then give your designer the freedom to come up with any other ideas they might have. They may have a new take on your story that you hadn’t thought of.


6. Understand the Elements of Book Cover Design

Remember, you are the art director. It’s your job to guide the book cover design project so you meet your design objectives. Go back to your design brief if you need to stay focused on what those are. To be effective you will need to do a little homework to be able to fulfill your duties.

The elements of a book cover design include: title, subtitle, series name, author name, “credibility cues” such as reviews and awards graphics, the color scheme, and the imagery. On the back cover, you will want a legible description, the category and pricing information, room for the barcode, and perhaps even an author photo and bio if space permits. And don’t forget the spine! A legible title, author name, and a publishing name or logo are standard here (if you don’t have a logo, consider asking your designer to create one as a separate project).


7. Give constructive feedback

Remember, a first draft is a rough starting point. The book cover designer will spend their time perfecting the design once you have agreed to a direction and decided on all of the design elements. Keep that in mind as you look at initial design directions. And remember: designers can be sensitive – they have artistic souls. So make sure your feedback is specific and constructive. “I don’t like it,” or “make it pop” is not helpful; rather, tell the designer FIRST what is working, and SECOND what you would change. This will ensure your experience working with a book cover designer will be professional and not devolve into a negative one.


8. Get on the Phone

Long, drawn-out back and forth emails about design changes can throw a wrench in the design process and lead both the author and book cover designer down a long, windy, path of project creep and miscommunication. Make sure you get on the phone with the designer at every stage so you can talk through the design and your ideas, then summarize your call with an email (bullet points are great!) to make sure you are both on the same page. Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you need to, but avoid being too controlling as well. You need to let go and trust your designer or they may creatively give up on your design.


9. Wrap. It. Up.

Design projects are notorious for dragging on and on. This is because it’s tough to plan for everything that might come up along the way in the creative process. Maybe an idea you thought might be perfect ends up not working at all once you see it visually. This is why it’s called a process. It’s important as the art director of your book cover to know when enough is enough. Remember – you took your writers hat off and you don’t have to make it perfect. The book cover’s job is to sell your book, and as long as you have a design that meets your original objective (go back to your design brief!), you have succeeded. Keep the end-goal and project deadline in mind as you work with your book cover designer, and remember to focus on the bigger picture.


After you have a final cover...

Now, time to take off your Art Director hat and put on your Sales and Marketing one. Once your book launches, monitor your sales closely. If the sales just don’t seem to be there, don’t be afraid to take another look at your target audience and, by extension, your book cover design. You may need to revise again after the launch date.

Remember, your book cover is your number one sales tool. Yes, your story has to be good, it has to be well-edits -- but if you don’t have a book cover that appeals to the readers you want to reach, your words will never be read.


About Dylan Drake

Dylan Drake runs Wayword Author Services, helping independent authors launch their own publishing careers. She wears many hats, from Graphic Designer, to Book Designer, to Illustrator, to Digital Marketer. With 15+ years experience in book publishing, Dylan got her start working for Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader where she would scour the world for odd stories that were perfect for the books. After that she worked as an assistant buyer for a major book distribution company, then moved to marketing for publishing imprints such as Thunder Bay Press and Silver Dolphin Books. Her time as product manager at Silver Dolphin books made her realize that she wanted to pursue her passion in graphic design so that she could work on the creative side of book publishing. She went back to school and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Graphic Design and Digital Media, and started her own independent design company. Focusing on book design is her true calling, and her passion is working with independent authors to help them make their books the best they can be visually, both inside and out.






J.D. Lakey