self-publishing success for indie authors

Book Design

Don’t Go Out in Public Naked: How to Nail Your Book Cover by Avoiding These Mistakes

You see that woman sitting to the side at the executive meeting discussing company financials and strategies to increase profitability next quarter? The one who looks like she’s struggling not to look bored? Yeah. That was me. And that was my life, day in, day out, for over a dozen years. A successful life, by many standards, and not an unhappy one, but not exactly the Dream either. You see, the Dream was pretty simple, and began at a young age, when I began banging out stories on a Commodore 64. And while I had every intention of becoming a serious, full-time writer when I grew up, I wandered off the garden path sometime in college when faced with an expensive appetite for sushi and the lure of a shiny new car. I’ll admit freely I bowed to capitalism, found a ladder to work my way up, and when I got to the top rungs and took a deep breath of that rarefied air, I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”

I believe this is called a mid-life crisis. In my case, I didn’t buy a Porsche and start dating wildly attractive, much-younger men (not that I’m opposed to that for anyone else—good on ya!), but I did quit the gig, got rid of the loft, bought a new laptop, stuffed it in a backpack, and hit the road, thinking if I traveled enough, I’d find some meaningful answers to a life worth living. If Kerouac did it, why couldn’t I? And I worked out this simple truth somewhere in the desert between Utah and New Mexico: Writing wasn’t just a side-passion and a hobby, it was my calling. Now I just had to get off my duff and do something about it.

How to design a book cover

Update! We made some book cover design templates so you can get a great cover, without the hassle of dealing with a designer. And don’t forget to check out our 3D book cover mockups tool; or if you’re interested, how to use Midjourney AI for book cover design.

If You Can Just Write It, the Rest is Easy (not):

Fast forward 10 months, and I had my first novel completed. I’d hired a fantastic editor, written, rewritten and sharpened the story until it was something I could be proud to publish. And then came the cover. That perfect, delicious ribbon that would attract all my readers like honey.

I’d worked with enough creatives in my past career to have a good approximation at how to find the talent, but what I didn’t understand was how different it would be to work as an indie with a freelancer. I mistakenly assumed it would be as simple as finding the talent, agreeing on the brief, setting the deadline and voilà- Best. Cover. Ever! Simple right? No. Hell, no. It’s not that simple. And so, the book cover saga began…

First, I dare you to try getting a book designer on the phone or Skype for an interview. Every single cover designer (of the dozen I interacted with), had some emailed response that usually went a little something like this: “Here’s my website, links to my portfolio and the book brief you should fill out if you want to hire me. Pay my deposit, and I’ll get rolling. You’ll hear from me sometime after X date. We can go from there.”

Now the corporateer in me bristled at this sort of blithe response. How could a designer precisely nail the visual representation of my story without discussing it with me first? How could we align on the aesthetic goals, refine the vision, and manage the KPI’s for chrissakes! It all felt so frustratingly one-sided. I felt like I’d have to pay the deposit down on several designers to get rolling before I had a cover I liked. That struck me as both expensive and inefficient. I also had a target publish date I’d set my sights on, and was hell bound and determined to hit it (Error #1).

I Don’t Know What I Want, but Can You Just Make Me Happy?

Of the designers I’d interacted with, I went with the one that had the earliest availability to begin working on the book. To me, this felt like proactivity after dealing with so many designers who said they’d come back to me in four or five months after I’d paid their deposit. I had no real concept of how long this process would take.

I filled in the designer’s book cover brief with vicious detail, attached a myriad of examples of covers I’d liked, fonts I preferred and hindsight 20/20, generally overwhelmed the sh*t out of that poor guy. I must have sent him a dozen different conflicting examples, with detailed descriptions for what I liked and why. In my mind, I was being helpful. In his mind, I probably came off as a schizophrenic with an obsession for minutiae.

But for all my details and examples, I didn’t have a clear picture in my own mind for what I was looking for (Error #2). I was hoping he’d take the jumbled mess of “I like this and I like that” and make sense of it all in the form of two or three excellent drafts. I envisioned the clouds parting when I saw his drafts, and I would weep in awe that someone understood my vision, even when I didn’t.

Two weeks later, what did I get? Several completely different concept covers, none of which I remotely liked and all of which felt helter skelter.

Panic ensued.

I couldn’t reply back with an unhelpful, “NO NO NO!” (though that was my immediate reaction). And I couldn’t for the life of me think of how to improve any of the crap I got back. So I did the only thing I could think of—I decided to choose the foundation image we would use. Surely that would help get him started down the right direction? I spent days pouring over thousands of images across stock photography sites, all the while thinking, “I’m not the designer. I shouldn’t have to do this. I’m not the expert here!” But the lesson I learned was that it wasn’t about the exact image as much as it was about having a solid concept for what I was looking for.

I found the perfect image of a woman suspended underwater that was both mysterious and sort of erotic. She looked how I imagined the lead character of the story would feel—edgeless, untethered, floating pendulous between the light near the surface and the deep undercurrent of something sinister. I sent the designer the image and said, “Here! Start over and use this!”

When in Doubt, Make Everybody Feel As Crazy:

What came back to me a week later was equally disappointing. He’d made some alterations to the picture, but essentially, it was boring. I was astounded. Here I’d given him a gorgeous, sexy image, and he had slapped on the title and not much else. Hell, I couldn’t have done that, I thought.

So as the control-freaks do when things start to feel wobbly, they tamp down… and controlleth. I located all my favorite book covers, pulled out a Sharpie and started drawing cover designs for him (WTF was I doing?!?). I made notes, selected fonts, measured margins, scanned and shipped it all back to him for another round. Unsurprisingly, I heard nothing back for several days.

My faith in the process was waning. I feared I’d selected the wrong guy. I started heating up other contacts again.

It never occurred to me that my lack of clarity and focus early on had been a major issue. Just like it didn’t occur to me that swinging hard and fast in the opposite direction to “do it exactly like this right now,” was equally unhelpful (Error #3).

Just Make It Stop:

The designer and I must have exchanged nearly 50 emails altogether. He’d done exactly what I’d told him, to a T, and it still wasn’t panning out. The cover was lackadaisical, hard-to-read in thumbnail form and frankly, bored the shit out of me. We were sick of each other, like the end of a relationship, where you both know it’s SO over, but you just haven’t had the formal break-up yet.

By this time, we’d neared my made-up deadline, and I was so completely over the process, I went against my better judgment and just decided to publish the book with a cover I knew, knew in my heart wasn’t right (egregious Error #4).

Oh My God, What Have I Done?

Once Complicated Creatures had been online for a week and had racked up no more than a dozen sales, I finally realized the extent of my mistake:

Error #1: I’d self-imposed a punishing deadline for no reason other than to “get it done.” The result was I had a great story with a crap cover that was hard to read, and the sales to prove a lot of other people probably thought so too.

Error #2: I had paid a lot of money and spent over two months working with a designer without a clear vision of what I wanted. I could say it was his fault, and in some ways, I think he could have been more proactive, but the reality is I didn’t know where I was going, and yet I fully expected him to get us there.

Error #3: Writers and graphic designers are visual-thinkers in opposite ways. Designers think in form, color and space. Writers think in prose, flow and structure. Both are storytellers, but graphic designers have to do in one image what authors are allowed to accomplish in thousands of words. I shouldn’t have tried to take over his job. God knows, I would have flipped out if he’d tried to take over mine, no matter how helpful. I should have let him do the design with pointed feedback rather than trying to take over the wheel while he was still driving.

Error #4: I went against every instinct and published the book anyway.

Don’t Go out in Public Naked:

I was reading Derek Murphy’s Book Marketing is Dead when two paragraphs jumped out at me:

“Visibility will only help a book succeed or fail faster. And if you get publicity while your book is underdressed, underpolished, and has zero reviews, or has boring description text, you will have made a bad first impression and all other attempts will be dismissed.

Don’t cry wolf. Don’t go out in public naked. Protect your self-published book from instant rejection by surrounding it with a professional appearance. But if your book is already selling, and most people seem to like it, by all means get it in front of more people to speed up its obvious trajectory.”

I had sent my first newborn babe out into the world naked. That much was clear. I had a few sales, good reviews, a strong book description, but the cover was… well, anyone who says we shouldn’t judge books by their covers may be morally right, but they aren’t shopping on Amazon (or any other retailer), because if you don’t make a good first impression with that tiny thumbnail, you’re dead in the water.

I realized Derek Murphy was absolutely right. I wasn’t helping the book succeed, and in fact, I was probably making it fail faster.

Try, Try Again:

I decided to start fresh with a two-pronged approach: Hire a new designer whose work I’d admired (and actually bought) in the past and try out this new-fangled crowdsourcing stuff I’d been reading about. I reached out to Regina Wamba of MaeI Designs, and I fired up a project for a New York Times Best-Selling cover in DesignCrowd. I had a couple plans of action this time and I had a good idea of what I wanted.

I answered all of Regina’s questions clearly and succinctly. I attached the exact image I wanted her to “leverage,” though how was up to her. I gave her only a couple examples of what I was looking for and made sure they weren’t too confusing or misaligned. We agreed on a time-frame to reconnect on draft ideas and a cadence of communication for a healthy back-and-forth.

Was it perfectly smooth and easy? I’d be lying if I said yes. There were a couple misunderstandings early on, but for the most part, giving her direct feedback for what I did and didn’t like rather than trying to take over really helped. For her part, she got back to me quickly with changes, gave me good options and listened to the feedback.

The DesignCrowd experience that went on in parallel was an interesting learning experience. First, make sure the project is refundable. No matter what they tell you, people will respond, and you’ll get your money back (minus some small fees) if you don’t accept any of the designs. Second, don’t be surprised that there are plenty of designers out there who won’t read your brief and are just looking to make a quick buck. It’s not personal, so don’t get huffy when you get a cover design that has very little to do with what you asked for. Third, give feedback only where appropriate. The designers who are really serious will get back to you quickly with detailed questions for feedback and implement your asks. The ones who are just looking to make a buck will just submit another design that is equally random and clearly just a tactic to not be excluded from the final rounds. It wasn’t for me in the end, but it was worth the try, and I’m glad I gave it a go.

Well, Lookie Here:

After a month, I made the decision to go with Regina’s design. We’d had about half the communication I had with the first designer, but she’d gone the distance—listening to my asks and feedback but still coming up with a wholly original and head-snapping design. I was delighted, and couldn’t wait to get the cover replaced.

I used the opportunity to make some minor manuscript edits, reformatted the whole shebang before republishing and called the new cover reveal my “Book Launch Party.” Within three days of the updated cover launch, I had sold nearly three hundred books with some promotional work added in. That’s up from just a handful of sales just the week before.

Take a look for yourself at the difference:

Old Cover:                                                           New Cover:

Complicated Creatures 0422 2 SM(1) Complicated Creatures_ebooksm


So what have we learned?

Don’t go out in public naked, especially as an indie author. More often than not, people are looking for a reason not to buy your book, especially if you’re an unknown quantity. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of crap out there since self-publishing has removed the governor from the engine that was once tightly controlled and curated by editors, agents and traditional publishing houses. Not having the essentials down pat will only leave a bad aftertaste, and we indie authors need all the good lasting impressions we can get, the first time around.

Don’t impose time constraints in lieu of doing it right. Finding the right designer and getting the cover done can easily be a two or three month process. Don’t rush if you don’t have to, just to get something out. Take the time to think through the concept, find the best designer to work with you, and bake in the time for the necessary back-and-forth to get it done to your satisfaction without trying to take over their job.

Conversely, if it just isn’t working, don’t be afraid to admit the mistake and cut bait for an alternate. You might lose your deposit, but the reality is that living without the heartburn of trying to drag a horse to water might be worth a little lost coin, and it frees up your creative energy to work with someone else more productively.

Have a good idea of what you want before you ask for it. You don’t have to know exactly what the cover should look like, but having a solid concept in mind really helps. If you want to hand it over tabula rasa and let the designer go nuts, sure—why not? It’s like tossing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, but for my money, I think having a feel for what you want before you get started and sharing that as clearly and succinctly as possible is the best use of everyone’s time and energy.

Be direct and give feedback, but don’t take over. My book designer isn’t doing my book edits—I am. I shouldn’t be doing their cover redesigns any more than they should be trying to rewrite a scene. That doesn’t mean I won’t take feedback where it’s useful, just like they should, but there’s a big difference between saying, “Head over here to the left” vs. yanking the wheel out of their hand and expecting them to react well to it.

Set ground rules. I knew from my first experience that days of silence after an email only made my agita worse. I made it clear from the get-go with Regina that I needed more regular communication. She respected that ask and was relatively quick on the turnaround. She was also very up front about what she could and could not do, which allowed me time to either cope or figure out workarounds. So even though I’m still writing Book 2, she’s already working on that cover, which gives her plenty of time to create and me plenty of time to give her feedback without making her nuts.

At the end of the day, the most important lesson for me here was not to settle. As an independent author, you have to trust your instincts and go with what you think is right for the book. We often don’t have the luxury of a team behind us. We are responsible for getting every aspect of the book publishing and marketing process right from soup-to-nuts, and if you think that’s hard—having to go back and do it again until it’s done right is even harder. Of course there will be flubs, mistakes and issues to work through, but be true to yourself. Do what you know is right, even if that sets you back a little.

Alexi LAWLESS is the author of Complicated Creatures: Part One in a romantic suspense series. You can find out more about her at



Written by: selfpublish

Derek is a book cover designer finishing a PhD in Literature. These days he spends his time building tools and resources to help indie authors publish better on his blog, Read More


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