Previous posts in this series can be found here, including a two-parter on hiring an editor.
Okay, so you’re ready to hire a cover artist. This is going to seem a little simpler because, unlike an editor, an artist is going to have a bunch of samples of their work available in their portfolio and you can clearly see if they have any skill or not. But there are even more people out there setting up shop as artists than there are editors, which makes it a big pool to start wading in.
First, some advice:
1. Hire an artist. Yes, even if you have an art background.
Here’s the thing: yes, you may have a fine arts background. That’s great. But that is not the same as having a good eye for cover art. There are loads of considerations with a cover that you don’t have with sketches and paintings. What makes a good painting wouldn’t necessarily make a good cover. Unless you’ve worked in graphic design and publishing, your fine arts training won’t do you much good. I have seen damn fine artists try to design their own covers and they are fucking terrible at it–illegible text, poor title placement, busy images with no focus.
Further, just like when writing, you are too close to the work. You will get hung up on all the specifics and finding something to represent your story exactly and not be distanced enough to make decisions about the marketability of your cover.*
2. Fuck pre-mades–get custom work.
If you’re new to this, you might not be familiar with pre-made cover art. It’s something a lot of artists do now: they offer a bunch of covers already designed for a lower cost that they will customize the titles for. This benefits the artist as the work is already done and they won’t be doing endless revisions, and benefits the author because it’s typically cheaper than custom covers. And yes, I offer this option as well.
I have noticed, over the past year, a huge increase in people looking for pre-made covers and bitching when they can’t find an exact one for their stories. I have also found that about 95% of my “problem children” clients are ones who bought pre-mades (that does not mean all people who buy pre-mades are problem children–only about half are–but it’s like how not all rectangles are squares but all squares are rectangles, you dig me?). Authors want a cheap cover that fits their story exactly, they bounce from artist to artist, and they are inevitably more demanding of the artist’s time for less money.
Don’t be that person, folks.
Artists create pre-mades in the hopes of a. some extra money now and then in between custom work, and b. to further our portfolios. And I get that saving money is an attractive option for you, the writer. But really consider if your cover is worth settling for something not-quite-perfect just to save a few bucks.
And if you’re writing a series, get your custom cover. You might find a pre-made you like, but it might not lend itself well to a series, and your artist’s hands are going to be tied in the future (it is helpful for the artist to know something is a series; if I know you need a blonde heroine for five books, I’ll ensure I pick a model with a lot of stock photos). I know it’s more money, and that you have a budget, but this is one of those areas you don’t want to skimp on. Pre-mades are great for, say, standalone books (esp something like m/f or m/m romance, where any hot shirtless dude might be what you’re looking for) or shorts/novellas–little things you aren’t going to make a lot on that you don’t want to invest huge money in. But your novels (especially series) are worth the investment. Further, much like finding the right editor, finding the right cover artist for your self-publishing journey is gold. You want to surround yourself with people who you can trust with your work, as it will take out a lot of the stress along the way. You can’t do that if you’re bouncing around buying pre-mades all the time.
3. Hire your artist EARLY.
I have had potential clients come to me a week before their book is due to be released and say, “Here’s what I want–what do you think?”
AHAHAHA. I smile sweetly and inform them of my rush charge, and never hear from them again.
You’re going to be spending a few months on editing, right? Give your artist a few months to work as well. If you’ve known for months if not YEARS that you’re going to be releasing this book, there is no reason to wait until release to hire the artist. This allows time for revisions, and also so that your artist doesn’t kill you, which would suck for your readers.
4. Avoid Design By Committee
It is normal to want to run a cover draft by your trusted friends and family. The problem with this is that you are going to have several different people telling you several different things about the cover, and if you bring this feedback to your artist afterward, it is going to make things very hard on them. The absolutely worst experiences I ever had in publishing (at least in terms of cover art) would be when four or more people were discussing the direction of a cover.
The more people you involve, the less is going to get done. Have trusted, experienced people give you feedback if you must, but limit who sees your cover before it’s done and try not to give your artist fifteen different directions for the work.
Next, Q&A style!
How much will it cost?
This is going to vary widely. Some work as low as $75, some as high as $500 for an ebook cover. If your artist uses stock photos, this will probably be around $100 – $200 with a cap on the number of revisions they’ll do. If your artist has no cap on revisions, that price will be MUCH higher. Likewise, if this is a digital artist painting or doing custom cover shoots, again, that cost is gonna be a lot higher.
Depending on genre and your experience publishing, you’re going to have different considerations. A fantasy author might want to invest in custom painting, whereas a romance writer would be happy with stock photos. If it’s your first book, it might be a good idea to keep a lower budget; if it’s your tenth and you sell well, you might want to go for something custom.
Most artists list their fees (including the breakdown of when money is due) on their websites. This is a competitive business and transparency is valuable.
I’d be wary of anyone charging much lower than, say, $75 – $100 for a custom ebook cover. First, there is the cost of stock, and second, the artist’s time is involved. Someone charging low is either not spending much time on it or they’re cutting costs SOMEWHERE. For example, a couple of years ago I ran into someone charging $40 a cover; besides the fact that they were poorly put together, they used copyrighted images (I distinctly remember one using the Prince of Persia: Warrior Within box art). Stock photos have licenses for use and are copyright just like our books are–you want an artist who respect that and gets their photos legally.
How can I stay under budget if they offer a range of prices?
Some artists offer flat fees (usually on the higher end). Others (like me) offer a range. The range is because some covers are simple and others will take a lot of work and/or revision. I am not going to charge the person who wants a simple, single stock photo erotica cover the same as someone who sends me back to the drawing board half a dozen times.
First, discuss your budget with your artist. They will understand and respect that if you tell them ahead of time.
Second, understand that revisions cost time and time costs money. This is not to say that you should accept something you’re unhappy with, but that it pays to be clear ahead of time about what you’re looking for. For example, despite having a detailed cover art questionnaire, I once only discovered after the first draft that what the author called “urban fantasy” was actually epic historical fantasy. Other times, I’ve discovered after two or three drafts that the main character looked completely different from how she was described in my form. I try to keep my prices low but if revisions are the author’s fault for not being clear or failing to give me important information (as opposed to me making a mistake), they get charged for it because this is business and not charity.
How do I find someone? How do I know if their work sucks?
Portfolios! Everyone has one. Even if they’re a brand new artist with few clients, they will usually have a sample covers up.
Talk to other writers and visit forums and resource pages for self-publishers. You’ll want to look at what genres they have experience in. I used to work as an art director and some artists are just naturally inclined towards certain types of covers. Sometimes they might only have, say, romance covers because that’s a huge market, but it might also be because those covers are where their skills lie and they might not be the best choice for science fiction.
It’s also a good idea to look at the self-published books you read and see who those artists are.
If you don’t have a good eye for art, ask yourself these questions: is the titling easy to read? Look up some of the artist’s covers on ebook stores. Check the thumbnail (small version of the cover). Even if you can’t read ever single little thing, it should be fairly clear instead of a jumbled mess. Next, does the titling fit the genre? Fancy script fonts are pretty but don’t work with every genre and are often difficult to read. Also, if the artist uses four or five different fonts on one cover, that’s a bad sign. The text should also be easy to read, not smooshed too close together and something that stands out without a lot of gradients. Third, does the colour scheme come together? Is there cohesion? This is a complicated thing I don’t have space for here, but a cover should have an overall tone that fits together, especially when it’s made up of several images; you shouldn’t be able to tell it’s a bunch of images spliced together.
How much control do I really have?
Lots! Most artists will offer you some kind of form/questionnaire and talk to you about what you’re looking for. They want you to be happy while still producing something they are proud of as well. As with editing, this is a partnership.
The thing you have to keep in mind is that the author doesn’t always know what makes a good cover. Sometimes you have to make certain sacrifices or accept there are limitations on what the artist can do. If you want something and the artist says they can’t do it or it might not be a good idea, listen to what they’re saying. They WANT you to have a nice cover that sells well because it will reflect well on them too.
What about sizes/resolutions and stuff? What size cover do I need?
Are you putting the book out in ebook? You need a front cover only. The resolution will probably be 1800 x 2700 px (or 6×9 in), 300 dpi. That’s the largest size and is accepted by a lot of ebook sellers. Some artists will size that down for other sellers too, others will leave that up to you.
If you’re putting out a print book as well, talk to your artist. Different printers have different requirements, and whether the print book is sized 6×9 or 5×8 will change things. If you’re hiring your artist to do the full wrap, she’ll need your final page count.
So those are the basic considerations. If you’d like to read more, I have a post on the subject here.
Coming soon: posts on picking a printer and deciding on ebook distributors.
*Hey, I’m a hypocrite, because I design my own covers, right? Maybe, but I also worked in publishing for several years and I do work for clients privately now, so I have more objectivity than I did back when I was new and inexperienced.