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The Curse of the Self Published Book Cover

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

I can usually tell if a book was self published just by looking at its cover. And that's not a good thing.

If I can tell it was self published, your audience can, too. At a glance, they can intuit that the manuscript you labored over for years was not promising enough for a publishing house to publish. They can guess you could not get a book agent on board.

They get all this from the cover.

Ugly book cover, My Life As A Cat

So where do these book cover designs come from, the ones that alert potential readers that maybe—just maybe—your story is not up to the standards of the big name publishers?

They come from authors who decided to design their covers themselves. Or from their friends, who have dabbled in graphic design and own the right software and offer to design for free.

"I know what I want on the cover" is every professional graphic designer's worst nightmare. Not because it's necessarily a bad idea, but because the author rarely thinks about what will attract the reader.

It's not about you (the author). It's about them (your potential audience).

I've seen well-meaning authors go through this many, many times in my role as in-house creative director at publishing houses, as well as in my freelance design business. It usually goes something like this:

"I'd like you to design my book cover, but I know exactly what I want on the cover. The book is about 'X', so I want a picture of 'X' on the cover. That way everyone will know what the book is about. I can even provide you with the image—my sister shot it. Then just slap a title on it and it's done."

Unfortunately, this method of coming up with a cover design is destined for failure. What is a cover design failure? Simple: It's an unimpressive cover.

Note that I did not say an unsuccessful or unprofitable cover. There are plenty of books with poorly designed covers that have sold well, but they are the exception. You cannot expect to be the exception.

The goal of your cover should be to get a potential reader to stop and look at it, and want to pick it up (or click the link). Not buy the book, just stop and look. Because once they pause to look more carefully, they are likely to read the back cover copy or digital info on the web page. And once they do that, you've got them hooked. But the first step is getting them to stop and look at your cover.

That interest is usually triggered by an automatic sense the cover was created by a professional. It's an established fact in the publishing industry that a book cover only has a few seconds to attract a viewer's attention before that customer is on to the next book.

This point is lost on many amateur book designers, and even professional ones. They think in terms of what they themselves think looks good. After all, how hard can it be to look at something and decide if it's good? We have eyes, we can see. We do this all the time subconsciously: we know what we like. The difference is, we don't usually take those opinions and publish a book based on them.

Publishers spend many hours debating the pros and cons of numerous cover choices before deciding on which one is most powerful and will likely sell well. Is your process anything like theirs?

Another factor complicates the desire to have a friend or relative design your cover: Cost. Why pay money when I can do it for free, or pay a friend $100 to do it?

I get it. I don't like paying for things if I don't have to, either.

But remember: Soon you will hold your book in your hands. It should be a moment of pure joy and excitement, the culmination of years of hard work, edits, rewrites, more rewrites, self doubt, and occasional confidence.

You will look at the cover. You will show it to friends and relatives and agents and gas station attendants and waiters. Once you've had a day or two or 20 to examine it, will you be impressed? Will they?

A professional designer puts him/herself into the audience's shoes. What dynamic image will attract the viewer? Which fonts? Colors? Textures? Spacing? Visual techniques? Be literal, or abstract, or nuanced? What to leave in? What to leave out?

A professional designer cares about your book.

I have years of book cover design experience, both adult and juvenile projects. My designs have appeared on numerous New York Times bestsellers and Amazon top seller lists. I've fought for my design choices with CEOs of major publishing houses, and gently explained my choices to my many individual clients.

My goal is always the same: I want my clients to react with happy surprise. "This is great! I NEVER would have thought to put that on the cover." Sometimes they even start crying.

Is your book cover ready for the New York Times bestseller list? With a professional book designer's help, it could be.

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