A Book by Its Cover: Advice for the Self-Published

Two Covers

If your work is to be produced by a trade publisher, the cover will be entirely out of your hands. This can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing: good, because it is by no means easy to design and produce a good cover; bad, because you may get stuck with a bad one. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway notes how he felt that the original cover to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was awful, looking like something designed for a cheap sci-fi potboiler–and later mentions Scott’s complaints that the book wasn’t selling well. Fitzgerald was a popular and successful author at the time.

As a self-published author you have an entirely different worry: there’s no one to blame it on but yourself if your cover is terrible and holds back sales of the book. Because, let’s face it, despite the ancient maxim that “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” most people do just that. The veracity of the maxim shall remain unchallenged; however, people will persist in behavior that flouts its wisdom.We have all read great books with bad covers, and vice versa. But good covers do sell books.

So what should you do?

The sad answer is, spend money. And not just on a cover design. Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, and have access to experienced book design professionals who either owe you a favor or whom you have dirt on, you will have to pay for:

  • Editing. You must employ the services of a trained professional editor, one who does not lover you. More on this in my earlier article, “Get Thee to an Editor.”
  • Proofreading. Editors are not always the best proofreaders; their attention is focused on story and sentence structure. A practiced proofreader is pretty important. Goofs and typos should have no place in your story.
  • The cover. As we mentioned above, the cover is of paramount importance in selling your book.

Your cover must be:

  1. Eye-catching. This is obvious.
  2. Pertinent. It should refer to the actual story, though. oddly and sadly, this is not quite so important. The story (if you’ve done your job) will tell itself.
  3. Versatile. With so many book sales taking place online these days, it is vital that your cover look good at thumbnail size. (I speak from experience here, I am sorry to say.)
  4. Technically correct. It should be compatible with the printing process of your self-publishing company. (I used a relative who has cover design experience, but we discovered that images that looked good in Photoshop and could be printed beautifully on magazine cover stock would lose so much contrast on the stock my publisher uses that they became bland.)

Once all this is done, and the book produced, you can begin marketing it. Again, look for–and pay for–professional help. It’s a noisy world out there. You must be sure you are heard. But that’s a topic for another post, somewhere down the line.

You will see two versions of the cover for my first novel, The Dust Will Answer, above. One done in-house, one done by a designer (thanks to a free cover design won in a contest). In (somewhat limited) testing, the designer’s cover did receive considerably more clicks. Which one do you like? (Dark or light? The light cover is by Mark Thomas of coverness.com; the dark one by Crow Tree’s G. S. Morey.) Let me know in a comment.


Rick Risemberg