3 Ways Self-Publishers Fail at Cover Design

by | Feb 3, 2010

Ivan PetrovIt’s not a small thing to write a book, to actually complete the project. Maybe it’s a novel you’ve worked on for years, going through revision after revision to polish it to perfection. Or perhaps you’ve put together a book of lessons you’ve drawn from your life, or a detailed history of your hometown.

You’ve had to organize your thoughts and your writing, make sure the book is consistent. If you plan to sell your book in retail stores, you’ve probably hired an editor to fine-tune your manuscript. Now it’s time to send it into the world, and the first thing people will see is your book cover.

But for a lot of self-publishers, getting their book cover done presents serious challenges. I’ve organized these challenges into three different types. Let’s take a look and see where the problem lies.

3 Ways to the Wrong Cover

  1. The author takes it too personally.
  2. Is it a book, or is it your first-born? With some authors it’s difficult to tell. We want our children books to make a good impression, but the cover of the book is not actually part of the text at all. It is a wrapper that’s consumer-product packaging, advertising and market postioning all rolled into one.

    The cover of a book has several critical roles to play, but they usually don’t include being a representative of the author’s artistic ability, a way to crystallize his vision of the inner life of your characters, or a way to show his favorite colors. None of these elements, no matter how strongly they reflect the author’s style or beliefs, has anything to do with creating a cover that works well for your book in the marketplace.

  3. The author thinks the cover doesn’t matter that much.
  4. I’m guessing that this is the reason for many of the book covers I’ve seen on self-published books. If the author is following a gameplan, these covers look like something done so that a box could be checked off. “Okay, cover, got that done in 6 minutes with this snazzy book cover template thingy!”

    Many subsidy publishers have cover template creation software on their websites. While this approach can rescue the very worst covers from a bad fate, they inevitably end up looking like all the other covers churned out by the same machinery. In a market flooded with over 1000 new books a day, this is not a solution that will help your book.

  5. The author doesn’t understand her book’s genre.
  6. It’s funny how we develop ideas about how things should be. An author trolling the aisles at the local Border’s sees a best-selling book with an attractive cover. He thinks, “I’ll just make my cover like this, that will work.” But notice something: the book he’s looking at is a novel about the hi jinks nannies get up to in New York City. His book is about retirement communities in the Southwest.

    The author, caught up in a good looking book from a big publisher, has forgotten that the people who will buy his book have almost no overlap with the people who buy the nanny book.

Why We Go Wrong

In every one of these cases the aspiring publisher has made basically the same mistake. They forgot that the book cover is the responsibility of the book publisher.

What I mean to say is that becoming a self-publisher means making the transition from an author to a business person. It means that you have to become mentally agile, able to “switch hats” at a moment’s notice. The author is concerned with self-expression, style, voice, consistency.

The publisher is concerned with product development, marketing, making a profit. The publisher looks at the book cover as one of the chief selling tools she has in her arsenal, the face the book will display everywhere, on store shelves, in online listings, in book catalogs and book reviews.

Even the title of the book comes under examination by the publisher. Is it a title her market will understand? Will it communicate quickly and clearly the book’s unique selling proposition? Will blurbs on the cover help sell books?

How to Get It Right

We can get these decisions right if we remember which role we’re playing at any moment. When the writer hands the book’s packaging and production over to the publisher, she needs to let go. It’s the publisher’s responsibility to know the market, to know the other books in that market, and to understand how to position her book appropriately.

At this point the publisher may decide that the best business decision he can make for the ultimate profitability of his book is to call on a book designer and work in collaboration to design the book. But whatever decision he makes, if he keeps the roles of author and publisher separate, he’s more likely to make a good decision for his book.

Takeaway: When authors become self-publishers they need to step into a new, less personal role with the book they have nurtured. It’s in the best interests of the book’s profit potential for the key decisions to be made with its market in mind. Titles and covers are, essentially, marketing decisions.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. MM Justus

    What I need to know is where do you draw the line between the art being specific to the book, or the art being generic but fitting the genre?

    I am just balking at redoing my covers again (it’s a visceral thing that you would assign to me being too close to my books, and you’d be right, not that knowing why helps), but too many people have told me that my covers don’t fit my genre. I don’t have the talent (or the money to pay someone with that talent) to do what it would take to incorporate the specific art into covers that are also genre-appropriate, but the only other alternative seems to be to dump the specific art and go for genre-appropriate stock art that I can just crop and go (typefaces I’m fine with, but manipulating art is beyond me).

    It’s really frustrating to try to create covers without adequate resources, which I also suspect is why you see a lot of mediocre or worse covers.

  2. Wendy

    Hi Joel,
    I am an avid reader of your newsletter and just listened to a podcast interview with you. In your interview, one of the “don’ts” you mentioned was not to have a white background for your book cover. You didn’t offer your reasons for this. I paid attention to your comment specifically because I hope to release my book before the end of 2011 and the background is designed in white :-) I would love to hear your rationale for this before I decide to make any changes. Thanks so much Joel!

    • MM Justus

      I’m not Joel, but he’s said a lot of times that the problem with a white background is that it “bleeds” onto the white webpage and you can’t tell where the cover stops and the webpage starts. I don’t know what he thinks about putting a border on.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Exactly right, MM, and if you do use a white background, make sure that when you send out JPGs or other files for display online, you put a border around the cover.

  3. Mogo~Spok-Spok~Slogo

    I feel for authors who now must make THAT HOT ATTENTION GETTING COVER!!!….I hear hundreds of people say, “I’m gonna, or I am writing a book…ain’t none done nuttin’ yet!!!!!Those that do: write dumb unsalable stuff….OF the few real talented amateurs(?), who actually have a salable manuscript….NOW, they have to ARTISTICALLY BAIT THE HOOK!!!!few know anything about ART….Just cuz you can repair a Chevy; doesn’t mean you can race a Ferrari!!!!I’ve been a pro artist my whole life…………… I paint 1st, then add the manuscript to match….BACK-Ass-Wards….ILLUSTRATE FIRST, then start writing (hand lettered), then Word…….Even more “worserer”, I’m a classical musician and add music and lyrics(poetry) written just for the e-Pub(only)…

  4. Joel Friedlander

    Hi sarah,

    Even though I design books for people, I had the same problem with my own book, so you’ve got company. I’m glad I was able to help, and thanks for stopping by.

  5. sarah

    Thanks for this Joel. I have been agonizing over the cover of my to-be-published book; uniquely, because I am also a graphic designer, the publisher has agreed to let me design it myself.

    Your article was a big help in distancing myself from it somewhat and clarifying my task as less the expressive artist and trting to see it from the viewpoint of the publisher.



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