Looking for the Perfect Book Cover Design? The Crowd at 99designs.com Has You Covered

by | Sep 18, 2013

by Joe Conlan

Readers will have noticed that we often have entries in the monthly ebook cover design awards posts from the auction site 99designs.com. Some of these designs are outstanding, and I’ve wanted to bring you information on how their method of getting a cover design works.

(As a designer, I’m ambivalent about the way this site and others like it work, since in any competition, all the designers who submit concepts will lose out, except for the one who wins.)

To better understand how this process works, today I have a guest article from Joe Conlan, an indie author who used the site to get a cover for his book. In addition, I’ve arranged with Kyra Harrington, PR Coordinator for 99designs.com to show you the “final 5” designs Joe chose from, and to explain their process in more detail.

If you’ve been thinking about using 99designs.com or another auction, “crowdsourcing,” or competition site, you’ll find a lot to ponder. Here’s Joe’s article.

Book cover design is probably one of the more important marketing endeavors that an author must oversee when publishing a novel. I didn’t realize this until after the fact, but somehow managed to make the right decisions.

Being a first time author at the age of 50 with absolutely no experience in the publishing industry, I have to thank goodness for the internet. When Nameless had gone through its final edit and it became time to think about a book cover, I had absolutely no clue how to go about the process.

I had never heard of crowdsourcing before I clicked on the link for 99designs. It is an amazing concept and a great tool for authors, especially those who are self-publishing.

Imagine having 50 or more talented designers competing with each other to create your book cover and all that at a very reasonable and affordable price. Essentially, I ran a contest that occurred in stages. I was able to offer as much or as little guidance as I preferred—though, at a minimum, I had to provide a description of my work.

First Stage of Competition

The first round was open to any designers who wished to participate.  From the very beginning of the competition, there was an open dialogue between the designers and me.  The designers then resubmitted their proposals based on my feedback and recommendations.

After several days of submissions and resubmissions, the pool of designers was narrowed down to five. This was not one of my favorite parts of the competition. There were so many unbelievable designs I had to eliminate.

I was truly amazed as the first proposals came in and they only seemed to get better and better as the contest progressed. Picking just five was extremely difficult.

Stage Two of the Competition

In the second stage of the competition, the contestants tweaked their work based on more feedback. By the end of the round, I had five designs I would have been thrilled to choose for my book cover. 

I wanted them all. 

The designers were really that great. I ended up mailing a public poll to friends and family who could then choose their favorite of the finalists. I took more than a day to mull over all of the information and ultimately allowed myself to fall in love with the great design that now graces the cover of Nameless.

The entire contest occurred over a one week period. It was truly a great experience. I was constantly on the site, anxious to receive new submissions and having great conversations with the designers. 

There was really only one downside. There were many contestants that worked hard over several days to a week to create a book cover. Only one person was paid and the rest walked away with nothing. Certainly, everyone who participates knows the rules and is well aware of the great chance that they will not be paid.

I would compare it to an advertiser who develops a campaign only to lose out to his or her competitor. I also feel this type of crowdsourcing is a great opportunity for young, talented designers to get a foot in the door. It was just a personal issue with me. I don’t like disappointing people, especially when they are working hard to please me.

You Need Luck, Too

I’m not sure what makes a book successful on Amazon. Nor can I say that there are surefire ways to make your book sell. I have read that an author could write a masterpiece and still have difficulty getting readers to buy the book. Quality obviously has to mean something. 

However, there are other factors at play as well. I firmly believe that one of them is luck. It’s the same concept that makes a Youtube.com video or Facebook message go viral. There’s something that happens that none of us can pin down with any real accuracy.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the cover of a book can be one of those factors that creates an author’s luck. It definitely helped mine.

Final 5 Designs for “Nameless”

Ed: Here are the finalists for the cover design of Nameless. First is the winner, others are in no specific order.

This is the winning design, by designer Pintado.

Design by AJSB.

Design by Alcatraz90.

Design by Chameleonstudio74.

Design by Kristin Designs.

Explanation of the Process from 99designs.com’s Kyra Harrington

99designs is the world’s largest online graphic design marketplace, connecting businesses looking for design work with more than 240,000 graphic designers from 192 countries around the world.

“Our book cover design process is simple: writers or publishers complete a design brief template, pick a package (starting at $299), and launch a contest.

“Over the course of a week they receive dozens (if not 100+) of cover concepts from designers in our global community, give feedback, and ultimately choose their favorite design (which is often the toughest part of the process!). It’s fun, fast, affordable and a great way for authors to see numerous ideas and hone in exactly what they want to convey to prospective readers.

“99designs is focused on providing the best opportunities, experience and outcomes for the 245,000 designers active in our community. While not every designer can win every contest they enter, participating in contests is a great way for starting designers to build a portfolio, practice certain skills, design to a real brief and build connections while working with clients worldwide.

“Our platform allows for customers to select multiple winners at a discount price, and 40 to 50% of the contests result in follow-on work for designers.

“You can view our platform as a dating service where we connect businesses needing design work done with our talented community of designers. Even when their design isn’t the final winner, a connection is made and the door is wide open to work together on different projects in the future.”

cover designJoe Conlan was born in Nassau County, Long Island, New York. He has lived most of his life in Florida, the great majority in the Fort Lauderdale area.  He practiced law as a trial attorney for 15 years, 3 of which were spent as a prosecutor in the Broward County State Attorney’s Office. He now lives in Jacksonville, Florida. He has two grown children. When he is not writing, he enjoys reading, traveling and spending time with his family and two best friends who happen to be female Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

Artwork by Pintado. Amazon links contain my affiliate link. I have no relationship with 99designs.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Aninda Pramanik

    99design community is offering outstanding opportunities for the skilled only and therefore, there are so many complaints of not winning the contests. Note that, it is only for the skilled ones. So, whenever you think of 99design, make sure you are equipped with the most efficient command over the task you are applying for. Happiness is winning!

  2. Lincon

    Woooooo, very thrilling book cover designs. Very creative hands have done it this really clear. I don’t know about the books but it looks like kind of SAW move type. But definitely this is a rally nice piece of work. Which tools are used to made these covers, these are excellent work have been doe by you. These are really looks so professional, which can give a depth of a book. Really amazing and yeah thank you very much for sharing these designs with us.

  3. Rahul amin

    WoW!!! Very nice illustrated 2d work.I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.

  4. Jannatul

    The most appreciating thing about 99design is the opportunity that they are providing to the freelance designer through contest. And I am one of the contestant, though didn’t win the competition but my work got a recognition through that contest.

  5. jstamo

    99designs could raise the barrier to entry just a little by requiring that each artist must prove they legally own the software they are using to create the art they are submitting to the site. I’ll bet that would drop about 30% of the participants right there…….

  6. Antony

    Great article and great site. Thank you.

    I started out as a freelance graphic designer around seven years ago, and around two, or so, years I’ve began designing books and covers. I actually stumbled across 99 Designs at the weekend and I started entering entering competitions for a slightly different reason.

    I work from home, on my own and despite it’s perks it isn’t always the best environment for being creative. I’m sure there are other designers out there who thrive in this environment, but I sometimes find it stagnating. I miss the atmosphere, banter and feedback of working in a studio alongside like minded folk. I also miss that friendly, yet competitive spirit of pitting myself against other designers in the office.

    I’m using 99 Designs to help me push myself beyond my comfort zone and make me stretch my creativity. Whilst I do have regular freelance work, a lot of it can be very corporate and sometimes uninspiring. However, the work I’ve been doing on 99 Designs is much more challenging and the cut-throat, pressurised environment seems to bring out the best of my creative abilities.

    There’s no room for complacency and I’ve always striving to produce better and stronger designs. I know there’s a good chance I won’t get paid for a lot of the work that I do on there, but if it makes me a better designer then I’m happy.

    It’s not the same as working in a studio, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do find it’s having a positive effect on my ability to be creative. Within five days I’ve managed to surprise myself with the ideas I’ve generated and I’m lucky enough to have been shortlisted three times. Who knows I may even win a couple of things?

  7. C. Wagner

    I’m not sure many people are aware that depending on the fee, as little as 50% of the award and sometimes even less, goes to the designer. 99Designs keeps a very large portion.

  8. Jeff Bach

    Damon that is a great story! Glad to read of your success! Great bunch of covers on your home page! Sorry for all the exclamation points!

    I think you hit the nail on the head wrt designers having a hard time with finding clients. Other than the route you have taken, imo finding a client boils down to talking, selling, sales…all the traditional stuff that a business has had since day one. Probably safe to say that the outward facing necessity of sales does not mesh well with design. So here we all are. Most of us anyway….congrats on your success!
    Jeff Bach

  9. Damon Za

    I’m a specialist cover designer. I get paid very well for the work I do. I make enough from designing covers to own my own home, drive a luxury car, send my kids to private schools and travel overseas frequently.

    However, 2 years ago, I was struggling financially, in serious debt and about to declare bankruptcy. I happened to stumble upon 99Designs, and slowly, slowly, I clawed my way out of debt. I entered started entering competitions, and won a few – in all forms of design, but my “win-rate” was higher with book covers. Within a few months, I knew that out of every 4 or 5 contests I entered, I could win one or two of them. After a while, I joined Elance as a book cover designer, and now, because of my entries on 99Designs, I had quite a big portfolio of cover designs that I could put forward for jobs on Elance. Gradually, I stopped the “competitive design” on 99Designs, and focused entirely on Elance, and eventually started my own book cover design website, which now brings in 60-70 covers per month.

    I feel like it’s a great success story, and it started with 99Designs. One of the problems that MANY designers have, is finding clients. 99Designs allows a designer to sell themselves through their design work, not through clever marketing or sales copy. It’s a great platform for new designers to “get going” or just to find inspiration, or perhaps do something that’s different to their normal day job.

    Something else I also enjoyed on 99Designs, that I miss nowadays, is the “Gambler’s Rush”, that feeling when your design gets picked as the winner. That can be pretty addictive.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Damon, thanks so much for weighing in here, and for telling your story. A great outcome, and I’m not surprised, because your skill at designing book covers is outstanding. (Readers: Damon is a multiple winner in our monthly ebook cover design award contest.)

      In fact, I’m giving a presentation on book covers this weekend, and some of my best examples of the “right” way to do it are from your studio.

  10. Jeff Bach

    One other issue that comes to mind for me is the likelihood of a designer marketing specifically for authors and cover design. I’ll bet most designers have very little on their website that makes it easy for a book author to find them. Are most designers really even looking for a 400.00ish one-off project with numerous iterations and lots of client uncertainty? Are most designers going to go through the cost and effort of acquiring that client? I’ll bet most legit designers are putting their efforts into bigger and more “traditional” consumers of design services.

    So a 99designs pops up offering an easy to find service for the uncertain unknowing, nervous book author, that is mostly optimized for a one-off client. Little in the way of relationship prior to the project, no effort on the part of the designer and not so much effort on the part of the client either. No need or expectation to be local.

    I wonder how many people on this thread have explicit specific marketing materials dedicated to discovering book authors in need of cover design?

    How many designers are willing to put in the time to form the relationship and really get to know the client ideas efforts, etc., if the end result is a small paycheck with little likelihood of repeat business?

    In that light, I see 99designs as being a fairly reasonable choice that fills a gap in the marketplace.

  11. Jeff Bach

    Welcome to disruptive technology, at least to some extent. The world used to be flat and full of ad agencies. And then the littler guy came along and did work cheaper than those big old agencies. And then the angst filled artiste with a beret came along with a Macbook Pro and a latté and spent his day in a coffee shop rent free, using free internet and did work even cheaper. And then the same little guy in Pakistan came along and could do it even cheaper than our angst filled artiste. Producing commodity work is based on need more than want and as such it is very price sensitive.

    99designs and its ilk are just one more symptom of art’s commodity status. Don’t look for it to get any better. Capitalism is destructive and relentlessly innovative. This 99designs-type of business model is nothing more than someone recognizing an opportunity and filling it with their own innovation and twist on the marketplace. Can you fault someone for seeing a gap and exploiting it? Who among us would not do the same thing?

    99designs could raise the barrier to entry just a little by requiring that each artist must prove they legally own the software they are using to create the art they are submitting to the site. I’ll bet that would drop about 30% of the participants right there…….

    • Greg Strandberg

      Good point. I couldn’t help but think of the big publishing houses when I read these comments. I’m sure they were pulling their hair out when they were undercut, just as designers are doing now.

      This is the free market at work, as well as globalization. I lived in China for 5 years, and that was a more capitalist country than the US. Money, money, money! You simply can’t compete with an attitude that will always go $1 under your price, all the way to $0 if need be.

      I get lots of people in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and other countries to make covers for me; I can’t afford $299 for a cover!

    • Abby Hoke

      Yikes! The first commenter states “I only enter the contests that interest me, so it never feels like work… I can’t really speak for the graphic design industry because I wasn’t ever employed by it.” Hmm, I wouldn’t like for something to feel like work that I don’t get paid for either. And the gal clearly states – she’s never worked in the industry. Then the others who are enjoying their experience with the site are from Serbia, Croatia and Syria… The cost of living in these countries is significantly different than where I live (US).

      So, as long as people who pay for these designs don’t mind working with people who are non-professionals, where the designers are not able to find out much about what they would like to communicate with their design (how their design is going to be distributed/their audience) or if they would like to work with someone who may not know their native language – yeah, “they got ya covered”.

      This site https://www.nospec.com/faq has some great articles on spec work and why it is viewed in a negative light.

      • Liana Mir

        “she’s never worked in the industry”

        Please quote her correctly. She’s never been employed by it. For her to be paid for graphic design work means that she’s working in the industry, but not as an employee.

  12. Abby Hoke

    Sites like 99designs essentially have designers working for free. These “contests” devalue the industry as a whole. In my opinion I believe the people who contribute to these sites are either starving themselves or too naive to value their own work. It is very disappointing to see a designer promote this. I have lost clients to such sites. Honestly I would rather not do business with someone who does not value my craft or my time.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Abby, thanks for your comment. I published this article to promote discussion about a phenomenon that’s having a huge influence on the industry, not to “promote” one way of doing things over another. Part of the reason these sites are popular is because there are so many more people than ever before—and I’m talking about end users, not companies—contracting for these kinds of services. This, to my mind is a reflection of the incredible entrepreneurial energies that have been unleashed by digitization, web access, self-publishing and other developments. In this environment, it’s more important than ever for designers to be clear, and to clearly communicate, the value they bring to this process. And I completely agree that “I would rather not do business with someone who does not value my craft or my time,” and have practiced that for many years.

      • Tracy Atkins

        It’s a shame they don’t increase the price slightly and pay the top 4 “runner ups” $25 for their entry and time. Might separate the wheat from the chaff a little, and bring in a few more people that need paid for their time.

  13. Inez

    To end my point. We have choices. We can choose to hire at home or outsource abroad. We are a competitive society and should stand for competition, free will and choice.

  14. Joel Friedlander

    I’m not surprised this post has raised a lot of issues, and that’s one of the chief reasons I wanted to run it, and why I asked 99designs.com to specifically comment on their methodology and its effect on designers.

    However, it’s also true that 99designs.com has become a resource for thousands of businesses and individuals looking for graphic design services, so there’s no use pretending it doesn’t exist. And the fact that so many designers participate in the auctions there leads me to believe they find it an acceptable method for promoting themselves, building a portfolio, and getting work.

    One thing that’s obvious, but never stated, is that the majority of designers you’ll find on the site are people who are willing to spend their time doing spec work. Busy, successful professionals are unlikely to participate. Keep that in mind when thinking about your own projects.

    Some of the comments are right on, but others gloss over the reality of creative work. Sure, architects don’t build buildings on spec, but the presentations they do are incredibly detailed, time-consuming and expensive to produce. Likewise with advertising agencies and others.

    I think it’s important to realize that a lot of people have had positive outcomes from running competitions on 99designs.com and other sites like it, and I doubt they will be going away anytime soon.

    As a minor addition, I don’t consider these “crowdsourcing” sites, because the end result is not a result of the input of many people (the crowd). If you post 5 covers, as Joe Conlon did, and request feedback from readers, you can say your decision was crowdsourced, since many people’s input went into the decision. That’s simply not the case with competitions like these.

    • Brian

      Quote: “However, it’s also true that 99designs.com has become a resource for thousands of businesses and individuals looking for graphic design services, so there’s no use pretending it doesn’t exist. And the fact that so many designers participate in the auctions there leads me to believe they find it an acceptable method for promoting themselves, building a portfolio, and getting work.”

      Yes, I will agree that we can’t pretend that such sites exist. However, the state of our economy has forced many with great talent into working on sites like these at 1/20th their typical payrate. Simply put, 99designs and the like, take advantage of starving artists. I would never have thought a well known designer like yourself would be on the other side of the fence. It must have been too long since you were in the financial position that many artists find themselves in right now. I am extremely disappointed and I want to also point out that the AIGA has made it’s position on the subject of crowdsourcing quite clear. They “DO NOT” support it. Please stop degrading our craft by saying it’s acceptable for designers to spend hours working only to receive no compensation.

      • Joel Friedlander

        There are many issues involved here, and I’m happy to discuss them, but as a matter of policy I don’t respond to anonymous, ad hominen attacks, sorry.

    • Rob Siders

      “Sure, architects don’t build buildings on spec, but the presentations they do are incredibly detailed, time-consuming and expensive to produce. Likewise with advertising agencies and others.”

      Presentations that professional firms put together to try to win business—while detailed, expensive and time consuming sales tools—still are not the finished product that the client will eventually receive nor do they represent the breadth and depth of work—from soup to nuts—that will go into what’s delivered upon completion. To equate the sales process with design contests, where the competitors are producing finished (or near-finished) designs, is inaccurate.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Well, Rob, that’s because I see these competitions as basically another form of “sales process.”

  15. Inez

    I respect all opinions, and those here are just that.
    Great diversity.

  16. Inez

    In the real word there is always the element of competition. Large projects are bid on and who present the best offer or in this case art work to the client wins the deal. Young newcomers and talented graphic designers and artists need a start, what best but to bid on a nice website or book cover? I find 99designs a great platform for artists to showcase their talent. I own my own business and bid on projects. I win some and lose some, it’s the nature of the business. Lol.

    • Robert Siders

      “Large projects are bid on and who present the best offer or in this case art work to the client wins the deal.”

      Everything before the word “or” is aboveboard. But competing for a job shouldn’t require you to do the work in advance, and that’s what 99designs does. When architecture firms bid and compete for projects, they don’t construct the buildings first and hope they get hired. When freelance editors bid and compete for projects, they don’t edit the manuscript and hope they get paid. House painters, plumbers, carpet layers, the list goes on, all bid and compete for projects without having to do the work first. Why does anyone, then, think that design professionals should be treated with any less respect?

      There are lots of places designers—even ones staring out—can showcase their work that do not involve contests or working on spec.

  17. Linda Bonney Olin

    Verry interesting, as Arte Johnson used to say. :)

    It would be nice all around if the non-winning designs were posted so other authors could swoop in and buy a great non-winner for a discounted price. Kind of like Joel offers his unchosen interior designs to other buyers for less than the design-from-scratch service.

    I understand they can be added to the designer’s portfolio, but how do cover shoppers find the portfolio? Without having seen Chameleonstudio74’s great design here, for example, what would prompt me to look for him and his portfolio?

    Does the site retain any claim on work produced in connection with it? Or can the designers sell their non-winning designs elsewhere without paying the site?

    • Ian

      Lol, I did that too, my favorite out of the five!

  18. Robert Siders

    99designs is not good for artists, as they must compete for client engagement by doing up-front work for a project based solely on a simple problem statement. Design is more than this. It’s a collaboration between artist and client to solve a problem. This requires research and discussion to develop a deeper understanding of the client’s objectives. A fair fee for the work should be properly negotiated, agreed upon and contracted.

    What 99designs does is disguise speculative work—contests, really—as competition for client engagement. Take away the disguise and it’s still spec work. In all honesty, I’m surprised that there’s a post about 99designs here.

    Design professionals are, well, professionals and should be treated as such. In what other circumstance would someone ask potential vendors to perform work up front before deciding to pay for what they use? None that I know of.

  19. Katie Cross

    My friend mentioned this website before, but didn’t explain how it worked. I’m glad I ran into this article because that sounds like an amazing system. I’d love to get all that input and all those different ideas. People as a whole are geniuses. Ignorant, but geniuses all the same :)

  20. David Ivory

    As a designer (an Architect in my case) I get very upset with this sort of thing. You do not buy a design you hire a designer. A designer will tailor the work to you for you and you pay them for the whole process from concept to production.

    The name 99designs is telling… 98 designers get paid nothing. Designing for free is exploitation pure and simple.

    Try these resources to see what is possible in the world of design: –

    https://www.cgsociety.org – computer graphics that will blow your mind
    https://www.deviantart.com – traditional and computer portfolio site
    https://ilovetypography.com – open your eyes to the world of type and fonts… and check out the sidebar for a lot more type sites. Many of the type designers do layouts as well.
    https://bookcoverarchive.com – wow – just wow. Great covers from the past.

    It’s really not hard to find a designer for your book cover – many of the sites above have links to the designer’s own portfolio sites.

    But I urge you to think this – Would you really write a book in competition for no money knowing that if you lost the competition the word file would be erased, the book burnt and you’d never be able to put your name to those unique ideas again?

    That’s what 99designs and their ilk are about.

    Have some solidarity with your fellow creatives. Hire a designer – and you could do worse than try Elance.


    99? – how about 3908 Designers!

    • Elizabeth Sheehan

      You said it beautifully. One would think that writers or authors would be more sensitive to other creatives. Design is a business yes, but also a craft. I read a very good article written by a lawyer addressing this issue. He posed the question: if you needed a lawyer to write a will, would you crowd source that out to hundreds of lawyers?
      Then only pay the one you liked best? Probably not.
      Yes, there has always been competition when you put in a bid against fellow designers, but BEFORE you do the work.

      • Greg Strandberg

        I wouldn’t have so many qualms if we were talking about lawyers. This might be a good thing for their profession, not to mention consumers!

  21. Inez

    I’ve spoken to a graphic artist and illustrator instructor at an art school about 99designs for his top students and this instructor dismissed it saying it didn’t help artists but exploit them. I disagree. It gives artists a venue to showcase their best and learn to be competitive in the real world. I’m thinking of using 99design services in the near future.

  22. Greg Strandberg

    That’s also something I’ve found with these competitions: I really feel bad for all the designers that don’t get chosen. I wonder if it makes some of them bitter after awhile and they stop putting entries out as much, perhaps even give up. I guess that’s one way to thin the pack.



  1. Monday Must-Reads [09/23/13] - YESENIA VARGAS - […] Looking for the perfect design? The crowd has got you covered by Joe Conlon — The Book Designer […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *