The Ups, Downs, and Arounds of Working with a Cover Designer

Over the course of my career, I've worked with several designers. I started with Chris Howard, who did the artwork for The Eye of God, Royal Slaves (TBD,) Inquisitor, Winter Wolf, The City of Clocks (TBD,) Storm Without End, Storm Surge, and The Tides of War (TBD.) Working with someone who does custom artwork, such as Chris Howard does, is a much different process than hiring a designer to manipulate images into the cover.

In some ways, it's the same.

It's been a long time since I've been able to showcase any Chris Howard art, but here is the future The Tides of War cover.

I've discussed cover art before. I'll inevitably discuss it again. I'm discussing it now, because the publishing world has changed–and will continue to change. Every day, new books are being sold on the market. Some of these books are excellent. Some of these books are terrible. Some of these books have great marketing plans. Others have no plans. Some fail. Some succeed. The spectrum is huge.

But here's the one fact you can't escape: the cover is often the first thing new readers see when purchasing a book. Yes, we're told to avoid judging a book by its cover, but let's face it. We judge books by their covers.

The covers don't need to be perfect. They do need to be professional. You do need a properly licensed image. The penalty for failing to legally license the image for your books is somewhere around $150,000 per image in violation. Depending on the circumstance, you might even lose all royalties that book ever made. However much I wish it weren't so, that's the fine, and you pay it, not your designer. If your designer i guilty of fraudulent use of images, you're the one who is charged with the illegal usage. If you want to get your money back from the fines, you'll then have to take the designer to court.

So, the first thing to do is make sure your cover designer has the appropriate licenses. For this reason alone, I prefer to get custom artwork from someone, like Chris Howard, or make certain my designer has the licenses. It's a pretty simple process. Ask them for a copy of the licenses/proof they have the licenses. My designers use shutterstock or deposit photo, so it's very easy to prove the licensing.

Fun fact: you can be held liable if you use someone's face and you don't have a model release for that individual.

Don't ask about what happens if you use someone else's brand or trademark. Not good.

So, protect yourself. Do NOT use sites like fivrr to get a cover design. A lot of ‘designers' steal other designs from people. It's happened to friends. I'm pretty sure it's happened to me, too, but my designer(s) tend to be vigilant about protecting their work, so I try not to think too much about it. Be careful on deviant art, as well–unless you can 100% verify the art is done by the artist… use caution.

Like everything else in this business, vet your designer. Go to other authors, find out who has done work for them. Look around at Amazon, see if you can find out who did some of your favorite covers. It's also important to understand what you're getting into. Every artist works in a different way, so someone can make fantastic covers… and still not work well with you.

Yeah, that can be a problem.

I've had some fantastic luck with my covers. I (somehow) figure out how to express the sort of thing I want on a cover, and my artists turn my gibberish into something useful. I've had some bad luck with covers, too–covers that were absolute garbage but were all I had at the time because money wasn't my friend.

So, how can you get a good book cover? There are a lot of factors in what makes a good cover, but I'm going to try to condense it to the basics.

Hire Someone Who Creates Covers You Like

I can't repeat this one enough. If you don't hire a designer who creates covers you like, they aren't going to create a cover you're going to like for your book. Get references. Ask your author friends for recommendations, especially if you love their covers. Most of all, learn what type of covers you love that also sell books.

This is where you'll spend a lot of time trolling Amazon. Marketing, covers, and descriptions sell books before the samples are even read. The cover exists to catch the eye. It also sets the tone for your book.

Before you approach an artist, have a list of covers you like. When you open the discussion with the artist, tell them why you like these covers and, most importantly, why you think these covers match your book. You want to echo off a selling style without being a copy cat. You want to find something that appeals to you, and you want an artist who can make you stand out in the crowd. Branding is important, because you want readers to be able to identify your books at a glance.

That's hard.

Honestly, you're probably going to have to rebrand a few times as you find something that works for you. Covers can be changed, so that's something.

Hire Someone Who Polishes Their Covers

Polish makes or breaks covers. There are a lot of things that make a cover look polished, but I'm going to toss out a quick list of things to look out for to help you know when a cover still needs more work.


Lighting makes or breaks a cover. If you have magic swirling in the background and lighting shining on the character's face, your cover isn't going to look balanced. Lighting makes or breaks a cover, and lighting adjustments transform an unfinished cover into a polished masterpiece.

Lighting is one of the basic tenants of art. Shadows and highlights are determined by light sources. When your artist works on a cover, they should be adapting the lighting to match.

If you have a light in the back, the character should have the associated back glow and shadows. If there are multiple sources of light, it should show.

I'm going to show a lighting trick one of my new artists, Jennifer L Weil, uses in her art. By introducing a magical glowing orb of light and swirls, she was able to use the natural light on the models to add a polished look to the cover.

That also leads me to the next point.


Colors catch the eye, and the use of contrasting colors, it's possible to control where the eye first looks.

Jennifer used gold as a warm tone and purples and blues for the cool tones, forcing the eye to focus on three spots in the cover: my name, the title, and the woman's face and hand. These three focal points are what I want readers to notice. The cover and magic swirls set the tone for urban fantasy and paranormal romance.

The bright yellow adds a hint of fun to the cover.

Together, there's a flow to the cover, one that says, “This book is going to be fun.”

Which is what I needed in a cover in a hurry.

(Oh, hey. Did I mention I forgot about a novella I'm releasing this year? Yeah. I did that. Jennifer was a super star, able to do an quick cover design for me.) The story this cover is about? Coming soon. When? Soon. How soon?

Yeeah, soon. Promise. Ahem.

Anyway, color and lighting both play critical roles. They set the tone. They draw the eye. They control how the eye flows over the cover.

There's a lot to watch out for.

Melding of Elements

Color and lighting may be critical finishing touches, but every element in the cover needs to meld, too. Everything needs to feel like it belongs together. Images like the one used in Hearth, Home, and Havoc are actually composites of several images overlaid on top of each other, and the designers job is to make it look like it was one original image from the beginning.

Nothing should ever look random. Random can work–in the right genre.

It's not common, though. There's a reason for that. Random and professional don't usually go hand in hand.

Hire Someone Who Can Build Your Brand

Brand is a dirty world, I know. But it's important. It's what helps link your works. There are so many different ways to handle branding. I use several brands and brand methods.

In my RJ Blain books, I separate by series. The Witch & Wolf books have one type of basic brand. The Magical Romantic Comedies have a basic type of brand. The Requiem books have a different brand.

These brands have similar elements, usually in how my author name is presented.

In my Susan Copperfield books, the author name is always at the top. I use several brands within it; the tone and brand matches the type of book I'm writing. Books with a stronger focus on the romance has a flowery feel. Ones with more action and adventure or suspense have more of a UF feel to it.

I'm less concerned with brand in the Susan Copperfield books, as I want to have the flexibility to set the tone and scene for each and every cover. I've used four different cover artists for the Susan Copperfield books, too, and each one allows me to accomplish a different feel with the covers. Combined, it covers a wide spread of the Urban Fantasy / Paranormal genre–which is exactly what I wanted for that series of books.

At the end of the day, you need to know what you want, and you need an artist who can give you what you want.

Above all, you need to be able to let your artist do their job. They're the designer with the skills. Let them do their job. Approach them with an idea.

Let them turn the idea into a reality. That reality may not be exactly what you envisioned, but a good designer's job is to create a book cover that will help you sell books, not satisfy your personal sense of art.

Those are two totally different things.

The Costs of Art

I have worked with a broad spectrum of cover designers. The costs can range from barely south of $1000 to not even $100. I have used a collection of premades, acquired between $100-250, and I've hired a great deal of custom work, some of which was very, very expensive.

I don't use the most expensive designers.

I don't use the cheapest designers.

I know some designers who charge upwards of $3,000 for photo manipulation work. It can be months to get a custom piece of art–and that doesn't necessarily include the typography.

Here, the world is your oyster, but I've found that you can get some damned good bang for your buck at the $200 premade line. I'm rarely impressed with art that costs below $100. Most don't seem polished to me, so I avoid them. If you find the perfect premade, buy it.

They'll be cheaper than custom, and often, they're really just as good. Premade isn't a bad word.

Bad art is the only bad word–and don't settle for bad because it's cheap. Keep your eyes peeled, watch the talented artists, and look for sales. Sometimes, talented artists will unload premades cheap so they can clean out stock and do more premades.

You don't have to spend a huge amount of money, but you should be willing to pay–because free doesn't mean free. It can mean dangerous, because you need a commercial license for book covers. So, avoid free–and honestly, I'd avoid cheap, too.

Don't buy unless you can confirm the license for all image elements used in the cover. You, the author, are responsible for each and every one of them.

Good luck!

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