The tsunami of self-published authors in the last several years has created a huge marketplace for book cover designers. Many websites offer ready-made templates that are easily less expensive than it would be to hire an independent designer to create a unique cover.

(And some cover templates, like those offered by Lulu and CreateSpace in conjunction with a self-published book project, are free).

Saving money is always tempting. And many less expensive templates are perfectly fine. But there’s a lot to choosing a cover, and whether a template or a unique cover from a professional designer will best serve the book is something to consider carefully. (My own book went through five cover changes in seven years, all of the concepts my own, and all of them decidedly ineffective.) Because I had my own questions about covers and cover design in case I ever self-publish again, I interviewed someone who could answer them: Book Cover Express owner and designer Cathi Stevenson.

Cathi Stevenson

Cathi Stevenson, owner and designer, Book Cover Express

Q: Authors choosing a template know their book and feel confident they can find a template design that works well with the story. When creating a cover for a customer, how do you make sure it represents the book? Do you base the design on what the author says s/he wants, on the book’s synopsis, or do you read some or all of the book…?

A: It really depends. Many times the project manager/author will have definite ideas and I’ll try to work with those. Other times I read the TOC and synopsis and for other projects I read the book or at least have the manuscript at hand to confirm details.

Q: How much do you think a book cover influences the tone the reader assigns to the material once they start reading?

A: I think it could influence expectations, but unless there’s a scene depicted on the cover the reader is looking for, I would assume the actual tone and book content would be the strongest influence. Last year I bought a book by a writer known for his humour and amusing stories. The book cover looked pretty typical for his genre. I couldn’t read the book, it was just one heart-wrenching tale after another. I was more than a little perturbed. The cute cover did not diminish my discomfort.

Q: And yet, the author might think, “Score! Covers DO work.” Do you think you were tricked as a reader, and how do you feel about that kind of thing in general (and this has nothing to do with the author you mentioned)? If there’s just a hint of romance in the book – “romance” of the Richard North Patterson variety, where a detective will ultimately find a woman to latch onto and their relationship will blossom at the border of the larger mystery story – and that element is emphasized on the cover, is that smart marketing or trickery?

bond 3A: I don’t think a cover should be misleading. If there’s a romantic thread in the book though, perhaps a rose, or wine glasses, or something by the author’s name could give a hint. Sometimes the description has to carry the weight the cover can’t. And if your cover is representing the wrong genre, I’m sure the Amazon reviewers will let that be known soon enough. James Bond isn’t a romance, but the images used to promote the movies often hinted that there was some romance in there. It’s a brand now, so they don’t really need to work that element anymore.

Q: One online site I’ve visited sells unique cover templates – each is pulled from the site once it sells – starting as low as (and possibly lower than) $69. The template covers you sell on your site start at $200. What would you say is the difference between a lower cost cover and one of your covers?

A: I can’t speak for what another designer is offering, but the “pre-made” covers I have there right now (and there’s only a few) were created by me and I don’t use licensed images. Most of them took many hours to complete and one took much longer. There’s no chance you’ll see one of my images on another cover and there’s no worries about image licensing. Eventually, I do plan to use photos from other sources (not stock photos, but from other photographers, most likely), but that will be indicated on the site.

Q: How does payment work when an author hires you for cover design?

A: I require a non-refundable deposit. That will give the author/publisher three proofs within 10 days, unless other terms are agreed upon. The balance is due at the end, before releasing the final files. Sometimes clients like to break it up differently and I’m usually pretty easy to work with payment-wise.

Q: Why should it be important to an author to have an image no one else has, or to not have to deal with image licensing issues?

A: I think people prefer unique. I see the same image used on different covers all the time, and I doubt it hurts sales that much, but reading on the various author boards it seems to bother some author/publishers.

[Re: image licensing:] Stock image sites have different restrictions and the EULAs (End User License Agreements) are often long legal documents that are complex and difficult to understand. I think mine is fairly straight-forward and simple. Agencies have to protect their contributors, but with me, you’re dealing directly with the contributor. When I eventually offer designs using images from other photographers I will give clients that person’s contact info, if they ask.

Q: What is the difference in sales an author is likely to see if s/he opts for a so-so, less expensive cover and a stellar, more expensive cover? Do the readers notice the differences in quality the same way designers do?

A: I think a good cover will give you a leg up if you’re in a sea of covers and a potential customer is trying to choose a book; I also think a bad cover can “unsell” a book. If the book cover looks amateurish, then people might assume there was little effort or money spent on editing or interior layout.

This is from an article I wrote for my own blog: “In a 2009 book buying survey by Verso Digital (US), just more than half of 5,640 US respondents said they purchased books based on author reputation. Forty-nine percent said they bought books others recommended to them, and 45 percent used price as the deciding factor. Reviews influenced 37 percent of book purchasers, artwork played a role for 22 percent and advertising, 14 percent.”

Assuming that 22% is an accurate number, it indicate that a strong cover design is important.

Q: If someone can’t afford a high quality, multi-layered design, what would you recommend they do to compete with the authors who do have the funds to pay for top quality cover design?

A: There are plenty of best sellers out there with text-only covers, or covers that use minimal graphic content. A good design doesn’t have to be complex, it just needs to look professional. Remember, that cover is the calling card not only for the book, but for the author.

Q: What are the three biggest mistakes you see on contemporary covers?

A: For self-published authors (and I am specifying that, because self-publishing authors are usually the project managers, and the designer can make suggestions, but at the end of the day, the project manager is the boss) I think using the wrong image, particularly for non-fiction. I’ve used this example before, but people are still putting manual typewriters on books targeting bloggers. Now, perhaps the book mentions manual typewriters, or there’s a very good reason for this, but many times there’s not. There are high school students who have never seen a manual typewriter. I don’t think anyone would put a dial telephone on the cover of a book about modern communications technology.

The second thing I see is books that appear to be selling a problem, not a solution. For instance, if you write a book called “How to Have a Cheerful Baby,” don’t put a crying baby on the cover. Again, I’m not saying there is never a reason to do this, or that it might not work somehow for someone, but how often do you see overweight person on a successful fitness or diet book cover? Sell your solution with the text and the image. The book about cheerful babies should have a happy child on the cover.

The latest thing I see, and this is mostly on fiction, is too much text that is not being laid out so the reader knows what’s going on. I see books with “Book 1, the Secret Series Mysteries, a Jane Doe Novel, The Haunted House, The Secret of Antigonish Manor, John Doe.” And these elements are not separated by size, color, or design…for all the reader knows, the book title is Book 1 because it’s at the top centre of the book and the same size as the actual title. There needs to be a hierarchy of importance and the series number and title, etc. can be distinguished with a bit of graphic enhancement, like putting it in a box at the bottom, or something.

three armed heroineQ: Do you ever see any covers put out by the big houses that make critical errors?

A: There used to be entire websites dedicated to them. Christina Dodd’s three-armed heroine is perhaps one of the most well known.

Q: In an interview with author Pam Crooks on your website, Crooks says she made more sales after dropping her male pseudonym and masculine, mystery-style cover and going back to her own name and adopting a cover that communicates more romance. Would you advise any female author with a layer of romance in her novel to lean toward the romance angle in cover design?

A: The last statistics I read — and these might have changed, say romance books are selling better as e-books, and I’ve had publishers tell me they can’t put out paranormal romance books fast enough. So, I’d have to say yes, I think it’s a good idea to indicate romance if it’s in the book.

Q: Can a very good literary-inspired cover that doesn’t target a gender do just as well as a very specific romance cover?

A: I think that if a book is well-written and the author is able to get “buzz” then it won’t matter in the long run. It might matter early on when a new author is first trying to reach a particular market.

Publishers used to put out books with different covers in different regions. How to Sh!t in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer is an example; The publisher told me once during an interview that they originally had to develop a different cover for the Southern USA. And the first Harry Potter actually had a different title in the States than it did elsewhere.

Q: You say on your cover template page that you don’t allow the covers to be used for erotica. Why not?

A: The first batch of pre-made covers I did included some designs with my daughter’s image on them taken when she was underage. I am also negotiating with a Christian photographer who specified this restriction. There are countless designers offering ready-made covers for this genre, so I don’t think it’s a problem for someone who writes erotica to find a nice cover for their book. I want to keep things simple and not have one set of rules for some covers and another set of rules for others.

Q: Random question. What do you do when confronted with a very long title? Do you ever make suggestions to tweak titles to work better with cover design (and reader response), or are you strictly about images?

A: Long titles aren’t as bothersome as uneven titles, with one particularly long word. For instance, a title like The Perspicacious Man would probably keep me awake nights.

For more information about Cathi Stevenson and/or BookCoverExpress, visit

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