Guidelines for Indie Book Covers

career indie author

career indie author introduction

Indie publishing means everything is on you to get the job done. You either do the work yourself or hire someone to do it for you.

On this issue, I’m agnostic. If you can do it and you like the job, do it. If you can afford to hire someone, that’s fine too.

I do most of the work at Peschel Press, but I’ve acquired the skills needed for DIY publishing. I’ve written stories. I spent 20+ years as a newspaper copy editor. I’ve designed pages and, although I’m not an artist, I’ve used Photoshop to manipulate artwork to illustrate stories.

You can learn these skills, or hire people to do them for you. Even if you go the second route, you should at least learn the effort needed to get each job done and what constitutes a good result. This will give you an idea of what you can expect to get when you’re paying for it.

This section focuses on the things you need to design and create to turn a manuscript into a book. This includes a book cover, promo copy that would go on the back of the book and on the various websites that sell your book, the design of your ebook and trade paperback, and an audiobook version.

(For this post, we’ll focus on book covers only)

indie book covers

The Peschel Press titles I designed and executed, for better and for worse.

1. Indie Book Covers

First impressions are important. When you are introduced to a stranger, you are sizing them up and they’re doing the same to you. Studies have shown that in as little as a tenth of a second, you’ve reached a conclusion about that person.

Blame evolution, which made sizing up new encounters a matter of life and death. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to be alert for any danger. If they saw a pair of eyes peering from a bush, they needed to decide quickly if it was an owl, a tiger, or a human.

Many of those threats have gone away, but we still have the impulse to size up people and things quickly. We do it so often that we don’t recognize when it happens. We meet a person, and we can be drawn to them instantly. Or there will be something “off” about them that warns us to stay away.

The same response happens when we look at book covers. Good designers take that into account. At a glance, we should identify the genre and even the type of story the book is telling. A really unique design should encourage us to flip through it to see what it’s about.

Most book covers contain these elements:

The title in a font that’s easy-to-read, especially in a thumbnail size. Here’s the Amazon page for my book “Writers Gone Wild.”

BOOK COVER writers gone wild on Amazon

The cover is larger than a thumbnail, but smaller than if you picked it up in a store. A thumbnail cover is about one inch wide. At that size, you should be able to read the title.

The type of font also gives a clue to the book’s subject matter. “Writers Gone Wild” looks like it was hand written. A bold font like Arial would be used for thrillers. A script-like font could signal a romance. These are not hard-and-fast rules, but if you want to get an idea of what font would be appropriate for your book, look at similar titles already out there. Chances are you’ll see similar fonts.

Your name, with its size depending on how much you think it’s a selling point. If you’re an unknown writer, it should be smaller than the title.

If you want your name to be large, you’ll have to decrease the size of your title. One important element in design is to draw the eye from object to object, and to do that you put the elements in order according to size. The eye is naturally drawn to the largest element on the cover, then the next smallest, and the next smallest after that (this can change depending on how color is used. A big title whose color is similar to the background might be overlooked if there’s a brightly colored piece of art in the center.)

The art, if any. Almost all fiction covers have art elements. Non-fiction covers could have no art, especially in the self-help category, where all-type covers predominate.

The type of art depends on your needs, the cleverness of the designer, and how much money you want to spend. It’s possible to get an accomplished artist to draw your cover for $500. For more money, you could get a top freelance such as Barry Blitt (who drew the caricatures for “Writers Gone Wild”; he also drew the “Obama fistbump” cover for The New Yorker).

On the other hand, you could visit websites and offer “pre-designed” covers using stock art, and pay as little as five bucks, although most of them run between $50-$150. The quality of the work varies. Some artists buy rights to several photos from Shutterstock and other sites and combine them to create a unique look. Some use images without paying for them, resulting in authors receiving cease-and-desist letters from the copyright owners. Worse, a designer could be reselling your cover to other authors.

Exercise caution when dealing with any artist over the Internet. Ask if they own or licensed the rights to the image.

(Tip: Let Google Images determine where that pre-made cover came from. Save the image to your desktop and drop it into the search engine. Chances are it will return a number of results from photo sites, blogs, perhaps even other books.)

For example, dropping this premade cover–


— into Google Images revealed where the artist got the image from, and how it was recolored for sale:


(Using royalty-free art for covers is a common practice in the book industry. Even major publishers do it.)

If you take precautions, you can use a pre-made book cover, or one made for you from royalty-free sources and not get into trouble. At worse, if you’re caught, you may end up paying more to acquire the correct rights, or replace the cover and reload it on all the websites. (Unless you use a famous photo from, say, Getty Images, or a celebrity’s image without securing the rights; that could cost you thousands of dollars to resolve.)

Another way to get the cover of your dreams is to work with an artist, either in your area or through a site such as DeviantArt. Just make sure that the artist you contact with really did that piece of work.

Locally, visiting art and craft shows is a good way to scout promising cover artists. Just make sure you’re clear about what you want, how much you’re willing to pay, and the payment schedule (usually a deposit upfront with the rest paid upon delivery). Also, make sure you and the artist know what rights you are buying. You could negotiate a lower price if you retain the right to use the art for the cover and for promotional uses (ads, bookmarks, and flyers, for example), and let the artist keep the original and to sell prints.

Other text such as blurbs, the title’s subhead, if any, or author credits. None of these are required. If you’re selling your books solely through the Internet, it may not even be necessary. This kind of text is usually printed in a size a little bigger than the words inside, which would make them nearly unreadable in a thumbnail size.

How to Judge a Book Cover

1. If you find cover art online, or you get a mockup (that is, a sketch, not the finished image), compare it to other books in your genre. Could you see them on the same shelf in the bookstore? Would it look like it doesn’t belong?

2. Show your book cover to people who read in your genre and ask them what they think.

3. Visit Lousy Book Covers. If you see your cover there, you might want to reconsider.

DIY Covers

The Deluxe Annotated Secret Adversary

The Deluxe Annotated Secret Adversary

Fortunately, many of my books have public-domain artwork that I could use for a cover. The cover to “The Deluxe Annotated Secret Adversary” was a collage of movie posters from the Soviet Union in the 1920s. I found a website that collected them, downloaded all of them, and studied them to see which ones resonated with the themes of the book. The central image of the frightened woman matched the kidnapping that played a major role. The image of the hand holding an official-looking document suggested the theft of the treaty that was another major plot point. The feeling of paranoia and betrayal permeates the story, so the image of a man whispering a secret to another man was chosen. Finally, the book opens with the sinking of the “Lusitania” during World War I. I used a postcard commemorating the event.

For “The Complete, Annotated Mysterious Affair at Styles,” I decided a photograph of a bottle of poison would fit the bill. There were photos of bottles strychnine poison available online, but after seeing a bunch of poison labels, that inspired an idea to use one, modified, to convey the title and author.

secret adversary poison labels

These inspired me to create a label of my own.

Modifying one would have been messy and unpredictable, so I started from scratch instead. Using Photoshop, I figured out how big the label had to be, and fiddled with the text and art elements until I was satisfied with the result.

The label had to be easily read, so the type couldn’t be complicated. I wanted the type to suggest 1915, the Edwardian / Great War period instead of Victorian. After a few attempts, I settled on a sans-serif font that looked modern for its time period.

mysterious affair at styles cover art

Designing the label went through several iterations.

When the label was finished, I printed the labels onto thick stationary paper I used for resumes. It’s ivory color gave it an aged look without the need to distress it further.

An Exacto blade and steel ruler helps here.

Use an Exacto blade and steel ruler.

The bottle was Wild Turkey steak sauce. At the top of the cover, you can see a fake wax imprint on the glass. It said “WILD TURKEY” in capital letters before I blurred it out in Photoshop.

All I needed was to make it look like poison was dropped into it. Simple, right? It took two long sessions and a lot of experimenting to find the right color contrast that would look sharp on a cover. First, I shot in front of a window shade, shining lights through big jars of red-tinted water to cast a blood-red background. I didn’t like the results, so I moved the dining room table against the yellow wall. That looked better, especially when I tinted the water red, then dropped blue food coloring in for a creepy effect.

indie book cover photo shoot

Dear Daughter preps the poison bottle for the camera.

It took a lot of photos, and some manipulating of the color in Photoshop to get the result I wanted.

Lessons I Learned from the Styles Cover

Cover for "The Complete, Annotated Mysterious Affair at Styles"

The finished cover for “Styles”

1. Start with an idea in mind. It gives you something to shoot for.

2. Break down the process into small jobs. In my case, it was design the label, set up a well-lit stage to photograph on, decide on the colors (yellow background, red liquid, purple dye), then shoot, shoot, shoot.

3. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Digital photography is exceptionally cheap compared to using film. Take as many photos as possible, it will boost the chance of capturing the perfect moment.

4. Don’t be afraid to change.

5. Don’t accept “good enough” if you can get to “great.”