Self-Printed Preview #3: The Minefield That Is Self-Published Cover Design


Welcome to the Self-Printed Preview Week! Today’s excerpt is from Part 2: Preparation and it’s called The Minefield That is Self-Published Cover Design. Why do self-published books look so self-published? Why do self-publishing authors seem to forget everything they know about real, “proper” books when they go to design their own? And what makes anyone think that having a decorative border, using Comic Sans or putting a quote like, ‘”I loved it” – Author’s Best Friend Who, Like, Reads a LOT’ is a good idea? It boggles the mind… 

Remember how I said that there were only two places in this book where, if you didn’t listen to me, you definitely wouldn’t be a successful self-publisher? Well, pricing was one of them and this – cover design – is the other.

You can write a bad book. You can write a truly terrible book, that’s also a little offensive. You can publish it chock full of grammar and spelling mistakes, lay it out sideways and do the whole thing in super large print and upside down. You can call it something boring, do no promotion and claim in your book description that you’re the next next JK Rowling or something equally pompous and annoying. (“My book is the best book I’ve ever read”, for instance.) You can do all these things and still sell books. It’s unlikely, but it can happen. But charge too much money for it or wrap it in a stinky cover and you will not sell books. Those two mistakes cannot be overcome, partly because there are so obvious and the tell-tale signs of a badly self-published book. Hopefully I’ve already convinced you that you need to be reasonable in your pricing, so now let me clatter you over the head with my arguments for why you need to have a good cover and why this may make or break your entire self-publishing career. The good news is that covers are by far the trickiest thing in this whole process so if you can do this right, you’re more than half way to a successful self-publishing adventure.

We are now entering what I like to call The Bermuda Triangle of self-published cover design, because chances are everything you know about books is about to mysteriously disappear. Self-publishing is indeed a strange world: there’s talking purple unicorns, plastic toys come to life and hundreds of thousands if not millions of writers who’ve (hopefully) been reading books all their lives who then go to make their own and instantly forget every single thing they know about them. It amazes me on a daily basis how self-published authors create books that look absolutely nothing like the books they’ve been buying, borrowing, reading, stacking, stroking (or is that just me?) and gazing at adoringly and then, even more amazingly, don’t see that they’ve done anything wrong.

Why does that happen? Behold, the five biggest mines in the minefield of self-published cover design:

Mine #1: Laziness

The antidote to successful self-publishing, laziness gets in between many self-publishers and properly self-published books. You just don’t want to be bothered finding, hiring and working with a cover designer. Where do you even find those people? And you’d rather lie on the sofa and watch The Biggest Loser than think up something to go on the cover of you book. Ugh. BOR-ing. Haven’t you done enough already by writing the bloody thing? You need some Me Time. So you’re just going to watch TV and then spend a few minutes knocking up a cover on the POD website with their cover creator wizard thingy. I mean, they wouldn’t call it a wizard if it didn’t work, right? So get off my back. Gawd.

How to avoid this? Hire a cover designer.

Mine #2: Lack of skills and/or imagination

You either have a very good idea of what might go on your book’s cover, or none at all. Having spent all of your creative energy on writing the thing, it’s not unusual to have little or no clue of what might work well on the jacket. This is okay, but it’s not okay for you to do nothing about it. Similarly, you might not want to get involved in doing anything “too fancy” for your cover because you don’t know how to use PhotoShop or any of those design programs – which, again, is okay. I don’t know how to use them either. But I didn’t let that stop me from getting a good cover for my book.

How to avoid this? Hire a cover designer.

Mine #3: Delusion

This is my favourite one, and I’d hazard a guess, the most common problem. Self-publishers (the ones destined to do it badly, anyway) can be so damn defensive, and they are especially defensive when it comes to choosing a cover design, in particular why they need to choose a good one. “But Catherine,” they’re saying now, if they enjoy talking aloud to books, “I never choose books because of their covers. I read books because the blurb is interesting, or because I like the author. Whatever picture is on the cover doesn’t sway me in the slightest. Why, just last week I bought the new Harlan Coben and I’ll tell you, I didn’t care for the cover on it at all. So I think you going on for pages and pages about how my cover is the most important part of my book is occasionally amusing – mildly – but ultimately utterly irrelevant. My book is, like, the best book I or anyone else has ever read and when people see the thousands of five-star reviews I’m going to get on Amazon, they won’t even glance at the cover before clicking ‘Add to Cart.’ It just doesn’t matter.”

How to avoid this? Don’t be a moron. And hire a cover designer.

Mine #4: Distorted perspective, AKA “My Name is on the Spine!” Syndrome

It is very exciting to see your name on the spine of a book, and words you wrote in between its covers. Very exciting indeed. In fact it’s so exciting that I recommend you go straight to CS right now, upload any old PDF you can find, run through the Cover Creator wizard thingy and send yourself a proof copy just so you can get it out of your system. Then you won’t be so overwhelmed by the sight of your name on anything that looks like a printed book that you’ll fail to notice the book your name is on looks like a pile of self-published poo. It is not enough to produce something that feels like a book in your hands, that has pages inside of it, and that has those pages bound together at one end to form a spine. You need to produce a great looking book, and if your eyes are filled with tears at the sight of your newborn book baby, you won’t be able to see it clearly enough to tell whether you have or not.

How to avoid this? Take a book with a white spine and write your name on it with a Sharpie. Look at it for while, and then hire a cover designer.

Mine #5: Lack of money

Maybe you already knew how important a cover was, but you just don’t have the money to hire a cover designer and get them to make a good one for you. There’s a few ways to overcome this problem, and we’ll talk about them in a minute.

How to avoid this? Keep reading.

You may have got the sense by now – if you’re very astute – that I don’t recommend you use any “cover creation” software available on POD sites, such as CreateSpace’s Cover Creator. This is because the only creation involved is deciding between one bad template and the next, and even if you push it to the max and do the very best you can with it, you will still end up with a cover that screams “self-published!” They look bad because they don’t look like real, proper books, and all of them are on my Top 3 list of Stinky Self-Published Front Covers:

  • A rectangular photograph centred on the front cover that takes up a large portion of it, is against a plain colour background and has text above (the title) and below (the author’s name)
  • A patterned or plain background with no photographs at all, just text
  • Almost anything generated by a cover creation wizard installed on a POD site.

If you insist on using the Cover Creator, then you’ll do it after you upload your interior files and CS will automatically size it for your book’s page count and trim, and then add the barcode for you. As I’ve said already, do not pay for any packages or services offered by the POD site, and that includes cover design. (I’d even go so far as to say especially cover design.) All you are doing here is paying through the nose for a cover that is almost completely indiscernible from one you could have made yourself – and for free – using the cover creation software. So DON’T do it.

So I’ve told you what not to do. (Repeatedly.) But what should you do to ensure that your cover is worthy of your book and of rubbing shoulders with anything produced by the Big Boys, and won’t stand out as a self-published POD book when it does?

Tune in tomorrow for the next excerpt, What Does the Dream Look Like? 

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12 thoughts on “Self-Printed Preview #3: The Minefield That Is Self-Published Cover Design

  1. Elisa Michelle says:

    Honestly, this is a great post! You’ve put a lot of time into this–or at least a lot of trial and error.

  2. davidrory says:

    Wonderful useful advice but there is one factor you have not addressed. Cost!
    I’d love to use a cover designer but I can’t afford it, yet?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      David, this is just an excerpt from the section of the book about covers – I do address the issue of cost in the book itself.

      This is totally over simplifying the issue (I go on about it for pages in the book!) but three basic points:

      1. It doesn’t cost as much as you might think. For example, my designer is offering this full paperback cover PLUS e-book package for €89/£79. If you aren’t prepared to spend that relatively small amount on making your book the best product it can be, I’d seriously reconsider doing it.

      2. Self-publishing is a business, just like opening a restaurant or creating a new product. (You are, in fact, creating a new product.) You have to spend SOME money and if you don’t have it to spend, you shouldn’t do it until you do.

      3. If you really have absolutely no money: e-book covers are fairly easy to make yourself. They won’t be amazing, but they’ll do the job. Sell the e-book for 3-6 months and then take the profits to make a new and “proper” cover for both editions, and relaunch.

      Oops – forgot the link to the cover design offer!

    • Design for Writers says:

      Hi David,

      I’m the designer Catherine mentioned and, if you’d like to get in touch to discuss your needs, just drop an email to (with SELF-PRINTED OFFER in the subject-line) and I’ll be back in touch.

      Take a look at my response to the post below if you are interested in an eBook only price.

      Either way, best wishes with your work.

  3. emerging writer says:

    Your whizz cover designer is offering a package that’s for printed self published books, right? What about just for an ebook that doesn’t need a spine or a back? (I’m hanging off your every word here)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      LOL! 🙂

      He does just e-book covers too. Let me ask him what that special package would be if it only included an e-book cover (or basically just the “front”), just to give you an idea…

    • Design for Writers says:

      Hi there. As part of this May-long deal on Catherine’s blog (another excellent post, Catherine!) I’m happy to offer a standalone e-book price of €59. Just email with SELF-PRINTED OFFER in the subject-line and mention that you are interested the ebook-only price.

      The full offer of €89 remains available also until the end of May, for eBook and Print designs.

      Take care!

  4. C. says:

    Excellent post. From a sales perspective, obviously getting a professional designer is the best option for anyone who doesn’t have graphics arts skills to go along with their writing skills. These people, and I’ve been under the impression that *most* writers don’t double as graphic artists, should do this.

    However… from a reader’s perspective… it’s really a pain to search through books, see a professional cover, and then read a god-awful sample. To a point, I feel like it has the same effect as lying. And lying will chase away the potential Indie Reading public, which none of us want. I suppose this means I’m not making a criticism on covers, but on the writing… but still, this is a valid point (I think) in terms of the buyer’s experience.

    Obviously, Catherine, this isn’t geared towards you. But it’s so easy for someone with money to pay a cover designer, who probably won’t refuse a commission based on the quality of the book’s interior. The longer I take part in this self-publishing experience and get more exposure, the more I realize that quality control is truly non-existent in some areas of the self-pub market.

    (And this… is far too long. I apologize.)

  5. ihatemoneylaundering says:

    I am a total covert to professional cover design – having used Design for Writers for my most recent POD paperback, I can see quite how pitiful my own covers for my four previous e-books really are. But this doesn’t actually matter, as I have noticed something odd.
    When I uploaded my e-books to Kindle (following Catherine’s advice religiously), I uploaded my (own pitiful) covers. These covers appeared without any problem on the Amazon listings. But they do not appear when you download the book to a Kindle. On the Kindle, if you “Go to…” and try to select “Cover”, the option is greyed out. And yet there the cover is on the Amazon site, mocking me with its awfulness.
    I am about to do another e-book and thought, well, I’ll get the cover done properly this time – but is there much point if it’s not downloaded, and the only thing people will ever see is the tiny one on the Amazon listing?
    What am I doing wrong? Checking on my own Kindle, some books have covers and others (including “Backpacked”….) do not. Confused! Thank you for any guidance.

  6. Ermilia says:

    I definitely agree with this post. Cover design DOES matter. As a freelance graphic designer but also a self-pubbed author, I want to help out!

    I’m not trying to spam but this really helps people out. For those who want a free but also PROFESSIONAL looking cover, you can visit my Facebook here here:
    or blog:

    I love playing with my photoshop and there are so many authors who deserve to have a lovely looking cover that doesn’t scream “self-pubbed”. I hope it helps out someone!

    – Ermisenda

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