Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar

Posted: August 23, 2011 in Opinion

Let’s suppose you’ve spent two or three years writing a novel. You’ve put your baby up for a public slapping at the hands of complete strangers, edited, rewritten, gone into a six-month decline during which you couldn’t even bring yourself to open the file, pulled yourself together, rewritten once more to be on the safe side, and decided to publish and be damned. It’s been a long, long journey.

And now it’s time for the crowning glory, the icing on the cake. The cover. You’re brimming with great ideas. After all, you’ve given birth to this baby – who can do a better job than you? You’ve got a design application of sorts on your computer, you know how to manipulate pictures in Photoshop using all those fantastic artistic effects, and you’ve got 1,200 (yes, twelve hundred) fonts to choose from. And if that’s not enough, you can download unlimited free ones. There must be something with hair growing out of it that will go really well with your photoshopped polar bear-into-a-yeti!

You create a document the right size and get all the elements into the space. Some of the words don’t read very clearly, so you change them to red. No, blue. Plain black’s best, isn’t it? Should your name be in the same font as the title? At the top or bottom? Ranged left, right or centred? Maybe it’s a bit too hairy. Is it that important, just as long as it’s nice and big? Now you’ve finished. You print it out on best coated paper and show your mum when she comes round with the washing you haven’t had time to do while you’ve been creating your masterpiece. Her eyes mist.

“Oh, it’s lovely, dear,” she says. “I never knew you were so artistic. You should have gone to art school.”

With this endorsement, you send your completed book off to your POD supplier and order a crate-full. They print exactly what you sent. Hmmm. That black type makes it look a tad funereal and it still doesn’t read too well. And there’s a bit of a line where you grafted on the yeti’s head. Not to worry. The blurb will hook the readers in, won’t it? Well… maybe, maybe not.

Here’s my question. Would you save up for months to buy a designer dress then cover it up with a baggy old cardi (for men less in touch with their feminine side, insert lovingly restored vintage car and Pound Shop seat covers)? Of course you wouldn’t, so you get what I’m trying to say?

The advent of self-publishing has given everyone a chance to indulge their creative side, often at the expense of the credibility of their product. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the majority of homemade covers look just that – homemade – albeit the finish is glossy. Or matt, for preference.

This isn’t a cake for the village fete, destined to be consumed within the hour! It is the ambassador for your writing; for the novel that has wrung you dry. It is going to hang around on your coffee table for years, making you wish you’d spent a bit of hard-earned cash to make it look the marvel it is. Doesn’t it – don’t you – deserve better?

Graphic designers have had a lean time in recent years, as typesetters and illustrators did before them. Home computers mean that anyone can produce something colourful with a superficially slick finish. Business owners (or their offspring) now design their own logos, brochures and advertisements. Whether it’s good design is another matter. Standards, needless to say, have plummeted.

Designers are professionals – they go to college for four years, learn the history and context of design, are trained, often up from a lowly junior position, accepting poor wages in return for knowledge. They have insight – a talent for knowing what works and what doesn’t, and an inbuilt sense of colour, form and balance, which is greatly enhanced by experience. They understand that for a design to work, there must be tension – a relationship – between the elements. They take risks but know when to stop. They can’t explain how, they just know.

So, if someone who isn’t in a creative industry asks someone who is what they can do to improve their DIY cover artwork, it’s a fair bet the answer isn’t going to be hopeful. Only rarely will it be a case of simply changing the colours. Bin it and seek the services of a professional could (and should) be the response.

At the risk of appearing to be touting for work, which I’m not, this is my advice. When you’re ready, contact a designer. Go by recommendation and ask to see samples of their work. Tell them your ideas and ask for a price. Most designers will tailor their costs to suit the client, whether you need a full-blown presentation and selection of covers from which to choose, or the relatively simple realisation of your own idea. Choose carefully and make sure they understand your needs and desires. Don’t accept anything you’re not happy with, but be guided by their expertise – a good designer will know best.

Don’t, in short, get out the twenty-first century equivalent of gummed paper shapes and do it yourself, unless you’re prepared for the consequences. The buying public, you’ll find, does judge a book by its cover.


Although I am a graphic designer with 35 years’ experience, I have only designed a few book covers so far, including my own project, Triclops – see left.  I’d be happy to recommend an excellent designer if you leave contact details.

  1. Son of Incogneato says:

    Covers *are* very important, especially in the visual deluge of information that constitutes the modern web. I recently wrote a little blog pieceabout this myself:

    I’ve done a bit of artwork over the years, mainly fantasy illustration. I thought doing my own book cover would be a cinch; they’re so small, what’s the big deal? Doing book covers is not a cinch; far from it. They are soooo small. There are graphic ‘rules’ of which I have no understanding, no matter how talented I might (or might not) be with pen in hand. And lettering? Forget it. I think I downloaded, tried out and abandoned at least fifty different weirdo fonts – all of them wrong.

    So unless you are a graphic artist in addition to being a writer, I have to agree. Don’t showcase years of literary work with a medium in which you are not trained. Leave it to the pros.


  2. No, designing a book cover isn’t easy. But it’s also not within the budget of everyone. Including me. So I did a lot of research, and did the best I could. Whether it hurts my book sales in the future, I don’t know. But sometimes doing what you should isn’t always within your reach.

    • Sue says:

      I understand your problem, Kristy! I’m one of the designers who has found it nigh-on impossible to make a living with budget cuts and people doing their own publicity. Many designers would take your situation into account and give you a professional realisation of your idea for a very modest sum. I’m not going to go into figures here because I don’t want to be held to them but, as I said to a football enthusiast, it could be less than the cost of three match tickets! It depends where your priorities lie.

  3. michele52 says:

    Releasing a book with a homemade cover is like wearing tattered clothing to a job interview…it’s a plan to fail. It’s possible to rationalize the decision by saying “This grubby outfit may hurt my chances to get the job, but I can’t afford a better one,” but it won’t achieve the ultimate goal.

    Books are always displayed on Amazon alongside a dozen other choices. Many of these books will be from major publishers with exquisitely designed covers. The book cover that attracts the eye and looks “good” to the buyer will ultimately win the sale.

  4. […] Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar Let’s suppose you’ve spent two or three years writing a novel. You’ve put your baby up for a […]

  5. Stace says:

    I’m not a designer, but I’m not a trained writer either. This doesn’t stop me. I think almost every profession must suffer from the fact that the vast majority of people don’t understand how specialised one’s job really is. That said, I see exactly what you’re saying about many self published covers and I agree. (I have a blog post about it too, somewhere, from the point of view of a book consumer, not a designer.)

    But… since many self published authors will continue to design covers themselves, namely because of budget constraints, I think it’s worth suggesting another alternative: spending just as much time steeping oneself in the specifics of design as in learning the craft of writing.

    The web is a wonderful thing, if you know where to go. There are cover review sites just like there are writing review sites.

    Here’s one.

    • Sue says:

      Thanks for this, Stace. There are some great pointers on the website and I’m sure many people would find it useful. I know you are interested in design, which makes you unusual. Sadly, I don’t think the majority will be bothered with researching design in the way they do with their writing. They see it as the last element, something they can bash out quickly before they send it off, because they don’t see it as a specialized area. What I was trying to bring to people’s attention was that there can be various degrees of professional input. If someone has already chosen and paid for a picture, they may only need help with the typography. If they have done a cover but it isn’t looking right, it might only be an hour’s work for a professional to pull it together and the fee should be less than fifty pounds. Unfortunately several people have used a design student to do their covers and she is not yet good enough to accept payment for them. They believe she’s done a professional job and she hasn’t. You need experience as well as talent!

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