A novel can take a few years to write (if you’re lucky). By the time your book is ready for a cover, it can be tempting to rush through this step. But your book’s cover is just as important as the story inside—especially during those critical few seconds when a purchasing decision is made—which is why it deserves as much thought and attention. I’m sure I’ve overlooked hundreds of great books because I didn’t like their covers. And I’ve purchased more than a few mediocre books because their covers were too beautiful to resist. Our goal as indie authors is to produce a book that is a masterpiece both inside and out, so it’s a tragedy when a book’s inner beauty is overlooked because of an inferior cover.
Since publishing Empty Arms , many people have complimented me on my book cover. While I’m grateful that my cover resonates with readers, I must admit, it wasn’t all luck. I spent a lot of time deconstructing book covers, developing a creative brief to clearly communicate my vision, and hiring the right graphic designer to execute it. One of the best parts of being an indie author is having full creative control over every aspect of your book, including the cover; but unless you know what you’re doing, it can also be the scariest. Today, I’m going to share the design process and best practices that helped me create a book cover that readers love.
Step 1: Understand what works (and what doesn’t)
In order to get inspiration for my own cover, I wandered through my local bookstore and picked up every book whose cover caught my attention. Once my arms were full, I found a seat and studied said covers, deconstructing each one to pinpoint why it spoke to me. Was it the title? The colors? The typography? The image? The mood? After examining a tower of books through this lens, I discovered that I’m drawn to books that have a “soul-stirring” photograph on the front. For an emotionally charged novel like Empty Arms, this direction seemed appropriate.
When you do this exercise, it’s helpful to begin by selecting book covers that speak to you, regardless of their genre. This will help you identify “themes” that resonate with you. You can then narrow your search to focus on books in your genre, which will help you observe commonalities (such as colors, symbols, or typefaces).
Step 2: Find the perfect image (or curate your own)
There are a number of stock photography sites that offer a wealth of compelling photographs and illustrations. (Some that I’ve browsed are Shutterstock , Getty Images , and iStock .) When choosing an image, be sure to check if it’s rights-managed or royalty-free. A “rights-managed” image means that the price you pay will be based on how the image will be used (think beyond your book cover to your marketing materials, website, etc.) and how many copies of the book you plan to sell. While rights-managed photos can be expensive, the upside is that they are often of better quality and more highly stylized than their royalty-free counterparts. Some even allow you to purchase an exclusive license so your image doesn’t end up on someone else’s book. A “royalty-free” photo is generally cheaper because it’s priced based on the size you purchase, not how it’s used or how many times it’s reproduced. There are also sites like Pixabay  that offer stock images for free; however, the cheaper the photo, the greater the chance someone else will use it.
Another option is to hire a photographer to capture the shot you want. This option involves a little more legwork because you’ll have to organize a photo shoot that may involve models, props, and location scouting, but you will be able to set up the exact shot you want AND you can negotiate exclusive rights to your photo, so you won’t end up in a “Who Wore It Better?” situation with another book. For Empty Arms’s cover, I chose to hire a photographer and model to capture my vision. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this was cheaper than buying the rights-managed photograph I had originally wanted.
While it may be tempting to opt for the cheapest route, just remember how much readers rely on your cover when deciding whether or not to buy your book.
Step 3: Plan your design
Designing a book cover is kind of like putting on makeup—you should highlight one feature and be subtle with the rest. You don’t want your amazing photograph competing with a zany font, nor do you want a clever type treatment lost against a busy photograph. Here are three examples of book covers that use an image as the focal point while keeping the typeface simple and clean:
- Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher 
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman 
- Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline 
And here are three examples where an artistic type treatment take center stage:
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid 
- The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach 
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins 
See what I mean? The image from Orphan Train and the typography from The Art of Fielding work beautifully on their own, but together they would be competing for attention.
Step 4: Prioritize your information
As your vision emerges, you might find yourself wondering which should come first, your name or the title? During my deconstruction exercise, I noticed that some book covers feature the author’s name at the top while others use that space to showcase the title. Which is right?
Technically, they both are.
Since we read from top to bottom, the upper half of the book cover is where you should put the most important information. For my book, that was the title. If I were a brand-name author, like Jodi Picoult or John Grisham, then my name would be more important than the title. Until then, my title has a better chance of capturing readers’ interest, so it goes on top.
Check out books by brand-name authors and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Here are some examples:
Step 5: Develop a creative brief
Many authors visualize their book cover during the writing process. I know I did. But cover designers aren’t mind readers, so it’s important that you clearly communicate your vision.
When I worked in advertising, we used a “creative brief” to provide the art director and copywriter with specific details about the assignment to ensure that everyone was on the same page. When it came to designing my book cover, I took the creative brief concept and tailored it to my project in order to provide my cover designer with clear direction. If you don’t have a cover concept in mind, a creative brief can give your designer useful information about the book so he or she can create a design that fits your book’s theme and tone.
You can download my instructional creative brief here: Creative Brief for Book Cover 
Step 6: Hire the right designer
There are plenty of places to find a talented cover designer, including Craigslist , Upwork , and 99 Designs . For my book, I posted a “creative gig” on Craigslist, and I received dozens of resumes and portfolios from many talented individuals. I interviewed several designers whose work caught my eye to learn about their design and review process. Based on those interviews, I created a shortlist of promising candidates and asked each to provide three client references. I then called their references to ask about their experiences—good and bad. Within a few weeks, I had narrowed my list down to one designer. I hired him for my project, gave him my creative brief, and we were on our way to developing a book cover.
Step 7: Draw up a contract
Before you get to work, it’s a good idea to draw up a contract that clearly defines the scope of work, timeline, review process (and number changes permitted), payment terms, kill fee (if you don’t like the end result), and ownership of the final product. This way everyone’s expectations are clearly defined up front, reducing the risk of surprises down the road. Legal resources, like Nolo , have independent contractor agreements for hiring creative contractors that you can purchase and customize for your project.
Step 8: Get feedback
Before signing off on your favorite book cover concept, ask your friends, family members, and fans to weigh in. While it’s okay to show the designs to a mix of people, you should give more weight to the opinions expressed by those people who would be considered part of your target audience. It would be a shame for you to reject a great design based on the advice of someone who never reads your genre.
Are you working on a book cover? What questions do you have about the process? Or, if you’ve already created a book cover, what helpful tips can you share?