Independent Cover Art – Part 1

As many of you probably know, I not only design all my own covers, but I also take on freelance illustration work. I do get frequent emails from folks referred by my existing clients or sometimes just from people who see my covers, don’t realise I’ve designed them, and write to ask who did them. If you haven’t seen my freelance covers before, I have a new page with a slideshow of my illustrated work.

But many authors out there either can’t (or don’t want to/don’t have time to, etc) do their own covers. Sure, anyone can slap a title over a stock image, but not everyone should. We’ve all met authors that bemoan selling books in single digits, and when we look at their cover, we instantly know why no one is clicking the ‘buy now’ button (but most of us are too polite to say.) And it’s difficult for anyone to see their own artwork objectively. As much as we authors don’t want to admit it, book covers sell books. I recently went through a listing of free books and picked out maybe 4 or 5 from a list of 50. Why did I choose the ones I did? The cover, 100%. (The listing only showed the first ten words or so of the Amazon description, so most weren’t very helpful.) That means I passed on 45 FREE books, solely based on the cover. If your cover can’t get people to download the book even when it’s free, the odds aren’t great if you’re asking people for money.

This is the first in a planned series of articles for independant authors who are considering getting professional cover done and try to answer frequently asked questions. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll talk about hiring a cover artist, how to find one, what to ask them, what to expect, and a little about designing your own, should you go that route.

The #1 question I get is “how much?”

Many inquiries I get are from first time independant authors who are trying to decide if they can afford to budget for professional artwork. It’s a reasonable question you shouldn’t be embarrassed about asking. When I was researching prices (to make sure I’d priced myself fairly), I found many artists don’t post their prices. But based on what I could find and from talking to other artists I know, here’s some things to keep in mind.

First, expect to pay hundreds. For a designer who uses stock photos (nothing hand-drawn like mine), I would expect to pay at least $100 and more like $200-$300 for someone with experience. (Although remember that prices vary greatly. This is just the average of what I found when looking at what was out there. Some people charge a lot more than this, but some may charge less, particularly those with less professional experience.) But the price is in the hundreds because even creating an image with a stock photo takes time and care. There’s a lot more to creating a book cover than choosing an image and putting a title on it. Here’s what I’ve done with my own stock photo covers:

You can see that I put a lot more into designing the cover than simply picking out an image. So, when someone asks, “Why should I pay someone so much for a cover that simply uses a stock image?” The answer is that the base image is only one element. I can spend an hour simply selecting the right font! If you can do layout, composition, font selection, text effects, shadows, photo manipulation and have a good editing package (I use Adobe Fireworks–MS Paint won’t cut it if you want your work to look professional), then you don’t need a professional designer.

What about illustrations?

I’ll be honest. Custom artwork is expensive. It’s time consuming. I draw every line, place every tint with care. It takes around two weeks of my time to do a digitally drawn cover like the ones on my slideshow. I tried to price mine in the middle of the price range I found out there. I picked a number that would compensate me for my time, but also balance two ideas:

  • It takes me 6-8 weeks to write a first draft of a novel. If I’m going to lose two weeks of that to do a side-project, it has to be worth my time.
  • On the other hand, I’m an author. I know how many books I have to sell to earn even $100. (48, if I sell my books for $2.99–a common price for an indie book, 36 at $3.99–the current price on all of my books) So I try to be reasonable.

My current rate is $495 for an ebook cover. If you don’t think having a custom illustration on your cover that depicts your characters, your setting, your themes, props (such as the key on the Ordinary Angels cover) will help you sell at least 237 more books (177 if you price your books at $3.99), then you shouldn’t hire me (or you should hire me for $250 to create a cover for you from a stock illustration at a cost of 119/89 books ).

Will you sell 237 more books?

Maybe. When my book was with a small e-press, I sold roughly 35 books with their cover (in 10 weeks). I got my rights back, put my illustrated cover on it, and since Sept 1st–about 25 weeks– I’ve sold roughly 1,000 copies, many of those at $3.99.) If I’d kept the old cover (pretending for argument’s sake I would have been allowed to), I’d probably have continued to sell 3.5 books per week and I would have sold around 88 books. So the cover change has netted me at least 900 MORE sales than the previous trend suggested I could expect. So for me, yes, if I had paid someone else to do the cover, I would have earned my money back in six weeks.

I changed a stock photo cover for an erotica author and she went from selling 1-2 copies per day to 10 per day (at 3.99). Rae Davies’s novel went from being in the top 2,000 on the overall Amazon Kindle bestseller list to around the 850 spot after I did a cover for her. She never disclosed her exact sales figures to me but I do know that once you get into those high rankings, it takes a lot more sales to move up that many slots.

It’s impossible to predict whether your book will do the same with professional cover art. When you’re looking at an artist though, here’s some things I would do to try to decide if the expense is worth it:

  • Ask yourself how you’re going to price your book. If this is a cover for a 99¢ short story, you’ll have to move a lot more copies to cover that expense.
  • Ask the artist for names previous book cover clients, then CONTACT THOSE CLIENTS. Most authors have email addresses published on their websites, and a quick google search will help you find out how to get in touch. Ask them if they were happy with the process and if they felt they’d earned their money back. (Many would consider asking for sales figures tacky, but I think ‘was it worth the expense’ is a perfectly acceptable question.)
  • SHOP AROUND! Don’t settle on the first artist you run across. =) Do Google searches, look at covers you love on Amazon, then contact the author to find out who their cover artist is (keeping in mind that if the author is with a large publishing house, they won’t know–only indies tend to hire their own), look at and other sites where artists and illustrators gather. Ask on Twitter. Ask your writing group. Get lots of quotes. Do your research!

As much as I love doing my own covers, there is an artist out there that charges about $1000-$2000 a pop for a custom cover, and I would give up doing my covers in a heartbeat to get him to do one of mine if I thought it would earn me that much more than my own designs. His work is just that gorgeous. Hell, if I could afford to throw the money around, I’d get him to do one even if it wouldn’t earn me enough to pay for itself.

So, before you even contact someone to ask about price, just keep in mind that art costs money, and custom art made to your specifications can cost a lot of money. Only you can decide if it’s worth it.

Next time I’ll talk about the process of working with an artist: what you should ask, what you should know, and what you should be prepared to tell her in order to get the cover you really want.

Do you have a question about hiring a cover artist? If so, leave it in the comments and I’ll try to answer it (if I can) later in the series.


  1. I always find it so hard to find free stock images I like for my silly little stories haha! But I know what you mean, they say never judge a book by it’s cover, but it’s so hard not to!

    Thanks for the information! Hopefully one day i’ll be a good enough writer to need a cover. :D

  2. I didn’t know that you do all the covers yourself India! Great job so far :)

  3. I adore you for writing this post. I’m a cover designer (mostly digital manipulation because I KNOW how time intensive what you do is, and I know when it’s just better to hire other people to do things that are more of a struggle for me). You’ve address SO MANY important points here and done it SO eloquently and well thought out!

    I’ll be sharing this with EVERYONE I know!

  4. I am one of the one’s that would fall into the “yeah, I better hire someone” category if I went the indie route. Having this kind of information also adds to the appreciation of the cover art.

    Sadly, I’m such a book cover lover that judging by the cover is what I can’t help doing – though I don’t do that with everything, thankfully.

    But you’re right. Book covers attract and therefore sell…or they do nothing to attract attention and therefore do nothing to sell your novel

  5. My husband designs book covers so I can attest, a good one will cost money! You do very nice work, India.

  6. Great post!

    I’m afraid I’m one of those writers that just can’t afford to pay any money for a professional designer to design my covers, at the moment (finances are dire, to say the least). However, I did get my ‘arty’ sister to create one of my book covers which I was really pleased with.

    For the past couple of days I’ve been messing around with Photoshop to come up with some covers for a series I’m writing which can be found on my blog ( I’m much happier with these than the ones I created for my first few books, though they still need a tweak here and there.

    But yes, if I had the option and the money I’d definitely be getting someone else to make my covers!

    (Incidentally, my sister did the cover for free…thankfully!)

  7. Excellent post. The ‘cover issue’ is an important one and becomes ever more important as newbies flood the market. Everything that counts against you pulls you further down into the abyss of the new slush pile of unread, unnoticed and unloved books. I wrote a blogpost about this myself a while back. You might find it interesting as well:


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