Why Your Self-Published Book Needs a Professional Cover

10 Apr 2017 | Business

One of the two crucial things that indie / self-publishing authors should pay for is cover design. (The other is editing.)

Here are six different covers.

Which ones do you think are self-published?

(All of these are taken from the September 2016 and October 2016 editions of Joel Friedlander’s e-Book Cover Design Awards. I decided to use covers from these Awards as the authors or designers had already submitted them for critique, and I chose Awards from last year so that if those authors had wanted to make changes based on Joel’s comments, they’ve had a chance to do so!)

The answer? And perhaps you were expecting this …

All of these covers are self-published.

I’m not at all a designer or artist – I’m a reader – but I can tell you at a glance which covers look professional and polished; which ones suggest that the book is likely to be well-written and well edited: numbers 2 and 4.

I don’t think any of the others are terrible (I have seen some really dire covers over the years!) but none of them have that “pro” look to them.

So …

Why is the Cover So Important?

As an author, the cover is probably one of the last things you think about. You’re unlikely to consider it until long after the story is finished (and quite probably edited).

As a reader, though, the cover is the first thing you see. Quite often, the only information you have about the book is the title and the cover … and if those create a poor impression, why would you read on?

This is hard on authors. Sometimes, there’s a great story lurking inside a so-so cover. (When I was researching this post, I took a look at Owen Richards’ Neither Here nor There, which has a fairly amateur looking cover and a single 5 star review … and I liked it enough to borrow it on Kindle Unlimited.)

But however unfairly, readers (including me!) do tend to assume that an amateur cover equates to amateur writing.

A good cover can also say a lot in a small space: in particular, it conveys genre and tone. This isn’t just huge differences like “children’s picture book” vs “dark fantasy”. Think of the difference between, say, a cosy romance and an erotic novel, or alternate history versus actual history.

Even if You’re Artistic, Don’t Design Your Own Cover

I have no illusions about my artistic talents. While I can spot a poor book cover and make a blog post look halfway decent, I’m definitely best with words, not pixels!

Some authors are talented illustrators, though, or love to paint. I think even if you’re artistic, you should get professional help with your cover. That might mean providing a book cover designer with your own artwork for the cover, but letting them handle layout and typography.

Another problem with designing your own cover is that you may be tempted to throw everything into it: to include all the elements of your book (or to get so subtle that while the cover makes sense to you, it won’t mean anything at all to a reader who knows nothing else about your book).

Even if it means delaying publication while you save up some money for the cover, go with professional help.

Keep in mind, though, that not all designers are necessary equal! Some designers may be fairly new, or they may not have specific experience with book covers. Take a look at their portfolio and see if their covers look “pro” to you as a reader.

If you’re not sure, you might want to ask other authors for their recommendations (if you’re a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors, their members’ forum on Facebook is a great place to do this).

What Does It Cost?

Covers can cost almost anything, from $5 on Fiverr to $1,000 or more.

Realistically, you’re probably looking somewhere in the $200 – $300 range.

With my own covers for Lycopolis and Oblivion, my very kind and talented friend Lorna Cowie created the gorgeous illustrations for free (thanks, Lorna!) I added the text – title, tagline, author name – myself:

I felt, though, that they weren’t as professional as I wanted them to be (typography is not my strong point), and a couple of months ago, I got them reworked by the lovely Andrew from Design for Writers:

This cost me £89 (about $112) per cover (which included two versions of each one, with and without the taglines).

While I’d always recommend you get novels or full length non-fiction professionally designed, if you have virtually no budget for design, or if you just want a cover as, essentially, a placeholder, Fiverr might be an option.

With my free, short, non-fiction ebooks (available if you receive the Aliventures newsletter), I use Fiverr for straightforward and reasonably polished covers. I paid $5 each for the covers of Ten Powerful Ways to Make Your Blog Posts Stronger and Ten Easy Ways to Attract Readers to Your Blog … and Keep Them There.

Though it may be unfair, there’s still a perception from some people that self-publishing means shoddy, amateur-looking books that aren’t really ready to be unleashed on the world.

There are, of course, many many self-publishers who are extremely professional, who invest a lot of time (and money) into their books, and who are rightly indistinguishable from traditionally published authors.

I know myself how easy it is, though, to be a little eager and gung-ho going into self-publishing – and while in some fields (e.g. blogging), it’s good to get your best first effort out there and tweak it over time, if you’re self-publishing, you need your book to look as professional as possible.

If you’re looking for some help with cover design, try:

The Book Designer’s blog – particularly the e-Cover Design Awards. Read Joel’s comments on the various covers and try to figure out why some look good and some don’t! Also, this can be a great place to find a designer whose work you like.

The Alliance of Independent Authors – I finally joined a couple of months ago and their members-only Facebook group is a fantastic source of advice. I’ve seen members share covers-in-progress for feedback, for instance.

Ultimately, of course there’s no “rule” in self-publishing that says you can’t publish with a cover you’ve designed yourself in ten minutes in Paint … but I’d strongly recommend getting your cover professionally designed. If all you can afford right now is a basic Fiverr gig, then go with that.

What do you think about cover design, either as a reader or as an author? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.

Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.

My Novels

My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.

You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.


  1. Kevin

    $5 book covers. It is disappointing that you take the time to post a blog entry extolling the virtues of having your book cover properly designed, then spend $5 apiece on Fiverr. Those $5 covers are awfully generic—and, if you look at them from a distance, what you’ll see are BLOG POSTS STRONGER (huh?) and ATTRACT READERS (to what?), paired with visuals that could go with just about anything. They would be much better if they reflected more of you, particularly since you felt the books were worth publishing, even if as free editions.

    And I would respectfully submit that the covers above, regardless of typography, need more white space. In the first set, the typography needs some space; in the second, the illustrations need some space. I think a combination of the presentation of the illustrations from the first set with the layout of the type from the second set would work better. I also think you were on the right track with your choice of typeface; it’s just that the point sizes were too large.

    • Ali

      Thanks for the suggestions, Kevin!

      With including Fiverr, I wanted to offer options for writers who are either very broke or who, like me, have a bunch of short, free ebooks (that’s the case with the blogging ones) and who don’t really want to pay much. I agree they’re generic, but they’re a heck of a lot better than the ones I made myself.

      I also feel, rereading the post, that I didn’t make it very clear that Fiverr’s more like a last resort than a recommendation. I will tweak accordingly! Appreciate the feedback on that.

  2. Allison Yishin Law

    Wow, really never put much thought into how much a good cover would cost.
    Dear lord, a thousand for a good cover…how does one spend this much money on a cover.
    Glad that you included the bit about not designing the cover yourself – I have tried. And failed. I’ve also fallen into the trap of making the cover so complex that anyone that wasn’t me wouldn’t understand it.

    • Ali

      I suppose it really depends how long the cover design takes! If you’ve got a reasonably experienced designer charging $100/hour and it takes 10 hours … that’s $1000 right there.

      As I say, Fiverr is an option (though I wouldn’t personally go with it for a novel / full-length non-fiction) and you can probably find a perfectly good designer to put together a straightforward, professional looking cover in the $200 – $300 range.

  3. Raspal Seni

    It’s true that everyone thinks about something they see, on the basis of face value, at least initially. Inside an e-book with a so-so cover, could be jewels we don’t know.

    I think this blog post comes at the right time for me, as I’ve started writing my second e-book. I was thinking of fiverr, as I heard that it’s fine for getting non-fiction e-book covers. But I’m also thinking to hire a better book cover designer. This sure would cost a bit, but it’s an investment, isn’t it?

    I designed my own e-book covers for my first e-book, and they came really bad. The one I currently use for that e-book, I got feedback from a writers’ forum, that the title of the book was modern and the cover looked like from a 16th century book. That told me how bad it is to design your own e-book covers.

    I like your recommendation of going with a professional cover even if we have to delay it and save some money first.

    Though I haven’t yet used fiverr for hiring a cover designer, I do have a few recommended ones from people who have used their services.

    The two covers you got from fiverr, do look quite good and professional. At $5, they’re great.

    But, where did you get your bloggers guides e-book covers?

    • Ali

      If I were you, Raspal, I’d be tempted to try out Fiverr and see what you get, then go with something pricier if you’re not happy!

      The Blogger’s Guides are from Charlie Pabst of http://www.charfishdesign.com/ — he’s lovely, very experienced, and great to work with … but not cheap!!

  4. Ernie Zelinski

    You ask, “What do you think about cover design, either as a reader or as an author?”

    Well, as an author whose books (mainly self-published) have sold over 950,000 copies worldwide, I can say there is an attempt at intimidation by cover designers who say things like “You get what you pay for.” That is simply not true. Cover designers are promoting their own self-interest when they say that.

    The cover for my inspirational fable “Look Ma, Life’s Easy” was actually designed by a freelancer on Fiverr. I ended up paying him around $35 total because I kept asking for changes and didn’t want to just pay him $5.

    On the other hand, the cover design for my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” cost me $500. Fact is, I am just as happy with both cover designs, one that cost me $35 and one that cost me $500. I have seen cover designs that cost $2,500 or $3,000 for which I would not have paid $10.

    Then there are books that have both a bad cover design and a bad title. Take for example “Early Retirement Extreme”. Check it out on Amazon. This is a self-published book (POD) that has sold almost 12,000 copies in its print edition since it was released. Yet there are many retirement books, both published by traditional publishers and by self-publishers, which have “professionally” designed covers and much better titles, and have sold only 500 or 2,000 or 3,000 copies during that same period.

    This shows that a professionally designed cover is not “essential” for a book to do well. Sure, a professionally designed cover may help a book sell more copies. Here is the bottom line, however: “Content is King but Promotion is the Supreme Ruler.”

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Unconventional Career Coach
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 325,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 300,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Ali

      Thanks for your take on this, Ernie! I think there’s always going to be a bit of luck involved in cover design … you might happen across a great designer who’s still in college and taking on a few Fiverr gigs, for instance.

      Actually, the worst value-for-money covers I’ve seen (going by the examples, anyway!) are the ones offered by huge e-publishing services like Amazon and Lulu. I’d definitely always hire an independent designer!

      I do think there’s a difference between fiction and non-fiction covers, and I almost included a section on that in this post; may write something on it in future. For now … I agree with you that non-fiction authors can get away with quite poor covers, compared with fiction authors.

  5. Laura Thomas Boren

    Hi Ali –
    First, can I gush just a bit? Over the years, I’ve read your posts, bought your blogging ebooks and just today, joined the newsletter. There are a lot of wonderful writers out there who blog about the nitty gritty (and in an act of procrastination, I’ve spent many an hour reading many a blog post), but time and again, I come back to your blog for a reason – top notch in every way. Okay, gushing over.

    Covers. Agree in the main. My husband has been self-publishing on Amazon for the past 2 years and the first cover was a snapshot he took of our motorhome which happened to have a reflected American flag in the window. Yeah – cheesy!! But the first year out with this ridiculous cover we made a ton of money.

    So far, I’ve convinced him to upgrade other works with “fill in the blank” covers which I think are another “poor man/woman’s” way to do it. You pay usually way under $100 for the exclusive license to the cover and can customize it with typography. Strangely, some are quite good! But admittedly, most are not. There are quite a few designers who have websites selling them. Some also offer additional services for, of course, additional fees.

    My next step is to get him to agree to hire a designer to brand his work, so the look is consistent between books and series. This can get fairly expensive, but is worth it. Convincing a temperamental author however is another matter.

    The one thing I’d like to mention is that it is vitally important that any ebook cover be able to be viewed at the thumbnail sketch size. So – extra fussy or too small taglines, etc. – should be out. I suppose one could have two versions of a cover – one for ebooks, and one for POD which could be more complex.

    Good luck – love your covers for Oblivion and Lycopolis and the tweaks I think, work well. That’s the eye of a professional designer.

    • Ali

      Oh hey, gushing is ALWAYS welcome. 😀 Thanks so much for all the lovely words!

      Huge congratulations to your husband! Was it a non-fiction book? I feel like you can get away with a lot more in non-fiction covers (and maybe I’ll blog about this…)

      I think the “fill in the blank” kind can work fine (again, especially if you’re doing non-fiction). With blog themes, I tend to use a premium template and then customise, rather than pay for a brand new blog theme from scratch … so I suppose it’s similar to that.

      Excellent point about thumbnail size: that’s crucial, and it’s something that traditional publishers don’t always get right!

  6. Hamid

    I have many self published books, and cover design was one of the problems all the time. The problem is that my books are not in English and i don’t know if i can find someone for cover designing in non famous language or not.
    Can you help in this way ?

    • Ali

      If I were you, Hamid, I’d look at some similar books published in the same language and see who did the cover design for those. Good luck!

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