Book Cover Design: 99 Designs any self-published author about the three key things to achieving success as an indie and you’ll hear:

  1. Write the best book you can
  2. Write an intriguing and solid blurb
  3. Have a cover that demands attention

These things are essential. #3 draws people to your book, #2 draws them inside, and #1 draws people to leave outstanding reviews for the next customer. Even if you have no marketing plan and don’t promote the heck out of your book, having the three essential keys above will almost assuredly result in successful sales. (Success to be determined by the author…)

Let’s focus on the book cover. This is the face of your book. This is what will make people stop scrolling through the list of books on their ereader or tablet and click on your book to learn more about it (and then on to #2…).

You want your cover to demand attention, grab people by the collar and draw them in like the kid with a swimming pool on a hot sunny day.

Not just that, but your cover also needs to say something about the book and its genre. It needs to convey whether this book is suitable for children or not, whether the book is a light read or a high-concept epic fantasy that will require attention to detail, and it needs to be unique. None of this “same shit, different book” stuff. If that’s the case you have a serious problem.

I began my search for the cover of my first book, The Blood Moon, a year before the book was released!

Granted, this was likely because I was anxious to get the ball rolling on my indie publishing career

It is important to start early because you don’t know how long it is going to take you to find a cover designer that is affordable and can create a cover that you love. You’re going to be staring at this thing for the rest of your career. Your book cover—whether it is your first book, second book, twenty-third book, or what—is going to come up with your name tagged on it forever. You better like it.

Perhaps you’re tech-savvy and are able to design a stunning book cover all on your own (Jason Gurley, anyone?). I’m not capable of that, nor do I have the time amongst my other obligations and my writing.

I stumbled across a couple designers with websites through blogs like Joann Penn’s The Creative Penn and found a site called OctagonLab. Their covers seemed decent and their price was almost a steal compared to other designers—for just $247, they would design three covers (three different covers for one book OR three covers for three separate books, the author decides) for print and ebook.

Almost immediately I emailed them and asked them a list of questions:

  • Could I submit my own photos for manipulation?
  • What is the turnaround time?

I asked a few more questions that were already on their website, but I was mostly asking (between the lines): What’s the catch?

I was hesitant to go ahead with them because this was the first expenditure I would put toward my book. I tried to find other designers, but they were expensive. Then I found Jason Gurley’s website and immediately fell in love with his designs. His website announced that he was no longer taking commissions, but I emailed him anyway. I thought, “Maybe he would make an exception for me?” Wouldn’t hurt to ask, right?

Well…turns out his website was accurate. But, he did offer to give me the names of some designers that were comparable to him.

He gave me the names of four designers. I looked them up. A few were too “genre-y,” if you will. The covers either screamed “fantasy,” “young adult,” or “innovative.” I wanted something that was simple and eye-catching that would still fit my book and my genre. I didn’t want half-naked manipulations of people on the cover. That didn’t fit my book, or my style as an author. I couldn’t proudly put my name on a cover like that.

One designer stuck out to me. Scarlett Rugers. Her work was similar to Jason Gurley’s and I knew I was going to get a great cover out of it. The problem: she charged $495 for print and ebook designs (which is reasonable, but for someone starting out on a post-college budget, yeah…), and she was booked up for two months.

To make my hesitation even worse, OctagonLab contacted me and offered me a coupon code for half off. I could get book covers for the first three books in my series for $123.50. Sounded too good to be true. I posted on KBoards and the Createspace community asking if anyone has worked with them and I didn’t get very many results right away.

So I booked my spot with Scarlett Rugers just before going out of town for the weekend. While I was away and had spent some time not thinking about my future publishing career, I decided that $495 was too much to spend on one cover my first time around. Maybe for my fourth or fifth cover when I have a steady following and a regular publishing income. So I sent her an email and cancelled.

The following week I was on KBoards and the Createspace community and finally got an answer about OctagonLab—someone posted that she worked with them and had a great experience and received a great cover from it. I was still hesitant, especially for my first book. I wanted this thing to make a splash and I wanted to carry a theme across the ensuing series. So I decided to pass on OctagonLab, for now. Down the line I’m sure I’ll use them to test the waters and find what the best method is, but until then I was going to take my business elsewhere.

I discovered a crowdsourcing website not long after that (maybe it was from the KBoards and Createspace forums, I’m not sure) called 99 Designs. Basically, you post your book description, cover ideas, and sample images up on the site and designers that have signed up with 99 Designs would submit covers for you to rate and comment.

There are four design packages: Bronze ($299), Silver ($499), Gold ($799), and Platinum ($1,199). The only real difference from what I could tell is that the higher package you got almost guaranteed that you’d get a larger number of high-quality designs. All the packages come with a money-back guarantee, which you can then choose to opt out of to entice more designers to share their designs. The thought here is that if you declare that you will choose a winner on 99 Designs, more designers are likely to participate to see if they could win the design contest.

Being the poor kid that I am, I went with the Bronze package. Within 12 hours I had probably 15 designs. At the time I thought they were all knock-outs, until I let the contest fester a bit more and I eventually received just under 200 designs.

The longer the contest went on and the more I commented and submitted feedback, the better the designs got. I created a poll and shared it on KBoards and the Createspace community and got some honest feedback—amongst other comments. That helped me narrow down my choices. I picked the finalists and worked on details of the cover. I narrowed it down to five different cover concepts and worked with each designer to make changes and come up with a cover that was really catered to me and my book.

I created a second poll and submitted it to almost anyone I knew to get the most feedback on which one was best. I made my final decision from there. The designer I chose as the winner continued to work with me even after the official handover. I hadn’t completed my back cover copy and I wasn’t positive on the book length yet (for the width of the spine), so I needed to remain in contact with him in order to finalize those bits before the cover was officially finalized and ready for print.

I can say I’m very happy with the results. For a middle-of-the-road price, I was able to work with multiple designers, see several ideas and concepts and work through the nuts and bolts of book cover design to get the final product that I can proudly put my name on.

Like I said, down the line I will probably go with other book cover designers to feel them out, but I’d say for beginners and for someone who doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want, 99 Designs will present you with a variety of ideas and concepts that you can choose from and ask for modifications to further refine the cover.

Some things to keep in mind when you’re running a contest on 99 Designs:

  • Be specific and be detailed. The more information you give the designers the better. You have an idea for the cover? Tell them. You want a tagline on the cover? Tell them. You want the words “A Novel,” “A Short Story,” “A Novella” on the cover? Tell them. They won’t know otherwise.
  • Make sure there aren’t any extra fees associated with cover designs. These aren’t top-rated designers. They use stock images and manipulate them for submission. Nothing horribly wrong with that. But make sure that you’re not required to purchase the licenses for the images. Make sure the designers have the rights to manipulate them. And be aware of any print-run caps that they might have. Some stock image websites cap it off at a certain point like 250,000 or something. If it’s only for print books you shouldn’t have a problem because usually ebooks are the hot-ticket items for indies.
  • Remember to rate and comment on the designs you like. This contest is only going to take up a week of your time. You need to be obsessed with it. Like I said, this is the face of your book. This is important. Make sure to eliminate designs you automatically don’t like and ask for revisions on the ones that could use work.
  • Clearly state the specs of the book. Are you only looking for an ebook cover? What retailers are you submitting to? Different retailers have different requirements for book covers, make sure your designer knows that. Are you looking for a print book cover? What size is it? 6×9? 5×8? Where are you uploading? Createspace? Ingram? Let them know as much as possible so when The Blood Moonit comes time for the final handover, you’ll have everything you need.

There have been some grumbles among the self-pub community that this isn’t a good way to go, and I have to disagree. At least for a newbie. This is a cost-effective way to get a nice looking cover that will fit your book. Sure you are shorting freelance designers not associated with 99 Designs, but if you can’t afford the designer’s price and you skimp on the editing, you’re not going to sell very many books, no matter how good your cover is.

Now, if that wasn’t the longest blog post ever! Hope you found it useful! Feel free to leave comments and questions below. Also, I would love critiques of my cover if you have any.

9 thoughts on “Book Cover Design: 99 Designs”

  1. I found your blog as you posted a link to your 99Designs experience on Dylan Hearn’s blog. My own experience of 99Designs was just as positive as yours and I would wholly endorse your observations. I established a great relationship with my winning designer and, once I realised how it all worked, very much enjoyed the process.

    In case you or anyone else is interested, my post on the 99Designs experience is here:

  2. Reblogged this on Tammy Salyer and commented:
    Great post by paranormal author David Neth about finding and vetting a good cover design. He went with 99 Designs after doing due diligence and details why this was the best choice for him. If you’re in the cover market, and especially if this will be your first cover, give this a read.

  3. Stumbled upon Tammy’s reblog of this while browsing through the ‘publishing’ tags. Insightful stuff, David, I’ll definitely be giving 99 Designs a look-see. The whole process sounds like it could be a loada fun!

    PS Dig the cover you went for

    1. Thanks Daniel! I remember the early version of this cover stuck with me throughout the whole contest. I tweaked it and made minor changes and now I love it. I’ve had this cover for almost a year and I still love it. I think that shows that I chose the right cover!

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