• Paulette Bates Alden
  • The Reluctant Self-Publisher: Part 3 -- The Quest for a Cover or Why I'm Not in Graphic Design
The Reluctant Self-Publisher: Part 3 -- The Quest for a Cover or Why I'm Not in Graphic Design

One of the aspects of self-publishing I was actually looking forward to was having control over my own cover. This seemed to me a big perk, since I had had no control over the covers of my traditionally published books. I had found the experience of seeing my previous covers for the first time, when they were already a fait accompli, jarring. Not that I didn’t like them exactly, but they were just so unexpected, someone else’s vision of the books. This time, I would get a cover that I wanted, something that really popped, as I thought of it, in terms of representing The Answer to Your Question visually. It would be fun . . . creative . . . easy.

I mean, how hard could it be?

I found a cover designer online. I liked some of her book designs, though not all; but I probably wouldn’t like those books either. The designer was reasonable, $300.00 for the front, spine and back. Some of the cover designers I researched on the web ran about $800, and I already anticipated hemorrhaging money on self-publishing my novel, so the price seemed right.

I was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, assuming that the designer could read my mind, which was actually pretty blank when it came to a cover. I didn’t really see how anyone could do a cover for a novel without reading it, but I didn’t expect her to do that for $300.00. I figured she designed covers, she’d know what to do. I sent her some ideas and images along with a synopsis, and a chapter-by-chapter summary. I provided a few adjectives for the cover: menacing; simple; stark. I suggested a snake on the cover.

A rattlesnake is a key image slithering through Answer, both literally and metaphorically.

Jean, my young naïf, tells Inga, the mother of Ben, who’s the suspect in four murders, about an incident from her childhood when she was walking with her grandmother in the mountains of North Carolina and they came upon an enormous rattlesnake wrapped around a pine tree. Jean’s legs gave out from fear, and Ganny had to carry her home. After Ben escapes from jail and shows up on Jean’s balcony, she thinks of him as a snake.  When she tells Inga that Ben is hiding out on her balcony, Jean says, “The snake is back.” Ben as snake is a running motif in the book.

I expected good things. It could happen. I have a friend who used the same book designer, loved both her previews, chose one of them, and was happy. End of story. Hers, not mine. 

The designer sent me two cover previews. Picture Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Not on the cover. On my face.

I suddenly grasped that the cover designer and I definitely had different tastes, at least where my novel was concerned. 

We tried again. More drafts. More Munch. A few thoughts of abandoning the whole damn project.

I didn’t want to hurt the designer’s feelings, but I had lost faith in her. At this point I had spent $250.00 on designs I would never use. Maybe someone would have used them, but not me. I wanted to love my cover and, shaken, I didn’t know how to accomplish that. I just knew I couldn’t get there with that designer. I cut my losses.

I was turning out to be not only a reluctant self-publisher, but a difficult, opinionated one as well.

Now I was nervous. I had Post-Traumatic Cover Design Syndrome. I worried that I could burn through a half-dozen cover designers, saying “I’ll know it when I see it,” and never seeing it.

I had to do better myself, before any designer could do better.

I began hanging out in the fiction section of Barnes and Noble, looking at many, many covers. I had been a casual connoisseur of covers before, taking them more or less for granted. But now I studied every detail, regardless of whether or not I had read the book. There are a lot of shitty covers out there. I wondered at a cover like Richard Ford’s Canada, which is basically just a bright orange background for the book title and his name. Couldn’t they do better than that? (And should I have a huge photograph of myself be the entire back cover?  Only if I were Richard Ford . . . ) Some covers really struck me.  I liked the bright, childish lettering of the one word “Room” on the cover of Emma Donaghue’s novel. I loved the way the tiger at the top of the cover of Tea Obreht’s novel The Tiger’s Wife was only partially revealed, suggesting hidden things. The image of a butterfly trapped in a glass surrounded by eerie light on the cover of James McQuire’s Beautiful Disaster piqued my curiosity, mysterious and doomed as it was.

I saw that my tastes leaned towards simple, clean, and dramatic, at least for this novel.

I looked at the ten million images of rattlesnakes on the Internet. I am now an Internet snake image expert. I had had enough of trying to communicate in language to a visual person. I would take more charge and communicate my cover idea in a picture to the next designer. I had at my disposal the sophisticated tools of a copier, scissors, and scotch tape. (See top for results.)

Then I did what I should have done in the first place. I asked around for a designer and got a word of mouth recommendation.

I was fixated on the idea that a single snake on the cover of Answer could be striking, no pun intended, menacing, and representative of the book. But what really lit me up was the idea that the snake could slither onto the front of the book, its body wrapping around the spine, its tail on the back of the book. As if it were coiled around the book! Cool! I hadn’t quite grasped that The Answer to Your Question will mostly be read (I hope) as an ebook. I still thought of a book as an object you hold in your hand, with pages, a back, spine and front. Still, there will be a print-on-demand paperback, so I clung to my idea of the wrap-around snake. At least I didn’t have to convince anyone of my cover idea. For better or worse, it was mine. I owned it.

The new designer, David Janik, was fine with working off my model. As we fine-tuned through ten or fifteen drafts, I realized how many details a cover involves. Do you have any idea how many fonts there are out there? How they each convey something slightly different, only you don’t know what if you’re not a font-person, which I was not? There are colors, placement of words, size of words, how it all fits together, what it conveys at a glance. There are compromises to be made.  There is insecurity about your own tastes and judgment. I asked everyone from the guys at the UPS store to my closest friends what they thought of the various cover drafts. This was both very helpful and too many opinions.  

Finally I just had to; well . . . you know the expression.

I decided which font I actually liked, Ar Blanca (because the “S” looks snaky to me). I told David to use it. I told him where I wanted the words placed, how I wanted them to look, what colors the background and text should be. He was patient and helpful, acting as a sounding board and giving me his opinions, but happy to execute my decisions, which was probably the only thing that was going to suit me anyway.

I have a new appreciation for great cover design. A cover has to capture something essential about the book and its tone, all in a quick, first impression. I also have a greater understanding of why most publishers don’t let the authors have too much, if any, input into their covers. And I have a new high regard for the principles of graphic design, none of which I know.

I should add a caveat to this, and to every “Reluctant Self-Publisher” post. You don’t have to do it like me. Please don’t! You don’t have to spend as much time, money and trouble as I did to get a cover you’re happy with. I’m sure there are plenty of cheaper, creative ways to get a cover that I don’t know about. But in my experience, limited as it is, it helps to have a good idea of what you want so you can do it yourself or direct the designer.

I'd love to hear about other people’s quests to get a great cover.

So tell me: How did you get your cover or how do you plan to get one?

I will uncover the cover to The Answer to Your Question here when the novel is ready for Prime Time.  (And when I do, don’t tell me if you don’t like it. I DO NOT want to hear!)  

In the meantime, up next Wednesday on The Reluctant Self-Publisher: “Copy Editing: The Best Money I Ever Spent (Or Is It Copyediting?)” 

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  • Suzanne Linn Kamata

    Paulette, I have people in Greenville. :-) Or at least my sister-in-law's family lives there, so I visit maybe every other trip to the U.S. I've also got family in Lexington and Anderson.


    Yoru book sounds great, by the way. I found myself thinking about it the other day.

  • Crystal Mary Lindsey

    I don't know if this is of interest to you?   I took my own photo's for the cover of my first book. After giving them to my publisher and not liking my cover result I then gave them to my photographer daughter. I feel she did a beautiful job by changing the photo and colors into a painting. Even the way she kind of burnt the book name and my name as the author on the front cover, was lovely. I will be allowing her to design my next book cover as well.

    Crystal Mary Lindsey


    Shadows of Time  (Editors Choice)

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Hi, Elisabeth, I just read that article last night and it freaked me out a bit because I have all those front pages or whatever he calls them.  Thanks for the head's up on his blog and your recommendation of it.  I'm going to look at it right now.  Passing along this kind of information is very helpful as I wander in the wilderness.  There's a lot of helpful stuff from people who have gone before, but it helps for someone to put up a sign and say "this way." 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Karma, it's interesting and helpful to get your opinion as a publicist.  I think the main thing, whether you do your own cover or have someone do it, is to get one that really works and that you feel is right.  But an experienced designer can put it all together to look professional if you need that kind of help.  I certainly did!  Thanks for your advice. 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Eva, I love the names of your books.  The first one, about the walker and wheelchair, with the subtitle about healing, sounds powerful.  Congratulations on those books.  And for doing the covers on the last two.  It is very gratifying to actually get a cover you want.  Thanks for letting us know about your experience. 

  • Elisabeth Zguta Publishing


    Here is a great article about cover design by Joel Friedlander worth revisiting (you may have already seen this)


    His blog has very helpful information for anyone who wants to self publish

  • Karma

    Nice post, Paulette!

    As a publicist, my advice is to all self-published authors is to hire a professional to do the cover. Consumers may not be able to tell the difference, but anyone who works at the media can tell at a glance if the cover isn't professionally designed. It's an unfortunate reason for a good story to get dismissed, but the cliche exists for a reason.

  • Eva Schlesinger

    How interesting to learn the inside scoop on your cover process. I am grateful to illustrator Joseph Daniel Fiedler for the cover of my first chapbook, Remembering the Walker and Wheelchair: poems of grief and healing (Finishing Line Press, 2008). As for my second and third chapbooks, View From My Banilla Vanilla Villa (dancing girl press, 2010) and Ode 2 Codes & Codfish (forthcoming from dancing girl press in 2013), I designed the covers.


  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Mary, that is one provocative cover and title!  I love the description of your essaysl on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Running-Stilettos-Living-Balanced-Dangerous/dp/0595492428/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1354328374&sr=1-9&keywords=mary+t+wagner  You sound like my kinda gal.  I have one pair of stilettos and I'm afraid to wear them for fear of turning an ankle.  I think I'll take them to Florida and give them a day at the beach! 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Pamela, I just took a look at your cover(s) and wow, it was worth the effort.  And your book sound totally fascinating and important, especially now.  Thanks for drawing our attention to it, and also for sharing your cover story.  It's REALLY helpful to know what your experience was with Createspace (and also your follow-up about all the good things they did, just not the cover) and how you hung in there and worked it out with your own "team" -- it's a great success story and cover.  OH!  I just read the rest of your comment, and see that the book was picked up by a publisher -- Seal Press -- how great! and I like that cover too.  Congratulations.  I hope to read your book when I get my life back, ASP (after self-publishing). 

  • Mary T. Wagner

    My first book cover in 2008, for "Running with Stilettos," was the same photograph of my spike heels that I'd taken more than a year before when I first needed a signature image for my blog of the same name.  And THAT is a tale to tell! I had a name for the blog, and my first essay, but no photo. It was the day before New Years Eve. I wanted to launch at the turn of the new year. I had a vision of shoes on a beach, and you can imagine how easy that would be to photograph in winter in the Midwest. On an overcast day.  Still, the sun came out for a little spell, and I threw a few pair of my favorite shoes in a bag and drove thirty miles to a beach. Scoped it out first to make sure that I was alone, because I figured I'd look like an idiot, then returned to the car for the camera and the shoes. I posed one pair, then another, then another by the shoreline as I froze, face-down on cold, wet sand and snapped away. Finally, I got ready to leave. And as I turned away from the shore, I realized that the sunlight on the waves illuminated the water a whole different way. I pulled out the last pair of shoes I'd photographed, set them by the water, and took another couple of snapshots.  The last one I took was the best of the entire bunch, and I took it just as an afterthought!


  • Pamela Olson

    To Donna Kaulkin: I was very happy with CreateSpace's job of manufacturing and distributing the books, and they did a phenomenal job on interior formatting. They were extremely responsive to even my most picky little request and produced a gorgeous book interior that my readers raved about. Their customer service was excellent, too (and I can only imagine what a trial it is dealing with anxious writers like me all day!).

    I wasn't so thrilled with cover design, and it was over-priced I think, the designer was not very responsive, and it also took longer than expected. I think it might be advisable to do this elsewhere. As for their text services and marketing, I would steer clear. The marketing is virtually useless (I ended up complaining and getting my money back), and their text creation was sophomoric. I don't know about editing, but I would suspect you can get this with higher quality and lower price elsewhere.

    Feel free to contact me if you have any questions: http://www.pamolson.org/contact.htm

  • Pamela Olson

    Oh yes -- I have been there, too. The first time was with the self-published version of my book. I used one of CreateSpace's cover designers, and like you I somehow assumed that based on my synopsis, they would be able to read my mind about what kind of image I had in mind. Unfortunately the images were total cliches -- exactly the opposite of what I had hoped -- and it didn't resemble the spirt of the book at all. For the next round I offered suggestions for images and themes, and what came back was such a Frankenstein's monster of inappropriateness I almost cried. I wasn't made out of money, either, and didn't know what to do.

    Finally I decided to crowd-source the design. I used one design element from the CreateSpace designer (two strips of parchment for the title), I created a silhouette skyline, a friend of a cousin of my step-dad created the central image, and my boyfriend and I designed the sky. The result is here (the first one): http://fasttimesinpalestine.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/last-post-on-cover-design-really

    When my agent found a publisher for the book about a year after it was self-published, I knew I had to go through it all again, this time with less control. It was still a process (to put it mildly), but luckily my publisher was very responsive, and we came up with a new cover that we both liked: http://www.amazon.com/Fast-Times-Palestine-Homeless-Homeland/dp/158005482X

    All along the way both times, I shared countless drafts with my blog and Facebook friends, and I know exactly what you mean about being both helpful and too many opinions! But overall it helped a lot, and I'm glad many of my friends now feel like they have a small stake in my project. :)

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Yes, Warren, I lived to tell the tale!  And you will too. Good luck with that second edition (and congrats!).  I just looked at your profile and loved your life!  And I'm glad your website is http://www.marriedwithluggage.com/ and not married with baggage. . .  

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Tracey, your comment is so full of great information. I'm glad you had such a good experience with She Writes Press. I'm impressed (and jealous) that you got that list of thought-provoking questions about the book. I imagine that's helpful not only for the cover but for marketing. I had never heard of bookcoverarchive.com -- thanks for passing along that resource!  And of course having feedback from members of your target audience is so smart.  All good wishes for Duck Pond Epiphany! 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Rebecca, I love those close-up of faces on your book covers!  Very striking.  You're speaking my language with "trial and error."  Story of my life. Glad you're feeling good about things.  http://www.rebeccaforster.com/

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    HI, Julie.  I'm not sure everyone would consider what I did "deep thought" - more seat of the pants stuff.  But thanks for your kind understanding -- you're absolutely right that after all that goes into writing a book, one wants to give it the best launch possible, and the cover is the first impression -- and one the author will have to live with a long while. 


  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Hey, Donna.  You go first, okay?  Like who's going to jump off the high dive first . . .  I plan to use Createspace but I have yet to upload or download or whatever one does (therefore I haven't posted abouit it).  I am having my manuscript professionally formatted by wonderful Rob at www.52novels.com, whom I used for formatting my first two books into ebook form (they were published prior to the Internet and maybe even computers and electricity, it feels like).  Anyway -- I didn't want to tackle the formatting myself for fear of making yet more mistakes than I'm going to make anyway.  I debated between Lightningsource and Createspace.  I just heard from someone on my website blog that she was very happy with Xlibris, but I think I'm going with Createspace. Let me know how it goes for you and good luck. I hear that they are VERY user friendly, and I have actually called them a couple of times with questions as I think about what I'll need to do to use their services and they are incredible in terms of calling right back and answering every question. 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Kathryn, you've published 15 novels?!  Congratulations!  You're a writing machine! And I enjoyed looking at your covers, which are pleasingly spooky!  It's wonderful to hear that there is new life in reissue (and congrats on that too) and that you like Dawne so much as the cover designer.  I'm enjoying hearing other people's success stories.  Dawne must be really reasonable too.  That's great. Thanks for writing about your experience, and no more SCREAMS! 


  • Jessica Gardner

    I can tell I got lucky with my first book (after reading your account of how cover design could happen). I knew a wonderful graphics designer from my freelance web-writing gigs. He had done a book cover or two before, sent me the samples, and my coauthor and I both felt it was a great fit.

    We tried telling him what we thought would look good, and he did some mock ups of the ideas, and then took it upon himself to send us a totally original idea that he came up with after reading the synopsis of the story. It made our versions look, well, lame.

    So we lucked out, and as I build my business helping others self-publish, I know I'll have a designer I can refer with confidence. Win-win.

    Thanks for your post. But I'm sorry about the tough learning curve you hit with this experience!

  • Warren Talbot


    Thank you for sharing your harrowing journey through the land of cover design Hell. I'm convinced that had Dante needed to go through the process he would have surely added a new circle of hell dedicated to picking the cover for his book. Your story is a breath of fresh air for all of us who have been there (or are there right now) and now know we are not alone. 

    Tomorrow will be another day in the battle of for a new cover for our 2nd edition. However, I'll be starting it with  a smile on my face knowing that this is what separates us here from those who merely dream of releasing our words into the world. It's nice to have company in this 10th circle of hell and so nice to hear when they tell their story. Nice to know a fellow occupant of this self-imposed joy of writing.

  • Tracey Barnes Priestley

    Wonderfully written and full of useful information. I like to add my experience to the discussion, as  I've recently signed off on the cover for my novel, Duck Pond Epiphany. (March, 2013, She Writes Press) I had very strong ideas about what it should "look" like - that's what happens when a one time art major, turned therapist, turned writer gets her wheels turning! I believe I had a positive experience for a few reasons: 1) SWP sent me three pages of thought provoking questions about my book prior to the design process ever beginning; 2) I discovered bookcoverarchive.com - the candy store of cover ideas - and spent plenty of time zeroing in on what "felt" right to me; and 3) I asked others, specifically those who would be part of my identified readers (women 40+) for reactions to each draft. What could have been a nightmare experience proved to be both enjoyable and productive.


  • Rebecca Forster

    I had quite a few books on my backlist that needed new covers since I didn't own the image rights. What a journey. Especially for my thriller series. There was a lot of trial and error and I think I'm getting to a good space now. Great article. Indy publishing is hard work all around!

  • Julie Luek

    Fascinating. Honestly, I never gave this aspect of self-publishing such deep thought.  But after working so hard on the book, I can completely understand why making sure the cover was just perfect is so important.

  • Donna Kaulkin

    Thank you for this. I will soon be at this stage of self publishing; have decided to use Amazon CreateSpace for everything -- have you already discussed this?

    -- Donna