• 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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  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    Oh Paulette,

    I feel for you. Since I've been published since 1984 and have had 15 novels published with many traditional publishers I've had some really awful covers. I mean stinkers. I, too, had no input in those early days. I'm sure "The Scream" was on my face more than a couple of times. Ha, ha. But as all my old/new novels have been rereleased the last two years I've been blessed (through my publishing company) with an amazing cover artist, Dawne Dominique, from Canada. She seemed to read my mind with each of my 15 novels being redone. She worked with me to get exactly what I saw in my mind and heart. And she isn't as expensive as yours. I LOVE all of my covers with her. Go take a look here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Kathryn+Meyer+Griffith  to see them. MOST of them are her covers. (Some are older books she didn't do. But all my new 2010-2012 ones are hers.)   Kathryn Meyer Griffith 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    David, I can tell from your website and your covers that you like bright, jazzy, colorful stuff.  And obviously you know your work better than anyone, so that makes you qualified to think of an image such as the candy or Buddha.  It's nice that you enjoyed the process of choosing the covers.  My process was a little more problematic, probably because I didn't know what I was doing. You took matters in your own hands, and came out happy with the results. 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Suzanne, your experience is so interesting.  Thanks for telling us about it, and for the tip of your hat to Wyatt-Mackenzie.  I hadn't heard of it, and I just looked at the website, and also at your book covers, and I entirely agree that they're stunning.  Also interesting about how it didn't work out with the illustrator, and how you had to back off of that.  Makes me feel a little better about bombing out with my first designer.  I see you're in Japan, but where did you live in South Carolina?  I'm from Greenville originally, now in Minnesota. 

  • David Swan

    I quite enjoy the whole process of choosing the cover for my books saying that I haven't a clue whether they add or attract any buyers but I still enjoy selecting an image relevant to the photograph and then editing. I have done this for a book of poetry and a book of short stories. If you don't mind can you take a peak and offer critique.They are both free


  • Suzanne Linn Kamata

    In addition to traditionally publishing books, my publisher Nancy Cleary at Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing has a program which allows writers to set up their own imprint. For a fee (I think it's around $1,000), she will design a cover and book interior, colophon, and help with marketing. Nancy is a graphic designer, and I love, love, love the covers that she created for the two books I've done with her so far - Call Me Okaasan and The Beautiful One Has Come. She was open to my suggestions, and I got to choose the final cover.


    For my forthcoming book, Gadget Girl, I suggested an illustrator to the publisher (GemmaMedia), but he had never designed a book cover before, and I think I was very unhelpful. I sent him some covers that I liked, but I felt that he wanted to retain his creative vision. At any rate, it was kind of a disaster and I wound up backing off and asking the publisher to forget about it and go with her usual book designer, who used stock images, but nevertheless came up with a stunning cover.