The Indie Author’s Guide to Hiring a Cover Artist

The hallowed day has come!! After rigorous re-writes, edits, and a final layer of polish – your manuscript is as good as it’s ever going to be. It’s time to unleash this beast into the wild…

To complete the project however, there’s a final piece of the puzzle left to tackle: THE COVER ART.

Bajillions of words have been written on the importance of cover art, so I won’t wax lyrical on the topic here – any professional worth their salt KNOWS the book cover can make or break a release. To put things into context I’ve personally worked on projects where a re-brand (new book cover) has resulted in 5 – 20 X more sales for the author’s title. I bet you’d like some of that action too 😮

So we’re all in agreement: A powerful / high impact cover that screams intrigue and excitement is the way to go. But how do we procure such visual delights at a fair price… without being burned in the process?

With this guide you’ll learn how to sell MORE books by hiring the perfect cover artist for your project. We’ll discuss where to find the artists, essential things to look out for when making a buying decision, and how to have a smooth / pain-free working relationship with your collaborator.

Sounds like win? Read on for the skinny:

First Things First

I should let you guys know why I have a lot to say on this subject…

I’ve produced artwork professionally for 20 years. The bulk of my work has been in the indie sphere, but I’ve also worked for a range of A-Listers / BIG-5 publishing houses too.

I’ve been around the block, and learned through the fire of experience many of the best practices of commissioning book cover art. Whether it was working for Stephen King (what a blast!!), or an indie’s first release – the fundamentals remain largely the same.

Whether you’re a grizzled veteran, or fresh-faced new fish – the principles in this guide will build your confidence when it comes to commissioning book cover art.

The Art That SELLS Books

Before we get the gears moving, let’s take a moment to REALLY think about what sells books. Believe it or not, it’s not just a case of choosing what you think is ‘pretty’ when commissioning cover art. There’s a helluva lot more to it than that…

Selling the Sizzle

My mantra when it comes to putting out ANY kind of genre-product is SELL THE SIZZLE. Think back to the glory days of VHS video stores, when your younger (prettier) self browsed the rows upon rows of seductively packaged titles. The artwork on those covers had a profound impact on your buying decision – especially if you were a horror-hound like me!!

The movie itself could have been absolute TOILET, but with that big badass monster on the cover – what 15 year old could say no to that??

So how does this relate to selling books in the 21st century? The psychology is largely the same when selling books, however the modern buying environment is a LOT more competitive… The aim of the game is to make your customer STOP SCROLLING (on Amazon / FB / Twitter etc.) and whisper:

“Holy S**T, what IS THAT!?”

J Caleb Design Cover Art

J Caleb Design – Selling the DAMN SIZZLE

As an author of genre fiction – you need to SELL THE SIZZLE of your given genre. If you’re writing Horror, feature your monster / antagonist front and centre. If you’re writing Fantasy, play upon the exciting visual motifs of your story (warriors, dragons, creatures etc.)

I like to call these ‘Genre Motifs’, and just like the VHS covers of olde – they get your readers excited by serving them up EXACTLY what they like, on a visual platter of awesomeness.

Now I may be detecting some eye-rolls here, and mutterings of Well duh, captain obvious!! – but over my career, I’ve worked with many clients that miss this fact.

High Concept / Simple Covers

Some authors will want to take a hyper-minimal / high-design approach, when creating book covers. Whilst this can work brilliantly for non-fiction titles, I’d advise against it for genre fiction authors – especially if you’re still in the process of building your name.

Yes, it worked for E.L. James’ Fifty Shades series, or those snazzy Penguin rebrands of popular titles – but for the rest of us, our biggest weapon is still SELLING THE SIZZLE.

fifty shades books

Fanfic Smut, Artfully Packaged

The titans of publishing can get away with it because the author / title has a huge amount of BRAND EQUITY – gained via massive global PR, or because they’re Stephen King. The brand sells the title, and the cover art becomes pretty much secondary to the power of the name.

Regardless of where your own brand equity stands, eye-popping cover art will be your biggest weapon for rising above the noise.

How ‘Accurate’ Should the Cover Art Be?

Now this is the age-old question… When it comes to your cover art, how ACCURATE should it be, in relation to your narrative?

Throughout my career, this particular issue has been the NUMBER ONE CAUSE of poor cover art. I’ve spoken to many of my artist peers in publishing, and the same issue plagues projects across the board. It’s a universal killer of sales.

When you have a choice of being 100% ‘accurate’ to the narrative, or going with something ‘badass’: ALWAYS CHOOSE ‘BADASS’!!

Obviously, you’d want something representative of the story – and your cover artist wants that too… but when you’re drilling them over multiple finnicky details to get it ‘just right’, that can have a seriously detrimental effect on the overall cover. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.

Choose the right cover artist, give them your instructions, and let them run wild!! It’s a delicate balance between getting exactly what you want, and allowing a certain amount of wriggle-room for the project. The more freedom you allow your cover artist, the better your cover art will be. I 100% guarantee it.

Yes, there are caveats to this… you don’t want your cover-art character to be blonde, when in your book the guy has black hair. This point has more to do with your artwork getting incrementally WORSE, as a result of forcing pointless narrative details into the composition, that the customer would never even notice at the thumbnail level.

Give your artist (a fair amount of) freedom. Always choose BADASS over accuracy.

What Makes a Good Cover Artist?

Aside from the fact that your artist produces great artwork and typography, there are other factors at play when working on a collaborative project.

Here are the main attributes a cover artist should have, that will ensure your project goes without a hitch:

1. Communication

The artist should respond to your enquiries in a timely manner. Acceptable is within 24 hours, ideal is within 2 – 5 hours. This keeps the project moving, and stops the creativity from stagnating.

With the above in mind, do take into consideration whether your artist is at the opposite end of the planet – time differences can increase the ‘wait time’ for responses!! Artists gotta sleep too you know.

If you go days without a response, then you have a definite issue.

2. ‘Amiability’

If the artist is polite / courteous / upbeat… that’s going to help the creative process A LOT!! Offering creative services is a ‘people game’, and how your artist treats you will affect the overall project.

Of course, this is a two way street – you’ve got to play nice too – to get the most out of your artist 😉 If you’re a prima donna / douchey, then the artist will be less inclined to give their best – or may stall when replying to your messages.

3. Confidence

Even though your artist may be the nicest guy / gal in the world, they need more than that to give you the cover art you deserve.

The confident artist will (diplomatically) tell you when you’re getting it wrong. The confident artist will tell you why stretching the title to the full width of the book cover isn’t the greatest idea… OR why that photo your cousin took shouldn’t be let anywhere near the cover art!!

Serious cover art pros know how to gently guide the author / publisher into the ‘correct’ direction, using diplomacy and finesse… without tempers rising, or creative friction occuring.

The relationship between client and artist is synergistic, and to work well – requires a certain amount of ‘give and take’.

Choosing Your Cover Artist

With such a low barrier to entry, it’s safe to say it’s pretty much a buyers market out there. We’re blessed to have fiercely talented cover artists across the globe offering their services, at a wide range of budgets.

There are many artists out there who will give you MAJOR bang for your buck, providing a world-class service AND sales results… Unfortunately there are also shysters who view the artform as a quick payday, who operate with less than ideal ethical standards.

Working with these cheapsters can actually result in MAJOR legal troubles for you later down the line, as we explored in our previous post. Don’t be the author that gets burned.

With such a mind-boggling range of options, and a crowded marketplace – where the hell do you start with all this?

Here are some of the top tips to keep in mind when choosing your cover artist:

1. The Artist has been Referred

If you have a buddy that’s successfully worked with a cover artist, and the resulting artwork was awesome – then that’s possibly the best indicator to have that the cover artist is legit.

Ensure their style is the right fit for your genre, and double check they’re working at the budget range you can afford. Ask your colleague how they got on with the artist, and if there were any issues with the creative process.

By doing the above, you could potentially save yourself A LOT of back and forth choosing the right artist for your project!!

Cursed Book Cover by Christian Bentulan

The Filipino Phenom (Christian Bentulan) demonstrates his cover-art prowess…

2. The Artist Has a Branded Website

The first thing you can do to check how serious an artist is, is find out whether they have a branded website. NOT a website with a .WIX or .WORDPRESS subdomain – but a professional website, with a branded domain.

To me, this is the first indicator of how professional a particular artist is. If they’ve taken the time to build the website, and pay out for a personalised domain – that puts them a cut above the rest of the players. The artist has INVESTED in their pursuit, and they know the game is much much bigger than social media promotion alone.

Rebecca Frank Cover Art Website

Rebecca Frank, this gal does it RIGHT

I’ve actually received a fair amount of flak for making this point in interviews previously, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one:

Any cover artist worth their salt has a branded website.

3. The Artist Posts New Art FREQUENTLY

The professional artists who get the JOB DONE are oversubscribed. As a result, they post new artwork online on a regular basis. They’re active and visible – you see them popping up everywhere, sharing quality work with high frequency.

Of course, being in demand means the premium for such artists goes up – however NOT always, as we’ll discover later in this guide…

4. The Artist Has Great Typography / Layout Skills

This game isn’t just pretty art – it’s visual communication.

Book cover art is a beautiful unison of illustration, layout, and typography. It is ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE that your cover artist has mastery of both illustration AND graphic design / typography / layout.

The artist must be able to effectively communicate the ‘feel‘ of your story with the illustration, alongside the essential copy (book title, author name, sub-title etc.). All of the elements must work together as cohesive whole, with a sense of balance and unity.

I know MANY awesome digital artists who decided to jump in on the book cover game – but they were sorely lacking in the design / typography department. Visual communication is an artform in itself, and requires AS MUCH (if not more) practice than the artwork itself. It is not to be under-estimated by any stretch.

Of course, there are instances where you can commission an illustrator to produce the artwork – and then hire a talented designer to provide the typography / layout. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, if you have the budget to cover the cost!!

Shawn King STK Creations Cover Art

My favourite genre-fiction designer Shawn King (STK Creations) often provides typography / layout for illustrated covers

Most book cover artists offer an ‘all-in’ solution, providing both the illustration AND typography / layout – so it’s imperative that they are proficient in ALL aspects of the game.

5. You LOVE Their Work

Choosing a cover artist can literally be as simple as seeing an awesome book cover, and contacting the artist (direct through their branded website!!) to find out their rates.

The speed in which the artist gets back to you is also a good indicator of their professionalism and dedication to the craft. This is another reason why I urge Authors / Publishers to work with fulltime cover artists.

6. They’re a ‘Specialist’

You really can’t go wrong when it comes to working with a cover-art specialist in your chosen genre. These artists dedicate their life and soul to a narrow sub-niche, and develop a world-class prowess for creating cover art for a very particular audience.

I used to be a hyper-specialist (horror!!), and loved every minute of it.

You Get What You Pay For

So here we are… the real meat and bones of the guide. How much should I be paying these guys for cover art?

The first major point I’m going to make here, is avoid any cover artist that is BELOW $100 USD. I can already see the various comment sections flare up in rage:

“How DARE you say that I shouldn’t spend less than $100 on cover art!! You don’t know what I have to deal with, I can barely afford to eat!!” (etc.)

Again, I’m going to stand by my (potentially unpopular) point.

Here’s the rub… You spend X-amount of months toiling over your manuscript, undergoing the relevant work to craft something beautiful – then you slap a FUGLY $25 cover onto it, immediately cheapening your product and obliterating any chance you had to make sales. It beggars belief.

If you want to operate within a FIERCELY competitive marketplace (and find success), then you’ve got to pay to play, it’s as simple as that.

The same could be arguably said, for trying to ‘wing it’ – and attempting to design the cover yourself (spoiler alert: NO)

As with any business, you gotta spend a little to make a little. If it means going without lattes for a month, then so be it… nobody ever said it was going to be easy 😉

“But this is just a hobby, I don’t want to spend $100s on cover art!!” – If that’s the case – absolutely fine. Ignore this section if you’re not fussed about sales.

Just because your immediate friends and family say it’s a great cover, doesn’t mean it is so. The litmus test is whether COMPLETE STRANGERS take a short moment out of their day, to comment “Damn, that’s a fine cover!!” Of course, a powerful cover and a great blurb will result in sales also.

There is no greater marker of success, than strangers voting with their dollar.

The next part of this guide is written with the understanding that you’re a professional (or aspiring professional) looking to sell as many books as possible. Let’s take a look at some of the price ranges commonly encountered within the Indie sphere:

$0 – $100 USD

I call this the ‘bargain bucket’ range, and is populated by newbie designers, artists from developing countries, and individuals not fully confident in their abilities.

Ok… there is a possibility that you could find a sub-$100 cover that’s pretty decent out there – but it’s not as likely as finding a vastly superior $100+ cover.

For cripes-sake, go ALL-IN!! Get the absolute best you can afford!! If it means saving up for a while, go ahead and do that. I personally know we’re not all starting on equal footing when it comes to money – just do the best you can, with the hand you’re dealt.

I’d argue anyone within a developed nation could raise $100 USD within 3 months, if they really put their mind to it. This is your dream, make it happen.

If you’re a $0 – $100 artist reading this, and are angered by these comments – up your skillset, and CHARGE MORE. You are in the realm of COMMODOTISATION, where the only thing the client cares about is price. Please read my free guide for digital artists to learn how to up your pricing. As soon as you’re out of this arena, your professional life will IMMEDIATELY improve.

$100 – $250

At this pricing range, cover art gets a little more refined, with the artists demonstrating higher levels of prowess – particularly with typography and layout (which can REALLY make or break the overall cover…)

If you’re on a serious budget or starting out, this domain may be your initial stomping ground. Around the $250 mark you can definitely get something pretty decent… but maybe not the BEST.

$250 – $500

This price range represents the mid-level tier, and the majority of the artists in this arena will be pretty decent. There are a lot of AWESOME artists from developing countries operating at this tier, as well as ‘niche-specialists’ who focus on specific genres.

A large number of my Facebook peers are within this range, and it does seem to be the ‘sweet spot’ for a large number of indie authors.

This may be the price range you operate at, if you have a steady(ish) income from prior book sales – but not enough to fund more extravagant covers.

$500 – $1000

The $500 to $1000 bracket is where things start getting REALLY sleek… If you’re an author that does pretty well with book sales, then this may be the domain where you commission work.

Cover artists that are in very high demand, may command fees between $500 to $1000, as they know there’s a steady stream of clients with cash in hand, ready to pay. Many competent ‘niche-specialists’ also operate at this range.

At this point, part of the price is tied in with the artist’s branding – they’re a proven entity, are highly professional in their operations – and are much more likely to be ‘full-timers’.

$1000 +

At this price point, the artist tends to be globally renowned for their cover art work. They’ve delivered many projects for A-List authors / BIG-5 publishers, or they have an art-style that no-one out there has come close to replicating. This is the opposite of ‘commoditisation’ (that you’ll find at the lower tiers of pricing.)

You’ll find upper-tier natural media illustrators or painters operate at this level, or world-class composite artists and designers.

‘Exclusive’ photo-shoot projects may fall into this category also, where the stock provider / artist shoots exactly what you need, then pulls it all together as a cover art package.

Bastien Lecouffe Deharme artwork

Bastien Lecouffe Deharme, in my opinion a WORLD CLASS illustrator

Places to AVOID

Ok, it’s time for me to start bleating about micro-service, and crowd-talent platforms again…

I personally don’t believe in platforms such as Fiverr, or 99Designs.

You may have had a well-meaning (but fiercely mis-informed) friend advise “Get your cover from Fiverr!!” IGNORE their advice. Possibly remove them from your christmas card list. Fiverr is the cess-pool of creative services, and the chances of not only being burned / but also SUED is much much higher than commissioning services from anywhere else. This is where the chancers and shysters operate.

Why am I so vehemently opposed to this platform? Because the service providers are NOT professionals – more often than not, they steal the resources they need to create the cover art. So not only are you starting on the wrong foot by having sub-standard cover art, but you’re also liable for litigation if the IP owners catch the breach and decide to pursue for damages.

As this is is such a major issue with ‘cheap’ cover art, I wrote an entire article on it.

99Designs is another platform I’d avoid… not so much because the work on there is no good, but because the business model isn’t ethical. Artists ‘compete’ by submitting artworks to commission briefs. If they’re unsuccessful in their bids, they don’t get paid at all. There ARE options for commissioning a single artist direct, but 99Designs still take their cut – pushing the price up. Nope, I don’t like it.

I’m not going to be too mean to 99Designs, as I know a couple of GREAT cover artists who got their start there – but I don’t approve of the platform at all. As with Fiverr, there are also multiple issues of IP theft on there also. As there are SO MANY great artists outside of these arenas, there really isn’t any reason to support them.

If your ethos is just to buy as cheap as humanly possible, you will be burned badly in every respect.

The Cover Art Process

Now I don’t profess to knowing how EVERY cover artist operates, as every individual will have their own systems for working with clients… From what I’ve gathered across the board however, the following blueprint is a pretty accurate example of a typical workflow.

One thing to keep in mind, before you start – is to view the artist’s portfolio, and be aware of the limitations of their skillset. Understand that what you get, will probably be similar to what they’ve done before.

In this section of the guide we’ll examine an example process that artists and clients go through – to get a projected completed, from start to finish:

1. Introduction / Deposit

Once you’ve made the introductions with your cover artist, and you have an agreed budget in place – in most instances you’d put down a deposit to secure your slot / get work underway (although not always, every artist is different.)

When I was producing cover art, there was a 50% deposit before we moved to the next phase (consultation). For some artists it may be 25% or some other figure.

At this point, it’s worth finding out what your artist’s preferred payment is, and whether you can accomodate it. More often than not it will be Paypal, but it’s worth asking anyway!!

2. Consultation

At this stage of the project, you discuss with your artist the kind of artwork you’d like for your cover. This is an incredibly important stage of the process, the better your artist is at understanding / interpreting your instructions, the better the final work will be.

You can help by highlighting existing covers that you like “I want something like THAT” – or by sharing a Pinterest Board / Moodboard showing the ‘vibe’ or tone you’d like for your project. Many artists are highly visual in nature (go figure!!), so sometimes images work better than words to convey what you’d like:

Dark Fantasy Warriors Moodboard

Over the years I’ve produced hundreds of moodboards, as part of my cover art services…

You can cherry-pick / mix and match various elements from other covers, be it aesthetics / content / typography style – to create something  new, unique and representative of your story.

If your artist is creating cover art using photographic resources (compositing / photomanipulation), then this may be the stage that the artist gives you suggestions for WHICH stock photo elements could be used for the project.

If you can both be in agreement as to what elements will be used for the cover, before the serious heavy-lifting takes place, then that can save a LOT of heartache down the road – for BOTH parties!!

3. Rough Mockups

Once the consultation is complete, the artist goes forth and beavers away with your shiny new cover art.

Some artists may pull together a ‘rough’ or ‘first draft’ version for you to check that they’re on the right track. This could be as simple as a crude placement of elements, or thumbnail sketches. The work at this stage will be un-polished and not indicative of the final art.

4. First Draft

At this stage, the artist may present to you the ‘First Draft’ – an ALMOST finished cover, but not quite there yet. The artist will ask you for feedback, and any possible tweaks or amendments that you’d like made to the cover art.

There may be typographical placement also, to show how the illustration sits with the title / author name etc.

5. Revisions

After feedback from the first draft, the artist goes through a series of revisions, as per your instructions…

This is a delicate phase of the project, where creative tensions / disagreements may flare up. Part of the friction may be the artist’s frustration that they’re unable to articulate EXACTLY what you want… or requests are being made that are beyond the remit of the artist’s skillset.

Unfortunately there are instances where clients demand a Marvel / Disney level of production value, but for a grand project budget of $75 bucks. Please don’t be that guy 🙂

client budget client expectation

Please don’t be that guy…

Fortunately, most issues can be resolved amicably!! Through a process of tweaking, and improving, your artist can incrementally amend the cover so it matches what you had in mind.

NOTE: Some cover artists may have a ‘Revision Fee’ system in place, to ensure the revision process isn’t abused by indecisive clients. There may be ‘X’ amount of free revisions, with all amendments thereafter being charged at a specified rate.

6. Final Draft

This is the beautiful stage, where artist and client are in agreement that the cover art is finished.

The artist may put together the ‘full wrap’ (book cover template, for printed copies), Audible cover, or marketing materials at this stage also.

You’re happy, they’re happy. Everyone’s happy!! (I hope…)

7. Payment / Finish

With the project complete, you pay the artist using their preferred payment method.

With payment received, the artist releases all the files (eg. Kindle Cover, Audible Cover, Full Wrap layout) – and you can move forward with the TRULY difficult part of your release. The marketing!!

Let the artist know whether it’s ok to share the work on their social platforms / websites, or whether you’d like them to hold-off for a while if you want to keep the artwork fresh for a specifically timed release. As professionals, they’ll understand!!

Closing Notes

Now THAT was pretty hefty for a blog post, I appreciate you tuning in!!

It’s my aim to save both you and your artist a lot of creative heartache with this guide, and to give your release the best possible head-start when it comes to making sales.

The greatest cover-artists out there, KNOW that this is the book-selling business, and not the personal-ego business – and will have your best interests at heart. It’s a tough market out there, but fortune favours the brave 😉

All the best with your literary adventures!!



About the Author:

Dean Samed is a professional cover artist, and Photoshop instructor.

He now dedicates his fulltime attention to producing ‘the best goddamn stock photography on the planet!!


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