Top 5 Tips for Becoming a Book Cover Artist

I often get asked by digital and natural media artists what it takes to break into book cover design – so I thought I’d put together my advice for you guys in the form of this ‘Top 5 Listicle’…

Are you becoming a big shot on DeviantArt or Instagram? Are your friends and family saying you’re getting pretty good at this art malarkey? Are you looking for a way to supplement your day-job income, or replace it completely by doing art fulltime?

In this guide I share my top 5 tips for breaking into the incredible world of publishing – and create a part time or fulltime income producing cover art for authors and publishers.

Ready to break some eggs? Read on for the skinny…

1. Learn Typography & Layout

In Indie Publishing (where you’ll most likely start), most cover artists (90 – 95 %) are expected to offer an ‘all-in-one’ package that provides the illustration / typography / full wrap layout. Think of the service as a one stop shop where the client can get everything they need from a single professional handling the cover art job.

Further up the chain (Big 5 Publishers / Larger Indies), a cover art project may be handled by a team – Art Director, Illustrator, Designer (for layout and typography). If you’re able to jump in at this higher tier and work with a production team (and focus purely on art) – then more power to you!!

9 times out of 10 though, you’ll have to fight your way through the ranks – by offering an all-in cover art service that includes layout and typography.

I used to be a big player on DeviantArt in the photomanipulation galleries (the artist formerly known as ‘Conzpiracy’) and I’ve seen many photomanipulators transition from the social art world to that of professional commissions / publishing.

The NUMBER ONE sticking point for the majority of artists coming over to publishing has always been TYPOGRAPHY AND LAYOUT. Typography / Layout is the arrangement of visual and typographic elements to communicate a message and create a pleasing package that lures readers to the ‘blurb’ of a story.

Typography. The secret-sauce of high impact cover design.

These skillsets are fiercely under-estimated by many of the talented artists who make the jump to cover art – and it’s a shame, because a lack in this skillset reduces the value of the work DRAMATICALLY. Your illustrative work could be world-class, but if the type and layout is sloppy – you could be relegated to the little leagues ($100 – $200 USD commissions).

Typography and Layout is an art in itself and requires just as much practice / energy (if not more) as you dedicate to your artwork. There’s really no way of winging it – any discerning viewer can tell immediately if a composition is unbalanced / illegible.

I was lucky when it came to learning the basics of design, as I produced very type-heavy work from the age 14, up until my mid 20s: event flyers, gig posters, record sleeves, fight posters etc. Typography really didn’t come naturally to me though – it took dedicated focus and determination to sharpen up these integral skillsets!!

So how do you learn the mysterious and dark arts of Typography and Layout? Here’s a look at some of the things you can immediately do to sharpen your design game:

1. Practice Like a BEAST

Yup, it’s the un-glamorous / practical answer right here, the number one thing that will yield the greatest results. Produce mock up covers on a weekly basis, and put the covers out into the world for your peers / audience to judge. You’ll soon learn what hits the right chords, and what doesn’t. This daily repetition will sharpen your skillset like nothing else.

2. Read LOTS of Design Books

Another common-sense strategy, but an action that will quickly bring you up to scratch on the most important design conventions. It’s essential that you become fully competent in playing by ‘the rules’, before mixing things up a bit and becoming more daring with your layout ideas.

This step has the potential to be expensive when buying hard-copies, but the investment will yield massive results down the line – allowing you to charge a much higher premium for your flawless design work.

3. Take a Course or Two

Another super-fast way to elevate your skillset, is to invest in a course or two that can elevate your design skillset… or even just binge watch relevant YouTube tutorials (of which there are PLENTY). To succeed in a fiercely competitive marketplace you’ve got to bring your A-game; and these are the investments you’ll need to make in order to stand a chance!!

By having an excellent mastery of Typography and Layout, you’ll be able to increase the rate you charge. Doing so will dramatically improve your chances for earning a liveable part time or full time income from cover art.

2. Drop the Ego / Learn to be Flexible

When you produce commercial art – the project focus isn’t about you, it’s about selling your client’s product. We’re no longer in the ‘Kool Art’ business, we’re now in the book selling business. So what does this mean exactly?

When you’re doing personal art you can focus on the motifs / themes / styles that YOU’RE good at – the crowd-pleasers that generate all those glorious ‘Likes’ and comments… When you’re working on professional commissions however, the game changes A LOT.

Your clients are going to be making all kinds of weird and wonderful requests, many of which will take you out of your comfort zone!!

“Oh sweet baby jebus… I’m really out of my depth with this one…”

This is one of the most difficult aspects of transitioning from personal art to commercial. Undertaking LOTS of commission work is pretty much the only way to learn how to accomodate client requests. The stuff they get you to do might not play to your natural strengths, and the resulting work may be a lot less impactful than you usually do – this is one of those mental barriers that all of us have to overcome.

Of course, you can pitch your services to clients who are a good match for your style – but you’ll still encounter those situations where you’re asked to produce concepts that you’re not even sure you can do – it happened to me, a LOT!!

Play to your strengths where you can, but keep pushing yourself with increasingly elaborate commissions. Ultimately client satisfaction trumps your own happiness with the work – so if the client is happy, then it’s a job well done!! Learning to disengage emotionally is a skillset that will be essential in your cover art career.

3. Sell to Your Market, Not to Your Peers

This faux pas isn’t limited to visual artists, I see this happen in many sectors of the creative industry…

When marketing / promoting your work – you want to focus on channels where your ‘market’ spends their time or congregates. Again, this could take you way out of your comfort zone. This could be Facebook Groups, Forum Communities, LinkedIn, or Twitter etc. It’s all well and good getting ‘Likes’ or comments from your usual networks for your awesome work, but if these marketing activities don’t result in sales or commissions then it’s pretty much wasted energy.

To sell effectively in the world of publishing, you have to become a KNOWN ENTITY. This means interacting, befriending authors / editors / cover artists / publishers, participating in Groups or Forums, and developing a GENUINE interest in publishing and all its machinations.

The artists who successfully ingratiate themselves into the world of publishing and become genuine contributors have a massive headstart on those who don’t. As a personal brand and service provider, interpersonal skills will play an integral role in your career as a cover artist.

The Publishing Community. Not a bad bunch at all!!

FORTUNATELY, the publishing world is populated with wonderful clients!! The vast majority of players are thoroughly decent and are a joy to work with 🙂 Of course, there’s one or two maniacs amongst them – but that’s just par for the course!!

Marketing and Branding are two HUGE aspects of the cover art game – so integral in fact, that we wrote TWO behemoth guides. Be sure to check them out after you’ve read this post:

• The Marketing Masterclass for Creatives

• The Branding Masterclass for Creatives

4. Learn the Laws / Create Your Systems

As a professional service provider, you’re going to have to learn (in full) the legalities involved when producing commercial art. Of utmost importance is understanding the basics of intellectual property (IP) and licensed properties.

For instance, if you’re a photomanipulator – you can’t just grab any image you want off the internet willy-nilly, you need to license commercial stock photography from providers such as Adobe Stock, NeoStock etc., or at a push certain free stock providers (NOT ideal). Failure to adhere to these strict guidelines could be catastrophic for you and your client if a lawsuit gets thrown your way by Disney or a disgruntled photographer. INSTANT RUIN.

As it’s so critically important to understand this aspect of the game, we put together a full guide for you. Essential reading, be sure to check it out:

• The Indie Authors Guide to Stock Photography

“Help!! Disney sued me!! Now I need to borrow $250,000…”

When we refer to ‘Creating Systems’, these are the protocols you implement for your entire design process – from the initial consultation, right through to getting paid (project completion).

Every artist has their own way of doing things – but if you’re an absolute newbie / beginner with commercial art, you may want to check out the guide we wrote that outlines the cover art process:

• The Indie Authors Guide to Hiring a Cover Artist

When your conscientous of the law, and offer your client a streamlined design process – you increase your professionalism, and in turn the premium you can charge for your services. Getting these aspects of your game down early is absolutely essential for success in publishing.

5. Understand That Art will Become ‘Work’

It’s a shame that our wonderful guide has to end on a sour note, but this is a MAHOOSIVE point that needs to be made…

Your relationship with art will change when your rent money depends on it.

When you invest your most powerful / productive hours of the day into art for your clients, it doesn’t leave much ‘creative juice’ for your own projects. It’s pretty difficult to crank out the Wacom after doing 8 – 10 solid hours of illustrative work for other people. All you’ll want to do after your work day is detach for a while, and take in some ‘life’.

This can have a powerful impact on your own creative voice, and is a sacrifice that many of us make when we pursue commercial art.

Your own ideas, stories, and narratives will take a back seat whilst you focus on producing work for others – it’s the nature of the beast. After a while your overall desire to produce (anything) may be dampened, and could even be perceived as a chore. They sing from the rooftops “Do what you love for a living!!” – but the realities of doing so isn’t always peaches and cream.

“Lord, why have you forsaken me?”

I really don’t want to scare you off with this notion… This is just a gentle warning from one friend to another, that there’s a possibility you could ‘lose a little something’ when you work commercially (especially fulltime).

Closing Notes

Plenty to think about right there!! I hope this guide has given you enough fodder to consider, when it comes to pursuing a career in book cover design. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop by our Focus Group, and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction 🙂

All the best with your creative 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!!


You May Also Enjoy:

• The Branding Masterclass for Creatives

• The Indie Authors Guide to Hiring a Cover Artist

• Earn With Your Art – An Insiders Guide Part 1