Challenge,  publishing

A Quick Covers Post

Different Aspects of Cover Art…

I tell writers to do their own covers. The levels of critical voice excuses I get back are amazing. And all the excuses are geared to make sure the writer fails. After all, that is what critical voice does, it stops you.

In this modern world, unless you have a ton of money you want to just toss into a garbage can, no writer can afford to hire covers done. Wait, let me change that. No moderately prolific writer can afford the time, the money, the problems that come with having someone else do your covers. Moderately prolific? Four novels and a number of short stories a year regularly. Or more.

So I tell the writers that use the excuse “Art costs money” to go to the royalty free sites. Great art by top artists can run as much as $10 for all the use you can want early on. Usually it is closer to $1.

Indie writers also forget one of the great freedoms of being an indie writer. Something can always be changed later. Unlike traditional publishing that sticks writers with covers and will never change them, you are in control and if a cover doesn’t work, or you found a better way to do it, or wanted to rebrand, you just change out the covers.

(Of course, you can’t do that if you are paying hundreds of bucks per cover and up. Unless you have a ton of money, you just can’t change anything.)

Doing you own covers is a learning curve, sure. But not really that much of one, to be honest. The biggest hurdle I have seen for writers and covers is that they don’t think they can do them. And thus will never try. For some reason, covers seem to be some sort of magic to some writers.

And if you can learn to do a cover in thirty minutes, it frees up your creative voice in your writing as well. I know for me, having complicated covers done by someone else makes me not want to write a story that needs that kind of work on a cover. That’s why all my covers I can do myself. And without worry, thus I am free to write what I want.

But this week I got three people in different forms tell me the best critical voice excuse for not doing their own covers and for buying expensive art that I have heard since 1990. It can be summed up in the following sentence:

“What happens if someone else uses that art I picked?”

Now, back in my traditional publishing days, that happened all the time. Stock art got used over and over for various books. And sure, it happens at times in publishing. A piece of art I had on a cover of Pulphouse was used a year later by another magazine for a cover. Shrug. I got the art for a buck. The art was cool enough the artist licensed it a bunch of times. Made no difference to me or my readers of Pulphouse.

And back to forgetting the most important thing about indie publishing. YOU CAN ALWAYS CHANGE IT. If I cared, I would have changed it out.

But what about licensing?

If we don’t have any licensing plans in the works for a book, we use a royalty free, non-exclusive piece of art for the cover. Costs us a buck. If plans change, and a licensing opportunity comes up, we call the cover a “sample” of what will be in the license and then either license a new piece of art or talk to the original artist to increase the license we bought to the level we need. In other words, WE CAN ALWAYS CHANGE IT.

We use over a hundred pieces of art a year, at least. Sure, we can spend the time and the money to work with artists and get non-exclusive art for the covers, but we would rather save that for the books, like the latest Diving novels, that we need the art for licensing of things like masks and games. The others can be non-exclusive.

And because we are not in a hurry on the exclusive stuff, we have spent the time to work with and get to know a couple of amazing artists.

So if you are a prolific writer, and spending a ton on covers, time to stop, get past your excuses, and learn how to do them yourself. You will discover, in a very short amount of time, how much fun it really is.


  • Sean Monaghan

    This is such great advice. I’ve been publishing indie since 2012 and some of those early covers were truly awful. Practice and learning have made a big difference. When I get a moment, I go back and update them. Still quite a few to do, but that’s okay.

    I do 12 to 15 titles a year, so hiring out would chew up way to many $$$ – I’d never considered that expense for when I’d make changes, eg when a standalone turns into a series and I’d want to put in series branding – now that costs nothing but fifteen minutes or so. Also, it’s fun.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • dwsmith

      Sean, agreed. Last year I had a bad year and only published about 35 titles, not counting the short stories. Add in Kris’s titles and other projects WMG does, the costs and the problems with having others do covers is just not possible. Or desired. Or affordable.

  • Rose

    I feel like some of the hype around buying covers — at least at a certain price range — comes from a status thing, too. I can’t deny that there’s not the tiniest feeling of “turning pro” or whatever that might come from being able to drop $400 (or more) on a set of three heavily Photoshopped and probably stunning covers.

    There’s one (super helpful) Facebook group where high-selling indies share detailed breakdowns of their budgets, expenses, et cetera, and one thing I’ve noticed is that most of them drop a shocking amount of money on outsourced covers. I mean, I get it… I do think cover designers should be paid well, if you’re going to work with them. But it does kind of send a message like, “Pros spend $400 on covers sometimes when they’re launching a new series.”

    I once bought an absolutely gorgeous set of covers, but I didn’t end up writing the series. I thought the covers would motivate me, but it was more like I had bought some gilded invitations asking my critical voice to come in for tea.

    I’m not averse to paying for covers, but I just plain enjoy doing my own. I do sometimes get a feeling of not doing it “right” by DIYing it.

    But that’s all critical voice and peer pressure, tbh. Like, do I want to flex and drop a few hundred dollars on a cover, or do I want to have fun designing my own AND avoid letting in the critical voice because I already worry a story won’t “earn” back my money?

    • dwsmith

      Rose, yeah, I laugh at that stuff to be honest. I have noticed that indie writers, when given the chance to be completely in charge of their writing and books, toss that chance away whenever they can. Having someone else do covers is one of those places.

      But I can say this without a doubt… WMG Publishing would not exist in any form, the workshops we do would not exist, and I doubt I would be writing at all, if we had bought into that stupidity of paying $400 for covers that some writers do. Just never would have happened. And more than one person has heard me say that the indie movement would not have happened without the royalty free art sights coming into being at the exact same time.

      When Kris and I started WMG, I got over 200 titles up within six months, doing it all myself including the covers, layout, loading, everything. Many of the covers were not good, but the money that came in from those 200 titles allowed us to invest in employees, allowed us to get an office, better equipment, and keep growing. And allowed each title to be profitable. If I had thought I needed to spend $80,000 for those 200 covers, first off, I never would have done it, second, it would have made the entire thing a losing business and I never would have done it for that reason either.

      Buying covers for books is for people who are not prolific. And who don’t understand business. But what do I know?

  • Bonnie

    My first though to this concern is that many people work with the image. Even coming from the simplest things that I’ve done is I’ve set the main figure off to the side a bit or I’ve zoomed in on the figure or left the large image zoomed out. Even setting the two images next to each other, the zoomed in versus out can look very different on many stock photos. Everyone has a different eye so even with the same image, different fonts on the title and name are going to make the background image look a little different. This doesn’t even begin to touch what someone with a few Photoshop/Affinity photo/GIMP/PS Elements skills can do–and those skills are not that hard to learn–though for some people that might not pass the WIBBOW test.

    • dwsmith

      I work with the image only to the extent that I cut off parts, or only use parts. I can’t imagine (for WIBBOW reasons) why I would bother to combine or change art when there is so much good art out there. And yes, simply using a part of the art, or changing fonts, or so on can make a cover with the same art look completely different.

    • Kris Rusch

      If you look at trad pubbed books now, particularly those in mystery or lit fic, you’ll see that they manipulate several pieces of art for a cover now too. The old one-artist-per-cover model isn’t being used in most genres now.

      • Maree

        I follow a graphic designer’s blog and she will occasionally have a sort of ‘who did it better’ post comparing book covers that have the same image or distinctive font. It is only ever big 5 covers. I particularly remember the one with the exact same snake on multiple major releases within a few months of each other.
        I still remember the “It’s my turn to use the snake!”

  • Kate Pavelle

    Photoshop is complex and I use it for a few specific things. I prefer to do my covers on my iPad’s Procreate program, which costs well under $10 one time fee. Of course my daughter teaches it, so I can ask questions on how to do this or that. Skills are cumulative. There’s nothing wrong with using just one image the way Dean does, but it’s kind of fun to change the background, or do a head transplant or a hair transplant from an already-licensed image. And it’s not hard once you had done it three times. (It took me a while to realize that I can, and that the covers are good. It’s just practice and a bit of faking it.)

    About paid-for covers, it’s true that I hesitate to swap out covers I already paid good money for. Some are good, but some are on the refresh list. For the first time ever, I swapped my own cover on a series originally illustrated by my daughter Miranda. Those were her first covers, too. I still like the images but they don’t sell (the other books she did are doing great though. The only disadvantage with having your family do your cover is that you”ll feel too guilty trying to talk the price down after all those “You are a professional and should charge professional rates” talks, LOL.)
    Miranda has a YouTube channel where she posts Procreate instructional videos. You can do a lot with just an iPad. Just look up “Hybrid Miranda”.

  • Cynthia Lee

    I didn’t know what genre I was writing in until I started designing my own covers. Every cover I designed turned into a girl standing in front of a creepy house, running from a creepy house, a female ghost in a window in a creepy house, etc.

    I finally realized that I’d been writing gothic horror.

    There is always something to learn in indie publishing. That’s why it’s so much fun!

  • BDS

    Yup yup. made this mistake with my first full-lengther. Spent $500 for an original, custom cover. It’s a great cover, an A+ for sure, but I just published the sequel, and this time I designed my own cover using a $3 piece of non-exclusive art, and it’s easily a B+ cover, for 497 dollars less. Took me maybe 45 minutes to slap together, and that long only because I’m super uptight and picky.

  • Sheila

    It’s a truism of self publishing that you never do your own editing, never do your own covers, and never, ever not do all the social media you can cram into 24 hours a day, with every intimate detail you can use. Because reader interaction. Oh, and you must plot that thing into submission. To do otherwise means you’re not treating it as a business, and will fail, fail, fail.

    On the other hand, many of us manage to get by self editing, making our own covers, not plotting, and spending very little time on social media. The moral to the story is, there’s more than one way up the mountain, and isn’t it nice if we don’t stomp on someone’s dreams because they’re walking a different, yet still valid, path?