Cover, Where Art Thou?

One of the things a self-publishing author must do is find freelancers for everything they can’t do themselves. I’m somewhat thankful I can navigate my way around the internet, and have software like Scrivener that can help with the formatting elements, but things like effective cover design require a certain skill level that I don’t have. Many books ignore this deficiency, plugging and playing with text and pictures like kindergartners, prompting numerous lists of ‘Worst Covers Ever’ to be generating as a kind of public shaming exercise.

However, I get it. Quality covers require effort, talent, and time from professional designers who charge a premium. We’re talking $300 – $500 or more, especially if you’re including both a print and ebook cover design. When that book is selling for $.99 or $2, that means you have to sell several hundred copies just to break even on the cover art, not to mention any other promotion and, ya know, the time you spent writing the damn thing in the first place. So when it comes to reducing that break-even point, skimping on the cover suddenly seems like a viable option.

I don’t think it is. I really don’t. The big advantage of being an author as opposed to, say, a painter is that your works live on in perpetuity. Once they’re out there, someone can buy copies indefinitely (especially with the whole ebook thing). Every work therefore becomes a little ATM spitting out cash here and there. Only, if your book looks like crap, the odds that it’s going to keep generating much of anything go down pretty rapidly.

Dean Wesley Smith has a pretty fun metaphor for this effect, calling the process his magic bakery. To that end, even if you have to sell a thousand copies to break even, if the timeframe is decades, suddenly you’re not looking at an impossible wall of sales to climb. A few per week is suddenly enough.

Now, all of that assumes the capital is there to buy the cover upfront in the first place. The benefit of having a day job means I can afford, here and there, to purchase an artist’s time to put a cover together. Those that can’t really have three options:

  1. Save and scrap until you can afford that cover.
  2. Spend a lot of spare time learning the skills to design a cover yourself, and then make one that suits you.
  3. Put together a crappy cover, then update it later with a well-designed one once you have income.

I suppose a fourth would be option three, but then never update. The problem is that you’re not going to generate the notice or sales initially with a cover that looks like someone had a stroke while playing with MS Paint. And if you have multiple books out, the appearance of each one serves to drive potential readers to your other works. If those early works look awful but your latest looks great, that’s the same recipe for suspicion.

All this to say that I’m hunting down a couple of freelancers to put together covers, and I’m happy to do it, because that cover is going to sit with me for a long time, and it’s the first opinion a reader’s going to form of me. Better start strong.

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