Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

CLICK HERE TO GET YOUR QUICK START GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING and to be notified when the 3rd Edition of the Indie Author Survival Guide releases!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ch 4.2 Creating Covers That Sell

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)

Ch 4.2 Creating Covers That Sell

Creating covers for my books makes me crazy.


1. mentally deranged
2. totally unsound
3. passionately excited
4. very enamored or infatuated
5. intensely anxious

Yes, all of those.

As an indie author, I love the freedom to decide my own covers. A great cover juices my excitement to release a new book. But deciding on a cover artist/approach, the endless looking through stock photos, and struggling with the right concept can drive me to distraction. (However, it's better than having a publisher pick a cover I don't like and can't change - I have first-hand experience with this). The anxiety comes partly because a cover is tremendously important for book sales, but also partly because being indie means I have to pay for it, too. The balance is tough.

Covers almost always pay for themselves*
It took me a while to realize this.

I already knew that a great cover would sell books, but $300-$400 seemed like a lot of money to spend. Then I realized that I'd make that back if I sold even 200 ebooks... and if I'm not planning on selling that much, I'm aiming too low. You don't have control over sales, but if you've got a good product, you're going to sell more than that (maybe not right away, but eventually). And having a good cover is part of having a good product. Where I struggle is with short stories, but my experience has been that even short stories can (eventually) sell enough to justify spending $50-$100 on cover art. With a 99cent short, you only have to sell 300 of those to cover the costs of the artwork. Serials present another challenge, because there are so many covers - I understand the desire to go cheaper on those. However, I still made the financial commitment to professional cover art for my serial because I knew it would help overcome some of the hesitation people have with serials - a good cover can work wonders that way.

*Caveat: spending more on a cover doesn't guarantee more sales; I would hesitate (hard and long) before spending more than $500 on a single cover. Make sure it's for a book you think will be able to recoup those costs.

Covers must convey genre and concept, not story.
As much as you love your covers, they're not for you - they're for the reader. At first, they're to entice the reader in, get them to pick up the book. Then, after the reader has finished your story, you want them to look back on the cover and have two thoughts: 1) OMG that's a perfect fit for the story and 2) OMG I love this story, I'm sharing it with all my friends.

A bad cover will hit you with a double-tap: not only will it inhibit readers from picking up the story in the first place, if they do manage to pick it up and read it, it will inhibit them from sharing it with others. Don't make your readers say, "Ignore the cover! It's really a great story inside!"

Rule #1 for Covers: they are marketing not storytelling

Authors fall down when they try to design a cover that tells the story of their book. That's what the blurb is for! Covers convey genre, set tone, and sell the concept of the story on an emotional level. Readers' responses to covers are almost entirely emotional/instinctual. You have to heed that response, no matter how "accurate" you may think your cover represents what's inside. If your cover represents a scene from the book, and the reader hasn't read the book yet - they will have no understanding of the power of that image/scene. And if you jam so much stuff in the cover that readers have to study it to decipher all the information, many will simply walk away. (Not to mention this doesn't work well in thumbnail.)

[Using my own work here, because I know what went into them.]

What does this cover tell you right away? There's a young woman, holding her hand out in front of her, to stop something or possibly push something away. She's not afraid, but rather has a serious expression. The swirls at the top and the title "open minds" hints at something paranormal (titles are part of covers!). We get a paranormal/SF vibe. It's pretty but intriguing. The cover for Open Minds works in the sense that many people have told me they picked up the book based on the cover alone.

From the blurb, you find out this is a young adult science fiction novel about a future where everyone reads minds except one girl. After people read the story, they'll understand that the hand-in-front-of-face pose is representative of her power as a mindjacker. Her ambivalent expression reflects her conflict throughout the story, where she's using her power, but uncertain whether she really wants to. The title has multiple meanings: "open" minds as in telepathic, "open" minds meaning mindjackers can jack them open, and the not-so-open minds of mindreaders as they react with fear and loathing to the discovery of mindjackers amongst them.

All that is what a reader carries forward when they finish the book and recommend it to a friend.

This, my friends, is why emotive covers are so much more powerful than "storytelling" covers that are trying to convey the plot. They give the reader many more layers to grasp onto - intuitively before they pick up the book, and consciously afterwards. Leave the plotline to the blurb. Let the cover grab hold of your reader's emotions.

Let's look at another one...

There's a man, tie loosened, palm-to-forehead. I'm going to say he's depressed or distraught by that pose. He's got red flames coming out of his hand, implying something paranormal. The background is a cityscape, but the "tron" like portal window hints at science fiction. It's dark, nearly Black and White with only a touch of blood-red color. It's sexy and intriguing - we want to know what this guy's story is. The title "Delirium" and "Debt Collector" evokes fear, and a sense of something unrestrained, possibly madness. We can easily tell this is a dark story.

The blurb tells you this is a sexy future-noir serial about a world where Debt Collectors cash out the life energy of people whose debts exceed their future potential. After reading the story, you know that the man is the titular debt collector who agonizes his way through the entire serial about his role as a government sanctioned grim reaper. The dark and sexy elements are rife throughout. In other words, the entire serial pays off this very first cover (there are nine covers in the first season). People tell me all the time they love these covers; and they love them even more after they've read the story - because it speaks to the central conflict of the character, which drives the entire series.

In case you can't tell, I put a lot of thought into my covers.

Ok, So How Do I Do This?
Creating a cover is an art, but I'll share some of the steps I go through. 

Look at the Bestsellers
First, I look at the top 100 bestsellers in my category. That will tell me what reader expectations are for the genre. Usually, you will want a cover that fits comfortably next to all those bestsellers. Occasionally, you may want to break with expectations and do something different that will stand out. I've taken this approach for the Indie Author Survival Guide, choosing a cover that emphasized the Survival Guide portion rather than a more business-like cover that most non-fiction books in this publishing category have. But this is intentional - I want to send a signal to readers that this isn't your ordinary get-rich-quicker-selling-ebooks kind of book. As I say in the blurb, this book is for the heart as much as the head, and I chose a cover that had more in common with Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird than John Locke's How I Sold a Million Ebooks in Five Months. Going counter-expectation is a gamble with covers, but one that can pay off for fiction as well as non-fiction authors.

Spend Time On Concept
Getting the concept right is most important. I really can't emphasize this enough. No matter how much you tweak the fonts or change the image or go with original art vs. stock art, if your concept doesn't convey genre and pull in the right readers, the rest won't matter. This is where the art in cover art comes in, and it's difficult to say how to do this. If you don't trust your intuition about your concept, test market it with friends. Don't tell them what the cover is for; make them guess. If they guess close to the genre (not the story) then you're getting close on concept.

Don't Forget It's Thumbnail
Most of your cover's life will be spent thumbnail sized. Remember this when you're trying to jam in clever details that will be a "reward" to readers after they've read the book. Most people will never see the tiny details. Concentrate your concept on the image as a whole, not a single detail in it.

Stock Art or Original Art?
Stock art is cheapest, but some books require illustration or original art or a photo shoot to get appropriate models for the cover. Cost is always a consideration, but it's also important to consider genre. Illustrations can evoke children's books, or if done differently, can evoke fantasy. Again, look at your bestsellers to see reader expectations.

I usually start with stock art: I troll sites like and download scads of images, looking for one that evokes just the right mood. I've managed to find stock art for my covers so far, but I know at least two of my future novels (a children's fantasy and a steampunk fantasy) will need illustrated/original art covers. And those are going to cost more, but I think I can recoup the costs. But before you jump to expensive original art, make sure you can't achieve what you want any other way. A lot can be done with photo manipulation these days.

Which brings me to...

Get A Professional to Help
I spend time on my concept first. I look at top 100 bestsellers. I play with stock art. I write up my ideas about the story and what I'm trying to convey in the cover. But in the end, I go to my cover designer and ask for help. They have an eye for what can be done in the design space of a cover. Creative collaboration with artists to bring my vision of the cover to life is one of the best parts! A cover designer will take the concepts you have and make them visually appealing and professional-looking... and in my experience, they are well worth the money.

How Do I Choose a Cover Designer?
Look at their portfolio. Get a recommendation from a friend who has used them. See if they're compatible with your genre. Evaluate their pricing - there's a wide range of skills and pricing to go with it, and the two aren't always related, but often are. Art is incredibly subjective. The most important thing, I believe, is having a cover designer who is flexible and will work with you to bring your vision to life - and to whom you can say "this isn't working for me" without hard feelings.

Next we'll talk about blurb, the "number two" in the 1-2 punch that will have readers scooping up your book.

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)


  1. Great tips, Susan. I really like the idea of looking at the top 100 sellers in your genre to see what is selling! Thanks!!

  2. Decided to comment today instead of just trolling:) I'm forwarding this post onto a cover designing friend of mine. Great stuff.

    If anyone doubts the importance of a cover, shop some thumbnails on your ereader (should be doing this regularly anyway) and see which ones provoke to click for more info.

    I click on your books because of the name Susan Kaye Quinn, but they also have nice covers:)

  3. I don't always think about the subliminal messages that covers carry, but it's amazing how they make perfect sense when discussed as you have done in this post.

  4. Thank you, I read each of your tips and nodded in agreement. Very helpful!

  5. Great tips throughout. Thank you so much for sharing these!
    This section helped sink in that fact that I'm looking for genre not story in a cover. Not sure I've ever had that pointed out to me before. Thank you.

  6. Sooo helpful! This is on my mind right now. Big time. The trick is conveying what's in my head to someone else :/

    I'll use your advice and check the 100 bestsellers, and also spend time looking at stock photos.


  7. So helpful and again, very timely as I'm considering having my cover re-done. Tough decision, and this info helps!


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers