Books Covers and My Experience with 99 Designs

How Do I DecideWhether you’re self-publishing or working with a publisher, creating an effective book cover is extremely important. I’ve worked with publishers on hundreds of covers, and now I have the experience of working with designers on the cover of my own first e-book. From my perspective, the single most important thing to understand about book covers is:
 
Getting a powerful, appealing, and appropriate cover design is vital, and it’s more difficult than you might think.
 
Why is it so hard? First, it’s so subjective. One person’s great design is another’s “fail.” Second, it’s more than just creating an image you like—you should take into account the psychology behind what makes a cover appealing to the intended audience. Third, you (the author) may have been living with a particular image in your mind for months or years, but your publisher may disagree and/or your designer may be unable to capture it. Fourth, the book cover can be a highly emotional element of the publishing process, and it’s supremely disappointing if you don’t love the finished product.
 
You’re going to deal with this whether you’re working with the publisher’s designer, or you’ve hired a designer on your own. The harrowing cover-design process is all-too-common. And my latest experience with my own self-pub book only reinforced this.
 

What I Learned by Using 99 Designs 

 
Authors frequently ask me where they can find a good designer for their self-pub books. I’d been hearing of 99 Designs for the last few years, and didn’t want to keep recommending them until I’d tried them myself. So I signed up to see if I could improve upon the original cover of my e-book, How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing.
 
How Do I Decide?How it works:
 
With 99 Designs you pay a flat fee ranging from about $300 to $1200. Numerous designers submit designs, and you go through a process of feedback and eliminations until you (theoretically) end up with the design you want.
 
My original cover is here to the right, and the final winning design from 99 Designs is above. Here’s my experience and what I learned:
 
→ I opted for the least expensive package, which costs $299 and predicts you’ll receive 30 designs.
 
→ Thirty designs sounds like a lot and seems like it should be plenty from which to find a good one. Reality check: it’s not. A majority of the designs submitted weren’t even close to being right.
 
→ 99 Designs offers a money-back guarantee, so that if the process doesn’t yield a design you can use, you can get a refund. However, one way you can get more designs submitted is to turn down the possibility of a refund and guarantee you’ll pick a winner. Since this means a designer will definitely win and get paid, more designers will submit, and work hard to adjust their designs according to your specifications so they can win the contest. I chose this option and it definitely seemed to increase the action on my page.
 
→ A 99 Designs contest runs seven days, and it’s crucial for you to set aside ample time during that week to devote to the contest. If you want to end up with a design you love, you’ll need to interact constantly with the designers who are submitting.
 
→ When you set up your contest, it’s important to give the designers detailed instructions, making your requirements as clear as possible. Explain what your book is about, and the tone you want to convey with the cover. What is the feeling you want to evoke? Do you have specific images in mind? Mention anything you wish to avoid.
 
→ Once you begin receiving designs, take the time to give detailed feedback to each designer. This can vastly improve your chances of getting a final product you like.
 
→ Once you have several designs you like, 99 Designs makes it easy for you to run a poll among your Facebook or Twitter friends, or on your blog. Your friends can vote on the ones they like, and leave feedback on each design. This can be confusing (as people’s opinions can be so varied) yet also illuminating and helpful.
 
→ 99 Designs also makes it possible for you to work one-on-one with individual designers. If you run a contest and find a designer you like, then in the future you can choose to work specifically with that person. Or, you can browse the work of the designers on the site and choose to work with one designer without ever having run a contest.
 
By the time my contest was over, I’d received 104 entries, but I honestly couldn’t say I loved any of them. I may not have given enough instructions and feedback, and I probably didn’t explain my book well enough, so I take responsibility for it. I have seen some terrific book covers come from 99 Designs, especially for fiction.
 
I’d definitely use 99 Designs again, following my own advice (above) to increase my odds of success. And I definitely recommend the service to authors and others looking for any kind of design.
 
Anything to add from your own experience with 99 Designs or hiring a freelance designer? Any comments or questions about this process?

Comment below, or by clicking: HERE.

 
TWEET THIS: Agent @RachelleGardner discusses book covers and using “99 Designs.” 
 
 

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  • Layla

    Great post! I’d been wondering about that site as a possibility for cover designs and your tips are super-helpful to keep in mind.

    I think the cover you ended up with is really good :)

  • Leanne

    Rachelle while I always love your posts I won’t be retweeting this one. This sounds like an onerous task that sends a number of working professional designers scrambling to earn a few bucks. While I’m sure there’s a time and place for 99 Designs, I have had great experiences working one on one with graphic designers of my choice to get exactly what I want. They can be surprisingly affordable and this creates a more respectful, two-way working relationship. In today’s marketplace, graphic designers are struggling to make ends meet and will work within a budget. I’d suggest you might be looking at a bit more than $300 but less than $1200 to achieve the same results. In saying this, I have to admit I live with a graphic designer and have watched him struggle with this. With the advent or WordPress, etc. graphic designers, with experience and professional training, have to compete with free let alone the discounted rates of 99 Design. As creatives we have to support on another. 99 Designs is a great place for new graphic designers to get experience so I’ll give it that. I just want to ensure that writers know there is another way to achieve better results.

    • Angela Brackeen

      Leanne, I so understand what you’re saying. Although I had a lot of input in the design of my book cover, I still needed professionals who understood the latest graphics software to combine the two images I’d selected into one. (I chose to overlay the casings of a window over the image of a woman outdoors). Not only that, the pros chose for me another image for the back cover of my book that was so appropriate and surprised me with it!

  • http://sharonlavy.blogspot.com/ SharonALavy

    I do love your new book cover!

  • Chapin Garner

    Great topic, Rachelle. For my first self-published book I chose to work with the designer who I was most pleased with from my other previously published books. Tobias Becker of BirdBox Graphic Design has now done two covers for me and I am very pleased with them both. Great guy, timely response, very affordable.

  • Richard Mabry

    Rachelle, Thanks for sharing your experience. In the ongoing dialogue about self-publishing vs. a contract with a traditional publisher, one of the things sometimes overlooked is the effort and expense put forth by the publisher in producing a cover for the book (which may or may not be one the author likes). Thanks for highlighting this particular process.

  • Misty Wagner

    This is really good advice! I’m in the process of doing the cover for my self published book now. I hired a graphic designer who took my notes/vision and came up with absolutely nothing like what I was hoping for. Ideally, call me a gluten for punishment, I feel that (since this is my first book) I’d kind of rather try that route (different designer) one more time, before throwing in the towel… It’s good to know though that there is this option. Ideally I do want to LOVE my cover, but when I don’t LOVE it now, I guess what do I have to lose…

  • Lisa M Airey

    I love 99 designs. I used them to come up with my current website design. (www.lisamairey.com) The process is easy (and fun) and the talent at their fingertips (and yours) is off the charts. Highly recommended!

    • Anna Labno

      Lisa, you got a great website design! :) I loved it.

    • http://fleurcamacho.tumblr.com/ Me

      Love your website. Very original too.

  • R. D Peterson

    Great post Rachelle. I’ve used Create Space/Amazon twice* and have been satisfied, but I was very careful to fully document what I was looking for and what would not be appropriate. They are not as flexible as your 99 approach (at least for the pkg. I purchased) but I was able to work with them thru 3 designs to the targeted cover I had envisioned. R. D. Peterson *
    (Deniable Justice and The Syndicate’s Church)

  • Angela Brackeen

    I’m glad you brought up the subject of cover design, Rachelle. This was one of the most enjoyable aspects of self-publishing for me. I do have graphic design experience, so that made the process easier and gave me confidence that the cover I designed with the help of Westbow Press would be successful. But, as you say, it’s subjective, and I have recently received a bit of criticism for my cover. Still, over 1200 people registered to win a copy of my book over two goodreads giveaways, and I believe that the cover was part of what drew them in. My take is for an author to have fun with cover design if given the opportunity to give input, and let it represent what he or she thinks the book is about and his or her own creativity!

  • Xenia

    I understand what you say, Rachelle.
    Now, since this is such a good practice, why don’t you adopt it yourself: submit your own works to potential readers, stick to their opinions, keep changing your writing until they say it’s ok, and make do with whatever they feel your book is worth?
    I don’t know you, but it sounds ugly to me.

  • josie downey

    It’s an interesting an idea, but I think there are better ways to get the cover you want. There are thousands of free lancers who are willing to work hard to create a great cover for you. I work with http://www.ebook-coverdesigns.com/ This artist designed the cover for my novel A Time To say Goodbye (see my icon) and she charged me half the price you paid and would change the cover the until I was satisfied.

    • Anna Labno

      I love your cover!

  • rebeccaluellamiller

    I have to agree with Leanne. I would much rather work with a designer who is willing to take my feedback into consideration and tailor the cover to my concerns. I was fortunate to have a friend who does book cover designs–the very talented Rachel Marks.

    Perhaps a page of cover designers’ links would be in order somewhere. I really got a taste of how important covers are when I got feedback on mine–things like “the cover alone is worth the price of the book.”

    Becky

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

    I’ve self published a few eBooks, and I think that a novice can come up with a decent cover if you stick to:
    1. minimal design
    2. a high quality image (as in, pay for it!)
    3. a professional font
    4. several drafts of the cover.

    I did a lot of searching for book cover fonts, and I found that there were several relatively standard fonts for each genre. Getting the font and image together made a huge difference for a simple eBook.

    When I self-published a book as both paperback and eBook, I hired a college student from an art school. He did an amazing job on the cover for A Path to Publishing, giving it a far more professional touch that I could have achieved on my own.

  • Robin Patchen

    I love the cover you went with. It looks very professional. You and 99 Designs did a good job.

  • Phyllis Wheeler

    A very timely topic for me! Thanks, Rachelle!

  • Dianne E. Butts

    Thanks for this, Rachelle. I’ve hard of 99 Designs but haven’t used them. (Frankly I forgot about them, but going by the fees you mentioned, they would have been out of my budget anyway.) I’m in the process right now of getting covers for my new e-books on writing topics. I put in the order just this morning. I won’t get my first glimpse for a few days. I’m spending a lot less. Looking forward to seeing what my designer comes up with though.

    • Dianne E. Butts

      PS: I love your new cover.

  • Dineen Miller

    If I may, I’d like to give you the flip side of 99Designs. In addition to being an author, I’m a graphic designer by trade (and professionally trained with 30 years of experience) and actually went through the process of signing up on this site as a way to get more work. It’s getting harder and harder to earn a decent living as a freelance designer. I did one job and decided I couldn’t endorse this site anymore. I presented designs for a job and wound up one of two designers the client chose to continue with the last two days of the “contest.” At the end, the other designer actually plagiarized part of my work and they won the job. I wound up with nothing, which I knew was a possibility. But even if I HAD gotten the job, I would have earned less than minimum wage for all the time I put in for this project.

    As authors, we would like to earn a decent living with our work. Designers do too. My heart is to help authors in this industry because I am one of them too. But this site, I’m sorry to say, makes it very difficult.

  • http://www.peterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

    I recently realized my e-book has the wrong title and hence the wrong cover. Completely wrong. I now have the right title and need a strong cover to match.

    Great tips and a helpful recommendation. Thank you!

  • Kristine ward

    I used 99 designs when I had a website designed and was considering self-publishing. I love it and hope I get to keep it when I’m traditionally published. For a few hundred dollars, I got a book cover and my logo that you see here.

  • Anna Labno

    Thank you all for your input. I’m so happy to see writers these days aren’t confined to one thing. We have so many options to choose from.

  • April

    For what it’s worth, even though you didn’t love any of the entries, I think your new cover is a hundred times more appealing and professional-looking than your old one. I think it was worth your money!

  • Dan Erickson

    Honestly, if I had $1200 to spend on creating my book covers, it might mean I actually sold a few thousand books. I use CreateSpace and they have a cover creator that is free. It may not be perfect, but I think I did okay on my covers so far. You can see them at http://www.danerickson/store.

  • Tony Faggioli

    Thanks for this. I’m still deciding on whether or not to take my book down the self-publishing path but if I do I will give 99 Designs a shot.

  • Leanne Hardy

    I have used a graphic designer who shares my taste and values and has way more skills! She also charges less than 99 designs and I know I have her ear. I guess the challenge is finding that person you click with.

    • http://sharonsalu.wordpress.com/ Sharon Salu

      I agree, Leanne. Finding a designer you click with is what has worked for me. I haven’t tried 99 designs. Yet.

  • http://joannahmiley.com/ Joannah Miley

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Rachelle. I went with 99 Designs for my Young Adult fantasy novel, THE IMMORTAL GAME. It was a great, though time intensive, way to go. I love my cover and I get many compliments on it. You can see the final result here: http://www.joannahmiley.com/the-immortal-game.html

    • Christine Tryon

      I LOVE the cover of your book. Thanks for sharing it. I have been trying to get ideas for the cover of my book. I am currently in the process of proof-reading what I hope and pray will be the final draft for my memoir.

      • http://joannahmiley.com/ Joannah Miley

        Thank you, Christine!

        If you go with 99 Designs I would suggest having a pretty good idea of what you want and to take some time drafting a clear explanation of what your vision is. Of course, it’s always fun to be open to new ideas as well!

        Good luck with proof-reading your memoir. I ended up doing a total of eight drafts of THE IMMORTAL GAME, including two complete rewrites of large sections. It was painful at the time, but SO worth it in the end! Now I’m on to book two… :)

        • Christine Tryon

          Congratulations on book two! I am going to be spending this afternoon getting a few ideas for the cover of my book. I have a couple of ideas in mind. I have heard that simpler is better.

          I have edited my book eight times. My oldest son (a self-proclaimed grammar-Nazi), almost completely edited it the ninth time before he started student teaching this week. I completely edited it and proof-read it twice during the past week. I finished at one thirty this morning.

    • Chase Webster

      I followed your competition and liked several of the designs submitted. I’m hoping I can achieve similar results. More than that, I’m hoping to meet a designer I can build a future repertoire with. That’s the ideal payoff with 99designs – networking.

    • Debbie

      Nice cover!

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  • Gerrit

    99 designs is the modern slavery. Write us a story and send it to us. The winner gets published, those who lose, don’t get anything. Sounds great?

  • http://fleurcamacho.tumblr.com/ Me

    I was introduced to 99 designs by another blogger who recommended that you take the submissions and run a test by buying Facebook (or whoever) ads. You can do it a couple of different ways, but basically you see which cover gets the most clicks / votes. This is a benefit to 99 designs, especially if you make it a ‘blind’ contest (where the artists can see the other designs), where you can get several different ideas and then see which generates the most interest. Since the cover is so important, this process is worth the money spent on it, IMO.

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  • http://www.tanyadennisbooks.com/ Tanya Dennis

    I used 99designs for my website logo/header. I loved the experience! Three years later, I am still very happy with the design. The way some of the artists interpreted my request pleasantly surprised me. They were a very talented lot.

    While overwhelmingly positive, I could name two negative aspects of the experience.

    First, when I advertised the contest to friends for feedback, some of them then entered the contest with sub-par submissions and genuine confidence that I would select their work. This put me in a very awkward position.

    Second, one of the contestants blackballed another. This came immediately after I gave high marks for the submission and left public comments about what I liked. This not only made me nervous about leaving honest feedback (lest the one I liked best be kicked out of the competition) and led to a bit of drama between the two that continued through the final round of “competition.” It grew uncomfortable. In the end, one bridge was burned and another won the contest.

    All in all, I would very happily use 99designs again.

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  • Dennis

    Three big negatives about using services such as 99 Designs.

    1.
    Unlike a professional design firm/designer you
    do not get the option of saying I like the font on version A, the picture on
    version B and the background color on C because they are separate individuals.

    2.
    A professional firm/designer will license and explain the legalities about the images used on your book cover. 99 Designs is not responsible if the cover used on your book is plagiarized or just simply the image is not legal to use. The lawsuit to settle will be on you.

    3.
    Production, production, production!!! While many 99 Designers submitting may make an awesome cover design. Many(not all) do not understand how to supply it for press or electronic output. Image size, dots per inch, offset or digital print, file format, the list goes on…99 Designs may refund your $299 but missing your press date, ticking off your agent can be far more costly.

  • Jodi Mesrobian Soper

    Your key points are good. The more direction you can provide, the better. I tell my clients to screen shot other logos. I have them look for 3 things…. Color examples , font styles, and design elements. They need to then say one brief sentence why they like the picture they captured. I bet you could apply this to book covers as well. 48hour logos is much cheaper. I would inquire about book covers for self publishing individuals. We also use this as a starting point to shorten the timeframe and costs of more expensive agencies. I’m working on ideas for Michael Dow’s completed manuscript book 1 of Dark Matters, The Chosen. Great article Rachellle Gardner. I’d love to connect with you if your going to be in DC this November for the conference.

  • darbtype

    I used 99 designs for a few graphics jobs this year, and ended up giving up. The concepts good, but here’s what I thought:

    1. A lot of the submissions were from rank amateurs. Some seriously, seriously terrible stuff.

    2. Some of the designers get really nasty if you eliminate their designs from the contest. One even called me a “fucking cunt” for eliminating their design

    3. I seemed to spend a lot of time writing emails to calm down designers who begged for my help when other designers accused them of plagiarising work

    4. When I awarded the contest, one of the losing contestants emailed me to show me that the winning logo was pinched straight from one of Chrylser’s vehicle logos. 99 Designs gave my money back. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

    5. Out of 33 submissions, 5 designers had their accounts closed by 99 designs for plagiarism or threatening me.

    6. I suspect these designers simply register under a different name once they have been booted: winning a contest is big money if you live in SE Asea or some of the eastern European countries like Albania.

    At the end of the day, I now get my eBook covers done by a contractor on Fiverr.com. It costs me $5 for a 2d cover, and extra $5 for a 3d image, and another $5 for a wraparound cover suitable for Creatspace.

    Sometimes, paying big sums (my contest was a Gold package) doesn’t get you value. I’ve been let down by ODesk and Elance, 99 designs, and now I find that the best value lies with the very cheapest contractors on the web in Fiverr.

    If you use any of these services, familiarise yourself with Google reverse image search and the Tinyeye website (both free) to make sure you are not paying for a plagiarised image. I did, and saved myself a nasty Cease and Desist letter from for using the Chrysler Plymouth logo. I also saved myself a few hundred bucks that would have been wasted on my Trademark application.

    Just be diligent with buying “original” images!

  • Caroline Madden, MFT

    I have had a lot of success with 99 designs for book covers and I wish I had done it for my professional logo. You get several different creative ideas. Going with one designer you give them $500 and if you don’t like any of their designs you are just out of luck.

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