How I made a kick-ass cover for my self-published book

If you want to publish a book, one of the most important things to consider is the cover—after all, we judge the book by the cover.

And I did it the universally recommended way:

I hired a designer.

Simple, right?

But real talk; it’s not exactly that simple and I did a bunch of work to get a cover that I’m very happy with (scroll down if you just want to see the cover). This post is an attempt to gather the things I did, and I hope it’s helpful for you if you want to create a cover for your own book.

Preparations

Before contacting a designer I compiled a document with things that the designer might need. It contained these things, in as much detail and clarity as I could give:

You might think this is overkill, but all the designers I contacted were deeply impressed by it, and I was told it was immensely helpful in producing the cover and saved us a lot of time.

I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted for the cover. It was a complex illustration, which is much more expensive than a simpler cover, but I liked the idea too much to throw it away. This is how I described it in the initial design document:

While it should be clear that it’s a book about Bitcoin you should also be able to look at the cover and identify some of the topics I bring up in the book. Something that reveals more details and references the more you look at it.

My idea is to have a picture of a city street, with shops and signs on both sides. Something like this:

And in the middle should be a person with a mobile phone that shows an image with a Bitcoin logo. The person is confused and doesn’t know where to go and what the different things on the street are.

I like the cyberpunk aesthetic, but the cover should of course be less messy.

And then a long list of ideas for what could be seen on the street. We scrapped most of them, even some of my favorites such as an S&M couple walking on the street, but they helped guide the process from beginning to end.

The point of this exercise is to give the designer the tools to create a cover that matches what you want. The designer hasn’t read your book, so you must somehow transplant what’s in your head into theirs, and I think a design document like I created is a pretty good start.

Hiring a designer

I looked for designers in two places:

I contacted a bunch of them, and ultimately chose Brad Lark for two reasons:

  1. I liked his art-style (otherwise I wouldn’t even have bothered)
  2. He proposed an iterative process, where I paid in increments instead of a large clump sum

The others I contacted wanted to be paid everything upfront, or half before we start and half when we finish. I’d be totally fine with that approach too, but they asked for $2,500 or $3,500 while Brad wanted an initial $350 and then we’d work from there. Avoiding the large initial investment was the decider for me. (The final cost landed at $1,754, which included the front, the spine, the back, typesetting and print setup.)

Now you might wonder, is a cover really that expensive?

No, you can get a standard cover much, much cheaper (and it might very well be the better financial decision for you). But complex illustrations like the one I wanted are very time consuming, and thus, expensive.

Working with the designer

Don’t think that we’re done just because we’ve prepared an initial guiding document. Most of the effort was spent giving feedback and planning the next iteration, with +70 emails going back and forth until we arrived at the end result (long emails, some as long as the initial design document itself!).

Like with software development an iterative and incremental process beats out a static waterfall-like process every time. It works by the designer providing a sketch (or several), and we give feedback and plan for the next iteration where the designer continues to improve until we arrive at something we’re happy with.

(Incidentally writing a book is also an iterative process, but more on that in a later blog post.)

I think an iterative process is so important, that if your designer doesn’t want to work this way, then you should find someone else.

How to give feedback is an art in itself, here are some concrete things I focused on when receiving a sketch or a draft:

For example “I like the birds” isn’t as good as “I like the birds because they give a nice dystopian feeling”, which lead to us adding a bunch more details that strengthened the dystopian cyberpunk vibe.

So very cozy

But sometimes it’s very difficult. In the first drafts, I didn’t like the person in the middle. I couldn’t really explain why… Maybe it didn’t feel finished? But when pressed I had to settle with “I don’t know”.

Don’t worry about hurting feelings or settling on something you’re not completely satisfied with; the designer should be a professional and as long as you’re respectful and your feedback is focused on concrete things, there shouldn’t be any issues.

Email communication

Because all our communication was over email, I wanted to dedicate some time to the art of writing effective emails (which with the prevalence of remote working might be one of the most important skills you can focus on).

I have some simple rules I try to follow, and they’ve proved to be very effective:

  1. The purpose of the email should be very clear
  2. It should be clear for any reader if the email is specifically targeting them
  3. It must be clear what actions needs to be taken, and by whom

While the first two aren’t very relevant for this case, the third is very important. After the email, the designer should know what changes should be made and have received enough information to move in the right direction (but follow-up emails and clarifications should be expected).

Concretely after receiving a new draft, I would write an email looking something like this:

Hey, some good progress here and I’ve left some feedback and a plan for the next iteration.

What I like

  • I think the stance/posture of the person is good, and the confusion is very clear.

What I’m unsure about

  • I appreciate the “insert card” sign on the toilet, without it there wouldn’t be much point. But is it readable?

What I dislike and what we should change

  • Too much neon. I think I’d like more details on other elements that are more in the dark/grungy/depressing/dystopian style? Maybe like the sky or the street? The colored windows work well here, and so does the sidewalks.

Ideas for next iteration

  • A bank
    In true cyberpunk fashion banks and megacorps are evil. I don’t know how to convey this well though?

Concrete steps for next iteration

  • Rework the “dislikes” mentioned above

    • Neon (make it more gritty)
  • Add some street level shops

Yes, this kind of email can be very long, but it’s important not to be verbose. Write enough to get your point across, but not more. Sometimes a “I paid the invoice, could you please confirm?” is good enough.

From the first to the second iteration

While we did four iterations, the transformation from the first to the second was pretty impressive.

The initial sketch

My initial reaction to the initial sketch was… Not that good. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was something more.

Still, I took a long hard look at found a number of things I did like, and a long list of things I wanted to change and add, and had a long email conversation of how to proceed. After what felt like a long wait (but in reality wasn’t) the next sketch felt completely different:

After extensive feedback and a number of brainstorm/planning back and forths

Impressive!

I guess the lesson here is that it’s fine to feel disappointed at first, but an iterative process and effective communication can do wonders.

The end result

The final cover
The cover looks great in real life too

Overall, I’m super happy with the cover and I’ve gotten a ton of praise for it. I’m not sure if it was a wise financial decision to spend that much on a cover, as it’s likely I won’t sell enough books to cover the cost, but I can’t complain about the end result.

Still, there are some things I would’ve done differently. We did a last round that included adding a title on the front, on the spine and text to the back of the book. But the text layout is something I could’ve done myself, especially as I’ve done some adjustments afterwards myself.

The book itself? It’s called Why Cryptocurrencies? and I plan to release it at the end of May. It’s also available to read online for free.