I design a lot of book covers, for someone who doesn’t do it full-time. Being responsible for the design of your books, inside and out, is part and parcel of being a self-published author. That responsibility usually amounts to a choice between designing the books yourself, or contracting the work out to a freelance designer.
Deciding whether to do something yourself or outsource it is a decision that will be familiar to anyone who has run a small business. When I worked as a private attorney, I faced this question everyday. Do I pay for someone to design my website, or do it myself, since I have that skillset? Do I do all the bookkeeping, or hire someone to man Quickbooks for me? The only way to make these choices is to apply a cost-benefit analysis. First and foremost, do you have the ability to do this task yourself? If yes, what’s more valuable to you, your time or your money? If no, is it something you can learn? And if you spend time learning how to do accomplish an ancillary task, are you spending your time wisely?
When you sit down to take care of the myriad tasks that make up the logistical and business side of being a full-time writer, you always have to ask yourself whether you’d be better off skipping this part and just doing some writing. Usually, the answer is yes. You should probably be writing. Sometimes, the answer is an uncomfortable no: getting this shit accomplished is vital to the success of your career. Other times, and these are the times I’m getting at here, the answer is a confident no: this is important, and it’s okay that I’m focusing on this for the moment instead of doing what I actually do, which is write fiction.
When my wife and I started Evil Toad Press, the imprint under which we publish our books, one thing we decided very quickly was that we would outsource all of our interior formatting/typesetting. Neither of us had any significant experience doing this kind of work, and a day or two spent reading distributors’ formatting requirements and fooling around with Calibre and Adobe InDesign was enough to make up my mind. I was confident that I could format the text of my book by myself if I had to, but it would require a significant investment of time and effort that I felt would be better put toward writing the actual books. Most importantly, I figured out relatively quickly that I had no desire to do that work: it didn’t speak to me. It felt dry and repetitive and boring. I wanted to pay someone to do it for me, so I did. We’ve never looked back.
On the other hand, I did have some experience with graphic design. I’ve got some background in art and web design, and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit teaching myself Adobe Photoshop. I felt confident that I could at least take a crack at designing a few book covers, and to my surprise I found that not only did I have something of a knack for it, I really enjoyed doing it.
To date, I’ve designed the cover for every book released by Evil Toad Press. Even if you factor in the (small) cost of the tools required–subscriptions to Adobe Creative Cloud and Shutterstock, the odd font license–as well as a reasonable rate for the man-hours I put in designing them, we’ve certainly saved money doing it this way. Even “pre-made” book covers, which are predesigned templates with your name and book title added, usually run anywhere from seventy-five to several hundred dollars. If you want a completely custom design by a professional designer or illustrator, the cost may run into the thousands.
But more important, for me, was the unexpected thrill I got designing covers for books I cared about personally. The challenge of capturing a book’s essence, genre, and tone and expressing them visually was exciting. It was, and still is, a learning process, to be sure. It requires a fusion of skillsets, including graphic design, typography, illustration, painting, geometry, and more. But seeing a book cover come to life and being happy with the end result is incredibly satisfying.
I’m no professional designer. I didn’t go to school for this. I know I’ve got a lot to learn–sometimes it feels like I learn something new with every cover I design. And not every cover is an immediate hit: some need several mock-ups before I get the concept right, others need to be redesigned entirely. Sometimes I have to design several alternate covers simultaneously, to see which works the best. Sometimes it turns out that a book needs a new cover somewhere down the line, because the first version isn’t selling as well as it could.
Some of my covers, to be brutally honest, are better than others. As I said, it’s a learning process, and sometimes the magic just comes together better than others.
But the point I’m trying, and perhaps failing, to make is that designing book covers adds to my enjoyment of being a writer. It doesn’t detract from it. The moment it stops being fun, the moment it starts being a drag that I just want to put behind me, I’ll start paying someone else. There’s no shortage of ways to buy a book cover.
So what’s the lesson, here? I know. You’re waiting for the sappy moral. Well here’s a go at it.
An accountant once cautioned me not to let logistics get in the way my actual business. At the time, his advice was specific: don’t try to do payroll by yourself, even if you’ve only got one employee. Pay someone else to do that for you. “You do what you do,” he said. At the time, that meant that I should worry less about payroll and more about actually practicing law, so as to make the money that would support said payroll. But it’s good advice for any business. And writing, my friends, is a business like any other.
So do what you do: write. Pay somebody else to worry about the rest.