Setting Up a Design Brief for a Cover Contest (Part 1)

So you’ve checked with all your friends, dug out your old refrigerator drawings you mom saved from when you were six, and you’ve come to the dismal conclusion, you don’t have access to the artistic talent needed for your new book baby. It deserves the best, so you check under the cushions of your couch and scrounge up $300 (wow!), open an account with 99Designs (since I’ve dealt with them for about a year, I’ll use them as my default example), start a contest and sit back waiting for wonderful covers to show up for your perusal.

And you wait. And you wait. And something resembling dog barf on digital canvas shows up. You scratch your head, wondering why other authors are getting exciting entries and you aren’t. Let’s go through a few things to see what you might have done wrong.

1) Did you provide a title for your book? You laugh, but a good number of the books don’t have titles when the author posts their contest. Big mistake. A title isn’t just a series of letters on top of the cover design. It’s PART of the design. Cover designers use different fonts, size letters and adjust spacing, and place the words differently depending on the title and the art their using for the cover. Think about it a moment – if you designed a cover thinking you were doing “The Hobbit” and then afterwards the author said, no, the title is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, wouldn’t you be just a tad put out? The whole flow of the title would require you redesign the cover to accommodate it. And if you’re doing a print version of your book, the spine will require reworking to fit the title and author on it and any other design elements (publisher logo), you might wish to incorporate.

2) Did you tell the designers what exactly you plan to publish? Do you only need an ebook cover, or do you also need a full layout for a print version? It’s important to tell people that. I’m entered in a contest right now where the author made no mention of her needing a print version of her book. After the final designs were submitted and the contest closed she sent me an email asking if I could make a print version for her to see. I asked her to provide me the dimensions, the paper type and the number of pages. She didn’t send me these things and so I had to make things up. I told her I based the cover size and design on a 300 page book, on cream paper, with a 6×9 bleed. I still have no idea if that works for her. Don’t make your designers guess like this.

Others in the contest made print mockups, but because her title is so long they made the spines quite thick to allow for a double row of words. We’re talking spine widths to accommodate a 500 page book. Odds are her book isn’t that long (it’s for little kids), and if she chooses their design based on how the spine looks, she’ll be disappointed when the artist has to redo the whole thing because she put out a 200 page book and needs a much thinner spine.

Before you start your contest do yourself a favor and pop over to CreateSpace and check out the options for a print book. Under the covers tab you can enter how many pages your book is, what bleed you want to use (probably 6×9), what kind of paper you want to use (go with cream – it’s much heavier and looks professional compared to the white), and you can choose whether you want a glossy cover or not (this is one thing you probably don’t need to tell the designers). It will then generate a template in a PDF which you can then attach to your contest so the designers can use it to get your cover the right size.

You’ll save yourself and the designers a lot of headaches if you include this information right at the start.

3) Did you provide a synopsis of your book and information about the appearance of key characters? Again, this may seem to be a no-brainer, but a lot of folks simply say, “Make me a cover,” and are then amazed when no one can read their minds.

Be specific. One author posted that she wanted a girl to appear on her cover and that the girl needed to convey that she’d gone through a lot of trauma, but that her faith had helped her endure. She got a ton of nice covers with pretty blond girls around seven years old. Turned out the “girl” was over thirty years of age and had brown hair. Lots of wasted time and effort occurred because the author wasn’t clear about what she wanted.
At a minimum, provide age, race, gender, time period, genre, and general clothing style. Better yet, give height, weight, hair & eye color to go along with that. If you can, avoid extremely specific articles of clothing like “must have pearl necklace with sapphire gem in center, that hangs down between her breasts, and shows through the sweetheart cutout of her blouse”.

If you want plate armor state that. If you need jeans and a t-shirt, state that. If their hair is wavy or straight-as-a-ruler, let folks know. Just know where to draw the line. Like in eating goodies, remember, all things in moderation.

Remember, the artists most likely have 4-5 days to try to wow you with their initial entries. Some do paint from scratch, but most don’t. The average designer works with 3D renders, stock images, and Photoshop magic.

Next week (or so) I’ll post part two to this article. I’ll provide additional suggestions on what to include and what to leave out of your design brief.

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Put a Wrap on it

So, as writers we create images by stringing a series of words together that we hope the reader will find evocative. We focus on that, and then when it comes time to self-publish we get hit with the realization we need an actual picture to represent to the buying public what they’ll find buried in our hundred-thousand-word new born. It can be a trifle … unsettling.

If you fancy yourself a visual artist of sorts, you can tackle this project yourself. Maybe you have a skilled friend you can hit up for a favor. Quite a lot of folks do not have these as options. What to do?
You can go to web sites with premade covers. There you sort through their offerings, in the hopes that someone just happened to capture the look and feel of your story. You choose the cover, pay for it, and they add the relevant text to it. Fairly easy, and usually inexpensive, but a good many people aren’t going to find the perfect book cover this way.

There are other options. I’m going to say flat out, I do not think Fiverr is one of them. I’m sure some folks will disagree, but for the most part, a killer cover is not the result of someone working for $5 a shot.

You can go to Createspace and use one of their options. One is a DIY system called Cover Creator where they provide templates which you modify with clip art, stock photos, or something you provide. This isn’t a horrible idea, and it’s free, so if you’re not in a position to fork over any dough, this may be the best choice for you.

Createspace also has different levels of professional help available for cover design. The less expensive version ($399) gets you a consultation, use of a single image, custom layout, custom background color and stylized text options. The “premier” version ($599) gets you a consultation, single stock image, unique stylized font and theme, two options for the cover (your version and the one the designer suggests), plus a couple rounds of revisions.

If that is too rich for your blood (or too limiting), and you’d like to get multiple artists to vie for your attention, there are companies who provide that service as well. Crowd Sourcing has grown over the years. You can get just about anything designed for your project. Not just business cards. Not just company logos. Book covers. Places like DesignCrowd have you write a brief which includes all the items you consider essential for the artists to know when competing for work . You pay a fee to the company and a portion of that (usually about 2/3) gets assigned as the “prize” for winning the contest (this can vary, but $300 seems standard for what you pay). You set the amount of time for the contest to run, choose finalists to go on to the next round, and then choose the winner at the end. If you don’t like any of the designs presented to you, you get your fee refunded. I mentioned DesignCrowd, but there are others. The one I am most familiar with is 99Designs.

My next article will cover (no pun intended) what to do and not do when setting up a contest at a crowd sourcing site. I’ve entered a number of contests at 99designs and have dealt with the frustration of dealing with authors who didn’t know what they were doing. I’ll try to provide you some tips so if you go this route you’ll have a more successful campaign.

In the meantime, if you want to know a whole lot more about the actual art of cover design, check out The Book Designer. There you can find out all kinds of useful things, and once you’ve published your new shiny book, you can enter your books cover into his monthly contest and perhaps gain a little exposure for your work.