Three weeks ago I made the big decision to go indie, join the self publishing revolution and be a Maker, handcrafting my own book. Easy peasy. Hop right in, hit a few buttons and get the book out by Thanksgiving aided by mysterious print-on-demand elves, eager digital distributors and Jeff Bezos.

Or so I thought.

Not so fast…

I was, let us freely admit, clueless about what is actually required. The past twenty one days have been an education! The literary world is a veritable alphabet soup. POD. eHub. PCN. ISBN. PDF. mobi. CMYK. jpeg. Amazon, oh Amazon. Longing to be a mighty Lightning Source and being congratulated on being instead the peashooter Ingram Spark that I truly am.

I will share that learning journey, past and future, in coming days, including the false starts and blind alleys, in hopes of helping other indie writers get their books out with less suffering.

But first a report on one super fun step in the thousand steps between three weeks ago and Publication Day next year sometime–the cover design!

Innocent of all that was actually required, I merrily went through 99Designs.com and set up a bronze level competition ($299) for a book cover design. Seventeen designers from all over the world together produced around 80 designs against the brief I wrote about my samurai steampunks and their dirigibles. The process was great fun, and I found it an honor and a privilege to work with designers so skilled at their craft. For eight straight days I was glued to my computer, looking at designs, giving feedback to the designers and frantically trying to generate for the designers the information they needed to do their job.

A clever person would have gathered this information BEFORE starting an eight day design competition. You could easily spend many happy days studying the fine points of book design. Next time around I will, and create an art work of those subtle details that make a book attractive to hold and enjoy. However, you simply must nail down a few things before you start designing a cover even if you don’t intend to become a world class book designer overnight. These fall into the “Doh!” category, but include decisions like book size and format, ebook and print copy fonts, what to include in front matter and activities like doing enough rough formatting of the interior to get an accurate page count. You need to know the width of the spine so the designers can make their design the right size. Who knew?! Traditional publishers, obviously, and anyone who has been through self-publishing.

But not me. Anyway, now I know, and so I can write a better brief next time, with all that pre-work done before I start the competition.

In spite of my startling discoveries midway through the process about what is required, I am very happy with the design.

Two designs, actually, by two designers, both of which are excellent. I will hold the second one back for a later edition or different format, to be determined. I loved them both.

To filter through the dozens of designs, I used the 99Design poll feature to do some market testing with two groups: friends with editing and publishing experience who weighed in on which designs were most commercial and marketable, and “civilian” friends who just had to indicate which one they liked best and why. I also used Pickfu.com for their instant market polls ($20 per single poll) to make decisions between the finalists. All three groups converged on this design for being eye-catching, commercial, representing the genre and story well and just being cool. The other design was the strong favorite of a smaller group of respondents who found it less flashy but more appealing to them personally while still meeting the bar for representing the story well and being appropriately commercial. Different strokes for different folks!

Quick takeaways for anyone thinking of doing a cover design competition:

  • Finish your editing first. You cannot get an accurate page count if you are still editing!
  • Finish your book design first, including interior formatting, especially if you are making efforts to stand out for your book design as well as your story, at least enough to get an accurate page count
    • Decide on your formats (hard cover, paperback, digital)
    • Decide on your book size
    • Decide on your paper type
    • Pick your fonts, for print and digital
    • Draft your front matter at least to the number of pages level
    • Decide on your template for handling chapter headings
    • Spend the time hunting down the orphan words and orphan lines
    • Within 99Designs, spend time setting up your competition for success
      • Personally invite participation from designers whose style and previous work appeals to you
      • Write a strong clear brief covering technical requirements and your vision
      • Give thoughtful and honest feedback throughout the process
      • Get for your designers the precise technical requirements needed for your cover art from your ebook/POD publishers
  • Market test your favorites using 99Design polls, which can be shared on email and social media, and Pickfu once you are down to a couple of options
    • Get expert insight from folks who know about commercial cover requirements
    • Get “the crowd” to help choose the most appealing cover

Written by Stephanie R. Sorensen

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