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Graphic Design for Authors: Understanding the Basic Costs by Shauna Aura Knight

DreamworkCover200We all know the tired adage, don’t buy a book by its cover. Except…we totally do. As authors, a book cover is the single most important piece of our marketing package. Title and blurb come a close second, and graphic design of other marketing collateral is important too.

However, with the self-publishing blitz, I have seen a lot of atrocious book covers.

Before I became a published author I had already been a professional graphic designer, illustrator, and artist for many years. I have the great fortune to be able to do some of my own covers and all my banners, ads, and other collateral. For those of you looking to self-publish, or just looking to improve the quality of your covers, or even to understand a bit more about what goes into graphic design, I’m offering this series on different facets of graphic design for authors.

What Leads to Bad Covers?

I think the core reason is probably cost; a lot of indie authors aren’t willing or able to pay for a good cover design. Sometimes authors do their own covers. Similarly, smaller presses are sometimes unable to pay for better quality cover designs. And sometimes, it’s just a matter of taste. I have worked with people who have no sense of a design aesthetic.

There’s an axiom I’d like to offer: Do what you do well, and hire out for the rest.

If you aren’t a good designer, if you don’t understand Photoshop, or if you just don’t have a good aesthetic, then it’s worth hiring out for your covers. Folks who don’t have a good eye for design sometimes don’t know it, so if you aren’t sure, find some designers and ask them.

The cost of a good cover design often seems to be a limiting factor. Many authors trying to self-publish can’t afford much (or anything) for a cover. However, think about this. When I see a poorly-designed cover, I think, “Yikes, they must have done that themselves. I bet they tried to edit it themselves too.” And I’ll pass on buying that book.

This also applies to marketing materials. Blurry memes with tiny text, poorly designed banners and web sites, or ugly advertisements or postcards are also a visual turnoff. Taken a step further, when I’m considering what publishers to submit my work to, I check out their cover designs. If they have consistently atrocious cover designs, I’ll pass on sending them my own work. I want my books to look good.


Here are some rules of thumb. If you’re only paying $50-$100 for a cover, you get what you pay for. Granted, there are some decent designers out there selling premade covers in that price range, but generally the really good covers are going to cost you more than that. I’d say that on the low end, I’d charge $100- $250. $500 is more reasonable for the amount of time it takes me, plus the cost of photos. If we’re talking about licensing some of my artwork or more complicated digital illustration work, that might be $750-$1,000 or more.

What are some things that make covers cost what they do? Largely it’s the cost of photos or artwork, whether that’s a stock photo, a photo shoot, or licensed artwork. Then there’s the time it takes to do the graphic design component.

Custom Photo Shoots

I hear that cover models at romance conventions sometimes offer custom photos for around $100. That’s a pretty decent price, given what you are getting I have spent dozens of hours looking through stock photo sites for a person who looks right for the book, in the right pose—much less finding a couple in the right pose. Photo shoots are incredibly expensive. Once, I was part of a corporate project to redesign all of our collateral materials, and the budget for photography alone was $25,000 dollars. My creative director lamented that he had been limited to such a miniscule budget.

Stock Photos

I can get about 700 photos for $250 on some stock sites, which is awesome. The downside? So can any other designer. I see book covers all the time using the same stock photos, the same cover models. The photo might be great, but if you see “that guy” on the cover all the time, the cover’s not distinctive. It’s like all the Fabio covers years ago.

More expensive stock photos can range from $100-$1,000, or can cost thousands of dollars each if you’re looking at rights-managed or exclusive photos. The advantage? Nobody else will have that photo. Sometimes, it’s worth the investment. And the photographer deserves to get paid.

People sometimes ask me, “Can’t you just use free photos from online?” The answer is no. While there may be some free photos that are offered up for free by their copyright holders, these images are typically not as good a quality as stock photos so finding the right image is tough.

And if someone owns the copyright and you use it for your book, bingo. Lawsuit time. I’ll touch on deeper issues with stock photos in a future post.

Licensed Artwork

If you’re writing a fantasy novel or another book where you’re licensing artwork for the cover, you have to consider the time of the artist. Some of my watercolor and acrylic pieces have taken me dozens if not approaching a hundred hours to create. Plus, if you’re buying an exclusive license, I may never be able to sell the rights for that painting to any other author. I can sell the painting, of course, but not the rights to print it. Licensing artwork is a great way to set your work apart from other covers, though it works better for some genres than others, like fantasy, science fiction, historical romance, as well as some nonfiction. Artists deserve to be paid for their work.


Yes, you can get lots of free fonts on the internet. However, someone took the time to design that font. Many fonts come prepackaged with software and you might think of them as free, but in most cases the font designer is getting paid and that’s part of the cost of the software. Some fonts are only available if you buy them directly from a font foundry. Graphic designers using the font have to pay that cost out of pocket, and it has to get factored into what they charge, because the font designer deserves to get paid.

You’re probably sensing a theme when I point out that people deserve to get paid for their work. One struggle that most creative professions face (including writers and musicians) is that there is sometimes a strange perspective that their work should be available for free. I know that I typically grumble about the cost of fonts or stock photos when I’m broke and can’t afford them. What is important for authors to realize is that every facet of the design has a cost associated with it. Fonts are perhaps one of the most invisible parts of design work and most don’t realize they even have a cost.

Design Time

As a graphic designer, I’m usually willing to reduce my rate for a very small business or author to about $25 an hour. This is a pretty low rate for a professional designer; I’ve charged as much as $100 an hour for some work. I see a lot of designers offering up logo design on Fiverr or other design work for $5 or so. I don’t know how any of those folks can make a living at those rates. Then again, you get what you pay for.

To design a book cover typically means that I’m spending at least a few hours going through stock photo sites, unless I just happen to have a stock photo already on hand that will do the trick. Talking with the client about what they need, possibly putting time into reading the book, creating design sketches and then going back and forth with the client…all of that is a minimum of ten hours of work.

When designing my own covers I don’t keep track of my time, but I’d estimate that designing my cover for A Fading Amaranth probably took me about 15-20 hours. I was doing some advanced Photoshopping work, since the two people on the cover come from two entirely separate photos. Positioning them, digitally painting in the parts that were missing, colorizing them to match…that kind of fussy work takes hours.

For anything complicated, it might be 20-30 hours of work, particularly if the client has really specific needs and we have to go back and forth a few times. If I’m doing several versions of a cover to start with, that increases the cost as well.

What you’re paying for when you hire a designer is their time, but you’re also paying for their expertise. This includes their natural aesthetic eye, their experience, and their education. Education might include a degree, or just hours and hours learning their craft on their own.

I want to specifically highlight the experience portion, because many people hire a designer (often a newer designer) and, while the cover might be “pretty,” it isn’t necessarily a strategically effective cover.

Cost and Marketing

This is just an overview of what impacts the cost of design work. Next month we’ll go a little deeper into how marketing strategy impacts design. One failure I see in cover design, and especially in collateral design, is the lack of attention to marketing strategy.


Bio200A graphic designer, artist, author, and presenter, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations.

She’s the author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels including Werewolves in the Kitchen, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, and A Fading Amaranth. She is also the author of the nonfiction books The Leader Within,  Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, and forthcoming The Facilitation Handbook: Enchanting a Group

Shauna’s writing and artwork is inspired by the mythic stories of heroes, of swords and magic, and of the darkness we each must overcome. That the challenges we face shape us, and help each character—each person–to become heroes.  Shauna is passionate about creating experiences, spaces, stories, designs, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination.  Web Site:


WerewolvesIntheKitchen200Graphic Design and Consulting:

Shauna’s artwork and graphic design are used for fiction and nonfiction book covers and marketing collateral. Her work often has a dark, mythic, textural flavor. If you’re looking for an honest opinion on your covers or other collateral, she’s happy to offer a brief review for free.  If you’re interested in engaging Shauna for graphic design, mention this article for 30% off your first project (maximum of $200 off).  You can view her portfolio here: