What Does a Book Cover Designer Do and How Important is The Cover?

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This week I interviewed the librarian at our local library who handles all the mid-grade and young adult book purchases. She knows what teens like and what they don’t like by observing which books get checked out and which ones never leave. She said the number one reason she buys a book is because she likes the cover art. The cover is what draws teen readers. She admitted that she’s been burned before, but typically the cover art is what sells the book.

(If you’d like to see THE 50 COOLEST BOOK COVERS from ShortList.com click HERE.)

L.J. Bleed, a dear friend of mine, recently self-published the YA novel The Color of Pure, a Story of Life, Love, and Sexual Purity, Rated PG, and worked with cover designer, Cathy Helms. L.J. raved about Cathy, so I asked her if she’d share a little about what she does with us.

Please welcome Cathy Helms from Avalon Graphics.


Greetings Michelle (and to all of your readers!), and thank you for inviting me to your wonderful blog! I’m thrilled to answer a few questions about book cover design and what I do – I have to admit right at the start, I love what I do because I get to do something creative each and every day and collaborate with the most amazing people all over the world! So it is hardly work at all!

What do you do for your clients? 

Primarily I design book cover jackets for independent authors. However, I also offer services such as promotional book trailers, marketing materials, and websites for my clients too.

Who’s your target market? 

Independent writers and first time authors in need of custom book cover designs for their manuscripts. Although, I am contracted through a couple of publishing houses where I am assigned cover jacket projects from time to time, and in those situations the target market is up to the publisher.

Have you found an increase in the need since more and more people are self-publishing?

Definitely! Indie authors are thankfully realizing that they cannot tackle everything on their own, and they are turning to professionals, such as designers and editors, to help with those specialized tasks so the authors can focus on polishing their books.

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How do you design a cover? Tools you use, methods you create.

My process begins with a discussion with the author where I gather notes from a synopsis of their book, any examples of existing covers that the author likes or feels would also suit their own book, and I research the subject so I have a solid understanding of what my design will represent. This is especially important when designing for historical fiction, for example.

Next step is to search for appropriate stock elements (images, illustrations, video – depending on the project type). Once I have a general idea in my head, I begin a concept in Adobe Photoshop (digital design program). A lot of designers sketch out comps first, but my personal preference is to get right into the digital design program itself. I work with three design programs for print and eBook cover design: Adobe Photoshop (raster, images), Illustrator (vector, line art illustration) and InDesign (layout, print press). I use ProShow Producer for all book trailers and promotional videos. All of my designs are first created in Photoshop and then exported and/or combined with other programs depending on the final media output (such as for print or web use).

What questions do you ask the author before you begin the process of creating?

I always request samples of existing book covers to get a feel for what the author likes, I ask if they have any specific ideas for their cover, and what are the key elements or principle characters in their novel that should be represented on the cover. I have a set of technical questions that I also need to know before I begin any actual work, such as output (print or eBook), whose publishing, what size, due date and any other specific expectations that the author may have. If the client has absolutely no idea what they want in a book cover, I ask about favorite colors, styles, again other published book covers they like in order to get a feel for their personal style; then based on the information about their book (storyline, synopsis) formulate my own concept for the cover design.

How often do you create something totally different than what the client originally wanted, and the client loved it?

Honestly, that rarely happens. A few times I have made numerous concepts based on a client’s requests where none worked for us, and I went in a completely different direction that actually worked out. I do have to talk them out of an odd detail every now and then that might not make sense, such as historical inaccuracy or specific font usage, but overall my job is to create what the client wants to visually represent their book.

Have you had a client who has reprinted an old book of theirs with your design and has found more success with your design versus the original one? Tell the story.

Actually I have re-designed numerous book jackets for existing publications – most notably for UK author Helen Hollick. She has found quite a bit more success with my covers verses her originals. I primarily read historical fiction myself, always on the lookout for anything Arthurian, and while perusing the fiction section at my local bookstore I spotted The Kingmaking, by Helen Hollick. I wrote to her with a letter of praise for her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy (which is still one of my favorite Arthur-centric novels of all time), and that initial contact led to her hiring me to re-design the cover for her pirate novel Sea Witch. She just happened to be in the process of switching over to have all six of her novels re-printed through a new publisher (assisted publishing) – so she gave me a chance. And she loved my concept so much that she hired me! I’ve been her only designer ever since! I just completed my 9th cover jacket for her, I’ve also designed all of her marketing material, numerous book trailers and all of the graphics for her website. My association with Helen also led to several other UK authors hiring me to re-design their book jackets, so I have many more stories just like that that I could share. But the one about Helen is my favorite.

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(Cathy’s redesign of Sea Witch. To view more of Cathy’s book covers click HERE.)

How important is book cover design to book sales?

I always have this to say: “Whoever told you that you cannot judge a book by its cover lied.” You could have written the next Harry Potter or Twilight, yet if your cover is dull, or obviously an amateurish effort, no one will pick it up. The only people who will buy it will be your friends and family. But a well designed cover will always get folks to pick it up and look at it – turn it over and read the back blurb and hopefully buy the book! How often do you look through the New York Times Best Seller List and see book cover images with poor typography, terrible Photoshop (if Photoshop was even used) or *gasps* just a solid color background and small type stuck on it in the top 10? Never.

What’s the most expensive cover design and why?

A cover can be extremely expensive if a client wants to use licensed artwork or limited rights (royalty) managed works on their cover as the costs to use such images can run in the thousands for even a small print run. Most folks do not understand copyright laws to begin with either – so a part of my job is typically also a role of educator in explaining why one cannot use a little clipart of a current president or monarch (for example) on their book cover to start; it is never okay (or legal!) to use any image one finds via Google or searching on the internet without properly commissioning through the license holder of that image.  As far as in general, the most expensive type of cover design is a full five-panel hard back book because it is the largest canvas and contains the most content. eBooks are the cheapest simply because they are only for the web and only a single panel (the cover), the paperback is a three panel design with a cover, spine and back cover. Therefore, I price out a book cover job depending on the output or book type and I stick to using royalty free stock images to keep the costs down.

Is there a certain genre that you do more often?

I started out primarily designing for historical fiction writers. But as my clientele has grown, I’m expanding into all sorts of genres.

Is one genre more difficult to do than another?

While I enjoy historical fiction above all others, it is also the most challenging. I must meet a client’s expectations – and locate reasonably priced stock resources for vintage/dark age/ancient elements that are actually ‘accurate’ for the times, which is often tough. My Photoshop skills are the most tested in this genre as I often end up heavily editing the images to create the final product.

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How many typical clients do you have in a month?

On average 4 to 6, or in other words, I attempt to carry about 6 projects per month on my production schedule.

Do you do children’s books?

I have not been approached by anyone for a children’s book to date, but of course I would accept the job!

Do you work with illustrators or do you do all your own illustrations?

I am a photo manipulator and I work with digital illustrations (vector line art) – so thus far I have not had any need to work with a traditional illustrator. But I have come across a few online that should I have a need for one, I could meet a need for a job.

Could you tell our writer readers something they might not know about book covers?

I think the biggest misconception about book covers, or book cover design, is the process behind what it takes to make that cover look so clean and crisp both on screen and in print. And how much math is involved in the set up of a book cover design in general. Not only do I set a specific resolution depending on the output (web verses print) but also a book cover designer must understand trim, bleed, the difference between CMYK and RGB, color profiles, output for press, spine calculation, paper weights, and it goes on from there. Thus it’s a very technical process on top of a creative endeavor. A book cover designer has to be good at both, and a master communicator!

Thank you again for having me at RANDOM! I enjoyed stopping by!

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Links for Cathy (Avalon Graphics):
Main Website: 
On Facebook: Avalon-Graphics
On Twitter: Avalon_Graphics
Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/cathelms/my-book-cover-portfolio/
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/cathyhelms

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  1. When it was time to publish my first children’s book, I really had fun choosing the artist from four candidates. I ended up with one beautifully matching the heart of my story and she’s illustrated my later two children’s books, too. It’s very important to get cover and content, all details, right.

    • Hi Delores! I could not agree more and glad to hear that you have built a good working relationship with your cover artist! Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. Good blog interview, but it’s a blog about cover design, so why post a key comparison of a cover redesign (Sea Witch) in tiny, sub-thumbnail 145×121 pixels? This is visually interesting to those of us who are designers and makes an important point to the non-design writing community. It should either be in hi-res or be a live link to where it can be viewed.

    –Larry Constantine (otherwise known as thriller writer Lior Samson)

    • Hi Larry-
      Great question and comments! Here’s why I didn’t publish better pics–I’m a tech ‘tard. Cathy sent me several great .jpeg photos but I couldn’t download them to the blog. It was like the file was too big. I retried and reposted a larger comparison just now. I appreciate your comments because it pushes me to improve.
      Thanks for stopping by.

    • Greetings Larry,

      Thanks so much for commenting; Michelle is working on sorting out a larger version of that cover comparison image as we speak.

      Did you design all of your book covers? They are well done!

      Thank you again for reading the interview!

  3. Robin says:

    This is fascinating. I’ve always wondered how much say an author has and how cover designs are chosen and what not. I imagine some of it has to do with trends, because I tend to see a lot of the same thing when I peruse shelves in bookstores, but there are always the really unique books that stand out. (And even the ones that aren’t unique are often still beautiful.) Do different publishers have different preferences, or anything like that, that they want to see?

    • Hi Robin!

      Thank you for commenting and I’m so glad it was helpful! It is part of the job to know the current trends in publishing and graphic design. But I still try to come up with as much originality as I can to help my client’s books stand out.

      I think every publisher has their own set of preferences or specific styles that they want all of their publications to adhere to. I’ve worked with a couple that were quite demanding and rather micro-managed my design work. And I’ve worked for a few who pretty much accepted my concepts without further discussion and just ran with them. I believe it depends on the person in charge of the design department at the big publishing houses really.

      I primarily design for the authors who self publish, they know their books best, so I’ve had a lot more success collaborating with the authors directly I think. Gigs with publishers are usually on tight deadlines, pay better, but can be more stressful for me as a designer.

Please share your random thoughts.


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