Self Publishing

Should you design your own covers?


We are Sam and Karen, two halves that make up Growing Agile, a small coaching and training company in South Africa. We love doing things ourselves. So, to self-publish our books was a no brainer. Similarly, we designed the covers for our books ourselves. We liked them — others said they were nice and we were happy.

Then a book cover designer approached us about improving the covers. At first, we honestly couldn’t imagine what a cover designer could add to the process, but since Sharna was a friend we trusted, we thought we’d give it a try. Here’s her story that explains her process of working with us to design the covers for our book series. At the end we will tell you what we think of the result.

Sharna’s story

I was lying in bed one night browsing my Twitter feed, Growing Agile had just brought out a new book. I then had a look at their previous covers and thought, “hmmm, what if…”.

Original cover designs for the two books.

That’s where it all started. I thought that their covers would look much stronger if it was held within their brand, and more recognisable as a series brand. I thought all they would need is a template drawn up with their current cover illustrations inside with a bit more consistency in typeface. I also thought that I’d like to do this without changing the look and feel of their drawings. I really like the playful, unique and easy-approach style of their brand (something which portrays them so well).

Then I’d also like to bring through their existing green colour in a roughly drawn thick band or thick border so it’s a bit more eye-catching when viewed on the internet. I also realised that in order to get the right balance and hierarchy between logo, book title and authors, I’d need to ask them what role the logo and the book title play.

For example, is your logo more important than your book title? In their case, the two are on a similar level — which makes it difficult because you can only have one focal point — one thing that grabs your eye. In this case, it’s their book title. The band beneath the title highlights it well enough so that you read that first and then the logo at top. I looked at a few top notch book and magazine series to get some inspiration. At the time I felt I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t do anything to help better an already strong product. So……I approached them via email telling them about my idea. Worse they could do was tell me to GO AWAY! So yeah, I was a bit nervous and unsure of how to approach it. But, I was grateful I approached them, and grateful they were willing to let me try something out. I think they were more curious about what I could do with their covers. So I got straight to work!

With cover concepts, I start with rough pencil sketches before I take to computer. I feel you need to get your ideas down roughly and think of all the possibilities first, before you start designing. Rough pencil sketches are a great way to do this. There’s something numbing about starting on computer first, and something enlightening about drawing/ writing on paper.

Sharna’s pencil sketch notes
Comparing ideas to other famous covers

Within a few days we met up and I showed them the rough conceptual sketches. We discussed them, and discussed it some more around the table with coffee. At the end of the discussion, they chose 3 concepts. I then took those 3 rough concepts to computer and drew up templates for their covers, and sent them the first round of proofs.

The first round of proofs

They liked option two, but wanted to try use the logo as I did in option 3 as this allowed the Growing Agile wording to be bigger. I used this feedback to create one final concept to use across all their covers. I did this via email as I find only the initial meeting is important to sit down and chat face-to-face. The rest of the process was done fairly quickly via email. I made some more amendments to the concept, and within a week the final concept was done.

Second round of proofs

Thereafter, it was down to choosing the right typeface. Sam had some good ideas on this. I used one of the typefaces she recommended — something very rare — is having the opportunity to discuss typefaces with a client…Who said clients don’t know anything about typefaces! I also suggested they might want to redraw some of the images with the same markers for consistency, and a slightly better colour balance.

I was impressed and happy to be working with clients who

  1. know what they want but still willing to let someone try something, and
  2. understand when something looks good and when it doesn’t.

All in all, it was the fastest cover sign off I’ve ever received and the most satisfying job I’ve done. I think it stems from something called autonomy. When things come from within and you take steps to make that happen, and it evolves just like you envisioned — is a remarkable feeling of satisfaction and pure happiness.

The final covers

Growing Agile’s view

Amazing! We had no idea how a few simple elements could make such a huge difference to how the covers looked next to each other. In hindsight it seems so obvious. Each time we see the covers we are delighted, and Sharna made the whole process quick and painless.

We have ended up with a brand new cover design, still true to our hand drawn feel. Our brand is clear at the top. The green band highlights the books focus area but also is an indicator that all the books are part of a series. Our hand drawings are still large and playful on the cover.

The Lesson:

All in all, getting some professional help was the right call. So if you’re a self-publisher, take note of our covers above and consider getting some professional help with your cover. We recommend reading Sharna’s blog http://bookdesignblog.wordpress.com and getting in touch with her.

Oh, and in case you’re curious — we use Leanpub.com as a publishing platform, and we love it.