Judging a Book...

When I first made the decision to self-publish, I knew I was going to be doing everything myself. Proofreading, editing, formatting, and, yes, cover design. This is because I am cheap. Not broke, apparently, since I managed to scrounge up enough funds for a cover when I came to my senses, but cheap. Which is not something you should be when you are putting your book out into the world.

I'm a writer. I've got a good sense of language and an above-average grasp of grammar. I'd been over my book so many times that I was reasonably sure it made sense and was (mostly) error-free. So I felt okay about doing the editing and proofreading. A good developmental editor costs a lot of money, and while I was cheap-not-poor when finalizing the book, I was still too poor to afford an editor. So I made do with what I had.

Formatting and cover design were new territory for me, though. Both could be accomplished with tools I already had (formatting with Scrivener and Word, cover design with GIMP and Canva), and, being cheap, I gave it a go myself rather than taking it to a professional. After much trial and error, the formatting turned out just fine. As for the cover design, well...

Let's just say I'm not much of a graphic designer.

Not yet, at least. I think it's super interesting and it's something I'd like to learn more about, but my skillz are not at book-cover level just yet. I can handle the little pictures that go along with my writing here on the website, but a whole cover that's supposed to entice readers and that will be printed at paperback size for my physical book? Nope.

I tried, though. Here's what I came up with:

This is the product of many, many hours of derping around in GIMP, stitching together various stock images, applying filters, creating fake snow, etc. It's not terrible, I suppose. At least not from a distance. But it wasn't great. It had a person on the cover, which is something I didn't want. (Then why did I put a person on the cover? Because I didn't know how to make it look the way I wanted.) Most importantly, this cover didn't do all my hard work on the book justice. I'm guessing I spent around 5000 hours on Along Came December, from initial idea to getting the book into print. That's a hell of a long time. And after all that effort, I didn't want to just slap some half-ass cover on because I was cheap. I wanted something more professional.

So I used 99Designs.

I was hesitant about this, I admit. Firstly because it cost a good chunk of change, but also because I feel like the site's model isn't entirely fair to the designers. If you're not familiar with 99Designs, you post what you're looking for (in my case a book cover, though it could be a logo, a website, illustrations, etc.) as a contest, pay up front, and people submit their designs to your contest to try and win the money you've put up. There are different tiers at different price points, the higher tiers claiming to attract the best designers. You can guarantee your prize, which means you're committing to picking a winner, or you can get your money back if you don't like any of the designs.

It's a good deal for the client, for sure. I got 80+ designs from more than 20 designers in only a couple days. I actually ended my contest after two days instead of waiting the typical seven, since I'd gotten what I was looking for. Some of the designs were just straight up no good. But some were very thoughtful and had clearly taken effort on the part of the designer.

So what happens to the designers who don't win?

They don't win. They get nothing.

Which doesn't sit quite right with me.

The designers are basically working on spec, hoping that their design will win, which, even if they're a good designer and submitted a good entry, ultimately depends on the client's individual tastes. There were two really great designs in my contest that just weren't the right fit for the book, but man it was hard to tell those designers they didn't win. I tried to make myself feel better by telling myself that the designers chose to enter the contest, knowing they're working on spec, but still. I know what it's like to do good work and not see it fulfill its intended purpose.

So would I use 99Designs again? Yes, but in a different way. Now that I've had the chance to interact with some great designers and see how they work, I plan to use 99Designs' 1-to-1 feature, which allows you to hire a specific designer for a project, rather than holding a contest. That way the designer is guaranteed payment for their work and you're still getting the product you want. I'm glad I did the contest, though, because some designers might be good artists but be difficult to work with. This was the case with someone whose portfolio I liked. Over the course of the contest I learned that while he's got good stuff, we weren't on the same page in terms of what I wanted, and he was surprisingly petty when I chose someone else's design. Long story short, you can't judge a designer based solely on their portfolio. There are plenty of awesome designers on 99Designs, so my recommendation to anyone using the site is to find someone you want to work with, not just someone who does good work.

As for the winning cover, I love it and think it's perfect for my book. It was designed by PULP art on 99Designs. If you're looking for a book cover I'd definitely suggest giving the site a go, because unless you're a graphic designer yourself, you're probably not going to do your novel justice. Don't be a cheapskate. Because if you're going to be putting your book on the bookshelf and staring at it for the next 20 years, the cover shouldn't cause you any regret. Pay up and do it right. You'll be glad you did.