To Contest or Not to Contest – Design Contests for Book Covers


September 24, 2013 by Mod

Last week I posted about working one on one with a cover designer. This is my recommended route – to find a cover designer you like and work with them exclusively. There are many advantages to this, not the least of which is that the more you work together the better they will understand your taste and your brand. And also your books. Although I don’t have time to read every book that I cover, when I work frequently with a writer I can’t help but get curious about their books – so I end up reading one or two. This is an immense help with nailing the tone of their writing in the cover design.

But maybe you’d like to try something different, or you haven’t found a designer you click with. A cover design contest might be just the thing. Cover design contests are run by such sites as 99Designs, Hire the World, and Design Crowd. The process is simple – you upload your brief, including what you want to pay (there are minimums), pay the website in advance (you are refunded if you don’t get any satisfactory submissions) and they run the contest for you. If all goes according to plan, at the end of it, you have a fabulous cover.


In the interests of full disclosure, I want to say that I design at 99Designs and Hire the World. I’ve won contests at both. I’ve made some pretty good money.


So you can be fully informed I’m going to give you the pros, cons and questionables about running an online design contest.


gateflatfinal copyYou get lots of options. Contests can attract 100 designs or more from 30 or more designers. Sometimes you get a crazy variety of ideas. Sometimes – if you have something very specific in mind and make that clear in your brief – you get a range of covers all interpreting the same basic idea. Two covers contests I won at 99Designs were like that. The cover for Dark Vengeance is one. The client specified a young man in a hoodie, with a sword poking out from behind his left shoulder, standing in front of a wrought iron gate with the address “22 Hawthorne” on it. And behind the gate a long path with autumn leaves. (I think I nailed it; don’t you?). They got more than 30 variations of this concept.

It’s fast. If time is important, most cover contests can be over and the design handed over in under a week. But you can also take your time. After a contest is over, you have several weeks to mull over the submissions and make your choice.

You can make suggestions and adjustments to designs. During the contest you can comment on designers’ submissions and ask them to try different fonts, colors or images. You also rate designs and keep or eliminate them, thereby shaping the tone of the cover among all the designers. Designers aren’t allowed to copy other designers (they get reported if they do) but they can adapt elements to their designs. If you rate one with red typeface highly for example, the other designers will likely pitch red typeface on their designs.

It’s reasonably priced. Reasonably.  Working one on one with me is cheaper by about $100 dollars for a full cover. The minimum price for a cover at 99Designs is $299. At Hire the World it is $365. I’ll elaborate on the pricing below, but let me repeat – working directly with one designer is often cheaper. I do a full cover for $148 plus the cost of stock.


You get lots of options. That’s right, it’s the same as the first pro above. I’ve seen clients get overwhelmed on these sites, and felt for them as they clearly start to lose sight of their vision not only for the cover but for their book.  In a contest I’m working on now for example, the client has highly rated a cover that had a city skyline. So now other designers are using city skylines. But her story takes place in a small town! Which she specified in the comments (in response to a question I asked). I felt for her, and gently nudged the other designers in another comment. Also she rated one cover highly that had a romantic cover. Now ALL the covers are romantic. She confessed to me in a private comment that her book doesn’t have much romance in it! She’s lost control of the process. With a good one on one designer this would not happen.

You also get a lot of submissions from “designers” who know nothing about design and even less about books. I’ve seen some things you wouldn’t believe passed off as cover designs. Poor typography, bad color choices, incongruous imagery (recently someone submitted something with a light saber battle to a contemporary crime contest) and generally yucky and outdated design are frequent issues in contests. I worry that some clients choose might covers that in the long run they won’t be happy with because it’s a poorly executed form of something they think they want.

seechangefull1 copyConversely, sometimes designers seem to get stuck in rut, with all designers submitting  variations on the same rather limited theme. When I come across contests like this, I often throw in a curve ball – an unexpected, very different design – just to stir things up. More than once this has resulted in me becoming a finalist or even winning. These limited contests usually result from a too specific design brief. While you may have a very clear idea of what you want on your cover, you should invite designers to try something different too. Sometimes your idea looks good in your head – but not in real life. The client for SEE CHANGE had a specific idea for his cover. I made a cover along those lines and found it didn’t speak to me. So I submitted something completely different. I won that contest.

It’s fast. Yep, again, same as the pro above. The limited time frame for these contests may make you feel rushed, and push you into accepting a design without time to think it over.

It’s expensive. Yes, I think, compared to my services, and the services of many other cover designers, it’s expensive.

And here’s the other thing, but this comes under:


Out of your $299 dollars at 99Designs – the website takes $99.  A 33% cut. Pretty good money. At Hire the world your $365 dollars translates to $260 for the winning designer. This site skims off a mere 29%. Nice work if you can get it. My agent only takes 15%.

And as for the designers who know nothing about design – these same designers often know nothing about copyright. One designer (I reported them) submitted the image from Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me cover. Another submitted faces taken from a Twilight poster. That’s right. They put Bella and Edward on the cover of someone else’s book. But more worryingly, many designers submit covers with images that are copied from random websites – not recognizable well-known images, just nice images they have found with a Google search. In an odd way the worst part about this is that some designers even attribute these images (you have to list the sources of the stock images you use so the client can check the licenses) as if they were stock images. In other words these designers don’t know what a copyright image is!

Most worryingly of all, some designers do not attribute their images at all. There is no way for the client to know if they are copyright infringements. They may end up paying for a stolen image. The websites monitor this, to a degree, but mostly it is up to other designers to report illegally used images. And clients, some of who are quite naïve beginners, can get taken for a ride.

Are designers on these sites unethical then? They can be. Who is to stop them? In theory the site will banish designers who flout copyright and other rules, but only if they catch them. With hundreds of designs being submitted every day, many infringements are overlooked.

And speaking of ethics – are designers being exploited? I think so, yes. I’ve bowed out of several contests when the designer started giving detailed instructions to several designers, honing four or five designs to their exact tastes, creating literally hours of work for the designers, but only choosing (and paying) one. Would you have several massages from several masseuses, but only pay the one you liked the best? No. I participate in design contests because it’s fun – I do it instead of watching TV at night – but many of these designers are trying to make a living this way. And they are doing HOURS of work for free.

Who would work for free, you might ask. Well think about it for two seconds. That’s right; many designers come from developing world or Eastern bloc countries. Some of them, many in fact, are excellent designers. Some others seem to know about as much about English book publishing as I do about making homemade vodka. That is to say – nothing. And, as detailed above, they may know even less about Western copyright standards. But whether they are ethical and qualified designers or unqualified con men it doesn’t change the fact that now, instead of exploiting me, a spoiled Canadian housewife, you are exploiting a struggling citizen of a marginalized nation. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to knowingly buy sweatshop produced goods, you might want to think about that.

Finally, sometimes the designers can get quite snippy with each other and with the client. This is extremely unprofessional, and mostly limited to the clueless wannabes (see above) but I once had a winning design of mine maligned by a very talented and experienced designer, presumably because his design didn’t win. And another contest I entered ended up getting cancelled and refunded because the designer was getting abusive comments from a designer she had eliminated, after he had reported ME for using unpermitted stock (he was wrong. I had permission and I had declared the stock). So, if bun fights aren’t your thing, then you might want to work one on one with a single designer.

Speaking of one on one, some of these sites, 99Designs for example, allow you work one on one with a designer, and offer the security of them handling the financial transaction. That is, you pay 99Designs, I begin the work, 99Designs doesn’t pay me until you are satisfied. That is slightly different from the way I work privately with clients (I require payment about halfway through the process, after the design concept is finalized but not fully laid out) but still a good and secure way to work. I’d be happy to do a project with a client this way if they prefer.

To Contest or Not to Contest

Having read the all this I hope you have a better idea of whether a design contest is the right way for you to get your dream cover. Generally it’s a case of buyer beware. Design contests are like any service, to get the most out of the process you have to know how it works. I hope the above has been illuminating.

3 thoughts on “To Contest or Not to Contest – Design Contests for Book Covers

  1. Moshen says:

    You sound like you know what you are doing, but you’ve left out a key element at your blog – your name. Nowhere in the header of the blog or in/around the blog post does your name appear. That makes it really hard for someone who is intrigued by your knowledge to want to hire you. I strongly suggest you fix this if you want all your hard work on the blog to pay off.

    • HI Moshen
      My name and contact details are on the contact page. I’m developing this business as a place where multiple designers can work, so I didn’t want to personalize everything too much.

  2. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this great discussion. You touch on some concerns I already had with the contest approach and brought up some new ones I hadn’t considered.

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