7 Mistakes Indie Authors Make with Their Covers


January 19, 2014 by Mod


If you’re an indie author, ask yourself this question – what is selling my book? Is it a giant marketing and media budget? NO. Is it a write up in the New York Times? NO. Is it my reputation as a bestseller? For most of you, NO.

For many of you the ONLY chance you get to catch a reader’s attention is at the point of sale – Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes etc. And what are readers looking at? Reviews? Blurbs? Sales numbers?


They are looking at your cover.

For indie authors covers are tremendously important. Most indie authors understand this and yet somehow, so many get their cover so wrong. How can this be? Even though indie authors are completely in control of their publishing decisions, including the covers, there are still a number of ways cover design can go horribly wrong. Here are seven of the most common mistakes indie authors make with their covers.

1. They do it themselves or have a “friend” do it

Some indie authors take the time to learn a bit about design and a bit about software, like PhotoShop. This can certainly go a long way. Unfortunately there are also a  lot of authors and “friends” who claim to have some skill in design but in fact don’t. The results are covers that no only screen “amateur” and  “self-published”  but also fail to make the most of sometimes quite good stock art.

2. They use copyright suspect images

Several times authors have shown me their covers and said “what do you think?” When I’ve replied “Nice image, where did you get it?” they say “I found it on the internet”.  And that’s when I get worried.   Images found on “Wallpaper” sites or on Deviant Art etc. are not free to use as book covers. The copyright of these images belongs to someone and selling something (like a book) with the use of this cover is copyright infringement – an actual crime. Do yourself a favor. ONLY use images from stock image sites with clear license agreements.

3. They have a “soup” cover

Some authors have the idea that they must include every important character, object and theme in their book on the cover. All this achieves is what I call a “soup” cover. And soup covers are almost always awful.

Note how the covers to the right have at least five elements each, all competing with each other. A dog, a car, a crying girl, a road, hands holding. This is more like a movie trailer than a book cover.

4. A “cast” or “scene” cover

A variation on the soup cover is one that has all the cast members on it. Please don’t do this, indie authors. With very few exceptions, book covers should only have one or two characters.

Another thing indie authors often attempt is to convey a literal scene from the book. LET me state this very clearly. Cover “scenes” are ONLY appropriate for children’s books, maybe middle grade. Don’t forget the book will tell the story. The cover doesn’t need to. The cover needs to invite someone to read the story. Let me put it this way – if you invite someone for dinner do you send a steak and salad with their invitation?

No. The invitation is the invitation. The dinner is the dinner.

5. They choose CGI characters

An after effect of the “scene” cover is the CGI cover. Some authors are so determined to have a specific scene depicted that the only way to achieve this is to draw it in CGI character software such as Poser.  Poser covers are the butt of many covers designers’ jokes. They look cheap, immature and amateur.

Just DON’T do it.

6. Their chosen style doesn’t match their genre

Something I often see is an author who has tried to draw their own cover art, often in pencil crayon. Please. Just please. Unless you are a professional artist, don’t do this.

But more to the point, when is the last time you saw an adult fantasy romance with a pencil crayon cover? The style of art must match the genre and audience of the book. Cheesy cartoony art suits children’s books, not adults books.

7. They want a cliché

demo for blog

Indie authors get caught up in trends, sometimes without even knowing it. I have one word for you “RESEARCH”. Do a google image search on the image to see if it has been used before. Don’t fall into the trap of wanting the same cover you have seen over and over. There is a balance to be achieved between being relevant to today’s trends and being a cliché.

So…how to avoid these mistakes? Simple enough – put aside the money and time to find a good professional cover designer.

Edit: a reader suggested I end this post with a GOOD cover, along with some notes as to WHY it’s good. There are so many lovely covers out there, and each one is good for different reasons, so I thought I would just post one of my recent pre-made covers along with a few notes as to how it DOESN’T make the mistakes outlined above.

So here it is:

Sold as a trilogy $299

1. This cover doesn’t look homemade. Balance, font choice, coloring, more precise blending  all speak volumes about the professionalism of your cover.

2.  These are royalty free images from Bigstock. Purchasing them gives me, and you as my client the right to use it as a book cover, with some easy to understand restrictions.

3. This is not a soup cover. Although it’s not crammed with images, think about how much this cover says. It’s sexy romance, about a were-tiger, maybe a little BDSM. It’s very masculine. In fact this could be a M/M romance with a different title.

4. NO CGI characters. You will NEVER find a (attempted but poorly realized) realistic CGI character on one of my covers. NEVER!

5. Right now romance covers tend to be photo-manipulations.  This sits well with the trends and represents the genre (steamy romance) and audience well.

7. It’s not a cliche. The colors and images have been manipulated enough to make this cover unique and original.

I hope that helps.

23 thoughts on “7 Mistakes Indie Authors Make with Their Covers

  1. Great blog post, you hit the nail on the head with every comment. Many Indies think since they can write, they can make a cover too. WRONG. Please don’t spend all that time on that novel and ruin it with a cover that is not up to par. Ask other authors when you’re going to use a cover get their ideas on if your cover best suits your novel.

    Thanks for this post not enough Indies understand the importance of a great cover.

    I do pre-made covers and I know people think that I’m trying to get them to buy one of my covers when I harp on their home made covers but I’m not. I just want authors to have the best cover possible for their book.

    Samantha Fury
    Fury Cover Design

  2. rgsummers says:

    Oh so true…when I self-published a few years back, I had nothing going on nothing, so I knew I was doing my own cover art. I drove out to a desert and snapped a whole bunch of photos. I didn’t want to overlay anything, and just settled on a simple font choice for the title and my name. It looked very minimalist, but it was definitely preferable to going a route that screamed I DID THIS ALL BY MYSELF.

  3. ejusino says:

    “5. They choose GCI characters”

    5a. They don’t proofread their headers.

  4. Steve Liskow says:

    I see far too many books from traditional publishers that show many of these same shortcomings.
    In fact, I don’t remember a single distinctive cover I’ve seen ANYWHERE in the last year. Maybe the big guns should think about this, too.

  5. Gloria Alden says:

    I’m fortunate to have a granddaughter who is a graphic artist. She researched covers and listened to what I wanted and the cover of my first book got a lot of positive comments from readers. She followed through with the theme – a gardening mystery – with the next three covers, too. They’re gorgeous. For my middle-grade book, she went with a cartoon type cover which worked very well. As Steve remarked, I see a lot of traditionally published books with covers that don’t grab me at all. In fact,most don’t, to tell the truth.

  6. Marcia Yudkin says:

    What does CGI mean? That tip left me completely in the dark. And I am not being snarky in asking this question.

    • CGI – computer generated imagery. The programs typically used in amateur book covers (Poser is just one) are designed for doing architectural simulations and for advertising mock-ups etc. They are NOT intended for use as final products. That’s one of the reasons they look so cheesy. Yes, very skilled GC artists do make covers but they take many hours and cost thousands of dollars. And they don’t use Poser.

  7. […] I’ve counselled against “scene” covers in the past. Though often the first idea an author has, they are usually not the best choice. That said, sometimes they can work. […]

  8. I’m self published and I do all my covers. Then again, I went to art college, studied photography… so I’m guessing that kinda qualifies my work to some degree. Although in saying this, I agree with all the posts. There are some authors that would benefit with a decent cover artist. Unfortunately not everyone can afford to purchase a great custom made cover. So in this, I’ve been known to give covers away to free, struggling authors to help out.

  9. jpchoquette says:

    What a great post! Thanks for all the information. I’m looking at having my next book cover professionally done and also having the cover of my first book potentially re-done at some point.This is really a great post with many points I hadn’t considered before. Thanks!

  10. […] previously discussed mistakes authors make with their covers, and some of those mistakes can be traced back to simply not engaging a professional designer. But […]

    • Thanks for your comment. Those examples you give are quite nice, that’s for sure. They still look dead to me, but that’s my problem I guess. The point is, those examples are so carefully rendered that they might as well be from scratch digital paintings, done by professionals. You can of course, always go this way for a book cover, if you have a couple of thousand dollars lying around.

      To put it in perspective, if any of those artists are willing to license their works for $10-$50 I’d be happy to turn them into covers. I have clients waiting.

  11. […] talked before about how important it is to get your cover right, how many ways it can go wrong and what you can do to prevent this. Today I’d like to talk about when is the right time to begin […]

  12. Evie says:

    I find your “good” cover tacky and clichéd, and the one with the dragon drawing appealing and interesting. It has a retro vibe that would lead me to expect an epic, Tolkienesque fantasy.
    Just my perspective.

  13. […] Check out 7 Mistakes Indie Authors Make with Their Covers. […]

  14. […] Check out 7 Mistakes Indie Authors Make with Their Covers. […]

  15. John Tsang says:

    I am a newbie non fiction writer and just completed a manuscript on the History of Parlialment. I am designing my own cover using ebook creation software. I have done a montage of photos (another word for soup?). The photo is of the UK Parliament building taken outside off the estate and is a public builidng. However I have no idea if I can use that image for commercial use. Also lt has a photo of Big Ben. According to the Parliament website, Big Ben is a trade mark and need special permission to photograph it whether that means it is on the estate or off it is unclear,. One of the Chambers I can use because it has a commons creative 3.0 which means I can use it for commercial purposes or does it? So any thoughts out there?

    • Mod says:

      Yes, some buildings are trademarks and cannot be used without permission. Crass example, but you couldn’t have McDonalds on your book cover either, because the Golden Arches are a trademark. Usually pictures from Wikipedia or with Creative Commons licenses are fine. You might also find some good ones on Unsplash–just make sure no people are visible in the photos. Montage covers can sometimes be “soup” but sometimes they work. Be aware of that.

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