designing a book cover

Warning: This Post is Rather Graphic!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Freelancing, Journalism & Media 16 Comments

Book loveIt’s time to let the cat out of the bag.

Many of you have asked for it, and it’s only fair that you are among the first to know.

This spring I’ll publish my first book!

I’ve already written a few guides: Building a Vocal Booth on a Budget, Boosting Your Business with a Blog, and a short paper called Selling more Real Estate with Videos and Voice-Overs. You can order them through my online shop.

My new book will become available in 10+ eBook stores, and you’ll be able to buy the paperback version on Amazon. Being a voice-over, I am also working on a spoken version. I just have to find a narrator who can do my work justice…

Right now, I’m putting the finishing touches to the manuscript. Proofreaders are making sure that this Dutchman’s English can pass the grammar and spelling test.

In the past week I’ve been working with a number of graphic designers to come up with an eye-catching cover. Today I’ll walk you through that process. Not because I expect you to be needing someone to design a book cover for you. I want to talk about it to give you an idea of what it’s like to be on “the other side.”


You see, normally I’m the one that gets hired. This time around I’m doing the hiring. It’s an intriguing perspective that has taught me a lot in a short period of time. I think it’s also interesting for you, because you may be looking for someone to design a new logo, stationery, business card or a website.

Let me make one assumption right off the bat: You’re running a for-profit business and you’d like to keep your expenses down. So, the first question you have to ask yourself is twofold:

How important is my professional image and how much is it worth to me?

If you’re hoping to attract well-paying clients who don’t yet know you, image is everything. First impressions speak volumes. You may be selling high-quality goods, but if your store looks disheveled, you don’t exactly exude trust. In a world where the competition is only a short click away, you have a few seconds to impress, so you’d better make an impact.

Second question: Are you going to hire a cheap amateur or a more expensive pro? Third: Would you consider hiring a talented family member or a friend?


Let’s start with the last point. If family ties and friendships mean anything to you, please do not hire someone from your inner circles. Not even a friend of a friend or a second cousin twice removed. Keep those relationships clean. They are too precious to be muddled by money. You can’t afford to lose a friend with a fragile ego, just because you’re too cheap to pay a pro.

It may sound strange, but I find I can be more direct with a professional than with a friend. There’s no baggage and there are no sensitive toes to step on. Instead, there’s distance that allows both parties to focus on the project. It’s much easier to critique and possibly fire someone you don’t run into every Thanksgiving, Passover, or Easter.

The choice between hiring a talented amateur and a pro is not an issue for me. It would be hypocritical to pick a budget-friendly hobbyist over a professional. In my line of work I’d never recommend doing that. Why would I make a different choice when it comes to selecting a graphic designer? Quality work always pays for itself, many times over.


My next hurdle was finding the perfect professional to create that eye-catching book cover. I have never published a book before, and typing “graphic designer” into Bing gave me 109 million results. That was no help. So I asked around. After a week I had a few names and phone numbers, but none of those who were recommended specialized in eBook covers.

For unknown authors such as myself, it is absolutely critical to have a striking cover. Not only did I want to avoid the self-published look, the cover had to stand out in an ocean of postage-stamp-sized images in online eBook stores. It also seemed a good idea to work with more than one designer.

That’s why I turned to crowdsourcing. It allowed me to tap into a collective of artists, and ask for contributions from a vast online community.

CREATIVE COLLECTIVE is such a community. Whether you need a logo for your business, a website, an app, posters, flyers, product packaging, brochures, or book covers, can connect you to an international crowd of creatives.

It’s easy to get started. First you select what you need and then you launch a contest. It begins with writing a design brief, telling a bit about yourself, your project, and your target audience. You can also include ideas, images, sketches, and other documents that might be helpful. Once that’s done, you pick a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum package.

For $299 (bronze), you can expect about thirty designs. There’s a money-back guarantee should none of the designs meet your expectations. Once the contest is under way, you have seven days to pick a winner.

Just to be clear, only the winning designer gets paid, and 99designs takes a commission depending on which package is chosen and the level of support provided. 


In the first couple of days you hold a qualifying round that’s open to all designers. During that time you can rate the designs that come in, and you can give feedback to each contestant. Based on that, they can refine their design or come up with something new. You can also eliminate what you don’t like.

In the second round you pick a few finalists and you work with each of them to get closer to the design you want. At the end of the week, you crown a winner. After that, you can continue to work with that winner to tweak the end product to perfection.

I have to tell you that I loved every minute of this process. It took up a lot of time, but it was so worth it. I had been dreaming of a book for years, and now professionals from all over the world were inspired by the title and my description. It was fantastic to see how people transformed the same words into very different designs. Seeing my name and the title of the book on a 3-D mock cover gave me goose bumps. All of a sudden, an abstract idea became concrete!


All in all, 17 designers presented me with 61 entries. That was way more than I expected at the bronze level. Here’s what I learned along the way.

1. The more specific you are in your brief, the greater the chance that you’ll get designs that are to your liking.

The first draft of my brief was purposely vague because I didn’t want to get in the way of someone’s creativity. A number of designs that were based on that brief were as original as they were hideous. But sometimes you have to see what you don’t like in order to find out what you do like. I bet many of our voice-over clients listening to auditions feel the same way.

As soon as I became more clear in my instructions, I received entries that had a lot of potential.

2. You have to be flexible and proactive to attract more designers.

My contest started as an open competition. This means that every designer could see what other colleagues had entered. Some were not comfortable with that and asked me to turn it into a blind contest. That way, no one could steal their ideas. As soon as I did that, some great new designers entered my contest.

I also decided to revoke the money-back guarantee. This meant that at the end of the process, I promised to pick a winner, no matter what. This made it more attractive for some contestants to take part. It showed them I was serious.

Lastly, I studied the online portfolios of hundreds of designers, and I sent invites to those that really spoke to me. This turned out to be the key to finding my winning designer!

3. The best designers base their entries on ideas from the client and not on their personal preferences.

I wanted to use the color scheme of my website for my book cover because it is part of my branding. A number of designers did their own thing and came up with very dark designs. That made it easy for me to rule them out. I also put in my brief that I wanted to avoid the stereotypical microphone on the cover of a book about voice-overs. In spite of that, some thirty percent of entries had microphones.

Some added tulips to their design. Now, if you’re already familiar with my site, that’s not a bad idea. However, I want to reach a new audience with my book. People do judge a book by its cover and there’s no natural connection between Dutch flowers, freelancing and voice-overs.

I also received a number of designs that would do well in the business section of Barnes & Noble. They made strong statement as covers, but they lacked a certain whimsicality and lightness which I had specifically asked for. 

4. Top designers are great communicators and are open to feedback.

On the first day of the contest I received an entry that really made me laugh. I absolutely loved it. However, the subtitle of my book was missing and I asked the designer to add it. In fact, I reached out to him/her twice. In seven days, I never heard a word. If someone is not responsive in the initial phase, how can I trust that this will change once we’re working together for real?

Nelly Murariu, the young artist who ended up being my top pick, describes herself as “a passionate self-taught graphic designer with a big heart and a desire to get better at what I do every day.” She was quick to answer my questions, even later in the day. I don’t know how she did it, because she lives in Bucharest, Romania! Her English was flawless and she has a great sense of humor. She made sure she understood what I really wanted, before making any changes.

At one point I suggested something that I thought would improve the look of the book. It was a bad idea. Nevertheless, Nelly adjusted her design accordingly. When she sent it back to me, I immediately saw that her initial concept made much more sense. To me, this proved that she knew how the mind of a client operates: If you show ’em, you don’t have to tell ’em. 

5. Winning designers go above and beyond.

Every time Nelly came back with an improved design, it was way better than what I had imagined. My instructions asked for a design that would work for an eBook, as well as for the print version. Nelly sent me 3-D renditions of the paperback, 2-D images of the front and back, as well as the eBook version. In other words: it was very clear what I was buying.

At one point I asked her if she could retouch the author picture on the back because my face looked a bit orange. It turned out that she had already fixed it. This girl read my mind! I felt a bit sorry for the other designers. Mind you, there were some very strong contenders, but every time a cover from another designer came in, I compared it to Nelly’s work.

Most importantly, Nelly made me feel like I was her only client and top priority.

She was so good that I ended up skipping the second phase of the contest where designers go head to head, and I crowned her the winner. You can find her on 99designs as “Nellista,” and you can contact her directly by clicking this link.


To date, 99designs has a pool of 290,172 designers. In 2012 it opened its European headquarters in Berlin, and has launched localized versions of its services in German, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian. Since the start in 2008, the site has paid out $71,576,558 to the designer community through more than 288,987 contests. Impressive numbers, no doubt, but not every designer is happy with how the 99designs works or the commission it takes. It can be as high as 35 – 40%.

Imagine working hard to come up with two or three entries and walking away with absolutely nothing. Well, if you’ve ever auditioned for a voice-over job, you already know how that feels. The big difference is that when we audition, we usually only read a short sample script, whereas these designers are asked to come up with a complete logo, a brochure or a poster. It’s a great concept for clients like me, but it can get demotivating for designers.

Still, no one is forced to offer their services on 99designs. It’s a relatively easy way to get in touch with clients and possibly develop long-term relationships. I will certainly turn to Nelly for future projects, and I highly recommend her to anyone in need of a graphic designer.

For the next two weeks, you can get a free $99 upgrade through this link: This offer expires April 10th.

If you’re curious to find out what my book looks like, stay tuned. Next week I will reveal the title, and the cover Nelly designed for me.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Carlos Porto via photopin cc