Time to stop the snobbery: indie book design is catching up

Time to stop the snobbery: indie book design is catching up

It is an exciting time to be a self-published ‘indie’ author. Over the last few years it has grown from a relatively small – and often overlooked – aspect of the publishing industry into a thriving community. From learning how to market their books through experts such as bestselling author Mark Dawson, with his Self-Publishing Formula courses, to ensuring their work is up to standard by hiring professional editors, indie authors have stepped out of the shadows and become masters of their own fate.

Traditionally, one aspect of self-publishing which has been scoffed at the hardest is book covers (there are entire websites dedicated to the worst). Those covers become quite understandable when you consider one thing: an indie author’s budget. Self-published writers used to have three choices: pay a pro-designer (whose fee may be higher their entire publishing budget); use a budget design site (often filled with designers who know nothing about publishing); or fire up their PC and use Paint or an ancient version of Photoshop to create one themselves. Frankly, it was a wonder anything good made it through.

But things have changed. Even before I founded Books Covered with my wife in 2015, we had seen small design studios – usually in the US – dedicating themselves to indie authors and creating some decent covers. So even at the very inception of Books Covered, one of our goals was to provide an affordable design service for self-published authors which could sit alongside our main source of income, from traditional publishing clients.

We had only dipped our toe into the self-publishing world for mere seconds before we were swept up in its authors' enthusiasm and positive attitude towards publishing. Even on a tight budget. some of our indie clients were doing phenomenally well. There are entire communities on Facebook where an author can ask for advice about marketing and ask for recommendations for editors and designers they can use – the support network is one of the best.

Becoming part of that world meant we saw self-publishing in a new light. It was a thriving industry that was willing to learn and push the boundaries of what was possible for an author who didn’t have a publishing deal and needed to do everything themselves. In a very short space of time, our design service for self-published authors overtook our other goals and became our main source of income.

An author’s budget can still be small, especially for new authors starting out in their careers, but there are many more options than there were before. An author can now buy a pre-made book cover – which, as the term suggests, is a ready-made design that you can add both your name and title to – and these make for an ideal first cover and can sell for anything between £99 to £150. And there are many more design professionals and companies, such as ours, who are not only focusing on lower cost but higher quality cover designs but marketing materials too (such as Facebook and BookBub advertisements).

However, there was an area of design within self-publishing which needed a lot more attention – the Do-It-Yourself cover.

What I’m about to write may at first seem controversial, but bear with me.

Our company has always worked very closely with Self-Publishing Formula. We design their covers and even offer a discount to their students. Back in 2016, we created a short tutorial on book cover design for their SPF 101 course and it went down very well. So, after a year of planning, we worked long and hard to create our own course dedicated to giving authors (not just self-published authors) the means to understand the whole design process: which included how to find a designer and communicate with them better, how both Amazon and bookshops use covers to sell more than one book, pointers on writing a brief and… giving them the skills and knowledge to create their own covers.

It launched in February of this year and we have over 200 students already. Each of them have access to a closed group on Facebook where they can ask for advice and critiques on their own designs as well as covers designed by pros. It’s also a place to discuss how to get the most out of their briefs and to ask technical questions when preparing their files for print. It is very lively and positive – as you would come to expect from an indie author community – and some of the work that has been created by our students has been simply amazing.

Since launching I have also written a book called The Author’s Guide to Cover Design, filled with similar tips to the course but which goes into much more detail of the design process with both working with designers and creating your own designs (published in June - well, self-published of course).

Obviously, neither course nor book are never going to replace the expertise and talent of a pro-designer. If I thought that I wouldn’t have risked my very livelihood by creating it. It is simply another option for those on a budget. And that is the big lesson the self-publishing industry has taught me, and exactly why I think it is only going to grow stronger: when a door is closed to you, or you can’t afford a service, there are always other options. Boundaries breed creativity.

This is rarely the case in traditional publishing. The future of design in self-publishing will obviously involve more choice and better quality - you would already struggle to tell the difference between many self-published e-books compared to traditionally published ones. The only difference is the print quality of paperbacks, as they lack the delicate foils and subtle use of finishes, but when and if that technology becomes more affordable, I honestly don’t think you will know if the book you are reading is by an indie author or otherwise.

Self-publishing is about innovation and adaptation. Indie authors are willing to learn new skills and try different routes. At the moment, their ability to market their own books and understand their genre is in some cases surpassing traditional publishing. It may not be long before indies surpass the trade in other ways too.