My guest in this podcast episode is Geoffrey Bunting, a book cover designer based in the UK.
He’s worked for publications like HarperCollins and National Geographic. In this episode of the podcast, we get into how you can get ready to work with your book cover designer, how much you should expect to pay, and how to figure out the types of book covers that will work in your niche.
In the second half of the interview, we also talked about Geoffrey’s other type of work, designing and laying out books.
I asked Geoffrey what he thinks about the layout software Vellum, and he has some interesting insights on software versus working with a professional book designer.
In this episode we discuss:
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Geoffrey: The most important thing to consider when you’re looking at book covers is that you’re giving information to someone and that information needs to be clear and it needs to be concise. An image may well be part of that information but, really, for the back cover, you’re looking at the readability of a blurb, any information like, you know, often people will include their genre, reviews. You wanna make sure that you’re not distracting with extraneous information on the back cover.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Do you need a book cover?
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. I’ve self-published multiple books over the years and I’ve gone through quite a journey with finding and sourcing book covers.
For my first book, I didn’t have much money so I took a series of classes on lynda.com, it’s now known as LinkedIn Learning, and I taught myself the basics of using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and I knocked up a book cover based on the tutorials. At the time, I was pretty happy with the results but I ended up taking down that book cover, rebranding the book, and relaunching it and hiring a book cover designer to create a book cover. I also learned that my time was better spent writing and improving the quality of my book rather than spending dozens of hours taking design tutorials on the Adobe Suite.
For subsequent book covers, I used a service like 99designs and, basically, I ran a competition for my book cover and 15 or 20 designers provided me with various versions that I could choose from and I ended up picking one book cover designer who sent me a book cover that matched the brief, but I also gave him an awful lot of feedback and I think I was a bit of a nightmare client because, at the end, he seemed a little bit frustrated by the whole process.
For my next book cover, I used a crowdsourcing service. I used Reedsy to find a book cover designer. I worked with her on several books and I was happy with the results because she created versions for print, for Kindle, and for audio, and she also created me some social media graphics as well that I was able to use.
For another book, I sourced a book cover designer independently. I used The Book Cover Designer website and that’s a site I recommend you check out because they have a great resource where you can see the work of dozens of different book cover designers across industries.
So, I went through that website and I found a designer who specialized in business books and she designed a book cover for The Art of Writing a Non-Fiction Book. I gave her a brief about what the book was about, the type of book covers that I liked, and the style I was going for. Because it was a type of business book, I was going for a typographical style and she designed something that was black and white with large fonts which I was pretty pleased with and it helped me sell copies. So, that’s quite the journey. I went from the free option, DIY option to paying a book cover designer, I think it was $600 or $700 at the time to get something that I was able to use and which looked really good.
If you’re getting ready to self-publish your book, I’d recommend that you budget for working with a book cover designer. They’re an important part of the process because, if you think about it, as good as your book is, you still need to capture the attention of readers and, if you’re selling on Amazon, you’ve only got a really small bit of digital real estate to do it so your book cover designer should help you capture the attention of would-be readers and sell more copies of your book.
And if you’ve published books in the past, perhaps go back and look at your book cover and ask yourself is it reflective of the type of books that are selling in that particular niche or in that particular genre. One of the beauties of self-publishing is, if something’s not working, you can take it down and put it back up and fix it.
This week, I caught up with Geoffrey Bunting. He’s a book cover designer based in the UK and he’s worked for publications like HarperCollins and National Geographic. In the interview, we get into how you can get ready to work with your book cover designer, how much you should expect to pay, and how to figure out the types of book covers that will work in your niche. In the second half of the interview, we also talked about Geoffrey’s other type of work, which is designing and laying out books. Now, I currently use the software, Vellum, to lay out my books prior to self-publishing and I asked Geoffrey what he thinks about Vellum and he has some interesting insights on software like this versus working with a professional book cover designer or book designer.
If you enjoy this week’s interview, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes or sharing the show on Stitcher, Overcast, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening because more reviews and more ratings will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. I’m also on Twitter, @bryanjcollins. If you’ve got feedback about the show, guest suggestions, or you just wanna get in touch to let me know what you’re up to, please reach out. And also, if you really like the show, you can become a Patreon supporter. For just a couple of dollars a month using the link in the show notes, I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, one of which covers self-publishing your book, on writing software, and on my books about the craft.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Geoffrey.
Bryan: When we were chatting beforehand, you had some good advice for authors who may be looking for a book cover and you also had some tips about book design, but before we get into that, would you be able to describe to listeners how you got into book design and your background?
Geoffrey: Yeah, well, I studied design at university and I had a very good course for that and part of that was just a wide range of different subjects, one of which was book design and that was the one I just naturally gravitated to.
As someone who writes and reads a lot anyway, that’s probably in there as well, but it was mostly just when I was studying these various different aspects and industries and design, it was book design that I really gravitated to the most, and I spent the early part of my career as a branding designer, a kind of a more general designer but with more focus on branding, and, since, I’ve specialized in book design which was just a conscious decision I made a few years ago just to cut out all other services in my practice and my, I suppose, well-being as a designer has been significantly better.
Bryan: Is there more work for book designers today than a few years ago thanks to self-publishing?
Geoffrey: Yes and no. I mean, the self-publishing industry and so the design that kind of caters to it is overwhelmingly amateur and, as a result, it’s not necessarily significantly easier for professional book designers to get work but there are certainly more opportunities.
There are more jobs out there for freelance book designers, considering how hard it is to work with publishers for that because, you know, they have such set lists. Well, actually, there’s a lot more work floating around in the self-publishing industry and, currently, the vast majority of my clients are self-publishing authors rather than publishers or independent publishers.
Bryan: How are clients finding you?
Geoffrey: Well, I’m part of quite a few groups and forums, both in terms of marketing and just general advice and so people will tend to find me there. Some people find me organically through my website, geoffreybunting.co.uk where I just pop up in some sort of search. Otherwise, it’s word of mouth. It’s just people recommending me to friends and to the groups which, you know, which they talk about book design and books.
Bryan: When a client is getting ready to work with you, what would you look for from them?
Geoffrey: In terms of what they would — what I would ask them to send me, I — principal is a synopsis of the book. You know, book design is — a common misconception about book design is that we read the books we design. There simply isn’t any time for that. And so — and if we did that, we’d never actually do any design. So, a pretty detailed synopsis, all the information that’s necessary for the folks, that would be kind of information that’s on the cover. If you’re doing a print book, then information goes on the spine, the back cover, and also I would have a discussion about also about their ideas for the cover because, generally, clients are very focused on specific things that aren’t necessarily going to help their book but I ask them about the themes and motifs and things that might inform the design of the book.
But, for me, and I think, at its best, design is a collaborative process and so there is an ongoing discussion throughout the process, not just the case where you just send me loads of stuff and I’ll make you a cover. There are stages. There are many different discussions that have to be had throughout the process in order to make both something that the client is happy, that the author is happy with, but also that, you know, is fit for purpose in the markets in which they’re deploying their book.
Bryan: You described themes and motifs, was that in reference to fiction, or was that for non-fiction as well?
Geoffrey: I mean, it’s for both. I mean, non-fiction is a little bit easier because, generally, non-fiction has a very set subject, and everything kind of revolves around that, you know? You get more general non-fiction but you can generally pull something out that’s very specific. With themes and motifs, yeah, it kind of is more fiction as, you know, kind of what are the things that keep occurring and that would be significant enough to be placed on the cover.
Bryan: Do you recommend your clients pick a few book covers that they like and send them to you?
Geoffrey: No, because that’s kind of the designer’s job is to market research. I’m happy for authors to say, “Hey, this is kind of what might be —” I had a client recently who sent me covers of books that are similar to hers because she was in quite a niche genre and that’s fine but that’s not gonna be the extent of my market research. I’m gonna do something — I’m gonna do some really kind of in-depth searching through the various markets, markets in various different countries to make sure that the cover that I create is going to be suitable for the market in which they want to publish their book.
Bryan: Do you specialize in any particular genres or niches?
Geoffrey: Not particularly, no. There are certain genres, maybe, that I don’t work in as often simply because, in self-publishing, there isn’t, say, enough money for frequent use of artists and illustrators in the way that you need for something like fantasy, but I don’t really specialize in any genre because the basis of design, certainly in professional practices, is the market research. You can really kind of work out what you’re doing from any kind of really in-depth look at the markets. There’s no kind of style of book that doesn’t really — you know, that a professional designer wouldn’t be able to develop.
Bryan: How do you decide on whether a book cover should have a typographic design or an illustrative design or something else?
Geoffrey: Again, it’s what the market dictates and what we’re finding in the last five years is that the vast majority of markets are moving towards more typographic solutions and those trends really dictate how a cover will look. I tend to work in the general market so I take in self-publishing and traditional publishing. A lot of kind of the amateur designers that are catering to a lot of the lower budgets in self-publishing will only look at the self-publishing market and specifically only look at Amazon and that’s kind of where we’re seeing this kind of real chasm between the actual market as they are being presented and self-publishing in many spaces because the market research isn’t there and that is what drives the style of cover.
Bryan: Traditional publishers often have different book covers for different countries. Doesn’t seem to be something that self-published authors think about as much. Should they?
Geoffrey: They don’t but they should, yeah. I mean, generally speaking, if an author is self-publishing, they are kind of publishing in their own territory and it might be on amazon.com but, really, their focus is on their own locale, their own country, but it really is something they should think about, yeah, because even something as close as the British and American markets are are really quite distinct from one another and certainly, as a designer, you know, the market research I do for UK authors and the market research I do for American authors is completely different.
I’ve not had a self-publishing client so far who has made that consideration or has been open to making that consideration but it really is something they should if they want to sell in other territories.
Bryan: Yeah, I guess budget could be an issue. Are there any particular book covers that really appeal to you that you can think of offhand or that you would consider quite strong from any genre?
Geoffrey: Or just in general?
Geoffrey: No, not really. I mean, the thing is, with traditional publishing, they have such a kind of a wide array of designers and teams that all their covers tend to be quite strong. I tend to gravitate towards quite old-fashioned and weird covers so, you know, like there are plenty of covers that have great designs. I’ve got these really great, almost bootleg versions of The Lord of the Rings which have these isometric covers which are absolutely hideous and don’t fit into any market whatsoever. I think they’re from the 90s or late 80s but they’re fantastic. I tend to quite like ugly things in that way.
Bryan: When I was getting ready to publish my first book a few years ago, I didn’t have much money so I took a few design courses on lynda.com, I think it’s now LinkedIn Learning, and tried to knock up a cover in Illustrator. I completed the tutorial. The cover was, I mean, it wasn’t terrible but I realized that I wasted dozens of hours that I could have spent improving the book and I ended up replacing the cover later on because I rebranded the book. So, I guess that brings me to budget because many authors don’t have a huge budget for publishing their first book. How much should they expect to pay a book cover designer?
Geoffrey: Well, for professional book design, I charge — my lowest price is for just an e-book cover and that’s £300 and that is really the low end of industry standard. So, for professional design services, you should be looking at least, especially if you’re going for that kind of hybrid where you’re do an e-book and print, over £400, around £400, and that is if there’s no other costs involved. There’s no imagery.
There’s no kind of external imagery, whether that’s stock imagery or commissioned imagery, in which case, you know, that could cost anywhere from, you know, £10 for a stock image to, you know, another £400 for an illustration. A lot of — kind of the lowest I’ve seen of a professionally standard cover has been £250 and that really is kind of really low, like if you’re looking at that range, you’re probably dealing with a lot of non-professional designers but there are the odd kind of young book designer who hasn’t quite worked out their pricing, but I would say in excess of £300 and certainly, around £400 or more for a book designer just to do your cover.
Bryan: What’s the typical turnaround for a good book cover designer?
Geoffrey: And so publishing will be between two weeks and maybe five weeks. It depends entirely on the author and how quickly they get back to you. It depends on, you know, who else you’re working with. If you work with an illustrator, you’re kind of on their timeframe.
You set a deadline but it doesn’t mean they’re always gonna meet it but, you know, I average out at about a month for a cover, sometimes it’s two and three weeks, sometimes it’s four or five. Any longer and you’re probably pushing it a bit. I mean, a lot of authors don’t really have a deadline for themselves and they say, “I need this done in x,” so you do have a lot of leeway and I think authors do kinda need to understand that sometimes, you know, a designer might not quite be geared into how deadlines work if they’ve only ever freelanced and they’ve only worked with freelancers, self-publishing authors, so may be a bit up in the air of when they’re gonna do things but I would say, you know, a month is a good baseline to think about how long it’ll take.
Bryan: Been through working with a few book cover designers over the years, I tend to think about the front of the book cover a lot but I found that the back of the book is usually more of an afterthought. What would you recommend people or authors consider when thinking of the back of their book apart from the blurb?
Geoffrey: Yeah, I would consider how they relate to books themselves, how they look at books and how it — obviously, when you’re selling in digital marketplaces, not every book has a back cover for you to preview but you are still gonna look at it in the same way. In a shop, you’ll pick up the book probably by the spine, you look at the front cover, you look at the back, read the blurb. A lot of authors are very, very keen that their photo is on the back cover and I don’t think that’s entirely necessary. I think the most important thing to consider when you’re looking for covers is that you’re giving information to someone and that information needs to be clear and it needs to be concise.
An image may well be part of that information but, really, for the back cover, you’re looking at readability of the blurb, any information like, you know, often people will include their genre, reviews. You wanna make sure that you’re not distracting with extraneous information on the back cover. You also want the back cover to relate in some way to the front cover. I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve clearly had an e-book cover designed and then have gone into Amazon and Amazon will kind of fill in bits for you and they just put kind of like an Amazon-generated spine and back cover and it is very obvious and it’s very off putting for readers who are used to a certain flow between the different parts of the cover and I think you gotta consider how you as a reader relate to these things because readers are quite savvy.
They’re not stupid when it comes to this stuff and if they see like a sudden change and it’s just like a block of completely, you know, unrelated text, there’s no kind of cohesion and it’s just like a big photo of the author, they’re probably gonna be put off by it. You gotta consider, this is part of your brand and a huge part of branding is consistency and if you are throwing a book that is not consistent with your brand or with itself, with its own element, people are going to notice that and they are going to essentially just kinda scroll past it.
Bryan: Makes sense. So I guess an author should also consider the audiobook as well when they’re we’re working with the designer.
Geoffrey: Yeah, I mean, an audiobook cover tends to just be a square version of the original cover with some editing. It’s not a kind of a big change but you gotta consider and plan for everything that you intend to put out there.
So, even if you’re not going to immediately publish an audiobook, if that’s something you intend to do later, then you gotta consider that and you gotta consider whether you need to ask for that from the designer at the start, whether you need to make, you know, be certain of their availability going forward. You can’t afford to rush this stuff, which I see a lot of authors doing, and you can’t afford to not actually form a real plan of how you’re going to do it and how you’re going to essentially afford it.
Bryan: Should I expect my source files as well from a book cover designer?
Geoffrey: No. So, a really good way to know if you’re working with a professional is if they give you a proper contract and, in that contract, they will stipulate that all artwork, the ownership of all artwork is retained by the designer.
As an author, you will get a license to use it and to use it really however you want with the proviso that if you use it inappropriately, that doesn’t really reflect on the designer. If you want source files, you will then have to essentially pay to buy the rights to that artwork from a designer, which will generally be at least the same price as the original cover, but, no, you get a license to use and the final files you’ll receive will be files that are suitable for, in print terms, print-ready files, a PDF, and, in the digital sphere, will be, you know, digital images like TIFF, JPEG, PNG. You don’t get the original files from your designer.
Bryan: So what would happen if the designer has moved on or is no longer available and then you need to make a change to your book cover?
Geoffrey: Well, then, that would be — it depends on the relationship you have with your designer, I suppose. I mean, for me, I would probably, if I’m not practicing anymore and someone comes back and says, “I need to make a change to this cover,” I will happily release the original files because they’re no longer part of my practice.
But, again, it depends on your relationship with the designer and it may well be a case that if you wanna make changes without me, then you are going to have to buy the rights to the original files, at which point it’s probably worth just getting a new cover, but it is a bit complicated but, generally, you know, we are nice people, we’re not gonna — we’re not mercenary about this stuff, professionals aren’t mercenary about this stuff so, you know, if we are the problem that, you know, we can’t make changes for you, then we’re probably gonna be happy to give you the files you need to get someone else to do that and probably recommend someone who can do that for you.
Now, I have a list of designers that I would trust with my own work if that makes sense. So, if that is the case, then, you know, authors don’t get kind of downhearted and grumpy but just ask whether you can get someone else to do it and whether they know anyone who will do it.
Bryan: You also look at book design. When you’re given a book to design, what do you typically do? Would you be able to describe your process?
Geoffrey: For typesetting —
Geoffrey: Well, so the first thing I do is formatting so that will be in Word where I just have to apply throughout the book styles for every single thing that happens in the book so you have text style, you have a chapter head style, you have italic styles, which is probably the longest part of the process, especially it depends on the length of the book but a lot of the manuscripts you get from authors are a real mess and kind of the worst thing you can do as an author, I think, is not use indented paragraphs and just type — there a lot of people I’ve had who put spaces in to move paragraphs, and I will then import that into InDesign and that is when the real kind of layout work starts.
Again, depends on the style of book. If it’s just a prose book, a full kind of just block text, it’ll just be a case of going through and fixing everything into a design that I’ve already developed. I will send essentially page options to an author and say, “Look, you know, which one do you like best here?” If it’s a more complicated book with different layouts, say you’ve got diagrams, say it’s a children’s book, there’s a lot more fiddling to be done.
And that’s really it. It’s a long and quite arduous process. It’s harder than cover design because you have to be so adept with typography to lay out a book but the actual steps in it are quite simple. It is literally just format, send across a few design ideas of how, you know, the various pages will look, and then just lay it out in InDesign.
Bryan: So, most authors, when they see a page, will look at the words. It’s a bit of a switch to look at the design so, if you were to send me a page that you’ve designed, what should I be looking at or looking for?
Geoffrey: Well, the thing is, the whole point of kind of laying out a book is that people don’t really pay attention to the design. You’re building an avenue for them to just see the content and so, if you were looking at a book and you’re not paying attention to how it’s laid out, that is a successful layout of the book because you’re not being brought out of reading the book by issues with the text layout.
The most important part of kind of any design, but specifically typesetting, is readability and if you are, say, I send you a sample of seven pages which includes a chapter head and there might be other things but generally it’s just — if you are getting tired in that short space, your eyes are starting to get tired, that means it’s not laid out well.
Because our eyes, on one hand, there are certain elements that aid readability so we’re looking for a line length of about 9 to 16 words consistently and that means that’s long enough that we’re not constantly zipping through the page but also short enough that we’re not getting these very long lines to block and you wanna make sure that there is nothing impeding your ability to just read a book.
Bryan: Do I consider the way the book looks for print versus Kindle?
Geoffrey: Yeah, I mean, Kindle imposes its own styles on the book so there isn’t a huge amount of design considerations to be made there. You will do things like headers and contents but you don’t — when it comes to the actual layout and typework of the book, that is pretty much handled by Kindle and then you just have to kind of fiddle with it in places that it maybe doesn’t work and you can use kind of Kindle Create for that.
When I send print files to a client or, you know, fixed e-book files so these are things that will look like they’re designed, generally the consideration they’re making is, “Do I like how it looks? Do I like the typefaces that I used?” Because, you know, the readability is already there but, you know, if you’re working with someone who, you know, is just saying that they can typeset a book because they’re an author with Photoshop who’ve done a few covers and they’re trying to make some money by typesetting as well, you do need to pay attention to those kind of readability things but when it comes to Kindle, you know, they just say like this is the — these are the fonts you can use and they’re going to generally be the same, it’s only flow, but there’s not a lot of design work there, it’s just refining the layout.
Bryan: Makes sense. So I’ve used software like Vellum in the past to lay out a book and, years ago, I was actually a journalist and so I’ve used InDesign as well but I haven’t used InDesign to lay out a book but what are your thoughts on authors using software like Vellum or learning these tools themselves?
Geoffrey: I think it’s valuable because simply authors don’t tend to consider the layout of their books when it comes to design, thinking they will just focus on the cover and they don’t budget for layouts and, if they do, they barely budget.
They don’t realize that actually layouts can often cost more than the cover. If you can use a tool that will just, by its very nature, kind of brute force an improvement in your layout, by which I mean that a lot of authors who lay out themselves will just throw a Word document into Amazon and hope for the best and the results are very obviously a Word document. If you can use a tool that will just, by being a design tool, improve your layout, that is a good thing, especially if you don’t have the budget to typeset. If you can learn InDesign to lay out a book, then you certainly have a good foundation for typesetting.
You would need more of a knowledge about typography and how typography works to really do a great layout but you’re gonna get a better baseline than if you’re just using a Word document. Vellum is — it’s fine. It’s designed for authors. It’s designed for people who don’t know how to typeset. I mean, it’s a decent tool, it’s better than Word. A professional designer isn’t gonna use it and if someone is claiming to be a professional designer and they go and lay out in Vellum, then they’re not a professional typesetter.
But, as an author, it’s fine. I said to you earlier that it’s a lot like Squarespace in that it has a very rigid kind of set of paradigms that you can’t really get away from so, on Squarespace, there’s a grid you can’t work outside of, and Vellum is kind of like that.
It will do everything it can to stop you messing it up. So, given that the budgets in self-publishing aren’t high, people aren’t really giving as much consideration to typesetting and the layout of their books as they should be, if authors, you know, just sit down from the start and sincerely say, “I’m going to try and learn layout and typesetting,” I think that’s more valuable than some of the insincerity we see from people who just go, “I’ll just shove it into Word and that will be good enough.”
Bryan: Makes sense. Finally, feedback between an author and their designer, how many rounds of feedback should you expect or go through when you’re working with someone like you?
Geoffrey: With the price, you should have as many as you need. There’s no — or shouldn’t be any limit on the kind of the rounds of improvements and changes. There might come a point where a designer says, look, we’re getting to the stage now where we’re far beyond like the kind of the hourly rate that would go with the price I’ve given you and you might have to pay a bit more but you’re not gonna see, at the beginning of the process, oh, you get two rounds of edits, in the same way you might on, you know, some of the kind of less salubrious places like Fiverr, 99designs, Reedsy, kind of these platforms that are really built around kind of taking money away from designers and users.
In the professional sphere, you’re not gonna get someone like sitting there and kind of after you’ve had like a couple of rounds of conversation and go like, “Oh, you’ve run out of edits now so you either have to, you know, have what you’ve got or, you know, pay me more.” You know, our prices are based on our hourly rate and we have a good idea of how long a project will take in terms of the hours we spend on it and it’s not really until we get past that number that we might be thinking, well, we gotta look at kind of more money. We don’t set limits on, you know, how many times you’ve come back to us and go like, “Oh, I’m not quite sure this is right.”
Bryan: Yeah. Yeah, I guess designers are creative too so that’s something for authors to bear in mind. Geoffrey, where can people find more information about you or your services?
Geoffrey: You can find me on my website at geoffreybunting.co.uk and everything that I do, whether that’s social media, whether it’s other platforms, it’s all on there. It’s all listed there.
Bryan: Thanks, Geoffrey.
Geoffrey: Thanks very much.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.