Cary Caffrey, best selling indie author of The Girls From Alcyone, which you will remember I loved, gives us some great tips for selling books with a professional book cover!

An entrepreneur with experience in the self-promotion industry, Carey has some awesome tips for the many aspiring authors that stop by this blog.


Cover Art

Making an Impression

One Entrepreneurs Guide to Selling Books



When Kathryn asked if I’d be interested in doing a blog-post on promoting books, I gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. It’s definitely one of my favorite topics to yack about.

But where to start?

For me, that’s easy. I’ll tell you exactly where I placed most of my marketing focus and energy (and money).

Yup. We’re talking book covers. That all-important first handshake. Your best Sunday dress. The place where your relationship with your reader starts.

First, A Disclaimer

I’m no expert, and I’m no promo-guru. What I am is an independent artist/writer/musician. As terrible as that sounds (seriously, it sounds pretty flakey), I haven’t had to have a ‘real’ job since 1996. I chalk that up to good self-promotion, with a lot of luck thrown in. Promoting myself is incredibly important. My life depends on it.

When I’m not busy promoting myself and my own projects I’ve paid the bills by working for other artists, helping them with their own marketing. Over the years I’ve worked for managers, publishers, distributors and independent artists. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be allowed to design tons of album covers for dozens of bands and musicians.

Okay, that’s enough about me. Now, what about you and promoting your book!

I’ll start by posing the one question I get asked all the time! It’s the same question I asked myself when I thought about self-publishing.

How the hell do I get my book to stand out from the rest?

Part I: Look The Part

Before I decided to even write a book, I did a crapload of research. I had already witnessed the eBook explosion, and I was busy reading many (surprisingly) entertaining self-published books. The whole thing got me thinking, “I can do this!” At least insofar as I could potentially write and upload a book to Amazon.

But what about selling it?

That was a whole other beast.

Sales Beast!

After scouring the eBook lists on Amazon (it’s nearly doubled in the last year to nearly two million), and examining thousands of self-published titles, I came to one glaring conclusion. Ninety-eight percent of all self-published books look like, well…self-published books.

The covers were hopelessly generic, featuring lots of free stock-photos. Worse, most of them read like what you’d imagine a book without a publisher might read like. They were rough, unedited and underdeveloped. Some of them were good first drafts, but they read like drafts, none the less.

I decided if I was going to try my hand at publishing, my book would not suffer the same fate. I was going to work my ass-off to write the most exciting novel I could, I’d make sure it was thoroughly beta (read) tested, professionally edited and reviewed before it ever came out. You must get reviews! Trust me. Lots of reviews, ready for your release, ready to post on Amazon.

More than anything else, the single most simple thing, the most glaring answer to the question, “How do I make my book stand out?” was the cover.

It seemed pretty simple. If everyone was doing the same thing, then I’d do the opposite! If everyone else’s cover was using generic, stock photos, mine would feature (hopefully) beautiful and original artwork; artwork that would attract the kind of readers that were looking for a book like mine (scifi-adventure).

In the end, believe it or not, I spent nearly as much time on my cover (six weeks) as I spent writing my first draft. Why? Because I firmly believed, and still do, that my cover would be my first and best weapon in my battle to sell my book.

Obviously, having a good book is key. It’s the reason I stress the importance of editing and critical analysis to people. But I am convinced having a beautiful, original, illustrated book cover is the easiest thing you can do to promote your book (especially when taking advantage of Amazon and all it has to offer).

I’m convinced my cover is a big reason my book sold.


Part II: BOOK COVERS: Why They Are So Bloody Important

It kills me when I hear writers say, “Oh, I don’t look at covers.” “Covers aren’t that important.”

Well, they might not be important to you, but they are important to the rest of us. Trust me. Your cover is your first, best selling tool. It’s the first thing a potential reader sees. Best to make a good first impression.

Good writing has the power to captivate, inspire, even stir strong emotional responses. So does good cover design, and it has the power to sell your book–or at least prompt a reader to click the all important download sample button on Amazon.

Don’t underestimate the power of your cover.

Amazon: Your Robotic Sales Agent

Right now, Amazon is working its robotic-ass off to drive readers to your book. Amazon isn’t just a big database. It’s not just a big search engine. It is an incredibly powerful robotic sales-agent that’s constantly taking extensive notes and directing customers towards items that it thinks they’ll actually purchase.

Including your book!

What do those readers see when they get there? Your cover, of course.

You might think you’re not selling because you don’t have an agent, or because you don’t have the backing of a publisher. Those are just excuses, and ones that not even the best agent in the world can save you from if you have an uninspiring cover.

Part III: A Critical Approach To Design (analyzing your cover)

Take a look at your book cover and ask yourself these questions (and be honest!):

  • How does my cover compare to all the other books on Amazon–does my cover stand out from the crowd, or look comfortably like everything else?
  • Does my cover look homemade (and what does that say about my writing)?
  • Does my cover use generic, free stock photos, and look, well…generic?

Those are the obvious questions, but keep going.

  • Does my cover hit my target market? In other words, does your science-fiction book look like a science-fiction book, or does it look like a romance novel? (this is where even an attractive cover can fail–by missing its target!).
  • Does my cover create an emotional response? (if you hit this, you’re gold!)
  • What does my cover say about the characters? Can people relate to them? Do people want to be them, or be with them?
  • What does it say about the themes, the story?

Lastly, here’s my favorite question to ask about a cover.

  • Does my cover ask a question of the reader; a question that only opening the book will answer?
The Girls From Alcyone

The Girls From Alcyone

With my own book (The Girls From Alcyone), I wanted the reader to ask the question, “Who are these girls, and where/what is Alcyone?” Of course, I don’t mean this literally. I just mean on the subconscious level.

On my cover, I made the decision to show two girls (both warrior-soldier-types), alone on an alien planet, thus hitting my ‘scifi-adventure’ mark. It doesn’t hurt that the two girls are attractive either. I’d hardly call my cover ‘cheesecake,’ but I know how important it is to have some sex-appeal, and I thought the girls looked great.

I also made a conscious choice to have their backs to the reader. My approach was to create some mystery. Who are they? Where are they, and how the hell’d they get there?

Not showing their faces served another purpose, too. Readers tend to project themselves onto your characters. I wanted to create a blank slate for readers to fill in themselves–or fill themselves into, if that makes sense. That’s a lot more difficult with a photograph, more so with a stock photo.

It may sound silly, it might sound like I’m overanalyzing, but that’s my approach, and based on the feedback (and sales) I’d say it worked well for me.

My point isn’t that you should copy my cover or things like having the characters with their backs to the reader. My point is that I thought long and hard, and very analytically when it came to my cover.

I didn’t just want a cover that looked good. I wanted a cover that actually worked for me, like a good promotional advertisement or poster, drawing the reader in and making them investigate further. I wanted a cover with my target-audience squarely in its sights. I wanted a cover that looked professional, because I want my readers to know, just because I’m self-published, doesn’t mean I’m not a professional.

I wanted to create trust.

I wanted sales.

Part IV: BOOK COVERS: Designing your own (and why we should never, ever do it!)

Please don’t feel bad about this statement. This applies to me, too. Seriously. I am (or was) a professional designer and even I had someone else do my cover.

I believe very strongly that the first step to success is understanding your own strengths and weaknesses; knowing where you can succeed on your own, and where you need help. For most of us that means recognizing, while we may be pretty good at the writing-thing, we absolutely suck at drawing.

So after years of designing record covers, why didn’t I do my own book cover?

Because I do record covers. Record covers are a completely different beast, and they are easy. If you want to sell a Katy Perry record, the smart thing to do is slap a glossy photo of Katy Perry on the cover. She’s what fans are looking for, so that’s the smartest thing to give them.

This approach does not work for books. At least not in fiction. Non-Fiction is another matter. It’s essential you know what the fans of your genre are looking for. For me, as a science-fiction writer, readers were not looking for photos of Katy Perry (well, maybe if it was Mecha-Katy Perry). Plus, I can’t draw for squat.


Going Pro: Hiring skilled, talented people to help you achieve your goals.

You’ve just worked your butt off writing the best novel you can write. Don’t you want the best, most effective, most professional looking cover you can get? Of course you do! So why did you not hire a professional illustrator with a proven background in cover design? I mean, you didn’t actually edit your own book, too, right? Oh wait… (okay, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).

Seriously, though. If you want readers to see you as a professional then you have to start acting like one, and that means hiring skilled, talented people to help you achieve your goals.

“But…” you may protest, “Hiring an illustrator costs money!”

Deciding whether or not to invest in your book is a tricky thing. This is where you have to be brutally honest with yourself. Your first question must be, “Is my book any good?”

I’ve witnessed far too many people shovel their life savings into passion-projects with absolutely no hope of a return. This is usually because their product is just plain hopeless. It’s sad, but it’s true. But it’s even more painful to see people fail when they have a terrific book. This is often the result of not understanding the marketplace, not having a strategy or business plan, or worse, because they’re waiting around to be discovered (trust me, don’t wait!).

So, should you spend money on an illustrator? Let’s find out.

Do you want to be a Hobbyist or a Pro?

Writing purely for the love of it is a wonderful and admirable thing. That’s where this journey starts, after all! So, if you’re just having fun, don’t spend a dime.

But, if you truly have a deep desire to share your writing with the world (if you really want to sell some books), if you want to embrace your inner entrepreneur and jump into the self-publishing ring, if you want to do all that, then it’s time to start treating your efforts professionally and treating your writing as a business.

This means hiring skilled professionals to help you.

Part V: Hiring The Pros (how much? I got ten bucks!)

Okay. You’re feeling the entrepreneurial tingling. You’re ready, willing and able to hire a professional illustrator for your cover. How much does it cost?

Good question.

I’d expect to pay anywhere from $500 to $2000 for a decent cover.

Wait! Before you start protesting that you can’t afford to hire an illustrator/designer, I ask that you hold your breath (for just a moment!), and trust me when I say, it won’t be as bad as you think.

How much you actually spend will depend on your budget–and I don’t mean how much is left on your credit card! Heck, no! Please, don’t go crazy into debt for your book!.

The key to budgeting is to start looking at self-publishing as a business. You don’t start a business based on your savings account (okay, some do, but they fail). You build a business based on a solid revenue model and a business plan.

The first step to creating that revenue model is answering this question:

How Many Books Do You Want To Sell?

This isn’t a trick question–and the answer isn’t “As many as I can.” This is about setting real and achievable sales goals.

When I decided to self-publish, I did a a lot of research in the indy-book market. I eventually set myself a target of selling 10,000 books in a three year period. I didn’t just pull that number out of thin air. I based that number on what I saw other (reasonably successful) writers doing in my target-market of science-fiction. I looked at their packaging, presentation, websites, marketing avenues, the quality of their writing–and their book covers–and decided selling 10k books was doable.

It was based on that number, ten-thousand, that I then decided how much money I was willing to invest (notice I said ‘invest’ not ‘spend’) in my publishing efforts.

I initially sold my book for $2.99 (it’s $3.95 now). Amazon takes their cut of thirty percent. Based on that math (assuming I were to reach my goal of 10k), that put my projected revenues at around $21,000 for the book. I created a marketing/publishing budget of 20% (about $4200). That money had to cover everything from my website, my editor, my cover designer to a few incidentals.

I knew that even if I fell well-short of my sales goals, I felt reasonably comfortable that I could at least make some of that back. This way, it never felt like I was just shoveling thousands of dollars into the ether. I had a plan to get it back, and actually make some money.

Oh, and all this is tax deductible. Never forget that.

The good news is that I came in well under budget. My cover cost me $1500, and, while I was prepared to spend around $2000 for my editor, he ended up giving me a crazy smoking deal (I’m still not sure why he did, but he was brilliant). The only other money I spent was on a few incidentals, like domain names and some twitter promotions (very effective when combined with Amazon KDP Select free promotion days).

So, you see, I didn’t look at my savings or credit accounts. I looked at what I thought made sense as an investment, weighed the risk, and then decided whether or not it was worth it. These are all questions you’ll have to ask yourselves.

This is the kind of approach I take to all my business dealings. I set a revenue target (based on research and realistic goals) come up with a plan to reach that target, and budget accordingly.

It’s a cold, sober, straight-forward approach that works. More importantly, it keeps me focused on making sure I earn that money back.

Part VI: Working With Your Illustrator

 Okay, you’re cool with the investment, you’re ready to hire. Now what?

You’ve probably noticed I keep referring to an Illustrator, rather than a Designer or Photographer. Depending on your genre (especially if it’s non-fiction), you may want to go the photography route. I’m a huge non-fiction reader, and I think (original) photography’s the perfect thing for almost anything in that genre. Solid, to the point, straight-forward and hard-hitting. Perfect.

But, for fiction, even contemporary fiction, I think photography is tricky. For science-fiction, it’s doubly-so.

My reasoning is pretty straightforward. Fiction is about the imagination. As a writer, the more you can employ the reader’s own imagination the more successful you will be. This holds true for your cover, and I think it’s much easier to engage the reader’s imagination with an illustration rather than a photograph.

This is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Finding an Illustrator/Designer

There’s lots of ways to find someone to do your cover. The obvious ways is to pull out the yellow pages and let your fingers do the walking, but I’d hardly recommend that.

A much better way is to simply keep your eye out. If you see a cover you like, go ahead and look up that artist. That’s what I do. You’ll hit some dead ends for sure. Good artists often have their calendars full, others are hesitant to work for new people, some are too flakey or too expensive. But keep looking! You will find someone.

The other way I’ve found good artists is through google. When I decided to go with an illustrator, I just started googling illustrators. This is a great way to search. Most artists have their portfolios online. Some will even have pricing.

The artist I found recently I met by chance at a tea shop, of all places. This is where good eavesdropping techniques come in handy. I overheard two girls taking about drawing and comic books (she wanted to do a comic book, but couldn’t write – I’m a writer who can’t draw…).

Another great way to find good artists is by asking people who have already gone through the process. That’s a great resource, because they’ll be able to tell you everything you need to know–especially if they were happy with the results.

Part VII: Parting Shots

As you can see, I’m pretty opinionated when it comes to book covers, but it’s something I think Indy-writers (and especially indy-publishers) need to pay more attention to. I’m convinced the extra work will pay off in dividends.

When I set out to self-publish, I knew there would be very few things within my control, but doing what I could to look my best was one of them. I definitely knew that getting a good cover was key.



Cary Caffrey