Book Covers by 99Designs

James’s Writing Experience: Interlude 2

Given that I’ve just gone through the experience of using for two book covers, I thought I’d get my thoughts down while they’re still fresh.  So here goes.

What is 99Designs?Mandestroy_Book_Cover

99Designs is a brilliant website where you can put out a requirement for some sort of graphic design, set a budget (by choosing a prize), and then reach out and get proposals from thousands of fantastic online graphic designers.  I used the service for book covers, but as far as I can tell, you could use it for just about anything.  I highly rate this service.

But why use it in the first place?

In some ways a book cover is a frustrating requirement.  After all, we all know that saying: “don’t judge a book by its cover.”  But the reality Fear's Union: the Coming of the Age of Kuis that in this digital world and this literary market place, it is rather essential.  People do browse by book covers, and so it’s really important to have something that stands out (or at the very least, looks professional and enticing).

Originally I had in mind that I would design my own book covers.  Now, my first efforts were completed in Microsoft Office (see above).  I thought they were OK based on the the tools I was using, but in reality they were terrible.  I quickly realised this.

My next option was a load of advice and a free online tool provided by Derek Murphy at CreativeIndie.  I walked through a number of tutorials and got quite excited about what could be achieved – it opened my eyes to what can be done in graphic design.  I also started trawling through stock art to find the pieces that would form the backbone of my cover, and was reasonably successful.  The next step?  To use Derek’s tool and bring it all together.  Brilliant.

Or not.  User says no.

I think I had reasonably high standards for my book cover requirements, and frankly my skill-set was not going to be able to meet that standard.  I could of course have spent many hours teaching myself how to effectively graphic design, but that is just idiotic in my view.  I don’t want to be a graphic designer – I want to be a writer.

There had to be another way.

How did I hear about it?

I first heard about this in an online course by Tim Grahl, but filed the knowledge away for some time.  I then forgot about it while I went with the idea of designing my own cover.

But when I needed an alternative approach, it immediately jumped back into my mind.

I then did some research online and found an excellent article by Rachelle Gardner which convinced me to have a proper look.  And after seeing the very professional looking 99Designs website, I jumped straight in.

How does it work?

1. Competition

In a competition, you (the competition holder) specify a) a price (or prize); b) a design brief; and c) a few other parameters. This brief is then posted to potential designers, and those designers have 7 days to post their designs.

You rate each design and provide feedback to designers, which they can use to modify as required.  After 7 days of snowballing designs and two-way feedback, the competition pauses.  You then choose up to 6 finalists.

There is a similar 5 day period of design and / or feedback where the finalist designs are “honed to perfection”.  After this period, you choose your winner and get your book cover.  Simples.

In fact, if you don’t like any designs, then you are not at liberty to choose any of them.  But you can guarantee to choose a winner, which I did.  I’ll discuss this below.

2. Private commission

Alternatively, you could just pursue a private commission.  This is aFear's-Union far more straightforward process where you approach a designer and put forward a set of requirements.  The designer quotes, you agree, and the designer goes and works on the project.  There is of course interaction in this design phase.

In reality, when I used this service for my Fear’s Union cover, the designer and I had agreed a price and finalised the cover before he even formally “quoted” on the system.


Frankly, I think this was an excellent service, and I would highly recommend it.  These are my main thoughts.

  • I went for the bronze option, which cost about £200.  This is the ‘budget’ solution, but the quality and quantity of designs I received was certainly not budget.
  • Over the course of the entire contest, I received 120 entries.  Now, many of these represent multiple versions of the same design, but I still think there were at least 50 unique designs.  That is a lot.
  • This may in part be because I guaranteed the prize which creates greater incentivisation to designers, but I do still believe that I would have had a healthy inflow of designs without the guarantee.
  • Of course, the challenge with 120 designs is that there’s 120 designs to consider and give feedback on.  I found that each one took 5 minutes to feedback on (on average), so that adds up to about 10 hours of work for you – as contest holder.  Of course, you could always take a more passive approach, but I would actively discourage that…
  • …Because the feedback mechanisms were some of the most powerful tools in this whole process.  Feeding back on designs in good time and allowing designers to improve their offerings was a) really exciting; and b) very satisfying.
  • In fact, the eventual winner actually morphed out out of an initial cover which was good (but which I didn’t love), and which the designer managed to push to another level by taking onboard my feedback.

So, all in all, this was a fantastic experience.  However, be prepared to put the time in because the more you put in, the more you will get out of the whole process.

Tips for using

So, if you’re thinking of using for your book cover design, what would my top tips be?  Well, here they are:

  • I would suggest that the bronze offering was probably enough, though obviously the bigger the prize, the bigger and better the designers you attract.  But out of 50 unique designs, I think that at least 10 were good enough to meet my requirements.  That’s great choice.
  • I would recommend guaranteeing the prize if at all possible.  Looking at it from the other side, this creates a commitment which is much easier for designers to grab hold of, and hence you’ll get more from them.
  • One way to do this might be to wait until at least one design has come in that could ultimately ‘fit the bill’, and then guarantee the prize.  This is what I did.
  • I think that you need at least some idea as to what you’re after – and the more that’s in the brief, the easier it is for designers.  Part of the fun of this is receiving a range of different cover ideas, but it’s a good idea to define some parameters within which designers can work.  Otherwise I think you’ll receive too many designs that are way off the mark.
  • Set aside time to thoroughly critique the covers you receive.  I suspect that this process works best when both designer and competition holder are ‘putting in the legwork’, so be prepared.  This certainly isn’t the easy option.
  • And enjoy the experience – both the interaction with designers, and watching the fruits of your imagination come to life.  I thought it was a great experience.

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