How to Manage a 99designs Book Cover Contest

About this article

Three secrets for maximizing success:

  1. Write a detailed design brief with compelling headline
  2. You are the art director
  3. Prepare to actively manage the process

How to Manage a 99designs Book Cover Contest

How to Manage a 99designs Book Cover Contest

I consider book cover design to be one of the most challenging steps in the process of producing a finished book:

  • It is critical to the marketing of a book.
  • Everyone you ask for input seems to have a different opinion.
  • Good covers are often a big investment. (Big might be a relative term.)
  • You might have an idea but communicating that vision is another story (for most of us).
  • If you are self-publishing, you may be the wrong person to judge the ideal design.

Take your pick, it is not an easy process, nor fast or inexpensive.

Over time the options have evolved. I have no research to back this up but I think it is safe to say that hiring a book cover designer—an experienced pro or someone you find on Fiverr—is still the most often used method. More recently, the custom designer approach has been supplemented by online offerings of templated designs, and design tools for the DIY types.

But in my opinion both of the above approaches have two drawbacks for many of us.

  1. You are limited to the design ideas and perspectives of a single person.
  2. DIY is inherently cookie-cutter: you are at the mercy of stock art and designs that can easily be copied or re-used by others. They lack distinction.

So what if there was a way to get lots of unique designs, quickly, and for a reasonable cost?

99designs Book Cover Contests

The Goddess of Fortune-before and after using 99designs for a new coverFor a price that begins at $299, 99designs will show your design requirements to their more than 1 million designers. The advantage for you is that you are not locked into a single person, the process moves quickly, and the budget is fixed. In just a few days you’ll have potentially scores of designs to consider. (Designers receive compensation only if you select them as the winner.)

The disadvantages? The process can move a bit too quickly, especially for the indecisive and/or those who prefer more human interaction.

However, after going through the process more than a dozen times I’ve learned 3 secrets to success and can offer some pointers for anyone using it for the first time. Here’s how to make it work for you.

3 secrets for maximizing your book cover contest investment

The more planning and thought you put into the process before you begin, the better the results. And those that have a bad experience, or get a cover they are not happy with, can look back at the fact that they ignored these 3 secrets to success.

The first step in 99design's 4-step design process is called the qualifying around. Your goal during this round is to identify a maximum number of 6 designers to work with as you refine your ideas. That is why it is so important to make this round count—you need to find the designers that are capable of creating the cover you will love. It doesn’t have to be the final cover, but it does have to be the potentially final designer.

1. Write a detailed design brief with a compelling headline.

There is a direct relationship between presenting your book on Amazon in a compelling way, and selling copies of said book. The same is true here. A boring or general headline, won’t get many clicks. A design brief that lacks specificity and clear direction, won’t attract many designers.

Check out the headline written by AuthorImprints client, Leslie Lehr, used to get the attention of 35 designers and ultimately 237 designs:

Leslie Lehr 66 Laps book cover

The headline for Leslie’s design brief—this is how your cover project is marketed to the design community—promises recognition and notoriety for the winning designer:

Prize-winning Random House novel needs ebook cover.

Now study the headlines that other publishers and authors use. Imagine yourself as a designer—what design contest would you enter?

But don’t stop there because all the other elements in the design brief are also critical. Keep in mind that design contests (this is the term that 99designs uses), are open to designers around the world and for many designers, English is not their first language.

Use simple, clear instructions. If you have artwork, or cover examples you like, upload those when you submit your brief. If there is a concept or requirement that is uniquely American, take time to explain it and provide helpful examples, as relevant (politics is a good example). The winning designers for my covers have been based in the Philippines, India, Italy, South Africa and Germany.

Do all this in advance of starting your contest. This is the time to gather input from friends and trusted colleagues—before you launch your design contest.

2. You are the art director.

Remember, you are the art director. That is to say, you are the one ultimately responsible for the visual style, images, fonts used on the cover, and directing the designers in this regard. You might get lucky and receive submissions from designers whose work needs no further changes but that is not my experience.

If you don’t like a designer’s sensibilities, they are probably not worth keeping in the contest. If they don’t follow direction, they probably aren’t going to understand your continued feedback. Eliminate them!

There is a big difference between a graphic artist and a book cover designer. I had one designer that submitted an interesting idea. I asked him to enlarge the text and refine certain elements—the design would have been unintelligible as a thumbnail on Amazon—and his revision was barely any different. It is not your job to teach cover design so move on, however you do need to have a sense for what will help sell your book.

3. Prepare to actively manage during the qualifying round.

The time period for designers to submit designs is 4 days. Believe me, it goes very fast. That’s why I recommend you maximize your availability during this period. Review new designs as they come in and offer suggestions and feedback.

Your goals for this phase are to tease as many creative ideas from each designer as possible. Later, after you select just a few designers, you’ll have time to refine their submissions. Part of what you are looking for here is a willingness to please and to find out how well suited they are to your particular genre. (Now is a good time to click their name and look at the design work they’ve done for others.)

When it comes to feedback, you are trying to find the balance between vague comments like “oh, that’s nice” and instructions that are too specific like “make the red a CMYK of…”. One yields no results, the other relegates the designer to an expensive button pusher.

For some designers, the goal is to make you happy in the least amount of time, not necessarily create the perfect cover to sell your book. Don’t lose sight of their motivations during the process.

Lastly, some designers are not very responsive, others are highly responsive. If you find yourself running out of time, ask 99designs for an extension. But don’t do it out of laziness on your part.

Final thoughts

If you follow my advice you will have as many as 6 capable designers, each with at least one potentially winning design, and often more. Some designers stick with a basic theme and change up colors, others will mock-up several completely different approaches.

Now comes the potentially even more difficult phase, the road to picking a winner. Keep in mind that you have lots of opportunities for refinement. In fact, if you have the skills or know someone who does, you can continue to refine your cover after you receive the final package of files.

Click here to learn more about 99designs.


Need help managing the process as part of publishing your book, or eBook? That’s what we do. Click here to contact us.

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