Designer Brief from Self-Publisher

The designer is key to a book’s reception. Readers see the cover before they’ve read a word.

A confession here: it took me a while to realise that this blog entry had to be called Self-Publisher to Designer not Author to Designer. The problem is I haven’t got used to seeing myself as publisher. Getting closer, after this experience, though.

hand writing a letter with a goose feather


I am a writer. Yet, by opting to self-publish, I’ve engaged in a twenty-first century business (ouch!) with many aspects: editorial, physical and digital production, marketing, sales, communications (that’s PR to  you and me) and finance.

And design! Here is what I’ve learned so far.

Briefing a Book Designer


I was  pretty vague about what was involved, to be honest. I’d identified a designer, who did beautiful covers in the right genre, But I wasn’t very precise when I approached her.

Jane Dixon-Smith was as patient as she was professional. In her place, I’d probably have murdered me. Now she’s written a book.

I started to tell her the stories. But she didn’t need to know the tensions, the conflicts, the knife-edge moments.

She needed to know a) the genre and b) any image-related details that would help her.

Know Your Book

This can be uncomfortable, especially if it’s novel. You may think your book covers life, the universe and everything, and  the whole world would be inspired if they read it. Dump that thought. Readers aren’t looking for the vague universal. They want specifics to which they can relate. You’re not the writer any more, you’re the publisher.

Stay specific. What does your book do? What’s it about?  Where would it sit on a bookshop’s shelves so that the right readers would find it? Be honest.

Know your Publishing Plan

How much do you need to ask the designer to do? Print copies require back cover and spine design, as well as the front cover. Tell the designer in your first brief whether you want them to prepare the book for physical printing and/or digital uploading. They need to know how much time this job is going to take.


Book covers deliver words. Sometimes a lot of them. 51NNquOKNSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Think carefully. How many do you need and/or want?

Finalise the wording before you commission the designer. She may have to start again, if she’s given you a fabulous cover and then you decide you need to put a whole lot more wordage there.

Take this e-book cover, for instance, a favourite of mine by  Jane. It screams “conflict”. The written message tells you what the conflict is about. The title adds the menace.

Will readers notice it? Yes. Be intrigued? Too right. Buy? Who knows? I would. I did. At least 50% because of  the cover.

Front matter options

c63b91f9b7ba47010368b171504f176bThere are a lot more of these than you probably think. There was a time when book covers, particularly crime and thrillers, would be just loaded with written information. It looks very old-fashioned now. But if you wanted to go for a period feel, you might just want to adopt and adapt.

  • Descriptor e.g. a blood-soaked romantic comedy
  • Author’s previous e.g. by the author of Murderous Molly
  • Series e.g. Book 1 of Purple Pyromaniacs 
  • Teaser e.g. She was just a fire-fighter – by day.
  • Testimonial e.g. “A must read,” says  award-winner, Ermintrude Gutbucket
  • Publisher’s identifier e.g.TooWit Books
  • BLURB – essential if commissioning a back cover. DON’T give away the plot!
  • Reader identifier – again, probably a back cover thing e.g. “For people who love Jack Reacher and Bridget Jones”


OK, this was the only thing I thought much about. (Sorry, Jane!) I’d had some covers I hated. The editors couldn’t understand my grieving – or griping. “But punters only look at it for 4 seconds max,” they said. Yes, but I have to look at it on my shelf for ever. Not an argument that resonated with them, I have to say. But they misrepresented my book, in my view, and they were ugly.

Um. This was writer, not publisher speaking, you understand.

Dreaming blond retro woman with a book sitting on a meadowDump the impossible dream. You might get it. ( I did.) But not because you’ve put your designer in a straight jacket.

Think like a publisher. The object of the cover is to attract the sort of reader who will buy your book. It’s supposed to inform them, albeit in a pleasing way, about essential elements of your book. Not  to give you a beautiful image to put on your study wall.

Emblematic content

Cucumber SandwichSome of us feel very tender of our readers and are certain they share our associations. They don’t. For instance, a plate of cucumber sandwiches in the garden reminds me of an afternoon of total harmony and affection. Won’t do it for people who don’t make the connection. And a positive turn-off for people who hate cucumber, are allergic to gluten, loathe tea and suffer from hay-fever.

To work on a cover, an emblem needs to be universal and recognisable. The meringue wedding dress may drive you crazy but the buying reader knows what it means.

Typical Venetian LanternIf you’re setting a story in Venice, and you want the readers to know that, don’t expect everyone to recognise a typical Venetian lantern, even if you took the photograph yourself.

Bite the bullet and go for a gondola, as your designer suggests.

Dialogue with Designer

Your designer will send you suggestions. Note your gut instinct but DON’T make a decision based on that alone. Wait 24 hours and reach a sober judgement on the impact that each draft cover makes. Does it make promises which the book delivers? Does the identifying matter – basically title and author name – stand out clearly? Remember the size of thumbnails on digital trading devices? When your cover is down that small, it’s crucial that they are still readable!

Focus Group

girls reading books togetherThis is a luxury. The wonderful London and South East Chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association were mine. Thanks, friends!

Again, think like a publisher. Don’t try the cover on your nearest and dearest or your coffee morning cronies. Take it to people who habitually read your sort of book.

You may already have gathered a street-team you can consult. You might be a member of a group in which there are like-minds who will help you out. Or you might ask your local library for help to identify suitable readers and maybe even let you host a “tasting session” if you offer tea and buns. A decent focus group is ideally 6-10. It should include a range of ages and backgrounds. But the most important thing is that they start off by liking your sort of book. Give give them, say, four possible covers with the same title and front matter, and ask them to rank them in order of preference.

Personal Taste

One of the great benefits of self-publishing is that you get to make all the choices. It’s also one of the great traps.

If you happen to hate the wispy watercolour Concept 3D business man, dark road tunnel with bright light at tfigures that currently signify romantic comedy, and would much rather show your heroine pursued by her unreasonable boss through the Hyde Park Underpass, forget it. That running figure says “thriller” to the reader.

Designer Harriet BuckleyBut don’t be afraid of a cover which is genre-busting as long as the message is clear in, for instance, a title or subtitle. There is a benefit in surprise, especially if it makes you laugh. So here, to end, is a piece of pure self-indulgence.

Many readers of this blog will have a copy of Getting the Point and it’s now out of print. But Elizabeth Hawksley and I (in my Not Sophie aspect) had enormous fun writing this  – the working title was Punctuation for the Petrified – and were enchanted by Harriet Buckley’s cartoons which publisher Floris commissioned. Her enthusiastic comma-hunting naturalist had us in stitches.

Still one of my favourite covers. Could be just personal, though!

4 thoughts on “Designer Brief from Self-Publisher

  1. April Munday

    Cucumber sandwiches – 35 years later they still symbolise lost love for me.

    The cover of ‘Getting to the Point’ is very, erm, to the point.

  2. Sophie Post author

    Lost in a good way? For me cucumber sandwiches are tea in the garden on a long sunny evening, conversing with my mother while my father listens to cricket on the radio indoors. Makes me smile just to write it.

  3. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Personally, I think that cucumber sandwiches on a pretty china plate, naturally, should be accompanied by a tea urn – and a butler to deal with it all whilst you sit in a swing under the lime tree!

    Thank you for the Getting the Point mention. I, too, love Harriet Buckley’s inspired cartoons.

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