Book cover creation – an iterative process

How does one create a book cover? Does it materialize in the mind of the designer in a brilliant moment of inspiration? Or is book cover creation a formula in which the designer plugs in the genre of book and out pops a cover?

I liken it to an architect designing a building, though admittedly designing a book cover is a far simpler task.

There is a discovery phase in which the designer learns about the needs and wants of the client and about the restraints of the project. The drafts come next. These are conceptual ideas that can be presented to the client. Once a draft is chosen, multiple iterations are created within the style of the draft. Lastly, one of these iterations is chosen and refined, refined, and refined some more.

I am a visual learner, so here is the draft-by-draft book cover creation process.

The Initial Drafts

The book is a collection of the writings of Cindy Kamler, a community leader in wildlife rehabilitation. This background information established the theme of the book and directions for the cover.

We had several meetings after drafting these covers. We decided to create iterations based on the two covers with tracks and eliminated the vector-based image with the mountains.

Note the aspen leaf background on the middle cover. This was a sample stock illustration. Using stock illustrations helps to speed up the drafting process. Later, if the project needs custom art, you will be further along in the creative process and thus have a better idea of what you need.

Also, note that we used two different subtitles. We did this to get a feel for how the different subtitles would interact with the layout of the cover.

Iterations of the Selected Drafts

Next, we created a different version of each draft. We decided that the human footprints were a digression from the book’s theme, centering the book on a human rather than wildlife. And the cross-hatching on the cover with the animal tracks also had to go. So here is where we arrived after that:

At this point, we needed to pick one or the other. Our team chose the cover with the various types of animal tracks. It speaks to the style of nature guides and books of the past, including some that the client admired.

Creating Iterations of the Final Draft

Once we picked a draft and its accompanying style, we were then ready to create numerous versions, or iterations, of that draft. Here are three of those, but in fact, there were far more. Many of the iterations had a minor color or layout adjustment.

On this round, we decided on the cover with grass above both the title and the author’s name. With that decision, we were ready to create the back cover and refine it.

The Final Cover

Here is the (almost) final cover. I say “almost” because there will be a few inevitable minor changes to the back blurb copy, and the subtitle is still undergoing iterations.

The final book cover that was selected from the book cover creation process.

Print Considerations

Once the cover is ready to submit for a printed draft, we will have to decide between a gloss finish and a matte finish. I have a suspicion that a matte cover will look best (I like glossy covers for photographs and matte covers for illustrations). But all of this remains to be seen … EDIT: We went with the matte book cover, and it looks great.

Just like writing a book, the book cover creation and the design of the interior layout are also deliberative and intensely creative processes. They require time, openness, curiosity, and a willingness to step into new spaces. While many authors want to rush through this phase of the publishing process, don’t! Enjoy it, as this is the final physical manifestation of your idea.

Quality Control for Books and Content Management

Creating quality control protocols is just as important for the book publisher as it is for the factory. At the end of the day, book publishers are producing a product that will be mass manufactured on an assembly line and, hopefully, consumed by many people. The implication here is that we need to take great care in producing the books we publish, from design and editing to marketing and distribution.

Learn from my mistakes

At one point I blindly expanded my catalog at lightning speed. I assumed that the workflow I had developed would maintain the high standard of design and editing to which I had become accustomed. However, as the number of projects that I was working on piled up, so too did the number of mistakes in the books that I was releasing.

I brought in more people to help manage the workload. But I still encountered the same problems because I had no system in place for tracking what work was getting done and what remained.

Cover descriptions were not getting updated before I sent the file to the printer. Prices were getting mixed between books. Annotations were missing or finding their way into the wrong place. And Table of Contents weren’t getting proofed.

This cost me time, money, and reputation.

To make the problem worse, because the catalog was growing, I was spending increasing amounts of time searching a disorganized array of files for information on specific titles.

One of the small, but common snags occurred when a wholesale customer would call and want prices on specific titles. Because I did not have all of this info in one place, I often had to visit the imprint’s website to find the retail price. And if the customer asked for the price in pounds sterling, then I had to search even harder.

What I needed was one place where I could track books for their entire life and deposit all the metadata that selling books requires.

The solution

A database.

When I think of databases, I think of expensive and cumbersome software bundles that create just as many headaches as they solve.

I tried to use FileMaker to create a custom database that could manage everything, from images to metadata, book descriptions to customers, invoices to royalties.

After a weak of stumbling around within FileMaker, I abandoned that path. It was too complicated and had too many bugs.

I knew that I needed something simple. Super simple. iPhone app simple.

So I searched the App Store and found exactly what I needed.

Tap Forms is $34.99 and has the simplicity of a well-designed iPhone app. It is available for Mac computers and phones. I use only the desktop version, but I can think of scenarios where the mobile version could come in handy.

It worked intuitively from the start and within a day I had hundreds of cross-linked entries.

What to do with the database?

Databases, even ones as simple as Tap Forms, can do tons of things. They can create and manage checklists, like an operating room checklist for a patient. They can be customer management tools that document each interaction with a customer. They can create and manage orders. They can track expenses. And they can hold an infinite number of lists.

They can also link all of this information together.

At the beginning, when building the database, the publisher must ask what the database needs to do.

Here is what I wanted my database to do:

  • Contain all the metadata for each book. This includes prices across different currencies, descriptions, ISBNs for each version, links to websites that sell the book, display the cover image, etc.
  • Link each book to a series of quality control checklists.
  • Contain detailed quality control checklists that will help find more errors in books and prevent new errors from being introduced during the editing, design, printing, and marketing phases of each book.
  • Contain ranked and detailed lists of books that I am considering for acquisition.
  • Tell who distributes each book.
  • Give the status of each book in every possible state of existence.
  • Manage bulk mailing lists.
  • Manage annotations across several languages.
  • Manage the production of guidebooks and similar books.

I am happy to say that the database that I built using Tap Forms does all of this.

Do the quality control checklists really work?

Yes. They work really, really well.

I find that quality control actually speeds up the book creation process. Yes, there are more boxes to check, more forms to fill out. But these serve a clear and quantifiable purpose, to track what gets done, when, and by whom. Work no longer gets duplicated. Did we check for orphans and widows? Yes. Great, on to the next thing. Did we do our secondary check that the index page numbers go to the right place? Nope. Gotta do that.

Does this mean the books are error free? Most of the time, yes. But sometimes an error slips through all the layers of redundancy. After all, humans are creating this content, and we are prone to errors. But, the error occurrence rate becomes much smaller when I use these controls.

If you are not already using a database to manage content and content creation, please use one. Using a database takes a publishing company to the next level of professionalism and adds value to the business.

Book Submissions and Acquisitions

Here is how it is going to happen.

  1. The new publisher establishes an imprint with one or more books that will sell.
  2. A website is built for the imprint. This includes a book submissions page with information on how to submit book proposals.
  3. The initial books are successful and penetrate the market, the publisher gains new contacts in the industry, and the imprint becomes known.
  4. Authors and others learn of the imprint and the submissions roll in.
  5. An undisciplined, new publisher sees these submissions and gets excited. This enthusiasm leads to taking on projects that the publisher doesn’t know how to market.
  6. Alternatively, the disciplined publisher browses the submissions, finds no leads and thus rejects all submissions, and then continues with the original business plan.

Discipline and hard choices

What does it take to be disciplined?

I do a lot of high risk sports, like mountain climbing and rock climbing without ropes. I’ve also worked in high risk industries, like logging and tree trimming. Participating in these activities demands discipline. If I climb into an area beyond my abilities, the probability of injury or death increases, substantially. More often than not my ego and passion want to push deeper into the danger zone, past where my abilities end. Strong discipline reins in my ego and passion, keeping me in the realm of possibility. Discipline reminds me to stick to the plan.

Don’t mistake discipline for being risk averse. Discipline is a methodical way of dealing with risk. Discipline says, I can’t do this today, but with strategic training and experience I can do this in the near future.

Following the plan that I laid out in the chapter on pricing will help you to stay disciplined while making the hard choices that all publishers must eventually make—rejecting good books because the publisher doesn’t know how to sell them.

Here are some basic rules to follow:

  • Stick with what you know.
  • Stick with what you can sell.
  • If you don’t know it and you don’t know how to sell it, don’t publish it.

Reviewing submissions—separating the wheat from the chaff

When reviewing submissions, there are a few basic questions that must be answered.

Many publishers ask that inquiring authors answer these questions in their submissions—this is a good, time-saving technique. It forces the author to think about who is going to buy the book. And it helps the publisher to see how savvy the author is and how well the author understands the audience.

Here are some questions to ask when reviewing submissions:

  1. Who is going to buy this book?
  2. Why are they going to buy it?
  3. Do they already want to buy it, but it is not available?
  4. What does the competition look like?
  5. Is there a good reason no one else is publishing this or similar content?

Let’s assume that every question about the audience is answered. The publisher then needs to ask a second round of questions to decide if the book is right for the publisher.

  1. Is this a quality book or a bargain book?
  2. Does this book have to be printed using a specific method?
  3. How much editing is this going to take?
  4. How long will it take to design the cover and interior?
  5. How much marketing must be done to reach the audience?
  6. What is the overall labor investment?
  7. Finally, and once again, does the book make financial sense based on the publisher’s pricing and volume strategy?

Notice that most of the second round questions have to do with the publishing process. Each publisher will have a unique publishing process, or workflow, and books will need to fit into this to be published. Just as each artisan has a process for sculpting, painting, sewing, or carving, the publisher must have a process for publishing books. The office is the publisher’s workshop. The computer, pen, and paper are the tools. The publisher needs to develop a successful, profitable process and stick with it. The publisher can modify the process, but slowly and incrementally.

Be wary of publishing books that deviate too far from the proven formula.

Learn from my mistake

The first unsolicited submission that I received truly piqued my interest. The gears started turning in the creative part of my brain as I read the proposal. I saw how the book could expand my business into a parallel niche market—newer and larger than the market where I operated. I saw huge potential for the book—bigger than any book I had published.

However, I knew nothing about the new niche market. I had no contacts (aside from the author) within it. And I didn’t know how to sell the book to the audience. I didn’t even know who the exact audience was. Sure, I had a broad idea for who the audience could be. But that was it. I did not know how to reach them. And that is not enough to market a book.

In my enthusiasm for both my first unsolicited submission and the theoretical potential of the book, I went forward and published it. Yet throughout the publishing process, when any of the above questions arose or I looked at pricing and volume options, logic told me to abandon the project. But I never listened.

The book was a complete flop. Dead on arrival. I lost lots of time and money on the project.

My problem: I did not have the discipline to say no even though all the evidence pointed to that conclusion.

It is always nice to get submissions. Submissions validate the publisher’s existence almost as much as sales. But the publisher must avoid hubris when facing reality.

Book pricing—Solving the Great Mystery

Book pricing is difficult and a bit like cold fusion—many people claim to have discovered the key to success, but none can prove it. That being said, there are steps that publishers can take to eliminate some of the magical guesswork from the process of setting prices for books.

Publishers must always remember why prices exist. Prices exist to create profit. The publisher should strive to generate their desired profit from the primary audience. Understanding the primary audience and the price elasticity of the book within the primary audience is critical to designing success and achieving profit goals. What follows is the method that I use to decide prices for books.

An early, tough lesson

Five years ago I spent days obsessing over how to price the first book that I published. Most of my thoughts swirled around one aspect of the book pricing game: What price is the audience for this niche book willing to pay?

I priced the book at $14.95. However, I now know that I could have priced the book higher, at say $18.95, and I would have moved the same volume. Though the book has been successful, that error in pricing lost me about $5,000 in profit.

Where did I go wrong during my first pricing decision?

I focused too much on the price that I thought the audience would tolerate. While the question I asked when I set the price is a good question and an important one to answer, it is not the only question a publisher should ask. Asking only that question can create misconceptions with big consequences. As it turns out, I did not understand the audience as well as I presumed. Often, our assumptions are our worst enemies.

A better process for pricing a book

If I were publishing that book now, for the first time, here are some of the questions I would ask:

  1. Who is the primary audience? And do I have enough knowledge of and access (i.e. marketing and distribution) to the primary audience to sell the book?
  2. Is the primary audience fixed at a certain number of readers, and do I know that number?
  3. Using the answer from #1, what price at that volume covers my costs (including labor) and my profit?
  4. Is the primary audience going to buy this book regardless of price?
  5. Beyond the primary audience, can I sell this book to anyone else at a profitable volume?

These are very important questions. And I should ask them not only when setting the final price of the book, but also during the acquisitions process when deciding whether to even publish the book. Here is what I am looking for in the answers:

  1. The primary audience is going to generate the bulk of the revenue and momentum for the book. If I cannot answer either part of Question #1 with detailed, knowledgeable responses then I do not publish the book. It does not matter how passionate I am for the book, or how awesome the author is. If I don’t understand the audience, then I can’t sell the book. It really is that simple. Stick with what you know. Part of this question also deals with marketing, which I talk about in another chapter.
  2. Question #2 is one of the most important questions I can ask, and this is especially true for niche publishers and self-publishers. If I can answer yes and I know the approximate size of the audience, then this answer will decide the price of the book. Then I only need to use the following equation to set the price: cost+profit/volume. I love it when I get books like these because I know from the beginning how much profit I am going to clear on the project. This question is also connected to Question #4. Knowing the size of the audience and an affirmative response to #4 is the best outcome for most small publishers.
  3. This is a great question because it forces me to understand the true cost of pursuing a project. See the next section for an example of the spreadsheet setup that I use to create a variety of profit predictions at various price points, discounts, and volumes. I believe it is very important to visualize this part of the pricing process, and so I recommend that every publisher use a similar spreadsheet when setting prices. This spreadsheet not only gives me the answers to Question #3, it also forces another gut check when looked at after getting the answers to the other questions. And it automatically triggers other questions. Is the primary audience big enough to buy the minimum volume for the book to create a profit? Do I understand enough about the primary audience to move the needed volume?
  4. If I can answer yes to this question then I am very happy. I still need to figure out if the primary audience is big enough to provide the needed profit, and I can determine that using the data from the spreadsheet that I will use to answer Question #3.
  5. This is often a difficult, but very important question to answer. If I stick to the model of generating desired profit from the primary audience, then finding new, secondary audiences puts icing on the cake. For each new audience, I try to use the same method just described—this is the best process for predicting outcomes and ensuring success.

The answers to these questions allow me to do several things:

  • Determine if a project is worth pursuing
  • Determine if a project is worth continuing
  • Determine how important the book is to the success of the business
  • Plan for the future by estimating expected cash flow

What I just described demonstrates that the process of choosing a price for a book creates a detailed qualitative and quantitative analysis that deals with more than trying to pick up a few more customers through clever price points. The process gets to the very core of the book, asking the core questions that many publishers willingly disregard at their own peril. I too have fallen into this publishing trap while in pursuit of creative passion and beautiful literature—enough times that as I write these words I grind my teeth thinking about all the profits wasted on projects that were long dead before they started. If only I had used this process …

Looking at all the options—quantitatively

Now that I have outlined the basic process, let’s go back to Question #3: What price and volume covers my costs, including labor?

Below is an image of the spreadsheet that I use for making the calculations that will answer my question. I call it the Publisher Profit Calculator.


This spreadsheet includes a lot of parts. No unique piece of data provides that much information. But the relationship of all the pieces provides an incredible amount of useful information that will influence the final price of a book.

Here is an explanation of each part:

  • Retail: This is the retail price. It is a part of the calculation used in all the other columns.
  • Page Count: This is the final, total page count of the book. It is used to calculate the printing cost (used in the After Printing column) and the Page Profit column.
  • Discount: This is the wholesale or distribution discount. When estimating future cash flow and profits, always reference the biggest discount given. Referencing only the biggest discount will keep expectations realistic, provide room for error while forecasting, and sometimes it results in unexpected profits later in the life of the book. Just like disaster preparedness, always plan for the worst—but in this case using the biggest discount and slimmest margins.
  • Royalty: This is the percentage the author receives. It is used to calculate the dollar amount that the author receives in the Author Royalty column.
  • Wholesale: This is the wholesale or distributor price. It is calculated using the Retail and Discount columns.
  • After Printing: This is calculated using: Wholesale less printing cost (printing cost is calculated in the background based on the Page Count). This number gives the gross revenue before royalties.
  • Author Royalty: This is the amount the author receives per book. For the purposes of this example spreadsheet, the Author Royalty is the Royalty percentage multiplied by the Wholesale price—which is based on a net-price received royalty model.
  • Pub. Profit: This is the amount the publisher clears after printing costs and royalties. This is an important column in the final price making decision.
  • Profit Margin: This column uses the Retail price and the Pub. Profit columns to calculate the percentage of the retail price that is publisher net profit. This is a good column to watch across all the books being published under an imprint. I try to the keep the Profit Margin around 30% with margin of +/- 5%. Remember to look at the row with the largest expected Discount.
  • Min. Volume: This is the minimum volume that I must sell to recoup the cost of publishing the book. The total expenses for this example are listed in the upper right corner: $2,200. The column uses the Publisher Profit calculation and the total expenses to calculate the number of books that must be sold to break-even. This number should include the publisher’s labor. This column has the most influence on my final price setting decision. This number can be modified to include profit as well.
  • Page Profit: This is the publisher’s profit per page. It is calculated using the Page Count and the Pub. Profit columns. This column has a similar role to the Profit Margin column—it gives the publisher a benchmark to aim for. I must note that profit per page tends to decrease with longer books because the retail price has a hard time keeping up. But that is okay because I am selling more pages and so profit holds steady.

Example of my method in action

Let’s say I’m getting ready to acquire a new book. Before I begin the publishing process, I want to get a good idea for the primary audience and whether I can make a profit publishing the book. Let’s pretend that the book title of the book is “Paddling Missouri’s Big Rivers.” It is a guide, a memoir, and a history to the big rivers of Missouri.

Now let’s work through the questions and the Publisher Profit Calculator to find out if I should publish the book.

  • Who is the primary audience? And do I have enough knowledge of and access (i.e. marketing and distribution) to the primary audience to sell the book?

The primary audience is paddlers, people interested in the Missouri’s natural and cultural history, and people who know the author. I am connected to the Missouri paddling community and I was born and raised in Missouri, so I believe that I have enough knowledge and access to the primary audience to sell the book.

  • Is the primary audience fixed at a certain number of readers, and do I know that number?

The size of the primary audience is limited, but I do not know the exact number. Using my unique knowledge of the primary audience, I estimate that the primary audience is 300 strong. I believe that this is a conservative estimate, but when estimating it is always best to err on the side of caution

  • Using the answer from #1, what price at that volume covers my costs (including labor) and my profit?

My costs, including labor but excluding printing, are $2,200. The book is 200 pages long and I already entered the cost of printing the book using Print-on-Demand into the above spreadsheet. Using the Book Profit Calculator spreadsheet, I see that I need to price the book at a minimum of $24.95 to break-even, given that the primary audience is 300 strong. This price assumes that I will sell all 300 books at a wholesale discount of 50%. In reality, I know that the margins are often better because I will sell a few at full retail value and I will sell many of the wholesale copies at a 40% discount. Again, I am creating a safe forecast.

  • Is the primary audience going to buy this book regardless of price?

This can be a hard question to answer. Much of the time it is qualitative question. From market research, I know that similar titles have sold at prices ranging from $22.95 to $29.95, and the primary audience did not balk at the higher prices. They are a passionate primary audience and will pay a premium, up to a point.

This is good news. At $29.95, I will make a profit on 61 copies, a net profit of $561 after covering my labor costs, other expenses, and royalties.

  • Beyond the primary audience, can I sell this book to anyone else at a profitable volume?

I believe that this book has the potential to be popular beyond the primary audience, especially in local bookstores (where I can organize signings and talks) and at local outdoor stores (where I can also organize signing and talks).

I have talked with the owners and buyers of the bookstores and outdoor stores. They tell me that $29.95 is too high for their regular customers. They suggest that a price of $22.95 would be perfect.

As much as I would like to price the book at $22.95, that price does not give me a break-even profit based on the estimated size of my primary audience. But I believe in the wider appeal of the book beyond the primary audience. I price the book at $24.95—the minimum break-even price.

The real price of books

The method discussed above takes a micro approach to book publishing and book pricing. Now lets switch to a macro perspective.

Macro is the big picture. It is the entire industry. It is books vs. music vs. movies vs. television.

The real cost of a book to the consumer is not the retail price listed on the cover. The real cost is the time it takes to read the book.

In the example above, the book costs $24.95. If the customer clears $25 per hour at their job, then it costs an hour of their time to buy the book. However, the real cost is in the time it takes to read the book and the other things the customer could be doing during that time.

Let’s estimate that the average reader needs 8 hours to read the 200 page book. For the customer making $25 per hour, that is $200 worth of time. The real cost of the book to the customer is $225. That is an expensive book!

A 2 hour-long, $10 HD movie downloaded from iTunes has a real cost of only $60.

Should this insight affect how I price books? Sometimes, yes. But it depends on the book. Is the book competing with other cultural products? Or does it stand alone? …

Consumer demand for books and price tolerance

There are several good academic research articles out there covering the book industry, including accounting, profits, and pricing.

The demand for books estimated by means of consumer survey data” by Vidar Ringstad Knut Løyland is a good resource to reference while reading this chapter.

Here are the highlights from the article:

  • Books are price sensitive and compete with other cultural goods.
  • Sex and age matter.
  • Single persons and households with small children, especially those with children less than 7 years, are frequent book buyers.
  • The decreased price of substitutes like TV, video, and music could crowd the demand for books.
  • Books are luxury goods.

When asking a question like, “Will the audience buy this book regardless of price?”, I am trying to get at the above points. Is the book a luxury item? Or is it something that the reader needs? Does it compete with other cultural goods? Or does it stand in a class of its own?

If the reader is an average hiker with no navigation skills and no desire to get lost in the woods, then the reader will probably buy a hiking guide because it is a tool that she must have to go hiking, just like good shoes. If there is only one hiking guide to the area she wants to hike in, then the reader cannot be overly price sensitive. If there are multiple guides to the area, then the hiker becomes more price sensitive because there is competition in the market. And if the reader is not sure if she even wants to go hiking, then the book is facing even more price sensitivity.

The points highlighted by Ringstad and Løyland in their study are important to consider beyond the pricing process. The publisher must also take them into perspective while acquiring material and editing material. Will the 800 page sprawling opus sell as well as a 100 page quick and intense read? And which will readers appreciate more? We must remember that we are in the age of short blog posts, tweets, and 30 second to 3 minute YouTube videos. How do books fit into this paradigm?

Using historical data to understand the relationship between price, volume, and profit

I have published books for 5 years and have about 60 titles in print across a diverse range of subjects. Using the consolidated sales data for all the years and all the titles, I have created the following two charts.

Looking at these charts I see that books priced under $10 account for very little of my gross sales and volume.

The majority of the published books fall between $10 and $20. While the $10-$20 range has the highest volume, the gross sales are too heavily weighted toward bottom.

The $30-$40 range has the fewest books, but they surpass in gross sales the majority of the books in the lower price ranges. Yet the volume is not all that impressive when compared to the high volume achieved by some of the $10-$20 books.

How do I interpret this data?

I look at these charts and conclude that, historically, I have under-priced my books. It is clear that assigning low prices to books did not help sales and assigning high prices to books did not hurt sales.

Of course, when I look at these charts I have the benefit market and business specific knowledge not displayed on the charts. Much of that knowledge came from asking the four questions that started this chapter. Asking those four questions has ultimately led me to the conclusion that I must give higher prices to the books I publish and that the primary audiences for the books I publish are not as price sensitive as I once thought.

Concluding thoughts

When choosing a price for a book, publishers must take many variables into account. Failure to consider all the variables can mean the difference between publishing a profitable book and losing money on the book.

The most important aspect of the pricing process is finding the break-even point and ensuring that the primary audience for the book will buy the needed volume to reach that point.