Cover Philosophy : Paying Artists What They’re Worth

Long post ahead!
I had an interesting conversation with some other authors in an indie cover Facebook group (which I usually stay away from; it can often be full of home-brewed covers with authors who are either too blind or too broke to care about all the things that are important in a book cover) but the result was I realized that there is a stigma against two things when it comes to book covers: premades and stock photography.
I asked you to define what is a successful author on Facebook and the answers were very interesting. Successful isn’t the same as “good” because “good” is up for interpretation. Successful means financial gain, at least to most who answered.

By my definition which you may or may not agree with, a successful author is someone who consistently makes 1k+ a month. I’m very specific in that this was the line in the sand where I felt my writing would change from an activity that was a hobby to an activity that contributed to my household. There are many authors who are way more successful than me and make much more than 1k a month, but we are all in the same boat. We’re writing books and have limited funds to invest into our dreams. Cover art can be a large part of that expense. I also believe in editors, meaning developmental edits where required, and line-edit/proofread always. I’ll make a post another day about that, but today it’s about book covers.

As an established and successful author, if you follow my definition, I feel confident I’ve been around long enough to know the stigmas, and know how to explain why they’re short-sighted. I’ve spent thousands on covers. You don’t always need an expensive cover to be a successful author, but it certainly helps. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.


Premade: A premade is a cover created in advance by a designer with no particular book or author in mind and placed on sale.

The stigma: A premade cover holds less value than a custom cover
Why this stigma is wrong:
A premade includes value no custom will ever have. Reasons outlined below!
1. The artist had to come up with the concept all on their own. This is a pure work of art that has been put up for sale like in an art gallery. They often have the market in mind when making these covers, which can often mean they’ll be a great fit for certain genres. It’s a mistake to believe a scene in the book will make the perfect cover to sell that book.
If you’ve ever done a custom, you were the one who had to come up with the concept, at least to a certain extent. You are limiting the artist and their creativity in that sense with your own bias. What might be your vision for a cover may not be what sells the book. 
2. The artist had to search for the right stock, which is a very time-consuming task!
When I talk about my experience with cover artists, they are all stock photo manipulation artists. I do not have experience with illustrators. I intend to change that, but in the next segment I’ll review WHY I’ve never worked with an illustrator and why stock photo manipulation works for me.
Searching for stock can take FOREVER. I hate it. I absolutely hate it and for this reason alone I prefer purchasing a premade. Part of the cost for me is paying the designer for the time they spent scrolling through horrifying images. Trust me. Look through stock. You will scroll across a horrifying image hahaha.
3. Unlike a custom piece, a premade must stand on its own merit.
When purchasing a custom, you are already giving the designer trust that the quality will meet your expectations. Some designers are not consistent with their quality and this can be very scary. They already have somewhat of a guarantee that you’ll buy the cover they’re going to make. It is difficult to turn down a completed custom, but I’ve done it before. It’s difficult because that designer has already done all the work for YOU and you have to admit you don’t like it. I’ve felt horrible when I’ve had to turn down a custom and ask how to proceed. The designer then sold that work as premades and was professional about it. Later they made customs I liked and bought, but I think part of that happening is a combination of my own lack of knowing what I want and the designer being inconsistent in their quality.
However with a premade, it must stand on its own merit. That premade will not sell if there’s something that turns an author off. It will also not sell for more than it is worth. Also, most authors are not actively looking for a premade with a budget ready. That cover has to be compelling enough to get us to break our cover bans and scrounge up money we’d planned on using for something else. In this sense, premades can often be better quality than a custom from that designer. I repeat, if it is not enticing enough, it will NOT sell! Notice I did not say “good” enough. A cover can be “good.” But it must be “exceptional” and “enticing” to make a sale.
Stigma: Premades hold less value than a custom (debunked above) and therefore should never cost more than a custom cover.
I’ve paid way more for premades than I have customs in many cases, and it was for the reasons above. I want to also mention that you’re not just buying a cover when you buy a premade. The value is a linear result of supply and demand. For high-demand artists with booked schedules, a premade might be your only chance to purchase art from them and often comes with the benefit of being able to schedule sequels with an artist who is not open for custom work otherwise. That exclusivity alone increases the price of a premade. You’re not just buying a cover. You’re buying the rights to commercial usage of the font and the images, you’re buying that artist’s time, you’re buying something no one else can have, and in the case of high-demand artists, you’re buying limited quantity value.

Stock Photo Manipulation

A stock photo manipulated cover means a cover that takes an existing image and manipulates it, combines it with other stock photos and overlaid digital painting in order to make a cover. A stock photo manipulated cover will often use non-exclusive images purchased on stock photo sites available to everyone, which is why manipulation is important to keep your cover unique. In some cases, stock photos are exclusive and the cover will therefore be more expensive.
Stigma: Stock Photography Manipulated Covers are worth less than Illustrations
Why this is wrong in CERTAIN circumstances: Flexibility, Realism, Genre-Needs, and level of manipulation of stock
Flexibility means that an illustration can’t just wildly change once completed. From the concept level, I have no idea if it’s what I want. I need to see the completed cover to say YES or no… I know not all authors have this problem, but that’s how I work. I need an artist who can be flexible. I was amazed when I found an artist who uses DAZ (3D models) and was able to adjust the angle of the model on the image. I was like, holy crap, how did you do that? I had no idea it was a 3D render. It takes skill to use DAZ correctly and make sure the model doesn’t look like a soulless Barbie doll. Again, something else that gives it more value because skill and flexibility is worth money.
Realism: Manipulating an image of a real person will give it a sense of realism that illustrations just don’t have. That’s also where genre comes in. Epic Fantasy does great with illustrations, however paranormal romance may not. Depending on your genre needs, it might be wiser to go with a heavily-manipulated stock photo.
Level of Manipulation: this is vitally important. My general rule is that if the stock is unrecognizable in the final cover, then it is the same value or more value than an original illustration. The only downside I can agree to is you’re held to stock license rules regardless of the level of manipulation. With pure illustration, if you purchased the copyright to that cover, then you have a lot more freedom with what you can do with it.
I do not put value in covers that are copy-paste of a stock photo with maybe a color change and no real painting done. That’s not art. That’s just taking someone else’s art and plopping it onto a cover. I’m not saying it’s bad. This is an effective method for sequels and when you need an affordable, decent-looking cover but you aren’t going to be marketing it and can be a smart, strategic move. However these covers do not have the same value as highly-manipulated covers and artists who do the copy-paste thing are not putting value into themselves.

I know this post is full of opinions and you may not agree with everything, but that’s why I’m being open. Either you know something I don’t know, or we just have to agree to disagree. Either way, it’s an interesting topic that I felt compelled to write about (instead of working on my novel… us writers are really good at finding distractions!)

If you’ve read all the way to the end, I’ll reward you by saying every cover in the banner displayed for this post is a premade I’ve purchased. Some are published and some are soon to be published. I had a story written beforehand for only two of these covers. In the cases of all the rest, the cover inspired the story. You can be the judge of their quality! 

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