So, you want to hire someone to design a cover for your Great American Novel. Here is the first thing you, as the client, need to know:
Communication is key.
After all, that’s what a book cover is; it communicates to readers at a very basic level. The whole process of designing a winning image requires a solid base of communication. This goes two ways, for sure, so make sure that you find a designer that can listen to their client and respond effectively.
Make sure you can effectively communicate what your book is about. This doesn’t only include the blurb for the back of your book. Be prepared to give details, especially character motivations and descriptions and the story’s setting. Know about the genre of your book. Take a moment to look at the covers for other novels similar to yours, or covers you like. If the mood of your work is lighthearted, or sinister, the cover should reflect that, but the designer won’t know what that is unless you tell them. Generally, most artists won’t have time to read the works of all their clients beforehand and will rely on you to tell them everything they need to know.
Typically, designers will be aware of current design trends and will try to put key indicators in the images they create. For example, Romance covers usually have scantily clad men or women embracing or posing seductively. The contrast is high, meaning darker areas are darker than you generally see in day-to-day life, making the highlights (which may or may not be boosted) stand out more. Horror novels will have similar contrast added, but if there’s violence (as opposed to the intrigue of a thriller), you’re likely to see blood or monsters or the hint of such things. Literary fiction tends toward a heavy emphasis on the text, allowing the title and the feel the fonts invoke to provide the visual information. Potential readers will use what they see on your cover to put a label on the contents. People will think “this looks like a lesbian romance story” or “it’s a magical fantasy with dragons” depending on what the cover tells them.
The various genres all have their own cover tropes, although there are most definitely exceptions. Take Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, for example. Beautifully done cover. This is a good example of discarding tropes to a successful end. It’s magic and romance, but more of the kind of cover you see in literary fiction than fantasy.
This leads me to my second point: keep an open mind.
If you go to an artist with a set-in-stone image already in your head, chances are you’re likely to make whoever you hire feel more like a drive-thru window at a fast food joint than a creative professional. If you’ve checked out a portfolio and enjoyed the work you saw (that’s why you hired them, right?), have a little faith that they do know what they’re doing. Give them the information they ask for. If they ask for what you’d like to see in the finished product (as I do), tell them. Give input, but be prepared to take a new direction. I’ve had clients come to me with an idea, but I have an initial concept that’s different from what they have in mind. If you can’t picture what they describe, have them do a mock up (rough example) of their idea. I have no problem doing this, especially when I think the client isn’t quite sold on my take or can’t quite get a picture in their head. Maybe I was having an off day. Sometimes seeing is believing, so give your artist a chance to play with the concept you’ve given them. Your cover should be a collaborative work. Book mills churn out dozens of covers a day, but your control over what they give you is pretty minimal and (from what I’ve seen) not of the highest quality. To sell a book, you need to have a cover that says READ ME. Real artists know what works and what doesn’t. Mock ups illustrate abstract concepts into something you can wrap your head around. If your designer suggests something you’re unsure about, ask for a mock up. You’ll know after you see it if the image will work or not.
In the same vein, don’t be afraid to speak up if you don’t like something. Say you get the mock up and it’s okay, but the girl they’ve chosen for your main character is too young, or her hair is black when it should be blonde. Tell them. Don’t like the font? Is the background color too garish or too subtle? You need to communicate this. After all, you are the one paying for the work, make sure you’re satisfied with what you get.
Art is subjective. Many people love Basquiat’s work, many people don’t. Make sure you are familiar with the artist’s style before you hire them, so you’re not surprised when your commission arrives. Talk to them in advance. Generate ideas before they set about creating your cover. If you have questions, ask them. It’s always better to have more information than not enough.
The only way to get that, is through communication.