Most people judge a book by its cover. It’s the first thing they’ll see, and it should give them a sense of what to expect inside. If you can’t clearly communicate the title and genre with your cover, it’s likely your readers will be disappointed with what they have purchased. Astute readers can easily recognize when a book uses a cover creator with stock footage, which is an easy indicator to weed out authors who don’t invest some money into their book. While I certainly started with these cover creator covers, I’ve made an effort as time goes on to try and commission art for the covers of my books.

A few months ago, I wrote about some of the costs associated with self-publishing a book. One of these costs is hiring an artist to create art for your cover. While this sounds simple, there is a process that you’ll need to follow. Sometimes it’s so exciting to see the art of something you’ve written that you might end up paying for something that might not be what you wanted in the first place. Additionally, just like you don’t want people copying your writing and redistributing it without your permission, be sure you have the correct rights to the artwork you paid for—you might need to pay a little extra to use it for other promotional materials.

Artists are professionals.

I’ve read too many horror stories of some self-published author who tries to guilt an artist into creating art for “the next big thing” for free. This is entirely unprofessional, and as an author, you should think about how you would react to someone wanting to use your writing without compensating you for it. “Exposure” is not a valid form of payment for anyone. As long as you handle yourself in a professional manner, you should get a serious and professional result from your artist. After all, you are paying them for their time and talents. This is also where having your own author website and e-mail address come in handy, as they also show you are serious and professional about your writing. Whatever you do, be sure to ask the artist before using their work! If you’ve found something that already fits what you want, don’t just steal it and give them a call out in your acknowledgments section. Pay them for the rights first.

Each artist will price their work differently, so you might want to shop around a little before committing to anything. Although, if what you want to be done is quite complex, be prepared to pay for it. Color will be more expensive than black and white. Backgrounds can also add cost to a piece. Be sure to factor in taxes for your locale as well. As a point of reference, the sketches that are included in the First Name Basis 10th Anniversary Edition were $30 for the base cost, an additional $15 for a royalty-free license (so I could use them however I wanted), and $3.71 for taxes. That means each sketch actually cost almost $50, and that was just for sketches. For the full-color illustration used for the 10th Anniversary Edition cover, that final cost was just over $400. This is a bit on the expensive side, though, as other cover art I’ve commissioned has cost closer to $100. It truly depends on the artist.


Similarly, while some artists work with full-up contracts, others might be OK with a chain of e-mails describing the agreement’s details. Ultimately, you’ll want to settle on terms before the work is to begin. This includes how many revisions you’re allowed before the artist gives you the final product (and how much it will cost for re-work), due dates for the art, how the art is to be used, the size and resolution of the art, and how much the art will cost. If the artist has done commissions before, they will likely already know how to do this part of the process, so you’ll have to be sure you can answer their questions promptly.

Perhaps the biggest thing you should be prepared for is how to describe what you want the artist to create. As authors, we should excel at descriptions, but don’t let words be your only avenue of communication. Reference images can go a long way in describing how something should look so the artist can have a starting point instead of just using the words you’ve written. If there’s something unique to the object or character you’re having illustrated, be sure to include those details. The better you can communicate the intent of the art you want to be created, the better chance that the rough draft the artist creates will be close to the final product.

This was one of the reference collages I made for the First Name Basis illustrations.

Since I’ve gone through this art commissioning process three times now, here’s how it usually goes…

  • I contact an artist with a style that I think will fit what I’m trying to do, asking if they are available for commissions. Usually, they are available, but sometimes they might already have many commissions from other people that will prevent them from starting something new.
  • We settle on the details of what I want to be done (content, size, price, etc.), and we’ll agree on a contract (if needed). I provide reference materials and description statements for the artist to work off at this stage.
  • Depending on the artist, they’ll usually ask for payment up front. This may be half of the full payment, with the rest paid when the piece is complete, or it may be the full payment up front. Sometimes, they may only ask for payment once the piece is complete, but be prepared to pay the full amount up front anyway.
  • The artist will then create a rough sketch or draft of the final piece for my review. For complicated pieces/busy artists, this may take up to a week. For simpler things, it might be a few days.
  • I review the rough sketch/draft and provide feedback about things that aren’t quite right with my intended vision. Sometimes, I give myself a few hours or a day to mull over this to ensure I don’t immediately accept the first draft because I’m so excited to see the art I had in my mind. This way, I can reduce the amount of rework needed later when the excitement ebbs. This is usually the only time you can change anything, so be sure to be confident that the art is exactly what you want.
  • Using my feedback, the artist will then provide the finished/polished product. If more tweaks are needed, I then pay for rework to be done, usually per hour. If there is still an outstanding balance on the payment to the artist, this is when the remainder is paid off.

All of this, of course, ignores how to find an artist to work with at all. Over the years, the artists I’ve found have either been friends I meet through other shared interests (like church), conventions, or even just perusing the internet. The bottom line is that you need to network with visual artists if you want to have artists to commission for your next project. And while it might be tempting to get a “friends and family” discount from an artist you know personally, consider how often you’d like your friends and family to buy your books at full price.

An additional word of warning comes from an experience my author friend, Joseph D. Slater, had recently. He went to Fiverr to find a cover artist and got an incredible piece that he used for the cover of his latest book, In the Sky. While the cover he got looked great, he did a reverse image search on Amazon and found the cover he paid for used art stolen from someone else. While he had to scramble to find a new cover, he taught us all an important lesson about the dangers of commissioning art over the internet. To be extra sure you’re getting an artist who creates their own work, do your due diligence by checking to see if their style is consistent (via their website or Instagram pages). Additionally, a reverse image search on Google can help turn up any identical images that the “artist” might be trying to pass off as their own.

In the end, art commissioned for your book will help make it eye-catching, which may increase your sales. As long as both you and your artist are professional about the arrangement, the whole process is generally painless.

Here’s a gallery of covers that contain commissioned art:

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