Author - Nina Cordoba
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7/7/2016 4:40pm

My Experience Using 99Designs for my Book Cover

Note: This post is not meant to advise you whether to use or not use 99Designs. I'm posting this information because I had not heard any 99Designs user experiences from the members of my writing groups and thought this might be helpful to my fellow writers who have been very generous with their data over the years. I used the service several months ago (Winter 2016).

If you haven't already, you should first read my (relatively) short post about why I chose to use 99Designs even though I'd never felt I needed them before...

I'm waiting...

Okay, so, once I decided, I went to 99Designs and set up an account and a contest. It was fairly painless and that's coming from someone who often has trouble finding the "Sign In" and "Log out" buttons of sites I visit frequently.

In the boxes provided, I gave the title, explained the kind of book I was writing, how I needed something that still felt like it was written by Nina Cordoba, but different from my romantic comedies. And that there had to be something about this cover that could be carried through on the other covers.

I told them I wanted my title featured prominantly--Dead Men Don't Chew Gum--and that I probably wanted to go with a cartoon cover, but I was open to other ideas, too. I gave them links to my website so they could see my current covers and also links to Amazon pages containing funny mysteries and cozy mysteries, so they could get an idea of what was going on in the genre.

One negative about this process: Since the site is not just for book covers, they don't walk you through, asking you specific questions about your story, hero, heroine, etc. You will have to think ahead about what information the graphic artist might need in order to create a cover for your book.

You have options of how much you want to spend on the contest. The lowest award for a book cover contest is $299. I went for the next option, $499, because this is the first book in a series and I wanted more (and maybe better) artists to feel it was worth their while to enter.

I would not have paid this much my first time out of the gate publishing. In fact, previously I paid $15-$250 for my covers (under 2 pen names).

But I have a decent-sized email list now and proven salability, so I was pretty sure I could make my money back soon.

Keep in mind, I had the assurance from 99Designs that I did not have to pay if I didn't end up with a design I was happy with, so it was a no-risk deal for me (although some designers spent time designing for nothing, as I discuss at the end of this post).

I was surprised when contest entries started coming in within hours of setting up. After checking with 99Designs about what I could show here, I've decided to only display the entries in thumbnail for copyright reasons. These covers belong to the artists who made them unless someone buys the rights. If you happen upon designs or styles you like, you should contact the artist through 99Designs.

These were the first two entries:


I was underwhelmed. I questioned whether or not this would be a huge waste of my time for the next few days. However, I realized these artists probably ranged from amateur to professional and may not have ever done a book cover before.

You're supposed to give the entries star ratings (out of five) and you can give notes to the artist. I gave the artists feedback about what I did or didn't like about the designs. Some artists contacted me with questions.

I think on the first one, I said I liked the way the artist varied the font sizes, but it reminded me of a political sign. On the second, I said I liked the font style, but the image was kind of bland.

Then I received an entry from artist KostisPavlou:


This definitely wasn't the cover I needed, BUT it did have something engaging about it. I studied it and figured out I was responding to the bright colors and the movement.

Movement equals dynamic and that was what I was looking for. I thought about items in my book that moved. When I responded to KostisPavlou, I explained that the image didn't fit with my story. However, I liked the dynamic way he styled the font as well as the movement apparent in the image, and that a bright color scheme seemed right for my funny mysteries.

I told the him there was a red pickup truck that was an important clue in the story and the heroine even chases it at one point.

I hoped this artist would try again, but meanwhile, I got more entries:

4. 5. 6. 7.8. 9. 


10. 11.

I thought #6 by Xdmaggy was kind of cool, although the woman on the cover is not like my heroine at all, and #7-8, by FWhitehouse7732 were intriguing, just not right for my subgenre.

I wish I knew who did #10 so I could mention him/her here. I think it's awesome. It just didn't feel right for this series. (If you're the artist, I will gladly update this post if you contact me.)

Meanwhile, I kept getting notifications that I had more entries.

12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 

17. 18.

#12 and #15 are also by the prolific FWhitehouse7732--an artist who has won a lot of these contests and doesn't give up. I actually liked the way several of these designs looked, but they weren't quite right for my book. Again, I replied with specific critique if I possibly could.

Here's the next group that came in:

19.    20.    21.  22. 23. 24.   

I liked 3 of these, but one of them stood out to me as being right for my brand. It was #21 by KostisPavlou. He'd taken the information I gave him from his earlier entry and nearly hit the nail on the head. However, It wasn't quite there yet for me. I asked if he could angle the truck and give it more motion--lines, smoke, something. I also didn't love the shape of the red behind my name. It looked like some sort of weird hat to me. I wasn't crazy about that color of red either, although I liked the red in the truck.

Next time I checked, I had more entries:

25. 26.   27.  28.    

25 was nice. Number 26 left me a bit baffled, although it is pretty creative. #28 was pretty cool with gum stuck in the chalk outline of a man. #27 is from KostisPavlou again. I didn't like the new font my name was in, but I loved what he did with the truck. In general, the entries started getting closer to what I was looking for after everyone saw that I gave Kostis' 2nd entry (the first with the truck on it) 4 stars. Up until then, most had gotten 2 stars and only Kostis' first entry had gotten 3.

I quickly received more entries:

29. 30.  31.  32.   

The competition seemed to be heating up now that the designers had an idea of what I liked. All of these covers had the dynamic font treatment I wanted and the color schemes were interesting. I still liked Kostis' design (#29) the best, but, again, had issues with the top.

33.  34.  35.  36.   

Yet again, I liked KostisPavlou's the best, but the top still wasn't quite right. I asked Kostis to go back to something close to what was originally at the top, but with the darker red behind the author name and the pieces tilted differently. The other "skull" entries (#34-36) by Brightspark are kind of cool, too. 

37.  38.   39.  40.  41.   

Then I got a some odd entries that looked as if someone had taken a picture of a book lying on their coffee table. I wasn't sure what to say to the artists about those, but, the good news was, I wasn't paying per entry. KostisPavlou came through with 2 more options (#39-40) and I felt I had my cover.

Soon after that, some cool new ideas were introduced:

42. 43.    44.   45.  

46.   47. 

I liked #42-44 a lot. They're by Brightspark who had created some covers I liked earlier. However, I didn't think the design would carry over well to the rest of my series. Brightspark did end up winning second place, however, and is clearly a talented designer.

And finally,

48.   49. 

There are a few entries missing because they were taken down right after I rated them, but I ended up with 54 entries in all. I liked seeing all the different options. I never would have come up with such varied ideas on my own or even working with just one designer.

In the end, I had no problem paying the money for the first book cover in my new series. KostisPovlou was nice enough to give me all the Photoshop files for the final cover, which has been released successfully:

My daughter made a print version of the cover, which is easy for her, once she has the ebook version. Then, using this cover as a template and adding images I bought, my daughter made covers for the 2nd and 4th books in the Martin and Owen series:


However, we're having trouble implementing my ideas for the 3rd book cover, so I'm planning to ask KostisPavlou to work on it. You don't have to go through the contest process once you find a designer you like. I don't know for sure what the charge will be. I'll probably have him work on some other covers in the future, too.

The 3 things I think are important in order to have a successful contest at 99Designs:

1. Give the artists the genre, subgenre and as much pertinent information as you can. By "pertinent," I mean aspects of the story that could be depicted visually. In my case, I think the words "funny," "mystery," and "pickup truck" (plus the title) turned out to be the most important words I passed on to artists.

2. Rate honestly, then examine the entries and try to give the best feedback as you can. What specifically is it that you do and don't like about the image, the font, the colors, etc. In my case, telling KostisPavlou I liked the dynamic nature of his cover--the movement depicted in the way the letters were arranged and the image--were helpful to him, as well as coming up with the pickup truck--something from my story he could "make move."

3. Be encouraging to artists who seem talented by pointing out something you like so they'll keep entering new designs in your contest. On the other hand, it's possible that giving too much feeback to a designer who clearly doesn't have the skills or get the concept you're looking for could be wasting his or her time. Giving a 1 star and leaving it alone might be the kinder option in that case.

This brings me to the question about whether 99Designs is good for artists or not. Recently, I googled and found a few mentions of this type of site being bad for designers because they are working on spec. I've given this some thought because I try treat others as I want to be treated.

I think all of us in the arts are in the same boat. There are more people who want to be actors, writers, artists, and singers than there is demand. None of these vocations are "smart" to pursue if you look at the effort involved and the likelihood of success.

When it comes down to it, I write entire novels on speculation, never knowing for certain if they will sell. I'd written and rewritten 5 stories over eight years before I sold 1 book. Now, I'm writing an entire mystery series on spec. No one is forcing me to do it and as far as I know, no one is forcing the aritsts to enter these contests. As with writing, the more engaging art will be more successful and the artist who created it will earn encouragement and more money, while those not yet experienced enough or, perhaps, not capable of putting out the product needed will make little or no money (and maybe decide graphic arts isn't for them). Very similar to being a writer.

But, really, if money is the first priority, we should probably all be CPA's or computer scientists. Bottom line, I can see the argument either way, but the artist who won my contest made more than I normally pay for covers and I'll use him again. He was a perfect match for me and I never would have found him otherwise.

Regarding an argument I saw that people from other countries are allowed to enter the contests and you are paying them instead of Americans, I've never felt Americans have any more right to eat than anyone else in the world. My family came from England and Ireland on one side and Mexico on the other. Readers from countries all over the world are buying the books that I'm buying the covers for. In fact, some of my best (unpaid) promoters are in other countries, but are kind enough to share my posts and tweets. Therefore, I have no problem with my artist being in another country.

However, only you can decide what you're comfortable with.

So, that was my experience. Use the information as you will.

If you have private questions for me, you can contact me through this website.

Good luck with your covers, however they're created!

posted by Nina 4 Comments