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Design Cents: Publication Graphic Design & Marketing For Indie Authors

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Nothin' like salt water, a nice breeze and good company

Nothin’ like salt water, a nice breeze and good company

I’ve seen over 30 years of experience in the trenches of small business marketing, design and media.  Through the range of situations I’ve encountered and projects I’ve contributed to, I’ve also come to see marketing success as a process rather than a lofty, distant pinnacle.  To implement that approach, I’ve provided cost effective communications tools, identification, point of sale and reference materials for a variety of clients.  I’ve also extended marketing strategy support, product launch, publicity and planning consultation services.

Over this time, I’ve concentrated on serving the distinct needs of smaller businesses as well as larger operations.  My clients have ranged from national corporations to “mom & pop” retailers — from high tech to “no tech”, but all of them have found my work to be clear in concept, clean in execution and effective in communicating their message. Since my retirement, I’ve decided to limit my design work to those supportive services and design projects that serve the publishing industry and especially Indie Authors.

Special Note: You won’t find one of those slick, “professional” headshots of me wearing a tie and jacket within these pages. When I retired from the Ad Biz, I left the need for such things behind. The savings of not having to buy new suits every time I get a new client or a new tie for every meeting, will be passed along to my clients in the form of better value for their money.                                                   Richard Sutton

 Why Graphic Design?

First things, first. Do you need a designer for your book cover? You’ll have to be the judge as the answer is more complicated that you might think. First of all, designers, illustrators and photographers are three different job descriptions. Most authors and small publishers, looking to minimize their out-of-pocket, usually hope that one person can do it all at the best price possible. That’s an admirable goal, and once in a while, it is actually possible, but given the wide growth of genre fiction, many book niches almost require an illustrated cover — as in, a drawn picture as opposed to a photographic cover. The maturing of computer animation and illustration as primarily an outgrowth of the ever expanding gaming industry, provides a very large bank of highly skilled illustrators. However, be aware that the most efficient use of their time, determined by the paycheck, isn’t going to be book cover illustrations. As a result, unless you are a small genre press with an illustrator on staff, you’re probably going to have a serious task ahead of you finding one that can do the work you need, when you need it, at a price you can afford. And that’s just the illustration. It’s one component of an effective cover design, but not the only consideration. Many buyers of illustration are surprised when they find out that the illustrator really isn’t all that well-versed in the intricacies of book cover design, or production of screen viewed graphics rather than graphics for print. They are usually not as skilled in working with typography and gathering other elements, such as photographic images, into the composite complete package that meets all production requirements as well as the requirements of the marketing.

It’s not really their fault, it isn’t their job description except when the friend of a friend needs a book cover.  Part of the problem seems to lie with Indie Authors, who just want a (insert adjective here: compelling, pretty, sexy, etc. ) picture on the cover of their book, fast and at the right price. It’s a very, very hard goal to achieve without compromise, and the business of exactly what a book cover is supposed to do makes compromise very tricky unless there is someone working on the project who can keep a clear idea of just what it is this thing is supposed to accomplish. That’s where designers like me come in. Creating complete projects for the purpose of marketing products in specific niche markets is the focus of our training and experience. For this exercise, remember that your just completed, honed and polished book is a consumer product.  Your book cover is the packaging that should be designed to sell that product in the environment it will be seen in. To do that, it has to stand out from the crowd around it, but also it has to grab the attention of the potential reader and direct some kind of action from them. For the money you will spend, it’s critical that it does all those jobs, properly.  For those who want to go right to my Free Book Cover Design Questionanaire, here’s the link:

For those who want a bit more understanding of the general concepts behind marketing a product and maybe a bit about the design process itself, there are several articles available below. Many of these were originally written for my regular column on the Publetariat website writing as The Indie Curmudgeon a few years ago, but the core principals have not changed.


Small Business Marketing:

 Why Authors Need To Know This Stuff…

Since 1971, I’ve worked as an illustrator,  production artist, graphic designer and conceptual consultant.   My clients, while varied, have always received carefully considered individually crafted solutions.  I don’t believe that “package” design approaches  offer anything beyond a lower cost.  Since marketing costs are becoming  a much larger share of operating expenses —  reducing margins of profitability,  it’s clear that smaller businesses, such as Independent Authors or Small Press Publishers, must wring the highest degree of effectiveness  from their marketing and advertising.

In order to stay profitable, all businesses — large or small — must seek  the course of least resistance in marketing their products or services.   Quite often, I’ve found that the most obvious choice is the most effective  — for the largest number of  prospects.  Establishing a hierarchy  of priority in marketing might set the obvious, higher-margin offering as the most easily accessible.  This leaves a small business free to plan  a more customer service intensive approach for more complicated or lower margin offerings.  In this way, a small business is able to offer a prospect more individualized service on more complex transactions while simple transactions  progress smoothly — creating, from a customer’s point of view, a perfect relationship.  This is the primary way a small business can have more to offer than their larger, better capitalized competition.

The evolution of internet communications and social media has provided small businesses with  a venue for additional market exposure, prospect/customer support, and message  reinforcement.  Small businesses have found marketing through the internet to be a rich technique to achieve a more level playing field with their larger  competitors. I’ve worked adapting my marketing and design approaches to this  new medium since 1995.  The sites that I have designed and created content  for have been proven effective tools for their owners.

In my online work, I create platform-independent sites with the right balance of features and content to reach targeted potential customers quickly and easily.  My site design philosophy involves distilling the goals of the client into specific content and uncluttered presentation while considering the time and attention of the prospective online customer or contact. Most adult internet users find that over use of “techie” bells and whistles often actually cloud the effective communication of a site’s marketing message.  Since I  don’t design entertainment sites, I’m free to concentrate on the message my client needs to communicate, not on trying to stay trendy for its own sake. Making minor adjustments to campaigns to utilize trending concepts is much easier once the campaign is designed around solid marketing principals.

I also believe that creating the proper environment for a majority of potential  and existing customers online is as important as it is in a small retail establishment.  Too much distraction, and the prospect may lose their focus.  This makes “browsers” out of customers.  The most efficient kind of online environment establishes a straight-forward concept, with easily accessed products or information presented in a clear, pleasing format un-compromised by bandwidth-robbing “content” that has little to do with creating a sale.

There is a distinct, mental adjustment which easily brings writers into the fold of marketing. Writers who wish to publish must embrance the notion that once ready for the target reader marketplace, your book is now a consumer product. Consumer products all have specific steps which, in their particular niche, have been shown to connect with buyers. Substituting the word readers for words like buyers, customers and sales will prove just how much you already know about consumer marketing. After all, you are one. It’s not rocket science if you’re not trying to establish a gravity escape velocity. We’re just selling books, and what it takes at the simplest, is defining exactly who your readers are and uncovering all the ways you can connect with the kinds of ideas, issues and even things, that motivate them.

As we continue, we’ll discuss ideas that can benefit all small-business owners as well as authors. Changing the target’s name doesn’t change the target, but it might change the way you think about it. New posts will be added as they are ready, including some older ones, re-edited for the special needs of Indies. Your comments, as always are greatly appreciated, as are your specific questions about design and marketing.

pencilbulletRequired Reading:

A Project Checklist for Every Project…

Publishing a book for the consumer market can easily get the best of anyone. Writers who tackle this job often find themselves reduced to prayer and supplication to complete even a small part of the process. There are so many variables and details that the writer find fall outside their normal range of skills it can be disconcerting.

But, don’t beat yourself up about it. It can be disconcerting to even industry professionals with years of experience and brilliant portfolios. Many things in both the marketing sphere and in the graphics world are still shifting very quickly. Sometimes these variables change while the ball is still in play. As both consumer acceptance and technology itself remain in constant flux, hitting a target moving in several dimensions at once is not for the faint of heart. However, there are many things that the writer can nail down before they need to find outside services to complete the project. One of the most important of these is your mental “set” as to how you are approaching the design and marketing of this “product”.

One of the most important lessons I learned in many years of advertising design trench warfare is that timing is a front line player, not an also-ran to be considered “eventually”. You need to address the timing issues at the very beginning of your formulation of a marketing plan. It is equally important to how narrow your market target has been honed, particularly as how it can affect your pocket book. To that end, I am providing my simple project checklist. It works in every single case, as I discovered through missing the mark quite often until I began taking it to heart.

The bottom line in marketing: Pick any two.

The bottom line in marketing: Pick any two.


Apply this simple filter at the beginning of each marketing and design/graphics project and you won’t just eliminate a lot of disappointment. This will get your thinking rebooted to a point where you realize you are dealing with significant, nuts and bolts stuff, not just the often ethereal ideas of making a pitch effective, a synopsis that can do some real selling, how to attract word of mouth to keep the ball rolling, etc.

Putting a book out requires lots of different sets of skills. Whether you do it with your own hands, or hire more skilled ones, it all comes down to getting a solid handle on exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve. My little checklist has helped me and my guess is that it will help you, too.



pencilbullet Additional Articles & Resources…


Author, Representative or Publisher Name
Author Pen Name (if used)
If this inquiry is for a book written using a pen name, please indicate the pen name here.
We will need an email address to confidentially communicate our report to you. This will be securely protected and never shown or sold to anyone.
Book Title
Approximate Word Count ?
Please enter an approximate word count for your book.
Book Release Format
Select any that apply to this project
Who will be producing the print version of this project? ?
The production techniques used in producing a print book vary and they affect our evaluation.
What is/are your project's genres? ?
Genre identification is critical to proper niche marketing and affects the design process.
Will your book be sold in bricks and mortar bookstores? ?
Seller information is a critical component in book cover design. Please provide your best guess if unsure.
If your book will be sold through online book sellers, please list those you expect will be carrying your title.
What is/are the gender and age of your target readers? ?
Target reader age and gender are important considerations in designing an effective book cover. Please provide your best guess if this is not yet known.
Do your target readers have any specific general interests or dislikes you are aware of? ?
This helps us refine our considerations of your intended target.
Do you have your own ideas for a cover design or elements you feel need to be included? Please list them here: ?
Please enter your suggestions, separated by commas or semicolons.
Have you already created a cover design or preliminary design?
Are you interested in refining or re-working and existing design for both online and print promotion?
Would you prefer just comments and suggestions on an existing cover design (Free)?

  1. Dear Richard, I’m so thrilled you offer this service! As I’ve mentioned online at HFAC forum, I’d like to provide readers and website visitors seeking more information about my Sultana series with a map of Spain. Thanks!

  2. Richard,

    Thanks for the superb covers you’ve created during the time we’ve collaborated. You’ve proved to be a master in presenting the essential aspects of design and artwork; creative, reliable and perceptive attracting the attention and motivating each potential fan to take the book from the shelf to the checkout.

    What more could a writer ask for?

    Many thanks

    • Thanks, Bob. You’re very generous. The whole thing is a process, with a bit of direction upfront. I’ve enjoyed every project we’ve shared and look forward to future collaborations.

  3. I am very pleased with the book covers for my two novels. Richard Sutton did a great job and was easy to work with.

  4. Richard, I was delighted with both of the covers you produced for my books. I had clear ideas about what I wanted, and you gave those a professional polish well beyond my own vision. You have been a pleasure to work with, and I haven’t hesitated to recommend your work to any authors who are looking for a really superior cover designer to help them present their books as effectively as possible.

    Thank you for helping me to produce books I am proud of.

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