Category: Design


Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Book Cover Design: An Interview with Sara Stratton of Redwood Digital Publishing

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I’ve worked with Sara Stratton on many books, but each time we chat, I learn something new about her craft: the production of beautiful books. When she agreed to let me interview her, I found I was getting pumped just writing my questions!

First question (appropriately) was…

When should authors begin working on cover design?

Sara advises that authors turn their sights to cover design when they are otherwise comfortable with the manuscript. Writing is done. Editing is to the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel stage. The author knows his book inside and—well, not quite out. That’s what the cover designer is for!

When authors try to take on cover design at the same time that they are writing or editing their manuscript, they tend to get overwhelmed. When the author is overwhelmed, the cover designer doesn’t have a firm direction to follow.

And what about the title? Does that have to be nailed down?

The title, Emily says, is very important for your cover designer to work on spacing and layout. Try to turn your title in to your designer as soon as possible.

We diverged from my questions for a moment…

To gab about trends in the publishing industry (specifically, the movement of self-publishing from the “loving hands at home” look to the “hyper-professional, indistinguishable from a traditionally published book” look).

Sara opened my mind to this insight: not only is the publishing world changing, the people who work in publishing are changing how they work. Designers aren’t holed up at traditional publishing firms anymore. They’re out in the world, taking on their own clients, becoming their own bosses, and even seating themselves as CEOs of their own specialty businesses.

Then got back on track with this question:

What’s the downside of NOT working with a professional book cover designer?

For starters, you lose the personal connection that designers invest in you and your book. A professional designer is going to talk deeply about your book with you before they start designing, and they are going to be with you through several revisions. On sites like 99Designs, Fiver, and Upwork, the available artists are just looking for a quick, one-shot commission.

Another thing: people who design books are different from people who design other things. Artistic talent or mad Photoshop skill does not qualify you to make a book cover. Book cover designers need to understand fonts, how to make a spine look right, barcodes…

So how can you tell an expert cover designer from an amateur? What should you look for? 

First off, your designer should ask you some questions. What should readers feel when they pick up your book? What ideas need to jump out? What colors do you fancy?

Next (and for Sara, this was a biggie), the designer needs to have the guts to say “hey, that’s not going to work.” A yes-man isn’t doing his job as a designer. He’s letting the author do his job, and that results in a faulty product.

Finally, you should see some evidence that the designer is doing market research. Sara puts together a design brief of covers from similar bestselling novels on Amazon and shows it to her authors. She uses the covers they like and don’t like to guide her own design process.

Is there one last thing authors should know about cover designers?

This was a great one! Sara wanted to let all you authors out there know, “Even on a budget, there’s always a way to work with a real designer.”

That’s what I call a happily ever after!

To get in touch with Sara Stratton, visit her website or shoot her an email at