Indie Authors: Using 99 Designs to Crowdsource a Cover

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Last year, I published the first book in my series for beginners on how to make ebooks (currently working on the second, which will focus on fixed format, or children’s books). It was my second book, and I had learned a few lessons from when I published my first book.

This time around, I did everything right. Or so I thought. I had beta readers, a strong book description, a pretty credible author bio, at least some semblance of a marketing plan (I’m still learning), and I even ended up creating a companion online course that I could use for cross promotion. As an ebook developer and blogger, I even had the occasional person emailing me asking questions about ebooks. I was set.

Until one reviewer asked, why is the cover so perfunctory?

I admit, it caught me off guard. I had spent a decent chunk of time designing the cover myself, making it look like a happy ereader. I thought it was fun, yet clean and simple. But I took the comment seriously, and told the reviewer I’d look into it. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually have the time or resources to spend on creating a new cover for a while. Over the months, I noticed sales were just barely trickling in. I’m very sure this has to do with the cover, since it’s usually the first thing that grabs people’s attention and makes them want to buy a book.

About two months ago, I stopped freelancing full time and got one of those *gasp* 9-5 jobs (actually mine is 8:30-5:30, but what’s an extra hour?). It was…a huge change, one that I’m still getting used to. I’m continuing my freelance work and writing, though now I just do it on my lunch breaks and before and after work. Someday I may go back to that full time, but for now, this is right.

Anyway, the best part about this new “regular salary” thing is it allowed me to actually spend money on my self publishing ventures. And the first thing I did was invest in a new cover for How to Create Your First Ebook.

I chose to use 99 Designs, mainly because I thought it would be a relatively straight forward process to getting a kick ass cover. I did end up with what I think is an awesome cover, but I did end up investing more of my time than I initially planned.

I want to break down the whole process in this post, in case it’s helpful to anyone else considering going this route.

An Overview of 99 Designs

99 Designs is, according to the website, “a community of 317,688 designers.” These designers create logos, banners, book covers, and more. There are a few packages to choose from, ranging in price from $189 to $599, and covering a wide variety of services. You also have the option to work one-on-one with designers, or hold a contest and choose a winning design.

The Costs of 99 Designs

I ended up choosing the cheapest option for book covers, the Bronze package at $299. Yes, that’s steep for me, but I reasoned that this cover will be used for a series, so I will be able to use the same overall design for at least four books. Break it down, and it’s like I’m only paying $75 per cover. Not bad.

Plus, I was promised ~30 designs and good designers. I opted out of the extra promotions, such as the $99 for a Twitter announcement. I also chose to keep the contest public, partly because that option was free, and partly because I thought it would be a good learning experience. Lastly, I chose to keep the contest at the standard 7 days, instead of paying more for a quicker contest, since I was not in any rush.

Also, although the other options advertised that my design needs would attract even more designers, I figured I could reach out to designers I liked on the site and invite them to enter my contest. I spent about 45 minutes looking through the book covers on the site, and personally messaging the designers who made covers for nonfiction books, in genres similar to mine. To keep things personal, I always included the name of the cover they had worked on that drew my eye. Almost all of them responded, and many ended up entering my contest.

Launching a Contest

The next step was to launch my contest. I wrote the most descriptive title I could think of, Create an eye catching cover for a book series on making books, and gave as many details as I could think of for what I wanted. I had a few things I required, such as the title, subtitle, series name, and my name. But other than that, I decided to keep my design ideas vague. All the designers are very creative, so I figured I’d be pleasantly surprised, and probably happier, with whatever they came up with as opposed to the ideas in my head.

Here is what I came up with:


After I filled out the form, I pressed the button to confirm, confident that I would soon have a great new cover. Then I sent a number of messages to designers, inviting them to my contest.

Having never used 99 Designs before, I thought that was all I needed to do. But that was not the case. There are actually four stages to a 99 Designs contest.

1. Running the Contest: The Qualifying Round

The next morning, I woke up to a pleasant surprise of a few designs already submitted to my contest. There were also a number of questions and requests:

  • Could I guarantee the contest?
  • Could I make the contest blind?
  • Could I please provide feedback?

What? Feedback before I choose a winner?

Turns out, designers often submit multiple designs, each one evolving to meet your needs and expectations. So, the more often you give detailed feedback on what you’re looking for, the more likely you are to end up with a design you really like.

I spent maybe a half hour glancing at the designs and commenting on all of them before heading to work. I also had the option of rating (on a scale of 1 to 5 stars) each design, but I felt at this early stage, I didn’t want to make any rash decisions–plus it felt mean.

My next step was to guarantee the contest, which meant I agreed to actually choose a winner and pay him or her.Being a freelancer myself, I knew it was important to guarantee payment. These designers were clearly skilled, and at least one of them deserved to get paid for their hard work.

As for making the contest blind, since this was my first contest on 99 Designs, I was unfortunately not allowed to make it blind. This created some minor problems, with some designers messaging me to tell me that So-and-So had copied their design. Some designers also posted messages to the contest telling certain designers to stop copying their work.

I even had one designer email me to give me their entries. However, I recommend avoiding this. At the time, I thought it would be fine, and that I could look over the designs, give feedback, and then the designer could submit them to the actual contest. But since this was my first contest, I was not familiar with the rigid deadlines, and even though I really liked this designer’s work, they failed to submit it to the contest on time. And since I had guaranteed the contest, I was committed to choosing a cover from that pool.

2. Running the Contest: Selecting Finalists

The next few days were a little stressful. I’d come home after work to find I had a bunch of new designs from lot of designers (most designers submitted at least 3 new entries each day) and I still needed to give feedback to each one. I spent about a half hour to an hour each night, writing honest comments and trying to come off as constructive and not negative.

Then I started getting requests for ratings. I admit, I was apprehensive at first, because I admired all the designers, and I still think it’s brave to work in such a competitive, open environment.

But by then, I had over 100 designs, and was feeling a little overwhelmed. I decided to start rating, as a way to narrow down my choices. I felt very guilty at first, but then I reminded myself I was paying $299 for the perfect cover.

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Soon, the big deadline to choose 6 finalists came up. Fortunately, I didn’t yet have to narrow it down to 6 designs, just 6 designers. I spent a few hours looking at each entry closely, zooming in to take in the details, and zooming out to make sure it stood out and was readable as a thumbnail (since this is an ebook cover).

Eventually I settled on 6 designers, but I made sure to message or give feedback to everyone. In a few cases, I told the designers I’d like to work with them on future books. Their designs were beautiful, but they just didn’t fit the genre and tone I was going for.

3. Running the Contest: Final Round

Over the next couple days, I spent even more time giving detailed feedback. By this point, I had a better idea of each designer’s style, as well as what I was looking for in a cover. So I made sure to be as specific as possible, to help avoid confusion and make sure we met the deadline.

It ended up being a lot of effort, but it was worth it. I had 7 designs that I was seriously considering, but I was having trouble moving forward. So I decided to use 99 Design’s polling feature.

I chose the 7 designs that I liked, and then shared the link with a few ebook and self-publishing groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, as well as my Twitter followers. I promised to send a free copy of the book with the new cover if they participated. (Note to readers who I made this promise to: I will be sending it out soon.)

There were 20 responses, and some people chose to remain anonymous. But in addition to votes and ratings, I got some really great comments that helped me narrow down my choices to 2 designs (and 2 designers). I barely made the deadline though.

4. Running the Contest: Selecting a Winner

Now I had about 2 weeks to mull over the 2 designs I liked before selecting a winner. After more than a week of thinking it over and still not being able to decide, I created another poll. This time I sent the link to family and friends, and my email subscriber list.

I probably did not leave enough time for people to vote, so I only ended up with 15 responses. But, it was still very helpful.

I ended up agreeing with the consensus and chose my winning cover, created by Arbër, a highly skilled designer. 

Here you can see the old cover and Arbër’s winning design:


You may notice that the winning design is not the actual new cover of the book. The cover looks like this:


Arbër and I spent a few days going back and forth and tweaking the winning design. Although there were some disagreements (Arbër really liked the robot, and though I thought it was cute, I didn’t think it was a good fit for this cover), we worked really well together. And I am very happy with the result.

99 Designs: The Wrap-up

Below are the final stats from my contest:

  • 174 entries
  • 32 designers
  • 13 watchers (people who are keeping tabs on the contest)
  • 2 polls

Though it ended up taking more effort than I thought it would, I feel really good about my new cover, and I’m glad I went through the process. I may use 99 Designs again for future books, but I may also experiment with other services.

What do you think? Have you tried out 99 Designs? Or do you have recommendations for other places to get awesome book covers? Please share in the comments!


5 Replies to “Indie Authors: Using 99 Designs to Crowdsource a Cover”

  1. Wow! Thanks! Perfect timing for me as I’m editing my first full-length book now. I thought I would design a cover myself, but this is a great option to explore.

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