It can never hurt to look for tips about using a website for the first time. I do this almost obsessively, and most of the time it saves me money, time, and a good number of mistakes.

You have to wear a lot of hats as a writer. Book agent, marketing team, and sales coach. Editor, even (please hire an editor if at all possible. But that’s a separate rant). Remember when you feel overwhelmed during this process that you’re not alone.

It’s okay to get an artist or professional to help you with the parts of self-publishing that you aren’t comfortable doing yourself. Just make sure you do the research to know when someone is taking advantage of you – if an offer sounds too good to be true, it may be. And just because something is more expensive, doesn’t mean the service is better than someone who charges less.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest – here’s what I learned after using a 99designs contest for my own book cover design.


The Best Bang for Your Buck

It’s riskier, but not impossible to get a good quality design for their lowest tier, called “bronze” level. I debated for a long time, and then decided to choose the bronze level myself for an ebook and paperback cover, which came out to about $449 total. It worked out well for me, but I have to admit, out of the almost 90 different variations and designs I got, at least half of them were truly awful and not worth a second glance. Maybe even two-thirds.

It’s a trade off when you choose the cheapest package. The pricing will definitely affect the quality of artists you attract. The money you pay goes in a lump sum to the winning artist, so, it makes sense that paying more means that artists who charge more hourly for their services will look for a higher payout, and take more time on your project.

Once you launch a contest, wait a day or two to see what kind of interest you attract before investing more money in extra advertising. The best artists often submit their designs after a few days because they take longer to work on their ideas. Also keep in mind that 99designs wants you to be happy. If you’re at the eleventh hour, and then your contest ends, and you don’t see anything you like, you don’t have to choose any finalists. With their money back guarantee you can explore other options, even with another company entirely.

More Tips and Tricks

When Creating Your Contest, Consider Making it Blind

Heard of a blind contest? It’s easy to miss on their website. Only indicated by a tiny icon, you’ll find on many posted contests and it looks like a closed eye. If you don’t know to look for it then it’s almost impossible to find when you’re just getting to know the website.

If you don’t know what a blind contest is, you should. I found it extremely useful. 99designs will not automatically give you the option of making your first contest blind – nothing to click on or choose – unless you ASK THEM. It literally takes 30 seconds to click on the chat window once your contest is set up, and they will add it for you.

Why is a blind contest helpful?

It’s a free way to get better artists. Making a contest blind means that the artists cannot see the submissions that anyone makes until after the submission phase is over. Why does that matter? Because, like it or not, artists are influenced by one another. And sadly, they can also steal other people’s work in progress, which leads to less creativity and less variety for your contest. I had a few artists contact me when I set up my contest, and request it, otherwise they would not enter a submission for fear of their hard work being stolen.

Why a blind contest may not be right for you

You need to give more feedback to the artists. Once you choose to make it a blind contest you cannot change it back. If the artists can’t see the other designs, they also can’t see how you’re rating anyone, so, they don’t know how they compare at all unless you leave detailed comments.

If you know what you’re looking for in a design (a tree-house with a rope hanging out the window, and a red ball on the ground) it may be good to have the artists see what the other submissions look like, and adjust their work to look similar to the designs you’ve rated highly. It’s less creative and unique, but if you have a very specific vision, then maybe a blind contest isn’t the right kind of contest for you.

For me, a blind contest was instrumental in getting a wider range of designs from artists who could be confident that their ideas would stay their own.

Don’t Launch Your Contest During a Weekend

I did it on a Friday afternoon. Oops. It was pointed out to me by the 99designs customer service team- they’re great, by the way, that they notice significantly fewer artists check on contests over the weekends. If you’re not in a particular hurry to get things done, wait until Monday to post your contest in order to get the maximum visibility.

Also, the 99design customer service team is not available at all on weekends. If you make a mistake with a post or have questions, and you set everything up over the weekend, you won’t have help until Monday to fix things. I say this from personal experience. Make your life easier and launch your contest during the beginning of the week.

Schedule Plenty of Time To Respond with Comments

A quick follow up to not launching during a weekend: keep in mind that it will take quite a lot of time to respond with feedback and comments. Launch a contest when you know you will have the time and be accessible to the artists who have questions or need clarification on your requirements. Be available. The quality of the work you receive will reflect how much time and energy you invest in the contest.

Also, a specific tip – when you get a design submission, click on the actual thumbnail until you see an orange dot appear. You can click specific parts of the design to comment on something you like or dislike. I realized that far too late, and found it quite useful, especially when some of the artists have less than fluent English.

Keep a Close Eye on the Stock Images Artists Use

When you set up a contest, you have the option of providing an insane amount of detail and guidance for what you want on your book cover. And that’s great. The more detail, the better.

One of the selections has to do with stock images. As your research on cover design may have revealed, some stock images are free to use or public domain, while others come with a wide range of fees. You can specify that you would like only free images used, or give permission for artists to use stock images where licenses would need to be purchased when you choose their winning design – yes, this would be an additional cost to what you’ve already paid.

Now, no system is perfect. 99designs doesn’t have the time to verify where stock images come from when artists use them. Can you imagine how long that would take? So instead, artists post a little emblem next to their designs with links to their sources. The text usually reads something like ‘image 1 is free’ or ‘image 1 requires purchase’. Even if you specify that you don’t want to pay for stock images, some artists will still use stock images that cost money, and sometimes they get mislabeled.

Don’t blindly trust the artwork, double check it and click on all the stock image links if you like the design. Trust me, this happened in my contest, and could easily happen in yours. Artists can accidentally, or knowingly use images from unreliable sources or without permission of the original artist. And that opens up a whole can of worms that no one should have to deal with.


Have all your information together for a paperback book?

Remember, if you’re doing a paperback book cover design, you need to know how many pages the book will be once it’s formatted, within about 10 pages. Otherwise, the cover will come out stretched and look strange.

You should also have an isbn, and a price for your paperback book, as it goes on the back and the artist will put it all together for you.

What about your back cover blurb? Using a quote from your book? Your author bio? Remember to have it polished, primed and ready to go!

Is the book part of a series? The spine of the book will look better if you pull it together with the other books you have written, or if it’s your first, design it with others in mind so it looks cohesive and together.

Promotions That 99designs Offers

Sign up for their emails if you’re doing research. They send you promotions that change about every week or so, some better than others. When I signed up, I was in a hurry and chose the first promotion they sent me, which elevated my listing so that more artists would see the contest (something like a $79 value). Then I ended up paying about $20 to be mentioned on their blog for more views since I knew my bronze level contest wouldn’t attract tons of attention.

To thank me after my contest ended, 99designs sent a referral code that I could share with friends and fellow authors that gives them a $99 powerpack boost to their contests – in plain English? That means an elevated listing plus a mention on their blog, all included instead of additional charges. It’s a better deal than I got at the time, so, enjoy the savings. Some of their promotions seem better than others, and this one will give your contest a higher place among other contests, and their blog reaches a lot of people. Both of these benefits will allow artists to find you more easily. More options are always good.

Note: links may be affiliated with 99designs or other companies, and it supports the author and artists to use them.

Would I Use 99designs Again?

Like Upwork, 99designs is a useful tool for when you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. In my opinion, paying for peace of mind and using a third party guarantee has immense value when publishing my first book. It’s also a safe environment to build trust between clients and customers – or authors and artists, in this case.

You don’t have to do a design contest to work with a 99designs artist!!

There, I said it. They don’t really advertise this, but, the website is primarily a network, after all! If you want to take the extra time to look through portfolios and contact someone about a book cover design to try and negotiate a lower price, go for it.

I also like that you can view past contests and the artist portfolios without signing up for anything at all. It’s a good idea to see what contests and artists have done in the past. Read through other author’s contest briefs to get ideas on what to say about your own project – you’ll get to see if they shared enough, or too much information, by the submissions they received.

Go to their website and click ‘discover’ to explore on your own and get ideas – you can even narrow down the filters until you get to just book cover designs. I don’t know if 99designs still does a 100% guarantees you’ll be happy if you do a one-on-one project with a specific artist, but ask, I’m sure they’ll be helpful.

For me, 99designs is a stepping stool. And I intend to use it for that purpose. It’s educational. It’s a way to connect with an artist and establish a working relationship so that for the next book I publish, I will already have an artist or two in mind. I’ve made those contacts and trust they know my style and taste. That’s a real time saver, and a future money saver now that I know they’re reliable.

Once that trust is there, you don’t necessarily need the hand holding anymore. But the value of a safe space like a contest is a real, measured way of creating a reasonable and enforced deadline in order to create some beautiful, impressive covers.