fantasy book cover designer J. L. Wilson Designs

That’s a really good question, and one that a lot of authors don’t yet know to ask. Unfortunately, this isn’t the type of thing an author can determine just by looking at the cover.

Sure, you could ask your designer to see proof of licensing for the assets used in the work, and ethical designers can provide you with this and let you know where assets were licensed from. They could show you screenshots of a cover in progress to allay your fears. You could even do reverse image searches on a cover to see if anything concerning comes up.

That said, depending on the designer, a single design may use dozens of minor assets, some which may have been accrued over years from a variety of places, and there is technically no way for you to know if a designer has divulged each asset used in a design. On top of this, it can take quite a bit of time for a designer to collect and provide proof of licensing for each and every asset, and many book covers are not priced at a cost that makes this especially practical.

How do I protect myself then?

Honestly, in the end, you can check as much as you can, but you really do have to place a certain amount of trust in your designer that they are operating their business in an ethical (or at least legal) manner. And the best way to do this is to always choose to work with designers who demonstrate this in their business already.


Choose a designer with a good reputation, both among authors and among other designers. Find one who has invested time and money into their business (e.g. by creating and paying to host a website, following time-consuming legal requirements like having terms and conditions or privacy policies) and who treats their business professionally.


Because these are the designers that have more to lose if they were to be discovered using unlicensed assets or stealing someone else's artwork. And they're the ones who have already demonstrated at least a certain degree of professionalism in how they've conducted their business so far.

And most importantly of all:

Choose a designer that has a clear contract that protects you. A contract that includes specific important statements about the assets used in the work, and which describes any licensing restrictions, the licensing rights you are purchasing, and the rights that remain with them. (This is why you have to agree to certain terms and conditions when you work with me. It’s for your protection and for mine in the case that you provide assets for me to use in your art).

What kind of statements should a contract include?

You gain as much protection as you can by signing a contract that stipulates the following:

  • The designer uses assets that, to the best of their knowledge and ability, do not infringe upon the rights of any party in the use conditioned by the terms and conditions of the contract (i.e. the assets are legally-sourced for the uses they are purchased for)
  • The author must use the art in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contract or the above is void (i.e. if the author uses the art for a purpose that is not permitted in the contract, the designer is not responsible for their using copyrighted work illegally)
  • Proof of licensing for any assets used in the final design is available to the author upon request (i.e. the designer isn’t afraid to provide the author proof that all assets used in a final design have been licensed correctly for their use in accordance with the contract)

I include all of these statements in my contract. And while I know contracts can be intimidating, and this makes a lot of designers and authors avoid them, I really can’t recommend highly enough purchasing from designers with contracts that protect you.

It’s the least a designer can do to put your mind at ease, and it clarifies expectations for everyone regarding what exactly the author is purchasing.

For example:

  • Are you just purchasing a license to sell e-books? Print and e-book?
  • Can you sell non-book commercial merchandise with the art?
  • Is there a limit to how many physical books can be sold using this art? (This is common for certain stock photos or even fonts if the designer licenses the font from certain locations.)
  • Can the author modify the design to create ads and marketing materials?

These are all questions as an author you need to know the answer to.

A good contract answers these questions clearly. And a good designer can and will happily answer any of these questions for an author who is considering one of their covers.

*Note: I am not a lawyer. Please do not take this as legal advice. I'm just a nice person trying to share some knowledge.

Want to learn more? Sign up to my e-mail list here. In addition to getting early access to new premade covers before anyone else and periodic exclusive discounts, you’ll also get concise, detailed information about what makes a book cover good at its job and how to ensure the book cover you get is one that will put your book into the hands of the right readers.

If you’re new to purchasing covers, you may not realize just how many different ways there are to make a book cover. Far too many to even try to list. For example, some designers draw and paint a cover from scratch (illustration). Some designers take stock photos and use digital software like Photoshop to combine and manipulate them into a cover (photomanipulation). Still others manipulate 3d modeled assets in 3d software to create 2d images which they then manipulate, adjust, and paint in software like Photoshop (3d art).

There are a lot of other methods as well (trust me this is an oversimplification), but these are roughly-speaking the three most commonly used techniques in the genres I specialize in. Each of these approaches to cover design has its own advantages and disadvantages depending on your genre, budget, and needs, so if this is your first time purchasing cover art, it helps to know the advantages and limitations of each before you choose which type of cover art to purchase.

What are some advantages and disadvantages to illustrated book covers?

Illustration is completely customizable (depending on the illustrator's skill), but it often takes the most time of the three approaches discussed here and cannot be as easily or as quickly adjusted at later stages in the process once much of the detail work has been done. It also tends to be the most expensive of the three methods and it may not be affordable or even be possible to purchase the rights to sell commercial merchandise beyond books (e.g. t-shirts, notebooks, mugs) with the artwork.

And of course, your genre may not lend itself to a more illustrated look (e.g. historical romance), in which case having your cover illustrated could harm your sales in the same way that using a photorealistic cover in a genre that often uses more painted covers could harm your sales (e.g. middle grade fantasy).

Lastly, unlike photomanipulation and 3d art, where the basic quality of a character is dependent on the stock photo or the 3d asset (with the designer being responsible for how well they take advantage of and incorporate the photo/asset), the quality of the character itself in illustration is entirely dependent on the illustrator’s skill level, and well… anatomy is hard. As is digital painting in general. There’s a reason illustration costs the most, and it’s because illustrators have spent a lot of time learning a lot of difficult skills, all of which are required to create an illustration that works well. If you want a good illustration, you'll be paying for those skills.

And you'll want to be certain before you begin that the illustrator you choose has a lot of examples in their portfolio which match the exact style you want. While some illustrators can mimic other styles, I never recommend purchasing a style from an illustrator that you don't see in their portfolio already. Many illustrators do not have the skill, and if the style doesn't turn out the way you wanted, you'll be out of a lot of money.

Is an illustrated book cover right for me?

In the end, this may be the right path for you depending on what you need, but you'll need to be sure you have the budget. While you may get lucky and find a brilliantly-talented illustrator just starting out who's happy to do your cover for a much smaller price than you expect, be aware that if they really are that talented, you may want to get all your series covers done at once. Don't expect talented illustrators to remain at a cheap price point for long.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of photomanipulated book covers?

Photomanipulation is usually less expensive than illustration and can give you great photorealistic faces which are important for some genres, but you’re restricted by the quality and availability of stock photos. For instance, it can be harder to find specialized stock photos (e.g. particular poses/hairstyles/clothing/character details like skin or hairstyle) or stock photos with the needed angles or lighting for the other stock photos you’re combining them with. You just can't turn the face on a stock photo to look more at the viewer for example.

For this reason, the best quality stock photos may appear in other book covers, and the uniqueness of your cover will depend greatly on the skill of the designer to manipulate stock well enough to avoid this similarity or on a designer purchasing more expensive stock which isn’t used as often (which then increases the overall cost of the cover).

Additionally, stock photos come with specific restrictions that require the purchase of extended licenses for any stock photos used in a cover to sell commercial merchandise beyond books (e.g. t-shirts, mugs, notebooks). These extended licenses often cost $50-$150 USD per photo and some photomanipulated covers can involve 5-10 stock photos. For many authors, this cost (in addition to any cost the designer may charge) will remove the possibility of selling commercial merchandise (and therefore introducing additional income streams) from the table.

And of course, if you’re doing a series of covers, you may not always be able to find additional images of the model used for the first cover unless you choose from a smaller subset of photos which have enough poses of the same model. And these are of course, the most used stock photos.

Is a photomanipulated book cover right for me?

This may be the right option for you if your genre requires photorealistic covers (e.g. contemporary romance). Try to go with a designer whose portfolio you like and who manipulates more than a single image. That can help cut down on the most obvious similarities with other covers. Even still, don't be surprised when you see other covers using the same stock photo. It's just part of getting a photomanipulated cover. If you don't pay a rather hefty chunk of cash to get an exclusive stock photo, other people can use it in on their covers. While most readers in certain genres won't notice it (especially if your designer avoids the most overused photos), this may be more of an issue if you're in a genre with underserved stock photo needs. This is not an uncommon issue if you have very specific stock photo needs or if you're looking for minorities unfortunately.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of book covers made with 3d art?

3D art falls somewhere between photomanipulation and illustration. Because 3d models are used, there is a greater amount of available customization (e.g. poses, clothing, hairstyles, face/body shapes, relevant props) compared to photomanipulation. Since the models are not created from scratch each time, but are instead simply customized to look different than the base models and more like your characters, it usually takes less time than pure illustration (which means it can cost less, especially for repeat characters), and it’s possible for authors to see a more fully-realized main character much earlier in the process at a point where they can still easily make major changes to clothing, pose, face shape, or hairstyle without necessarily delaying the final cover’s completion significantly.

And since no stock photos must be used, it is possible (depending on what assets the designer uses and if the designer is willing) to let authors purchase a license to sell commercial merchandise beyond just books for a fee that benefits both the author (who gets the opportunity for several new income streams from merchandise) and the designer (who can earn a bit more for their own work without additional effort).

The biggest limitation to 3d art currently is the designer’s skill level at utilizing the models to their best ability and the quality of the model faces in their library (or the content of their library in general). If you’ve ever noticed characters on book covers that look “plastic” or have “dead eyes”, these are examples of either a designer that isn’t quite skilled enough yet in lighting, skin textures, or digital painting to avoid this or is using lower-quality 3d models.

If you decide to have your cover done with 3d art, your best bet is to look through a designer’s portfolio of work and judge the quality of the characters you see on the cover. (Assume that the quality you see in the majority of the covers is the quality you will get. Ignore outliers.). This can help put your mind at ease before booking a designer to create your cover with 3d art.

Furthermore, if your designer is using 3d models and you’re unhappy with the quality of the model’s face, you can always request the designer make additional adjustments or simply use a stock photo face. This may raise the price of the cover slightly for some designers (though not all), and/or it may require you pay for an extended license to use the created art for commercial merchandise, but as long as you’re comfortable with these adjustments, face swaps are always an option.

Is a book cover made with 3d art right for me?

This may be the right option for you if you have very specific needs that are hard to find in photos (dragons, anyone?), you want more customization, and your genre permits a more painted or illustrated look. Because 3d art isn't dependent on a stock photo, you have much more immediate control over the clothing, the pose, the hairstyle, the skin color, the lighting, the angle, and all of these things that may simply not be possible if you have to use a stock photo. You can also often get the rights to sell commercial merchandise more easily/cheaply than with photomanipulation and it costs less than illustration.

How do I choose the right book cover?

All in all, each of the approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses, and in the hands of a great designer, the weaknesses of each approach are minimized while the strengths are highlighted. Some designers have more than one of these skills and may draw from each basket depending on what the cover needs, so it really depends on what your goals for your cover are.

  • If you’re not interested in selling commercial merchandise beyond books and you have the budget, any approach can work brilliantly for you. Choose the one that most closely matches what the successful covers in your genre are doing.
  • If you have less budget, you may want to choose either photomanipulation or 3d art, depending on your genre.
  • If you want more customized characters, creatures, wardrobes, settings or props, you may want to choose either illustration or 3d art.
  • And if selling commercial merchandise beyond books is important to you, you may want to choose 3d art (or go in with a bigger budget so you can purchase either an additional license from the illustrator or extended licenses for stock photos used in a photomanipulation).

How do you make your covers, Jenny?

I actually do mostly 3d art (3d model manipulation+Photoshop) with a nice dose of digital overpainting/illustration. Basically, I have a library of 3d models and assets that I can manipulate in an endless number of ways to create the exact character, pose, outfit, props, and look we want for a book cover.

For example, I can adjust extremely specific details of the face and body, and apply different types of skin textures, hair styles/colors, articles of clothing, clothing textures, and props. I can create a variety of backgrounds and then pose any of the models I’ve customized in a limitless variety of poses (from any angle) before applying different lighting effects to make the whole image really pop. And that’s just the initial render! (Renders are still images created by the 3d software based on the camera angle used to capture the image of a customized scene/character pose.)

Once the renders are created, I use Photoshop to do a fair bit of digital overpainting/illustration to create whatever the specific look is that we’re going for (e.g. a more photorealistic look, a more airbrushed look, a more painted look). At this stage, I can then add in a variety of magical and color effects, composite several different rendered images together so that they blend into a single cohesive image, and create a stunning title treatment complete with text effects to add that extra oomph to the final cover. And that’s my general process. If you look at the J. L. Wilson Designs Shop, you can see examples of my work, or you can join my facebook group to see more of the "behind the scenes".

Want to learn more? Sign up to my e-mail list here. In addition to getting early access to new premade covers before anyone else and periodic exclusive discounts, you’ll also get concise, detailed information about what makes a book cover good at its job and how to ensure the book cover you get is one that will put your book into the hands of the right readers.

The #1 mistake authors make when choosing a book cover

Authors write brilliantly-complex, nuanced stories every day. They take life and somehow distill it down into these wonderful book-size adventures just waiting to be picked up by the right reader and lived in for a bit. It’s magical. And any writer can tell you just how firmly stories can get tangled around your heart, especially when the story is one you yourself have written. 

This is what makes it especially hard for an author to step away from all the beautiful complexities they so carefully wove into their story, and consider the book the way it needs to be considered to design a cover that will do its one and only job: Get the right readers to pick up the book.

Because nothing matters about your cover, not how beautiful it is, not how much it cost, not how perfectly it details your characters or how much you love it, if nobody picks it up. Or worse, if only the wrong readers pick it up. (Ever wonder where some of those 1 star reviews come from? Put a “clean romance cover” on a steamy romance or a hard sci-fi cover on a sci-fi romance and you’ll find out quickly.)

Books are art. Book covers are marketing

To a certain extent, this is why writing back cover copy is so difficult for authors too. Because covers and back cover copy are marketing. There’s no room for complex nuance, for mentioning all the subplots you carefully threaded in, or for adding the many little, subtle things that make your story so… well, wonderful.

And that’s ok.

Your cover only gets about 3 seconds of a reader’s attention, before they’ll move onto the cover after it if your cover doesn’t make them click for more. Just 3 seconds. That’s not enough time to convey all that beautiful complexity. That’s not even enough to convey a tiny slice of it.

But it is enough time to showcase your book’s PROMISE. And that’s all it needs to do.

By promise, I mean the genre, the tone or the “feel” of the book, and maybe a rough idea of the main character and the setting, all wrapped up in one giant gut feeling hint to the reader about the kind of book this will be. 

And that’s all your cover needs to do before it passes the reader on to your back cover copy to finish the job of convincing the reader this is a book they HAVE to read.

So how do we do this? How do we convince your ideal readers that this book cover is showcasing just the book they’re in the mood for?

Focus on the book cover's message

We do what we should always do when we’re trying to communicate a message: We make sure the message is as clear and professionally-delivered as we can.

For a book cover, that means learning your subgenre’s language (i.e. the design elements that usually appear on a cover in that subgenre). And you learn this by studying other bestselling covers in your subgenre because you want to see what’s working.

  • What color schemes do they use? 
  • What symbols crop up again and again? 
  • Are they using serif fonts or sans serif fonts?
  • What about the title treatments? Do they have elaborate flourishes or are they simpler? What about the color of the text?
  • What about the primary focus of the covers? Are they character-focused? Setting-focused? Symbol-focused? Typography-focused?

And so much more.

If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. It takes time to learn a new language, and the language of each subgenre is no different. The good news is that it takes far less time to learn to recognize a language than it does to produce it. And if you’re hiring someone to create your cover for you, you only need to recognize it. (Technically, if you’re hiring the RIGHT person to create your cover, you would only need to identify your book’s subgenre and then force yourself to leave what they create alone. That said, it can be hard to know the right person to hire if you can’t recognize the language of your subgenre, and I personally always recommend making informed decisions, so I always recommend at least learning to recognize covers that match your subgenre.)

The most common author mistake I see in book cover design

This sadly is where most authors mess up. They don’t learn the conventions of their subgenre, or they do and they ignore them. When you do this, you can end up with some absolutely beautiful art. Beautiful art that tells all your ideal high fantasy readers that your book isn’t high fantasy at all. Maybe the cover has enough symbols that suggest it’s urban fantasy or steampunk or epic fantasy. Maybe your urban fantasy comes off as the wrong type of urban fantasy (which is a completely different reader audience). Or worse, maybe nobody can actually tell which subgenre it belongs to. 

Trust me. You ignore genre conventions and the language of your genre at your own peril. Readers are busy people, and they’re not studying book covers when they browse, they’re scanning. Quickly. Some subconscious part of them knows what type of book they’re in the mood for and is looking for something that looks like it. If your book doesn’t look enough like the other books in its subgenre, your ideal readers will scan right over it and keep scanning until they find one that does.

I promise, you’ll have a chance to show your readers how unique your book is from the others in the subgenre they’ve read. But first you have to show them how it’s the same.

Your book can’t stand out as a brilliant book if it never fits in enough to get picked up and read by readers who would like it in the first place.

If you found this helpful, make sure to check out the busy indie author's guide to book covers where I discuss genre matching in more detail and discuss the other two fundamentals a book cover needs to be successful.

Want to learn more? Sign up to my e-mail list here. In addition to getting early access to new premade covers before anyone else and periodic exclusive discounts, you’ll also get concise, detailed information about what makes a book cover good at its job and how to ensure the book cover you get is one that will put your book into the hands of the right readers.

fantasy and sci-fi book covers by J. L. Wilson Designs
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