design contests are bad for authors

Design contests, by every other name, are bad for authors. They’re often called design crowdsourcing, design auctions, and graphic design marketplaces. They’re all the same, so we’ll stick with design contests. Essentially, anyone can create a contest for anybody to submit designs to, including everything from logos to book covers to brochures to movie posters.

Here’s how it works in a nutshell:

  1. You make an account as a contest host
  2. You post a brief summary of what kind of design you’re looking for
  3. Anyone with an account can submit their designs (yup, multiple!)
  4. You look at all the designs and provide feedback
  5. Contestants can tweak their designs to adhere to your feedback
  6. You look at the final designs and choose your favorite
  7. You pay for the selected design
  8. The selected contestant gets paid
  9. You two probably never talk again
  10. All other contestants have already moved on to another contest

There are quite a few issues that arise with this model. In fact, there are many, many, many articles and graphics about how design contests are bad for designers. In this post, however, we’re going to talk about why design contests are bad for authors.

1. The first is that anyone can submit designs including first-time designers and amateur students. The vast majority of professional designers don’t use design contests because they are busy working directly with clients. So, although you’re paying a flat fee for a variety of design options, there is no guarantee that you will receive anything professional or useable.

2. If #1 wasn’t enough to turn you off, there are absolutely 0 guarantees that you’ll receive any designs at all. Meaning you’ve wasted time and in some cases, money. Then you’ll need to spend more time and money on a design solution that does work.

3. The third is that a design contest is really just spec work (speculative work) which means designers are working for free in the hopes that they are selected to get paid; they probably aren’t spending much time or attention on your cover. Will you feel like any of the contestants actually cared about your book or understood your story?

4. With that in mind, another issue that comes up often is designs that are simply off the mark; the contestants only receive about a paragraph from which to capture the essence of your book’s themes, voice, characters and plot, and that’s just not enough. The result is bad designs that don’t make sense because they cling too much to an idea that really wasn’t that important.

5. Design contests rely on you to provide creative direction. Do you have a really clear vision of the cover you want for your book that you can precisely describe? Probably not. That’s exactly what a professional designer provides. A book designer is a problem solver who has experience translating great ideas or complex concepts into a visual medium; you’ll rely on a professional designer to use artistic experience and creative license to bring your book to life!

6. Design contests actually encourage bad behavior from contestants, from copycat designs to downright plagiarism. Seriously, there are entire teams at these contest sites to attempt to track cases of stolen work. So even if you do get a design that you like, it might be caught up in a rights battle because the design isn’t original.

7. A major issue that can arise is the contract. Design contest websites provide a very generic terms and conditions agreement. Unfortunately, these T&Cs are meant to cover lots of design projects like logos and brochures. T&Cs don’t clearly outline how you can use the final design, if you’ll receive raw files, or if you can modify it later for marketing materials or other cover formats like an audiobook.

8. Speaking of marketing materials, you won’t get any. Meaning, you’ll probably need to find a designer anyway to create the rest of your book imagery like website banners, social media headers, and ads (to name a few).

bottom line on design contests

Design contests pit contestants against one another to work for free 99% of the time in the hopes of winning lottery odds. This encourages a quantity over quality approach and a fair amount of ripped off designs and recycled clip art. The average hourly rate for contestants who win is less than the price of a coffee; most contestants never win, not even the children.

When you hold a design contest for your book cover, you are not adding anyone to your author team. As a result, you’re simply using a platform to trade money for product, and often you get a generic, subpar design (that was maybe even stolen), if anything at all.

In conclusion, by working directly with a professional designer who maintains a portfolio and asks you questions about your book, you receive the benefit of their design experience, knowledge of book marketing, and custom design centered around your story.

have you had any experiences with design contests?


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