How I Got An Awesome Cover Design from 99 Designs, and Why I'll Think Twice Before Using it Again

Last week, I mentioned using 99 Designs for Poison Dance’s cover. I love the book cover I ended up with, but I'm hesitant to use the service again. A few people asked me to elaborate.

Here's a basic rundown of how it works. It's a contest site, where customers hold contests for artists to compete in.  The winner gets the prize money -- everybody else gets valuable life experience. There are three award levels you can choose. The greater though award, the more designers you will have entering. I chose the least expensive package: the bronze package for $299. Here's my design brief listing my specifications.

After initiating the contest, you go into the first round, where designers submit different cover concepts and you offer feedback in the form of comments and star ratings. As the contest progresses, you start narrowing down the field, until at the end of the first round (about 4 days I think?), you name up to six finalists. Then, you begin a second round as the finalists continuing to refine and rate designs. At the end (3 days?), you choose a winner. If you want to see my top six designs, you can take a look at the poll I created here for people to help me rate the options. Then you choose the winner, make any last tweaks that you need to, and receive your design.

Here are pros of using 99 designs:

1.  Fast

Nowadays, popular cover designers can be booked for months. With 99 designs, you can finalize the design in a little more than a week. (Although you can still get delays at the very end, while your winning artist makes any last changes you request.)

2. Crowdsourcing Design Ideas

With a lot of different people brainstorming for you, you can get lots of very unique concepts. One thing I would do differently, if I were to do this again, is that I would be less specific in my design brief. Instead of giving actual layout ideas, I would give basic themes, characters, and feel, and let the designers come up with their own concepts. I think this would give even a wider range of designs.  I felt like many of my entries were pretty similar because I gave fairly specific instructions.

One additional note -- it's worth it to spend the time to make your design brief intriguing. Designers are artists after all, and while they are looking for ways to make money, they are also looking for projects to inspire them. So if your contest looks interesting, it is more likely to get more entries.

3. Satisfaction Guaranteed - If you go through the first round and don't see any covers that you like, you're free to cancel the contest and get your money back. Once you enter the second round, you're committed to giving your prize money.

4.You Get All Files and Copyright - While some freelance cover designers do not hand over photoshop files, making it difficult for the author to make small changes, on 99 designs you can specify the types of files that you would like handed over at the end of the process. The copyright of the cover image also gets assigned to you, which makes things more convenient for you. (Note that this is a pro for the writer. Not necessarily for the cover designer.)

So these are all the pros of 99 designs. What are the cons?

1. Time-consuming For All Involved

99 Designs encourages all contest holders to provide copious feedback on designs. For my first contest, I provided comments on basically every design, which ended up being suboptimal in hindsight. I  provided feedback on a lot of designs that didn't really have a chance of making it to the finals, which resulted in those artists taking the time to tweak those designs to make them better, but ultimately not what I was looking for. I felt a lot of guilt for making these artists work so hard when only one of them was going to get paid in the end. Ultimately, this whole process seemed like a lot of extra work on the part of both me and the artists. I think my time would've been more efficiently spent working closely with one cover designer that I trusted.

2. You Never Know Who You'll Get

99 designs has a worldwide artist community with a whole range of artists ranging from seasoned professionals to hobbyists trying to break into the trade (and because this contest format involves a lot of spec work, I think it's safe to say that people who participate tend to be less experienced and less established). To some extent, this is okay because who cares who the artist is as long as the design is good, right? But there are still industry conventions for book covers -- what templates to use for paperback covers, what resolution stock art to use, how the vendors differ in their requirements for cover art -- that you as a writer might not be familiar with. An experienced cover artist would be able to hold your hand through the process.

Furthermore, because of the unpredictability of 99 designs contests, it is impossible artists to predict when they will win a contest, and thus impossible for them to schedule around them. Sometimes artists have to drop out of the second round because something comes up, or have to delay giving your final product for the. Again, these problems are much more rare if you are slotted into a professional copy artist's schedule.

3. 99 Designs Takes a Huge Cut

I signed up for the bronze package, which cost me $299. I assumed that 99 designs would take something like 10-15% in fees. Only later did someone tell me that in my contest, 99 designs took $99 of my contest fee, and my designer would only get $200. According to this thread, they take an even larger percentage for more expensive prize packages, which seems really counterintuitive..

At first I thought I was just careless for not realizing how much 99 Designs took, but then I investigated further, and things got even weirder. I went to their help pages to find out exactly how much 99 designs took for every contest. This information was listed nowhere in the entire help documentation. That's right. There was no way to look up, as a contest holder, how much of a fee went to the designer, and how much of it went to the company. I believe they obfuscate this on purpose. If your account is set up as a “contest holder,” you can see how much the contest will cost you, but not how much of it will go to the designer. I contacted 99 designs about this, and got really evasive responses from customer service.

Me: Hi! I'm having a good experience with 99 designs so far, but I was disturbed to find out that 99designs is taking $99 of the $299 prize. I don't have a problem with the company taking a cut -- after all, you should make money! But I do feel like there should have been more transparency about the amount. It was a designer who told me this, and even after knowing this, I searched the Help pages for a very long time and couldn't find anything to tell me how much of a cut 99 designs was taking. I can't help but wonder if you're purposefully making that information hard to find.

Customer Service Agent Monica: Hi Livia! Thanks for the email! We have no problem releasing the information - the prize amounts varies from contest to contest. Let us know if you have any other questions.

Me: Thanks. I already know the fee for this particular contest. My suggestion is that you make the information accessible in a help page. I shouldn't have to email customer service to have the information released to me, and if you really have no problem letting people know, then there is no reason not to.

Customer Service Agent Cassie: Thanks for your email. The reason why we don't have the 99designs fees listed is because it varies from contest to contest, depending what is involved: how many deliverables there are, what package tier the customer has selected, whether it is a custom contest, whether it is a fast-tracked contest, etcetera. But as Monica has mentioned, we are always more than happy to provide a break down on a customer-specific basis.

Me: Here's a page listing all your package prices. Just add a parentheses next to each number to say how much the designer wins for each package. Assume default options: no fast tracking, no customization, default number of deliverables for each category.

Customer Service Agent Jamie: Thanks for the email. When the designers are looking at any given project, they are only able to see the prize amount for the winner. This way there is no misleading information on their end when they opt into a contest; they know upfront exactly what they will be receiving. I will pass along your suggestion to my supervisor and thanks again for your feedback.

So yeah, the whole thing just felt sketchy to me. If I’m going to spend $299 on a cover, I’d rather all $299 of it go to the cover artist. And you can get very good covers these days for that price. I’ve heard that other contest sites like Crowdspring are more upfront about the cut they take (15%).

So that’s the rundown on 99 Designs. What are your thoughts?

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  1. Hi Livia, This is an interesting post. As an illustrator and sometime designer, I have been tempted to participate in these types of contests, but there is some controversy about them. Because they are spec work, designers argue that they take advantage of new/emerging designers, undercut the market for established designers, and can shortchange both sides because they don't involve the give and take that comes with a client relationship (though the company you mention seems to have a feedback function). Here's an article on why designers shouldn't do spec work that goes into more detail. ps Just downloaded the novella. Looking forward to reading it.

    1. Yeah, spec work is tricky. I'm not completely opposed to it (and have done some as a writer), but it's definitely a balancing act. Thank you for downloading the novella!

  2. This was an educational post- I had no one idea these types of services existed. Out of all the designs, I definitely like the one you went w/the best. =)

    1. These services are fairly new I think. Part of the innovation brought on by the internet. :-)

  3. I think your desire to work one-on-one with a designer you trust is spot on. I good designer would not spend time designing on spec and without any guarantee of payment. I did freelance graphic design for many years. I would say that I would not have wasted my time on such a crapshoot, but I will also say that taking a third is not unreasonable. Galleries typically take 50% of the cost of an artist's work… or at least that was pretty standard the last time I looked.

    1. That's really interesting about how much of a cut Galleries take. I didn't know that! I think I would have been more open to 99 Design's cut if they had been more transparent about it. Just the fact that they make that information sooo hard to find didn't sit well with me.

  4. I'm sorry, I don't understand why you got so bent out of shape about not knowing what the percentages were. It's not sketchy for a company to keep this as undisclosed information. When you buy a book, do you find any disclosure of an author's cut in the book's front matter? Do you know what the musician is making from the $1.29 that you pay for a song on itunes? Do you know how much of money the landscaping company pays the guy who mows your lawn? Do you know how much money a hair salon will pay the hair stylist for the work she did on your hair?

    Yet you seem to be amazed that you don't know how much an artist is going to make for his or her work.

    1. No need to apologize, Laughing Monk. I absolutely think it's important to be educated about where your money goes in any case where people are involved. In some of the examples you mentioned, I have a pretty good idea of how much the employee makes (books, for example). In other cases, I don't know the exact amount, but I operate under the assumption that the company pays my hairdresser/lawn guy, etc. wages that are fair for the industry that they're in. If it comes to my attention that this is not the case, then I would switch to a different company that treats their employees better.