Now comes the time for a little tough love. Some people are going to get severely offended, here, but it has to be said: In my experience, the vast majority of self-published book covers aren't just bad. They're embarrassing.
I want to be very blunt about this, because nothing screams, "DON'T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY!" more than a bad book cover. When you put in the work to write, then polish, then publish your own book, you want it to be taken seriously. You want publishers, and agents, and bloggers, and critics, and journalists, and, most importantly, potential readers to look at your book and think, "That looks like a book worth opening." But most self-published book covers make me think, "Wow, people still use Microsoft Paint?"
If you think I'm overreacting, take a quick look at Lulu's marketplace. These are all self-published books currently for sale. Some of the covers are great. Many are not. They just look self-published. And that's a problem, because guess what. In my experience, a lot of bookstore owners are interested in carrying your book until they find out that it's self-published. Sometimes you can literally see their faces fall when you tell them. Because they don't take self-publishers seriously. And really, why should they? They can't put these covers on their shelves. No one's going to open a book that looks like one of these. The book industry won't take self-published authors seriously until we start taking ourselves seriously.
Which is all a very long way of saying; hire a graphic designer to create your cover.
Of course, I say this with the benefit of some experience. For Pants on Fire, I thought, "Boy, I am committed to spending as little money as possible on this little test of a book. I ain't got no green for professional designers." Fortunately, I have a good friend who's a great graphic designer. She agreed to make my book cover in exchange for a case of beer (which I promise I'm going to get to her sometime very, very soon!). I tweaked her design a bit (mostly by enlarging the image), but for the most part, the book's cover is what she produced. Which leads me to my second Very Important Lesson.
Very Important Lesson #2: Don't Just Find a Good Graphic Designer. Find a Good Graphic Designer Who Has Experience with Book Covers.
I like the cover of Pants on Fire. I'm happy with the cover of Pants on Fire. But I'm not in love with the cover of Pants on Fire. Is it because my friend's a bad designer? Heck no! She's talented as all get out, and hopefully you can tell that just by looking at the design. But, in hindsight, it's not what I would call "optimized for books." Some people are incredible graphic designers; some people design incredible book covers. The two don't always go hand in hand. Book covers are a very specific medium, because there's so much marketing that has to go into the design. Pair that with the fact that I had only a vague idea of what to put on the cover (which my friend completely nailed), and I ended up with a cover I like, but don't love.
For example: If you buy the paperback (which I firmly believe you should consider...the stories are a lot of fun), you'll see that there's no information on the spine. No title, no author name, nothing. It's not something I even though about for the longest time. Which is odd, because I've read a lot of books, and I've spent a lot of time looking at books, and it's weird that I wouldn't think, "Hey, wait, there's no title on this spine." But that's how inexperience works. You don't always think of the obvious things.
UPDATE: The cover has been officially redesigned! Huzzah! Check out the goods on Amazon! It's much better, and infinitely more booky.
The morale of the story? Don't sell yourself short. Hook up with a designer who can make you a design that you love and that's specifically meant to be a book cover. (More on how I did that with Apocalypticon later.)
At any rate, I now had my edited stories and my cover. My test book was almost ready to rock. But first...I had to lay the damn thing out.