Self-publishing authors are in fact, small businesses. The same advice for marketing and presentation can apply to publishers, or to people selling widgets or offering manicures. Whether it’s a book cover, or your website, or your business marketing materials, these are the first things people see in real life and online. They’re often the first impression people have of your business or your project.

Unlike large publishing companies or big corporations, most small businesses cannot afford mistakes. If you are investing $1,000 in brochures, or a book cover and you only made $3,000 all month, you really do need to do things right the first time.

One of the biggest mistakes is “image desperation.” That’s when a novice business owner or book publisher is so desperate to have an image, any image, that he or she will make do with completely unsuitable photos or amateur illustrations that virtually shout, “homemade.”

Sometimes the business owner simply doesn’t have the “eye” that can discern a good image from a bad one; Sometimes he or she does not understand what the image should be; Sometimes it’s a budgeting issue. No matter the reason, it’s not only damaging to your image, it’s completely unnecessary. It costs just as much to produce bad book covers or bad marketing materials as it does to produce good ones.

Everyone has seen the poorly rendered 3d-style images that look like robotic mannequins. Sometimes people will combine these with photos and even clipart. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad. It would be far better to go with a nice font and use creatively designed text to fill the space. If you really must have some graphic detail, consider an abstract background or use of color.

How many times have you seen a book for freelance writers with a manual typewriter on the cover? How many freelancers are still using manual typewriters? What does a manual typewriter even have to do with freelancing in today’s world? Even a modern computer keyboard probably isn’t going to be interesting enough or unique enough to catch someone’s eye.  How many times have you seen disembodied shaking hands on business marketing materials, advertisements and even billboards? Again, if you don’t have the budget or creativity to get to “wow,” just use text. It didn’t hurt sales for the bestseller, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell.

These Skype ads are little more than text and logo and they’re pretty awesome. And this ad against workplace aggression says it all. The right graphic designer will be able to create great brochures and marketing material like this and this and this and this with nothing more than a keyboard.

You can also manipulate the text to create interest like the designers did for the book cover for Drive, by Daniel H. Pink and Heat, by Bill Buford. You can try a creative twist on words like TiVibu did for their ad series (and here and here). Keep in mind that the font is what’s doing the heavy lifting on these designs, so choose carefully. No Comic Sans, or upper case cursive text that no one can read.

Another big mistake is the cliché image. Using chess pieces on books about business or business marketing materials has been done — to death! One book production company recently published a book that not only used the old chess cliché, it actually had the pawn featured on the book cover. Whose goal is to be a pawn? Other overused clichés that small business owners and publishers can’t seem to let go of include puzzle pieces and locks and keys. Unless you’ve thought of a completely fresh way to use these elements, come up with another idea. They have simply been used too often.

Image desperation sometimes leads people into choosing the wrong illustration all together. The cover or marketing materials should demonstrate the solution, not the problem. If your book is about raising a happy child, don’t put a crying toddler on the cover. Your solution — the topic of the book, the information people want — is the happy child, not the weepy one. If you’re a locksmith, don’t put an image of a desperate person locked outside in the rain on your marketing materials. When’s the last time you saw an obese model on the cover of a weight loss book? Hint: never! That’s because they’re selling thin, thin is the solution. And avoid the temptation to be too clever, it is insulting to your audience. If your book is called A Blueprint to Happiness, do not put the blueprints for a house on the cover.

Also stay away from anything that could be construed as offensive. One publishing company has its own promotional book cover featuring a naked statue with the male appendage almost dead-center.

I’m not suggesting these elements can never work; They just need to be handled carefully and with originality, otherwise your message will get lost in the crowd, look dated or worse, shout “amateur”. Having a solid, professional design greet your potential customers increases you’re chances of getting noticed.