The saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is a big fat lie. I’m a graphic and web designer by day, and the psychology behind what seems like a simple collection of shapes and colours has a huge impact on a person’s buying choice. Quality on the outside instantly suggests quality on the inside. Likewise, a poor quality cover is like shouting to a potential reader, ‘I couldn’t be bothered with this bit, so what makes you think I’d be bothered with the plotting or the editing or anything else?’
Also, expect to pay. Like hiring a freelance editor, you are enlisting the services of a professional. The Australian Society of Authors recommends that illustrators should be paid at least $1300 for a front cover and $900 for a back cover (and that’s just the art, not necessarily the design on top of it… and yes they are two different things). Lucky for me I’m an artist as well as a writer, so I did my own covers.In fact, I was able to do everything… the covers, the website, the bookmarks… literally saving me thousands of dollars, but at the same time, costing me precious writing hours.
My suggestion… take the time and find an artist who already uses the same style you have in mind for your book. I write fantasy for older children so my covers are very whimsical water-colour pencil pieces. The cover art must match the feel of the story, or you aren’t ‘selling’ the right message to the right audience. Don’t approach just any artist and say, ‘Can you draw like Dr Seuss?’… artists take years developing their own look, we aren’t machines where you just punch in the style you’d like and we spit out the end product. Find something you like and pay the money; accept that it’s an investment. My front cover took about 2 months to create, the back took longer because there’s so much architecture in it. In terms of labour alone, the artwork is worth thousands of dollars just because it took so long.
I think using students is a great idea, but they should still be paid. Maybe not as much as a professional, but certainly enough to cover their time. They’re doing something you can’t, after all, and if they’re any good, you’ll be the one reaping the benefits.