I was involved in the tabletop gaming (RPGs, you've probably heard of D&D) industry for a while in the early 90s. That was my first experience in working with artists, and it taught me the most valuable characteristics of a good artist:
- gets the art in by the deadline
- if not that, contacts you as soon as s/he knows it will be late
- sends the art at the size/format you asked for
- did what you asked, within the boundaries of artistic interpretation
Then again, I wasn't paying for professionals, so no surprise that I didn't get them.
How much will a cover run?
Your cover art is extremely important. I cannot emphasize that enough. It will be judged at a glance and steer readers toward, or away from, your work. You will use it in all of your promotional materials. It will be sitting on Amazon's virtual shelves for years. This is the flash that your story delivers the substance behind. Make it good.
Cover art should not be cheap. You get what you pay for. Yes, you can get a stock-made cover from various graphic artists for a low price... do you really want to share a cover with other books? Haven't you put enough work into your story that it deserves its own identity?
And an artist deserves to be compensated fairly. Like writers, they tend to fight their way to the bottom of the price barrel and have trouble asking for the pay they deserve. Personally, I don't want to contribute to that.
I've been finding my cover artists at DeviantArt.com. The amount of talent over there is astounding. I can tell you from experience that posting a job offer in DeviantArt's forums with a $500 price tag on it will bring out the near-professional-level artists. And the aspiring less-talented ones too, but a sifting through a few dozen portfolios will hone your eye toward the signs of quality and whose style fits the style of your book best.
Are you kidding?
$500 is a lot. Too much? Well, would you sell your manuscript and all its rights for $500? That's what you're asking the artist to do -- this is a work for hire and you're buying all the rights to it. (The artist should retain the right to use this work in his portfolio, though.) You're asking for a few dozen hours of work that are backed up by years of practice to master artistic tools and find a personal style.
One law applies equally to writers and artists: in order to validly break the rules, you must first show mastery of the rules. Writers are often shot down for incorrectly mis-using grammar, non-linear story structure, and the like -- though this is open to interpretation and personal taste of course. Likewise, artists can bend the "rules" of visual presentation if they do it well. Like writing, it takes significant time and work to master visual art.
Also like writing, it's tough to earn a living at visual art. When was the last time you paid money to simply look at a painting? (was the artist still alive?)
Cheap book covers don't sit easy with me. I know how much sweat, blood, and tears get invested into a story. I know how much a freelance editor costs. Don't skimp on the cover, and don't be a cheapskate. We're all artists trying to get paid for something we love, here.