Welcome to this post series! If you’re unsure what this is or where I’m going with it, I’ll refer you back to this post for all the intro stuff. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump right in!
First of all, this is NOT going to be an in-depth, step-by-step tutorial on using various programs to make a cover. This is only intended to be a jumping off point. Today I’m pointing you to software and showing examples created using the various options, but, remember how I said this is going to take investment on your part? This is where that really comes in to play. Depending on the route you choose, there’s a lot to learn, and a ton of places to get your skills up to snuff for cheap or free. Consider this an opportunity to expand your horizons.
When I sit down to create a book cover, I almost always start with the ebook (there was one singular time this wasn’t the case, but that was a very rare exception). Why? Well, ebook covers should always be larger than the print spread, and, as I said before, you can always scale the image down, but not up. Trying to make a small, low-resolution image bigger is going to result in image distortion, fuzziness, and added color noise as the computer tries to fill in data blanks for pixels that didn’t exist before. This is why it’s important to know the image size you’ll need before you start creating, and also why I said to get the largest and highest resolution stock images available to you.
Amazon recommends a 1:1.6 ratio for ebook covers. At the basic level, this means 1000 pixels wide, and 1600 pixels tall, but their FAQ page recommends 1600 x 2560. It used to be the standard for resolution was 72 dpi, but that’s changed to 300 dpi given the prevalence of high-resolution screens. Personally, my starting canvas is always 3000 x 4800 pixels at 300 dpi, tripling the dimensions to give my clients an image that could be printed out at 10″ x 16″ without losing any detail. You can make the image as big as you like with most design programs (although you’ll run into memory/processing problems if you get too crazy with it and your computer isn’t equipped for it), so go big or go home.
So what should you use to build a book cover? Well, I’ve got a few options for you, depending on what your budget and skill/dedication level is.
I should mention that Amazon does have a cover creator built in to the platform, but I DO NOT recommend it. Yes, it’s free and is “basically” functional, but every example to come out of there that I’ve seen looks terrible and you can TELL it’s a chop job cobbled together by some newbie fumbling around without a clue. And while you might actually be a newbie fumbling around without a clue, that’s probably not something you want to advertise. Step far, far away from Amazon cover creator. There is a better choice!
If you absolutely must have a free alternative and don’t want to invest much time in this part of building your book baby, I would point you to Canva. The basic version of this web-based platform (also available as a mobile app) has no cost at all, and there are templates specifically for ebook covers right there at your fingertips. I will give the caveat that the images you’ll get are smaller and lower resolution than what I’d recommend (or Amazon would, for that matter), but they’re mostly usable. They VERY recently (as in, within the span of my original prep for this Balticon panel and during the writing of this post) changed it so you can download a print resolution PDF of your creation without the Pro upgrade, but be aware you’ll have to convert that to an image file before you can upload it to any platform (JPG and TIFF for Amazon, JPG or PNG for Smashwords and Draft2Digital, and so on). You may also need to convert it to 8-bits/channel from the 16-bits/channel, as well, but I haven’t tested that for myself. I’m getting into the weeds with that tip, but as I’m trying to cover all the bases here, figured I should warn you about potential problems. Now, if you upgrade to the Pro version ($12.95/month or $119.40/annually), you do get access to more options for download size, a wider variety of templates, and more, so it’s possible to stretch the limits of this platform with a little investment (prices as of May 22, 2020). If you’re totally new to design and you have no time, budget, or desire to learn more about the topic, this is one of your best options. And it will come in handy later when I discuss marketing images.
As an example, I put together a basic cover for a children’s book using a stock image I purchased at DepositPhotos and a template I edited on Canva.
You can see from the example how I incorporated visual markers to indicate genre. Being a children’s book, I used illustration, rather than a photo, kept it colorful, and made sure the fonts were easy to read and welcoming.
There are folks out there who are going to offer up GIMP as a software alternative as we move forward with this post, but…
Well, it’s free. It’s basically functional. It’s also clunky, lacking in tech support, and sort of stuck in the early 2000s, so I don’t have a glowing recommendation for you as far as this goes. If you really want a Photoshop alternative that’s totally, 100% free, go forth and wrangle the GIMP beast. I would like to give you a different suggestion, however.
If you’re game for more of a challenge and want to move beyond the very basic drag-and-drop stuff to create something more personalized, and you’re also willing to invest a little in software, I present you with Affinity Photo. I haven’t done a deep dive on this program, but from what I can tell of my limited use, it has a lot of the functionality of Adobe Photoshop with much, much less of a price tag attached. Affinity Photo is a one-time purchase, good-for-a-lifetime program. It’s typically $50 for Mac/Windows, and $20 for iPad, HOWEVER, during the current COVID-19 situation, you can own it for half of that. Do check the prices before buying, as the sale may end at any time.
As I said before, Affinity Photo has a lot of the functionality of Photoshop, but the interface is different and some effects that can be achieved in Photoshop may not work in the program. I also didn’t test whether or not I could import the Photoshop assets I have (brushes, patterns, etc) into it, so if you’ve got access to those assets, I cannot speak to if they port over or not. I didn’t spend a ton of time exploring all of the options, but enough so that I would absolutely recommend it for the budget-conscious folks that want to get next-level results. A majority of the courses geared towards pro designers typically focus on Photoshop, but there is a large selection of classes and tutorials to explore on the web if this is the software you choose, and I definitely recommend working through tutorials to get the hang of it before running full-speed into designing a cover. This program has lots of features to make a really outstanding cover, but a higher learning curve to maximize use of the tools available.
Here you see different kinds of genre indicators than the previous example. For a self-help book, I wanted simple imagery, a limited color palette, and a focus on typography. Using one of Affinity Photo’s tools, I modified the title text with perspective warping to add a little dimension, but overall, I kept the design simple. The idea here is that readers are more concerned with the information they can get from this book than entertainment value, so it needs to get straight to the point and tell them what to expect inside.
While the above are perfectly fine options for designing stuff, I typically work with the industry behemoth that is Adobe Photoshop. It’s the professional standard, but does require an Adobe subscription. That will run you $20.99/month if you agree to keep it a full year, or $31.49/month if you want the ability to leave at any time of your choosing. Bear in mind that is ONLY for Photoshop. If you want to get your hands on the entire Creative Cloud suite (including InDesign, Illustrator, Audition, and more) all of those apps will run you $52.99/month with the annual commitment, or $79.49/month with no commitment (prices as of May 22, 2020). Pro tip lifehack: keep an eye on the Adobe website around Black Friday/Cyber Monday for a lower price. It’s technically a deal for NEW subscriptions, but if you alternate email addresses/Adobe accounts every year, you can take advantage of this as well. Additionally, when you go to cancel, Adobe will often offer the chance for you to renew at the lower advertised price, which I’ve taken advantage of twice now. (But you didn’t hear these things from me.)
As with Affinity Photo, Photoshop has TONS of features, but learning how to use them takes dedication and time. YouTube is an incredible free resource for this, and be sure to search for specific tutorials on creating the effects you want to achieve (like head swaps and setting stuff on fire). If you want something a bit more structured, search through places like Udemy, CreativeLive, and so on to learn from pros. Want to go deep into all of the functionality the program has to offer? Definitely check in with your local library online to see if they offer access to Adobe’s Classroom in a Book series, as that will take you through a whole range of projects to familiarize yourself with the program. I’ve found hands-on is the best way to learn these tools, so don’t be afraid to jump in and see what happens.
For the example cover, I used vector images I’d selected on DepositPhotos to replicate the visual markers of a cozy mystery book. The fonts have a cuter, fun look, the artwork is colorful, and the style is illustrated in a way similar to others within the subgenre. Because I was thinking ahead, I found a character image set that has multiple pose, facial expression, and hairstyle options, matching that with a building in a similar art style that belongs to a large series for a wide range of locations available as I need them. For what it’s worth, I found forty-six buildings by the same creator, which is a TON of room to play in a long book series. Now, I could’ve used these images in Photoshop as-is and manually isolated and edited them, but that would’ve taken a lot of extra work for this cover. It’s possible, but why make the job harder than it has to be? Since I had Illustrator available to me, I could simply turn off the elements of the vector images that I didn’t want with a simple click, select the pieces I wanted to include on the cover, and copy/paste them into Photoshop already isolated and ready for positioning. A few little tweaks to the coloration, and this one was good to go.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Adobe for creating and editing vector art, there’s Affinity Designer to go along with Affinity Photo. Same one-time purchase price as the other bit of software.
There’s a lot to learn about what makes for effective cover design, but that’s another series of posts entirely. It’s difficult to distill down in generic terms that have application across every single genre, as each niche has its own little tropes and best practices. The biggest bit of advice I can possibly give you I already shared in this post. Basically, look at what the best sellers are doing and do that, too. Go easy on effects like drop shadows, beveling, and outer glow, and don’t get caught up in that “represent everything in the story” trap (see this post to read about 3 of my biggest pet peeves, including the typography effects issue). Show as little as you have to in order to tease the audience. Make that image so intriguing they simply must know more, and be sure the fonts are still legible at the thumbnail size they’ll show as on digital retailer platforms.
All right. Now that you’ve got the ebook cover, what’s next?
If you’ve got your interior layout done (not my area of expertise, but I’ve put in a request to my in-house assistant to speak on this), you gotta put some clothes on that book baby. It’s time for the print cover.
But that’s another post for another day. (Which you can find here.)