The specific tools, tricks and software I used to make a pro-looking book cover without spending a dollar
It is possible to create a great book cover without hiring a professional, free-software or dropping piles of cash.
One of the first “rules” we come across when looking to self-publish is that writers should never design their own covers. There are lots of good reasons for this, I can’t deny that, yet there are also a bunch of good reasons why a writer might decide to do it themselves.
For a start, some people like creative control over all elements of their art. I’m one of those people. Another reason is money. Good, professionally made covers are expensive. This isn’t a bad thing. Great cover designers are skilled creatives.
You can see above that my first attempt was not good. Below, I will detail exactly how I took that initial design and turned it into the final product which, I hope you agree, is of a much higher standard.
I’ll be using lots of examples from my own design journey throughout, so you can get an idea of the various iterations the cover went through.
To avoid wasting your time, here is how I will break it down:
- Design ideas
- Tools and resources
The first three sections are focused on the practicalities of putting a cover together, and so they all refer to very specific things. The last category, ‘mindset’, is a little more nebulous, but I would argue that it is the single most important element of the four.
All the tools and resources in the world are useless if you don’t know what you should be working towards.
The standard advice when discussing cover design is to look at the existing genre market. This is good advice, and I’ll come back to it, but it’s not actually that helpful if it’s all you have to go on.
Tip 1 — Derek Murphy knows about basic design principles
Specifically, I watched this video by cover designer and self-publishing guru Derek Murphy.
Murphy is blunt about what covers should and shouldn’t do, and does a good job of communicating what we should and shouldn’t care about in our covers. His advice about having a humanizing element, fitting in without standing out and not getting too caught up that the cover accurately represents the content of the book are spot on.
For example, my book is a sci-fi story centering on the eponymous spaceship, the Aggressive. In my mind, I have an image of that ship. My initial cover design was based on my own outline drawing of the Aggressive.
I was really happy with the illustration and, initially at least, determined that it should be a part of the cover. The problem is that while I was happy with it, when I mocked the cover up alongside the other sci-fi books on Amazon (more on this later), it stood out as amateurish. Damn.
Watching Derek Murphy’s YouTube videos gave me a much better idea of what I should be working towards with the ultimate design and what I should be avoiding.
For those who want to take it further, I can also recommend Murphy’s book, Guerrilla Publishing, in which Murphy gives his no-nonsense advice on indie publishing in general.
Tip 2 — Learn some color theory
I’m not going to say much about this, other than it’s a really good idea. I had no idea about color theory before I designed my cover, and knowing even just a smidge helped me immeasurably. Consider the two designs below (note the difference in font between the final version). Red seems a classic SFF color, but it just doesn’t quite work.
A little color theory explains why. The orange of the planet and the red of the top image aren’t complementary as they sit next to each other on the color wheel. By matching the orange planet with a color opposite on the wheel (turquoise / cyan), the whole image sits better with the eye. This, in turn, gives a more professional look overall, despite every other element being shared between the two covers.
Tip 3 — Spend a LOT of time thinking about fonts
Kindlepreneur does a great in-depth guide on this, so for more info, head there. Font choice makes or breaks a cover. Figure out which fonts fit in your genre and play around until you get something that other people think looks right.
That’s right, I said other people. Not you. Just as with editing, we have a tendency to go ‘blind’ to the look of our own work.
After playing around with the basic fonts on The Gimp and deciding generic ‘sans-serif’ wasn’t going to cut it, I did some serious research.
Eventually I found a font called ‘futura’, a classic font with a long association with space and science fiction. A plaque left on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission was written in futura. Movie posters for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gravity use futura.
So I would use futura.
Only I didn’t. I thought it looked great (you can see the ‘Futura’ cover above on the cyan/red comparison images), but I got consistent feedback that it didn’t work on the cover. So I carried on looking and found Galata Sans. It’s less subtle, and doesn’t have the science fiction pedigree of Futura, but I think it did a better job of telling readers what sort of book they are getting. Take a look for yourself. A good choice?
The point is that font choice is difficult and should be a significant priority.
Tools and Resources
To create the final design, I used a range of software of websites. I’m not saying any of the following is easy, just that they are available and free.
Tip 4—Get high quality art resources with a Shutterstock free trial
For many genres, good covers need good art.
After looking at the other sci-fi books on Amazon, it became clear that I had a choice of two kinds of cover for my book. Most covers centered on a spaceship / super-soldier / cityscape with many being CGI and the others being illustrated i.e. having a painted or drawn look.
I wanted an illustrated look, as they seemed associated with books put out by the major SFF publishers.
I scoured the free stock-image websites (pexels etc) but I wasn’t happy with the choices available. So I headed to Shutterstock and found a much more promising selection. Only the usual problem raised its head — cost. If I were a cover designer, the subscriptions would make sense and I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up. As a first-time author, however, it was too much of a commitment.
Now, Shutterstock offers a free trial, where new users can get 10 stock images for free by signing up. You can cancel the subscription before the end of the trial period and continue to use the pictures. This is what I did.
Because I’m planning a series, I used the opportunity to get sufficient images that I can make covers for the next 2–3 books with the images I selected.
The key here was to be very, very careful and make each image count. To avoid selecting duds, I copied and pasted images from the website without joining Shutterstock to begin with. The images were covered with a watermark, but that was okay as I just needed to play around with the designs. Once I was happy with my final design approach, I went and selected the images I needed under the free trial and got copies legitimately. Obviously, this will only work once, but hey, it does work.
In my case, I found a specific artist whose work I love. By using one artist's images across a series of books, they should share a common visual theme and give a professional finish.
Tip 5 — GIMP is a near-perfect cover design application
This isn’t original, I know, but it is effective. My main cover design software is the longstanding public-domain application, GIMP (or GNU Image Manipulation Program).
This free application is the single most important piece of software, as it will be used to tie everything together in a professional-looking way.
So why GIMP?
Adobe is very expensive and Canva / Word are limited. I wanted a full-feature design application that wasn’t expensive and could be used legally. GIMP fit those requirements.
It has a learning curve, and isn’t quite as powerful as its Adobe rivals, but for book cover design, it’s perfect. It can be downloaded and used entirely for free on Windows, MacOS or Linux, is updated regularly and is very, very stable.
We’ll return to GIMP later on in the techniques section, but for now, it is enough to know it exists.
Tip 6 — Access free fonts with commercial licences
I already wrote about the importance of fonts above, so I’ll just leave a list here. Find good fonts and check they have the right commercial licence. Remember, we’re doing everything properly here.
Tip 7 — Use Inkscape to manipulate fonts in interesting ways
Font manipulation is central to a lot of genres.
Essentially, this means taking an existing font and doing interesting things with it, from simple resizing to creating unique flourishes. Typically, this is done in Adobe Illustrator, however, as with all Adobe products, it’s expensive.
Inkscape is a vector graphic drawing application, just like Adobe Illustrator. As with GIMP, Inkscape is available to download for free on Windows, MacOS and Linux. It is powerful and full-featured.
I can’t vouch for more than that as I didn’t end up doing any font manipulation myself, but if I had to, Inkscape would be my first port of call. Once again, I’m not saying it’s easy, but it can be done.
To my mind, the critical point when actually putting the cover together is to make the composite images cohesive. Amateur covers look like disparate images thrown together. Professional covers look like a cohesive whole.
Obviously cover design is a huge area and talented people spend their lives mastering the skills required to be the best.
There are shortcuts, though.
Tip 8 — Blend images seamlessly with layer masks and the gradient tool
One thing that instantly gives away a cheap or DIY cover are images simply laid next to or on top of each other. Take a background image, paste a foreground image on top, done!
It’s not a good look.
Learning how to do layer masks and use the gradient tool was the most important technique in revamping the cover. Without the ability to gently blend multiple images into a cohesive whole (emphasis on ‘cohesive’!) the cover would always look amateurish.
Let’s break it down. Below are the four basic images the cover is constructed from. The two images on the left, the stars and concentric circles, are royalty free images from pexels. The two on the right are from Shutterstock.
I knew I wanted a space background with a planet at the bottom in the foreground. It’s a classic science fiction visual and reminiscent of the opening scene from Star Wars: A New Hope (albeit flipped around).
To get the effect, I used layer masks and the gradient tool to blend the fiery orange planet into the starry background.
Layer masks work by putting one image over another and letting you reveal the image behind. Done normally, this leaves a stark boundary between one image and the other. However, the gradient tool means the top-image fades gently into transparency, thus effectively blending them together.
Because I’m not an expert (by any means) my approach was a little haphazard. I used repeated layer masks to slash away at the top image of the orange planet to carefully reveal the image of the stars beneath. By working around the planet, always perpendicular to the surface, it looks as if the stars disappear into the hazy atmosphere of the planet. The image below illustrates this more closely.
I’m happy with the end result, even if the method was a little scrappy. I did the same with the image of the spaceships at the top of the cover, this time carving out an inverted ‘V’ shape that I felt complemented the image of the planet beneath (almost like a ball and socket joint).
To learn how to do this, I watched a few YouTube videos. Check some of them out here. There’s plenty online and once you have the basics, it’s a simple case of playing around until you find something you like.
Tip 9 — Make the cover cohesive with color matching
In the world of book covers, as in TV and movies, lighting is essential to creating a professional finish.
A very common style of cover is to have a central figure placed against a background. When compositing the two images together, especially if they are stock images, the chances are the tones and hues of each image will not match. This is a problem, as readers won’t see a single cover image, but the different images the cover is made up of. It will be clear that the author has just slapped one on top of the other and this screams poor quality.
In the mind of the reader, a poor quality cover suggests a poor quality book.
Luckily, GIMP is more than powerful enough to rectify this issue with just a little fettling.
I would recommend this video for the basics of color matching in GIMP 2.0 and this video for some interesting advanced techniques to add highlights and match the colors quickly where there is already a close fit.
The most important thing I learned when fixing my terrible DIY cover was about mindset.
Tip 10 — Set your ego aside and iterate
That’s the mindset you need.
When doing a DIY cover, we get attached to all sorts of things. I was attached to my illustration of the Aggressive. I wanted my cover to depict my ship. I got attached to the idea of a simple, black-and-white image. I liked the starkness and felt it reflected the stark prose in the book. I became attached to the Futura-light font with its roots in classic science fiction.
Unfortunately, all of these choices led to a bad-looking cover. Don’t get me wrong, I like my first attempt. I still think it looks okay. But I understand that others take a different view, and when seen in the context of the Amazon, it looks out of place.
I needed to put my ego aside and find a cover that would sell, not one that appealed to me and me alone.
So I iterated.
If you want a professional DIY cover, you should iterate too. Your first design probably won’t be your best design. That might be your sixth or your sixteenth. So you must iterate.
This is the real cost of putting together a professional-looking DIY cover — they take time and effort. Nothing is ever really free.
In all, I ended up with 30+ designs, all playing off half a dozen main design themes. For each of the main design themes, I played with color, positioning, opacity, font and title placements among other things.
In the end I settled on four main contenders and put a call out on Twitter for some feedback, trusting that the Twitterverse loves a chance to express an opinion. They didn’t let me down.
With over three hundred responses (which is the most engagement I’ve ever had), I got a good sense of which covers were grabbing people. Covers three and four (depicted on the bottom of the composite above) were the clear winners. My own favorite was the top right.
In the end I went with design 4 (bottom left) and will use design 3 (bottom right) for the next book in the series. I have a similar design ready for the book after that.
It was here that I got some feedback on the font, too, which many felt wasn’t working. Because of this I switched it, as described above.
All of this feedback came about because I tweaked cover after cover and placed the preferences of my readers above those of myself.
All the resources I’ve signposted, all the techniques and design theory, they all count for nothing if you stick to your ‘pet’ idea and close yourself to honest feedback.
Set your ego aside and iterate.
There’s a moral question that I haven’t addressed so far in the article, and which I expect many of you will have thought about.
The premise of this article is creating a professional-looking cover for free. However, is this even a justifiable aim?
Let me explain. Whilst I may claim I designed my own cover, in fact I relied heavily on the work of other digital artists, who weren’t compensated because of the ‘free Shutterstock images’ trick. It would be reasonable to take offence at this whole endeavor and dismiss it as immoral.
I’m sympathetic towards that outlook, but I’m left ambivalent. For a start, in the Wild West of the internet, where IP theft is rampant, I was careful to always stay within the bounds of the law. Nobody’s work has been stolen.
I have to assume that the artists know what they’re doing when they submit work to sites like Shutterstock. In the same way I’m happy to ‘give away’ my own work under the terms of Kindle Unlimited, I’ll assume others operate similarly.
For a start, I don’t have exclusive use of the images. One of the core images I ended up using was also used in Jeremy Szal’s cyberpunk adventure, Stormblood. As Szal’s book is published by a major imprint (Gollancz), I doubt the cover design was done on the cheap.
So all in all, I maintain that it is possible to create a great book cover without hiring a professional, free-software or dropping cash.
Would I do it again? Yes, although now I’ve started getting an income from my writing, I’d be happier paying for stock images at the very least. I found the creative process of putting the cover together deeply rewarding, and I’m all the more proud of my book because of it.
I hope the tools, resources and advice above prove useful for anyone undertaking a similar project. It’s amazing what you can produce with the right software, a few good resources, and the odd YouTube tutorial.
Good luck out there, fellow indie writer!