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The Non-Artists Guide to Creating an eBook Cover

The only thing worse than a horrible ebook cover is no cover at all. Despite what people like to believe, books are always judged by their cover and ebooks are no exception. You only have to look as far as Apple’s iPods and iTunes to realize that people like to use images to identify their digital media. Apple even went so far as to buy the company that developed the CoverFlow technology. They then built functionality into iTunes that allows you to download Album art for any track in your iTunes library, not just those you’ve purchased through the iTunes store. Apple understand people like visuals even when dealing with audio.

A good cover makes it very easy to identify your ebook at a glance. It can also convey a lot of information to the reader. As a minimum it should identify the genre but can also set the tone of the novel and pique the reader’s interest.

Some lucky authors have the artistic talent to create their own book cover. However I suspect these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

One approach is to commission an artist to create a cover for you. The cheapest solution would be to have a couple of stock images photoshopped together by a professional. You could probably get this done for around $100. If you want original graphics created, then the cost would be significantly higher.

If your ebook is free or you’re not confident it will be a bestseller, then you’re probably reluctant to spend several hundred dollars to have a cover designed.

The answer is to create your own. It’s not that hard and you don’t need to be an artist. I have zero artistic talent and yet was able to create a passable cover as you’ll see below.

The best approach is to keep it really simple. All a cover needs is a single image, and some text for the title and author byline.

You may be tempted to grab your digital camera and try and create your own image. Don’t, unless you’re a great photographer.

Instead, head over to one of the online stock photo libraries, such as iStockPhoto.com or BigStockPhoto.com. These libraries have an enormous collection of professional photos that you can purchase for a few dollars.

These sites all show you a small preview of each image in their library. The image will have a watermark stamped over the top. When you purchase an image, you can choose from a range of sizes and the watermark will be removed. The larger the image the more you pay.

One tip I have is to use the watermarked preview images while you’re experimenting with different designs. Once you’ve settled on a design you can then purchase the image(s) you’ve selected. This saves you from purchasing images that you end up not using.

When purchasing an image, you should always purchase one of the larger sizes, at least greater than screen size. The reason is you can easily scale an image down without a loss of quality but you can’t do the reverse. Scaling a small image up will result in a very blocky, unprofessional look. The other reason to purchase a larger image is it allows you to choose just a subsection of the original image (i.e. crop) for your cover and still maintain a reasonable image size.

 If you don’t want to spend anything at all, you can also go to flickr.com. Most photos cannot be used without permission of the photographer. However if you go to the Advanced Search, you can choose to only search for Creative Commons licensed images that are free for commercial use.

You can find suitable images for your cover by doing a keyword search. For example if your novel is set in Hawaii, you can use the keywords ‘diamond head’ to bring up images of it’s most famous landmark. Another approach is to use a keyword describing the predominant tone of you novel – e.g dark, sinister. Another option is to choose something completely abstract.

Once you’ve selected one or more likely images, the next step is to use a basic photo editing tool that is capable of doing simple image adjustments and overlaying text on the image. Most digital cameras come with such software. For example I use Photoshop Elements which is a cut down version of Photoshop and is available for Mac and PC. Another good option for Windows users is Paint.Net. For Mac users there is the free Seashore which is based on GIMP.

The first operation you will want to perform when you load your image into the editor is to crop it to the right proportions. A traditional cover image’s width is 2/3rds its height. For example the images used on this site are 160 pixels wide x 240 pixels high. You want to keep your image as large as possible, so you might elect to crop your cover image to 1600 x 2400 pixels. It’s very easy to scale this down to a smaller size later on – just remember that you always want to keep the original at its full size.

Given that ebook covers are not constrained by the dimensions of the physical page, you may be tempted to create a cover image with different proportions. However I would recommend sticking with the standard 2/3rds ratio unless you’ve got a really good reason. This is because when your book is placed in a catalogue it’s cover needs to be the same proportions as all the others. This is particularly important for CoverFlow type displays that let you visually flip through a collection of ebooks. If your cover is different proportions, you risk having it squashed (changing the aspect ration) to fit the standard.

Cropping an image to standard dimensions
Cropping an image to standard dimensions

There are a few basic image processing operations you can use to change to mood of your image. These are colour and lighting adjustments such as contrast, brightness, and hue. For example, you could darken an image to create a more sinister  tone.

The same image with adjusted brightness & contrast
The same image with adjusted brightness & contrast

Finally most photo editing applications provide a number of effects (often called filters) you can apply to an image. Like video transitions, these can easily be abused, especially by the novice who discovers them for the first time. They are however very effective at turning a photograph into a more artistic, abstract image. Covers often work better if you can remove the fine detail and these effects are great  for doing this.

 Here is a small selection of  effects provided by Photoshop Elements.

Photoshop Elements effects
Photoshop Elements effects

I used the Paint Daubs effect to transform the original image for Tourist into something that looks more like a painting.

Image has been cropped & had Paint Daubs effect applied
Cropped with Paint Daubs effect applied

The final step is to overlay the title and author text onto your image. There are a huge variety of fonts available. You can choose a font that adds to the tone of your novel or just stick with one of the classic fonts. There are no rules as to how the title and author text should be laid out. However unless you’re a bestselling author I would resist the temptation to fill the cover with your own name. The title should have more emphasis than the author byline and hence should be in a larger font. Make sure you use a colour for the title that ensures it doesn’t get lost in the background image. For layout inspiration, have a look at other book covers.

Final Tourists cover
Final cover image

When you come to save your image there are a multitude of image formats you can use. The most important thing is to save the original image in the native format used by your image editing software at full size. This will ensure no image quality will be lost and any layers used (e.g. when overlaying the text) will be preserved. This allows you to go back at any time and make further adjustments. It also means  you can use the original to create smaller images of various sizes.

When you come to save your cover for use on the web or for use as a cover in one of the various ebook formats, then the jpeg (.jpg) image format is your best choice. Every application supports jpeg and it provides a good tradeoff between file size and image quality. You can adjust the quality used when saving your image. Higher quality will produce larger image files whereas lower quality will produce smaller files. Photoshop Elements has a neat ‘Export to the Web’ command that shows a preview of the resulting image as you adjust the image quality.

That’s it. You’ve spend months to years writing your novel. Now it’s worth spending a little extra effort designing a cover before publication. All you need is a few basic computer skills. If you don’t feel up to the task and don’t want to pay a professional, see if you can find a computer-literate friend to help out.

11 Responses so far

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Wonderful article, thank you! …
I had been thinking about buying Photoshop Elements for my Mac. Do you know if Photoshop Elements saves the book cover as a high-quality PDF file ? … I would want to use the book cover for an ebook, and also for a print on demand paperback.
Thanks … RW

Hello Robin,

Paint programs such as Photoshop Elements will not save an image directly to a PDF. You will need a separate application such as Adobe Acrobat to combine your cover image and ebook text into a PDF file. There are many 3rd party programs that will create a PDF file for you – probably a good topic for another blog post.

If you’re creating a cover for a print on demand ebook, remember to work at the maximum resolution possible.

Good luck!

Thanks for the tips on the affordable stock photo sites. I bookmarked them.

I can also personally recommend http://www.fotolia.com for royalty free stock photos too.

Please, hire a web designer to do your cover work. Even if it’s a few hours, it will be worth it. Don’t try to do this yourself–you’ll be doing digital books an injustice.

I agree that good cover are is essential for good book exposure! Good luck creating your own covers. I think that investing in a cover artist is an excellent idea if you are even a little unsure you’ll be able to pull it off.

I download a lot of PLR ebooks on http://www.myfree-ebooks.org/ and therefore needed to create an ebook cover for them but had no idea how to do that, but thanks to your article i now do =)

None of the images are showing.

It’s in reality a nice and useful piece of info. I’m glad that you shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

I can create stylish and professional 3D and flat ebook covers, starting from $5. You will sell more books with a great-looking cover. Over 20 different styles available. You can check out my website and design portfolio at http://www.e-bookcoverdesign.com

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