Think Like A Publisher #6… Covers and Publisher Looks

Okay, I have escaped unhurt from doing the “Basics of Production” chapter and I had a lot of requests to talk about covers, mostly the production of them. And covers and how to do them is where things get really spread out in author and indie publisher tastes.

So, just as the last chapter, when it comes to the “how-to,” I’m just going to list my way of doing it and my beliefs about why I do what I do. And each of you can take it from there.

But first, there is something more important to talk about that has to do with covers: Publisher Look.

Early Publisher Decisions About A Business Look

What I mean by that is pretty simple. All publishers, or more accurately, all imprints, have a certain look about their books. And honestly, for the most part, this is done on purpose because it helps readers identify a book from an imprint or press they trust and like.

There have been lots and lots of studies over the last forty years about readers buying from a certain traditional publisher, and the moment the publisher gets to be too large, the value of a publisher “look” vanishes. Customers, for the most part, just don’t buy books because they were done by a certain large traditional publisher.

However, as you go down in imprint size, or to mid-sized presses, and now indie publishers, buying from an imprint becomes a selling point for readers. And an imprint name is often a sign of a certain quality.

The buyer might not consciously know the name of your press, but they know they like stories or books that “look like that.”

Before 1950s or so, readers used to go direct to publishers to buy books. Now that practice is coming around again since traditional publishers have lost their hold on distribution and indie publishers can go direct to readers.

A couple of examples of publishing looks:

Back when paperbacks were first getting started in the 1940s and publishing was changing a great deal, sort of like now, all the new paperback publishers had very different looks for their books to attract the new readers. They all had distinctive logos, all had very clear designs, and all bought certain authors to establish a content consistency for their line.

Dell Books, for example, had a very distinctive logo at the top with the price, they numbered each book, and for every book (for about the first decade or 800 books) they put a map on the back illustrating the setting of the story.

This was so distinctive that Dell Map Backs are still collected today. I have about 500 of the first 800 Dell Books and I love them, mostly for their packaging.

For a time in the 1960s-1980s, Daw Books put yellow spines on all their books. And that became a buying point for readers. For the longest time, because of those bright-yellow spines, Daw Books could be seen across a bookstore. And many people both collected and looked for the yellow spines for top reading.

When Kris and I started Pulphouse Publishing, three or four of the finest specialty presses in the history of science fiction and fantasy publishing were in full production. Arkham House, Dark Harvest, Zeising Books to name a few. All of them had fantastic book design and beautiful covers. And to be honest, I just didn’t know how to go into that world and compete with those fantastic and very beautiful books.

So right up front Kris and I made the decision to drop back to a very simple design to contrast with those other books. (And it was something I could do.) Did I want to do beautiful books like those others? Hell, yes. But Pulphouse became quickly known for the simple look with high-quality fiction inside.

We did foil stamping on leather, the simple sketch covers, and simple limitation pages. And we also became known because I picked a top bindery and paid a ton extra for quality oversewn binding. And many book buyers in those days appreciated that.

But all those decisions were made before our first book came out. Over seven years we stuck with it for the most part. On one book about five years in I did a beautiful-covered book for a special project and one dealer picked it up and said, “This doesn’t look like a Pulphouse book.”  And he put it back.

So early on, the decision of a certain look will be critical to your long term survival.

If you don’t understand this completely, just think of a book series. If all the books look similar, with different art and titles, but you can clearly tell they are the same series, then readers that like the series can easily find the next book. That’s what your publishing business needs to do as well. Different, but similar, with a certain pattern to the look.

In this wonderful new world we live in, no look or design is permanent. Even though I understood this “look” issue completely, it took those of us at WMG Publishing almost thirty books before we started settling on some design features. And we are still fine-tuning the look for electronic books.

And now we are working on the POD look and unlike Pulphouse, WMG Publishing paper books are going to be far from simple. I finally get my wish to help design some really pretty books.

What Features Help Create A Look?

Here are some basic elements that can help create a certain look on book covers.

Electronic Covers

— Types of Fonts

— Use of Fonts (stressed, bold, thin and so on)


— Author name size and title size and layout

— Consistency of choice of artwork for certain types of projects

— Borders and shapes on the covers.

—Choice of stylish or realistic.

—Choice of photo or created art.

—Placement of the different elements on the cover.

Now, understand, one book does not make a look.

Scan down the side of this article through my challenge books and the other WMG books in the next column over. And then go on down under the challenge book covers to look at the covers of traditional publishers I have been in lately. You might not tell exactly why you can see a “look” in WMG books and you might not like it, but there is a pattern in all the books there that are WMG Publishing. It is sometimes subtle or by author (Dee W. Schofield books look different). But the look is clear.

Give yourself time to develop a look that fits your eye with covers. You can always go back and change a cover later, which I am slowly starting to do with some of the early covers of both mine and Kris’s books through WMG Publishing.

How to Build a Cover

I’m going to run through how I build a cover step-by-step and why I make certain decisions working with the WMG Publishing look.

There is no right way to do this. I believe in the Keep It Simple Stupid (K.I.S.S) way of thinking about electronic books. But your milage may vary. Life is far, far too short for me to spend far too many hours or days on a cover. I would rather be writing.

Step One:

You have a finished story or novel. Step back and ask yourself first “What would sell this book?”

Or even more importantly: “Who Do I Want To Sell This Book To?”

Step Two:

With your readers clearly in mind, find the art or photo.

Yeah, yeah, I know, so easily said, so hard to do.

So in this search for art, the first thing is decide how important the project is.

—If it is a novel you have spent a year on, then you might want to commission an artist to do a cover for your book and pay them a great deal for the right to use the art on your cover.

—But if this is your weekly story, you will want good art, but one that doesn’t need to fit as much.

Expensive Art

Commissioned art is often expensive because the artist is doing it for you and your book. So to find the artists to do that, you need to do some footwork and research.

First you need to find artists whose style fits your vision of your book. Look on any art site, or go to conventions and browse through art rooms. One place online to find artists is DeviantART.Com. If you like an artist’s style, contact them and ask them if they would be interested in doing a cover for your book and their rates.

Also on any of the royalty free art sites you can always contact an artist directly.

DO NOT PAY FOR THIS BY GIVING A PERCENTAGE OF SALES. No artist in their right mind would go for that and the accounting over the next seventy years will kill you and your kids and your grandkids. And at some point you will end up in court. Not worth it. Pay up front or by payment plan or find another way.

Cheaper Art

By cheaper, I do not mean less quality. Far from it, actually. The art world and the photo world is changing right along with publishing.

Right now a great income and exposure can be made by artists putting work up on a royalty-free web site and letting people download the work under a certain license for certain uses for small amounts of money depending on the size of the file.

Key Factors to Consider When Licensing Artwork or Photos for your cover:

—Only use a reputable site. There are many.

—Only use royalty free sites. (Back to my point above and what Joe Konrath and I have argued about with the paying percentages.)

—Carefully read their limitations to make sure that book covers and promotion for your book is allowed in the use.

—Give the artist credit on your copyright page.

Key in Pricing When Buying Art

Artists charge for the size of the file you download.

For my challenge short story covers, since they will only be online and I don’t mess with them much, I download a small file, so often it only costs from three to five dollars.

And remember, all the online publishing sites such as Amazon or Smashwords will not allow you to download a huge cover file. They just block it. So most of the time a smaller picture file is enough. Experiment and decide for yourself.

If you are going to use the art for a POD, then pay for and download the larger files and reduce the art size for the electronic edition. You will need larger files to keep your covers from having issues through the POD cover process.

Key Point: Consider Size and Shape of Art

Book covers are basically 3 to 2 ratio. Three units high, two units wide. So when looking at a piece of art, imagine the book cover.

If the art is wide and thin, it won’t work without you doing some graphic tricks. If the art is busy and bright, it’s going to be hard to put names and title over it. And so on. Imagine the art in the shape and you save yourself a lot of time later.

And I often only use just part of a piece of art. If that is the case, make sure the license with the artists allows you to crop and change their artwork to suit your needs. And download a big enough file that when you crop a piece out of it for the cover it is still large enough.

Step Three:

Study, study, study.

You must, and I repeat must study other covers. Stand in front of book racks and really look at bestsellers and see if you like the cover design, the font, the use of colors and art. Go through your own bookshelves.

And for heaven’s sake, look at tag lines on the covers and blurbs and quotes. And the size of them. All that goes into a professional look in a cover. And you will need to learn how to write blurbs and back cover copy for your POD books.

Then just browse online through Smashwords and Amazon and so many others, studying the covers that catch your attention. And figure out why.

Step Four:

You have studied, you have a piece of art or photo picked out and purchased that fits your story. Now what?

It’s time for the dreaded (by me) conversation on programs.

I use two different programs to do covers. For most online covers I use PowerPoint because it is simple and quick and decently powerful. For POD covers I use InDesign.

Yes, I do have PhotoShop CS5 and could use that, but that program is just too powerful for me. And that power would allow me to do things I just don’t need to do and play too long. I see no reason to do that. I did build a few covers in PhotoShop and then thought it was silly and went back to my K.I.S.S. thinking with PowerPoint.

Use whatever program works for you. I honestly don’t care as long as you can produce a jpg file and a professional-looking cover.

Step Five:

Set up templates right at the start.

If you have a template, you are not constantly inventing the wheel with every cover, and also a template will help you hold to a style for your publishing house.

Don’t be afraid to change the look of the book, because you want each book to be different from other books you publish, even though they have a similar “look.”

Step Six:

The elements of a modern bestselling professional cover are these:

—Large Title

—Large Author Name

—Great cover art or photo that does not distract.

—Blurb and tag lines.

—Bright colors.

Some tricks with electronic books:

—Outline the outside edge of the book in a heavy three point line so that any light color or white background does not vanish into the listing page. Also the line makes the book look finished to the eye.

—Watch your contrast. Switch your cover to black-and-white to see how it will look on Kindle and other devices. If everything becomes mud, change the colors and shades.

—Caution with drop shadows. Some use is fine to help words stand out from art or photos, but use sparingly. You are better served to outline the letters.

—Caution with stressing fonts as well, meaning doing things that you think look cool to the font. Twisting it, punching patterns in it, fading part of it out, and so on. I think WMG has stressed three book titles in over 160 so far. Usually it makes covers look like a beginner did them unless you know exactly what you are doing and have a reason for the stressed font.

Down the road I will talk more about POD covers and what is needed for them, but this should get you started.

Go Play!

Early on in this process there will be learning curves. Learning a new program or finding and bookmarking a bunch of art sites or trying different fonts. But as the process goes on, it does get easier.

And you can always change the cover.

So get out of the worry that if you design a bad cover you have screwed up. No, you haven’t. You’ve just learned something and you can just change the cover.

I have a folder already of art I have bought for a cover, did the cover, came back the next day and took one look and said, “Wow! That Sucks.” Or Kris shook her head while looking at it which is her way of saying, “Wow! That Sucks.” So I start over, save the art for something different, and go at it again.

Honestly, doing covers is great fun. It just seems scary from the outside.

So go play. And trust me, when the parts come together and suddenly there appears on your screen a great cover for your story, it will feel so good, it will erase the stress you were feeling learning how to do covers.

And you will never worry about doing a cover again.

This entry was posted in On Writing, publishing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Think Like A Publisher #6… Covers and Publisher Looks

  1. J Killick says:

    Jane’s top tip: Many photo / art sites (such as istockphoto) allow you to download a low quality proof of the image with their logo all over it. Use this when mocking up your cover in the first instance. If it’s right for your cover, pay for the proper version. If you realise it’s not going to work, you’ve just saved yourself some money.

    I learnt this the hard way.

  2. Jacqvern says:

    An additional thought, I would choose colors that blend smoothly, not very striking or intensely contrasting. The more intense color blending or contrasting, the easier is to lose the title and the name, when looking at a cover. The eye will “lock” on the striking blend of colors and miss the rest, IMO of course :).

    Thank you very much again for another great post. I wait for these last chapters to be issued in an e-book too.

  3. One production comment: my artist got ticked at what Powerpoint did to his work, so I ended up getting Photoshop (all the art on my site (NSFW) and for my covers (SFW) is commissioned). To most amateurs, the distortions introduced by Powerpoint working with small images weren’t perceptible, but they were there.

    On the flip side, he agreed to send me the full sized tiffs and let me reduce/crop to my heart’s content. Also, I basically have unlimited rights usage (there are a few exceptions), which helps offset the cost of commissioning art.

    • dwsmith says:

      One aspect of PowerPoint is the problem of getting the cover up to 1200 pixels on the long side that the online sites like. I’ve had trouble with that and just do it on the final JPG for electronic submissions in Photoshop. I know expanding an image loses some detail and such, but for viewing at postage stamp and slightly larger size, it’s no big deal. And they still look good on iPads and larger devices. But it is a problem.

  4. B.C. Young says:

    Great info! I work in the printing industry, so I know a little bit about design. This has helped me tremendously with cover design. However, I tend to forget about the b/w ereader factor. In particular, one of my covers completely loses it’s feel because of this. But I like the cover so much, I can’t bring myself to change it just so it looks good on a Kindle where most people never give the cover a second look.

  5. Wow Dean. These last couple posts have been a goldmine of information.

    I’m horrible with colors, with selecting eye-pleasing font colors that work well with the image. If I’m having that problem on a cover here’s a tip I use. Upload a jpg to and generate a palette to use.

    • dwsmith says:

      Chuck, not a clue what you just said. (grin) Or even why I would need to do that. As I have said before in this series, I am only 160 books away from dead stop when Scott Carter showed me how to start doing these things.

      So if I went to this place and generated a “palette” to use, how would I use it in PowerPoint? Or InDesign? Even for me this neeping just went too far. (grin)

  6. Megs says:

    What size should covers be? Someone said 590×720 px somewhere, but sometimes I think it’d make more sense to do a full print size and scale down. Does it vary on who you’re uploading to?

    • dwsmith says:

      Megs, it varies where you are uploading to. But I agree, if you can, do larger and scale down. With PowerPoint I have to scale up which is always a problem. Scaling down is always better if you can do it.

      My long side on all my downloads is 1200 px. I could get away with the 700 output of PowerPoint, but I scale it up to 1200 and then online they reduce it on each site and it looks fine. For the most part.

  7. C.E. Petit says:

    I’m going to pontificate here for a moment, because Our Gracious Host has inadvertently (ha! it was probably on purpose!) revealed why so many cover designs simply don’t work:

    You have a finished story or novel. Step back and ask yourself first “What would sell this book?” Or even more importantly: “Who Do I Want To Sell This Book To?”

    (paragraphing corrected, emphasis eliminated… I’m not a journalist 😉 ) This reveals the critical, fundamental, overriding error in cover design being made in commercial publishing today, and for the last couple of decades or so — since the consolidation in distributors picked up pace in the early 1990s.

    Commercial publishers do not place books with readers; they place them with distributors and chain-store “buyers”/product managers. In short, the s&m (sales and marketing, you filthy-minded newbies… although I’ll admit that there were safe-words being used in the bar at the last ABA event I sneaked into…) people at commercial publishers, who have the final say on cover elements and design, are placing books by appealing to people with very similar backgrounds who happen to work in a different location on the food chain. One excellent example of this nonsense is the cover designs forced on my friend/colleague “Jack Campbell” (John Hemry, writing under a distribution-system-forced pseudonym) for his underrated-and-subversive series of military science fiction novels about The Lost Fleet. Each cover has a nouveau Imperial Stormtrooper on the cover, which completely misrepresents the novels and characters… who are the command elements in a “space navy.” However, the s&m dorks — without reading the material — said that “military science fiction has to show an armed and armored soldier on the cover”… which, in turn, has turned off a substantial part of the potential audience of readers, but really appeals to the other s&m dorks who are working at distributors and chain stores.

    This is part of the freedom that the “independent publisher” has: Because the responsible person(s) at the “independent publisher” actually have read the works in question, misrepresentation of the contents will be on purpose — not appeasement of the expectations of their elsewhere-in-the-food-chain peers.

    • dwsmith says:

      C.E. that is SPOT ON!! Most don’t know that books for a decade or more have not been sold from traditional publishers with readers in mind, but with the one or two or ten people in the lines of distributors in mind. And often a top retailer like Walmart or B&N can get a traditional publisher to change a cover. Dragons sell right now, someone in the chain will say, put a dragon on the cover. Traditional publisher says sure, even though there are no dragons in the book. And then the readers get mad at the author.

      Another huge and wonderful thing about indie publishing. That traditional publisher stupidity is starting to finally break. Yeah!!!

  8. Gary Gibson says:

    I have an advantage in that I used to do basic graphic design for a living (when I say ‘basic’ I mean ‘no intrinsic artistic skill/can’t paint or draw, but can assemble pre-existing material in a more-or-less attractive fashion’) and can certainly second InDesign as excellent design software…but it’s not cheap. There are open source alternatives like Gimp, but they’re not fantastic in my experience. I’ve never used Powerpoint (receiving low-res powerpoint designs for printing in my old day job were the bane of my life) for design myself, but if it works for you, it works.

    One thought I have is that if you can find non-copyright pre-existing material, like photographs, you can sometimes do a surprising amount combining them and using transparencies and the like. At the risk of appearing to commit an underhand sales pitch, the cover I designed here ( involved nothing much more than combining three public domain images in a hopefully attractive fashion, each one saved to a separate transparent layer (in Photoshop) and coloured using some Pshop filters. Another filter was used to create a slight ‘dragging’ effect on the book’s title and on the cityscape. The images used are a snapshot of an American city, a full moon and the background to it all is actually a photograph of a nebula. I cannot pretend there’s any real artistic skill in putting this together: it’s just a question of figuring out what fits with what.

    • dwsmith says:

      Gary, if you can do all that sort of layering and things, more power to you. But alas, that takes a tone of time and needs a damn fine eye, a trained eye, to even try what you are suggesting and make it look good.

      But if you can do it and have the time, why not. I have the eye, and know how to do it, but why when it makes ZERO difference in the end product online?

      I had one friend ask me why I used such a program as PowerPoint (in a look-down-your-nose-kind-of-way). So we looked at one of his covers, which was great and done in a PhotoShop-like program with twenty-five layers and parts of five different photos, and then we looked at mine which was done in PowerPoint with one layer and a three dollar piece of art I bought on Dreamstime. Mine looked just as good. His took ten hours, mine took twenty minutes. And it made ZERO difference in electronic publishing. Zero.

      I don’t care how much time and how great layering and all that is for people who can do it. I am trying to help out writers who are just getting started and I believe that if you just keep it simple with PowerPoint, you will get books up while others are still tinkering with the tenth layer of a cover.

  9. Linda Jordan says:

    Thank you for all this! Just a couple questions, you suggest setting up a template. What size template do you work with?

    And you say that for POD we should download a large file–which would be what size? Since I’m planning on using the same art for all venues will that be an issue with Amazon, Smashwords, etc.?

    Also, has anyone worked with Pixelmator? It seems like a fabulous program, but that are a few reviews which say its fonts and lettering abilities are still very limited. I’m not a techie, which is why I use a mac, but it looks fun to play with and I think will get me the cover art I want.

    Thanks again for all the great info.

    • dwsmith says:

      Linda, not sure what you mean by “size of template.” Basically, just design your book look and then save a copy as a template when you are satisfied. Then when you come back with the next book, open up the template , save it as the new book title, change the art and title and blurb and you are a ton of the ways toward a finished cover very quickly.

      POD, if your art and other features in your book are too small, they will pixelate when given to a high-quality POD printer. It can do that for other reasons as well, but usually it is size of file. So use larger files.

      Electronic distribution sites like Kindle tend to like a cover to be around 1200 pixels on the long edge or higher, but not too high. You can get away with lower. For POD, I tend to like to go factors and factors higher than that to make sure everything is very clear.

  10. For a author or publisher on a budget, check out GIMP, it is a open source graphic design program. It is not as good as Photoshop, but it is free and should be more than enough for the majority of users.

  11. dwsmith says:

    A.P., that’s old thinking I’m afraid. Except to control your own time and to let readers know when a book is coming, there is no need to worry about publication times. Publication times are from print publishing, when a book would last on the stands for two weeks and then “spoil” like bad produce. In our modern world of electronic books, our books don’t spoil. So even though you wrote a Christmas story, it can and will sell all year round. You might want to draw people’s attention to it every year in the Christmas season on your web site or something, but otherwise, publishing schedules are just a hold-over from the paper produce thinking, or book as event thinking, and no longer matters at all.


  12. John Walters says:

    For my first individual e-stories (the eight that appeared in my POD collection) I stuck to public domain photos. NASA and other government sites, for example, allow the use of their photos for almost any purpose and just request an acknowledgment. There’s a public domain images page at Wikipedia with many links. It’s possible to find a lot of great images there, but the downside is that it takes a lot of searching, a lot of valuable time. However, if your budget is small to nonexistent you can eventually find what you need, or at least what’ll serve to be able to get up some content.

    But recently Dean mentioned Dreamstime in another post’s comments. I checked it out and realized it is well worth a few bucks to have access to so many great images and a good search engine with which to find what I need.

    As far as PowerPoint, I agree – it’s plenty good enough to do the job, at least for the individual e-short story covers. For POD I have to confess I get some help. I want those to be dynamite, spot-on presentations.

  13. Bridget McKenna says:

    Dean, what you’re doing with Think Like a Publisher is really important, and your contributions to the conversations going on now about indiepub are likewise important and valuable, and helpful and awesome.

    Never stop.


  14. Susan Shepherd says:

    Thank you for writing this post. In particular, the idea of having a branded look is hugely important and not obvious (at least to me) until you pointed it out.

    I do have one question, though. I use Dreamstime right now to get artwork for covers, and I’ve read the fine print on the licences they have, but I can’t remember having read anything about cropping artwork.

    Can you tell me what sort of things to look for in the licence to make sure it’s legal to crop and change the art?

  15. Chuck, not a clue what you just said. (grin) Or even why I would need to do that. As I have said before in this series, I am only 160 books away from dead stop when Scott Carter showed me how to start doing these things.
    So if I went to this place and generated a “palette” to use, how would I use it in PowerPoint? Or InDesign? Even for me this neeping just went too far. (grin)

    Didn’t mean to offend. I have no relationship with that site. Sometimes I use it to generate a palette (or set of colors), which then helps me select the font colors. Give me a big box of crayons and I’m overwhelmed, but give me five crayons that look good together and I’ll use them.

    I have no clue what “neeping” means. Isn’t that what those knights on Monty Python and the Holy Grail were doing?

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, Chuck, no offense at all. “Neeping” is a term that means a conversation that goes very technical on many aspects and bores all people listening. We are all neeping in these comments about programs. (grin)

      So this you pick a color and it gives you four others or so that match it and contrast to that first color. Is that right? Hmmm…

  16. Megs says:

    Also, two other royalty free image sites are Fotolia and Photo XPress.

  17. Megs says:

    Thanks, Dean, for the sizing info. :grumbles and eyes all previous hard work speculatively:

  18. Susan Shepherd says:

    Arrgh. Sorry, I just re-read the license and this bit jumped out at me:

    “You may modify the images in any way required for reproduction, or include them in your own personal creations.”

    So I guess that’s what people need to look for before cropping or otherwise altering the images they’d like to use on a cover.

    Anyway, thank you again for this very useful series.

  19. Martin L. Shoemaker says:

    Not free, but Paint Shop Pro from Corel is only around $80, and Amazon frequently has it on sale for around $25 to $30 in their “Lightning Sales”. That’s such a good price for such a great tool, I sometimes buy spare copies when it goes on sale, just so I can give them as gifts.

    Is it as powerful as PhotoShop? Nope, but I’m not enough of a graphic artist to notice the difference. It does everything I need, and more.

  20. Great article, Dean. Maybe go into which sites you think work OK for art? Or is that opening yourself to potential legal kerfluffle if someone misreads a user agreement? I see iStockPhoto and Dreamstime mentioned, wondering if there are others with usable user terms. Bigstock has looked OK to me.

    Curious about you saying you used InDesign for POD covers, Dean. Not especially experienced with InDesign – does it work with layered images? I’ve been playing with the templates you can download from Createspace, which are PSD (photoshop) format images with layers – one layer showing precisely where your image safe, title safe, bleed area, edge area, etc. all are on the image. Since their site generates the template based on your book size and number of interior pages, this struck me as being *incredibly* useful.

    So my method so far has been to open the POD template in Photoshop, build my cover there, save as PSD and PDF. Copy the front section, paste into a new box for my ebook cover, tweak as needed, save as PSD and JPG. Done. 😉

    Is InDesign better for this sort of thing? Since you need to submit the cover and interior PDFs separately, I thought using Photoshop here made more sense.


    • dwsmith says:

      Kevin, anything that works.

      WMG had a graphics designer do a wonderful cover for a book coming out soon, and the designer sent me all the stuff used, which included ten pieces of art and photos downloaded, twenty-five layers in Photoshop, and seven different fonts I had never heard of. And I am sure it took fifteen or twenty hours to do the cover. It is stunning. So if you all want to do that much, all I can say is have fun. And it is fun if you like that sort of graphics thing. But in the same time, I’ll be writing and listing more books. Sure, my covers are not professionally designed with twenty layers in some fancy program, but they look professional for the most part, at least the later ones. And at this point, I look at thirty minutes to do a cover in PowerPoint or ten hours to do it in PhotoShop. I can do a lot of posting and writing in those saved nine hours.

      But again, that’s me. I love the K.I.S.S. method. But any program that floats your boat, folks, go for it.

      And I do appreciate that people have been suggesting other programs. I knew that would happen with this post. Nature of the computer age. No right way, just what works.

  21. TK Kenyon says:


    These articles are fantastic! I’m heading over to your tip jar soon because I want them all (even though they’re here, I don’t care!)

    Also, I’d like to recommend paint.NET, a souped-up version of the MSPaint that’s in your accessories menu in Windows. It’s free at, etc., forever, and it’s really almost powerful as PS for doing fun things with layers. The “magic wand” tool is sooooo cool.

    TK Kenyon

  22. Martin L. Shoemaker says:

    I submit that if “we are all neeping”, then it’s not neeping, since by definition we’re all interested and hence not bored.

    Yes, I am the master of the nitpick…

  23. Diane says:

    Dean, I am pleased to read all the technical aspects of every part of cover design, including your black line around the edge of the cover if there is white in the illustration, and other comments about photo sites and different programs suitable to manipulate photos, even if other people’s eyes glaze over at the ‘neeping’. :-)
    So, thank you for your wonderful articles on ebooks and publishing.

  24. Megs says:

    Corel PhotoPaint is as powerful and usually costs less. It’s also a whole lot easier to use than Photoshop. I can do in twenty minutes with object-based editing what takes two hours in Photoshop using layers.

  25. Mark Jones says:

    Just to toss my $0.02 in, I use GIMP for my covers. Mainly because I’ve been toying around with it for several years just for fun, so I’m fairly familiar with the basics. Nothing sophisticated, just resizing images, adding text boxes, choosing colors; but trying to remember how to use PowerPoint seems like a waste of time.

    I use Dreamstime for stock images–they can be fairly cheap if you pick the right ones. They even have FREE images, though you can’t search them like the for-pay images, but if you can find one you like…you can’t beat the price.

    Dean, I’ve been doing my covers at 600×900 pixels, per one of your earlier posts. You think they should be 1200 pixels on the long axis, then?

  26. Ramon Terrell says:

    Ugh! Art overload. I’m trying to bend my mind around all this. I have microsoft powerpoint on my mac and had no idea I could do art with it. I thought it was only for spreadsheets.

    I find it funny that the prospect of writing a full length novel seems far less daunting to me than attempting to produce art for my cover. *shaking my head*

    Originally I wanted characters in action on my covers, as I write fantasy. Now I’m thinking that I may not be able to do this and will have to just do landscapes of a sort.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ramon, why? You can find some great art with fantasy characters in all sorts of poses and action. Just scan for fantasy art.

      One way I also find artists is on a royalty free web site like Dreamstime, if I see a piece of art I like, I go to the artist’s home page and look at their entire portfolio. And if I really like their work, I save them as a favorite and check their new work every week or so.

  27. Another vote for Corel’s Paint Shop Pro–I know, Dean, you don’t care, but I like it, and I figure if I get a lot of information from these comments, other people are looking for information here too!

    I’m pretty sure (which I think Dean linked to in an earlier post) searches free Dreamstime photos. It’s a search engine for all free stock images, most of which are available for use in book covers.

  28. Great series of articles, Dean.

    I was wondering about buying/using additional fonts. Are there royalty free sites out there like there are for photos?

    I use Adobe Photoshop Elements and just know the rudimentary basics. I’m techno-challenged and the learning curve has been steep.


    • dwsmith says:

      Fonts? Great question, Anne. People, help? Not a clue how to buy more fonts. I know it can be done, but not how. Or even how much. Thanks!

  29. As far as fonts:
    This article lists some beautiful freeware fonts that are just stunning. I am especially enamored of Fontin and have used it in projects for my professional clients (brochures and annual reports and what not.)

    If you’re looking for something a little wilder try They have all sorts of stuff that you can even browse by theme. Not all are free but many are either free or low cost or donationware.

    As a graphic artist I would offer the advice that you don’t go too crazy with the fonts. You’ve spent so much time thinking up a good title, why waste the effort by putting it in a font no one will be able to read?

  30. Edwin Mason says:

    I’ve looked around and downloaded a few for my own amusement. The fonts there are free or for donation; some are intended only for for personal use. Near the bottom of the page are links to other font sources none of which I’ve visited.

  31. Thanks for the sites with fonts. I don’t intend to go crazy, but would like to see if I can find the font that is used on some of the traditionally published Regency Historical novels. To get that “look.”

  32. Ramon Terrell says:

    As always, thanks Dean. :)

  33. Gary Gibson says:

    I spotted this (via, a site that offers paid-for custom ebook cover designs – Most of what they’ve got on display are for non-fiction titles as opposed to fiction, but some of their more upmarket designs look neat, assuming, that is, they’re genuinely unique and not just based on some template. For the money they’re charging, I’m assuming the former. Might be worth checking out. I think there’ll be more sites offering this service, if there aren’t already.

  34. has 10,000 fonts for download for $20 for commercial use. Crazy thing is, this may just be too much power for one unskilled in graphic design. Use them wisely!

  35. One thing that seems difficult to find information on, for an indie publisher, is licensing commissioned art. Getting commissions is easy enough. Pay a flat fee and no royalties, simple. But what about contracts? Some artists have them. Others do not seem interested in it themselves. Where does an indie publisher learn more about such things without paying a lawyer? I did a lot of research on this to turn up very little information.

  36. Frank Hood says:

    Thanks for the post Dean. And thanks to everybody for the comments. I have to wait for the week-end to check all these sites out.

    Like Christopher we used 1001freefonts because we wanted a very special font for China Harbor, but for other works a simpler font works best, I think.

  37. JohnMc says:

    Good piece as all your articles are. So great thanks.

    Being Scottish I am a cheap SOB. So I use a lot of open source software which is free except for the learning curve. A program I find that is fantastic at making covers is Scribus. Its a desktop publishing app. Built for true DTP efforts. But its as good for a 1 page resume as it is a 600pg tome. It has the following attributes for doing covers. —

    * Your background can be a full image. Can be resized on the fly. Set down as the lowest layer.
    * Your text can be the layer above. The text can be set in individual frames with different effects and font styles. Essentially you can build an entire template for that `look`.
    * Page sizes from minuscule to tabloid.
    * Can go as high as 2400dpi if its targeted to the right output device.
    * 2,4 page up if needed.
    * Exports to most known file types, pdf, jpg, bmp, etc.

  38. I’m loving this series of articles. I’ve been making my own covers, since I’m an author/artist. It’s fun for me, and a nice break from writing. It’s nice to hear that it’s not a newbie mistake.
    I start from the CreateSpace template, just to get the safe areas and spine size. Then I use photoshop. I haven’t used lots of layers, just photos or paintings I’ve done myself. I also have friends who are photographers who have donated some photos, taken to order. I get a free photo and they get a cover credit. I write multi-genre, so I don’t have an “imprint look” established yet (but I do have a logo). I’ll have to think about a look specific to the different genres (like you have for different pen-names).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>