Your cover is arguably one of the most important selling points of your book.
As authors, however, we often face tight budgets. Deciding where to spend our money and where to tighten the belt isn’t easy. Covers are one of the more expensive aspects of production. Pre-made covers often start at $100, and custom, full-spread artwork alone can cost up to $4000 a book depending on the artist.
So how do you create an eye-catching, on-brand cover without breaking the bank? DIY! With a bit of skill and some market research, producing an awesome cover is simple and completely free!
From crisp, basic composites to full photo manipulation, I’ll show you the top 5 FREE programs and help you determine the best option for you.
In this article you will learn:
- Each program’s basic features
- When to design your own covers
- How to determine the best program for you
- Common DIY cover pitfalls
Top 5 Available FREE Programs (ranked in no particular order)
- GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program)
- Paint.net (not the Windows one!)
The first three are desktop programs and are essentially analogous to Photoshop. The latter-most two are app/browser based and, while more directed at creating thumbnails and info-graphic materials, are great for whipping up a cover quickly if you don’t have complex photo-editing needs. Personally, I use and love Krita, but it’s important to find whatever program works best both for your books and for your technical skills and artistic abilities.
Below, you’ll find a table of these 5 programs and some of their basic features. I’ve also included links to quick tutorial videos and my thoughts on each.
|Format||Desktop Program- Open Source||Desktop Program- Open Source||Desktop Program||Browser||App (Android and Apple)|
|Integrated Stock Images|
|Tutorial||Krita Tutorial||GIMP Tutorial||Canva Tutorial|
Krita is a Photoshop clone, so to speak, with great capabilities. It’s my particular favorite and what I use for all my more complex photo editing, including covers. I find it very intuitive, and between the forum and Google, I can learn how to do almost anything. It does require a fair bit of processing power, however; and while they claim to have a tablet version, I’ve only had success with the desktop version.
Download Link: (http://krita.org)
Tutorial Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TH2EDTNjvBw
GIMP is possibly the oldest of the free photo editors, and the most widely used by the artists I polled. The Honda Civic, if you will. Though its design is basic, it’s also classic and has virtually every function photoshop does. Though I prefer Krita due to familiarity, GIMP is my backup. Bonus: there’s a browser version for Chromebooks.
Download Link: (https://www.gimp.org)
Tutorial Link: https://www.gimp.org/tutorials/
Paint.net is a basic, clean program, with most tools a photo editor needs. My biggest criticism is the site looks like something that would give your computer a virus (though as far as I can tell, it’s totally safe), and some controls weren’t as intuitive as I expected, partially due to its old-school layout. That said, I figured out most of the main tools pretty quickly, and any bigger issues seemed answered on the forums.
Download Link: (https://www.getpaint.net/index.html?)
Canva was the most popular among the authors I polled. It’s great for quick promotional materials and covers if you don’t need something super complicated. I love using it for YouTube thumbnails and social media cover photos, since blank templates set to the appropriate dimensions are available. Their selection of stock photos is fairly good, though most are paid. My one quibble, since I’m often without internet when I travel, is, being browser-based, it requires Wi-Fi.
Download Link: (https://www.canva.com/)
This was another one that was new to me, but I really enjoyed the touch-screen friendly interface. Though there were few free options as far as integrated fonts and image, it has far more dynamic tools than Canva does, like text shadows. What fonts it did have, though, were quite unique and there were some great ones for covers!
Download Link: (https://madewithover.com/)
Is Designing Your Own Cover Right For You?
Even if you just lurk on the edges of many indie author communities, I’m sure you’ve heard the warnings against designing your own book cover: it’s unprofessional, it doesn’t sell, the art isn’t competitive. I invite you to shift your thinking a bit. Those are, indeed, hallmarks of poorly designed covers, and some DIY covers fall into that category, but so do some professional ones (looking at you, Fiverr).
For people whose creativity extends to visual art, a DIY cover can be a perfect choice. To design your own cover you need emotional distance from your book, a good grasp on comp titles within your genre and demographic, and a few folks who will provide honest feedback. Remember, your cover doesn’t have to be an exact scene from your book. It has to accurately sell what’s inside. Being honest about your skills and your limits will make a world of difference when deciding the best route and getting feedback.
Keep in mind, too, that cover design and cover art aren’t the same, though many people use the terms interchangeably. Cover design is the layout and style of the text in relation to the images, the format of the back copy, whether you include an image and bio on the back, etc. Cover art is the actual art and images. (Sometimes the text becomes so stylized it is, itself, part of the art–like with several contemporary YA titles from around 2015-2020.) For my fantasy series, I commission art for my covers, then do the actual design myself.
Other key factors, as mentioned above, are your genre and your age demographic. Highly stylized cartoon figures are common in middle-grade books, but darker, more atmospheric art is common for adult fantasy. Photos and graphics are typical for non-fiction, chick lit, and some sci-fi. My first suggestion is always to check out the covers of the top sellers in your sub-genre (i.e. your comp titles).
For more, check out this article on mastering cover design!
Determining The Right Software for You
The best program for you will be based on your skill level and needs, which is where comp titles come in. You don’t need a complex photo manipulation program to create a catchy, bold graphic cover for your humorous memoir, and a clean drag-and-drop creator won’t suit the needs of a broody thriller.
The five features you will need to consider when picking a program are photo collage, templates, text editing effects, layers, and photo manipulation.
1. Photo Collage
Overlaying images or combining without changing the overall appearance of the source images themselves. This is what many simple, app-based or browser-based programs use, and for graphic covers, or those where the title text takes center stage, it's really all you need. Many authors also use these for promotional materials.
Pre-made designs and dimensions for covers. If you don’t have the strongest background in graphic design, templates can be a great consideration. Often with just a tweak here and there and some custom art behind, you can have a nice, clean cover. Many of the app and browser programs mentioned above also offer pre-made design layouts.
3. Text Editing
Changing fill or adding effects like glow, shadows, and 3D. When I refer to text effects and editing, I’m thinking beyond simple changes like font and color, which every program listed below offers. Text effects are a bit different, and only more complex programs offer true text editing, often through layer effects. Many urban fantasy books have a piece of the title appear like it’s on fire or covered in magic, and using text effects is how you produce that look.
Multiple overlaid sections of a project that allow for dynamic editing. If your genre requires a more complex or atmospheric feel, using a program that has layers might be for you. You can add the illusion of smoke, for example, without permanently impacting the photos or art below. While all these programs layer each piece of the image, not all have truly dynamic layers with effects. Layers are most useful when coupled with text effects or photo manipulation.
5. Photo Manipulation
Changing the opacity, color hue or saturation of images or art or erasing selected sections. This is probably the most skill-heavy aspect of DIY covers, especially if you’re working with stock images, as opposed to commissioned custom art. Using photo manipulation can elevate a free stock image to looking just like your character and save you from the curse of the “cookie-cutter cover.” This is a feature the larger programs listed have, and is great for certain genres, though it takes some trial and error!
Words of Warning
There are 2 major points to consider as you craft your cover and get to know your chosen program.
Branding Concerns and Stock Photos.
I mentioned the genre/demographic aspect of branding above, but there’s more to it. Whether you write series or stand-alones, you’re going to need consistent branding. Consistent doesn’t need to be synonymous with matching everything (though that’s how I roll). It just needs to be memorable and recognizable as your author brand. You can achieve that with any of these programs; and many times, you can just duplicate the cover you made and swap out the art and title for the next-in-series.
However, if you’re picking up a new program to use for your covers mid-series or mid-career, I’d recommend running your previous covers through the new program to iron out any glaring inconsistencies so your branding remains consistent.
The next issue to keep in mind is that of the infamous stock photo. A few of the programs above include integrated access to stock photos, both free and paid. This goes for all sides of your business as an author: make sure you read the fine print whenever you’re downloading a photo, be it from a program you’re using or a huge stock site. The last thing you want when launching a book is to get it ripped down and have to spend your marketing budget on legal fees! Essentially, be smart: plan for the worst, hope for the best.
If you want more in-depth discussions on stock photos, be sure to check out the Legal Guide to Stock Photos.
When it comes to making sales, your cover is one of the most important parts of your book. Choosing to design your own book cover is a big decision, but it can save you a lot of cash and also enable you to find the perfect fit for your story. While many authors and designers use big-name programs, you can get all the same features with free programs. As long as you have a good grasp on what your book needs and a few members of the author community willing to give you honest feedback, going DIY is a fantastic option!
Have another program you think should be on this list? Let us know in the comments, so we can check it out for ourselves.
About the Author:
Sara Voorhis is the creator of Amphibian Press, a hybrid press dedicated to giving authors creative control over their work and boosting voices. She writes SFF under V. S. Holmes (the award-winning REFORGED series and the archaeological NEL BENTLY BOOKS) In addition, she has a blogging residency at Aspiring Authors where she discusses writing disability and mental illness.