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Graphic design is a skill that requires a lot of practice to master, and making book covers isn’t as easy as some people might think. But as an indie author, I know most of us are on a budget, and that leads many authors to try their hand at creating their own e-book covers instead of hiring a professional designer.
I’m one of those professionals. If you’re planning to design your own cover, here are eight guidelines for you based on my own experience and knowledge.
1. Get familiar with the covers of best-selling books in your genre.
Your cover is often the first thing readers see when they’re browsing digital shelves for their next read. Ideally, your cover should both intrigue them and look like it belongs to a book they would like.
You can see what covers are succeeding by checking out best-selling book lists on Amazon (start here). Avoid traditional-publishing-based book lists like The New York Times Best Sellers because traditional book cover designs are often much different than the digital-first ones I’m talking about here.
Don’t copy the covers you see, but get inspiration from them. What types of imagery do they use? What style of fonts?
As an example, if you’re designing a shifter romance cover, you’ll probably need imagery that suggests your main character’s shifter form.
Another way to use this research is to look at the overall colors of the covers and pick one that will stand out. Don’t go too different, because your reader needs to feel like your book is similar to other books they like, but an uncommon color can draw their eye on a page full of thumbnails.
2. Start with a file in the correct dimensions and resolution.
Exact dimensions can vary depending on which bookstore’s guidelines you follow. But for the sake of your sanity, don’t worry about following every store’s different sizes. (I’ve heard Apple Books can be an issue with this, but I don’t publish directly to them. I use Draft2Digital, and one book cover size is all you need there.)
The main thing you want to do is have a high-resolution file to cover your bases. I start with 1800 pixels by 2700 pixels. This satisfies Amazon’s guidelines and Vellum’s (a popular e-book formatting program). You also want to make sure your cover is a vertical rectangle, i.e. longer vertically than horizontally.
Your resolution is different than your dimensions. This is how many pixels per inch (dots per inch or DPI for print) your image has. For digital screens, you need a resolution of 72 pixels per inch. (For print, you need 300.)
3. Mind copyright.
Make sure you get your images and fonts from reputable sources. Don’t just do a Google image search and nab a photo you like—that’s illegal. You’ll want to get your files from stock photography sites or free stock sites with clear licenses.
If you are using photos of people with visible faces, there needs to be a model release with each photo. You usually don’t need to worry about this with paid stock photo sites, but free sites typically don’t have model releases.
Free site or not, always check the license! Make sure you are licensed to use the photo for an e-book cover.
4. Don't distort images or text.
Start with high-res images and size down as needed. Don’t ever make a photo bigger than the original because it will become blurry.
(If a photo is a vector, you can make it bigger, but you have to be using a program that can deal with vectors, such as Adobe Illustrator. Most stock photos are JPG files, which are not vectors.)
Also don’t stretch an image into an unnatural shape. This is one way to make a cover look extremely amateur.
Don’t stretch text, either.
5. Choose readable fonts—and not more than two typefaces.
As a general rule of thumb, less is more when it comes to your cover. Using multiple fonts and a ton of images is something best left to professionals or people with a lot of experience.
In general, don’t use more than two typefaces. For example, one for the title and one for the author name. And choose fonts you can easily read. Your potential reader needs to be able to discern your title, ideally at thumbnail size. At full size, they should be able to read your author name as well.
6. Use contrasting colors for fonts and images.
Make sure you use light text on a dark background and dark text on a light background. Again, you want your potential fan to be able to read your title and author name!
7. Use a grid for composition.
A grid can help you figure out where to place images and text.
Personally, I like to follow the rule of thirds, which recommends that you divide your piece into 9 sections and place important items where the lines intersect. It works well for book covers because you can place your title and author name in one third and your image(s) can take up the other two thirds.
A grid can also help you keep covers consistent if you are following author branding or creating a set of series covers. For example, I have the same margin on all my book covers for books by Lyssa Dering and set my author name the same number of pixels from the bottom of every cover.
8. Make sure you can tell what’s on the cover at full size and at thumbnail size.
I’ve mentioned this idea throughout this post, but it’s worth repeating once more. Your cover needs to be legible at both full size and thumbnail size because your reader is going to encounter your book on the internet first, most likely on a digital shelf.
So check to see what your cover looks like both large and small.
I hope this post has given you a few things to keep in mind when creating your own book covers.
If it all of it sounds intimidating, I get it. Graphic design isn’t easy, and I haven’t given instructions on how to implement these guidelines within software like Photoshop. But like any skill, if you have the time and determination, you can learn. A Google search will lead you to a tremendous amount of tutorials. And if you’d rather leave it to a professional designer, that is always an option for you.