The average indie author doesn’t have very much money to spend on producing books, especially when they first start. I’m with you. The costs pile up fast.
Tools (computer and software)–$150 and up. Fortunately, this is a one-time or infrequent expense.
Copyediting–$500 and up for a novel-length work.
Cover–$100 and up for something worth paying for.
And these are just the obvious expenses. Not included: bribing your friends for feedback, attending and travelling to seminars, conferences, and/or conventions, memberships in assorted professional organizations, ISBNs, copyright protections, formatting, proof copies, structural editing, proofreading, and on and on.
Once you realize the cost of producing a quality book has four digits, you look for ways to reduce that number. This is why we have blogs, social media accounts, and email newsletters–all that stuff is free. Many new indie authors use friends–qualified or not–to beta read, copyedit, and proofread their first book or two. But that cover? Psh, anyone can make a book cover. Right?
Unless you already have experience and some expertise using a robust graphics program, such as Photoshop, GIMP, or CorelDraw, stop. You cannot make a quality book cover in Paint or the Createspace Cover Creator*. Full stop. Don’t do it, because those covers scream “AMATEUR HOUR!” Understanding how to use the majority of the tools in your graphics program of choice is essential. Take a class or run through tutorials. Some folks learn best by trying to do, but you have to get the basics down before you get to work.
Once you’ve got that under your belt, learn some basic graphic design. As above, you can take classes or run through tutorials. If you can find a tutorial specific to book covers, that’s great, but overall design concepts are important too.
Ready to get cracking? Great.
Step 1: Put Photoshop away and do some research. Go to Amazon. Browse Kindle books. Click into the subgenres until you find the one your book will fit into. Look at those covers. Check the Top 100. Do this at least twice over 2-4 weeks, because the subcategories fluctuate. These covers are what people associate with the type of book you’re trying to sell. You want your book to fit into this group well enough for readers to see it belongs in that category.
Are they illustrated or designed? Simple or complex? Which ones stand out and catch your eye the most? Which ones look stupid to you? What fonts do they use? Do they feature people or things? Get the idea.
If illustration is the norm for your subcategory, take a long, hard look at your finances and strongly consider hiring an artist, at least for the illustration itself. You can still design a cover and fit in, but the subtleties of manipulation are probably beyond your skills.
Step 2: Come up with a basic idea for the cover of your book. If you have no idea, start with your protagonist(s). Warning! The more people (or any other kind of element) you put on your cover, the more challenging the design becomes to balance. Don’t use more than two people, and use only one if you can. A book cover isn’t the same thing as a movie poster. Movie posters use recognizable stars or lavish costumes/makup/critters to sell the story. Book covers use elements to explain what the book is about and project an overall commitment to quality on the part of the author.
Step 3: Find stock images. There are over a dozen good stock image sites, and you can also find free images of high quality on a number of sites. Do not use an image on your book cover unless you pay for a standard license (at this stage, extended licenses are unnecessary) or are absolutely sure you’re allowed to use it for commercial purposes for free. Random images on the internet are not free for commercial purposes unless explicitly described as such by surrounding text.
Step 4: Find fonts. If you don’t already have the most popular fonts in your subgenre, get them. You may have to purchase them, or you may be able to find them for free. If you do find a free font you like, make sure it’s free for commercial use.
Step 5: Check the file size requirements for everywhere you plan to publish your book. Ebook covers and print covers are different sizes and shapes.
Step 6: Arrange elements and manipulate them. Rearrange and re-manipulate. Look up tutorials for specific effects you want to create. Save intermediate versions with stuff you like so you can revert. Show your work to someone else for an outside opinion. Just like with the text of your book, you’ll grow immune to the glaring faults. Rearrange and re-manipulate again.
Step 7: When you feel like you’ve got a final version, compare it to the current Top 100 for your subgenre. Ask someone else to perform that comparison. If it seems like it fits in and doesn’t inaccurately depict the book, congratulations, you’ve got a cover. If not, go back to Step 6.
Looks like a lot of work, doesn’t it? That’s why so many of us pay people to do this. If you aren’t willing to invest your time in learning basic design principles and how to use the tools to create your cover, pay someone who already has. If you aren’t willing to put in the time required to find stock images and manipulate them, pay someone who is. Pre-made covers are often good quality for a low price, and an excellent way to begin your career.
Good luck, intrepid indie.
*This isn’t strictly true, but Paint and similarly simplistic programs don’t have complex enough tools to be worth using for the vast majority of covers. They work for poetry books, and that’s about it.