Is Penguin using stock photography for cover designs?

I was a little surprised today to see the cover of Ruth Long’s book “The Treachery of Beautiful Things”. After being warned by a designer friend about using stock images (because the same image might end up on multiple book covers) “Treachery” jumped out at me because I’ve been working with the same stock photo for another cover design. Of course I assumed it was an indie published book; even so I will have to ditch the photo as I don’t want to design a cover so similar to something already out there. Turns out this book is actually being published by Penguin! Why oh why is Penguin using stock images for book covers? Isn’t that a little unfair against the little guys who have no choice but to use them? Or has independent publishing so threatened traditional publishing that they can’t hire their own photographers anymore and search for royalty free images like the rest of us?

Anyway it’s a beautiful cover, the book is probably good as well.

My cover was still in a very early (rough) phase, but would have been just as good as the one above eventually.




How to design a YA dark fantasy book cover: best book cover inspiration and tutorial

A great Young Adult Fantasy book cover invariably starts with an old-fashioned gown. Yes it’s overdone; however you need your readers to look at the book and say “Gee, that’s the kind of book I like to read.” Unlike non-fiction, which prizes creative ideas, fantasy book covers want dark, sumptuous, beautiful girls with long hair and flowing dresses, probably being overwhelmed by nature/dark forces.

Check out the following for some good samples:


So first off, find yourself a picture of a great dress. If you’re using stock photos, I’d advise against using the model’s face – it’s too easily recognizable. Instead, just put in half her body somehow… Then, blend in a background that means something to the plot, and a good font. You can also edit all the colors to give the whole thing a certain mood.

I’m starting with this beautiful picture I found on an Italian Bridal company website. Since I don’t have the rights to this picture, I can’t use it for an actual book cover; I must also advise you it’s safer to only use photos you are sure you can use. (That said – using an obscure photo from the web for an ebook/kindle book cover is unlikely to get you into severe trouble, although you may be asked to remove it someday.) So in the first step I sharpened the contrast and darkened it a bit.

Now I get to add the text. I’m titling the book “Nature’s Daughter”. (If this were a real book, I would have checked to see if the title was available). I want a flowery, script-like text for this book – but adding text is difficult because of the extreme contrast. I’ll either have to do it in black with an outer glow (1), or in white with a drop shadow (2), or fit the whole thing in a patch of homogeneous color (3).

If this were a print book, I think I’d choose #3 – I love the font and I prefer the text placement; however for an ebook the title is a bit hard to read and not bold enough. #2 is not bad but not what I had in mind, and I don’t like covering up the model so much. So we’ll go with #1 and add the Author name.

Next, I want to add some scrolly, flowery decoration around the edges. I look through my photoshop brushes for something that can work; I add one design to the top, flip the canvas around, and do it again to the bottom.

That doesn’t look too bad, but I don’t like the way the font looks with the decoration, so I start looking for a new font – I chose “Tiranti Solid LET.”

I wanted some color, so I added a gradient overlay; but the color isn’t light or dark enough to stand out, so I gave it a huge “drop shadow” – it darkens most of the bottom half of the book cover but makes the title pop. And…. I like it enough to stick with it. If it were a real project, I may keep playing. It doesn’t seem “magical” enough for a dark fantasy; I’d probably want some sparkles or magic.

So, I changed the decoration, matched the text overlay but then changed the title to white; this helps the title jump out even more; then I changed the picture back to the more colorful original.

What do you think?

Tips for working with a book cover designer

I learned an interesting lesson today from Terra Harmony at Basically, Terra knew exactly what she wanted from a book cover, and told her cover designer what to do… the end result was awful; so she found another book cover designer and tried to start over with the same idea – but the new designer said “no.”

 The second cover is a product of the artist’s imagination.  I gave her all the same instructions I gave the first artist, and she plain out said, “No.” Well look at the big balls on this chick.  I tried again, giving her the simple instruction of, “Water.  Fantasy.  Go.”  And….voila.

The first cover doesn’t work – I’m not sure who the cover designer is, but I don’t blame them entirely for the result. Although I really don’t like the choice of font, if I needed to follow the same directions (central figure inside drop of water?) I may not have been able to. The second cover design is by Keary Taylor (author of the FALL OF ANGELS trilogy, and maker of some excellent covers – this being one of my favorites).

The issue at hand is complex: in general, the more specific the author’s instructions, the less likely it will be able to be done well. This is both because A) simple covers almost always outperform and B) each cover designer has their own style and skillset – they know what they’re good at and what they can make look good. If you chose a designer based on their samples, let them come up with what works.

That being said – I usually prefer to be given some direction and ideas, rather than “surprise me!”. When authors give me extremely vague directions like “it should look like a best seller” or “it should be magical/professional” I have no idea of what they really want/like. So, although I may make a very decent cover, it wasn’t what they had in mind.

The moral of the story

Have some ideas in mind, but be flexible. Nearly all of my finished covers started out as something very different. Sometimes we abandon what we’re trying to do and go in another direction.

Also, don’t settle for a “just OK” cover. There are plenty of amazing book cover designers working for peanuts. Just about every indie author should be able to afford a kick-ass cover. (If you can’t, mow some lawns or deliver papers for a month).

Finally, don’t assume you know what’s best for your book cover. Give the designer some space, and if possible get some early drafts of the cover out to your fanbase/facebook friends/network/blog and get some real reactions.

Lulu book cover design options: choosing a cover designer

If you plan to publish with, you may be trying to decide which of their book cover design packages to buy. Here’s a breakdown:

Basic Book Cover Design: $130

For $130 you get a very simple template-based cover. The templates look very similar to Createspace’s free cover generator though; so I’m not sure why you’d pay when you can make one yourself at Createspace.

Premium Book Cover Design: $450

For $450 you get two nice book cover designs to choose from. Hopefully you like one of them! They are probably pretty decent.

Full Custom Book Cover Design $999

For $999 you get 3 great covers to choose from.

Is it worth the money?

I won’t say that all Lulu covers are ugly – they have some good designers working for them and can produce good covers; however as a big company, is taking a cut and paying the designers less (so you’re paying extra for the middleman). Comparatively speaking, these prices are about average in the industry. But that doesn’t mean that they’re a good deal!

The biggest drawback is that you only get to see the finished covers; if you don’t like them you’re screwed. It’s a big gamble. That’s why when I design covers, I get the author to help me choose colors, styles, photographs and fonts in the beginning, and keep them involved in the process – that way I know they’ll love the finished cover.

As for price – my $199 full print ready cover is comparable to their $999 cover design package. Although there’s no middleman and you get to deal with me directly, $199 is still too cheap for what I provide. I’ll be raising the price steadily, aiming for a comfortable $399 (still below average!)

If you’re looking for fast and easy book cover design services, don’t care about the finished product, and have no idea what you’d like on the cover, Lulu can probably handle it all for you. If on the other hand, like most Indie Authors you like to be involved and are looking for a designer to work with you (rather than for you) – and you also want to save loads of money, check out my book cover samples.

How to make your own book cover in Adobe Photoshop

If you have access to Adobe Photoshop and have time to play around, you can make a pretty amazing book cover by yourself. Making book covers is fun and – if you publish a lot of books – learning how to design your own book covers may save you a lot of money.

Here’s a short step-by-step of the book cover I just made for James Carter’s Scandalous.

1: Where to find pictures

Most book covers have some kind of photo-manipulation or collage, use one main image, or have a flat color background with a few small images. You need to find high-quality, high-resolution pictures to work with. To make sure they are copyright free, it’s usually better to look on paid stock image sites (my favorite is

For Scandalous, we were looking for a Victorian-looking woman who looked broken or sad; at first we were thinking a portrait with some cracks in the face… but then I found this great picture of a statue…. very dramatic. But I wanted to bring it to life a little. So I found another picture of a woman to merge in.


2: Using layers and overlay

Open both images in photoshop. Make a new document that’s the right size of your book cover, and copy+paste both images into the new document. You’ll need to move them around until they fit together right – to do this you can set the transparency of the top one to %50, then use “edit: free transform” to resize or rotate it. For this picture, the eye and the mouth wouldn’t quite line up right, so I actually had to double the blonde woman layer and then delete everything except around the eye, for one, and everything except around the mouth, for the other. That way I could move each piece independently.

When things are in the right spot, you can change the blending options (lower right, under layers… or else top tab “layer”+blending options). Change from normal to “overlay”.

To get the colors and shadows to really pop out, you should download some free actions files. “Actions” are automatic series of processes – for example you can find a “300 action” that makes your picture look like the 300 movie. Or, just change the hue, saturation and contrast.

3: Photoshop Gradients

Whenever possible, I try to place text somewhere with the picture rather than in a ‘text box’, but this picture has too much variation of light and dark (unless I put the title on her face, which I didn’t want to do). So I copy+pasted a section of the background that’s the size I wanted, then went to “layer: layer styles: gradient overlay”. You can download tons of amazing gradients; so at this point you’re just trying them all, changing the orientation, colors, etc until you find what works best. It was so tough to decide here; I ended up with a bold red banner and a soft pearl one.

4: Best Fonts for Bookcovers

I’ve read a rule that a book cover shouldn’t have more than 3 fonts. That may be true (although I don’t like rules). But fonts are hugely important. Luckily you can download thousands of fonts, many of them for free. Try not to use something to messy or dirty or creative – the more unusual they are, the easier it will be for them to become overused and not cool anymore. For most books, a very simple, elegant serif or sans serif font will work best. Make sure it has a strong contrast so that it stands out. A lot of novels and literary books have very small, simple titles – that may be fine for bookstores but if you’re mostly selling online, big and bold will be easier to read.

For Scandalous I ended up using “Doulous”. My favorite other fonts include:

Serif: Perpetua, Dante, Sabon, Justus, Portland, Trajan pro

Sans Serif: Epitough, criticized, Telegrafico, Helvetica Neue, Ebrima

Once you get the size and font right, go to layers again and play with gradient options or color overlays. Sometimes you need a drop shadow to push the text out a bit, but don’t go to heavy and avoid it if you can. Plain white text on light blue is cleaner and more stylish than the same with a drop shadow (again – this is one of the areas that differ for print books; print books will be picked up and held so they can have a stylish look without worrying as much about legibility.

Before you finish, you need to kern your letters (adjust the spacing between each letter) by highlighting the letter and changing the spacing in the “characters” tab.

5: Final Touches – Eyes that Pop

I used a photoshop “teardrop” brush to place the drop – make sure you download as many photoshop brushes as you can get your hands on, you never know what you’re going to need.

To make amazing eyes that pop out, you need to use the “pen” tool to carefully outline the iris – then right click and “make selection”. Choose 4-6 feather. Then with your new layer, you can set blending option to “overlay” and layer style to “gradient overlay”. Changing the gradients will change the eye color!

Here are two of the finalists… I prefer the white/blue one – but I think we’ll use the red one instead (for an ebook, the red will grab a bit more attention and interest.)




If you need help, make sure to download my free guide!

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The indie advantage in book cover design for ebook readers and web sales

If you’ve looked at my covers you may notice that I love special effects, texture, 3D letters, gloss, shine and sparkle. Normally, all that stuff is bad – because even stuff like drop shadow rarely prints well. To keep things reliable in print, most designers stay all from special effects on go with plain, clean and simple. And that’s fine – if print is your primary market.

However, most indies focus on ebook sales and will sell most of their books through kindle, smashwords, ibooks, nook and other ebook channels. This gives indies a huge advantage: if you’re not focused so much on print, you can play more with your book covers because the special effects do look good on the screen. Especially with most ebook readers turning to color, and getting only a tiny, tiny thumbnail image of your cover to grab attention, you need to use whatever you can to stand out.

This doesn’t necessarily mean your book cover won’t print well, either; printing technique is constantly improving, and I doubt you’ll really notice the slight loss in quality when your cover is printed.