how to make a book cover

I was just reviewing my old book cover design gallery and thought I’d share a modern update on how book cover design works. This will include important things to watch out for, whether you’re going design your own book cover or hire a professional.

What IS a book cover?

Your book cover is packaging. It’s 75% of whether a reader will even begin the process of considering buying your book. Most cheap book cover solutions look homemade and unprofessional, but the process is the same – it’s just putting it all together takes time and skill.

Best photos and images for book cover design

Book designs spend hours searching for stock images for book cover designs. These are mostly photographs. So for book cover “art” we typically photobash – which means blending layers together in photoshop. We might add a big face and a landscape. Or a small figure and a scene.

The *size* of your main character on your cover depends on the genre. Closeup is more personal. Urban fantasy is more action and character-driven. Usually the top half of a character in an action pose. An epic fantasy would have a big sweeping landscape, and a small character, to show it’s a story-driven world.

All stories are about people: so you need a *humanizing element.* It doesn’t have to be a model or stock photography image. It could be a scene with some personal items.

Making a book cover scene illustration

Most book cover designers aren’t actually illustrators, and illustrations in genre fiction don’t sell. Photobashing stock photos is the best option. The *quality* of the book cover will depend on how well they can blend images together to look aesthetically pleasing. It should look like one scene, but sometimes it’s a blended scene of two images.

For nonfiction, one perfect stock photo might work; but there’s a chance someone else will publish a similar book with the same stock photo. That’s the problem with using stock images, but it’s the only real option (more on that later). Most authors want a specific scene from their book… but that probably won’t work.

The cover doesn’t tell them what the book is about or what happens. It only needs to communicate the genre to the right readers, and look professional and beautiful enough to catch their attention and get the click. Also traditionally published or classic books need different covers: they sell in bookstores or through marketing, or because the author is famous. They can take risks with covers because the books will sell anyway.

Indie authors have a huge advantage online, selling ebooks and controlling our own platform. But you need book covers that look great on Amazon and convert well so you don’t go broke. For most genre fiction, you don’t want a detailed illustrated scene. You want one character in one environment, looking cool and hinting at the unique and intriguing world you’ve bet.

But you also want to fit in, not stand out. Don’t whine that “all book covers look the same” – and try to do something *different*. You need your cover to look vaguely like the bestsellers in your genre, so readers can judge in a glance if it’s what they’re searching for. But it also needs to be better than your competition.

A great book cover will have depth: a background, a character, and a foreground. Usually, a book cover designer will buy about 10 images for a cover, and build everything together. It’s tricky to make it look natural and like one realistic scene, so it takes a lot of time to blend layers. And you need photoshop… unless you use my free online book cover maker, which does most of the same things.

Book cover design process

Some of the stuff I made on this website is over 10 years old, I started in 2012 – the same year I got married. A few are just sample projects. Since then I’ve designed hundreds of covers, earning over $200K in 5 years. But then I kind of dropped the ball. I was getting too much work and I didn’t feel confident in my design abilities.

You see, some genres aren’t too difficult to find stock photos for. I was good enough to be competitive and get clients, but it was difficult to make really powerful covers with limited stock photo options. But around 5 years ago, Daz 3D – a software to render character models – got really good. So a *lot* of new, cheaper designers were making really stunning art.

It’s like creating a virtual doll; you buy the character, the poses, the costumes, dress them up and then take pictures of them in different positions. This 3D character is a transparent PNG, so you just toss it against a background and add text – and the cover looks pretty great already. But the faces look plasticky, so most designers do a “headswap” replacing the face with a stock photo portrait, add some lighting and texture to the background, maybe some sparks or leaves to the forground, add some text… done.

It could take dozens of hours, or it could take one. It depends on the amount of time searching for the right images to use. People started selling these 3D images and other stock assets *just* for book cover design – which was great – but increased the chances that designers would use the same stock people or backgrounds and have too similar designs.

This week I spent redesigning one of my fantasy series, and it was maddening. I probably spent 20 hours staring at the computer for each cover. Making tiny changes to the lighting, the characters pose and clothing and face and hair, trying to make the scene look natural. It’s honestly a lot of work to get good results. You can make a passable cover pretty fast with the right stock resources and assets. But it will look flat and lifeless, without getting the depth and lighting right and making everything cohesive – including the typography!

It can be a lot of fun, or it can be work. And some things like fantasy and science fiction are really hard… no pictures! So we had to photobash or find creative solutions to make spaceships or spellcraft. Stock resources like Daz renders made it easier to put things together. The best designers did overpainting of illustration for that illustrated vivid look.

I know about 20 really good book designers. Some of their samples are better than mine (though I haven’t updated my gallery in awhile. I’m still pretty good). That list represents what I think is peak commercial genre book design – for the hard stuff like scifi/fantasy.

Choosing fonts for book cover design

The other huge part of book cover design is the typography. Designers have to purchase stock photos, and also the fonts they want to use on your cover. They will have invested a lot of money into design resources so that they have the capabilities to do things in photoshop you can’t do, like textured font effects (my free tool does that too)… but you’ll also need to choose the right fonts for your genre. That’s something a professional book cover designer would know.

*Tip* don’t just hire some illustrator or artist to create something, and then add your own text. Use my templates at least. Each genre has 10 or 20 fonts that everybody uses, it’s not that hard to get right but you need to try – or hire someone really good. Not all artists are book cover designers, and you have to get the typography right. Here’s a list of best fonts for book cover design.

Book cover premades and templates

So here’s the thing: designers often make stuff that looks pretty similar. And they can do it fast, by making a cover that is awesome and would sell a story. These are premades, and they sell for $150~$750 depending on quality. Big authors buy these. I’ve bought a ton even though I’m a designer! They are great for inspiring a story and staying motivated; a small author treat for yourself.

But they don’t always get used, cover design trends change, and once a book is written we may decided the cover doesn’t work anymore. (I’m sitting on a horde of premades). But premades can be a good, affordable option: designers can make something cool and pretty and sell it right away, no fuss. Authors can get something immediately, exactly as they see it. No complicated process trying to express their story and ideas.

Book cover templates are something else: it’s a sample cover, with typography that you can edit and save yourself. There are some options for online design software, like Canva, but they usually make flat covers (no blending, no erasing) and have limited fonts and text effects, that don’t work for most genres. Years ago I made a package of book cover templates in microsoft word and they’ve been popular – but they’re a makeshift solution. A few sites sell “ebook covers” that are loud and poorly designed, meant for online marketing and salesy stuff.

So I’m excited about the new cover design tool and templates I’m making for, and I think they’ll be a great, cheaper option (you provide your own art, but I have tutorials and resources for that). Basically unlimited book covers you can easily design yourself.

AI art and midjourney for book cover design

I’m suddenly demotivated and galvanized (at the same time). I was building templates for my new tool and playing with midjourney… and I stumbled on some prompts to get amazing AI art for book cover design. Combined with my templates (I spent months just coding the text effects), you can seriously make an amazing, $1000-cover for nearly free. It’s too powerful, it’s too easy. It makes me feel like quitting cover design and focusing exclusively on my writing – to make sure I have the best covers before anyone else does.

I’ll probably share the templates first, and then start building the new cover design tutorials, which will include a section on AI art and midjourney (with the exact prompts I’m using). But I’ll do it later, in a few months. I want to publish full series with my new AI covers and really establish a strong branded author platform, before everybody else starts using my resources to upgrade their covers. I think we’re going to see some huge shifts in publishing and book design, so there’s a lot of controversy right now.

But authors will continue to seek solutions, so they can get a great cover and publish their book, whether that’s custom, premade or DIY template book covers. Whatever you’re looking for, we have it! So stick around to watch tutorials and learn more about book cover design – or just let us do it for you!

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