One of the pieces of advice most frequently given to indie authors is to invest in a professional cover design. Here are some top tips to help self-published authors produce professional looking covers for free, when paid covers are not an option.
Good Reasons Not to Invest in a Paid-For Book Cover
Firstly, not everyone can afford to do this straight off. Some indie authors don't have to worry about profit-and-loss, and are happy to fund their writing as readily as they might a golf or tennis hobby, but many simply don't have the funds.
Many of those who do have the funds may be reluctant to splash out on paid covers if their expected sales don't cost-justify the investment. If you're an established author confident of selling plenty of copies, it's easier to “speculate to accumulate”, but for first-timers it's a bigger risk. Once they've made enough sales, they may invest in professional design services, and switch covers. Although that's a little chicken-and-egg, because better covers are likely to sell more books, it's a commendably business-like attitude.
Not all books justify such investment, e.g. one aimed at such a narrow audience that, even if it saturated its market, would not turn sufficient profit. Books aimed at raising funds for charity, produced on a shoestring, are in a similar position.
A final example of when not to invest in a paid cover design comes from a conversation I had with a professional book designer during Indie ReCon:
“If you're publishing a book as a favour for a friend, and you know the content is never going to be first rate, then the cover shouldn't give the false impression that it's going to be a five-star read – otherwise you raise the reader's hopes falsely and end up with disappointed reviews.”
That last point might seem at odds with ALLi's consistent advice to make your book the best it can be, but I appreciated his candour, insight and realism.
Some Free Book Cover Services to Consider
So, how do you get a professional-looking cover for free? That's not, as you might fear, a contradiction in terms, nor is it a hint to book designers to offer their services at no charge (though some services, where you buy completed custom designs for a few dollars, come close to that). There are several solutions that I know of already, and if you have more suggestions that you'd used to good effect, I'd love to hear them – please share them via the comments box.
Amazon's two publishing platforms, KDP for Kindle books and CreateSpace for paperbacks, both offer you limited facilities for creating a cover using their free templates. There is a reasonable range of designs and colour schemes, with suggested placements for the text, plus a supply of stock photos or the option to upload your own. The particular advantage of using these templates is that they're great for the technically under-confident, in that you know they will turn out at the right size! I experimented with these in my early days as a self-published author, and particularly liked the one that is reminiscent of Penguin Classics, as used by Dan Holloway in the image here.
Karen Lotter tipped me off about Canva, which can be used for designing much more than book covers. Many authors use it for marketing materials such as social media and website headers. It's free to access, easy to use, with a super-simple tutorial in short, digestible chunks, and comes with a mass of templates in predetermined sizes, or the option to set your own dimensions. It includes a large stock of graphics, cartoons and photos. Many of the basic design elements are free, and again you can upload your own photos, or use stock images provided on the Canva website. You can download your covers as jpegs or pdfs (you'll need the latter to upload to Createspace, IngramSpark, etc).
The paid-for images cost only $1 per download – so if you are creating an ebook cover and a paperback cover using the same image, you'll pay that $1 twice over. Each time you download the image, you pay the $1 per image – but you can also download a free watermarked version, as I did here (see right), if you want to test out your cover idea on beta readers before you commit to the final design. I should note that there is small print that requires you to pay a higher fee once you've sold more than 1,000 copies of the book, but at that point, most authors would be happy to do that, I'm sure.
3) Ready-Made Book Covers
I've never used these, but independent websites (i.e. not associated with specific publishing platforms) were suggested in ALLi's Facebook forum and commended by several members. These are exactly how they sound: ready-made designs complete with images, set up to suit various genres. All you do is plug in your author name and title. Of course, there is a risk that someone else will use exactly the same design as yours – but you can take comfort from the fact that with so many publishers (trade as well as indie) using stock photos, there are sometimes incidents where even really expensive covers crop up using exactly the same pictures. As I haven't used one of these sites myself, I'm wary of recommending any specific ones, but a Google search will bring up a selection.
Moving Up to a Paid-For Book Cover
Using any free book cover option, it really does help if you have an eye for design, even if you have no experience of it. If you're stuck for what would look right, check out other books in your genre and try to emulate those you like best, without actually copying them (it's illegal to copy too closely, as it could be mistaken for “passing off” your work for another more popular author's.)
Remember that if you start out with a free book cover, you're not stuck with it forever: you can aspire to sell enough copies to afford a professionally-designed replacement. There's no shame in changing a cover – in fact, plenty of publishers do it frequently, even for top-selling authors, in order to keep abreast of book design trends in different genres.
To select a great professional designer for your self-published book, you will do well to check out ALLi's Partner Members who are book designers, many of whom offer discounts, deals and preferential treatment for ALLi members.
Do you have a preferred method for producing free book covers – or any cautionary tales to share? Please feel free to join the conversation via the comments box!
For more information on how to find the perfect book cover, see ALLi's Ultimate Guide to Finding the Perfect Book Cover