Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cover Design on a Budget

By Marcy Kennedy, @MarcyKennedy

Part of the Indie Author Series

You don't have to spend a lot of money on a great book cover.

A while back I wrote a post on How to Save Money on Editing Your Book. Since I’ve been covering How to Find and Select a Cover Designer and 7 Tips to Make the Most of Working with a Cover Designer, I wanted to make sure I also talked about cover design on a budget before I ended my mini-series on cover design.

One of the biggest challenges we face as indie authors is financing our books, especially when we’re starting out. Yet we’re told not to scrimp on editing and cover design (which is excellent advice).

If we’re working on a shoestring and can’t skim much money from the family budget, what do we do?

Swap Services

Everything in life costs either time or money. If we don’t have the money to spend on cover design, we could offer our time by finding an indie author with cover design skills and bartering our services. Maybe they need a proofreader. Maybe they need a digital assistant for a couple of hours. The worst they can say is no.

“The thing is,” said cover designer and indie author Melinda VanLone, “the cover is your #1 marketing piece for your product. It is THE most important thing you will do to sell your story, ever (putting aside the whole tell a good story thing, which is a given). That’s the time to do some side jobs, earn extra money, look into bartering if you have a skill of your own that people need (I have many times traded editing for cover design or other things), etc. The goal isn’t to simply get a good looking cover, either. It’s to get the RIGHT cover for your genre.”

Work with a Student/New Designer

This great tip came from author and radio host August McLaughlin, who’s working with an illustration student for her next book cover. “Since she’s newer to the career,” August said, “her fees are lower. She’s also eager to get her work out there, so we get to help each other (which is fun!). As a side note, I found her work on Instagram and had no idea she was so new to the game.”

New doesn’t mean bad. It does mean we need to make sure the new designer has the skills we’re looking for. The real challenge can often be in finding them. If we live near a graphic design school, this can be a good place to start, but as August mentioned, we can also look on sites like Instagram and DeviantArt.

Book Cover Ninja Templates

Because of how many awful covers he sees for his Ebook Cover Design Awards, Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer teamed up with Ed Lewis to put together drag-and-drop book cover templates. These templates also come with video tutorials to show authors how to use Photoshop with the templates. The package includes options for both ebook and print covers.

The benefit of these templates is you pay once and can use them indefinitely. At the time I’m writing this post, the cost is less than you’d normally pay to have a single cover designed ($97 USD).

The drawback to an option like this is that you’re sacrificing originality. It’s possible that other authors also using the templates will create covers very similar in look to yours, including using the same image.

Premade Covers

When a designer creates an original cover for a client, they’ll often put together two or three unique options. The ones that aren’t chosen are homeless, so many designers will sell these orphaned covers for a deeply discounted price.

When I was asking indie authors about techniques to save money, this was an option recommended by bestselling romance author Christine Claire MacKenzie: “Many of the Big Name cover designers (like Kim Killion) are doing ready-made covers. My cover designer, Gabrielle Prendergast at Cover Your Dreams, has begun doing the same. Her prices start at $49 and I know she does all genres and discount days.”

This is also how I got the cover for my Scottish historical fantasy that I’ll be releasing in early 2016. By patiently waiting and watching, I ended up with a cover that’s gorgeous and perfectly fits my genre and book.

If you want a premade cover, biding your time is the key. You might have to regularly scan designer sites and wait for a cover that will work for you.

99Designs and Fiverr

I’m personally on the fence about these sites because designers end up working for almost nothing or creating a design that they don’t get paid for (because their design isn’t chosen). That said, those designers have opted to offer their work on these sites and many authors have found success using them.

If you want to know more about how it works, I’d recommend you read these posts on How to Get a Custom Book Cover for $5 Using Fiverr and Looking for the Perfect Book Cover Design? The Crowd at Has You Covered.

Creative Series Design

Every book we write needs a new cover, but if we’re writing a series, we can talk to our cover designer about saving money and they might have ideas.

YA author Julie Glover did this. She said, “I had a series of short stories I wanted to publish, and Melinda VanLone worked with me to get a single cover design, but vary the colors for each one to get it a fresh look each time. It was cheaper than six separate covers for sure, and I loved the result!”

If you follow fantasy author Lindsay Buroker, you might have noticed that this is also what she did with the serial she put out under her pen name. In Lindsay’s case, she only changed the title. Everything else about the cover stayed the same.

Do you have any other tips for getting a great cover on a budget?

Marcy Kennedy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance fiction editor and teaches classes on craft and social media. She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at

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About Point of View: A Busy Writer’s Guide

Point of view isn’t merely another writing craft technique. Point of view is the foundation upon which all other elements of the writing craft stand—or fall.

It’s the opinions and judgments that color everything the reader believes about the world and the story. It’s the voice of the character that becomes as familiar to the reader as their own. It’s what makes the story real, believable, and honest.

Yet, despite its importance, point-of-view errors are the most common problem for fiction writers.

In Point of View in Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you’ll learn
  •  the strengths and weaknesses of the four different points of view you can choose for your story (first person, second person, limited third person, and omniscient),
  • how to select the right point of view for your story,
  • how to maintain a consistent point of view throughout your story,
  • practical techniques for identifying and fixing head-hopping and other point-of-view errors,
  • the criteria to consider when choosing the viewpoint character for each individual scene or chapter,
  • and much more!


  1. The RWA did a survey some years back about what sells books for most mid-list authors. Number 1 was the cover.

    If the best cover means spending money, then spend the money. It will be worth it in the long run.

    FYI, the second thing that sells books is the back cover copy.

    1. That makes perfect sense to me. The front cover makes a reader pick it up, they read the blurb, and decide on the story. It's how I do it :)

  2. These are some useful advice, thank you for that! Though I agree with Marilynn: if you can, definitely put the price on the cover! I'd rather have an artist take care of my cover than pick a premade design that could fit any other book. It would be like getting tattooed a flash: maybe pretty, but you might get sick of it after a while.

    There is only one thing in your article that might be of an ethic problem for me: "work with a student/new designer".
    While I'm all for giving their chance to everybody, going for the cheaper choice is not really helping anybody.
    As we all know, living off a creative work can be a real struggle, and professional designers with a lot of talent and experience might be forced to lower their fares if all the clients go for the cheaper ones.

    I saw that happening with photographers actually, not designers, but it's basically the same: the young new photographers offering their service for a ridiculous price, or sometimes for free (I should know, I've been one of them), when the professionals receive less and less commands. And when they do, they are asked to cover a wedding for like 200$ when they normally take 2000$, because people don't know how much their work is really worth (equipment used, transportation, time spent working on the pictures, plus the extra money that will help the artist live decently, pay their bills, etc). See where I'm going?

    On the other hand, beginners lowering the value of their work just to "get out there" can lead to a certain abuse from clients (again, that have no idea how much their work is really worth: "You had X pay 100$, why should I pay 200$?!") And also people using their work for free, pretending that it will help getting their name spread, without any guarantee that the artist will have any compensation at all. It's like writing a short story and giving it to someone who promises you that they will publish it in their collection, and you will receive no money, but great publicity. Yeah right!
    (sorry, a little bit out of topic here ahah)

    Of course, it's up to anybody to make their own choice, and once again, giving a chance to a new artist is never a bad thing! We all hope someone will give it to us someday, or are happy that someone did, if you are already a published author.
    But I thought it would be worth adding this little note =)

  3. While doing my wip, I'm always on the lookout for premade book covers I can buy and use. I subscribe to GoOnWrite, although I haven't bought a book cover there yet, but you can also check out BiblioStuff on Etsy for some affordable premade book covers.

  4. I've used the design templates from Ed Lewis and have come to really enjoy working my own covers. I don't use his images, so that's not a problem for me. They give me a base to use to start with and I end up with a more professional looking cover. The problem, for me, with paying a high price for a cover -- if it doesn't sell books, then what? By learning to do my own, I'm more flexible and can respond quickly when something just isn't working. A cover can be truly beautiful - and not sell books. The other thing learning to do it myself has done - I am able to create a more branded look to my books. (I still have 4 covers that were done by pros and I'm not ready to change them out, but they don't fit with my overall brand.) I also have learned how to do my own boxed set covers, saving myself tons of money there, too. For me, indie publishing is about having control. For now, I also need control of my covers.

  5. Janice and Marcy, I missed seeing this post too, glad I read it. I'm creating two covers for my books and enjoying the challenge. :-)