Thursday, February 15, 2018

3 Ways to Get Book Covers on a Shoestring Budget

By J. Kathleen Cheney, @jkcheney

Part of the Indie Authors Series 

JH: Another new indie author is joining the faculty this month! Please help me welcome J. Kathleen Cheney, who'll share her tips and thoughts on indie publishing this week every other month.

J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). Dreaming Death (Feb 2016) is the first in a new world, with the books of The Horn coming out in 2017, and the sequels to Dreaming Death in 2018

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Take it away JK...

Let’s talk about covers, shall we?

Every self-respecting indie author spends time thinking about covers. After all, this is the first thing a potential reader usually sees. We’re told that it’s important to have the best cover we can get, and the question is how can we do that?

I started self-publishing in 2011, putting out copies of my backlist of short fiction. I wanted to make the stories available to new readers who preferred the ebook format rather than paper magazines or reading on their computers. Since I was planning to make most of them free, I didn’t stress too much over the formatting and covers. I put together covers myself, and the books did well enough. In fact, one of the novellas cleared well over a thousand dollars. At 35¢ per unit, that’s pretty good.

But fast forward to 2013/14 when I’m retooling my writing career…and by then, covers that had been acceptable in the earliest days of self-pub were looking stale and unprofessional. I took down the old ebooks as I reevaluated the self-publishing business, this time trying to approach it more professionally. I researched and researched. I learned new software. And in 2015 I was finally ready to put out revamped and new works.

For the new version of that high-earning novella, I made a special effort. I put it together with two other related novellas, had the book professionally edited and formatted, and hired an excellent cover artist. The work they did on my new cover captured the feeling of the novellas perfectly. I proudly published that book with its $500+ cover and…it fizzled.

To be clear, I’m not saying the cover is the problem. I still haven’t figured out what the problem is. I’ve tried promotion, price changes, sharpening the description and categories and search terms.

What I have learned, though, is that the most expensive cover I’ve ever purchased…did not guarantee sales.

I mean, this is the problem for all of us, right? Spending money on indie-published books is a gamble. How do we decide where to invest our precious dollars?

So today I’m going to talk about some of the decisions I’ve made in sourcing covers, and why I chose those routes, starting with…

Making a cover myself:

Ok, pretty much everyone is cringing right now. This is NOT a course I’ll recommend for all writers, but a simple, tasteful cover is not difficult to produce.

I have made some of my own covers, especially for ebooks where I don’t expect a return on investment. For example, I publish some ebooks solely for my Patreon patrons, I’ve given ebooks away to my newsletter list, and I’ve put some old short stories up for sale (at 99¢). For this type of ebook, where I’m not planning on making money, I need to keep production costs down.

(The above is a short story that was free to my newsletter subscribers and Patreon patrons. Cover made on Canva.)

For people who want a simple cover, one of the newer resources I can recommend is Canva. This is an easy-to-use graphics design platform that offers templates for book covers (Kindle or Wattpad) and allows you to upload your own elements or purchase theirs for a minimal charge, usually $1. (There are other, similar companies out there. A recent listing can be found in this article.)

Additionally, in my spare time I’ve been studying the art of cover making. Once again, this won’t work for all writers. But I have been working hard to learn to manipulate images on my own. This also gives me flexibility—to alter a book cover that I’ve purchased, make bookmarks and promotional banners, and keep my webpage up to date.

This is an updated cover that I’ve put together to replace an older one. Why? Because these stories are companion tales that go with a series of books that will start coming out this summer. I put together a new cover in a style that matches the design for the series. (With the designer’s permission, of course. Never copy someone else’s design without that!) The similarity will cue the reader that this volume fits with the series.

So if you’re game for learning to make your own covers, here are some tips:
1. Look and see what’s popular for covers in your genre.

2. Don’t just copy someone else’s work, though.

3. Run the final products by a lot of people, preferably ones who will be honest (one of my writers groups has a specific forum topic to do this.)

4. Keep your mind open to other options and suggestions for improvement.

Upside: Very inexpensive, and it’s easy to change out a cover if something better comes along.

Downside: It’s easy to end up with a cover that doesn’t look professional. Always run your potential cover by a few people before putting it on your book.

But I am also aware that many authors have neither the inclination nor the time to do that, so another low-cost option is:

Purchasing a premade cover:

Premade covers are less expensive than custom made, but it’s harder to find a cover that fits your book. I have purchased premade covers from two premade sites in the past. Each time it was because I happen to be scanning through the covers and stumbled across one that fit perfectly. Considering how many covers I’ve viewed through various sites, finding only three that worked shows that we’re often looking for a needle in a haystack.

For premade covers I’ve paid between forty and eighty dollars (although some run much higher.)

Here’s an example from The Book Cover Designer*

I think the photo perfectly captured the POV character in the short story involved, so I purchased this one for $40. The creator then emailed me, asked for the book name and author name, and changed his file appropriately. Many of these artists will also do a paperback spread for an additional charge, some reasonable, some exorbitant.

And I will note here that I have since replaced this cover with one I produced myself. The fact that the first cover didn’t cost me a great deal made it much easier to switch to a new one. (My version below uses the same photograph—purchased via Deposit Photos—but a font that I like better, a tagline, and some stylistic elements that match the covers of other short stories I have out there.)

I have also purchased covers from SelfPubBookCovers, a site that has the purchaser replace the text themselves, and thus requires a bit more knowledge of graphics. 

With this vendor, after purchase the author goes to their dashboard and types in all the lines of text (up to 4). You can alter the fonts and placement of the text as well as add shadows or glow behind the letters. Like the other site, this one allows you to get in touch with the artist to create a paperback cover at an additional charge.

I was also able to download copies with cover art only—no text—which are really handy to have if you can get them. That gives me a clean base for doing banners and web posts without the distracting text. (And if the site ever goes kaput, I’ll still have the base of my cover.)

In addition to these two sites, there are dozens of others. If you type “premade book covers” into Google, you’ll get a ton of results. (They’re even sold on Etsy!) Most custom book cover designers will also have a page of premades on their website, so look around.

Yes, it’s time consuming to find a cover you actually like, but it’s something you can do while watching tv or between writing sprints.

Upside: Very little graphics work for the author, less expensive

Downside: You have to invest a lot of time scrolling through dross to find that bit of gold.

Don’t want to do ANY of the work yourself, but want something custom without the hefty price tag?

Trying a newer cover designer:

When hiring any cover designer, you’re going to want to do research, but that’s harder with new artists since they don’t have as much work out there. So keep an ear to the ground in forums and in writers’ groups. Most writers groups have a space to talk about cover artists and make recommendations. Also, many writers are learning to make covers and are willing to take on commissions themselves.

The most important factor when looking at new designers is determining whether they can produce the look you want. Review their other products before you make any commitment.

I had already used two different custom artists by the time I was thinking about publishing the Horn series. I learned that someone I knew via a writers’ group was trying to build her own cover portfolio. I looked at the samples she had online and, since I liked what I saw, I contacted her about my three planned books. In the end, she created three covers for me that were really what I was looking for. I told her I wanted a CW look—pretty young people looking dramatic—which is exactly what she delivered! And the price for the trio of covers was very sharp.

All in all, I thought this was an excellent investment, and given that I was working with an artist (rather than a website), I had more input into the final product.

The artist here, Kate Marshall, has increased her prices since she started out, but she’s still quite reasonable. In fact, I ordered another trio of covers from her, which she’s recently delivered. (I haven’t done a cover reveal yet, so you can’t see those!)

In most cases, you can contact other writers with whom they’ve worked for references. Remember to ask whether they’re professional in their interactions, difficult to work with, or prone to being late or slow in turning over designs.

Upside: Most tailored covers, and least work for the author

Downside: A limited investment.

Of course, if none of these options appeal to you, try an established cover designer. There are a lot of great tips on this site about how to work with a cover designer, including these articles:

How to Find and Select a Cover Designer

Finding and Working with a Cover Designer

7 Tips to Make the Most of Working with a Cover Designer

Established cover creators can vary widely in pricing, so be sure that you’re reading their webpage carefully (most of them will have a separate page for their pricing.) Get recommendations from friends, and do some research so that you’ll know what you’re dealing with—especially in terms of the time frame—before you sign a contract!

Now, get back to writing so you’ll have more books to cover!

* For purposes of disclosure, I sell my own premade covers through this site.

From the world of Dreaming Death

The chief of the Oathbreakers, Amal Horn is one of only a handful of people aware of the true power the abandoned underground Fortress of Salonen holds. The Cince Empire wants its secrets, though, and will do anything to get someone inside. When the Horn find a stranger trespassing on the glacier below it, they realize the Cince have formulated a new plan of attack. Now the Horn Family must decide whether to wake the sleeping Fortress so it can defend itself against the Cince…or kill it forever.

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  1. I like the covers you made or remade best. Especially the 'Whatever Else' one. The font your used makes it look more intriguing.
    I do my own covers, which are probably not considered professional, even though I have been a professional graphic artist.
    merrie day

    1. One of the best parts about doing covers oneself is that we’re always learning and improving. So whenever you learn something that will work better you can change it yourself (without incurring huge expenses). And thanks for the compliment on the covers!

  2. Great post, and your covers are lovely. I've done a few covers - the simpler, the better - and I'm wondering if you could recommend good resources for learning more. Did you take a course (or courses) in graphics? So far I've learned most by googling what I want to do with Gimp...

    1. Sorry I've been slow to answer, but I was traveling.

      I am one of those people who likes to learn from written resources, so I purchased a "Photoshop Classroom in a Book" book and assiduously followed the lessons. Not everyone's preference, I know.

      And while I'm aware that there are a lot of excellent 'how to use Photoshop' videos out there, I beleive GIMP ones are less plentiful.

      For general cover style, I can recommend Holly Heisey's online tutorials ( but she uses PS instead of GIMP.

      And in the end, it's practice. I ended up making my pre-made covers because I wanted to practice techniques...and that was the best learning too of all for me. ;o)

  3. IMO, your name (your whole brand!) needs more space or needs more pop against the background. Shared Dreams is so close to the best of any cover. All it would take is making reading your name come at glance.

    1. Actually, the font on that cover is the size it is to match the rest of the series. There's an element in the series covers that isn't in this one (making the fonts a bit smaller), but I kept all the fonts the same size throughout the four covers. I really did consider changing that for this one cover, but since it's the 'related' text and only 99¢, I let this one slide. The others are now available here: