DIY book cover design—Part 3: Setting up your file

Ah, here's the fun part: setting up your book cover file. (By fun, you understand, I mean not fun.) If you're here and reading this, there's a very good chance that you're a self-published author—after all, there aren't many authors designing their own covers for a traditionally-published book. Most indie authors seem to make their books available on Amazon; those who don't probably should. 

So in today's series entry we're going to focus on setting up your book cover for publication on Amazon. In most cases, whatever you create for Amazon can be reused on other platforms (such as Kobo, Nook, iBooks, Google Play, and so forth), so this isn't an unusual place to begin. 

First things first: Formats
If you already know what formats you plan to publish your book in, you're ahead of the game. If you haven't thought about it, let's consider your options now. Knowing the answer will help us start designing your book cover with the most useful format first. 

There are four common formats to consider: the printed hardback edition, the paperback edition, the e-book edition, and the audio book edition. Sure, there are probably others, but they're far less common than these. Most indie authors do not seem to publish hardback editions of their work. Amazon's CreateSpace publication platform doesn't offer them, which means finding another vendor to create them. That's usually a bit more work than is strictly necessary, and speed is a primary concern for indie authors. A hardback edition usually falls out of consideration immediately.

So let's imagine you're planning to publish a novel, and you've decided that you want to release it in the remaining three formats: paper, e-book, and audio. Which cover should you design first? Does it matter? 

I think so. Let's look more closely at these three formats.

The shape of things
E-books and audio books have a very simple cover format. Each includes only a front cover. There's no spine, no back cover, nothing tangible for the reader to hold. Both are strictly digital formats (unless you're traditionally published and your publisher is releasing a physical media audiobook—something you wouldn't be designing yourself anyway). Both are, all things considered, just a flat image. 


An e-book cover, at least in my particular workflow, is portrait-shaped. It measures 1563 pixels by 2500 pixels, which roughly—emphasis on roughly—translates to the same size and shape of a 5"x8" physical book cover. This isn't a gold standard, per se, but it's what feels right to me, and meets most booksellers' platform guidelines. (Occasionally a bookseller will require a specific dimension for these covers, or a specific file size; as you encounter these you may need to adjust your cover to accommodate their own standards. I've run into this sort of thing occasionally with Nook or iBooks.) 

An audio book cover is a unique beast. It measures 2500px by 2500px, a perfect square. This is a holdover from the days of compact disc-based audio books. People still buy quite a lot of these, believe it or not; digital audio books retain the shape of the traditional audio book cover as a sort of visual shorthand. When you see a square-shaped cover, you generally know you're looking at the audio book edition. (On Amazon's product pages, audio books are displayed with accompanying earbuds. Don't worry—you don't have to design with earbuds in mind. Amazon does that for you all by themselves.)

A paperback cover is a much more complicated animal. Not only are you able to select from a variety of physical sizes—CreateSpace, for example, offers fifteen different book cover sizes—and paper options (white, cream) and interior layout choices (black and white, color, black and white w/ bleed, color w/ bleed), you'll find that your final book size is dependent upon how many pages you've written and formatted for print. (If your interior is already formatted, you'll know how many pages the book is. If it isn't, you'll probably want to format it before designing the paperback cover.) More importantly, unlike the e-book and audio book editions of your cover, the paperback cover has more faces. There's a front cover, a back cover, and a spine, all of which you will design for print. 

So which format comes first?
I like to design the paperback edition first. I consider it the most 'complete' version of the book cover. By complete, I mean it requires a substantially larger amount of actual design to be done. It's easier to begin with the most complicated version of your cover, then progressively scale or adjust it downward for simpler formats, like e-book and audio. This is especially important if you would like your book's artwork to 'wrap' around the entire paperback. Artwork that wraps will be visible on the spine and back cover as well as, obviously, on the front cover. (If you don't plan to wrap art around the entire cover, then you could feasibly start with one of the other formats instead of the paperback. By not wrapping the artwork around the paperback's spine and back cover, you'll need to then design the spine and back cover independently.)

Michael R. Underwood's Shield & Crocus is a good example of a book cover with artwork that doesn't wrap. Instead, the image on the front cover is 'echoed' on the spine and back cover in different ways:


By contrast, here's the book cover for Hugh Howey's The Hurricane, which features artwork that does wrap around the book's spine and back cover:

How to get started
Okay. You've decided which format to begin with. What do you do next? 

For the e-book and audio book, the first step is simple. Open your graphics application (again, the examples I'll use are specific to Photoshop, but other applications can perform similar tasks). Create a new file, and Photoshop will ask you a few things about the file you want to create. The most important things at this stage are the width, the height, the resolution, and the color mode. So here's what you'll need for each:

For a new e-book file, use these values in Photoshop:


For a new audio book file, use these values:

(We'll get to the paperback edition in a moment, because there are different steps to creating that file.)

Now that you've set up your file, you're probably wondering what goes into it. Before you begin throwing artwork and text around, I advise creating a set of folders—groups, really—that will help you keep your work organized. I use a single, standard set for every cover I work on, and they look like this:


Now, these are my standard groups for all book cover projects. I won't always use every group that you see here—for example, this list includes text for a back cover and spine, groups that I won't use when designing an e-book cover—but I like to reuse the same structure so I always know where things are located. Let's quickly break these down, from the bottom to the top:

  1. Art: This is where all of the artwork or photography used on the cover will go. If it's a particularly complex cover, with many composited image layers, I'll create additional sub-groups here to keep those things organized, too. 
  2. Text: This top-level folder has many sub-groups. There's a Front coverBack cover, and Spine sub-group. Each of those has a different sub-group for every text element that might occur on that part of the cover. The front cover includes sub-groups for the book's title, the author (which also would include the author's byline, such as New York Times bestselling author of XYZ), the blurb/quote ("Stunning!"—The New York Times), the series name (which might also include the volume information, e.g. Book 1 of the Let Me Out of Here series), and the book's tagline (Sometimes you won't know who to trust, or similar copy). The spine group is simpler, usually including just the author's name and book title. If the book is a series, you might see a volume number or the series name here, too. Both the spine and back cover groups include a sub-group named Auxiliary, which is where some of the book's mechanical information might go: the product bar code, the publisher's imprint, credit for the cover design, the genre or category the book should be shelved in, and sometimes pricing information.
  3. Filters: This group contains post-production enhancement layers. We'll get into this in a future entry in the DIY cover design series. For now, don't worry too much about it. 

I use a standard e-book and audio book template for every project. If you don't feel comfortable creating your own, or you just want a shortcut, then feel free to download my own templates for your use:

Setting up your paperback design file
A paperback file will vary from project to project based on changing variables, so my providing you with a template likely won't do you much good. 

As I mentioned before, I'm using my own workflows as we step through this DIY series. As such, we're going to use CreateSpace as your vendor example here. Mostly because CreateSpace makes this exceptionally less difficult by providing you, the author, with a book cover template that you can design with. Before you try this at home, make sure you know the finished page count of your book. (Again, that's your print-formatted book, not your raw manuscript. If you haven't formatted your manuscript for print yet, do that first, or hire someone to do it for you, then come back to this step). 

If you're ready to get started, we'll visit CreateSpace first to get your template. When you click this link, you'll see a small form on the page that looks like this:

Assuming you've formatted your book's interior, you already know almost everything this form asks of you. Let's assume again that your book is a novel. Novels don't usually have full-color content, so for Interior Type, "Black and White" is just fine. You know your Number of Pages, so enter that here. The remaining two options are up to you.

For Paper Color, I prefer the "Cream" option to "White." (White often feels a little too... produced, which for a self-published book can sometimes scream AMATEUR HOUR! Cream paper, on the other hand, seems more professional. Take a moment and look at books on your nightstand. What color are the pages? Which do you prefer? Why?) 

Trim Size is where things can get confusing. If you're bad at eyeballing measurements, like I am, then you might consider grabbing a few different sizes of book from your own bookshelves, or visit a bookstore with a ruler in your pocket. Compare different sizes. See what you like. Here's a look at some common sizes from my own shelf:

The book on the bottom, one of my own, is 6"x9". The middle book, also one of mine, is 5"x8". The well-worn mass-market paperback copy of Contact on top is 4.2"x6.8", for comparison. The 5"x8" size is the smallest that CreateSpace currently offers, and is my preferred size after a bit of trial and error. It's comfortable to hold in your hand, and it looks like just the right size for a paperback novel, in my opinion—not too small, not too large. 

So let's assume you share all of my own preferences, and your novel is 350 pages long. When you're done filling out CreateSpace's template form, it'll look like this:

When you're finished, click the Build Template button. You'll get this in response:


The file will download to wherever you like to download your files. (On a Mac, this defaults to the Downloads folder.) Find the file, unzip it, dig a few folders in, and you'll find a template you can use in Photoshop. Here's a visual path to that file:

You'll see that CreateSpace gives you two different versions of the template file: a PDF and a PNG. Now, I'm sure every cover designer who does this for a living (or at least regularly) has a different workflow from mine at this point. But I'm me, so this is what I do.

Open BookCover5x8_Cream_350.png in Photoshop
When you do this, you'll see a massive document. The template looks like this:

All that whitespace floating around the peach-colored borders of the template? That's part of the file. And here's where my workflow might differ from other cover designers' workflows, but I can tell you why I do what I do next. First, here's what I do next:

Crop the shit out of that unnecessary whitespace
Using Photoshop's crop tool (just hit C on your keyboard, or click Image > Crop), you'll want to crop the file so that everything inside of and including the peach-colored borders is preserved, and all of the whitespace outside of it is removed. If you're successful—and you'll want to be pixel-precise here, so don't be afraid to zoom in and get this right—then your template will look like this:

Much better, right? Here's why I do this: The whitespace that you saw is very, very, very, very important... if you're shipping the cover to a traditional print shop, who will print the cover on the correct paper, then slice it with giant machines. They need the cover to fit into their machines, hence the enormous size and all of that whitespace. It also gives them some margin of error when they're cutting the file down. But with CreateSpace, they're going to do this digitally anyway long before it gets printed. So if you do it now, it doesn't cause any harm on Amazon's side, and it'll make your job as a designer just that much easier.

Now that you've cropped the file, let's go ahead and save it
I like to give my design files a very clear name, so they usually follow a certain format:

Last name + BOOK TITLE + Format

If your name is Hanson Bodillydoo—and it probably is—and you've written a novel called The Surefire Way to Name a Child Badly—and I'm guessing you've thought about writing that book before, given your particular name—then you'd name your file something like:


The ".psd" extension is important here. You want to save this file as a Photoshop file now, not as a PNG file. This will be your work file from here on out, so the next thing you'll want to do is

Create your file structure
Remember those lovely folders I showed you earlier? Now's the time to create those in your file. Go ahead and create them all for now; if you don't need them later, you can always delete them. 

When you're done, you should have something like this:

From here on out, I'm going to assume that you have a basic working knowledge of Photoshop. If you come across something that you don't know how to do, and I seem to have taken for granted that you do, feel free to ask about it in the comments. Or just Google the question, find the answer, and jump back in!

Set up your guide lines
Now, nobody wants to try to design a book cover while that peach-colored template is staring you in the face, so we're going to use it to set up our guide lines, then turn that layer off entirely. Guide lines make it easier for you to always know where your boundaries are, so you don't design a cover with a title that accidentally wraps onto the spine, for example. 

The simple way to create guide lines is to turn on Photoshop's ruler (Command+R on a Mac, or View > Rulers). Once you've done so, you can click anywhere inside the ruler and drag to create a new guide line. Click in the vertical ruler to create a vertical guide line, and in the horizontal to create a horizontal guide line. 

Again, you want to be precise about this step, so I recommend zooming in on your file while you do this. You'll want to position your guides in four different types of places throughout the template:

  1. On the outside border of every peach-colored bar
  2. On the inside border of every peach-colored bar
  3. On the dotted line at the middle of every peach colored bar
  4. On all four sides of the yellow bar code block

Be as precise as you can be. When you're finished,  your template file will look something like this:

Make sure you save your file often as you work.

With that, you're ready for the next step in the process... which isn't design. Not yet, at least. In the next entry we'll discuss the difference between a beautiful book cover and a book cover that's designed to sell, and how you can tell which is which. So save those files, put them aside, and hang tight for the next topic!

Click here to see all entries in my DIY book cover design series.