Jason Gurley

By day, I'm a user experience designer; by evenings/weekends, I write novels from my home in Scappoose, Ore. My newest is Awake in the World, published February 2019 by Roaring Brook Press; my previous novel, Eleanor, was published by Crown in 2016 and has since been translated into German, Portuguese, and Turkish. I’m currently working on a new project.

DIY book cover design—Part 2: Tools and essentials

As I mentioned in the inaugural post of this blog series, I'm assuming that you're reading because you're seriously interested in creating quality covers for your own books. In this post I'll talk a bit about the tools you'll need to do so. I'll talk primarily about the tools that I use in particular, but there are of course alternatives to these. 

While there are many different tools or applications you could use to create a very good DIY cover, today I'm just going to focus on three. With access to these three things, you'll have the basics you need to get started. In future posts, we'll talk a bit more about how you can get the most out of these three things. For now, let's just take a look at what they are:

In this and future posts, I'm going to show you how I create covers using Adobe Photoshop. If you just groaned, it's probably because a) you know that Photoshop isn't terribly cheap, or b) you prefer the flexibility of a vector graphics program, such as Adobe Illustrator. Because of my particular background in design, Photoshop is where I'm most experienced and most comfortable. Much of what you can do in Photoshop, however, can be achieved in similar graphics applications (such as GIMP and others). 

Let's go back to the cost question. Adobe Photoshop is definitely not cheap. That's still true... but it isn't quite as true as it once was. The most recent traditional release of the application, Adobe Photoshop CS6, retailed for $1,499. However, Adobe has shifted its business model in the past couple of years, and now makes its Creative Suite available via Creative Cloud, a subscription service. You can get access to Adobe Photoshop CC for around ten bucks a month this way. That still adds up, of course, but it's a much more affordable and attractive solution, particularly if you don't anticipate using Photoshop daily. This will also keep Photoshop regularly updated for you, so you don't have to wait years between new releases or upgrades. 

A good book cover is only as strong as its typography. One of the most common mistakes that authors make when attempting a DIY cover is to pay less attention to the fonts they choose than to the artwork they purchase. Great typography makes a cover sing, which means you'll need a bit more at your disposal than the standard Mac or PC font library. 

Like Photoshop, fonts aren't always affordable. Let's say you'd really, really love to use Akzidenz-Grotesk, a timeless and classic sans-serif typeface, for your cover. You don't know what font weights you need, or how many you might combine. You just know you like the font. Or you did, until you saw how much it costs to purchase a license for it on a site like MyFonts.

Fortunately, there are a number of wonderful font publishers in the world who recognize that not all designers can shell out $375 for an italicized weight of a particular typeface. Type designers like Lost Type invite designers to pay what they like for a font, including nothing at all; others, such as Letterhead Fonts, offer fonts with plenty of flourishes and ligatures and alternate character sets for much more reasonable prices. And of course there are plenty of free font repositories—some full of bizarre, wacky fonts, like DaFont; some, like FontSquirrel, stuffed with excellent typefaces, many professionally designed, with limited weights offered for no charge. You might also consider reading design sites like Smashing Magazine, which sometimes runs interesting articles about free fonts that stand out from the masses. And don't forget about Google Fonts, which also serves up a nice selection of different typefaces for your use. 

A word of caution: Most fonts come with a license attached, and some offer specific parameters about how you're permitted to use the fonts in commercial products. Books are commercial products, which means book covers are as well. Some fonts are available for your use up to a certain number of sales, after which point your license must be expanded. In short: read your font license agreements.

Stock artwork and photography:
The third and final item on the list is the artwork itself. Too many authors have designed their own covers simply by choosing a photo or illustration they like, then typing their title and byline over the image. In a future post, I'll talk about how you can select the most effective artwork for your cover, but for now, let's just talk about stock art web sites. 

Much like fonts, artwork often comes with a license that's good up to a certain number of sales, after which you've got to expand your license in some way to properly compensate the artist for the use of their work on such a large scale. For a number of authors, if we're honest, this won't ever become a concern. That's not always so, however, so, as with fonts, be sure to read your license agreements.

Not all stock sites are created equal, but even the best of them are usually drowning in a sea of overly-staged, cheesy, useless images. In that future post I mentioned, we'll also look at how you navigate a stock site to find a worthy image. It's not always easy to find the gems among the many, many duds. 

But as with most designers, I tend to fish in the same couple of pools. Other designers will have stock sites they swear by; I have my own, and they're Shutterstock and iStockPhoto. Neither is perfect, and one tends to excel where the other stumbles, which is why I often use them both. Like fonts, stock artwork can be expensive. Both of these sites offer package plans that can offset the cost, though that's not always useful unless you plan on designing a large number of covers. For example, you'll find that Shutterstock will happily sell you a package deal: five images for $49. That might be about all you need if you're doing just one or two covers. If you're doing more, you can get a 25-image package for $229. Or if you're really adventurous, you can give them twenty dollars more and get 25 images per day for a month. If you're committed, and designing a large number of covers, this is a great way to build up a stock library for yourself. By month's end, you'll have roughly 750 stock images on hand. 

Of course, that's overkill for most authors who just want to make a nice cover. And in some cases, your budget might not even allow for a small number of stock images. That doesn't mean you've got to shoot your own (iPhone camera photos do not look good on book covers, believe you me). Instead, you might consider browsing collections of photos that are licensed, via Creative Commons, for commercial reuse and modification. This particular license allows you not only to use a particular image on your book cover, but to manipulate the hell out of it so it feels unique and utterly right for your book. Flickr has a library of Creative Commons images available for you to browse, for example, as does Google Images—just click the "Usage rights" filter on any image search results page. Keep in mind that while some Creative Commons licenses may not cost you anything, they may require you to credit the photographer or artist by name in your book's credits. 

These aren't the only tools for the job, of course.

And you may discover along the way that you need more than just a graphic design application, some fonts, and some stock images to create your cover. You might have to tell me what those things are, though. I've gotten by with these three things for years, and I haven't run into any problems yet. 

This has been an admittedly general knowledge entry in the series. Think of it like an inspection, the DMV guy walking around your car while shouting at you to tap the brake lights, flip the blinker switch, and so forth. If you think your car's in good working order, then keep an eye out for the next post in the series, in which we'll look at the basics of setting up your book cover design file. 

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

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

DIY book cover design—Part 1: Should you design your own cover?