Before you publish your manuscript, you must design a cover. Even an ebook has a cover image associated with it. It’s the first thing your potential readers will see, and you know what they say about first impressions. Make it count! Whether or not a person chooses to purchase your book is often directly related to the quality of your cover.
So what makes a great cover image? It should be professional, appealing and uncluttered. The title should be clearly readable even when the picture is reduced to the size of a thumbnail. The author’s name is usually smaller and less important, unless you’re Steven King, but it should still be visible. And the cover may or may not feature a snappy quote from a review. Finally, the finished product should be saved in at least 300 dpi (dots per inch) to prevent a grainy image.
Sound like a tall order? You can hire this done if you’d like. Word-of-mouth recommendation are easy to come by on sites like Goodreads, Shelfari, or LibraryThing where lots of authors hang out. There, you can “shop around” for covers you like. If you find one, simply ask the author who designed it. Or you can ask for recommendations on a forum like BookBlogs. Here’s an example of one such comment thread.
But designing your own cover is cheaper, and it’s actually kind of fun. All you need is image-editing software and images, and both are pretty easy to find. You can use your own pictures, but if you’re no photographer, there are millions to choose from on the web. But remember, copyrights pay a large role here. Don’t just assume everything is freely available for your use. Many sites on the web stock images you can purchase and use, but if you know where to look, you can find lots of great pictures for free.
Public domain images may be used by anyone in any way they wish. For the most part, these include pictures taken before 1923, photographs of historical artworks, and government photos. These can be found on sites run by state libraries, historical commissions, museums, universities and the Library of Congress. There are even search engines to help you locate what you need. Try everystockphoto.com.
Creative Commons provides another great way to find free photos. Under a CC license, the copyright holder maintains only some of their rights. The most generous terms allow a user free rein, but they must credit the copyright holder. This is called attribution. There are several levels of CC terms, however, so make certain you know which one an image is licensed under before using it. I’ve found most of my CC images on Flickr and Photobucket. (For a fuller explanation of both public domain and Creative Commons copyrights, visit http://www.pdimages.com/.)
Once you find an image you like, you need software. Photoshop is the first program that comes to mind, but free downloadable programs do exist. PaintNet is the one I use. It’s been fairly easy to figure out, though I admit I’m still a novice. There are plenty of plug-ins and features I haven’t even tried yet. I’ve also heard decent things about Gimp, and there were many more options when I googled “photo software”. Keep in mind that it may take some time and practice (and maybe some on-line tutorials) to learn the ins and outs of your program, so have patience, but once you’ve got the basics down, you can begin to choose fonts, colors and image effects to create exactly the cover image you desire. Cut out sections of a picture, fade others, shrink them, move them, or even layer multiple images to create a collage. The possibilities are endless.
In conclusion, a cover image seems like a huge obstacle at first, but it can be solved without too much pain. Because I didn’t want to invest a great deal of money into self-publishing projects that may or may not pay for themselves, I chose to create my own cover images. You can see them in the right hand column of my blog. Not the best ever, I freely admit, but I think they make a decent first impression. And my books are earning a profit, not paying off a debt. I’ll consider hiring an artist down the road.