Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tips for designing your own covers for your eBook on Kindle

One of the most common things I see independent authors struggle with is a cover for their work.  That's not surprising, as graphic design isn’t their field.  Still, I've never really understood the idea of paying someone else to do the job.  I wouldn't want someone else stepping in and handling a chapter or two of my book, and I don't like the idea of someone who has probably never even read my book, designing what it is essence the book's "face." 

Now, there are a bunch of different sites which will design a cover for your ebook on Kindle for you.  Prices can get pretty high if you want something memorable though, and I've never seen the need.  Unless you have less than no artistic talent, it actually isn't too hard to do it yourself.  I literally have <b>NO</b> artistic talent, and I'm pretty happy with the way the covers turned out and they didn't cost me a dime.  Since the profit margin on self-published books is very low, any way you can save money is a good idea.  Not to say that you should settle for something inferior, as the cover is one of the first things people look at when considering purchasing your book.  Just that if you can finish the cover you want yourself, for FREE, then it might be a good idea to consider it.
So, here's how I do it:
- A lot of places tell you to just whip something up in Word, but I've always found it difficult to create real depth in the image using Word, and even harder to edit it.  Personally, I use an old copy of Photoshop Elements 2.0 I got at a yard sale for $2.  Newer versions of the program can be purchased from any online retailer for under $100, and it works very well.  Now, if you’ve never used the program before, don’t worry, I hadn’t either.  I didn’t even bother reading the instructions before giving it a shot.  I would suggest just experimenting with the program, and testing to see what kind of things it can do.  Take some family photos and practice editing things out and adding things in.  Add some text.  Change some colors.  Just have some fun and see how it works.  Edit exes out of photos and replace them with hunky celebrities.  Invent a fabulous life for yourself and create a picture trail for all the fun adventures you’ve had.  I find that this type of thing teaches you more about something than any instructions or expensive class ever could.    
Things to remember though: Photoshop adds what it calls “layers” to your work every time you add something.  Think of every element as being on its own clear overlay sheet.  This makes it super easy to move things around if you understand this concept.  If you don’t understand the basic idea, you’ll be frustrated trying to figure out why certain things won’t erase.
- Once you’re familiar with the basic tools and options, you can start on your cover.  Amazon wants its covers at a 1000X1600 size.  So, start there.  Before you actually begin, I would suggest looking at covers in the genre you want to write for.  If your cover looks too different from them, then it won’t be identifiable by potential buyers.  I ran into this problem early on. Still, I feel that a fresh take is always a good thing.  One of the benefits of doing it yourself, is that you don’t have to worry about something generic and cookie cutter.  Make the cover that appeals to YOU.  If you like it, chances are that others will too.
I have found that I still have <b>NO</b> talent at working with human figures though.  I don’t know any professional models and am too cheap to purchase any images to use.  So, I stick mainly to images of things or simple graphics.  If you want to go this route, make sure that the images you are using are public domain for commercial use though.  You do not want to steal someone else’s work, even if it would save you time and it’s doubtful that you’d be caught.
One thing I like to do is go on photo safaris around town with a good digital camera.  I look for interesting patterns, clouds or trees.  Anything that has a strong visual appeal.  This creates a ready supply of potential images to use for the covers.  Now, which images you choose are going to depend on what type of book you are writing and what the setting is.  If you’re writing some kind of medieval romance or something, you’re not going to want to use futuristic looking stuff, for example. 
If you’re writing a series of books, another good thing to do is to give them all a common look.  Not that they should all look the same, just that they should share certain characteristics and design schemes.  For Cassandra’s Elemental Phases series, for example, I use images of whatever elemental house the character is from (shadow, earth, water, fire, etc) and then blend if together with another image in the foreground.  In the center, I use images of alchemy symbols representing that element, and tie them all together with similar font choice and layout.  This gives the series a cohesive look, in my opinion, and takes no great skill to achieve.
For my own series of books, for some reason I go with road sign iconography.  I don’t know why; it just feels right to me.  It’s taken me some time to figure it out, but again, I feel it makes the series seem cohesive.
- I make frequent use of Photoshop’s “drop shadow” option.  I find that it adds drama and depth to the image, and can really make things pop.
- If you are unhappy with the cover, think about it for a few days.  Sometimes inspiration will strike, and you’ll know just what to do to fix it.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stuck and then had a moment of inspiration at the oddest times.
- I prefer brighter covers, as I feel they draw the eye.  I’ve also never been a huge fan of “bodice ripper” style covers, or covers with shirtless guys on it.  Not that there’s anything wrong with them, just that they don’t really fit the style of books I write.  Plus, as I mentioned, I have no access to models or public domain pics of them to use like that anyway, so it works out.
- Sometimes I find that the problem with the image is that it’s too “real” looking.  It still looks too much like a photo.  In times like these, I find the simplest method is to either blur the image, add a foggy/blurred layer above the image to distort it slightly, or simply choose another picture. 
- I don’t like using a single image for covers.  I feel it looks cheap.  I prefer to layer multiple images together, to create the final cover.  Plus, this allows you to really create a visual record of whatever “world” you are creating.  Photoshop can allow you to bend and edit everyday objects, until they become exactly what you want them to be.  A single photo of something slapped onto a cover can’t achieve this. 
- Don’t get frustrated.  Like writing, designing covers is a process.  If it isn’t working out, take a deep breath and just do something with it that’s fun.  Even mistakes or jokes can end up teaching you a lot about both the program and about graphic design. 
So, to finish up, as an author, you have complete control over your world.  I see no need for an author to then hand over the reins to someone else, just because she (or he) might not have a degree in graphic design.  Really, a lot of it is intuitive.  Everyone knows what they think looks cool and what attracts them to a certain book.  When an author designs the cover, all it takes is to tap into that knowledge and use it.  There’s really no need to be afraid of trying to tackle it yourself.  After all, if worse comes to worse, you can always go to a cover design firm if you can’t find something you like on your own.  So, what can it hurt?    


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