The Road to Self Publishing- The Cover


Ah, the cover. Easily one of the most important things if you actually want to sell your book. Covers are one of those things that are far more complex than it seems on the surface, so I’m going to break this up into several sections.

  • Why the cover is important
  • Should you hire?
  • Types of covers you’ll need
  • Tools of the trade
  • Cover Designers

If you’re not ready for all that, you can check out the other Road to Self Publishing posts.

Ready? Let’s get started.

Why the cover is important

The cover is a reader’s first impression of your book. Whether that’s a physical book or on Amazon, the reader will probably see your front cover before they read anything about your book. So it’s really not an overstatement to say that the cover sells the book.

More importantly than that, remember that your book won’t be just competing against other self-published books. It’ll be competing against traditionally published books, video games, TV show, movies, etc. That’s scary, right? A good cover can help you compete.

Should you hire?

With all that in mind, this question can be pretty simple. Unless you’re a graphic designer; if you have the money to hire a pro, do it. If you don’t have the money, or just don’t want to hire, you can skip to the next section.

The important thing to remember, if you decide to hire, is that designing the cover is a lot of work, and the person doing it needs to be payed what it’s worth. You might be able to find someone who’s willing to do it for $15, but the result will most likely be less than stellar. Notice here that I said “person” and not “company”. Personally, I’d advise against going to one of those cover design factories. You’re far more likely to get something paint-by-numbers and interchangeable with others in your genre going to one of those. What you want is someone like yourself, a freelancer. Find a freelancer and look over their portfolio. If the portfolio gets you excited and fits the theme of your book, they may be the artist for you.

So, how do you find the person for you? Well, like in the beta-reading section of The Afterdraft, if you don’t know one personally, you can usually find one through various communities.

The NaNoWriMo website has an entire section dedicated to cover design, and another to helping artists and writers find each other. Reddit is also a great choice for these kind of niche things. /r/writing is a good resource for writing in general, and they can usually point you to a good place for whatever you need. /r/coverdesign is a more cover-focused subreddit that usually has some artists looking for work. They’re also a good place to see what kind of covers work and what kind don’t. In addition, both Twitter and Deviantart are great communities with lots of artists on them, although I don’t have any specific links for you with those two.

Wherever you go to find an artist, make sure to pay them well.

Types of Covers You’ll Need

You’re going to need at least two versions of your cover if you plan to do both digital distribution and a physical book.

The first, and in my opinion, the hardest, cover you’ll need is for your digital distribution. No matter which service you choose to sell your book through, the requirements here are about the same; an image that is taller than it is wide with the name of your book, your author name, and whatever graphics you want on it. I’ve shown it several times already, but here’s my digital cover:


Different services have different requirements for size on this, so I recommend that you get, or make, it large first. You can always shrink an image without too much quality loss, but it’s much harder to make it larger.

And then there’s the physical one. For paperbacks, Amazon will send you a template that looks like this:


As you can see, the exact template will depend on the size you choose for your book and the number of pages it has at that size. Amazon will give you an image similar to the one above and a PDF of the same template. It explains it on the image, but the three main things you need to pay attention to here are: the dotted lines, the red highlight, and the yellow barcode location. The dotted lines are where your book will be cut/folded; your cover needs to come up to them at least. The red highlights are the bleed area; your cover goes over that area, but you should not have anything important in that area, just background. I should note here that different printers will have different bleed sizes. In fact, it seems like Amazon has a fairly small bleed size compared to the others. The barcode area should be treated as bleed. Background can extend into it, but don’t put anything important there.

The way I made sure my cover worked with all that was to import the template into an image editor and remove everything but those three. An image editor with layers is useful for this as you can make the template the top layer and turn it on or off as you need it. Here’s what my cover looks like with the template on it. Note that I don’t have the barcode area on as I knew there were going to be no graphics near it. If you have graphics toward the bottom of your back cover, it’s best to keep it.


As you can see, none of the my graphic elements touch the bleed area. This ensures that it will look good in print, even if there are some cutting/folding irregularities.

Tools of the Trade

So, how did I do all that? Unfortunately, I can’t teach graphic design, but I can give you some of the tools to help you do your own. Before we start, I assume if you’re reading this section, you are not a graphic designer and do not have the money to hire one, so I’ll be concentrating on free tools.

Image Editors:

  • This is the editor I use. It’s fairly simple to use, but has layers and transparency. It also has an addon system to give it more abilities. It’s Windows only, but Mac and Linux have Monopaint, which is an attempt to bring it over . I can’t say I recommend that, as last time I tried it, it had stability issues.
  • GIMP: This is easily the most powerful of the free image editing programs, but it also has the steepest learning curve. If you’re willing to put in the time to learn it, you’ll be rewarded with an incredibly powerful software only beaten out by Photoshop itself. GIMP works on all major desktop/laptop OSes.
  • Pixlr: This is the biggest online image editor out there. There are others, but I don’t have the space to talk about them all. Pixlr has an intuitive interface and is powerful enough for most. The biggest caveat with it is: being a cloud-based editor means that if you have a slow internet connection or are worried about internet companies spying on you, one of the others is better suited for you.
  • Inkscape: This one is a little different from the rest. While the others are alternatives to Photoshop, this one is more like Adobe Illustrator. Inkscape is a vector graphics editor, so if you’re interested in super-clean lines or minimalist graphics, this may be the one for you. The learning curve is pretty steep on it, though, so make sure you’re willing to put in the time.

PDF Creators

Unfortunately, Amazon, and most other printers, only accept paperback/hardback covers in PDF form, so we need a way to transform that image to a PDF. Luckily, both Inkscape and GIMP can handle PDFs all by themselves, so, if you’re using one of those, you’re set.

Most other programs with probably generate their PDFs with the help of a PDF printer. If you are running Windows 10 or have a Mac, you already have a PDF printer. Windows calls theirs “Windows Print to PDF”. Using it is a simple as printing your image and selecting that printer. MacOS and Linux have similar setups, though the names may be different.

So, really, the only people who need separate programs are people running Windows 8 and below. For those people, there’s doPDF. It works exactly like the Windows 10 PDF printer. Install it and you now have another printer you can select that produces PDFs. It does display ads for the “pro version” while it’s in use, but you shouldn’t have to use it often, so that won’t be a big deal.

Cover Designers

Cover Designers are a valid option for anyone who doesn’t have the money to hire, or the time/ability to make their own from scratch. It will turn out a perfectly acceptable cover with very little time or skill required. The caveat here is that it won’t give you anything amazing, and it will most likely be a bit generic. The big one here is Canva, though Amazon does have one you can use when you create your paperback.


And that’s it! My own book, complete with cover, is out now! You can go to the main page for it here, or check it out on Amazon.

Check back next time. I’ll be talking about the ever-present, ever-terrifying Algorithm.

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