Design a Book Cover for Less than $50

More and more authors want to publish ebooks and need covers, but many don’t feel they can afford the services of a designer. To be frank, I see author-created covers that do not serve the author well.

But I also see well-done covers, so I thought I’d offer some resources for creating professional book covers for a low cost in case you’re handy at design. Full disclosure: the examples here are cover designs for client novels and memoirs.

Revenge thumbnailDesign goals
Your first and foremost goal for a design is, in my view, storytelling: The cover begins to raise story questions in a viewer’s mind and/or gives a viewer a sense of what the story is about. A strong cover design can evoke mood and emotion that foreshadow the story.
eye-catching example
Secondly, the title and author’s name need to be legible in the small thumbnail sizes used at online booksellers such as Amazon. The example to the left is the size you’ll see on Amazon’s search page. Some design clients prefer that their name be smaller, but my feeling is that your name is the core of your brand, so it should be legible at small sizes.

Lastly, and obviously, covers need to be eye-catching—if a browser’s eye isn’t drawn to your color by color and design, it won’t be seen (right).

Free graphics software
First up is the software you need to create a cover complete with an image and typography. I use Photoshop, but that’s a costly program. There’s a sophisticated free application called GIMP that offers just about all of the tools that Photoshop does, but at no cost. It’s available for Windows and Mac OSX platforms. One caveat: the only color option it offers is RGB (red, green, blue), the system your monitor uses. For ebook covers, that’s all you need, but for a print edition you will need a capability to utilize the CYMK (cyan, yellow, magenta, black) color system that is used by most printers ( I think Lulu can utilize RGB images).

I found a free online converter (RGB to CYMK) here. And there is a plugin you can download called Separate + available that will add CYMK separation capabilities to GIMP. It appears to be free, but I haven’t tried it.

There are a number of stock image resources for book design. The sites offer royalty-free illustration and photographs for very reasonable prices—often you can get an image for $10 or $15. The ones I have the best luck with for both cost and selection are Dreamstime and iStockphoto.

Revenge cover exampleThink about combining images to achieve the effect needed. This cover for a speculative thriller (left) combines two flags to allude to attacks on the U.S. and Britain by a nano-weapon that consumes all organic matter. The damage done to the flags, I think, makes you wonder what’s going on and suggests the international nature of the story.Winds cover example

A second example of combining elements is for this memoir about sailing around the world in a small sailboat (right). The author’s title, How the Winds Laughed, and the storm dangers she faced in the book led to combining illustrations of a wind god and a small boat on a storm-tossed sea.

You’ll need a good, strong display font for your book title; there are several resources for downloading free fonts, and they have hundreds to choose from. Look for a font that expresses an emotional or story aspect of your book. Here’s the distressed “grunge” font for Allah’s Revenge–serendipitously, the name of the font is “Destroy.”

destroy font




For this historical novel (below), a classic font.

classic font example









For this humorous memoir, a quirky, fun font.

humor font example


The sites I frequent for free fonts are Fontspace, Font Squirrel, and Font Yukle.

wind font exampleUsing a good font doesn’t have to stop with just positioning it on the cover. For the sailing memoir I found a font called “Windswept” that had characteristics of a sail. Using Photoshop tools, I cleaned the font up and then “bent” it as if the wind god were blowing on the letters as well as the ship (right).

I’ve put up an article that illustrates the size issue for cover thumbnails on the web here, and here’s an article showing the elements used in the Allah’s Revenge cover above.

Good luck with your cover designs. If you have questions, please ask.

For what it’s worth.


About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website,, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at


  1. says

    Good tips, Ray. I would add:
    – Always err on the side of simple & clean.
    – Related: Use 1-2 fonts, MAX.
    – Also related: If you can keep the color palette simple, do.

    (Note: A couple of your examples follow all 3 of those!)

    Finally, there ARE designers who work in the $50 range. I recommend checking out the Writer’s Cafe at to find some good affordable recommendations.

  2. says

    Great tips and examples for ebooks. People need to pay attention to photo/vector image quality too, if they want to use the same images for a print edition. I think Mark’s List from Smashwords also has designers, who work in this range too.

  3. says

    All those covers scream self-published to me, especially the one with the fint I have never seen before, It may go with the book, but it just doesn’t look right and is hard to read. Sadly, you get what you pay for in most things, whether it’s an editor who knows what he/she is doing or a designer.

  4. says

    I think that no matter how evolved, enlightened, or tolerant we happen to become, we will continue to go with human nature and judge a Book by it’s Cover. So, thank you, Ray, for this wonderful, informative post!

  5. says

    Ray, thanks for sharing these tips. It’s pretty obvious when a book is self-published or “poorly published” from the cover alone. As a small publisher myself, I know the cost is tough to bear, but I would definitely urge authors not to try to become designers if they don’t have an artistic eye for it. At Buzz Books, we use Photoshop and InDesign and my favorite stock photo resource is iStock, but I recommend buying the large hi-res photos because you’ll want them for printed materials such as bookmarks and ads, so the cost is higher. (And I have fallen in love with those high-priced photos that are hard to say no to, but beware how many book sales it take to make back even a $79 photo.) And I believe in buying a font if it’s the right one for the cover and you can’t find it free. (You can sometimes “tip” the artist to get one.)

    Even though “simple” and clean is much better than cluttered, one giveaway for self-published books for me is that they are too simple with not enough tie-in to the story or uniqueness to them. Look at how many moon photos alone are on self-pubbed titles. They need something more.

    As a brand strategist and creative director, I also believe you get what you pay for. That’s great if someone gets a killer cover for $50, but unless someone is working for $5 an hour, I don’t see how that’s possible when it take hours to find the right photo, hours more to go through font choices and do mockups and you come away sometimes 20 or 30 hours later with a cover that looks great. I typically spend a 3 month span on covers from start to finish and that involves author communication along the way to make sure the cover represents the story well. (I don’t offer cover art as a service, so that’s no plug, I’m just sharing how long it can take.)

    I hope authors will give the cover the time and money it takes to make it wonderful. Good luck, all!

  6. says

    I could have used this information when I self-published my first book! As it was I found a graphics artist who was new in town and willing to whip up a quickie for $100, but I recommend these resources to anyone starting out. The more you can do yourself, the better.

  7. says

    This is very helpful and makes an excellent point about poorly designed covers (my biggest fear as an author). Even if I don’t plan on self-publishing GIMP sounds like something I’d enjoy as I post a lot of pics on my blog and it would be fun to to be able to edit them more than I can with my current software. Thanks again :)

  8. says

    Thanks for thinking of us Ray.

    I often think of designing my own cover, because I think I can produce a better cover for my book than anyone else could (I do have a little experience with design work). It might be something I’ll try once I’m establish or not.
    I’m envious of those who are able to flex the pen and brush similtaneously. I’ll have to wait until I master the craft of writing first. I’m almost there- just another 15 years or so.

  9. says

    I graduated from design school over 30 years ago and was a designer before I became an author. I do both now, and you make some good points. Especially the point about the cover telling a story, and your point about making the cover easy to identify at the size of a postage stamp. I think a lot of authors forget about this, as do inexperienced designers.

    I design book covers for self-published authors, and as Malena said, it can take hours of hard work to create an effective cover. The cover is the first thing readers see when they’re browsing online bookstores, so it has to stand out and look professional. A book is competing with the one beside it, so if it isn’t compelling, readers may believe the story inside isn’t compelling either.

    I’ll repeat what others have already said: You get what you pay for. Judging a book by its cover is human nature. The perception is that an amateurish cover = an amateurish book.

  10. Tom Witkowski says

    As an old advertising creative, I understood there was a reason I wrote the words and an art director designed the layouts. Yes, I could look at a layout and tell you which ones were good and were capable of connecting with the consumer, but if I was charged with doing them myself? Yikes. But fear not! That’s a good thing. A designer brings a different perspective. A different way of looking at the world. They can bring something new to the table and come up with a look or feel we would not have imagined. I’m not saying writers are incapable. I’m just suggesting people who have an expertise in fonts, backgrounds, textures, colors, flow, as well as an understanding of how the human eye consumes images and information might be better equipped to do your story visual justice.

  11. says

    Ray, awesome post. The fact is some people will want to go it alone, and you’ve provided all the tools they need to get started. I’m one of those folks…with five finished, unpublished novels, I’m contemplating diving into electronic publishing all the time, and a big obstacle for me is…well, let’s invent a new word: cover-anxiety. NOT the feeling you get before someone takes their first look at you under the covers, but the worry of doom following publication of your book with a lousy cover. Thanks a lot for the information!

  12. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Just wondering what the reaction of this audience would be if there was a post on a graphic design blog that said “don’t just design your own cover–write your book in your spare time, no training, just dabble a little and go with what you like.”
    And yes, I’m half-joking and half-serious.

  13. says

    Sure there are great tools out there, but putting a scalpel in my hand doesn’t make me a surgeon. If you’re a writer, write. Leave the craft of cover design to the professionals. Whether we like it or not, whether it’s cliche or not, people do judge a book by its cover. Why wouldn’t you invest in a cover that will lure readers in?

  14. says

    Buy cheap, buy twice. I’ll admit that a couple covers up there aren’t the worst I’ve seen, but consider that a graphic designer knows a lot more than I do about the qualities of good design.

    Anyone seen the doc Helvetica? So much skill and effort went into designing just one font, one letter even. Now the font is used so frequently you don’t even notice it. That’s what a book cover should be, perhaps. Something that takes no attention away from the content of the book, good or bad, but merely suggests that the book is worth looking into.

    Tough call though, when books can be sold digitally for $1.

    • says

      My view is that both the editing and design should be done by a pro. If you can do only one of the above, I think the editing should come first. But that fact is that many writers either can’t afford a professional designer or just don’t want to pay the fee, and this post is meant to help them achieve better results.

  15. Carmel says

    I have a daughter-in-law who is a graphic designer, and I plan to pay her to do a book cover for me, but this is still great advice I’m going to pass on to her.

  16. says

    I agree with Tom W.

    I was considering self-publishing if a publisher didn’t pick up my novel. (One did and it’s coming out in November.) Despite a career in marketing and longtime exposure to graphic design, I would never have tried to design my own cover, however.

    My advice if your budget is a concern:

    Get to know a designer or two when you are working on your book. You can find a cheap designer through speed dating on the web, but it’s better to have an actual relationship with one, especially one who reads.

    Spend your “design” time developing cover concepts—that is, visual ideas a designer can work from. You can express these in words, in sketches or with images you collect from some of the sources noted above. For my book, I generated about 10 different concepts expressing different moods or emphasizing key places or themes. Some of them are rather finished looking, but none are better than a pro should be able to do. (I’m using one of them as a placeholder on my site until a final cover is chosen.)

  17. Kristy Condon says

    I agree with the above posts–you get what you pay for. A good designer comes with more than just a software license–they are trained to understand the nuances of color theory, typography, and a thousand other details that will evoke the correct emotions and attract your target group of readers.

    The cover image is your book’s brand and its first impression to readers. If it’s obvious that an author didn’t think it would be worthwhile to pay for a decent designer, it’s sending a message to the reader about the overall quality that can be expected from the book. Has the author also opted to do all the edits herself in addition to the design? What other corners has she cut?

  18. says

    Nice tips but for something as important as a book cover, I wouldn’t mind shelling out the dough to a professional. You can find an awesome designer on the cheap on any of the big freelance sites.

  19. says

    I had no idea that this website even existed, so thank you. I’ve always wanted to at least fool around with different concepts for cover art, even if I hand the final job over to someone with much more artistic skill then I have. Thank you once again.

  20. says

    Gimp was recently updated to version 2.8 with gui changes (full screen mode) and I *think* CMYK is in there or in the works, at least it’s discussed a lot. Gimp is a solid piece of software.

    The big consideration to go from “amateur” to “high-middle” cover presentation is to worry about your fonts. Have some sort of graphic but don’t stress over it too much. Do get a good set of fonts and use them appropriately (one for the title and a complementary one for subs and author name). No “Red text on Black background”.

    The last point is – unless you’re killing trees with physical books – you can upload a new cover in a day so get the book out there and tweak or change the cover as you go and can afford to. Google image search on “raymond chandler long goodbye” to see over fourteen different covers the publishers have used, or any book for that matter. I changed a bunch just before the holidays to freshen them up.

    • says

      I have the latest GIMP and can’t find CYMK there. If someone can point out where it is, let me know. But it’s not, as far as I can see, a format that GIMP supports.

  21. says

    Awesome tips, my gf is writing a new book and this will be a nice surprise for her for me to be able to get her a nicely designed front cover. Thanks!