Three Top-Secret Secrets to Designing Your Own Book Cover

Hacks for Hacks WU Admin note: Enjoy a little humor this Saturday morning.

Whoever said “Don’t judge of book by its cover” probably had a lousy cover designed by some art-school reject he’d never met. How could anyone else know enough about your book to make a cover that does your book justice. You don’t need to shell out big bucks to a graphic designer. I’m’a serve up some hot tips that those fat-cat graphic designers DON’T want you to know about.

Tools of the Trade

If you’re on a budget and don’t know anybody who can pirate you a copy of Photoshop, Microsoft Paint is a perfectly fine program for illustration. Otherwise they wouldn’t install it on every computer.

They say a bad carpenter always blames his tools. The solution to this is to buy tools so good, you can’t screw things up. Instead of having to shell out $700 bucks for a version of Photoshop or Illustrator that will be obsolete in a year-and-a-half, you can now get Adobe’s powerful suite of graphics programs for a mere $50 every month, for the rest of your life (which is totally worth it, since you’ll probably write four, maybe even five books before you die, right?). If you’re on a budget and don’t know anybody who can pirate you a copy of Photoshop, Microsoft Paint is a perfectly fine program for illustration. Otherwise they wouldn’t install it on every computer.

You’ll need some serious processing power to keep up with the advancing graphics technology. Whatever size monitor you have, you’ll need at least one size bigger. Or get a bunch of them, like this guy. This is a good excuse to buy that fancy Alienware laptop you’ve had your eye on. Those things could probably handle a shuttle launch–not to mention some sweet games. You might want a nice headset, and possibly a joystick, too. Wait, what were we talking about?

Effects are In Effect

Now that you’ve got some software, put that high-end computer of yours to work by adding some photo effects. Lens flares are always a good decision, even when your protagonist is indoors. Don’t forget the posterize button, which won’t make your cover look like a poster, but does…well, I don’t really know what you call it, but you should probably do it anyway.

Taking Stock

Can’t draw? Who needs God-given talent and years of practice when you have a whole internet’s worth of random photos at your disposal? Stock photography and clip art are the Dragon Punch and Hurricane Kick in every aspiring designer’s repertoire of moves. You can find stock photos that will evoke pretty much any dramatic situation in your book–and may spark some ideas for how to make your book even better.

Don’t shy away from clip art, either. Sure, everyone’s seen it a thousand times before, but audiences respond to what’s familiar. Remember getting misty-eyed during Don Draper’s nostalgia-laden Kodak Carousel pitch on Mad Men? You can get basically the same effect by using that stick-figure question-mark guy from those unending PowerPoint presentations at work. Clip art has “art” in the title, and they wouldn’t be allowed to call it that if it wasn’t gallery-quality, wine-and-cheese-type stuff.

Show Your Stuff

Did my advice lead you to create the Great American Novel Cover? Of course it did! Show off your creation in the comments section so the entire internet can judge your book by its cover.


About Bill Ferris

After college, Bill Ferris left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife, Jen, and his sons, Elliott and Wyatt, and he looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.


  1. says

    Oooo, I hope this is tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek–since it’s category is humor, I’m assuming it is. If not, want the secret to writing a NY Times bestseller? Just buy Scrivener.

  2. Carmel says

    I’m a DIY-er in many respects but, after a free month’s trial on Adobe Illustrator (fun but very technical), I am turning over my book cover to my graphic designer daughter-in-law and paying her for a much better job than I could do.

  3. says

    In response to your post, dear Bill, I went off in search of Worst Book Covers Ever. But because this is a family show, I won’t post what I found. Let’s just say there’s a whole lotta double entendre out there. There also seems to be a close correlation between terrible covers and terrible titles.

    Did you know there’s a children’s book out there with the title, Goodbye, Testicles?

    I didn’t either. Thanks, Bill, for the giggles.

  4. says

    Oh Bill, you wag. You know that those Adobe $50 a month rentals are signed in blood and if you try to leave, they will unleash the hounds. Once you are recaptured, then the fun begins…

    For folks who like more of this stuff, check out:
    Be sure to browse the archives. The site’s motto: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

  5. says

    Excellent advice, Bill. But you forgot a few tools that are essential for any graphic design hobbyist on a tightwad budget.

    1) A library of fonts that come preinstalled on your computer. For best results, use Times or Arial (or Edwardian Script for romances, or Papyrus if you’re feeling exotic). Millions have used them for decades; they’re good enough for book titles.

    2) An arsenal of text effects. Too many people put their books out with titles and author names in plain text; make sure you smack on an outer glow, a drop shadow, and maybe an outline in a different color, so it doesn’t look boring. If your cheap or pirated graphics program doesn’t have these filters, use Word Art for a splash of class.

    3) Some fancy vector masks that fade bitmaps out at the edges, blending one image into another. That’s how you get stock photo heads to float over a landscape, like on proper book covers.

  6. Cal Rogers says

    The best title for me is still The Firm, by John Grisham. I recall the time I walked into a bookstore and saw that title, with I believe just that and the author’s name on the cover and nothing else. You just knew there was something sinister going on at that firm. I’m not really a huge Grisham fan, but to this day The Firm is the only novel that I have read in one sitting.

  7. Peggy Bjarno says

    If we want the world to recognize and respect the copyright on our own work, would we REALLY want to pirate a copy of Photoshop? Just who do you think owns that copyright?
    Yikes, I’m appalled.

  8. says

    GIMP is free software that can do just about anything Photoshop can do. And there are a number of free font sites with tons of choices. Check out a to z fonts, among others. I recently taught a workshop on designing a book cover for less than $50, and that includes stock illustration from places such as Dreamstime.

    • Tracey Witt says

      Thanks Ray! That’s some great information. I’m not planning on self-publishing, but I’d still like to have some input. And, I want a cover for my NaNoWriMo book this year.

  9. says

    Book covers are tricky little suckers, aren’t they? lol!
    Since I work with a practically non-existent budget, I created my own cover and all it took me was time. (Check out the link below to see it.)

    I found the cover photo on (free photos – but make SURE they have the correct license attached and model release!), downloaded some Google Fonts for the title, and then I used GIMP to manipulate it all. I colored in her eyes and added hair to one side of her head.
    I’m sure it could be better, but I am pretty happy with the results. :)

    I think it’s just all about what you are willing to do or learn to get you where you’d like to be. Since I don’t have the money, I get to do everyone on my own – definitely a learning experience! lol!