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.
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.
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 .
Think 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. 
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.”
For this historical novel (below), a classic font.
For this humorous memoir, a quirky, fun font.
Using 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).
Good luck with your cover designs. If you have questions, please ask.
For what it’s worth.