The Do's And Don't's of DIY Covers
Designing your own covers can be a lot of fun, and many authors try their hand at cover design at some point. With the many graphic tools online and stock photos easily available, cover design sounds like a great way to save money and have fun with your book.
Spoiler hint: I’m not saying you should design your own covers. Most author-created covers I’ve seen have been underwhelming at best. This is because the design skills necessary to craft a beautiful cover are completely different than the skills needed to write a sellable book.
If you really want to go through with this, there are many things to look for and learn that I won’t cover here. However, I can give a list of quick do’s and don’t’s that you can use to tweak your covers and make them as eye-catching as possible.
Use multiple stock images. One picture might be awesome, but other covers could already be using it. Ideally having a separate background image or overlay can add to your cover without being distracting. Cut the background from your main image and lay it over something more appealing, and you’ll have a good start.
Pick a readable font. One of the biggest problems with DIY covers is when the author tries to make the title as graphically appealing as the rest of the image. It doesn’t need to be. What you want to aim for is something simple, readable, and forgettable that won’t distract from the rest of the image.
Match your genre. You might love breaking the rules of your genre in writing, and that’s great, but don’t let it show on the cover. The covers that sell the best usually cling to basic genre conventions regardless the content of the book. It’s okay to be cliche here.
Include a human element. People like people, and while there are many great covers that don’t feature a direct character appearance, a humanizing element (an accessory or article of clothing) almost always brings the feel of the book to life.
Keep your eyes on the center. An art teacher might have told you at some point to watch how your eyes follow an image. That’s especially important when designing book covers. The ideal you want is a verticle line down the middle, pulling attention to the book itself. How you balance your art around that line is entirely up to you.
Use or create a template. There are plenty free book cover templates around online, and you can also choose to create one of your own based on popular covers available. Pay attention to what elements are included and how they are placed on the sample cover, and then vary the design as needed.
Aim for subtlety. It’s easy to want to tell your whole book on the cover, but usually, less is more. If you focus on creating a bold core feeling in your cover instead of trying to illustrate a specific moment, you’ll say more and attract more readers.
Split testing. The first idea for a cover you have is not necessarily the best. When working, try out several widely different concepts and ask others to vote on which is their favorite. You might be surprised at the result.
Experiment. On the other end of the spectrum, cover design is one area where experimentation should be limited. This doesn’t apply to new effects and graphic skills on your chosen platform, but your cover shouldn’t try to look anything out of the ordinary if you want to make sales. Stick with tried and true cover appearances.
Use one photo. I get it, the photo is perfect. But unless it was custom shot for the cover of your book, someone else might claim the same photo as well. Zooming, cropping, and tinting will all help to an extent, but to be safe, you’re better off finding a way to implement a second photo to balance it out.
Expect to get a quality cover for free. There are some great free stock photos out there, as well as a number of free digital photo editors. Unfortunately, free stock photos are often overused (and sometimes have licensing issues to address), and free photo editors (including Canva) don’t necessarily have all the tools you’ll need to create a memorable cover. Be prepared to spend and decide on a budget beforehand.
Note: It’s okay to download watermarked images when you’re testing out a cover look and purchase only if you decide to buy. You don’t need to break the bank for a cover you might hate in the end!
Draw/illustrate a cover. Authors with an artistic streak often meet an unusual challenge: the temptation to draw or illustrate a cover. Unfortunately, outside of picture books, illustrated covers are overwhelmingly out of vogue and will often give your book an unintentionally amateur edge--even if the art is of workable quality. Sticking to photos and typography will make your book appear more consistently professional.
Use elaborate text. Drop-shadows, bevels, outlines--those are all fun to play with in your spare time, but professional covers don’t need them. Pick any high-selling cover from the ranks, and you’ll notice that the text does nothing to stand out, even at the cost of readability. Fonts are usually kept to something simple as well--check other covers in your genre to see what works for you.
Oversimplify it. The best covers are often minimalist, Jurassic Park being a famously recognizable example. Unfortunately, minimalist covers are difficult to master and not a good choice if you lack experience in the book cover design field.
Limit yourself to one idea. Pro cover designers will often draft at least three or four different concepts before a single cover is chosen. You can choose different aesthetics and shift your emphasis from image to typography until you have a pleasant variety. Then, before deciding, show your ideas to an audience and let them vote on their favorite. Usually, you’ll get a clear winner from your options as well as suggestions on how to improve it.
Break your genre. Of course, you might very well choose to bend or break your genre in between covers. That’s up to you. But keep that to your text. Your cover is responsible for drawing new readers into your fandom, and the best way to do that is by promising that your book is a quality book in its chosen genre. If they like the genre, they’ll check your book out. If you instead emphasize how your book differs from its competitors, people are more likely to feel confused about what it is you’re trying to sell.
As always, please share your thoughts on DIY covers in the comments below. You can also join the self-publishing fiction writers’ group on Facebook for further discussion, and we look forward to seeing you there.