Cover design, part 2

Part 17: if you decide to design your own ebook cover, here is some information that will save you hours of work.
In the last article, I tried to dissuade you from designing your own book cover, even though that’s precisely what I did. So.

Which cover?
Which cover is right for you?     (source)

No, dammit, I still want to design my own cover

Okay, okay. Here are some points to consider.
1. Consider what the book will look like as a thumbnail: Amazon covers are presented to customers as thumbnails, about 150 pixels high (the size of a matchbox on most screens). If there is one piece of advice given over and over, it is that your cover design must be attractive and legible at this size. This is going to affect how much detail you can cram into a cover, which is not actually a bad thing. If it looks like a mess at 150px, who is going to click on it to see its full 1,000px glory? You can experiment with this by downloading samples of the images you are considering and scaling them to thumbnail size. There are images that still carry meaning at this size – it just takes time to find them.
2. Research great covers: there are thousands of design blogs dedicated to book cover design. Sites like The Book Cover Archive hold hundreds of quality images, and even better, present them as thumbnails, giving you an idea of what kind of design hold visual punch at that size.
3. What are the trends in your genre? Sites like Goodreads group books by genre, and allow you to judge the kind of covers your book will be up against.
4. Go with typeface on photograph: if in doubt, the same option is to employ an attractive typeface over an image. Of course, your genre might not commonly employ this method (see: children’s chapter books), so do your homework.
5. Free cover images: some sites like Flickr carry images available under Creative Commons licences. I would believe that you could use images tagged as ‘Attribution’ only, not ‘No Derivative Works’ and certainly not ‘Non Commercial’.
6. Stock photo websites: sites like iStock Photo have a wide variety of photos, most of which are available under limited commercial licence for a very reasonable price. For Saving Davey Gravy, I could have got a fully licensed photo of a boy holding a chicken for $20-30, or a great shot of a Rhode Island Red chicken for about $10. [Edit] Make sure to google for live coupon codes for whichever site you decide to purchase from! When I finally bit the bullet and bought a cover image (see below), I found a live code for 30% off iStock images, making a $50 image just $35.
7. Be careful of licence requirements: image licences are legally binding and people tend to take them seriously. Most limited commercial licences allow you to sell up to 250,000 copies of the image as a book cover before you need to renegotiate for an advanced licence. However, this changes from site to site, so read the fine print. Creative Commons licences vary. Some prevent you from using the image commercially at all, some allow no alterations to be made to it. You may well say, “Pish posh, who’s going to know anyway?”, but the internet can be a surprisingly small place, and I’ve seen negligent parties get absolutely thrown to the wolves via social media.
8. Free fonts: they say that the best things in life are free, but that often doesn’t apply to fonts. However, font sites like Google Fonts and Font Squirrel offer some very attractive free fonts, if you’re willing to spend time sifting through what’s offered. Google Fonts, at least, are free to download and add to programs like Photoshop and GIMP via a few simple steps.
9. Offshore illustrators: if you are willing to spend some time developing a solid design brief and making sure that your designer follows it, there are a variety of offshore sites offering designers who can work to a limited budget. It’s obviously going to be a touchy subject with onshore designers, and the old adage of getting what you paid for may certainly ring true. On the other hand, if you lack the ability to pay the “good range” rates mentioned in the previous article, you’re not actually depriving onshore designers of revenue.

Cover image size requirements for different eStores

Format Size in px Resolution File size
Amazon Kindle catalogue JPG, TIFF 1,562 x 2,500 72 dpi not specified
Amazon Kindle ebook JPG 600 x 800 167dpi – 300dpi 127kb
Barnes & Noble Nook catalogue JPG, GIF, PNG 822 x 1,000 – 1,644 x 2,000 not specified not specified
Barnes & Noble Nook ebook JPG, GIF, PNG 600 x 730 170 dpi 300kb
iPad ebook JPG, GIF, PNG 600 x 860 132 dpi 200kb

This table is lifted verbatim from Natasha Fondren, and it’s worth your while to check out the article she has written on ebook covers for the big three online stores. Some basic planning here, no matter whether you are designing your own cover or commissioning the work, will save you either hours or money down the track. Here are some points to consider:
1. The Amazon catalogue size (1,562 x 2,500px) is the maximum allowable upload size. The minimum Amazon size is 1,000px along the long (vertical) side. If you go to their website, that’s the size that covers are displayed at in the Look Inside! feature. In fact, if you are quick enough, you can notice the larger covers being resized to 1,000px for the webpage as it loads.
2. Note the difference in resolution (dots per inch) between the images. It’s best to start big. I started with a master image of 1,600 x 2,400px (which scales perfectly to 600 x 800px) with the resolution set at 300dpi. You can then change the resolution as necessary, always remembering to save as a new image, not over your master!
3. Your master image should still retain the component layers that form it as manipulable objects. In GIMP, this means saving it as an XCF, and then exporting JPEGs and PNGs from that XCF as required. What I mean by this is that all the layers of the Saving Davey Gravy cover – such as the text blocks of text and the drop shadow text effects – are still all floating elements within the XCF, which can be reopened and moved at will. If I’d saved the master image as a JPG, then those layers would be flattened and the ability to manipulate them lost.
4. Notice the differences in height between the covers for Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble? Unless you are lucky, and your cover image employs an area of block colour at the top and bottom that you can crop for the shorter images, you’re going to have to open up your master image and make subtle changes the layout to accommodate this.
5. For the Amazon ebook cover, you’ll find that fitting a 300dpi image under 127kB takes a bit of juggling. You can’t greyscale the image, either, because it needs to be in colour for the later Kindles. Try reducing the image quality when you save it. I scraped in under the limit with the quality set to about 75%, with no appreciable loss in definition.
Edit: I tend to learn the hard way, and I had a hell of a time trying to bring a cover in under 127kB, using GIMP, without a terrible amount of artifacts showing up in the background. (It turns out that JPEGs tend to artifact heavily both when large areas of the same colour are present, and when there’s a lot of white on red, which is obviously the perfect storm for my final cover image.)
It’s only later that I found JPEG optimisers like JPEG Optimizer. These sites will tear the guts out of overstuffed images, which is handy not just for ebook covers, but also fast web pages. Give them a try.
6. If your cover has a white background which extends to the edges of the image, you need to include a narrow grey border to it so that there is a visual boundary between your cover and the website background, when it is uploaded.

A final word and then I’ll shut up about covers, promise

I like the cover I designed for Saving Davey Gravy. However, I realise that it doesn’t quite measure up to the oceans of professionally designed covers that it’s competing against. It might be 85% of the way there, but that’s a big gap when it’s standing in a row with books from traditional publishers. I spent about 20 hours researching, planning and executing that cover, and if I could have found someone to design a big, bright children’s book cover for under, say $300, it would have been money well spent.

Edit: I lied

That “85% of the way there” ate away at me until I did something about it, because that’s the way my head’s wired. So, I threw away the best part of another two days designing, mocking, workshopping and producing a new cover. However, compare the two covers:

Old cover
Saving Davey Gravy version 1.53
New cover
“It looks like stitched lips!” said someone, to my temporary horror

and I hope you’ll agree that it was time well spent. In the process, I learned more about cover design and feel more confident that what I will produce in the future won’t be completely trousers.

Proceed to Part 18: ‘The ISBN and ASIN’, or return to the article index.
Return to Re: writing
While I’ve endeavoured to provide you with accurate information, what is considered ‘accurate’ will change over time. If I’m wrong, or you’d like to ask a question or share your thoughts, I’d love to hear your take on things.

Rhys About Rhys

Teacher, writer, editor, cook: a bit like that nursery rhyme, really.
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  1. Thanks for the link! 🙂 I forgot to add to my post that the Barnes & Noble catalog cover specs have changed… the longest side needs to be between 1,000 – 2,000 pixels.

    LOVE the cover! I actually love elements of both the old and new cover!

    • Thanks, Natasha.

      It took a while to sink in (and/or I was being stubborn), but ebook covers just look so much better when they have a strong visual element that is both very noticeable and easy to understand when the cover has been reduced to a 140 pixel thumbnail. I’ll edit the figure as you’ve suggested.

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