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Friday, September 9, 2011

How to Make an Ebook: Step 2 - Creating the Cover, Part 1

This series will eventually become an ebook I'll make available for sale once we complete the chapters and I can make time to edit them. If you appreciate my efforts and find them useful, please consider a donation (top, right) to aid the continued work on this book. Thank you.

This next step is one which can strike fear into the average author. Unless you've already delved into art, know the digital terms, and messed with graphic editing programs, the process can feel daunting. Of the parts of publishing a book, this is the one most often farmed out to an artist and/or designer.

And there is no way we're going to teach you to become an expert artists or cover designer in one chapter. That said, we can certainly give you enough information to produce a decent quality cover for your ebook. Remember, it is what is inside that eventually sells the book, not the cover. What you want a cover to do is not turn people away. Ideally, capture their attention is the goal, but the last thing you want a potential reader to think is, "That's a shoddy cover. Story's probably not much better. Next book."

So we hope to give you enough information here to put up a cover that while probably not going to win any awards, will not turn people away by and large. And as you get better at them, can even attract readers to check out what your book is about.

What you Will Need

There are two free programs you will need to create your covers. One is a graphic editing program called Inkscape, and a graphic viewer and minor editing program called Faststone Image Viewer. Why two? Inkscape uses vector-based graphics as opposed to pixels. What this means practically speaking is the fonts and letters you use on the cover will look sharp at most any size. On a pixel canvas, like the program Paint, if you expand the cover the letters can start to look jagged or fuzzy on the edges. In Inkscape, once you have the cover like you want it, you'll be creating a pixel-based image called "png." Faststone can take that, easily crop it, resize it, and save it in the more popular jpeg format that all the sites and programs will use without a fuss. And both of these programs will come in handy if you desire to eventually create a cover for your print book. That process can be found in the appendix.

Another item you will need is the artwork. I know, that's obvious enough. There will be two major ways you'll get your artwork, assuming you nor anyone in your immediate family is so gifted. Either you will pay someone to create it, you'll take one of your own photos and create it if you are so talented, or if going the totally free route, you'll find some public domain art that will work for your book.

If you are willing to pay for your art, a good source of artist is the popular Deviant Art site. Search or browse the artwork to either find art that will work for your book, or potentially contact an artist whose work you like to custom create something for you. Some artist are also willing to do the lettering and design of the whole cover for a price. Usually you can have them do as much or as little as you need. And some of them will work for little, deeming the cover being on a book as advertising for their skills. Often you will have to search through a lot of junk, but there are certainly gems to be found there as well as talented artist.

Another route to finding an artist is to ask authors who have covers you like, who they used. Often the author is at least aware of who even if they didn't work directly with the artist. But from big publishing companies, the author will likely have no idea who created it.

On the issue of taking photos and manipulating them to create artwork for covers, that's another skill, but one you can learn without too much help. Import a photo into Inkscape and start playing around with the various features in it. Take two photos and see how you can combine them. Experimenting is the best way to learn the skills you may need on getting your next cover in place. Reading the help files, tutorials, or searches on the web about how to do specific task will often teach you more than if you sat in a class on the subject. Doing and experimenting is the best way to learn.

In getting public domain artwork, there are two ways to go about this. One is to browse sites designed to provide such artwork. Using links I culled from Jason Matthews' book, How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks – All For Free, here are sites you can visit:

A search could pull up more such sites. But I would encourage any readers of this book to check out Jason's book too. He focuses more on the marketing end of things than I will here, whereas I'm focusing on how to create the books more than he does. So it makes a good companion book to help you sell the book once you've created it.

The other route I've used with some success is Google's image search function. Go to and click on the "Images" link at the top left. Then enter the following into the search box: public domain <insert search terms>

For example, if I had a space opera novel, I might put into the search box "public domain space". Usually you'll have to wade through a bunch of stuff you can't use, or try other search terms. Once you find something of the right size (you'll need any artwork to be as big or bigger than 1000 pixels tall and around 600 or more wide) and that might work with your story, you'll need to investigate the site the image comes from to make sure it is public domain. If a site has the phrase, "This is not public domain," it will show up in your search. So don't assume because the image comes up in your search that it is public domain. Verify before use.

And in all these sites, it is good to check the sites for their usage rights. Some will have limited rights while others will let you do whatever you want with it. But if it is true public domain and not just someone giving it away for free, it means no one holds the rights to the image and it is free to use however you wish. Certain places may say it is public domain, but what they really mean is they are granting permission from the copyright owner for limited use, and that would be spelled out somewhere.

Before You Start

One key question to ask yourself before you start is whether or not you will ever want to make a print version of this book? An ebook only needs the front cover artwork. That is all that shows on any retail webstore or in the ebook itself. However, a print version will usually have artwork that wraps around the spine and onto the back cover. So if you are going to potentially create a paperback version of the book at some point, you'll want to start with creating a full cover. That means having the artist, if you hire one, to create a full-sized cover, or find some public domain art that is big enough.

How big? That depends on the type of paperback you'll eventually create. To get an idea of the factors involved, you can play around with CreateSpace's cover template creator: Using that calculator, you'll get a template you can import into Inkscape to match the size of the book. By adding the pixels listed in the template, you can get the pixel size for the size of book you are going to create. But if you want a size that will be in the ballpark for a standard 6" x 9" paperback, go for around 3900 pixels wide by 3000 pixels high. Once you know the exact number of pages and the exact size when you are ready to work on the print version, you can resize the image to match, as these numbers shouldn't be far off.

But if the story is a short story, or novella you don't expect to go to print with, or even a novel you are only wanting to publish as an ebook, you'll only need around a 600 pixels wide by 1000 pixels high image. And if for some reason you do later wish to go to print with it, you can always create a new cover.

Also, before you start searching for the artist or image that you will use, you need to have a good idea what you want your cover to accomplish. Remember, I can't in this short of space fully treat how to design covers. That is a full book all to itself, and preferably at the hands of a mentor. But if you keep the following considerations in mind, you can do enough right to create a decent cover.

What's the focus? Art, as a rule, has a focus. The elements of the image draw the eyes to certain features that highlight the meaning. So in figuring out what type of art would convey the meaning behind a book, think about what the focus should be. Then you can convey that to the artist, or look for that element in the artwork you browse through. As you scan the images, ask yourself, "What is the focus of this art, and does it match the themes and feel of my story?"

For example, if the dominate image in a picture is an elf, that will immediately communicate to the reader that this is a fantasy story about elves. Maybe other similar fantasy races as well, like dwarfs. If your book only briefly mentions an elf, and it is historical fiction, that artwork wouldn't communicate what the book is about. That is a fairly obvious example, but the objective is the same for other types.

Keep it simple. The biggest flaw of many covers is too much detail that distracts from the focus. This doesn't mean you can't have detail, even small detail, in the cover. However, what you don't want is it to be busy. The goal of any detail should be to draw the eyes toward the focus of the image. If it doesn't do that, best to leave it out as it will be a distraction rather than an aid. So you only need the level of detail in an image that is necessary to point to the focus.

There is one rule about this in ebook covers, that less is more. Some suggest that detail isn't needed because it will not be seen in the thumbprint size reductions that a person will see in a standard retail outlet search. And for sure what you don't want to do is have so much detail in the image that the picture becomes muddied when reduced to a postage stamp size. Once you create your cover, make a small 100 pixel tall version of it and see how it looks.

However, it is not true that small details will not be seen. First, in most online retail outlets, the image once you get to the item screen is bigger. Then usually you can click on it and get a full-sized version of the image, where you should be able to see the finer detail. Additionally, the ebook itself can show the image in large enough detail to see the finer points.

So it isn't the detail itself that has to go, but detail that doesn't draw the reader toward the focus of the art, and instead makes the image busy, distracting from the focus. If the detail in a cover does the points to the focus, then generally when reduced to a smaller size, you'll still be able to get the gist of the images focus.

Let's return to our elf cover. Let's say we have his face in the center of the page. That alone provides focus and tells the reader that he/she is the main character. Then we want to circle the elf with supporting cast images. That could give the reader further info on what types of characters will be part of the story, and provide ambiance that can reflect the story. But what if all the head shots of the secondary characters are the same size as the main character? That could be more of a distraction, rather than the main character demanding the primary attention. What if we have a dwarf on the elf's left, staring off to the character's right, away from the elf? That pulls the reader's eyes away from the elf, not toward him. What if the ax the dwarf is holding is pointing toward the spine of the book? That can draw the eyes away from the elf. Even the border you use for each secondary character can cause problems. On the side opposite the elf, a stronger boarder would be good to use. On the side facing the elf, it would be a narrower boarder, or no boarder at all, but blending in with the background behind the elf. Each element should point toward the center focal point.

Communicate the feel of the story. Another aspect that is harder to quantify, but you as the author are probably the best to determine this, is whether the ambiance and feel of the cover matches the feel of the story. If it is a comedy, does the cover convey a comedic feel? If it is space opera, does the cover feel like a space story? If it is fantasy, does looking at the cover convey that element? If it is a story of devastation, does the cover convey end-of-the-world gloom? If it is a mystery, does the artwork give off mysterious vibes?

How does one do this? Partly in the subject of the artwork itself, partly in the color scheme used, partly in the fonts, where they are placed, how they are sized, and what the title, sub-title say. The feel of a piece is the combined elements of the cover that give off a certain ambiance that conveys the ethos of the story.

Returning to our elf, let's suggest that the story is about an elf living through the last days of his dying race. Maybe he is even one of the few left. But he does something heroic toward the end of the book that enables the world to live on through the destructive bad guy's attempts to end it all, even as his race's last gasp is felt. What might communicate the feel of that story on the cover?

First, might be the title, which we'll deal with in a moment. But a good one for this could be, "To My Last Breath." That conveys the ethos of the story without really revealing what that really means fully, allowing the story to flesh that part out. Just those words convey a seriousness, a finality about it that would say to the reader, "This isn't going to be a happy book, but emotionally powerful."

Another way we could convey this is in the color scheme. Maybe to reflect the theme, at the top of the book is a vibrant green leaves, but as they fall toward the bottom of the page, they shift to a tan and gray color (no bright maple orange fall colors here) until finally a moldy green color dominates the bottom of the page. That scheme communicates the sense of going from life to death, yet the underlying green on the bottom would give a sense that life will be born again from the death. That could be highlighted even further by one small, green blade of grass poking from under the molding leaves, directly under the elf. Then to bring out that focus and keep the background from drawing the focus from the elf, blur the leaves enough that they don't appear to have the focus. In a small image, it will just appear as background coloring. In the larger image, it won't pull the focus away from the elf.

And then there is the facial expressions of the elf. You don't want a happy elf here, but one that appears forlorn, tired, and the color should be pale, not vibrant. To keep him central, however, ensure that the lines of his artwork are much thicker on the whole than the other characters. Yet, give him a resolute look, not like one about to give up, but jaw set, ready to take on the world despite the gravity of the situation. When you have facial shots of your characters on the cover, their expressions can make a big influence on the feel of the cover. You want that to match the book's feel. An elf with a slight smile would go counter to what our book is about. But, if it were a comedy, it would be perfect.

Give thought to the title and text placement. As demonstrated above, the title can not only convey the idea of the story, but should convey the feel or emotion of the book. When you hear the title Lord of the Rings, that conveys one feel. When you hear Lord of the Flies, however, you get a totally different sense of the story. Both those titles convey not only an element of the story, but the central dynamic that makes that story memorable. That's what you are shooting for in coming up with a title.

How to convey that emotion and dynamic? The best titles are those that do two things well. One, they personalize the story. Two, they form a picture in the reader's mind. An impartial picture, for sure, but a picture nonetheless. See how the two titles we already mentioned do that? Both talk of a lord, so you immediate have a person, a lord who will be ruling over something, and a struggle no doubt to rule over others. And both rings and flies paint different pictures in one's mind. One of authority, and one of degradation. Or consider the recent best selling novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We're talking one girl with a distinct mark upon her. The title forms an immediate image in the mind.

The placement of the title in relation to the rest of the artwork is important as well. Most often, the title will go toward the top, and be the largest letters on the page. And usually you pick or create cover art with some space at the top where the title will go. But sometimes that can change. If the author is a very popular author, often his or her name will be the biggest letters on the page. Sometimes, to keep from distracting from the focus of the image, the text will be put in different locations. Maybe it will be at the bottom. Allow the artwork itself and the feel of the story to dictate where text will go on the cover.

Also consider the font and color used. Some people obsess over this. But it isn't that critical. As with other elements of the cover, you want it to not distract from the focus of the cover, and you want it to convey along with the rest of it, the emotion of the story. Pick a font that doesn't conflict with that, maybe even reinforces it, and it will work. Other than that, don't use anything crazy or distracting. Make the title font as big as the space will allow. Naturally, the shorter the title, the bigger the title can be on the cover. But you don't want the text to overpower the artwork either, especially the focus. Balance the elements so they work together, not struggle against each other.

And the font color needs to be considered carefully. You want the colors to match the feel of the cover, but you want there to be enough contrast that it is readable. Frequently if you have a darker background, a lighter version of the color works well. Or a contrasting color can sometimes work as well if the feel is conveyed. A mostly blue background, for instance, could use an orange text. A horror title, though overdone, could be in blood red against a gray sky. What you don't want, however, is for the reader to squint in trying to read the words on the cover, because they blend in with the background too much.

So what happens when you have a multicolored background where the some part of the title tends to blend in? That can be a problem from time to time. The only solution I've found to that is either get different cover art, or use outlining of the words. Some people don't like to use outlining because it appears "unprofessional." Yet you will see professional publishers use outlining when it serves a purpose. I have a book from Baen Books, titled Miles Errant by Lois McMaster Bujold, that his heavily outlined. Double outlined in black, white, and red. So if it isn't feasible to get different cover art, I would err on the side of making the text readable than worrying that someone knee-deep in cover rules thinks it is unprofessional.

Next up in Part 2, the technical creation of the cover.


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