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How to Design a Book Cover When You Have ZERO Budget

Your book cover is important. In fact, it’s probably more important than the book’s contents. Sorry.

It’s the first thing people will see, and they will judge your book by its cover.

But what do you do when you want to self-publish your novel and you have zero budget and zero graphic design skills?

Bribe a Friend

If you have a friend who’s particularly good with graphic design, sweet talk or bribe them into helping you. Tell them as much as you can about the book, but then let them interpret it. If you don’t have any graphic design skills, there’s really no point in you telling them what you want on the cover. How can you possibly know what will look good?


Don’t know anyone with graphic design skills? It’s time to get practising.

Canva’s Design School is amazing, and it’s perfect for beginners. It talks you through different aspects of graphic design including font pairing, filters, and how to use the software.

Once you’ve gone through all of that, you need to use your new found skills to experiment. They have templates for book covers, so you can get an idea of the kinds of things that you can do.

If you have access to a program such as Photoshop, that’s great, but remember that Photoshop is for professionals and can be difficult to get your head around at first.

However, there is a size limit of 5000 pixels on Canva, so if you want to do a print cover, you’ll need access to another program such as Photoshop or Gimp to design this. You can get a 30 day free trial for Photoshop, whilst Gimp is free, but I think it’s also Windows-only.

Google is a great resource for tutorials on how to do things, and using Photoshop is no exception. You can get the hang of it, but it will take practise.

It’s also worth noting that print covers should be set at 300dpi (dots per inch) and CMYK colour, whilst ebook covers should be 72dpi and RGB colour. Print and digital treat things very differently, which is why they require different resolutions and types of colour. You can adjust both of these on Photoshop, but it may require doing your cover twice to fit the requirements.

The ebook cover for What Happens in New York!


Check out the book covers for other books in the same genre. See what they’re doing in terms of fonts, colours, and images. Make notes on what you like about them and what you don’t. What makes them look professional compared to amateurish.

One thing I kept in mind when designing the cover for What Happens in New York was that books in the same genre usually have bright colours. They also tend to have flowers or swirls. I couldn’t bring myself to do the latter, and Hollie wouldn’t be too happy with me if I did (she prefers clean lines over frills), but the bright colours reflected the characters and their personalities. Also, Hollie’s suitcase is the same shade of bright pink as the tights in the cover.

Stock Photos are Your Friend

A high-quality stock photo will make your book stand out. Not if it’s generic, though, so be careful what you choose.

Also be careful of permissions. Copyright permissions can be a minefield, and there are rules regarding what you intend to use your photograph for. If you’re unsure, every site has guidelines on what downloaded photos can be used for. If the legal jargon goes over your head, you can always email them or contact the photographer directly.

Some stock photo sites are cheaper than others, but this may also mean that the permissions are different, so keep that in mind before you purchase the photo.

I used iStock for mine, and you can use their Standard User License for up to 500,000 print or ebook copies of your novel. The rules may be slightly different for other providers.

Beware of Fancy Fonts

Arial is boring, I’m sure we can all agree on that. Ditto Times New Roman.

But plain fonts look better on book covers, and they’re easier for people to read.

Look at the books on your shelf. How many of them have the whole title written in scripted or pixelated fonts?

There’s a reason for that.

Don’t try and reinvent the book cover just because you’re in charge of the design. You’re not a graphic designer, you’re a writer.

Just like with writing, simple graphic design is the most effective.

The Short of it

  • Get a friend to help out
  • Practise
  • Do your research
  • Stock photos are useful, but can be a Copyright minefield, so beware
  • Scripted, calligraphic, pixelated or otherwise decorative fonts are a bad idea

What Happens in New York is now available to preorder!

Inspire a friend
Just What is What Happens in New York All About?
The Books I Read in 2015
Kristina Adams

Kristina Adams is an author of fiction and nonfiction, writing and productivity blogger, and occasional poet. She has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Derby and an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University. When she's not writing she's reading, baking, or finding other ways to destroy the kitchen. She can be found under a pile of books with a vanilla latte.

1 Comment

  • 13th February, 2016 at 02:04

    The GIMP is available for Windows, Linux, and Macintosh. I have used it to do book covers myself.

    A nice effect it can do is to put a drop shadow on your title, which gives it a three dimensional effect.

    Free fonts are available at Font Squirrel. Display fonts are designed to look good in large sizes, making them suitable for book covers. Not all of them are decorative or scripted.

    Artwork from 1923 or earlier is in the public domain. archive.org has page images from thousands of old books and there might be something there you could recycle.

    You want to make a cover that is appropriate for the kind of book you’re doing. A how-to book cover is different from a romance novel or a science fiction novel. A thoughtful science fiction novel will have a different kind of cover than a space opera. You might want to reverse engineer a cover from the kind of book you’re trying to sell, figure out what makes it work, then do something similar.

    In my opinion (not backed up by any evidence) you don’t have to have a great cover, but you can’t afford to have one that looks amateurish.



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