Designing your own book cover: Artwork

Designing your own book cover is deeply satisfying, but also fraught with peril.

Securing rights

Closed Captioning Handbook

Securing the rights to your cover photos seems like obvious advice, but even the big companies can goof this one up. When I wrote The Closed Captioning Handbook, it was picked up by Elsevier, a multi-billion dollar publishing company. When my editor and I discussed covers, she said that they had a cover art department that could take care of what we wanted. The cover was just what I wanted. They used several of my photographs, along with a variety of others that they procured themselves.

Within a week of the book’s release, I got an email from a Canadian acquaintance named Joe Clark who writes about the same subject matter. He indignantly asked why my book cover used his copyrighted photographs. I quickly contacted my editor, who talked to the cover art department. As it turns out, they had gone hunting online for photographs, and lifted several images from Joe’s website. Elsevier was stuck. They either had to pay whatever royalty Joe demanded, or destroy an entire print run and design a new cover. Neither he nor my editor, would tell me what they finally agreed to, but I’m guessing it wasn’t cheap.

Generally speaking, it’s easy to find reasonably-priced stock photographs for book covers. If you see something you like on a website, contact the owner of the site and ask. You can also search stock photo sites for appropriate pictures. The bigger sites like iStockphoto, Corbis Images, and Getty Images have millions of photos in their databases, and they are set up specifically to deal with publishers and ad agencies all day long. There is also a plethora of smaller stock sites and sites that specialize in dealing with new and emerging photographers. They won’t have the classic images, but sites like Dreamstime can have significantly smaller fees for their pictures.

When licensing photos for book covers, look for “royalty-free” pictures. With those, you pay a single fee up-front and you can use the picture on future editions, promotional materials, and ebooks without worrying about royalty payments.

There is a downside to licensing a stock photo, however. These licenses are not exclusive unless you pay extra. A lot extra. This means that your beautiful book cover photo could easily show up in a Viagra ad or a K-Mart billboard. If you commission custom artwork, it will cost more, but the art is yours. Nobody else can ever use it without your permission.

Custom or commissioned art

The Darkest Hour 3rd ed cover

Once you have some ideas in mind for your cover art, try talking to some local artists and photographers to get quotes. If what you need isn’t too complex, try talking to some art/photography teachers to see if one of their students might be willing to take on the project. There are also plenty of sources for free photography. Some stock photo sites offer free photos to members (I’ve found quite a few good free pics on Dreamstime), and organizations like NASA have huge collections of non-copyrighted photography (see

If you’re a decent photographer, you can always take your own cover photos, as I did with The Darkest Hour. Make sure that you have someone else take a look at the cover and give you an unbiased opinion before you use it, though. And choose someone that’s willing to (a) be brutally honest and (b) point out errors, composition problems, and “photobombs.”

Photobombs, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, are pictures in which you accidentally include something or someone unexpected in the background. Look carefully for a dog pooping on the lawn, a reflection of the photographer in a shiny surface, or somebody making a goofy face at you.

Should you use a template?

There are a million templates out there for book covers. Most of them make you book look like it came from a template. Instead, take a look at other books in your genre and subject area. Don’t go for exactly the same look as the others, but try to capture enough of the feeling that your science fiction novel will look like a science fiction novel, or your self-help book will look like a self-help book.

And remember that the cover photo doesn’t have to fill the whole front cover. In fact, you don’t have to have a photo—or any kind of illustration—at all. One piece of advice I generally give self-published authors is to avoid putting your own picture on the front cover. Back cover, yes. Front, no. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and I violated that one in my own book, Gary’s Guide to Successful Book Signings. It is a book about book signings, and I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate for the front cover than a picture of me at a book signing.

Like all rules, if you’re going to violate it, do it on purpose. It’s like using a preposition to end a sentence with. Or starting a sentence with “or.”

Whether people find your book in an online store, in a physical bookstore, or by browsing reviews, the first thing they’ll notice is your cover design. Put the time into a good design. Work with a consultant if you’re not comfortable doing it yourself. And for goodness’ sake, make sure you have appropriate rights to the picture(s)!

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