I recently did a post about branding considerations in cover design. This time I'd like to talk about the building of an actual cover. This is something that not every writer will want to try, or even be able to do. It helps to have a preexisting familiarity with graphics software, but is not absolutely necessary.
To get started, you will need some editing software. Adobe Photoshop is one of the longest running and most popular programs out there, but a quick search will turn up dozens of others. Adobe is the 800 pound gorilla. It comes in a variety of flavors now, but most are still quite expensive. If you can't afford Adobe or other professional programs, you still have a few options. Download.com has a selection of freely downloadable graphics editors, but many of these are shareware with limitations built in.One of my favorite editing programs is called Gimp. This program is FREE, and it contains much of the exact same functionality as Photoshop. You can use it to cut and paste, to resize, alter contrast and color, and perform thousands of other operations. It comes preloaded with a nice selection of filters that will automatically convert your image into an old photograph, create a border, or add dozens of other effects. There is a learning curve involved. If you really want to master this or any other graphics software, expect to spend a few weeks working with it at the very minimum.
Of course, the ability to edit images does you no good if you don't have images. So what sources are available? The first and most obvious is you. If you have any artistic or photographic abilities, you can integrate these into your cover. You can also purchase stock images, which are licensed when you buy them, or you can use free public domain images. (some of these require an acknowledgement, so pay attention)
Here are a few sources for stock photos that you can purchase:
Shutterstock.com -over 35 million images on file
Gettyimages.com - This place has some very high quality commercial images, but they are extremely pricey.
Canstockphoto.com - If you're on a budget, check here. They have thousands of images, photos, and graphics, and some of the best prices I've found anywhere.
For free, public domain images:
Google.... yep, just do a quick search and you'll find quite a few more.
Keep in mind that all images have some sort of licensing, whether they're free or not. Watch out for non-commercial only licenses or attribution requirements. Sometimes it's worth the price to buy an image, just so you know what you're getting.
Once you've selected your cover material, I highly recommend making four or five different versions of the cover. Try different images, different colors and fonts, and so on. I often find that the image I have in my head doesn't translate that well onto the page, but then I find something that works even better by accident. It also helps to distill the essence of the idea down to one or two simple graphics, rather than a large complicated scene that won't translate well when shrunk down to size.
Whatever you do, DO NOT just slap a stock image onto a cover and put it up for sale. Everyone recognizes this type of cover, and they know to steer clear! This practice all but guarantees no sales, regardless of how good your book is. Unfortunately, the truth is that people do judge a book by its cover. Sometimes, people buy a book specifically for the cover, even if they never plan to read it. So look at your cover as a serious work of art, and give it the time and respect it deserves. As in all things, don't expect perfection but strive for it.
I will do another post on this subject soon. In completely unrelated news, I'm going to be running a promo soon. I'm still working on the details, so I'll have more info on that next week.