Creating Cover Art: Down & Dirty Tips

Happy Friday! Today, I have a special treat for you. My pal, Maria Zannini is here to give us the low-down on creating great cover art. No matter what route to publishing you choose, I go out of my way to provide the best information to help you forge your own path to success.

Maria, take it away!


Perhaps the most formidable part of self-publishing is creating the right cover for your story. Where do you find art? How do you decide what art to use? When should you hire an artist? And if you hire someone, how do you know you’re getting your money’s worth?

I’ve been a graphic artist for more than thirty years, recently retired from my day job as an art director for a large communications company. I know good design. But more importantly I know how to create the emotional trigger that inspires and demands a second look—if only to quell natural human curiosity.

It would take a whole book to explain all the subtleties of good design, so instead I’m going to share some down and dirty tips to get you started. If you have any questions at the end of this post, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments.


• To find suitable art, Google ‘royalty-free art’. Here are a few of the most popular ones.






• As you browse, pull any art cuts that catch your eye. Don’t assume you’ll be able to return to that page later. Chances are, you’ll never find it again. (They’re tricksy that way.) Just save the ones you like and cull them later.

• Remember that unless you’re creating a book in a specialty size, you’ll want to focus on art that can be used inside a vertical format.

• Think in layers. There are 34 layers in the cover art for my book, The Devil To Pay. Skillful layering will create depth and movement.

• In the Western World, we read from left to right. This means your eyes will naturally settle on the left hand side of the page and travel right. You want to place something visually stimulating that will guide the viewer gently to the other side.

• Before you choose your art, think about your message. What’s the genre, theme, and mood of the novel? How do you want the reader to react when he sees the cover? (Remember, you’re creating an emotional trigger.) Once you have the parameters set in your brain, you will automatically scan and cull anything that doesn’t fit the criteria.

• Careful not to muddy your colors or use too detailed an image. When in doubt, reduce the image to a postage stamp to gauge the art’s readability.

Very Important: After you’ve created your cover, save the original in its layered file, then create a duplicate. Flatten the duplicate image and save at 72dpi, or use the function, ‘Save for Web’. When you upload to Amazon, Smashwords, or on a blog, you’ll want to use the lower-res version. Not only will it load faster, but you’ll prevent anyone from thieving your high-resolution image.


• Invest in a set of fonts (or two) that specifically say “Licensed for Commercial Use”. Stay legal.

• The general rule of thumb is to use no more than three different typefaces per cover. The title font should be legible even when reduced down to ten per cent of the original art.

• If you’re skilled in editing programs like Photoshop, add drop shadows and highlights to your title to make it pop off the page.


• If creating your cover art proves too daunting, spend the money on a good artist. Nothing says amateur like a poor cover.

• Find the best artists by asking the authors whose covers you admire. This way you’ll also get the inside scoop on the author’s personal experience with the artist.

• Always ask the artist about her turnaround time. An in-demand artist can be booked far in advance, so plan

• As you browse artists’ portfolios, pay attention to their range. Does it all look the same, or is there a uniqueness to each book? You want your cover to stand out, not look like it came out of a factory.

• Ask if the fee can be lowered if you provide the photos.

• Get everything in writing, and make sure you understand the contract.

• Don’t expect miracles. Short of creating an original painting for you, the artist can only work with the resources at hand. She might be able to alter the color of the model’s hair, but not a change of wardrobe.

That’s it for this session, kids! Do you have any questions for me?

I hope you’ll follow along with the rest of the Indie Roadshow as I share the things I learned on my road to self-publishing.

The Devil To Pay is available at Amazon and Smashwords for only $2.99. It’s the first book of the series, Second Chances.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and bad tequila. Shannon McKee finds herself at the end of her rope, and she bargains her soul in a fit of despair.

Shannon’s plea is answered immediately by two men who couldn’t be more different from one another. Yet they share a bond and an affection for the stubborn Miss McKee that even they don’t understand.

When Heaven and Hell demand their payment, Shannon has no choice but to submit. No matter who gets her soul, she’s not getting out of this alive.

Bio: Maria Zannini used to save the world from bad advertising, but now she spends her time wrangling chickens, and fighting for a piece of the bed against dogs of epic proportions. Occasionally, she writes novels.  Follow Maria on Facebook or my blog.


THANK YOU, Maria for your time and for sharing your expertise!!! I hope all of you have a fabulous weekend.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Happy writing!

Until next time….


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  1. Thanks again for letting me hang at your blog today, Kristen! You’re swell!

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing something I knew absolutely nothing about… 😉

    1. Thanks for popping in, Xandra! PS: Love your avatar!

  3. Great info. Thanks for sharing. I KNOW I have zero talent at cover art. It would end up looking like a hot mess. I hired a cover artist who charges a reasonable fee, has a good turn around time, and created a look for my series that totally knocks my socks off. 🙂

    1. That’s another excellent point about working with a designer. If you’re writing a series, let the artist know ahead of time so s/he can create a cover with continuity. Congrats, Shéa.

  4. Great post- I’m saving it for later reference!
    I do have a question- my hubby has drawn my cover art. So far it’s in black and white- to make sure I like it before he paints it. Our plan was to take a photo of the painting- or have someone take the photo- or scan the oil painting to get the image in the computer then work with it from there. A freind told me that it won’t work- and it’ll look like a photo of a painting.
    Any advice on how to get original art into the computer and have it look professional?

    1. Ref: photo vs scan

      Hard to say without seeing the actual artwork, but back in the old days when all art was hand-drawn, it would be passed on to a photographer who photographed it with a large format camera.

      Nowadays, most artists scan their work. I know many times I’ll start a drawing in the flesh, and then scan it into my computer so I could finish working on it digitally.

      By the way, keep the B&W illustration handy. You can use it in b&w ads. It’ll be sharper than converting the color illustration into a grayscale image.

      1. Thank you- this helps a lot! I’ll start hunting for someone with a large format camera and I’ll also get it scanned- we’ll see which one turns out best and play from there.
        I was worried that hubby would need to learn computer art stuff and would murder me in my sleep.

        1. Oops! Left a reply on the wrong comment. Here it is again.

          Ref: I was worried that hubby would need to learn computer art stuff and would murder me in my sleep.

          LOL! Well, you have witnesses now. He’d never get away with it.
          Good luck.

  5. Great post, like always, Maria.

    I’ve been thinking about getting into cover design to make some extra money as I’m currently broke as dirt. Thanks for listing the stock image sites. Most of them I’ve been to but there are a few that I’ll have to check out.

    1. Ref: I was worried that hubby would need to learn computer art stuff and would murder me in my sleep.

      LOL! Well, you have witnesses now. He’d never get away with it.
      Good luck.

      1. Lol. I was reading that comment and was like Wha?!. lol. Realized it was a mix up.

  6. Hi Angelina! Have fun exploring the sites. I probably spent more time researching stock art than anything else.

  7. Thanks for the helpful tips. I’m a good artist and am in the process of pairing that talent with photoshop to create covers…a very exciting process for me.

  8. Wonderful guest post!!! I’ve been thinking about this lately. I’m not ready for cover art, but I was starting to have some questions. Such perfect timing for this info!

    1. I’ve been having the same thoughts, Sonia! Amy Shojai’s DIY series has also been helpful. This is a great post, Maria!

  9. I actually did my own cover art for my book (which isn’t finished yet). I planned on hiring an artist, but one day I decided to do it myself. I don’t know that it’s any good, but a lot of people seem to like it. It has a neutral color scheme, but I like the way it looks.

    Here’s a link: cover art.

    It’s crafted out of cardstock, all hand cut, designed by me. 😉 I’m rather proud of it. The picture quality isn’t so great because my camera sucks, but I haven’t been able to bum off my dad’s hi-res scanner yet.

    There are a lot of terrible book covers out there. Papyrus anyone? I really think that a great cover is one third of what it takes to sell a book. 1/3 good cover; 1/3 good blurb; 1/3 good first chapter.

    1. What a fantastic cover – I love it! Simple is best in my opinion – yours looks completely professional.

    • Angela B on July 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm
    • Reply

    This is great information. As a writer, it gives me insight into a part of the process I’m less familiar with…and a greater appreciation. Thank you so much for sharing

  10. Love this post! Thanks again for terrific info Maria–and Kristen.

  11. This is invaluable information! Thank you so much.

  12. @Marcia

    So glad you found it timely. If you ever have questions down the road, don’t hesitate to email me. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll betcha I know someone who does.

  13. If I ever need something designed I know who to get in touch with now, very cool info Maria and a lot more work than you would suspect by looking at book covers.

    • Dru on July 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm
    • Reply

    thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

  14. I had no idea how intense this process was. Thanks for the links to royalty free images, that’s great. Thank you for guest posting!

  15. @Jackie, It only looks hard. It’s actually much worse. LOL.

    @Dru, Hi Dru! Nice to see you here.

    @Jess I think you can make the process as complex or as simple as you like. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I probably worry things more than normal. 🙂

  16. Wonderful tips! Thanks so much!!!

  17. Maria, thanks for sharing; and Kristen, thank you for hosting her!

    I worked as a graphic artist for over 10 years before moving into software development. Hopefully your post will help some of those authors who are about to just download a stock photo, slap some type on it, and hit publish. I see so many covers like that, and they could really be hurting those authors’ sales. If I didn’t have the skills and experience to design my own covers, I’d definitely pay someone to do it for me. On that note, I like how you shared tips for working with an artist, especially the one to “get everything in writing.”

    btw, love your cover – may it lead the way to great sales!

  18. Scary post! Layers — help! that reminds me of watercolours, where you have to know what you’re doing before you start or you’re sunk — needless to say, watercolour painting isn’t for me! But the layers do explain why your cover for Devil to Pay has depth, unlike so many others. I feel much better informed — and even more in awe of people going with self-publishing. Good luck, everyone!

  19. @Martha
    Glad you found this useful.

    @Jennette: Thank you!
    Re: Hopefully your post will help some of those authors who are about to just download a stock photo, slap some type on it, and hit publish.

    A lot of people don’t realize it’s a bit more complex than just merging photos. –Nice to meet a fellow designer!

  20. Thank you Maria and Kristen for posting! This is very helpful.

  21. Sorry for the belated look-see/comment. I am a slacker.

    First off, Maria, that cover is gorgeous!

    Second, what an incredible process. I have zero ability, so I’m quite grateful there are artistic folks like you who know what the heck they’re doing. But from your post, now I at least know what to ask should I need to : )

  22. Thanks Maria for sharing your knowledge – I never realized how involved cover art could be, so your points are well received. Thanks also to Kristen!

  23. Great article, Maria! This is a subject we don’t see much of, yet the cover is generally the first thing that draws a reader to take a look at our work.

    Thanks for hosting Kristen, you always bring us the best.

  24. @Tedhenkle

    When I came up with the idea of the Indie Roadshow I wanted to touch on all the things I experienced that brought The Devil To Pay to fruition.

  25. Thanks for these tips Maria and thanks for hosting her Kristen. I am going to self-publish but I cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars, so for me doing my own cover art is a necessity. Since I am a novice I guess the main thing to do is to keep it simple.

    1. @Phantomimic:

      Some covers are extraordinarily simple, yet pack a powerful statement. A single element can be stronger than an overly busy design. As long as it reflects the story, you’ll be happy with the results.

  26. OMG. So much to think about! Thank you for the awesome advice.

    Ellie Garratt

  27. Great post, as always, Maria! I’ve found it helpful to actually copy images and their links to a Word file for future reference – that way I can keep track of what I’ve found on a variety of sites.
    Love the image for The Devil to Pay! Great work. 🙂

  28. Oh wow I’ve book marked this fabulous post. Thanks for the tips. :O)

  29. Bookmarked!

  30. @Ellie

    Thank you!

  31. Very helpful post. Thanks!

  32. Thank you so much for this advice. Definitely saving this blog.

  33. Great post. I was just asked to design my first cover. A bit daunting, but I love a challenge. Hopefully this cover will lead to more. I’ve been designing for 15 years, but just started freelancing 3 years ago. You’re tips are great and you’re right, layering and shadowing make all the difference. It’s real important to save the layered file separate. Once it’s flattened, you can’t go back and edit it effectively. The only thing that I’m not as sure of myself with that cover design now requires is saving images for the web. I’ve been working in the physical print world most of my career. I’m very comfortable with the design aspect, just need to get my feet wet with the requirements for submission to ebook sites. Hopefully I’ll get lots of practice. Your cover is beautiful by the way. Thanks for sharing.

  34. Hi,
    Thanks to Kristin for another awesome post, as always!
    I had a question for maria: Do you still do cover art or can you recommend someone who does?
    Thanks, daniel

  35. @Marilaq Glad you liked it!

    @Creativedeeds Thank you! Ref: saving: And you have different ways to save for the web. The best thing to do is to lay them out four-up and view the jpg, png, gif, and original in different resolutions to see which you like best versus how long each would take to upload.

    @Daniel I got your email, and I’ll answer you more fully there. But the short answer is, no, I’m currently not freelancing. It might be something I’d consider once I stopped writing but for now I can’t do two things at once. 🙂

    As for referrals, I don’t feel comfortable recommending people I haven’t used, but I’ll email you a couple of names of artists I think have done good work.

  36. What a great post for DIYers. I have a few writer friends working on their books now and will pass this along to help them out.

    Thanks for the info.

  37. Thank you thank you!
    I tucked this one away for later (when my book is ready for the cover!).

  38. @catwoods

    Thank you for stopping by!

  39. Excellent post Maria. Definitely an area I’ll have to hire out, LOL. Give me photos, paper, and glue, and I can do something but on the computer…nope.

  40. Raelyn: I sometimes miss doing my layouts by hand, but the computer is faster. And there by the grace of Steve Jobs, go I. LOL.

  41. Great post. I designed the cover of my first book because I wanted to do everything myself to see how it went. I’m happy with my design although I recognise it could be done a lot better by a professional (34 layers wow I only used 3 – I know it shows…. 🙁 ). For my second book I am getting a professional to design the cover and maybe one day I will allow a professional to redesign the cover for my precious first book, but not yet.
    I think with your advice and a bit more practice maybe I can improve but I wonder if I can afford my time when really I want to get more books written.

    1. Christopher: I’m a big believer in letting things percolate for a while. Time has a way of making things clearer. In the meantime, I suggest collecting cover art that you like and figure out what it is you like about them. Those are ideas you can incorporate for your next cover.

  42. Good advice! It pays to learn and purchase the proper programs for making a good cover. I suggest the following:

    Adobe InDesign
    Adobe Photoshop
    Adobe Illustrator

    If you can learn to use those effectively, you can make some great covers.

    1. BC: I like to use InDesign for things like newsletters. But I’ve never been a fan of Illustrator though I’ve used it to create static ads. Photoshop is my favorite for creating cover art. If I had to choose only one piece of software Photoshop would be my first choice. It’s adaptable and relatively easy to learn.

      The only disadvantage with all these programs is that they’re expensive. A free alternative to Photoshop would be Gimp.

  43. Reblogged this on Mind of An Author and commented:
    Some really good info for help with dealing with your indie book journey. Happy Reading

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