When you self-publish, one of the major obstacles, imo, is cover design. I know many authors opt to pay a cover designer, and of course if you can afford that, great! But for me, because money has always been tight, usually if there's a free or cheap way to do something, even if it takes more work on my part, that's pretty much the path I travel. I guess you could say I'm more afraid of debt than hard work.
I have no graphic design experience. I've dabbled in the past, just playing around in Paint Shop Pro, but never really had mad skills at it. Several years ago, I tried my hand at self-publishing, long before the surge of ebooks and e-readers and what not. I went with the company Lulu.com, which actually is not a bad choice if you wish to self-publish print books. I thought their quality of printing was very good, and I really liked how my book turned out. But I digress.
When it came to self-publishing that book, I had to do a cover design or pick out one of their designs, which I didn't want to do. I always want my books to stand out and look as unique as possible, so that they have the potential to be memorable at first glance. Call it ego, or call it strategy, whatever you want. This is just how I feel. So I got to work researching cover design and figuring out if and where I could find pictures to use, since I have next to no talent in drawing.
If you're like me and have limited artistic ability, I'm going to share some tips that will hopefully help you out. And these are tips I've learned in my own limited experience, so take it for what it is. I'm not a professional cover designer, but I strive to do the best in any endeavor I take on.
For the sake of this post, I'm gonna gear this towards authors who can't afford to hire a professional cover designer. Just a quick FYI, depending on what you want and who you go with you're usually going to have to spend anywhere from $50 to upwards of thousands of dollars for a cover design. For me, thousands of dollars might as well be millions, and even $50 is more than I can afford, especially considering my personal goals of how many books I'd like to release in the long run. So, let's examine free options.
First and foremost, you need a program to actually do the work in. The pros tend to use Photoshop. Ever see the price of Photoshop? Yeah, I knew that was out for me. Luckily, there's a great option called GIMP, which is free and available for Windows and Mac. If you've never used a "paint" program, it does take some getting used to. It can be very overwhelming at first, and for this reason you'll probably want to keep it simple if you're going in with zero experience. Start out by playing around with the program and learning the tools and "doodling" on a blank canvas, before you start your cover design. It'll get you more familiar and comfortable with the program.
I'm not gonna write a whole tutorial on this subject, because there are ample tutorials out there already. The one at AbsoluteWrite is very helpful.
If you aren't a total newbie at graphic design, and want to learn about Photo Manipulation (the act of taking multiple photos and editing them together to form a new image), I highly recommend these tutorials: Gimp-tutorials.net
The important thing is not to read a tutorial and then attempt your own project. Actually follow the tutorial exactly, to see how the end result is accomplished. This will help you learn the tools within the program. Learning how to deal with layers will be your best friend, trust me.
If you're looking for free photos to use, I highly recommend you checking out the links here: 15 Best Places for Designers to Get Free Stock Photos Online
A couple things to note about royalty-free images (whether free or purchased) is the legal aspects of model and property releases. Starting with model releases, if you use an image with a recognizable person in it (usually this means a face shot), it is important to contact the photographer to see if they can offer a model release. If they can't, you might want to see if they can get some sort of written permission from the person in the photo. If not, you're best bet is to move on. This can be frustrating when you find the right person to represent a character in your book, but it can save you a lot of legal trouble in the future. Just because someone takes a photo of something, doesn't mean they have the right to give permission to use it, if it infringes on someone's privacy or property. For example, if someone takes a picture of the Dumbo ride at Disney World and puts it on a royalty-free site, and you use it, you're looking at big legal issues from Disney. Not so much for personal projects, but for anything you wish to use on a product (such as a book), you need to be careful. Properties (buildings, stores, houses, etc) also require a property release, if the property is recognizable. This gets a little bit more complicated because how far is recognizable? If you can alter the image to a point where the original building looks very very different, you might be in the clear. I'm not a lawyer, so take my advice for what it is, but if you're worried, try to pick out "neutral" pictures, where you won't have a problem at all.
Another issue I tend to see a lot with self-published books are font choices. The basic fonts (Courier, Arial, Times New Roman, etc) are free to use, however aren't usually the nicest choice for book covers. I recommend checking out FontSquirrel. These fonts are free to use for commercial purposes, and a lot of them look very nice.
If cover design is still too daunting or you just can't get the hang of it, I recently heard of a site called Fiverr, where people offer a multitude of services for $5. If you search for "book cover design" you will find people who are willing to design a cover for you and it'll only cost $5. I can't vouch for this, I have never used the service, so I'm unsure of the quality or reliability. Other authors have used them though and recommended it. It might be worth a shot for $5.
I hope this blog post helps some of you.