Evolution of a Cover

William Vaughn
6 min readOct 16, 2015


For the second time in as many weeks, another author has approached me about the cover for The Timkers —Déjà Vu. They wanted to know how I did it — or did I hire it out. We don’t like it, but books are judged by their covers, so readers not intrigued by a cover will keep looking. After all, there are (they say) forty-thousand new book covers every month for them to judge. I’m not going to venture into the logic behind having a half-naked woman clutched in the arms of a bare-chested man for a romance novel. Clearly, this is what romance readers expect. But I digress. The reason behind this essay is to give you a 40,000' view of building a cover.

The Tools

I used Photoshop to create my covers, but I don’t consider myself a Photoshop expert. Let’s put it this way, I’ve flown helicopters in combat, but I don’t call myself an expert aviator. I can fix a faucet or an electrical plug, hook up a multimedia system, or build a computer from parts, but I’m not an expert in these endeavors. Except for the helicopter training the Army taught me, I learned all of these other skills including PhotoShop by watching, studying, asking questions and by trial and error — lots of errors. You can too.

Yeah, Photoshop is expensive. I bought my Adobe suite when attending the University of Washington (night courses on fiction-writing). Business expense. As a student (in any school), you can get a substantial discount.

I also used my own pictures whenever possible. I’m also an avid photographer so I’m constantly on the lookout for scenes I can use for covers. Since my Nikon and I haven’t been in outer space or on a frozen tundra in Northern Canada, I bought rights to a picture of a Snowy Owl from a famous wildlife photographer (David Hemming) and downloaded pictures of space taken with the Hubble telescope (courtesy of StSci). The rest of the dozens of pictures I used in my covers I photographed and edited myself.

Be very careful of downloaded images. In many cases, they contained malware so I use a firewalled system to explore untrusted public sites. And just because you find a picture laying out in plain site on the street, or in some random site, you’re not allowed to use it as you see fit. You either have to use your own pictures (as I do) or acquire rights (in writing) to them. Sure, this won’t bite you until your book is successful.

One other point about picture rights, just because you took a picture, it does not mean you can use the image for commercial purposes (like to make a T-shirt or a book cover). Yeah, really. It turns out, some commercial buildings own their image rights. The Seattle Space Needle is one of those sites. I had to abandon use of a (very cool) picture of the Space Needle taken from a helicopter (long story) because it put too much emphasis on the Needle. Thankfully, I worked with some very helpful people at the Space Needle to come up with a cover that includes the Space Needle in the context of Seattle. I finally obtained written permission to use this refined image in the cover.

Tip: I found that using one underlying cover image which flows from the front cover across the spine to the back, makes aligning far easier as well as eliminating (okay, reducing) problems that come up when the printer has not fully aligned the cover. Consider that they print within tight tolerances, but a .2" shift is noticeable unless your cover has been designed to position content away from the edges.

Using the CreateSpace Template

I use CreateSpace for my fiction. Once you have a page count, you’re ready to generate a template for your cover. They provide an easy-to-use site to generate the PhotoShop template.

The wizard asks for page count (to determine the spine width), the trim size (to determine the dimensions of the front and back covers) and the paper color (to account for paper thickness). The template file is your starting point. It shows the boundaries for the pictures as well as the text you place on your covers.

The template will be the bottom layer of your cover. As you position the background image (the picture of the galaxy in my example), make sure it’s scaled to remain inside the boundaries. The template itself is clearly marked to show where the image should be placed. Sure, once your cover is correctly located, the Template layer will be hidden. It’s still wise to mark it as hidden to prevent any bleed-through.

The Layers

PhotoShop is all about layers. Think of it this way. The final image is constructed by laying text (like the title, your name, and the reviews) on top of the background image which is laid over the Template. You’ll want to add Text Boxes for any words on the cover unless these are also pictures. My cover uses several pictures carefully edited to remove the background so underlying layers show through. The final cover has over twenty-five layers.

Once you get the feel for Photoshop, you’ll want to setup “Guides” to help align (everything). I use guides to mark the boundaries in the Template, the center of the spine, the top of the title and a variety of other locations.

The Back Cover

So, besides the UPC code what else goes on the back cover? Well, it depends. Go to a bookstore and look at popular books in your genre and use them as a guide. I invariably include a precis and reviews. Some books have no reviews or only “New York Times Bestseller!” You get to decide. Getting the reviews can be a challenge, but I solicit them from my beta readers. I also add or revise the back-cover reviews as new accolades come in. Work with your editor to make sure these are up to your (okay, the editor’s) standards.

The Barcode

When you lay out your cover, the Template reserves space for the UPC Barcode which helps retailers scan your book when someone buys it. It includes the ISBN and should include the price. In the US, the price is prefixed with “5” so 51495 means the book’s suggested retail price is $14.95. So yes, you need to choose a retail price for you books before you complete the cover. Again, pricing is another long discussion but consider that Amazon does not care what you put on the cover as to the price. You decide on a price and Amazon sells your book for a discount off that price. Consider that bookstores really need to be able to scan your books so they often reject books without correctly formatted barcodes. I got mine generated at a free site such as this.

The Biography

I also include a short biography that lets the reader know who you are. People buy books they like from authors they like. Authors like to be liked so I include a few words to help them understand I’m just another human out there trying to tell a story.

Sure, there’s a lot more to creating a good cover, but these tips should help you get a running start on the process. Most fiction authors are very creative, so taking on graphics design and PhotoShop is not that much of a stretch. Just, don’t be intimidated by the process. Yes, it might take some time (it took me about six months of work before I was ready to produce my first cover). And listen. Listen to those around you (to an extent) when they offer suggestions. And if you like some aspect of an image, keep it. Despite what your cousin the arc-welder thinks.

I hope this helps.