How I Designed My Novel’s Cover With No Graphic Design Experience

This is the cover of my debut novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Paper Journal.

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It’s not going to win any prizes, but it’s not embarrassing, and it’s something I can stand behind. Getting an original (non-template) book cover made professionally can costs a couple of hundred dollars on the low end, and plenty of those covers are mediocre. If you don’t know anyone in graphic design who can point you to a cheap (or free) source, getting an original, professional-looking cover can be a real stumbling block for indie authors on a micro budget. During my research on “how to design a book cover”, I came across tutorials on how to use MS Word. I knew I wanted a simple cover, but even so, I frowned sceptically. Nevertheless, I tried it out. Here are a couple of the covers I came up with (*full-body cringe*).

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I wish I hadn’t deleted some of the even more terrible covers I’d made so you could see them. They were truly, truly atrocious. Not only were the covers obviously amateurish, it was difficult to get a crisp image out on the other side. I knew I needed a new approach.

I Chose FREE but Powerful Design Tools

I soon realised I needed more powerful tools than MS Word, and I started doing more research. That’s when I learned about GIMP, an open source image manipulation program that is similar to Photoshop. GIMP is intimidating at first, but introductory tutorials can quickly get you up to speed. I’m not a technical person, and if I can figure it out, I’m sure there are plenty of other people who can too. Once I got the hang of keeping each element of the design in a separate layer, things became much easier, especially since I was aiming for a pretty low degree of difficulty — no shading, added texture, fancy lettering or super-detailed drawings, etc.

If GIMP is too overwhelming for you, try Canva, which has free and low-cost book cover templates. You won’t have as much control or flexibility, but you’ll come out on the other end with something approaching professional quality.

Getting Inspired

I started paying closer attention to book covers that drew my eye and saved them on Pinterest. I also started following The Casual Optimist (who curates excellent book cover design). I focussed on minimalist design — simple type and shapes — nothing fancy. The source of the inspiration for my design was this Moby Dick cover (there are a lot of great Moby Dick covers, by the way).

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I felt a plain background, a simple shape dominating most of the cover, and simple typography were something I could accomplish. I also wanted the cover to reflect the content and feel of the novel. The story is a Sherlock Holmes yarn set in a nearish dystopian future where government-mandated social networking has virtually eliminated privacy. The use of paper is considered suspicious, and paper books play a pivotal role in the resolution of the case. But it’s also a love story, and the deception that can enter romantic entanglements drives the narrative. So, the shape (the white whale) I chose to dominate the design was a paper heart. The book focusses on the relationships, so I minimised the bleeding corpse.

It Still Took a Few Tries

Here’s the first cover I came up with after I discovered GIMP.

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I was mired in the beginner’s learning curve with using GIMP, so while I wasn’t completely pleased with it, I was sort of proud of it. I wasn’t sure the thumbnail “popped” enough on the storefronts, though. More Pinterest activity and the kink I got in my back whenever I looked at it made me decide to change the typeface and layout. I experimented with a few options, and finally settled on the image at the top of this article.

There is definitely some measure of trial and error involved in all this, but with practice, design that reflects your personal preferences will evolve. Not to mention, learning to use GIMP or Canva can help you add more interesting visuals to your blog and social media posts. Knowing how to resize images without losing quality came in handy for this article. If you can afford it, you should definitely get a professional cover designed, but if you can’t, it’s not an impossible bar to get over if you keep things simple.

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The Aglet

Self-publishing on a micro budget.

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