Category: Graphic Art Help

Custom Covers & the Professional Graphic Artist

GldBallsCrp2-100As  many of you know, along with being a professional graphic artist and designer, I’m also an author. I’m friends with quite a few authors. Many of these authors now self-publish and often ask me what I think of this or another cover.


It’s a real disadvantage that I don’t lie well. It’s a huge disadvantage that I do art for a living. Both problems get me into difficult predicaments when I’m asked for feedback on self-made or custom-made covers, especially the self-made ones.

For some reason, self-publishing authors want to create their own covers. While they might grudgingly let someone else do it, secretly, they want to create the whole package themselves. As an author, I understand that; as a professional graphic artist, I’m trepidatious. Here’s why:

  • Emotionally, you’re too close to the project;
  • You may not have the necessary skills to effectively pull it off.

There is a bigger problem I face as a professional graphic artist doing book covers for self-publishing authors, and small publishers or micro-presses: The client wants it to look unpolished, less than professional. This might sound nuts, but, as one author pointed out, it has to do with stigma–they don’t want to be associated with traditional publishing, so the covers have to look a little less polished. Okay. And we oblige. Usually, that means changing the font, some balance, adjusting the levels, and moving to a different color palette. And that’s about the only difference. In fact, color palette and skilled use of levels are usually the most significant factors that prove the difference between polished and professional-looking versus amateur.

And, no, sorry, I can’t give you any examples, because that would just get a whole bunch of folks angry at me. Instead, you get one of my abstract gradients. 😀



Design with an Eye to Purpose


Time after time, I see it in indie covers, and, time after time, I can’t talk my own clients out of their choices–they neglect to consider the actual purpose of their novel covers. Since the majority of self-publishing authors choose to either do the cover art themselves or get something done as cheaply as possible, let’s just talk about basics.

There is one reason for a book cover: to catch a potential reader’s attention. There are three important elements:

1) title (or, if you’re a famous author, byline);
2) color choices;
3) imagery.

Here are some examples of what I consider bad choices by some trad publishers:

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On the cover of Tales of the Peculiar by Ransom Riggs, the title gets completely lost in the illustration. On The Bronze Key, every bit of text on this cover fades into a nondescript vagueness.  The last one needs a complete overhaul. While the image choice is good and the placement of the byline and title works, the color of the byline, again, makes it blend into the background in the last third of the overlay, while the color choice and size of the title, Two by Two, does everything to dissuade interest. It’s too nondescript, looks weak, and undermines interest. Then, same book cover, the slag line circle just doesn’t work, at all, especially the color choices.

One of the most effectively selling covers I created for a trad publisher ignored the title and byline completely (but, then, I’m known to break the rules). I used imagery to provoke. And it worked. Then everybody copied it, and, while the fad lasted, that broke the effectiveness.  (And, no, unfortunately, I can’t show it to you [I’m still contractually prohibited.].)

For most covers, title handling–its placement and design–is critical. Next comes imagery. Choose wisely and don’t clutter. And, unless you want your book to blend into the genre noise of your competitors (and nobody wants that, right?), don’t just do the same old thing. Look at what’s selling best from relatively unknown authors, look at what’s common among the search results for your niche genre where the covers do tend to all seem to be clones of one another, then design to a classic look that is fresh, relatively unique and different, but still within the genre expectations.

Remember, you are trying to appeal, not to yourself, but to your potential buyers.

A Good Article about Book Cover Design

I was going to write an article about designing book covers…since I see so many bad ones, and, honestly, by client desire, I have myself created many very bad, even ugly book covers for self-publishing authors, covers that I would never lay claim.


Because it’s rare that I get to actually design covers for self-publishing authors.

I do for trad publishers, but not the indies. Why is that?

Because indies want what they want, and what they want is just the same ol’, same ol’–not just genre normal, but boringly so. Or they want something they’ve got stuck in their head, and it is really, really bad.  Or they want lots and lots of ‘stuff’ on their cover.

You’ve seen the covers I’m talking about, I’m sure.  And, yes, I could share some examples, but I won’t.  I don’t dare, not without raising ire.

Anyway, as I was saying, I was going to write an article about designing book covers, so, on a whim, I decided, first, to see what somebody else may have out there that’s worthwhile, and I found a gem.  I could add more observations, hints, and pointers to the author’s, along with my own perspectives, but I think I’ll leave that for another day. So, here ya go:


eBook Cover Sizing

I keep seeing, via social media, all these folks posting articles about “what’s the right size for an eBook cover”. And the answers are mostly just ludicrous. So, here, again, let’s go over some basics.

Create your book cover at the largest printable size you may ever want to publish. If that’s an 8 1/2″ x 11″ cover, make it that size, and set the DPI/PPI to a MINIMUM of 300. 600 is better, and 2400 is best.

Here’s a template set for a standard U.S. 6″x9″ cover, front, spine, and back, set at 300DPI for those who might need one. Yes, you may use it for free. It’s NOT the template I use. My templates have more guides, but it’s a good working template, easy to use, and self-explanatory. (And, if you want a book cover help article of mine, you can find one here: )

6 inch x 9 inch book cover template, transparent .PNG 300dpi, 3975px x 2775px

Next: use the front cover of the image you’ve created for the eBook cover, less the bleed margins. (See the above linked template.).  Size to 300DPI/PPI, and there you go. Most eBook formats will accept that file. If not, you can use Photoshop or Gimp or any other GOOD, PROFESSIONAL image manipulation program to resize to their choice of specs. It takes about 15 seconds to do it, including saving the file, named appropriately so you can identify which one is for which platform.

That’s it! That’s all there is to it.

Unfortunately, a lot of do-it-yourself-ers start with something smaller than appropriate, set at 72DPI, which is guaranteed to give poor results. Start large, at print sizing, and at a high DPI.

do-it-yourself graphics 2012

Graphic Art Help

do-it-yourself graphics (2nd edition, © 2012 D.L.Keur)

How to do your own…which is what most of you want to know.

First, you need at least one good graphics program, preferably several, but I won’t get into that right now. For those who don’t want to spend the money to buy something like, say, Adobe Creative Suite, Gimp is a very good program and is absolutely free. Some people claim it is even better than Adobe, and, ultimately, I think you’ll be very happy with it. You can get it here:


Always start with the assumption that, sooner or later, you might have to print the project on paper, yes, even if you are just creating something for use on the Net.

Really. I’m very serious, here. There’s nothing worse than having to recreate a piece of artwork because you created it at 72 or 96 ppi.


Dots per inch refer to physically printing on real world media…like paper…like you do at home on your inkjet or office laser printer. Simplifying it, it’s how many dots of ink are used within an inch. Because we use electronic interfaces now to create our printable files, DPI (dots per inch) are actually PPI (pixels per inch). Traditionally, it’s called DPI, but, today, the two mean the same thing for practical purposes. PPI really doesn’t mean a whole lot on your monitor, and some art programs don’t let you adjust DPI/PPI. So, you have to—have to—set up your work so that its width and height will print at the appropriate size at the finest DPI/PPI you intend to have it printed. The higher the dpi/ppi you plan to print at, the larger your image file must be in pixels wide by pixels high.

For 300dpi, which is a pretty standard print quality (as opposed to high or premium) quality print, to set up a full bleed 8.5″ x 11″ trim size page with an 1/8th inch bleed (file size: 8.75″x11.25″), that would translate in pixel width and height to 2625px x 3375px. For the same sized page, if it is to be printed at 600dpi, the file will have to measure twice that, or 5250px x 6750px. For big poster sizes and signage, printers can get away with 150dpi, so your 300dpi file will print okay to about 17″ x 22″.

Clear as mud?

Okay, think of it this way: 1 inch of printable file at 300dpi is equal to 300×300 pixels. 1 inch of printable file at 600dpi is equal to 600x600pixels, and 1 inch of printable file at 150dpi is equal to 150×150 pixels.

Take the number of inches and partial inches (in decimal equivalent) you need, including adding on an eighth inch of bleed all the way around if doing a full bleed print job, and MULTIPLY that by the dpi/ppi number you’re going to want it printed at. (Usually 300dpi is good enough, except for the higher end projects.)

EXAMPLE: For a 6″ x 9″ book cover (back cover, spine, and front cover) with a 1″ spine that is full bleed (add that 1/8″ bleed all the way around), you will need a file size width and height of: 13.25″ x 9.25″. To print it at 300dpi, which is standard for CreateSpace and LSI, you will multiply 13.25″ x 300ppi and 9.25 x 300ppi.

13.25″ x 300ppi = 3975 pixels wide

9.25″ x 300ppi = 2775 pixels high

So, when setting up your file, set the width to 3975 pixels and the height to 2775 pixels. If the program has a dpi/ppi setting, set that to 300. If you are setting up in inches (or centimeters), you MUST set the DPI to 300, or else suffer a small file that won’t print well at all.

Does this make sense now? Maybe? A bit? …Trust me. Just multiply the size in inches by the dpi/ppi you desire in quality, usually 300. And don’t forget the bleed.


Full bleed means that there is no margin around the artwork, that the artword goes from edge to edge, covering all of the available surface of the media (paper, cover stock, canvas….). When a printer prints a file that requires the artwork to go all the way to the edge, an additional 1/8 inch of extra artwork is needed all the way around so that, when the artwork is cut to its proper size, all the paper is covered, leaving no unprinted paper showing. So a full bleed art project requires the artwork to bleed over the TRIM SIZE, TRIM SIZE being the actual final size of the end product, like, say, for a book cover or a poster or a CD cover.


Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If you are very sure you’ll never, ever want to print the artwork and will only use it on your website, then you can get away with creating it at the size you actually want to display, say a 300×254 block of pixels. In that case, just make your file 300×254 pixels. If your program wants a dpi setting, use 72 dpi/ppi or 96 dpi/ppi. But, just so you know, this is what will happen if you later try to print that file to paper:

Here’s a 300×254 pixel web compressed JPG image that’s set at 72dpi, typical for use on a website:

Nice colors, good clarity, right?

Now, if you try to print it at 300dpi, it comes out on paper about this size:

And if you try to force it to print at the size it looks like on the website, here’s what happens to the image quality in most instances where special software isn’t utilized:

(Note that this is just a small snip of the picture at the size it needs to be to print on paper at the same size it is on the web.) What it approximately looks like once printed would be this:

Even with special software, the image will come out less than optimum for printing:

Notice the color distortion and lack of clarity? It’s blotchy and the nice detail is lost, right?

…Just so you know. =)


If you are creating a color image, you are probably going to create your file using RGB (Red-Green-Blue), which is fine for viewing on electronic media. For print, however, the colors of the inks are not RGB, but CMYK or CcMmYK (C=-Cyan, c=light cyan, M=Magenta, m=light magenta, Y=Yellow, K=Key). If you don’t “proof” your artwork and check the “gamut”, when you convert RGB to CMYK, you’re going to get a huge shock. Here’s an visual example using one of my fine art prints called “Agronomy” that I have artificially colored for this discussion.

Here’s an RGB version:

Here’s what happens when I check the gamut.

All the gray areas you see are colors which won’t print correctly. What will print instead if we don’t do something to adjust the colors is this:

As you can see if you have your monitor color-calibrated correctly (also a must for working on art on a computer), the colors are a lot duller, and the image loses its dramatic edge.

So, be careful when you are creating an image for traditional print media using RGB color mode on your computer. What can result will be less than what you anticipated. Also, be aware of the fact that, to save money, a lot of print-on-demand companies don’t use the 300 inks level that is pretty standard. And they will often reduce the percentages of the costlier inks, also to save on cost. LSI is an example, and you can really wind up with a dull, listless end result.

How to avoid that problem, of course, is to start your image in CMYK, but doing that often will limit the number of effects and filters you can apply. Instead, make sure you proof your colors and check your gamut often.

A NOTE FOR BOOK COVERS: You might consider starting with an ink limit of 240 inks instead of the industry standard of 300 inks. Go to your color profile settings to do that before starting work.


This information was originally presented on this graphic art help HTML page, created June 2012 and uploaded November 1, 2012. It was meant to replace an older page that covered similar graphic art information. This is a recreation of that page.

D-I-Y Using Pre-Made Graphic Art

When you buy a piece of pre-made graphic art, if the artwork is specifically sized for your kind of project, like a book cover, chances are you won’t have to do much to it except add the text to it. However, not all pre-made images are set up like that. Some are set up to accommodate various kinds of projects, from business cards to brochures to posters to book covers to CDs or DVDs. They come in multiple sizes, vertically oriented, horizontally oriented, and sometimes both/neither because they’re large and square so you can slip the artwork into a template and use whatever portion of the artwork suits that project.

Most pre-made artwork comes to you as a flattened, rasterized image in .JPG, .TIF, or .PNG format or else as a vector image in.SVG format. There are, of course, many other formats you can get, but, usually you’ll get something like this. Occasionally you’ll get an editable .PDF.


The first thing you’re going to need, as mentioned in DIY Graphic Art Help, is a graphics program. Of course, there’s Adobe’s Creative Suite, but, if looking for free, Gimp is a good choice: .

The next thing you will need, and you get this from your POD or printer/manufacturer of choice, is the template they want you to use. If it’s a book cover, you’ll probably get a PDF template labeled with your ISBN. You must use that template. The same is true for any product and project. Whatever company you choose to print the project will have exact specifications for file format, image dimensions, and file size. They will also usually provide you with their template. USE IT.

If you haven’t yet decided on a printer, you can use a book cover template I’ve made to help you get started working on designing your book cover. This template is for a 6×9 inch paperback book, such as those published by CreateSpace or Lightning Source.

6 inch x 9 inch book cover template, transparent .PNG 300dpi, 3975px x 2775px


You have to use fonts you hold a license to use. The fonts that came with your software packages (Word, Adobe Creative Suite, etc.) and your operating system are licensed. Where you can get in trouble is when you try to use fonts that you find around the Net, then download and install yourself. Make sure you have a license to use the font, specifically a license to use that font for a commercial project…like your book cover.


IMPORTANT: Never change your original master file. You might need to go back to the original because you made a mistake. Instead, once you pull the artwork into your graphics program, save the file as a new name.

Color is easy to change. Changing the artwork itself is a little, to a lot, more difficult. First, make sure that the artwork you’ve bought and downloaded allows you to change it. (Mine does, yes.) If you want to change the color, there are a lot of ways you can easily accomplish that using a good graphics program. To change the artwork itself, you may find it simpler to ask the artist from whom you purchased the artwork to change it. Most of us work in layers, so changing things isn’t going to be as hard or time consuming as it will be for you.


Cropping the artwork to the template: Select the template layer by clicking that layer with your mouse. Using the select tool, select everything outside of the outermost line of the project template. Now, click on the layer with the artwork. Find the “clear” command, which will erase everything selected on that layer. Another way is to use a mask, but I don’t want to try to explain masks. For that, go to a tutorial on how-to specific to the graphics program you’re using.


You can resize down, but, to resize down a lot, you’ll have to sharpen the image as you reduce its size. Using “unsharp mask” is the best way, but most graphics programs have built in auto-sharpening for image reduction using that command in the software.

Resizing UP is a different problem, altogether. You can enlarge a bit…and I mean a bit if you are starting with a high quality image. You cannot enlarge a lot, though. You cannot double the size of an image, in other words, not unless you have special software, and, even then, it’s tough to do well. Buy a bigger image if you need a bigger image. Don’t try to upsize an existing one, except for tiny percentages (1% larger, 2% larger).

There. That’s should get your started, maybe even a bit frustrated. 

This is a recreation of the information provided on this old HTML page.