Designing My Own Book Cover (and Doing it for Free!)

I recently published my first ebook, SCOUT. It’s a short-read, sci-fi story exclusive to Kindle.

Leading up to my virgin launch into the world of self-publishing, I did a massive amount of reading from various indie-authoring gurus like David Gaughran, Joanna Penn, and Derek Murphy.

There was tremendous overlap with their advice in several key areas, one of these being that you must have an attractive book cover that does its job of instantaneously catching the reader’s browsing eye as well as communicating the genre and overall flavor of the book.

We’re all taught growing up not to judge a book by its cover, but this idiom appears to be ill-suited to the modern, digital publishing world.

So, I had finished a cool little story, and I thought people would like to read it. I wanted to publish it myself since the dozens of publishers I shopped it to rejected it based on factors besides the writing quality, which they admitted was good (I take this to mean it’s worth putting out there, so that it finds its audience.)

I needed a good cover, but it turns out that can be pretty expensive, and I’m a cheapskate with a punk-rock, DIY attitude!

Tossing all the advice about hiring a pro out the window, I rolled up my sleeves, cracked my knuckles, and came up with my own cover design, goddammit.

I Can Just Do It My Damn Self

What made me think I could design a book cover?

In addition to word-smithing (or the attempts thereof), I have an aptitude for art and design, however humble it may be.

For my first two years of university, aside from being hundreds of miles from home and pitifully confused about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I was an Art & Design student.

After several semesters, I realized I didn’t want to do what I thought of as “art for hire” just to have a viable career, so I switched to the school of science.

Although I changed majors, I had learned some fundamental design skills that I continued to develop over the next few years as I did some graphics work for friends and family members who owned businesses, as well as created band logos and album covers for my own musical projects.

While not exactly a pro, I’ve got some legit chops with design, and I know the ins and outs.

Gathering Source Images

The first thing we need to be aware of when sourcing images, graphics, illustrations, or fonts for a book cover is the material’s usage rights. This means respecting the copyright status of any images you find.

Although that high-res photograph of the lumberjack with his sweat-glazed six-pack abs may be the perfect source image for your next Canadian romance novel, you need to check the copyright status before dropping it in Photoshop to adorn your cover.

Websites like Pixabay and Pexels curate stock images that are both free (meaning no cost) and royalty free (meaning you may use it for your own purposes without owing the creator anything.)

However, the quality with these images is often hit or miss. You get what you pay for, right?

If you do have a few bucks to throw at your cover design, you can check out iStock or Shutterstock, both of these libraries have a much more robust and high-quality selection, but for a fee. That said, you can acquire some excellent stock images for less than $20 in many cases which includes a license to use the image in your own works commercially.

As a caveat for images sourced from iStock, anyone lucky enough to sell over 500,000 copies of their paperback or hardcover using said image would need to buy an extended license, but no big deal, right? You just scooped up some juicy royalties from those half-million sales if you played your cards right.


If you anticipate regularly crafting book covers, splash screens, advertising materials, or website elements for yourself, you just can’t go wrong with Adobe Creative Cloud. It’s around $50 USD per month, but if you’re making heavy use of it and moving copies of your book, it may pay for itself.

Otherwise, some free graphics programs which can get the job done include GIMP, Pixlr, and Krita, all of these allow you to work in layers which is critical to really great digital design, although I have to say I absolutely hate the way Krita handles placing text ::shudders with rage::.

Here is a list of the best free Photoshop alternatives.

A new design process I’ve picked up in the last year is manipulating 3D models. There is an absolutely incredible free 3D modeling software called Blender. It isn’t the most intuitive interface and has a steep learning curve, but if you’re into wearing the designer hat and teaching yourself new skills, have a play with Blender and educate yourself with the plethora of free tutorials on YouTube.

There are plenty of free 3D models around the web, and many of them are surprisingly realistic, modeling everything from table lamps to giant robots.

Building SCOUT

For SCOUT, I found a 3D model on the stock website CGTrader which was free to download and also came with a Royalty Free license (score!). The model was pretty close to my description of the robot in the book, and I could tell that I’d be able to modify it to become the killing machine I envisioned (shout out to the artist Megalord who built this amazing high-poly model and gave it away for nothing.)

In Blender, I loaded the mech model so I could modify it closer to the description of SCOUT in my story, I added the optical sensor “dome”, repositioned the guns to sit atop the shoulders, and plugged in the clawed arms by excising and duplicating these parts from a royalty free stock image sourced from Pixabay.

I was also able to play with positioning the robot at several different angles and with multiple lighting sources, which were degrees of freedom you’d never be afforded starting from a traditional stock photo.

Manipulating and repositioning the robot model in Blender for max sexiness.

New Skin

The robot model needed to be taken to the next level of sexy, so I used Blender to shade its different components and apply textures like camouflage, gun metal, and glass.

Blender is absolutely brilliant.

The robot with a new skin applied piece wise for that extra layer of realism!


Once I landed on the sexiest pose for my killer robot, I started arranging the elements on a 1650 x 2400, 300 dpi canvas in Photoshop.

Since the story takes place in the rugged backcountry of North Korea, I found a suitable snow-dusted mountain backdrop which already has a nice color contrast going on.

This warm-cool color contrast is a design technique used on countless book covers and movie posters, and it works amazingly well.

I used some digital painting skills I’ve picked up along the way to add lighting effects by hand that place the robot in the environment of the background image. I also added intricate shadowing to give a deeper sense of dimension using a technique called ambient occlusion.

Finally, I added some esoteric-looking, geometric designs to communicate that “this is about advanced technology”, before moving on to one of the most important elements—typography.

Playing with some warm-vs-cool color contrasting to make the robot really pop.


I experimented with several different typefaces until I found the one that clearly signaled “sci-fi” without being overly stylized or cheesy. The font I chose was called Hall Fetica, and it is a royalty free font that can be downloaded from the massive font library DaFont if it isn’t already installed on your computer.

In Photoshop, pressing Command + " (on Mac) or Ctrl + " (on PC) will bring up a handy grid overlay on your canvas. I always position either the bottom or top edge of a string of text along one of the horizontal lines (or exactly halfway between), then skip 2-3 rows on the grid to add the next line which creates a visually pleasing spacing and symmetry.

Badass 3D Mockups

After going through several iterations of the cover—and let me tell you, some of them were complete ass—I arrived at The One.

For my little foray into marketing this thing, I wanted one of those cool mock-ups to entice readers, something I could slap on social media and my website here.

Mock-ups show your cover art on an image of either a paperback, hardback, or smart device screen. It creates a new level of professionalism for your product and an extra layer of sex appeal.

The website has a free 3D book cover mockup tool that you can use right in your browser. You can select the type of mock-up you want, upload your book cover, then voila!

My cover on a sexy-ass 3D mock-up!

Now That Wasn’t So Hard, Was It?

I’m quite happy with the way this cover turned out.

While I’m not God’s gift to cover design, I made something that clearly tells the book shopper that this story is about a technologically advanced, lethal robot designed for shooting things dead.

Maybe you think it sucks—well, kiss my grits. I’ll use the defense that it was my very first crack at book design, and it does the bloody job!

I can also argue that I didn’t just slap a bunch of shit together; every decision was thought out and every element had a purpose, which gets to the core of what design is.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Authors—any of you design your own covers? Why or why not?

Until next time, hang loose!

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