I’m going to go over all of the pre-Photoshop work that goes into designing a book cover! I’m currently offering a discounted custom cover package called “I’ve already done the legwork” where the the client does all of the pre-Photoshop work themself. So let’s make sure you know what that entails!

The primary work I do before Photoshop involves research and stock image hunting.

A cover is primarily a marketing tool used to sell your book. Marketing first, artwork second. A large part of what makes a cover successful is how well it signals its genre. Readers tend to have their favorite genres and are on the lookout for books that fit them, so you want to make sure your books catch the eye of your genre’s readership.

If you’re writing in an area I already make covers for, I’ve probably already done genre research and am familiar with common design elements. Like most cover designers, I keep an eye on bestsellers (particularly Amazon Kindle sales, since I work with indies) and create moodboards. Moodboards allow me to see commonalities between covers of a certain genre.

Here’s a moodboard I created specifically for urban fantasy academy covers. Notice any similarities?

  1. Figure size. The figures tend to be roughly the same size, with a few exceptions. They tend to take up similar amounts of space on the cover.
  2. Colors. These covers are all super high contrast and tend to have a pop of very bright, almost neon color amid darkness
  3. Fonts. With fantasy in general, serif fonts rule supreme. You might occasionally see a script brought in for a paranormal romance or a sans serif for the author name, but 99% the time it’s serif fonts all the way.
  4. Design elements. Large moons are common in most paranormal and urban fantasy subgenres. Academy covers often have the figures in plaid skirts or school uniforms. There’s often old buildings or gates, to signal the academies in question. They’re almost always set outside and at night. Sometimes the text design incorporates a school crest. Most if not all have magical glows or effects, to let you know its fantasy.

When I set out to make an academy cover, I try to make a cover that hits all these notes so that academy fans browsing Amazon can immediately recognize their genre.

While I don’t think authors need to go to the lengths of making moodboards, I think it is a good idea for them to be familiar with the common elements of covers in their genre. Knowing what signals the genre can help authors recognize a good cover design and make informed choices about the sort of cover they want. 

If you’re purchasing my discounted custom package, the most important thing to look at here is figure size and costume, since that becomes relevant once we move into stock image hunting.

Not every stock image site can be used to make book covers. I cover some of this in a previous blog post that I suggest you read for more information, but essentially:

  1. Not all sites allow their images to be used commercially. The Gender Spectrum Collection and CreateHER are ones I commonly see authors confused about. The Gender Spectrum has no commercial use, and CreateHer requires $150 per image for commercial use.
  2. Free sites are not reliable. The images aren’t vetted and are often stolen, and the models aren’t required to sign consent forms and may have no idea they’ve been uploaded to a stock photo site. Not only are there ethical problems there, but it opens you up to legal ones too. No reputable designer will work with free image sites. In fact, designers can get kicked out of Facebook marketplaces and groups if they are ever found using free images. Examples of free sites that can’t be used for book covers include Pexels, Pixabay, and Unsplash.

The most common site book cover designers use is Deposit Photos, since out of all the professional sites that vet their images, it tends to be the cheapest. If you’re purchasing my discount package, I’ll cover the cost of any photo from Deposit Photos, since I can get them for under a dollar with my subscription.

If clients really want a stock photo from another site, I’m happy to work with it as long as they purchase it themselves and can link me to the source to show that it’s a paid stock photo. Here are some recommended boutique sites that specialize in photos for book covers:

  • The Stock Alchemist (focuses on diversity and has a range of models of color. No f/f or m/m but they do have a gallery of nonbinary models, which makes them unique among stock sites I’ve found!)
  • Stocklarium (focuses on providing images with models of color and images are mostly for fantasy. No LGBT content).
  • Period Images (has a good selection for romance, particularly historical. Note, there’s a few models of color and a handful of m/m images but generally there’s not a lot of diversity)
  • Neo-Stock (good for fantasy and sci-fi. They have a few models of color. No LGBT content.)
  • The Reed Files (good for romance and has a diverse range of models, including even some f/f/f images.)
  • Bewitching Book Cover Stock (small selection, mostly fantasy. Has some black models, no LGBT content.)
  • Period Stock (historical romance images, one black model in a variety of outfits. No LGBT content.)

This spreadsheet contains some other stock sites, but the above are the ones that I find tend to be best in terms of image quality, usability, and price.

If you’re currently having feelings about diversity and stock photos, I am right there with you! Thankfully, we’ve got 3D renders that go someway towards filling the gap (although there’s still diversity issues among renders). Renders are computer-generated images, typically made using DAZ Studios. They’ve come a long way in terms of quality. When you swap out the head for a picture, sometimes you can’t even tell that the body was computer generated. Here’s a few that I did a “headswap” on.

The acceptability of renders varies by genre. They’re pretty common in fantasy and science fiction, to the point where even ones without headswaps can be acceptable depending on subgenre. Renders aren’t as accepted in contemporary and historical romance. In part, I think current render technology tends to struggle with the large swaths of cloth necessary for historical romance costumes. On the whole, renders are on the rise and growing in quality and acceptability.

If you’re interested in hiring me for the discount package and having me make a render with a head swapped out, you’ll need to be finding two images, one for the body and one for the head. When looking for your head, here’s what’s most important:

  1. Is the skin tone similar enough to the skin tone of the body?
  2. Is the angle of the face the same as the one on the body? The best head swaps are ones where the angle of the faces tend to match as closely as possible, for the most natural changeout.

With renders you have two options: hire a render artist to create a custom image specifically for your character or use a pre-made render being sold as stock.

Obviously, having a custom render made will be more expensive than buying a pre-made stock image! However… custom character renders are probably cheaper than you may imagine. For a single character, I tend to see custom prices around $20 to $40, often with a cheaper price for additional poses. Custom renders are a great solution for getting a character that meets your vision, especially given the diversity issues with available stock images.

For pre-made renders sold as stock, ask me before purchasing! I have a bunch of these myself so if there’s one you like, I might already own it. Here’s some sites I tend to use:

The only one of these that has any LGBT pre-mades is The Render Shop (one set of f/f contemporary), but Sleepy Fox Studio does a lot of custom work with m/m and f/f.

That’s a ton of different options for stock images, but if you’re on a tight budget and purchasing my discount package, you’ll probably want to stick to Deposit Photos, since that’s the one I’m covering costs for. My next blog post will be advice for searching Deposit Photos!