The Craft
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Book Covers: Backgrounds

In part 1 of this series, I talked about typography. Let’s talk about backgrounds. Now I don’t know about you, but it’s not type that trips me up on book covers; it’s the backgrounds. There’s so much advice out here on this, and it’s often really contradictory. For example: genre-fiction often shows the hero and love interest on the front cover while this is apparently a huge faux pas in literary fiction. Some books barely have any background art at all, while on others, the artwork is the entire focus. If it makes you scream, you’re not alone.

So let’s address the elephant in the room first thing. Money. You remember that old saying about ‘you can get it good, fast, or cheap: pick two?’

Never has that saying been more true than right now for book covers.

Most self-published authors aren’t really looking to pay a lot of money for this stuff. Many of us just can’t. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t have the bucks to spend. And doing this ‘properly’–i.e. photoshoots and art directors and custom illustrations–often costs thousands of dollars. So we figure, okay, we’ll do it ourselves…how hard can it be?

Hard. OMG, this is hard. Stupid, crazy hard. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

You are essentially going to have to learn a whole new skill, train yourself to a whole new level of aesthetic sensibility. And just like typography, there’s some common pitfalls that will trip you up like a mother if you don’t watch out for them.

So let’s point out that landmines, shall we?

3D art

Look, I get it. You’re not an illustrator and you have this program around called Poser that promises realistic life-like 3D art. This, you think, will solve all your problems. What’s not to love?

The problem is that much like being unable to create a professional quality illustration unless you are in fact a professional illustrator, 3D modeling is very tough work. I work with 3D artists a lot, and what they do? There’s no way I could hope to copy it, let alone get the lighting right so that the end result looks like something Pixar created. I very rarely see poser art on a cover that doesn’t look like exactly like poser art (hint: that was not a compliment). I respect the desire to do it yourself and get it right, but unfortunately, if that’s the case, you’re also going to have to put the work into making sure it looks professional — there’s a reason that you don’t see a lot of 3D art on book covers published by the big names.

While we’re on the subject of poser art, let’s talk about the Uncanny Valley. What is Uncanny Valley? It’s the idea that we as humans are very good at identifying faces — we are wired to do it, and we do it well — and things that are almost human trip our creep radar hard. We are more inclined to like something and respond well to it if it’s not at all human (teddy bears, caricatures, cartoons) than if it’s just a teeny bit off from it (realistic 3D art). So using a poser figure runs a risk of actively hurting your chances. Now, it can be done — there IS good poser art out there.

Just be very careful of this. Very careful.


So your book features a man, a woman, a lot of guns and a tropical location, so you look for a photo with all those things, but nothing works. Nothing’s quite right. You just can’t find a photo of a man, a woman, a lot of guns and a tropical location. For some reason photographers haven’t shot a gazillion of these images. The temptation seems to be at that point to cut-and-paste those elements together, to take a girl from that picture or a boy from that picture and try to put guns in their hands and put all of that on an island. It’s especially bad with romance novels, where you might want to picture couples in sexy states of undress.

Stop that. Stop that right now. Put the lasso tool away. Montages can work, but there’s a lot of skill involved and it’s not beginner level stuff. Even if you’re good at it, montages can’t make a new seamless photograph that looks like all those people were shot together in the first place. Your photo will NEVER look like everyone was natively in that scene, because the light on each person will be different, and the guns won’t be at the right perspective, and unless you’re very good with Photoshop, you probably left a little single pixel-write outline around each figure that exists as a signed confession of the fact that you cut-and-pasted those bastards together.

Basically, if you can’t make your montage look as good as something on a Hollywood movie poster, great. If you can’t? Don’t use this technique. Ever.

Using Celebrity Photos

I respect that your main character looks like Matt Bomer (gosh, so insanely pretty), but the ugly truth is that you can’t use a photograph of him to promote your book or grace its cover without all kinds of money changing hands, not even if it’s really how you’ve always envisioned the main character.

So don’t do this.

You will probably get away with it, but heavens, what if one of your books takes off and you find you’ve written the next New York Times bestseller? Because then you’ll be getting letters from Matt Bomer’s lawyers, which is no fun.

Stretching Photos

If you are planning creating an ebook and a print-on-demand copy of that book, you’re going to need a book cover that is pretty big. That POD needs 300 dpi, which means a 6×9 trade paperback is going to require art that’s 1800×2700 pixels just for the front cover (and even larger if the image is to wrap around). As you may guess, most of the images you find on google search won’t be that large, or they won’t be the right size. You’ll be tempted to stretch a photo to fit.

Don’t do this: it looks awful. It looks like exactly what it is, a photo stretched all out of its proper ratio, and fuzzy from being enlarged too much. It pretty much never looks right.

Drawing the Illustration Yourself

I’m quite obviously fond of this method, but there’s a catch: it needs to be good enough to pass as professional. I mean really professional. You have to be brutally honest with yourself about this. Go over to and browse a while. Remind yourself that if the art you have doesn’t look significantly better than what makes it on to this site, you need to figure out something else. Also remember that any illustrations you use also need to be done in a large enough size to fit your novel. Pixilation is no one’s friend.


So what’s to be done about this? Is there an easy solution?


Sorry. I really am, but anyone who tells you this shit is simple is a lying liar who lies. The good news? There are solutions. Let’s look at a few.

  1. Create the background art yourself (totally possible) and learn the skills to create the cover using that art. Requires a heavy investment in time, but not much investment in money. More bad news: it’s damnably difficult to judge your own work.
    1. Corollary: You may know someone who can do this for you for free. Just be aware that if you have family or close friends who have the skills and are willing to use them on your behalf, you need to be the perfect customer. Being nit-picky and particular (“I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it”) is behavior that’s only acceptable from a client when they’re paying with cashy money.
  2. Pay someone for background art, whether that be buying stock art from a site or an illustrator on Deviantart. That’s going to cost anywhere from $20 upwards to $500 dollars, but it may be money very well spent if you find that perfect illustration and convince the artist to let you license it. Down side: Stock art is cheap because it’s not exclusive. So that perfect photograph you love so much may well end up on someone else’s book cover too.
  3. Pay someone to do it for you. A professional graphic artist is going to have skills, programs, and art resources that you probably don’t, and there’s a booming market specializing in book covers. For the same price you might spend on the stock art by itself, you may be able to hire someone to create the entire cover for you. There’s some fantastic and shockingly cheap services out there (some of the covers that show up on Wattpad these days are every bit as good as anything professionally done.) Just remember to look at their work and insist on a better quality than you can do yourself. Otherwise…why aren’t you doing it yourself?

Next time, I’m going to create a bad (really, really bad) book cover as an example, and see what can be done to make-over the cover into something a bit more professional.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Book Covers: Project Example | Jenn Lyons

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