Design: Formatting your cover

Sat 10 June 2017
By Cosmin Deaconu and Marie Deaconu-Baylon

Cosmin Deaconu is the person who helped produce my book. He formatted the book as a CreateSpace paperback and Kindle e-book. He also produced the book cover. He'll share the resources he developed to publish my book. Please feel free to contact me via my website with questions. We are very open to improving these articles and tools.

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Designing an attractive cover is difficult and a very personal task. For North for Sun, we used a beautiful painting Marie made after she got out of the hospital when she was 18. I can't offer hints on making such a pretty painting, but I can tell you about the software we used to put together the cover for the print and e-book versions. All software packages listed here are free (both zero-cost and open-source) and available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. All also have relatively good documentation and tutorials available.

Aesthetics of cover design


For the aesthetics of cover design, I started by looking at lists of best book covers online. You can check out a few lists here and here. I bookmarked the covers I liked and took brief notes on the aspects of design that I enjoyed. For example, I noted colors, images, lettering, or layout. This step was almost purely inspirational because we didn't have the know-how to replicate the design I had drawn up. It was still helpful in that I had thought intentionally about my ideal book cover, so I was able to keep some of the elements I liked.

I also considered symbolism in the cover design and how the design could reflect the book's themes. For example, the back cover is the same painting as the front cover but rendered in black and white. I thought this design could symbolize the extremes of Martha's moods.

I do not have any experience in image editing. My partner has a background in computer science and some experience in image editing, and he volunteered to help with the cover.

I originally had a much more complex design in mind, but we had to work within the constraints of our limited image editing skills. I ended up taking a photo of a painting I made, which had symbolic value to the story, for the background of the cover. We decided to use graphic, bold, clean font for the title in large size. We thought the effect of simple lettering looked neat over the painting. The shadow behind the font is a reference to 'sun' in the title.

I wasn't happy with the look of my author name on the front cover. "Marie Deaconu-Baylon" took up a lot of space vertically and horizontally. My sister had the suggestion to put my name in all lower-case letters, which I thought helped a lot.

I really like this general formula of using original art or photography as the background and simple, clean lines for the lettering. You can check out the complete image of our front and back cover here.

GIMP: Free bitmap image editing software


GIMP Website | Action screenshot (click to enlarge):

GIMP screenshot

The GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP, is your go-to program for editing bitmap images. While it doesn't have all the features and support as expensive commercial software like Photoshop, GIMP is very capable and getting better all the time. Bitmap images are images made up of pixels, like photographs. GIMP is very good at resizing images, changing colors, and touching up images and can read and write many types of images.

It is also possible to generate art from scratch with GIMP (search online, there are myriad tutorials). Krita may also be a good free-software choice for drawing.

For our cover, we took a picture of Marie's painting and then rotated, cropped, and modified the brightness levels with GIMP. We also used GIMP to resize and convert the cover between different bitmap formats.

Inkscape: Free vector image editing software


Inkscape Website | Action screenshot (click to enlarge):

inkscape screenshot

While GIMP excels at bitmap graphics, Inkscape excels at vector graphics. While GIMP may be compared to Photoshop, Inkscape can be compard to Illustrator (Illustrator has more features, but is expensive and not free software if you care about that sort of thing). Vector graphics are graphics not based on individual pixels, but rather geometric objects like text and lines. Inkscape can also import bitmap graphics (for example, from GIMP) and resize and make a montage of multiple pictures , but cannot be used to directly edit the pixels.

For North for Sun, we took our cover image from the GIMP and added text over it in Inkscape. From Inkscape, you can then export to a vector-aware format, like PDF or EPS, where the bitmap images are rendered as bitmaps but the text and lines are rendered as vectors (which means the text will never get fuzzy no matter how close you zoom in). For the sharpest text on a printed cover, it is strongly recommended that the text is in vector format, and Inkscape is a good tool to do that with.

You can also export a bitmap as a PNG image for the e-book version (although you will probably need to convert it to a JPEG with GIMP as I think that's what KDP requires).

One can also draw pretty complicated drawings with Inkscape (you can search online for what others have managed to do), but it takes some practice to go beyond simple geometric shapes.

Scribus: Free desktop publishing software


Scribus Website | Action screenshot (click to enlarge):

scribus screenshot

Scribus is a desktop publishing program, meant to design things like posters, newspapers and brochures, and it is perfect for for producing a print-ready cover. Commercial equivalents (very expensive! although they have more features) include Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress. While Inkscape can also compose many elements onto a page, Scribus is more well-suited. I should note that Scribus could also be used to format the inside of a print book, although we did not use it for this purpose.

For the print cover, on CreateSpace you need to provide a PDF with the back cover on the left, the spine in the middle, and the front cover on the right. The size of the spine depends on the type of paper and the number of pages. See this page for full specifications.

You can set up your document as follows:

  • height: trim size (in our case, 8")
  • width: 2 x trim size (in our case 5") + spine width
  • bleed: 1/8" on all edges

The bleed is extra space on the side of the page because the cover cutting process is not perfect, and CreateSpace claims be off by up to 1/8". For that reason, you need an extra 1/8" on the outside in case the cut is too much to the outside so you don't have a white stripe on the edge. You shouldn't put anything important in the bleed region, nor within 1/8" from the side of the page, as that may be cut off. Note that we had some issues with some CreateSpace printers occasionally cutting more than 1/8" into the page and cutting off the text, which in theory shouldn't happen, but in practice did. If we were designing the cover again, we would leave slightly more than 1/8" of clearance from the edge for any text to avoid getting any cut off when the printer screws up.

You can then use guides to put them where the spine should be and then place your cover image and design the front and back. Keep in mind that due to cutting variations, the edge of the spine might end up on the front or back, so it is probably best not to have sudden transitions or put the spine text too close to the edge of the spine.

You may have to modify the spine size as you edit your book. In that case you will have to modify the page size and move the spine guides. You will possibly adjust the positions of some things; I like to manually enter in coordinates for images so that they appear exactly where they are supposed to. The coordinates may be specified to the center or the corner (in the object properties, you can click the part of the image you want things to be relative to).

In our case, we used Scribus's LaTeX render frame to make the text on the back exactly like the inside text. While it is nice that this feature exists, it does behave somewhat unexpectedly, and I probably wouldn't recommend it to someone not willing to debug it a bit.

CreateSpace will stick the barcode on the back cover for you, so you don't have to do that (just don't put text where it should go). I think you can also make the barcode yourself if you prefer (and I think that is necessary for other printers, like Ingram Spark). Scribus can actually make the barcode for you (Insert->Barcode) if you prefer to go that way, although I haven't tested the feature.

When you're happy with your cover, it's time to export to PDF:

  • Either click the PDF icon or File->Export->Save as PDF
  • The pre-flight verifier will come up and check for any potential issues (such as pictures that are not high-resolution enough). It likes to complain for embedded PDF's, but in practice I think they'll be fine.
  • Once past the verifier, the export dialog comes up.
  • One potential gotcha is that, at least in some versions of Scribus, the document bleeds may not be exported by default. You should go to the pre-press tab in the export dialog and verify that "Use document bleeds" is checked. If it's not, then the bleeds won't be applied and CreateSpace will reject your cover.
  • Under the color tab, you may consider selecting "Output intended for printer." I believe this will take care of converting your images from RGB color-space (which your computer uses to display colors) to CMYK (which printers use to print colors). If RGB and CMYK don't mean anything to you, I recommend reading this fascinating article.
  • Once you've entered a good name (like cover_page.pdf), go ahead and hit Save to export the PDF. It may take a little while.
  • After you export to PDF, you should open the PDF and make sure it looks fine and has the dimensions you expect.
  • Upload your print-ready PDF to CreateSpace.

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