I see this discussed in groups a lot. Let’s face it. When you are a self-published author, especially if you are a new author, you cannot always afford to pay for artwork. Maybe you can save up for a once-a-year cover for your novel. What if you are a short story or novella author needing artwork on a monthly or even weekly basis? Chances are your art budget is going to outstrip what you bring in from your writing – at first anyway.
There are ways to get free images that you can adapt to photos. You just need a photo-editing program, a little skill, lots of practice, and some knowledge.
The Photo-editing program
I recommend Photoshop. Adobe has a couple of other programs that let you get even more technical, and if you are good with graphics, check them out. Photoshop, however, will get you everything that you need. Now if you are a student, you can usually get a good deal, otherwise you will be shelling out big money for the program – as a one-time cost. If that does not work for you, Adobe does offer a cloud membership that gives you access to Photoshop. You can even expand the membership beyond the one program later if you want. It lets you spend a little money all the time for access to a program you will be using all the time. You also always get the most recent version of the program, which makes the membership nice. Really, buying outright or getting the membership is just a matter of your own budget and preference.
Skill & Practice
It does take skill and practice to create covers. Plan to spend a lot of time with Photoshop learning to chop, copy, and paste images. Learn how to adjust text in the program. Figure out shading, filters, and opacity. Learn how to create layers and to delete parts of a photo. Practice is important because you want your covers to be attractive. The more you practice, the better you will become at blending, at setting titles, and at creating balance within the cover.
I highly recommend taking time to study covers in the genre that you are publishing in. Consider composition and contrast. See what works and what does not. What grabs your attention on the cover? What bores you? Learn from the mistakes of others and check out the covers of high-selling books. You are teaching yourself to become an artist, so learn from the success and mistakes of other artists.
You need to know where to find artwork and pictures that you can use. If you are good with a camera and have a few friends willing to pose, you can use them. I do recommend letting them sign a model contract, however. This will protect both of you later down the line.
If you are not so good with a camera, you can find work free to use in other ways.
- Go to Google and do an image search based on what you need. Example: Old Buildings
- Above the search results, you will see several tabs. Click the one that says Search Tools
- You will see sub tabs appear. Click on Usage Rights and then click Labeled for Reuse with Modification.
This is the simplest way to find CC (Creative Commons) and Public Domain images through Google. You will need to go to the website for the image to locate the specific Creative Commons License. You may have to click through a few links to find the license, which is the only downside to Google searching.
You can also go to Creative Commons to search for work. Under Explore, you will see Search for CC-licensed work. This will allow you to search different sites directly where CC-licensed work is uploaded. Be sure under the search query box to check for commercial purposes and to adapt.
You will be able to adjust images as needed to create covers, but you may have to attribute or share the cover under the same License agreement. For cover art, simply attribute, including a link to the creator, to the original creation (indicate adapted from), and a link to the specific CC license. You should also include verbiage that use does not constitute endorsement of the work by the creator and be sure to include any required license stipulation for your cover.
Note: the License does not extend to the book itself, only to the cover art. Therefore, you still hold full copyright of your own work.
Not everyone willing to openly share his or her work uses Creative Commons License, but it is the best way to choose work, as you have an official license that shows you can use it for the purpose you did.
If you peruse sites like Deviant Art, you can also find artists who open their work to use. If in doubt, contact them. Be sure to follow their instructions for attribution. It is also a good idea to screen capture their rules and save them. You will still have to take down a cover later if the artist changes their usage guidelines, but having the screen capture may save you from other penalties.
[edit: thank you to Anna in the comments below for reminding me about this site.]Pixabay is another good resource for finding pictures that you can use commercially without issue. I have found plenty of easy to adapt Public Domain images. It is one of the sites that Creative Commons links to when you search for CC-Licensed work, but you can search there directly if you find yourself going to it often enough.
“What about Free Image sites?” Most free stock image sites do not allow their photos to be used for commercial purposes (that includes covers) under the free license. To use the images, you have to pay money, and that can become expensive very quickly. If you have the money to spend on the license, by all means, go ahead. Otherwise, you will find yourself frustrated when you find a great image, and learn that you cannot use it.
We say all the time, “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” which is untrue as we immediately judge a book by its cover. Whether you are purchasing a cover from an artist or taking the time to create your own, you want your cover to be attractive, professional, and impactful. You can do it yourself. Authors do it all the time. What will set your cover apart from all others is the time you put into the craft to make a good cover.