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Going Indie For Dummies -4 “Draw Me A Picture”

I don’t know how many times I’ve come across a writer who is going through a smal press and — let’s face it — often getting shafted and when I tell them they should go ahead and go indie he or she answers with “But I can’t draw.  They’re paying five thousand for my cover and–”

First of all, they’re not paying five thousand for your cover.  a)they’re not deluded.  b) I’ve seen a lot of small press covers.

Second “but I can’t draw” — good.  Very few people can draw at a level required for covers. I can’t.  Unless you want something like the cover of F. Paul Wilson’s Virgin, you’re not going to draw your own cover.

I mean, I can do this:

Even if I could figure out how to rotate it (sniffle, I is inept) do you really see that as a book cover.  It’s cute, but will it cover?  Uh… no.

So, faced with covers, I was at first as confused as any other newbie looking for a cover and did some truly inept photoshops.  For ex, this was my first ever cover:

If you’re going to say you’ve seen worse, so have I but not many. To begin with, the font is wrong, I think it’s Times New Roman. To continue with, it’s not even an adequate photoshop.  And to end with, covers for the subgenre (science fiction) are never pictures.  They’re drawn or painted.

Anyway, this was Sarah, pre-getting a clue.  I’m not going to say I’m the best cover designer ever, but I do.  And as for art, I can take free pictures and run them through filters (yes, I will explain) and make the whole thing look custom.  And yes, you can too.

Let’s start with “free pictures”.  Where can you get free pictures?  Well, you can take them yourself, but most of the time it’s not worth the effort.  No, you can’t just lift any picture from the internet.  But there are several free picture sites.  The one I use most often is  I do try to verify the picture wasn’t stolen, but most of the time it’s obvious it wasn’t and it’s someone’s render or photo.

Here I should explain the following covers, done almost exclusively from Pixabay (I’ll note which elements aren’t) are for books that are planned for this year or next, but not written yet.  Last week I forgot to take my morning thyroid tablet (yesterday too) and the symptoms are oddly like the flu, leaving me unable to do much in words.  But I can play with pics and filters.  So I did “covers for books I haven’t written yet”.  These will probably be tweaked before time, and my particular bete noir is knowing what the font says, but as an example of what you can do with free art (and filters) it will do. The spaceship wasn’t free on the first one, and I also need to futz with the layers more, because they’re too stratified on the person.  (Part of giving her a race change operation.)



Again the spaceship isn’t free.  There are few decent spaceships free.


And then there’s this.  The dragon and girl were rendered by Jame Schardt who is good at this stuff, the train was free, and the filters were… fun.


Most of these covers cost me $1 thought that’s changing since dollar photo club ill go out of business in two days.  So it might in the future cost me $5 to $10.  At any rate eminently bearable.

So, how do you find pictures?  There’s an art to this.  Even at Pixabay you have more chances if you search for illustration and not photography.  (Unless you’re writing cooking or travel, which require photography, as do others, though not that come to mind at the moment.  Sorry, first cup of coffee.

Are there other things than Pixabay?  Sure.  I recommend you poke around the web, but always remember that unless it’s explicitly licensed with creative commons or has other notes that the author is fine with you taking this (like some artists and photographers on deviant art, though there isn’t a way to check for them specifically) you shouldn’t use it.

Oh, and before I forget, a note on winter prince and changeling’s covers: when you download pictures of people even if the photographer doesn’t mind, make sure the face isn’t showing.  Unless you have a model release, you shouldn’t take a photo that recognizable or traceable to the person.  (Unless the person is or was a public figure, say President Kennedy in which case if the photographer says you can have it, you’re fine.)  This is why you see tons of covers from the big houses showing a body with a gorgeous dress, but no head.  Bet you they got it from a free stock site.

Some other sites with free pics:

Creativity 103, Bibliodyssey, The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Reuse & Remix

You can also use any painting done before — I think, please verify — 1924.

Just be aware of what your choice says and how it integrates with the genre/subgenre.

Now, if you poke around enough (and find this fun, which I do.  I realize other people don’t) you can find stuff and run it through filters and make it look like a professional cover.

A warning here that there is a learning curve.  I’m somewhere above beginning on it, but you don’t start there, you start at beginner.  And I’m sure in 5 years I’ll cringe at my current covers.  Which is part of the reason I play with it when I’m not feeling well.  As with stories, it’s mostly practice.

So, I keep talking about filters, and they are crucial.  For instance the picture for Changeling was three photos.  Filters help make it look like purposeful art.

I know there are filters in photoshop, but I don’t know what they are.  My program for covers is paintshop pro 9 (it got worse with updates) because I’m a dinosaur.

The filters in GIMP are atrocious.

Two years ago, around xmas, I was cleaning out my mailbox, and I found an advertisement for a program (it works as an add on if you have photoshop) called filter forge.  I thought it would be terrible like the others, but I was sickly and out of it, so I downloaded the free version and tried it.  Then I downloaded the $38 version which is fine, provided you don’t PRINT your books (it does smaller pics) and then I upgraded to pro, and I’m now waiting for a sale on lifetime upgrades.

Look under “creative” filters.

The caveats are: you need to learn it and you need to have an idea what each filter will do.  Sometimes for the ideal cover, you combine filters.  To The Dragons is a fruit of five filters.

And while talking about To The Dragons: we have Daz 3D.  It or its cousin, Poser, can be pricey (in DAZ case through downloading models) but they’re also really useful if you can’t draw worth beans.  Filter forge can then help you make it look non-rendered.

Here’s the thing, though: as with GIMP there’s a substantial time investment into the rendering programs, one I haven’t been able to make.  So I will say I prefer to have James Schardt do it for me.  In exchange I filter-forge whatever he asks me to.  And if you can arrange that, that’s fine.  If you can’t, I’d ask him how much he charges to render ;).

After you do all that, then come fonts, and thinking about what they convey, which I’m very bad at.  BUT as you see, you don’t have to know how to draw and you can get art pretty much for free.

“But Sarah, it’s learning curve this and learn filters that” you say.  “What if I just want to pay?  I still don’t have 5k per cover.  I don’t know the book will  make that.”

Yeah, no one does.  Which is why if you go the paying route, I have some tips and tricks.

Next week: You lays down your money.


  1. Usually image rotation is under something like Image, Rotate on the menus. Simple programs sometimes lack the function.

    BTW if you get obvious symptoms from missing just one thyroid pill, your dosage is too low. The half-life of LT4 in the body is about 8 days, and when you’re getting enough, it should take 3-4 days to really notice the lack. Typically the dosage needs to be adjusted upward 3 or 4 times, across a year or so, before you’ll hit a stable point. (My stable dosage is 4 times what I started with.) TSH test is NOT sufficient for this, and irrelevant when under treatment; you also need to check T3, which generally needs to be in the upper third of the reference range for the patient to really feel well.

    April 13, 2016
    • I need to go in for blood tests, probably next week, but this is more complex than that: I forgot it for at least a week before (maybe more while moving) so I’m now very low, anyway, so forgetting a day…

      April 13, 2016
      • My trick for not forgetting (as contrasted to remembering!) to take meds: the med bottle goes on my bed, where I can’t help but princess on it. (Ouch. Big damn pea.) When I go to bed, it goes in the middle of the floor, where I can’t help but trip over it as I leave the bedroom. Once I’ve taken the daily dose, it goes back on the bed. This works alarmingly well.

        Put no more than a month worth in the daily bottle; keep the rest in the fridge. And never trust LT4 (synthetic) that is over 6 months old, regardless of the stale date; depending on the binder used it can be unreliable after that. (Conversely, natural desiccated thyroid, which is what I now take because the LT4 stopped working for me, keeps practically forever. A study on its shelf life gave up after 17 years — still good.)

        BTW if thyroid alone doesn’t seem to adequately fix what ails you, next thing to check is blood calcium, in case low thyroid has generated a parathyroid tumor. is the best info source. (While still officially “of unknown cause” there are studies indicating a strong correlation between Hashimoto’s and PT tumors. Such as: 30% of PT tumor patients have thyroid abnormalities. Of 17 PT tumor patients studied, all 17 tested positive for Hashi antibodies. And about 50% of prolonged low thyroid cases progress to Hashi.)

        April 14, 2016
        • Clyde #

          I’m on a few prescriptions, with some taken first thing in the morning, and the others at bedtime. (Usually they don’t coincide…) Part of the fun was the prescription for Warfarin (aka Coumadin), where the dose varied a lot at first, and wasn’t necessarily the same each day (1 tab Tue and Friday, 2 tabs the other days). Hard to keep track. And with Warfarin, you really don’t want to screw up a dose. I still remember when D-con used it to kill rats…

          I solved this with two 7 day pill minders. The big one has the morning pills plus the fish oil, and the smaller one has the two nighttime pills. I stack the two minders, and swap positions when I’ve taken the relevant pills. Works for me.

          I used to use a 4-slot per day minder, but that was too hard to fill and too easy to screw up. The two dissimilar minders work, so long as I remember what day of the week it is. My memory is a steel sieve, but it’s good enough for that.

          April 14, 2016
  2. c4c

    April 13, 2016
  3. More later, but yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Especially the model release. Hazily recall an author who got into trouble using a photo downloaded from some site of a couple, but he didn’t have a model release. Long story short, he found himself into trouble. Well, even more trouble – there were multiple issues with his work.

    Something that might be an issue: If an author wants to use, say, a Rembrandt in a cover, The Rembrandt may be in public domain, but the photo of it may not be. So it’s back to making sure there’s a commercial license.

    Still trying to grasp the painting/drawn cover in SF aspect. Don’t deny it, just trying to grasp it.

    April 13, 2016
    • everystockphoto often has photos of works that aren’t copyrighted. I mean, their photos of it aren’t copyrighted. something. Coffee.

      April 13, 2016
    • Reality Observer #

      No handy spaceships or BEMs to put in a photo? Best guess I have.

      Doesn’t apply to tie-ins, of course.

      April 13, 2016
      • I’ve been trying to make spaceships/learn how to draw them. So far I suck, but I AM improving.

        April 13, 2016
        • Steve Lewis #

          You may want to try out Mudbox for spaceships. It’s a digital sculpting program and a lot of fun. A lot of concept artists use it and, at ten dollars a month, it’s pretty affordable. You can do lots of stuff with it and the results look great. Also, it’s fairly intuitive. And, again, just plain fun.

          April 13, 2016
        • Ha. Miles above my so-called art. I can do good stick figures, but I’m not sure how you’d do a stick rocketship!

          April 14, 2016
  4. cirby #

    I’m very lucky in this respect – I’m a good photographer, and have had the habit of taking random photos of a lot of different things to keep in my image library.

    That said: For my main series (once it’s done), the covers will be based off of in-story books that are part of the plot. Basic graphic design with some line art, layered over a photographed cloth texture. I’m a good enough digital artist for that to work – been doing digital retouching and such since before Photoshop…

    April 13, 2016
  5. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Actually, I’ve been noticing a lot of big publisher covers made from Shutterstock these days. The most dismaying was the DAW reissue of Armor, which replaced James Gurney’s iconic artwork with a bad video game pic and a lousy font.

    April 13, 2016
    • yep.

      April 13, 2016
    • Speaking of which:

      I have the books Beyond Flesh, published by Ace, and New Voices in Science Fiction, published by DAW. Both use the exact same artwork. With Beyond Flesh Is a rectangle from the bottom to a little over halfway to the top. With New Voices in Science Fiction, it takes up the entire cover, and is cropped.

      April 13, 2016
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        I’m noticing a bearded warrior and a guy in a hoodie and gas mask who are appearing on a lot of indie and trad covers the past few years.

        April 13, 2016
  6. Minor correction, the copyright cutoff is currently 1923, not ’24. Anything prior to ’23 is public domain, automatically (except, confusingly, audio recordings, but that’s a tar pit of a gray area).

    April 13, 2016
    • aye. aye aye.

      April 13, 2016
    • I knew it was around there…

      April 13, 2016
    • True. There are also occasional books published between 1924 and 1964 that fell into the public domain by not having their copyrights renewed. There’s an online query server maintained by Stanford that can tell you the copyright status for books in that “weird window”:

      When I did reprints of some obscure 19th Century Old Catholic histories years back, I bought an 1895 coffee table book about English cathedrals for $30 and scanned out some of the nice old engravings. I have a pile of old pre-1924 engineering textbooks with bogglingly complex drawings of steam engines and other mechanical nightmares that would be ideal for steampunk covers, or at least the beginnings of steampunk covers. Again, the art is out there. Being able to manipulate images in Photoshop and its imitators is a huge plus for things like this.

      April 14, 2016
  7. I use It’s free and has lots of free plugins you can add to it if you want (huge user base). Also one of the plugins you can add to it allows you to use photoshop filters and plugins.
    I did buy a copy of filter forge (which you can use as a standalone) to mess with, and see if I like it or not. It does have some nice effects.

    As for covers, well I started doing them in 2011 (I’ve been doing photo manipulation a lot longer however, as I’m a fairly good amateur photographer and I’ve done basic photo editing for decades). I stopped doing my own about two years ago and pay an artist now, but on my pen name stuff, I still do my own, and I’ve definitely improved over the years. I’ve made some very tacky covers (for a genre where tacky covers are the norm) and I’ve made some very nice looking ones for where it wasn’t.

    If nothing else, it is worth the exercise of doing it, because it will help you with any cover artists that you hire.

    April 13, 2016
  8. Katabatic #

    I’d like to recommend Affinity photo. I just picked it up a couple months ago so I’m still working on that learning curve. Image quality wise its comparable to photoshop. Some sexy filters and effects.

    Its $50 with no subscription fees. Currently for mac only but they have a free windows beta coming up soon if anyone is interested. Give their demo video a peek at least. Some sf looking pics in there.

    I also wanted to ask if anyone thinks that eye catching animation style (line art with fairly flat colours) would work for genre covers? I’m currently working on a fantasy/romance. Don’t know yet if it will be YA or not. Haven’t started on the art yet because I’m unsure and also under some tight deadlines for paying stuff.

    April 13, 2016
  9. B. Durbin #

    “To begin with, the font is wrong, I think it’s Times New Roman.”


    Probably Arial. Times New Roman is a serif font (those little flares at the ends of letters.) Arial is sans-serif (no flares.) And Arial is one of the cheap defaults (based off Helvetica.)

    As for fonts… ooh, that can be a lot of fun. Go to a used bookstore and see if you can guess the publication date from the font—you’ll probably be within the correct decade more often than you’d think.

    (I am NOT going to drop a bunch of image links this time, because I don’t like getting caught in the spam trap. But I really need to do a font post, oh yes…)

    April 13, 2016
    • B. Durbin #

      Just as a random thought, I went over to Google Images and started typing in things like “fonts fantasy” and “fonts romance” and “fonts swashbuckler.” It’s actually a very good way to get an idea of what people think of as a particular type of font face.

      April 13, 2016
      • B. Durbin #

        “fonts overused” is a hoot.

        April 13, 2016
    • I assumed it was TNR as that’s usually what my computer is set for. 😉

      April 13, 2016
    • Birthday Girl #

      OT, but just curious – why is Times New Roman such a pariah? These old myopic eyeballs find it quite pleasant in the reading … so just wondering about that …

      April 13, 2016
      • For inside the book I actually like that, or the free open source version, Liberation Serif.

        April 13, 2016
      • Inside the book it’s fine. On the cover, the rule of thumb is to not use a font you’d use inside the book for the text.

        April 14, 2016
      • The reason is because you have three major cues for the reader to convey the genre, subgenre, and amount of action / romance: cover art, typography, and title itself. The cover art and typography work hand in hand, and often, one will signal genre and the other subgenre – for example, the iron druid series has fantasy cover art that could be high fantasy, low fantasy, or young adult historical fiction. The grunge font is what signals that it’s urban fantasy. Similarly, font is the major signal for cyberpunk vs. thriller, horror vs. mystery…

        And Times New Roman is not used by any of these. You can do a font that doesn’t signal anything, but then the title and the cover art have a much heavier load to bear, to convey what the book is and why the reader wants to read it (especially as typography takes up to 1/3 of the cover area.)

        I’ve seen it done twice to good effect – but once was literary, and it was part of signalling “This book mimics a journal.” The other was a mystery, where the cover art was of a typewriter with a corpse, and the title looked like it’d just been typed on the paper.

        Because it’s a default font in Microsoft, it’s come to be a shorthand for “publisher has absolutely no clue what they’re doing, and just wrote a title on top of the terrible cover art.” Usually when I see times new roman on cover art, the art itself doesn’t match the genre, or it’s badly done, and the book inside is also often not ready for the market, either.

        April 14, 2016
      • B. Durbin #

        To elaborate on the subject, we’re speaking of “signaling.” You’re looking for the subconscious feeling that tells the reader something about the book (preferably genre, at the very least.) Because Times New Roman is *the* default font, it’s used everywhere—most commonly in academic papers (a lot of professors require it, so as to keep page sizes consistent.) When a font is used everywhere, it’s no longer useful as a signal.

        Another good example of overuse is Papyrus. Beautiful font face, but it can be a housing development, an organic food, a music festival, or a map… it’s not useful as a signal anymore.

        April 14, 2016
  10. cirby #

    Of course, for a lesson in how not to do it, there’s always:

    April 13, 2016
    • When I did the lecture on Surrealism, I tossed in, ” . . or if it looks like a late 1960s-1970s sci-fi novel cover, it’s probably surrealism.”
      The counselor was observing the class (for a different reason) that day, and almost fell out of the chair laughing. 😀

      April 13, 2016
      • cirby #

        All I know is that anyone who complains about terrible self-published SF covers hasn’t seen that site.

        April 13, 2016
  11. On painting or drawing for the cover: I take it that this falls into what the public expects to see with a SF/F book. The same with fonts. A quick survey of one of my bookcases shows most of the titles are in upper case. There are a few exceptions, the most odd the novelization of Saving Private Ryan, which is in all lower case. It may be the luck of the draw, but the SF titles seem to be in san serif, while the Fantasy titles are are serif.

    I don’t recall using filters, maybe coming from a vector art background. There seems to be opportunity there for turning a photo into something that looks like a painting.

    April 13, 2016
    • Yep. It has nothing to do with “how beautiful/artistic” the cover is. JUST “is it genre-fitting.”

      April 14, 2016
  12. Germaine to the discussion: If you really, really are unwilling to try your hand at a cover, there are plenty of artists out there who are hirable for reasonable fees – you don’t lose anything by inquiring in places like Pixiv or deviantArt or similar. Google Plus also yields some artists who aim their posts at advertising their work.

    For example, I found the following artists from Google Plus: Jeff Brown Graphics and Howard David Johnson Graphics have some gorgeous art, and I recommend a look. Jeff Brown I think charges, at the most, around 500 for the most complicated covers, and I think his starting rate is lower – around the 200 odd mark.

    There’s also this: – where you can buy a premade book cover. The cover is made as a once-off, and once purchased the artist does the necessary adjustments at your request (Title, name subtitle, etc) and you pay anywhere from 30 bucks to a few hundred. They also have a link for ‘custom covers’ which are photomanipulations and it’s 90 USD for a basic cover, and extra costs for additional stuff.

    Basically, all that’s holding anyone back on that score is how much you can afford to pay.

    (And no, I didn’t put myself as an offer because I do not yet think I’m that qualified, skillwise.)

    April 13, 2016
    • I was going to mention that next week.

      April 14, 2016
      • I’m sure there’s more links that a good run with Google-Fu will bring up. I just posted these because ‘5000 for cover art’ made me go O_o

        April 14, 2016
        • Yeah. I’m always puzzled by that. I think publishers throw that number about and people believe it. Heck I paid $500 for a comic book…

          April 14, 2016
    • Ooh. First cover my eye landed on, I’m thinkin’, “Gee, I wish I had a book to go with that.” Thanks!

      April 14, 2016
  13. Anyone who pays 5k is either getting it from someone who is known for their fine art or they’re crazy.

    I’ve never paid more than $750 for a cover, and that’s a totally custom hand-drawn quality piece (if curious my blog shows examples of what I’m talking about.)

    Yes, and that’s $750 starting from a blank slate and not using any premade, all custom.

    So if people are being quoted 5k, they need their head examined. Oh, and that $750 included the typeset/etc.

    April 14, 2016
    • There ARE people out there who want 5K for a cover. I know, because I have asked artists on Deviant Art about doing covers (because I saw them doing covers for other people) and they quoted prices in that neighborhood.

      Needless to say I never talked to them again.

      But you know what they say about a fool and his money…

      April 14, 2016
  14. This reminds me I need to get my desk up, desktop re-plugged in and Poser, Vue, and Blacksmith 3D all running.

    April 14, 2016
    • On my plans, as soon as we find a house and move.

      April 14, 2016
      • We moved in late LAST may and still no desk. We need to unbury it and get on that. And get internet.

        April 14, 2016
  15. I used an image of a whale from Wikimedia Commons in my cover for a story called “Whale Meat” and I think it worked well. Wikimedia runs very hot and very very cold, but you should cruise it a little and see what they have. It is free, and the stuff is nicely done. It helps to know how to combine images and tweak colors, etc.

    For most of my SF I’ve paid under $300 for original artwork. The cover for my latest novel was expensive ($1200) but the art was brilliant and the book has just about earned it out.

    April 14, 2016
  16. As a side note based on a recent library catalog search I did: If you’re self publishing a book on graphic design, you probably need a particularly awesome cover 🙂

    April 15, 2016
    • Like this?

      I backed it for the two-volumes reward last year.

      April 16, 2016
      • Got it in one.

        But do a library search on graphic design and look at the covers… Oy.

        April 16, 2016
        • I generally also want to see the internals to get an idea of whether or not the book will be useful. I absolutely HATED the US published ‘How To Draw Manga’ series – they often had awesome covers but shit art inside, and only a few of them had good art on front and good art inside.

          By contrast, the How To Draw series of books by Hobby Japan and similar books offer a consistency of book cover art and interior art. Most of the examples are clear enough even without knowing how to read Japanese (Or Korean in some of my other books).

          Pic I took of some of my books and some of the ones on my shelves. This is only some of the ones in my library.

          April 16, 2016

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