Resources for Covers

For reasons known only to the psychiatrist I don’t have, I decided to do a seminar on covers. You can find the first post here, and the second here.

Today we’re going to cover one of the topics that stop most people: where do I find the art?

I’ve seen covers made with pictures the author took or drew which are often stunningly inappropriate to the genre and book. And I’ve heard people say that they’d have to pay two thousand dollars for covers.  This is ridiculous.  There are many, many sources of free and cheap images on line.First thing, do not just grab random images from the internet.  If you just google for an image, you’ll likely be stealing someone’s art and people tend to get upset about that. And by upset I mean they will sue you into next Monday.

So your best way of finding reputable covers is to hit a site that is “royalty free.”  For the purposes of this demonstration I’ll mostly use Pixabay, but NASA also has free images, and for simpler purposes there are places like clker which has free clip art images.  These are not your high art stuff, but who knows if we’ll need a silhouette or two.  Another place you can go is renderosity. Make an account and look under free stuff for 2d images.  Make sure the person giving them away has allowed them to be used for commercial purposes!  There is a guy who did strange otherworldly cities and planets. I downloaded some of his stuff long ago and reserve the right to use it.

If you don’t find what you want free, you can also resort to paid, no royalty pictures.  Before I started doing renders, I used Dreamstime and I think the most I ever spent on the elements needed to make a cover was $15.  That was a few years ago, though.  Friends use Adobe stock sites and others.

On top of that, unless you get really lucky and find a pre-assembled cover, you’re going to need a program that allows you to do rudimentary photoshop and I find it convenient and helpful to use filter forge, which is a filter program (or for some programs an attachment) which you can use to alter the appearance of your cover art and make it, say, look like a drawing or a painting when it’s a photograph.

At this point I use DAZ 3D to render custom covers, but those are a step above, and one that is probably not necessary for most of your basic covers.  (I just went a little crazy; something I tend to do with everything. Compulsives got to Compulsive.)  If you get it beware that there’s money involved in getting the figures you need and that it will take time to be able to render anything more than naked, hairless people.  So, unless you write stories about naked, hairless people, you’re going a learning ramp.

The Hoyts have a sacred vow never to allow Adobe into our systems, if we can help it, so I use Paintshop.  I also have GIMP installed, but only use it to save the image as PDF (which my old paintshop did a lousy job of) because I’ve never had the time or patience to fight through the ramp up in learning it (since I used Paintshop for YEARS before I started doing covers.)

I do, however, have friends who use gimp and whose covers look great.  So, I don’t think it’s impossible.  As with everything else, you just have to learn.

So, what are we going to cover?

Because this is the first time, I thought we’d go with the simplest thing: Space Opera.

And before you say “Space Opera is simple?” Yeah. It is. Mostly because space opera is the domain of mostly indies, and I’ve lately started to see trads do “indie like” covers for space opera, consisting of space with some spaceships thrown in.

Remember it’s almost midnight as I write this, so unless we all get REALLY lucky, this is not going to be the most amazing space opera cover in the universe.  It’s just going to be a cover-shaped cover, more or less.  I will try to do better next time.

However, today, let’s settle for “Space Opera cover that doesn’t scream “I’m an amateur” and — preferably — doesn’t costs us money.”

Because I’m sleepy and kind of out of it, I couldn’t come up with a title for a putative space opera, so I decided to use a title generator site.

The title of our imaginary space opera is The Heirs of Ragnarok.

Do not, under any circumstances make me give you the plot of this.  But I’ll say it’s more of a space opera than Mil SF.  The Raganorok, it refers to is both a person (who is dead and whose “heirs” are trying to forge on, in new worlds) and of course echoes of some big interplanetary war, now safely in the past.

Okay, ready, set go!

First thing we go to Amazon,  we navigate to science fiction kindle books, and we look up science fiction best sellers.  It will come up with a lot of old books and Star wars tie ins.  You can’t do anything about Star wars tie ins (if you search -“star wars” it actually gives you ALL Star wars. (sigh.) You can solve the old books (except for re-issues) by selecting for date of publication.

If you go and do this, you’ll see there’s a lot of “Spaceships in space.”  Now, that’s not the only sort of cover (as you’ll see) but it’s the easiest to do from free or cheap stuff.

We’ll do the more elaborate ones for our stretch goal next week. This week is basic, serviceable, “will do” space opera cover, okay?

Because I’m but an egg at things like topography, I usually choose a cover to “steal.”  I don’t mean I take anything from it, but the general feel, but I do take that.  And I usually choose a traditional cover.  There are a few stunning ones there, but I don’t think I can achieve that effect at midnight, at the end of an exhausting day. So, I’m going for something I think I can “steal”.


And no, I’m not going to be that good.  Probably.  But I can try for something like.

To begin with, I open a blank “new file” on my paintshop.  I set it to 6×9 inches which is acceptable to Amazon, even if not their requirements.  Indie books tend to read as such by being too narrow.

The background of card’s book is some sort of futuristic city.  This is difficult to get on Pixabay, but I’ll see what I can do.

Note that what makes the Card cover work is the monochromatic (just about) quality of the city, interspersed with pin points of light and the big light in the middle that the ship is “aiming” for.

The first “city” background I found is not incredibly promising.  It’s really a fractal rendering of some sort, just vaguely suggestive of a city, it’s too small, and it’s rather meh colors.


Um…  Let’s see what if anything we can make of this…

I put it on the cover blank, and resize it till I have something that covers top to bottom:

in progress1

It’s not what I would want if I had it made to order, but it could be worse.  Only I want it to be blue-grey like the Card cover, because it’s easier to … you’ll see.  So, what I’m going to do is change color. Different programs do it different ways. In this case I’ll use the color replacer tool.

in progress2

So, it’s better, but it’s MUCH too light.  The points of light wouldn’t do anything.  So I’m  going to repeat that with darker shades.  I did it twice and I got this:

in progress 4

Only instead of those things floating mid space we need a light with dark above.  Which means… we’re going to Pixabay and poking around.

I did a search for space under illustrations, and what I found was this:


Which at this time of night is close enough for government work.  So, I’m going to flip it upside down and past it as a layer atop the city, then arrange it “down” so all you see is the city.  Then I take the eraser to that space in the city that seems logical:

in progress 5

It’s starting to look better, but of course, it’s still too distinct and also we still need space for the title above.  At this point I’d probably play with fog filters, but it’s late and I want to go to bed, so…

I take the space picture, turn it 90 degrees and enlarge it to 225.  Put the light part on the light part, and make the layer only 50% opaque.

in progress 6

MUCH improved, but we need more light.  So I’m going to do that next, both increase the light in the center AND add the little pinpoints of light.  Also I’m going to use the cloning tool to get rid of the little bit of bare background at the bottom.

So, I copied the bright part of the picture and layered it on, then copied one of the stars and used it for “lights.”  And then, of course, upped the contrast on the whole thing.

in progress 7

Now we need a spaceship.

Ideally it would be triangular and yellow and…

Well, it’s hard to find a free space ship flying away at all. I know I could render one in seconds, or you can find one in one of the paid sites, but for now, I’ll make do.  Let’s try this guy:


We’ll have to rotate it.

Too phallic and it doesn’t look ….  very good.

in progress 8


So, let’s try this guy with a bit of color change, shall we?

in progress 9

Okay, better.  Not wonderful, but not horrible for 1 in the morning with a half asleep Sarah.

I need to fix the upper edges, and put in the lettering now.

in progress 10

Okay, there it is, and for nothing.  Is it wonderful?  Not even.  There were things I’d normally do along the way like feather the edges of the layers I merged to make the spot of light.  Or at least taken the cloning tool to the edges to soften them.  Also those fonts are wrong, because they’re not the same height, but I’m doing this on the old computer, which means I don’t have my growing collection of fonts aboard.

But I’m showing you the process, not actually doing a finished cover, which would require a little more fiddling.

This whole process took 3 hours, and I started at 11 pm.  So, what would doing it RIGHT take?  Probably another two hours of fiddling.  However, I hope I’ve done enough to make it obvious it can be done and doesn’t need to cost a fortune.  If I’ve got some time tomorrow morning I’ll fiddle again and give you a better version.  But I might not have time.

For now, rest assured the cover is not an insurmountable problem.

Next week: Better covers through small expenditure.

UPDATE: I actually did a new cover this morning, but my internet has been up and down like the underthings of a very busy er… entertainer.  Snow. Masses and masses of snow.
Anyway, completely different, by picking (from Pixabay) different images and doing it while awake.  Faster too.  If it were for real, I’d fuss with it some more like, not have the white in the font, which makes it look like tape, and hazing the image JUST a little. BUT as is, already spent too much time.
Anyway, so, further instruction: don’t do covers while asleep.




  1. A bit of a caution here… the term “royalty free” in stock photography does not mean free, it means you pay a one time fee for all usage as opposed to licensing based on what the image is used for. If you look at stock sites like Getty Images you’ll see the term used. You might modify your search to something like “free stock images”.

    1. yes. So Dreamstime and Adobe you pay for. BUT Pixabay is also royalty free. I do know the difference.
      OTOH it was really late at night. Will have some caffeine then read over and fix what needs it.

    2. And some art is free for some uses and not for others. (Though Sarah mentioned that, I figure that it’s worth mentioning again.)

  2. “For reasons known only to the psychiatrist I don’t have, I decided to do a seminar on covers. ”

    Maybe, given some of the poor covers out there, you decided it was a topic you needed to cover.

    1. I’m using a NASA image for my sci-fi series (currently over 20% finished with the introductory one (that’s assuming 80,000 words – I may make it shorter). Looks good, although I will look at some tweaking when I get closer to the pub date.

    2. Note that only the images original to NASA are free, and not always then. Most of the current APOD are NOT free, because they are contributed by others. I’ve complained to the Management that there’s no good way to sort them out; you have to hunt through and read the ownership terms on each and every one. OTOH, some of the photographers have their own sites with excellent images-for-hire.

    3. As I was trying to say before my browser took a dive, so hopefully I’m not repeating myselffff… not all NASA images are free, nor free to use. Read the terms on each image. At present most APOD images are contributed by private photographers, tho some have their own images-for-hire sites.

  3. So the first of those fractals you used was rendered in Mandelbulb 3D, which is a free program as well, with a fairly active community that can help someone who wants to learn it – I’m not recommending most people want that, I’m insane and I know it. The second was done in Apophysis, probably version 7X, and again it’s a freebie with a fairly steep learning curve and sadly, no active community to support it. Although there are tutorials on DeviantArt.

    Both programs are powerful tools for creating unique and original art, especially as you point out, for science fiction. I use Apophysis extensively for fantasy covers, for ‘magic’ effects, and you’ll find both are being used in filmography for visual FX, like Guardians of the Galaxy 2.

        1. I channeled my insanity to DAZ and only because I was ill and couldn’t write for a couple of months. Maybe if/when the boys move out of state I’l have time to learn other things.

  4. I used/learned GIMP in the “bad old days” when it was Even Worse (not that it is good now, mind) and found that the… disturbance.. goes both was. Seldom have I felt so thwarted and cussed so much as the time I had to use PhotoShop (on a Mac, yet) for something. NOTHING was “obvious” nor even, to my thinking, readily “discoverable.” Thus: It’s a matter of what one is used to and familiar with.

    I once knew a fellow who claimed that WordPerfect 5.1 (for MS-DOS) was a great word processor. He seemed bewildered that that told me he had never used any other.

    1. I still kind of miss WordPerfect, she said sadly.

      I start the covers for my short stories. I find the art and try really hard to make it work. Then I cry. Then I turn to my friend who has a background in graphics art and she makes it all better.

      1. I initially learned word processing on Wordstar. WordPerfect was a dream compared to that. Was my favorite for a long time until my job essentially required I learn Word.

    2. 8-bit MS DOS is officially my favorite operating system. I prize positions that let me fight anyone. Plus it comes standard with a “you wouldn’t have *complicated software problem* with” argument that is justified by the impracticality of getting most specific software titles to run on 8-bit DOS.

      It is possible that of the MS DOS types, I’ve only used 16 bit. I’m not sure.

      1. I had been used to the 8-bit stuff of Apple //e and AppleWriter //e (though I *could* convince AppleWriter ][(+?) to use lower-case, once upon a time. No obvious menus, but keyboard commands made sense and didn’t require 3+ limbs to execute.

        At the time (of the WP 5.1 exchange), MS-Word made more sense as it was simply a graphical word processor without pretense of being more. Alas, that did not last very long.

        It seems that the disease that afflicted search engines (“We want to be your PORTAL to the web!”) affected others in similar if not equal ways. There was once this upstart that had a very clean “just a damn search engine” interface, even with a [I feel lucky] option… but it seems even they have succumbed, in some ways, to Portal Disease.

  5. I downloaded DAZ and looked at it a bit and decided that it would probably be less work to figure out how to actually “paint” digitally and practice to the point of having something usable, maybe. :/

    1. Nah. A few tutorials and three months of shouting at the screen. I’m actually going to render and upload one of those later to demonstrate how much closer I can get to the image.

      1. About 30 minutes into that three months I’m all about not doing it anymore. I mean, yelling or not, there must have been *something* satisfying about learning it. Computer stuff ranks up there with teaching pre-school in my mind, which ranks up there with voluntary root canals and seriously considering how bad it would be, after all, to live in a cardboard box.

        Lucky for the world, other people actually like fighting with computer programs and taking care of toddlers.

    2. Be careful with buying anything from DAZ. I’ve had their damned cart put extra stuff in there (that I hadn’t even looked at!!), which didn’t show up til it was too late to back out and I’d already been charged. Also the user agreement doesn’t show up until after you buy, at which point you may discover “no commercial use”. When I complained, they were like too bad, it’s yours now. That’s twice; they never get another dime from me.

      1. Not that we’ve noticed! And we’ve bought a TON of things from them. The prices DO change randomly, though.
        As for commercial use, most of what they mean is altering and reselling. So you have to read even more carefully.

  6. Luckily I have a bit of a photography background. Used Lightroom and Photoshop. I have made the transition to Gimp and Darktable now. Still a learning curve, and I am making a good use of online tutorials to get certain effects. Have one cover effort done, although I may have to go back and redo it because I didn’t size it right the first time. Learning things as I go at least.

    1. Photoshop is nice. Especially in high fantasy where a too obvious photograph turns off at least some readers.

  7. If you’re on Windows, another popular choice is Paint.NET, which is free (but if you want to support them, you can buy the App). It’s what I normally use – and since it has plugins and an active community, you can do a lot with it.

    I keep thinking about GIMP, but I have never had the time to learn it or need for it.

      1. I do Adobe products because i am expected to know and be able to test machines with them.

      2. I’ve only had to do basic photo editing with it. But it does have layers. And I’ve done enough research to see that a lot of its real power comes from plug-ins…the basic program is, well, fairly basic (and that’s not a bad thing).

        If you’re used to PaintShop, I highly doubt it’s worth changing. But if you’re starting from scratch, looking for options, it’s worth considering.

        BTW, for vector drawing there’s Inkscape.

    1. In advanced freebies, there’s also Krita, similar to Illustrator. And of course K3D, Blender, and others I’m forgetting. There’s a Blender tutorials channel on Youtube that starts from raw newbie level, which someday I need to actually watch instead of skim past. No patience in my old age…

      1. well, you’ll need to watch the new ones now, sine they completely redid the UI. hopefully you don’t have to do five different things in three different places to do a basic one-item operation anymore….

    2. GIMP really isn’t that bad. I spent (wasted, as it turned out) a few days building beautiful maps for my fantasy world based on a Cartographer’s Guild tutorial for the same, which basically taught me everything I needed to know about the program on top of what I already knew about Photoshop.

  8. I’m a Macintosh user, and I use “Acorn” from Flying Meat (it is a Mac-only program). It does everything that Photoshop will do, except that Acorn is a ONE-TIME cost of $29.99, and NOT a continual subscription. Check it out at Acorn does layers, and is very similar to Photoshop and so won’t have the steep learning curve as does GIMP. (I tried GIMP, but I found it to be way too counter-intuitive to how a real user would try to use it so I gave it up.)


  9. NASA is a convenient source because space, but other US agencies can be a similar trove of free material as well.
    Was helping with a couple of books on geology that included considerable graphics and we found that the US Geological Survey extremely helpful.
    Just be sure to check the provenance of each image to confirm possible restrictions on its use.
    Rationale is that content created for a US agency is the intellectual property of the taxpayers and as such should be free for US citizens use. Does not apply to content created under a cooperative agreement with another entity such as a private company, university, or foreign government, and of course limited for security reasons. Every photo, graph, or other image from an official source will have a link clearly specifying the rights and privileges associated with that content.

  10. Now, after all this effort, who’s going to write the book? (I might be able to write to the title, but not to the cover.)

  11. I’ve been using DAZ Studio for about, I dunno, sixteen years? I only started using it because it was in alpha testing and free. I didn’t know if I’d enjoy doing 3D rendering, so I was reluctant to spend money on Poser. I got hooked after my first crappy render. The very basics of dressing and posing figures are pretty easy. Learning how to light a scene so your character doesn’t look like a mistake at a wax museum is much harder. Selling book covers helps me pay for my 3D addiction.

    1. I started using Daz when Poser stopped updating for a bit. Even tho i do my lighting and rendering elsewhere, its still easier to post things in Daz than to build and rig an entire figure in my other software.

  12. For my last two novels, which have very different covers, I solved the problem THE AMERICAN WAY! I bombed the problem with money.

    You can see the covers for my books at Eclipse and at Against Three Lands on
    Smashwords period com .

  13. Link to cover art of the very first sci-fi book I’d ever bought, in 2nd grade at my school’s Book Fair (remember those?) :

    John Berkeley was amazing!

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