DIY Cover Design

Okay so not much to announce this week. Things are going well with the super secret pen name. I wanted to try writing in a really popular genre to see how much that would affect sales. I have released a short and it is already selling better than my regular stuff with no platform. I’ll report in on longer-term sales and progress at some point, but suffice to say it’s interesting. And sorry, my third Derivatives of Displacement novel is being a tiny bit delayed by this detour. But it's about 8000 words from being finished and I’ll be back on track with that in two weeks. Unfortunately the last 8000 words are always the hardest to write!

Also an exciting bit of news: Tales of Tinfoil: Stories of Paranoia and Conspiracy was free and had a Bookbub deal last week and it went to number one (like really, number one) in the Kindle Store for free books and stayed in the top 20 for the duration of the promotion. Also, if you are an Apocalypse Weird fan, the long awaited Apocalypse Weird Cookbook is out. In addition to recipes, it has lots of bonus material, so check it out!

I guess that was actually a fair bit of news, which just shows how much I’m generally running around like a lunatic, trying to get all my writing done. Actually I’m not running around at all, I’m sitting at my desk getting the words out, but I digress. No need to talk about my head being about to explode from having so much going on (not to mention two identities to manage) here.

Why I Tried DIY Cover Design

Last week I covered Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates, a great DIY tool for indie authors and this week I’m talking about Derek Murphy’s DIY Book Covers.

Now, unlike formatting, doing your book covers in-house is not for the faint-of-heart or completely graphically-challenged, and for the work that I put out under my own name I definitely go with a professional designer. Nevertheless I’ve always wanted to try cover design, even just so I can be better at designing graphics for promotions, and I also didn’t want to spring for $400 a cover for an experimental pen name (when the pen name becomes more famous than me, maybe I will). When I stumbled across the DIY Book Cover site (ironically on Joel Friedlander’s Cover Awards page), I thought I would give it a try.

What You Get With DIY Cover Design

The basic gist of the DIY cover design site is that you can make a pretty darn decent cover in either MS Word or on their free Cover Design Tool, which is web-based, but you save your files to your own computer. The site offers a huge number of things for free including:

  • a whole bunch of cover design tutorials that are absolutely awesome. Watch them, you will learn a ton.
  • a written quick start guide explaining how to make your own covers in MS Word.
  • tutorials on how to use the Cover Design Tool.
  • access to the Cover Design Tool.
  • templates of pre-made covers that you can add pictures and text to make your own cover.

That is a lot of great free stuff. Not realizing all of this stuff was free, I signed up for the $97 membership, for which I got access to more templates. It also suggests that I will get access to more tutorials and info in the future, but I have not yet as they are not yet available (when they will be and what will be included was a little unclear).

The tutorials and guide walk you through how to build a cover from setting your page size, finding appropriate pictures, getting the appropriate license, layering your pictures, making your text look good, and adding effects, filters and vignettes. Then you are on your own to start building. You can start with a blank page, or one of the templates. I chose to start with a template and work in the Cover Design Tool. I’ve worked with graphics before in MS Word and found it really frustrating because sometimes pictures don’t go where you want them on the page.

After a day and a half of swearing, fiddling with the tool, turning out terrible products, and being convinced that I would never be able to do this on my own, I finally had a pretty decent cover. With a few little tweaks, I was pretty happy with it, and my second cover (for my second story under the pen name) turned out even better (and required a lot less swearing and banging my head against my desk).

Positives of going with DIY Cover Design

  • The tutorials and guide are invaluable. They break it down in a way that is understandable. There is no way I even would have known where to start without them.
  • The templates are pretty useful. There are all sorts of things on the templates, like banners or glowy sections (don’t ask) that I would not know how to build myself. So I can just start with that template and add my own pictures. Things will get more difficult when I want elements that appear on two templates as I don’t know if you can cut and paste, but I might be able to save them as jpegs and import them.
  • The Cover Design Tool gets around all of those problems with pictures jumping around in MS Word (am I the only person who has this problem?).
  • I got two covers designed specifically to match my book and preferences at a cost of $80 each (the cost of two stock photos) and I will be able to easily do matching covers for other books in the series.
  • I learned so much and will now be much more able to do other basic graphic design on my own as needed.

Challenges of going with DIY Cover Design

  • The Cover Design Tool can be a big glitchy (Murphy is upfront with this and indicates that some of these glitches are being worked out). Sometimes (I suspect when too many people are using it), you can’t even open your project for hours, which is frustrating (don’t ever count on making last minute changes to your cover). I might try a Word design in the future as a result. The effects tool (which adds things like glow and feathering) doesn’t always work quite right, or at least I have not figured it out.
  • The Cover Design Tool has a bunch of great fonts built in but unfortunately does not indicate whether they are free or not. Most of them are not free, so if you want to use it on your cover you have to pay for the appropriate license. This is not explained very well and since I did not want to pay for a font, I had to go through and look up all the fonts and figure out to the best of my ability which ones were free (I looked them up on fontsquirrel and fontsgeek) but even this took some figuring out.
  • I doubt my covers look totally professional, because, well, they’re not. There are definitely limitations to what you can do yourself. Unless you are a talented artist, you are pretty much limited to using stock photography and doing a layered look. The DIY cover design tools are not going to suddenly make you able to do amazing illustrations or other funky designs on your own. So you’re not likely going to win any cover design awards. But that was not my goal.

Bottom Line

I’m really happy with DIY Cover Design. I got two pretty solid covers and learned so much. I’m not totally sure going all in and buying the templates was necessary, but I have used them and would have been pretty lost without them (but if you are more resourceful than I am you might not need them).

I also learned that part of good design is patience. I was convinced that my cover was terrible and unfixable and that I had just wasted $80 on stock photography, but all I had to do was rearrange the photos and other elements a few more times to make it work. It really showed me that patience and playing around is critical (and that good designers earn their pay—not that I ever doubted that).

If you like what I have to say, sign up for my mailing list here.


Indie DIY Tools that Really Work - Formatting Templates

No big announcements this week. I just finished my short story “The Poetry of Santiago” for an upcoming anthology, Tails of the Apocalypse. Tails will be coming out in November so watch for announcements about it then. I also finished a short that I will be releasing under a secret pen name as it’s… well, a little different than my other stuff. Finally, I am moving along in the third book in my Derivatives of Displacement series, although I took a little time off (as it is pretty intense to write) to finish those two shorts. I have also been a regular guest participant on SciFan; a Science Fiction and Fantasy podcast with Ed Giordano, Tiffany Langston and Kristi Charish, where we review a science fiction and fantasy book every week. It is super fun and you should check it out.

This month I wanted to talk about two indie DIY tools that really work: Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates (this week) and Derek Murphy’s DIY Book Covers (next week).

Why do things In-House?

As an indie author, I’m always looking to do as much stuff in-house as I can. There are several reasons for it. First, I always want to try to cut costs, as of course fewer costs can contribute to higher profit, provided I can do the job as well as the professionals.

Doing more myself also helps to streamline my process, as I don’t have to contact other professionals and line them up for slightly uncertain deadlines, and/or wait until their schedule is clear. It also means I don’t have to pester them to fix minor errors, or make adjustments down the line to get things perfect. This again of course is provided I can do the job in reasonably the same amount of time.

Finally doing it myself helps me to learn every aspect of the industry. What goes into making a good book cover? How do you lay out a book? I always like to pick up new skills and using these tools has made it easy and given me the confidence that I may eventually be able to do simple covers and layouts without the tools. It also helps me to be more confident when working with professionals, which I still do depending on the project, and know that I’m asking the right questions and making the right choices.

That is not to say I will not still hire professionals for some aspects of my book production and for some projects, but I have found these tools to be really useful when I want to do it myself. But as with any product, there are things I like and don’t like about the tools. If you are interested in using either of these tools, read on and learn more about my experience.

My Previous Experiences with Book Layout

Joel’s book templates, which come in 2-way form so you can do both your e-book and paperback book layout in Microsoft Word, first caught my attention almost two years ago.

I first looked at them as a print option when I was having the paperback version of my first book professionally laid out and struggling with the professional I had hired. It was mostly my fault. Given that it was my first book, I didn’t totally have the production order worked out and booked the layout before I had all the mistakes identified, and worse, I didn’t like the initial layout. So I had to go back and forth with the professional many times and beg her to make changes. I wanted to pay for the changes so I didn’t have to feel guilty, but she insisted on doing them for free, which made me think twice about every change I made. My subsequent forays into professional layout were more positive, but in one case very expensive, because I had it done in Adobe InDesign. The bottom line is though that when you have a professional do it, you don’t (generally) have the source files and when those small little typos are identified or you want to update your back matter, you have to bug (and potentially pay) somebody else, which takes time and energy.

The same goes for e-book formatting. I tend to be the kind of person who makes lots of little changes to my books after they are published and I want them to look just right, so contacting someone every time I wanted to make a minor adjustment felt like a real hassle. (Note that this is often just my reluctance to bug someone, not because the professionals I worked with were anything less than totally helpful and wonderful when I did contact them).

Before I tried the book design templates, I tried doing both my paperback and my e-book formatting myself and failed each time. Even though I’m reasonably technically proficient, I could get both files almost there, almost perfect, but not quite to the state I wanted them. There were always some funny indents or the table of contents failed to render, or something, and it took me way longer as I had to deal with a bunch of technical glitches, or technical scratch-my-head moments. I also always had niggling doubts that even though they looked okay on my screen, something was technically wrong with them that would show up later on someone else’s screen.

Using the Book Design Templates

Because of all of those experiences, when it came to formatting Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist, I bit the bullet and bought one of the templates. The templates come with a long PDF that explains the technical aspects of using the templates. It’s a bit technical, but if you are reasonably comfortable using most of the features of Microsoft Word, such as styles, page breaks, and headers and footers, then you should be able to figure it out. If you are not conversant with Word, you might find it too difficult, or it might just take you longer to figure out.

I loaded my manuscript into the template, formatted it, and then saved two versions of it—one for print and one for e-book and made the appropriate adjustments to the front and back matter for each version. It took me a couple of days and a bit of finagling, but I did it. You are allowed to adjust the formatting from the template e.g. if you want bigger font, or smaller margins or whatever, as long as you credit Book Design Templates for the original design. I took advantage of this, but I’m pretty conversant with Word, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not.

The e-book version rendered perfectly, although I had to convert it to epub in Calibre and then upload it to KDP to convert to mobi to get the result I was looking for. The print book also rendered perfectly, although converting it to a high enough resolution PDF took some doing and required the use of the full version of Adobe Acrobat, which I did not have, but was able to borrow. I did have to read the manual several times, get some assistance from a computer programmer, and make several attempts to get this to happen.

I always have to consider my time factor in any of these DIY projects because I charge out for my environmental consulting work at a reasonable hourly rate, and any DIY project that takes longer than eight hours or so has a pretty steep cost, versus paying a professional to do it at the same price as two or three hours of my time. But there is also the learning factor, so if I think that something is going to take me half the time or a quarter of the time the second time around, then it may still be worth it. In this case, it probably did take me at least eight hours, but I’m confident that it won’t take as long the next time I do it.


I’m totally happy with the results and this product. It did however require some technical know-how and assistance, lots of trial and error, and access to Adobe Acrobat. There was also a minor learning curve. However my layouts look great and I can now make the changes to my files on my own time as needed. You do have to buy a separate license for each book that you format, but at the price of just under $60.00 (and occasional sales on the templates), it is well worth it.

If you like what I have to say, don't forget to sign up for my mailing list here.