Let me first establish a few absolutes to the lesson.
1. I’m assuming you’re using CreateSpace (while I haven’t published with them yet, I’ve been really impressed by how quickly they’ve made proof copies for me). Different print-on-demand publishers will have different requirements for their books. However, even if you’re working on someone else’s template, almost everything I’m going to cover will apply to you too.
2. I assume you have a full copy of Adobe Photoshop. If you don’t have a full version of Adobe Photoshop or some reasonable facsimile thereof, you cannot design your own book cover. This is not something you can turn out in Paint or some Microsoft or Mac photo editing software that came with your computer.
The drawback is that Photoshop is expensive. I saw student editions (which, as far as I am aware, are fully-functional versions) for CS6 for $244. And that’s pretty reasonable; I seem to recall, when it came out a little over 2 years ago it was $500 or $600. Copies of CS5–which is the second newest version–are $188. Used copies–especially of even older versions–should be more affordable.
I made my cover using Photoshop 7, which is a decade old and either 6 or 7 versions out of date. I did run up on a few limitations with it–I wasn’t able to do things with it I was almost positive I could have done with the CS5 version that my school had–but it’s still good enough to make a decent cover.
The first thing you need to obtain is a picture (or pictures, if you are going to blend one or more images into a montage). Finding a picture was not included in my 7 hours of cover creation time. Just finding the right picture took several more hours above and beyond that.
I chose the picture that I did for a variety of reasons. One, I like Pre-Raphaelite art–especially the sharp lines, realism, and bright colors of Millais. Secondly, both of the figures actually bear a close physical resemblance to Anselm and Kalyn, plus the way the figures look at one another and interact is similar to Kalyn and Anselm’s relationship in the book; Anselm is the calm, gentle figure who takes care of Kalyn as she is wracked by tragedies and pain. Thirdly, I did not want the typical vampirish cover, with some half-dressed woman being bitten by a man with rippling abs, and the entire thing tinted dark blue.
And most importantly of all, it’s a picture whose copyright has long since expired. This is a very important consideration when it comes to using artwork on the cover of your book, because every photograph and work of art is copyrighted by the person who made it (and, in the case of photos, the person(s) in it may also have a claim to a copyright on it). In the U.S., the copyright generally doesn’t expire until 70 years after the death of the original creator, although some states allow people to retain the copyright over their image indefinitely. (For example, Elvis’s estate still has rights to all pictures of him and will forever.)
The exceptions to this rule are one, things created before 1923 are out of copyright in the U.S., per a previous copyright law. Two, works can be released into the creative commons by their creators or their estates at any time before the copyright expires. This is why you can see pictures newer than 70 years old on WikiCommons. (Although make sure if you are using anything that’s labeled as “royalty free” that it’s okay to use it for commercial purposes–which is what your book cover constitutes. Some things are not free for commercial use.) Three, anything created by the U.S. government has no copyright. So military news reels from WWII, and pictures of Vietnam made by the government, and the entire text of all legal documents are free for use.
While Fair Use law vaguely offers some protection to people on the internet who like to share pictures which have active copyrights, it does not apply to book covers, so you really need to make sure that any and all images that you use are in the creative commons or are out of copyright.
I’ll also warn that altering an image does not nullify its copyright, since the copyright holder has a right over all alterations.
The alternative to using old photos or artwork, or what little bit is free on WikiCommons , is to buy the rights to a picture. Shutterstock has a huge collection of stock photos which you can buy and alter to your heart’s content (actually, there are a few limitations on the use, but none that I could see which would affect my ability to use it as a book cover). The drawback is that pictures are $19 each on Shutterstock. While that’s liveable if you’re making a cover for a novel, it’s almost certainly going to be too expensive for a short story (you’d have to sell 64 copies of a 99-cent short story to break even on the cost of the picture).
Freedigitalphotos.net and stock.xchng both have a much smaller collection of photos, but the smallest sizes can be downloaded for free. Larger copies must be purchased, but are more reasonably-priced than on Shutterstock. If you are doing a short story just for an e-reader, the small size will probably be good enough–especially if you sandwich the small picture between two borders.
If you need art instead of photos, try a place like DeviantArt, which is where I found the picture for The Last Golden Dragon (M. L. Perkins allowed me to use it, unaltered, for free). There’s a lot of good art on that website (and photos too, actually), not to mention you have the ability to contact the artists directly to ask their permission or see if they will accept commissions. New, undiscovered artists or people who just draw for a hobby are more likely to charge little to nothing to allow you to use their pictures. Be sure you give them plenty of credit on your blog and in your book. Providing a link to a the website of their choice is also a nice gesture–artists helping each other out.
And one last warning: if you’re doing a printed cover, you need to get the largest copy of your picture you can find, because your printer will require it to be large and with a high resolution (300 dpi, typically). So pass on small pictures or those with low resolution.
That concludes today’s lesson. If you don’t already have cover art, start looking for something. And don’t run with the first picture you see that catches your fancy. Save a number of possible pictures to your computer and then spend several days looking at all of them and narrowing down your choices. You want to be sure the one you select is one you want to represent your novel for years to come.