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How to Design a Fantasy or SF Book Cover With Canva in Five Minutes or Less

No matter the topic or genre, every ebook needs a killer cover. It’s the first thing that a reader sees and the right ebook cover – or rather the wrong cover, or an amateurish hack job – can make or break a sale.

Some authors spend hundreds of dollars for each book cover. Others make their own.

If you ask me, I think authors should learn how to make a book cover, and then go out and hire the best cover designer they can afford. That experience stretches their creative muscles and it will help them appreciate the work involved in making a good cover.

I taught myself how to make ebook covers over the course of a couple Sunday afternoons. While I don’t plan to make covers as a service, the experience has taught me that it’s really not that hard to make a good cover. (A great book cover, on the other hand, takes more skill and experience than I currently possess – but I am working on it.)

In this post I am going to explain how you can make a book cover in five minutes or less.

Making a great cover may require an expert, but I have found that if you work with the templates on Canva you will make a good book cover.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • You don’t have to use the first cover you make – you don’t even have to use the twenty-first. In fact, you shouldn’t. Book covers are the kind of thing where it pays to take the time to get it right. You don’t want to end up on one of the blogs that collect bad book covers, do you?
  • If you’re developing a series, it would be a good idea to plan for using similar designs on all the book covers. This will help tie your books together visually.
  • If you have the time, create two distinctly different covers for the same book, and then A/B test them. Ask your test subjects which one they prefer, and why. You can use the feedback to refine the most popular cover, and perfect it.

First Things First

Gather your tools and supplies – in other words, choose an app or online service to make the cover with, and also find the images you want to use on the covers.

I had previously published a post with a list of 14 sites you could use to make book covers, but the one I use all the time is Canva. It is a free (for the most part) online alternative to Photoshop. You can use it to make just about anything from an infographic to a business card, and it is easy to use.

Canva has a pretty shallow learning curve; if you know MSPaint, you can learn Canva. In fact, they’ll even teach you how to use it in a series of tutorials.  (I didn’t find them until I started working on this post, darn it.)

If you are looking for a source for images, here is a post that lists fifteen royalty-free stock photo sites. In the long run you’re probably going to need to also license paid photos, but for now the free sites – plus the images, layouts, and elements available through Canva – will be enough to help you learn the craft.

And finally, Derek Murphy has compiled a list of fonts you might use on book covers. He organized the list by genre, making it a lot easier to find the best fit for your book. You might not be able to find exactly the font you like, but Derek’s post will give you an idea of what the title of, say, an SF book should look like.

Let’s Get Started

When I set out to make book covers, I just started messing around with the tools, making ugly covers and learning from my mistakes, but what you should do is first look on Amazon to see what book covers look like for your genre or topic. For example:

  • Romance titles frequently have people on the cover. Contemporary romance will often use a photo on the cover, while historical romance will use a posed shot showing the main characters.
  • Titles in the fantasy genre typically fall into one of several broad categories: their covers show a group of warriors in chain mail, a landscape shot of a valley or castle, a plain cover centered on an occult or heraldic symbol, etc.
  • Many science fiction titles have covers that fall into categories similar to fantasy categories, only with different symbolism. Instead of a valley or castle, SF uses spaceships and planets, and rather than chain mail SF relies on showing the heroes in spacesuits to tell the reader about the book.

The observant reader will have noticed that I am over-generalizing cover designs and glossing over a lot of the nuances.

Yes, I am, and that is okay because what I want you to see is that all it takes to make a good cover image is to match an acceptable font with a background color and foreground graphic or image.

That simple cover design will work for SF, fantasy, and sometimes thriller novels. It’s not the most sophisticated cover design idea, but it is a great first step because it is so simple. (And if you take pains to do good job, you will create a cover better than a lot of indie titles.)

Here are a few covers I made while working on this post.

You can make this cover by following 4 simple steps:

  1. find a stock cover with a monochrome background,
  2. change the title font to one suitable for the genre,
  3. change the background color, and
  4. add a simple image in the foreground.

It is about that simple.

Why don’t you give it a shot, and then share your work here?

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Marion Gropen November 5, 2017 um 4:15 pm

You’re absolutely right about what can be done.

For many authors, early in their careers, this is a reasonable option. But the covers shown absolutely positively will hurt your sales.

You have to crunch your numbers. If the book will sell 500 copies at $2.99 per (gaining you $2.10 per) with this cover, then knowing that you’ll gain another 10% with a professionally produced cover may not matter. A **good** (not great) cover costs maybe $1500, and that 10% increase in sales is only going to net you about $100.

There are, of course, designers who will do a cover for $500, and others who require far, far more than $1500. The less expensive covers are often done by people who haven’t been around long enough to know how to pump up the sales — or who don’t have the time to notice which details make what difference.

But if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re selling 5000 copies at $4.99 (netting $3.50 per in revenue), then that 10% is a good deal at $1500 — especially since it means that future books will also have a higher base line sales number.

To help you get from the 500 copy to the 5,000 copy level, consider joining a group of small and self-publishers and asking for help with the cover design. There are a lot of pros out there who will give you a little free advice now, so that they can show you (and others) what they can do for you when you do get to the point where you can pay for a good cover.

Mackay Bell November 6, 2017 um 2:11 pm

These kind of math games, "if you sell for $2.99 and make a 10% increase because of covers…" have nothing to do with the reality of self-publishing. It’s extremely unlikely a first time author with a single book for sale will sell ANY books (other to than to friends and family) or sell enough on a regular basis for there to be any discussion of how a 10% increase will be paid for. 50 real sales per book over years would be rare for most self-publishers.

Yes, covers are important, but far more important is the size of an authors social platform, the genre the author is writing in, the quality of the writer’s work and, most importantly, how regularly the writer can put out new books.

I’ve bought and paid for very nice looking professional covers (because I could afford it). My sales were never greater than with personally designed covers, and possibly even worse. My best selling book has a crude, but cute self-designed cover. But since my writing is off genre, sales generally only come from my social media efforts. (And I know many other writers who bought beautiful covers for off market books and never sold anything close to enough to justify the cost. Even writers who spend a lot of money advertising said professional covers.)

There’s nothing more stupid than a writer playing a lot of money they can’t afford for a "professional" cover on a book that isn’t in a genre that has a real market. And there are plenty of examples of writers who write to market and who make their own simple covers and make a lot of money.

Successful self-publishers with a lot of books know what to do about covers, some make their own, some hire professionals. If you’re writing Romance novels, maybe generic professional covers makes sense. If you’re writing historical non-ficiton, probably not. For anyone just starting, it is much better not to spend money you can’t afford and focus on writing as much as possible and building a social platform until you understand what do do about covers. For the average writer just starting out, throwing money to a professional designer won’t get you more sales. And it is almost certain it will not to pay for itself anytime soon.

The best way for a beginning writer to build a platform is to give away books and find readers and hopefully fans. So its hard to justify spending a lot of money on covers for books you’re giving away free. Part of the reason a lot of self-publishers burn out and quit is they listen to the wrong advice and think they can throw money around and get a lot of sales. It’s not that simple. More likely your money will be flushed away.

Of course, if you’re wealthy and you like the idea of a nice cover, great. Go for it. Just don’t buy into the myth that it will “pay for itself.” Simply not true for most writers.

Often said, but worth repeating, that Hugh Howey’s success was built on Wool, a novel he wrote with a crude (frankly ugly) self-designed cover. And despite having plenty of money to spend on professional covers, he often designs them himself for fun.

So thanks Nate for the tips on DYI cover design.

Marion Gropen November 6, 2017 um 2:20 pm

You’re right that most self-publishing authors will never sell more than a couple of dozen copies.

But the math is important for the serious self-publishers, who have a burgeoning career. There have always been some of them, although for a long time most were in non-fiction. Now there are rather a lot of them.

Mackay Bell November 7, 2017 um 5:25 pm

But to become a "serious" self-publisher you need to learn a lot of things, and covers are almost the least of your problems starting out. (Though they are more fun to think about.) You have to learn to write blurbs, how to format the interiors, build an author site, create links to your books, etc. It’s ton to learn.

The danger in throwing money at an expensive cover it that you might spend a lot of money on the wrong book (one without an organic market) or even have a beautiful cover that sells your book to the wrong audience. It takes time to learn who exactly you’re selling to and not all cover designers are going to spend the time to help you figure it out. They’ll sell you something nice looking and more on.

Again, it has a lot to do with how much money you have to spare while you experiment in self-publishing. Everyone is different, but the best advice for most people testing the waters is to keep your expenses as low as possible. There are lots of cheap ways to come up with a decent looking cover. And DYI is one of them.

Jumping into a $1,000 cover for your self-published book will not pay off from a business standpoint for the vast majority of indy authors. And a beginning writer really needs to be careful about who they hire for their covers. Many cover designers simply grab a stock photo and shove some text over it. The end result isn’t always better than a Fiver or DYI cover.

On the other hand, there are some really terrific cover designers out there, who are worth every penny. But better to take your time to really learn your business before going in that direction. And usually better to have several books under your belt before you start throwing money at it.

Marion Gropen November 8, 2017 um 10:43 am

To become a serious self-publisher, you must, yes, learn a lot of things.

When I discuss how to get from starting out to serious, I always, always, always recommend getting a big bunch of books on book publishing, book marketing, book publicity, book design and production, and on and on.

Investing your time in reading about the industry you’re joining, and in learning the bare basics of what pros spend decades picking up — that’s always the first step.

The second step is knowing your market. You absolutely MUST know why books in competition with yours sell well — even when some of them are utter drek by literary standards.

In fact the legendary "dreadful bestseller" is one of the best learning tools available. The fact that almost everything is done badly makes it far easier to pick out what they do really well — and therefore what tend to be necessary minimum components of your own book.

The third step is building your presence in that market — and there are, quite literally, hundreds of effective ways to do that.

THEN, and only then, come further steps. One that is often stunningly useful is to pay someone with successful acquisitions editor experience IN YOUR MARKET SEGMENT to give you an editorial letter on your ms. Ask that they also add something not normally part of it — an estimate of how many copies their old house would have sold if the ms had been on their list. Divide that number by 4 and you have a useful sales number that you **might** reach if you do everything exactly right.

A good cover is one of those "exactly right" things. But if your book is never going to sell thousands of copies, then you shouldn’t spend that money.

It’s all about knowledge and number crunching.

A spreadsheet program is a self-publishing author’s very best friend!

And — nota bene — I work with, and my advise is intended for, only those authors who are selling commercially viable numbers.

They face qualitatively different decisions than the folks selling a few hundred or a couple of thousand copies per title, over the life of title.

Marcelo November 5, 2017 um 5:30 pm

whatta crap cover…hire a designer

Nate Hoffelder November 5, 2017 um 5:40 pm

Pretty much.

I taught myself this skill so I could make placeholder covers. It’s not nearly good enough for paid work.

On the other hand, my covers are still better than some professionally made covers, so I don’t think I did too badly.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) November 5, 2017 um 7:03 pm

Yours are pretty generic, but yes, they are better than a lot of what is out there because you didn’t try to cram a bunch of photos all on one cover and slap an odd-colored font on it (red or yellow usually). Sometimes plain at least doesn’t scream "amateur."
You can buy really great covers from designers for 100 to 500 if you are willing to look around long enough. Or you can do your own. In both cases, you don’t have to be married to the cover. When I did Under Witch Moon (that was done by a pro, not me) it was suitably in vogue–these days for UF, it needs a female on the front with a glowing object in her hands. Under Witch Aura was done by a different pro and by that time, the whole "bad-ass female" on the front was becoming quite popular. So be prepared to change styles to look relevant. Some fantasy covers will always remain relevant, but as an indie, you probably don’t want to spend 1500 just to get one of those timeless covers. There’s plenty of things you can do with a few stock photos of a sword/castle/unicorn/whatever theme.

Fonts are another whole design aspect, but thankfully, there are a lot of font sites now (I just did a post on a great set of fonts for 9 dollars! NINE dollars for several vintage fonts.) That same site runs bundles all the time. When I started out, a great font cost 100 plus. Now I can buy fonts for a dollar. I think I paid 15 for the font on Fairy Bite–I LOVE that font. (You can also see that I’m testing a new font for Executive Lunch–it differs from the rest of series–Executive Retention has a completely different font). Like I said–you don’t have to marry a font or a cover. You can change as you learn and grow.

Marion Gropen November 6, 2017 um 2:22 pm

If you want serious sales, your books are not competing only with those from other self-publishers, but with all of the books out there. Cover images are part of how you compete.

Crassus November 6, 2017 um 3:47 am

Many of the best covers come from Fiverr… a handful of designers there have done thousands (feedback on the site) and their portfolios are displayed on their profiles… Some utterly breathtaking work for less than a tenner and finished within three days. Cannot believe someone would pay $1500 for a cover, with so many other options available simply from searching 'book covers' on Google.

Nate Hoffelder November 6, 2017 um 10:13 am

I don’t know that I would call them the "best" covers, but Fiverr is an option, yes.

The problem with Fiverr, though, is that the freelancer is charging so little that they need to make it up in volume. They’re not going to put the same effort into a $25 cover that a designer would put into a $1000 cover.

I have gotten good work from Fiverr but it also took lot more work on my part just to make sure that the cover looked good. It is a tradeoff.

Michael November 6, 2017 um 8:27 pm

With Fiverr I found a lot of freelancers using CC-licensed stock without disclosure, in many cases even disregarding noncommercial restrictions on various elements. It’s not a problem unique to Fiverr, however. The same issue is rampant on 99Designs. I’d strongly encourage any author hiring any freelancer who uses stock elements of any kind to ask for full provenance information before committing to purchase. If the freelancer says they aren’t using any stock but you suspect they are, do some image search using common keywords to describe the elements and see if they come up. Add words like 'stock' for photos or 'vector' or 'icon' for line work to help your search favor source sites.

Nothing wrong with a cover using Creative Commons stuff as long as you know you are and honor the license.

Even when stock is purchased from large commercial stock sites, it’s important to understand the particulars of the license. Be especially vigilant when commissioning a logo. Very few stock sources allow elements to be used in logos, and absolutely no legitimate ones that I’m aware of allow trademarking designs incorporating their elements, so if someone you hire uses such materials you could be asking for trouble.

Nate Hoffelder November 6, 2017 um 8:47 pm

"With Fiverr I found a lot of freelancers using CC-licensed stock without disclosure, in many cases even disregarding noncommercial restrictions on various elements."

the folks who made the VCD logo (before I fired them) used design elements that were copyrighted and licensed, so I know exactly what you mean.

I source all my photos through legit means, but even though I am careful I still know it is a crap shoot. For all I know the photos were’s legally uploaded.

tired November 6, 2017 um 10:20 am

These look way better than most indie covers. It is better to go simple and understated than to try to pull off and fail something complex.

Nate Hoffelder November 6, 2017 um 12:22 pm


The trick is to know your limits.

Lindsay Buroker November 6, 2017 um 1:03 pm

I would consider something like this for short stories that I’m giving away to my mailing list!

Marion Gropen November 6, 2017 um 2:36 pm

The Fiverr covers are generally template based. The public doesn’t know why they aren’t quite as attracted to them, but they generally aren’t. And the Fiverr designers tend not to know things like which print houses can handle what levels of black, and what proportions are likely to cause print and binding problems on the printed editions — and of course, ebooks that have print editions (even POD) sell more copies as ebooks.

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Harvey November 17, 2017 um 7:07 am

The book cover is the first thing the prospective buyer sees. It is that important. Period.

If you have a mind for design (like having an eye for photography), learn to design your own. If you don’t, pay someone to design one for you.

Don’t automatically assume the more you pay the greater the effort or the better quality the cover (or conversely, the less you pay the lesser the effort or the poorer quality the cover). It just isn’t so, and the assertion is ridiculous.

How much you pay for a book cover does not necessarily equate with quality.

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