Cover images are one of the weak spots of self-published ebooks. Indie authors are encouraged to obtain professionally designed covers to make their books look professionally published. The trouble is, good designs aren’t cheap. You can settle for cheaper images that may look cheap. Or you can buy graphic design software and learn how to use it. Or you can experiment with Canva.
I tried Canva when I decided to publish three short fiction pieces related to my main book series. I did not think they warranted the cost of professionally designed covers. Basic Canva is free, so I decided to see what I could do with it. Good, fast, cheap — pick two.
The basic tools are quite easy to use. There is a database of photos, images, shapes, lines and text aids, as well as a catalogue of pre-configured layouts you can modify. I didn’t bother with those; I had my own ideas about what elements I wanted in my images, so I stuck with assembling them myself.
So, keeping in mind that I am the rankest of amateurs, here is how you can design an ebook cover image with Canva.
- Think simple and abstract. Don’t try to reproduce a scene or paste together a whole lot of images representing your characters or plot elements. Boil it down to a single image, colour palette and layout.
- Select a background. Backgrounds provide colour and texture. Texture is a subtle but crucial element that makes the difference between amateurish and polished effects. Canva has a huge repertoire of background images, ranging from stormy skies to lemon slices or coffee beans to grungy paper, rusty metal or concrete wall closeups. The neat thing is you can change your background at any time, but the other elements and colours you use have to play well with the background, so it’s best to settle on one early in the process.
- Practice working with layered images. Learn which ones allow changes to colours and degree of transparency and apply them before or after the ones you can’t modify that way, depending on the effects you want to achieve. Using transparency and layering is another key factor in designing effective images. Be aware that the more interrelated layers you pile up, the messier things get if you want to make changes. On the other hand, it’s not nearly as messy as working with real paint, glue, etc.
- Don’t underestimate the Lines and Shapes (in the Elements section). They can be used to create quite complex, textured effects by rotating, layering and using transparency. And most of them are free.
- Text is best added after the pictorial elements are complete. It’s not usually a good idea to apply layers over text (unless you’re doing it to create an effect). If you decide to remove a layer or two from under text and replace them with something new, the something new will overlay your title.
- There is a wealth of free images (especially the Lines and Shapes), but the better backgrounds cost $1 for each use. Note: you pay for the non-free elements only when you are finished with an image and want to download it. The Canva watermark is removed at that point. You have 24 hours to make any changes to that image; if you make a change after that, you have to pay for the non-free elements again when you download the altered image.
- You can find images and effects by plugging words into a search box. Each element is tagged, some with dozens of terms, so you never know what a search will retrieve. Example: search on “blob” to find amorphous shapes that can be used for texturing and splatter/scribble effects. Each element has a little “i” you can click on to find out what it is and what keywords have been applied to it.
- You can upload your own photos or images you obtain elsewhere and use them in your designs. The usual copyright considerations apply, of course. The image elements you pay for are licensed to you by Canva.
- The Help function is pretty helpful.
- You can take mini-courses focussing on different aspects of designing with Canva. Have I done that? Only the first couple, but it’s good to know they’re there.
I designed the featured image for this post in a couple of hours, using a $1 background, a “line” which is actually a very useful twisty shape, a “blob,” a fancy circular shape, and two text fonts. Total cost: $1. (The Mercury symbol in the middle is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons that I added to my uploads on Canva).
In the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a “cover reveal” of the images I designed for the three stories I plan to publish in October.
A final word of warning — learning how to use Canva and fiddling around with it can eat up hours. And not because it’s hard or frustrating, but just because there are so many things to fiddle with, and it’s fun.