Free Software for Indie Authors: Cover Creation (e-book and print)

Last week, I talked about free software I’ve used for writing fiction, especially novels. Today, I’m going to discuss free graphics programs I’ve used for things like covers and such.

Really, there’s only three I’ve enjoyed enough to recommend for cover and website use. Those three are Paint.NET, GIMP and Inkscape. I’m also going to briefly mention an option I’ve used for preparing print covers, but please keep in mind that I don’t have nearly as much experience with that portion as getting an e-book cover together.

Please be aware that there’s a number of tutorials out there for all these. A little searching should answer whatever questions you might have on how to get a particular effect.


When I first tried my hand at making covers, I knew I couldn’t get away with basic photo processing software. Okay, maybe if it were a literary or mainstream book, it might work, but I tend to write fantasy. The requirements for branded covers in that genre are a bit more stringent.

I originally downloaded GIMP. I took one look and ran as fast as I could from it (more on that in a minute). Paint.NET turned out to be perfect for someone who had never used a photo manipulation program before but who needed something with more power than the average photo touch-up software.


  • Easy to use interface.
  • Pretty intuitive.
  • Nice filters.
  • Active community so it’s easy to find support and filter extensions.


  • There’s a limit to what you can do in manipulating a photo.
  • Unless you have a pre-made painting/illustration that’s mostly the way you want it, it’s difficult to get a professional grade product. My memory tells me I had more hoops to jump through with Paint.NET than with GIMP.
  • It does not support CMYK (though I’ve heard there are plugins you can get for that).

Paint.NET works best, I think, for people who aren’t as familiar with photo manipulation, people who want something more intuitive, and/or those who want a tool that will quickly come up with some neat effects for a header or avatar.


Now, as I mentioned earlier, I tried GIMP first. And ran.

Looking back, I can see why. Paint.NET is one window. In the version of GIMP I first downloaded (2.4?), I had three floating windows.

Yikes. Very intimidating.

And then I tried using it…and it got worse.

After some time using Paint.NET, I decided to try GIMP again. I’ve forgotten what I wanted to do, but I do remember that it involved a heck of a lot more work in Paint.NET and not so much in GIMP.

I’ve never looked back.

This is my go-to now for all photo manipulation.


  • Powerful.
  • Similar to Photoshop.
  • Very nice filters.
  • Easier to get close to professional-grade product using this program.
  • I’ve seen some people on DeviantArt make some amazing digital art with GIMP, using the eraser to emulate a pressure-senstive drawing tool.


  • Intimidating.
  • Not very user-friendly (though I’ve used worse).
  • If you’re stuck and need help, do NOT go to the main website for instructions. Maybe it’ll work for you, but for me, it was an exercise in frustration. The best tutorials are on YouTube by actual users. I strongly recommend watching them if you want to really get the most out of this program.
  • If you’re on Windows 8, there is currently no way to convert a picture from RGB to CMYK inside GIMP. Heck, I’m not even sure if it’s possible to use some of the plug-ins I’ve seen with 2.8. But I’ve heard that CMYK conversion is being added to 2.9 or 2.10, so I’m hoping that rolls out soon.

Before I go on…

A quick word about CMYK and why you should care about it when converting pictures to it for print.

If you’re an indie author who wants to diversify, chances are good you’ll also see the need for a print edition. It may not occur to you now, given how easy (ha!) creating an e-book is, but there will be fans out there who do not want an e-book version. They want print and only print. Not to mention fans who love your work who want a copy they can own and pass around to friends without worrying about device compatibility.

This means you’ll want to get a print version put together.

This also means the cover you made for your e-book, especially if it involves the color green, will need to be tweaked for CMYK (i.e. the colors used for printing on paper: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

If you have any interest in making your own print cover for your book, I strongly recommend reading up on CMYK. Knowing the basics of this process is very important. If you don’t do a test run to make sure your colors are the way you want them to be (or at least somewhat close) you might end up with that beautiful cream-colored background and green images that look like they were coated in mud.

This is exactly what happened to me when I got a proof copy of one of my books. In fact, the trouble I had with getting that bright, clear green I soooooo wanted to have is what started me on this journey in the first place.

So, a quick word about what I learned. Your print cover is going to vary depending on many factors. In fact, there are so many factors that even if you ordered a proof copy and it looked just like you wanted, if another printer handles the order, it could still turn out different.

Here are the things I’ve learned to try to keep that risk at least somewhat mitigated. Please be aware that I’m still new to this myself.

  • Use a program that allows you to add color profiles and tweak the colors for your cover. The two I’m about to mention have that capability, though I’m more familiar with one than the other.
  • Buy a book that gives you CMYK color combinations. You don’t want to use one that’s online because the color isn’t going to look exactly the same on your monitor.
  • Once you’ve gotten it close to what you want, print out a test copy at home if you have a CMYK printer. I’ve also found that some print places will print out a single copy for less than a dollar if you need to use an industrial grade printer or just for the heck of it.
  • When you think you’ve gotten it the way you want, upload it to the print distributor of your choice and order a proof copy.

Following this should give you a decent product and help you avoid having muddy brown instead of green on your cover. Hopefully.

Now, on to the other programs.


This is such an amazing program. I’ve used Inkscape for headers, logos, the occasional book cover, icons, symbols, and even illustrations (i.e. the clock face on Flicker of Time’s cover). There are even some who’ve done photo-realistic images. I’m not that far ahead, but I hope to get there someday.


  • Once you understand that everything in Inkscape is a path or an object, it’s actually pretty intuitive.
  • Inkscape is a vector graphics program which means you can make your image bigger or smaller without turning it into a pixelated mess. Perfect for the continual resizing a logo might require.
  • Intuitive manual kerning for text (though this has some dangers when saved to pdf format).
  • I’ve found there are some effects that are easier to achieve in Inkscape, such as making your text look as if it were a paper cut-out and you were looking through to a different colored background.
  • It’s pretty easy to tweak CMYK values in Inkscape.


  • Very intimidating when I first tried it.
  • The concept of everything you create being either an object or a path might be difficult for some people to really grasp.
  • Layers are a bit trickier to navigate in Inkscape than in GIMP.
  • I’ve tried building a cover, exporting it to pdf inside Inkscape, then opening it as a pdf. It does not look good at all. However, if I took the same image, exported it to a form Scribus could handle, then exported it as a pdf from Scribus, that gave me the best looking pdf of all the methods I’ve used.

Please note: if you want to take something you’ve built in Inkscape and put it into GIMP, the best way to do that is to save your Inkscape image as a pdf and import it into GIMP. Please be aware that the moment you turn it into something GIMP can play with (called rasterizing) you won’t be able to resize it without risking pixelating it.


This is only going to be a brief note since I want to talk a little more about this in a later post. For now, let me point out the following about Scribus and cover creation.


  • Built for color management for print.
  • It’s possible to add your own colors to its repertoire.
  • Best pdf export I’ve seen, except for Apache OpenOffice/LibreOffice.


  • If you’re using gradients/blends, it’s better to use a program like Inkscape or GIMP and then import what you’ve created into Scribus.
  • It can’t flatten transparency.
  • Very, very, very, very, very non-intuitive. In fact, of all the programs I’ve used so far, Scribus is the least user-friendly of them all. More on that when I talk about Scribus at length for book interiors.

Finally, an odd sort of program to stick into a discussion of cover creation, until you realize what it can do.


This is possibly the best gift Providence ever gave to cover creators. It is also the most maddening, exhilarating, mind-blowing program I’ve ever seen that is also completely and totally free.

In the sense that you don’t have to pay anything in order to use it.

Blender is a 3d graphics program. It’s what I used when I needed to create a wand for Lady Fair’s cover and could NOT find anything close except for one image…and I realized it was better to make my own than wait for someone to get back with me to give me permission.

It’s both very easy to use and very difficult. It’s concepts are simple, but the application takes a bit of practice.

Those of you who need spaceships, aliens, specific scenes, landscapes, planets, and so on, can use this to create things specific to your cover. It will take a bit of processing power (something I hope to acquire soon), time to learn how to use it, plus I’m not so sure you’ll want to use it to create people for your cover, but who knows? I do know I haven’t used it nearly enough and I can’t wait until I’m able to use it more (dang processor).

So that’s it for things I’ve used to create my covers. And now I’m off to practice drawing with an ordinary pencil and some paper. Next week, I’ll cover formatting for e-books, something that has been weighing on my mind for a while.

What’s your favorite program(s) for playing with photos or creating art? For indie authors, what do you use to make book covers?

Addendum: I wasn’t going to mention this, since I haven’t (yet) gotten this to work on my computer, but for those who like playing around with fonts, there’s an open source program called Font Forge. Though fonts can be tweaked and changed in Inkscape, I’ve heard enough good things about Font Forge to at least give it a mention here as a possibility. That’s all. See you next week.



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