How to create a professional-looking book cover with the GIMP

How to create a professional-looking book cover with the GIMP

Self-publishing books is hugely popular nowadays. In an article on self-publishing, WikiHow advises hiring a designer to create a professional-looking cover for your book. Of course you can go that route, but you may be able to accomplish just as good a job by using one of the most powerful image editing tools available – the GNU Image Manipulation Program, better known as the GIMP.

I have personally authored and created covers for 15 books, and I create book covers for other authors of both fiction and non-fiction whose works can be found online not only at self-publishing sites such as CreateSpace and Smashwords, but also at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The GIMP lets me (and you) create beautiful covers without having to foot the cost of a proprietary alternative such as Adobe Photoshop. It includes everything you need for flexible image creation; all you need to do is add a bit of imagination.

The GIMP is available not only for Linux but also for Mac OS and Windows. I'll talk about using it under CentOS. If you haven't already installed the GIMP, make sure, when doing so, that you include all of its extra brushes, as well as the gimp-plugin-registry, a repository of optional extensions. You also want to make sure that you have a good collection of fonts in your ~/.fonts directory. Finally, you can download more brushes to use for textures and other effects from Deviant Art. With the GIMP closed, unpack those files and move the contents to /usr/share/gimp/2.0/brushes.

Initial cover creation

One thing you must understand in order to create a successful cover is that every genre of book goes through phases of popular looks. For example: Fantasy, romance, and erotica almost always require a female or couple on the cover with very soft edges and a lot of glowing effects. Science fiction tends to lean toward epic landscapes with overlaid images of faces or creatures. Granted, you can always break these "rules," but you have to at least have a feel for what your genre tends to lean toward.

I'll illustrate this process of creating a book cover with the cover I created for my Steampunk novel, Klockwerk Kabaret. I'll show how you can overlay a portion of an image (say a person) onto a background, then glow that image, and finally add text. Once you get the hang of it (and know which tools to use) you'll be creating multi-layered, beautiful covers like a pro.

Start with a canvas with a 1:1.6 ratio, and use RGB color mode. The best size for an Amazon Kindle cover is 1563 pixels wide by 2500 tall. To create a new image in the GIMP, click File -> New, set the proper width and height in the resulting window (Figure 1), and click OK.

gimp 1 resized 600 Creating a new image in the GIMP begins with the image size.

Now you have an empty canvas to start working with. As you work, make sure you save regularly in the GIMP's native XCF format so that you retain all layers.

Opening and resizing your background

When looking to create a new cover, the first thing I do is hop over to a stock image site (such as Dreamstime) and find an appropriate image to use as a background. To resize the image for your cover, open it in the GIMP, right-click the image, and select Image -> Scale Image. If your background image isn't in the proper ratio, you'll need to first click the chainlink to unlink the width from the height (Figure 2). Enter the proper size for both width and height and click Scale. By default, the GIMP will use pixels as the measurement. If you need to go by a different scale (percent, inches, millimeters, points, or picas, for instance) you can select it from the px drop-down.

gimp 2 resized 600 Resizing your background image to be used for the book cover

Adding a layer

Now that you have a background, you can use layers to add images on top of images. Layers let you manipulate individual images without affecting other images. Nearly every book cover uses multiple layers.

To create a new layer, right-click on your image and select Layer -> New Layer, or click the New Layer button in the Layer toolbox. A new dialogue box will appear where you can give the layer a name and select the size and the Layer Fill Type. The default options should work fine.

Pasting an image

Now you can copy and paste an image into the new layer. Open the new image – in our case a woman's portrait – and click Edit -> Copy. Go back to the background image, click on the new layer in the Layer toolbox, and then click Edit -> Paste. (You can also use the keyboard shortcuts Ctrl-c and Ctrl-v to copy and paste.) The new layer will partially obstruct the background layer (Figure 3).

gimp 3 resized 600 A new layer ready to edit

You'll want to erase some of that top layer in order to display only the portion you want. Select the Erasure tool in the main toolbox – but you probably won't want to work with the default settings, because you need to make sure you're erasing with soft edges to avoid pixelation and harsh lines. Using a softer-edged brush also helps to give the new layer a soft, glowy feel. In the Erasure tool settings (Figure 4), make sure to select, under Brush, 2. Hardness 050. Fit the size of the brush to the image, because the size of the tool helps to dictate the softness of the edges erased – the larger the erasure, the softer the lines. This can cause problems when you have to erase around small details, but at that point you can adjust the opacity of the brush by lowering the Opacity level in the tool options tab in the main toolbox to make up for the size.

gimp 4
Erasure tool settings for fine-tuning

Erasing around the image you want to retain is a tedious task. Here's an important tip: Do the erasing in small sections. If you erase larger sections at once, and you need to undo a piece, you'll wind up undoing a lot more work than necessary. Smaller sections means more control over undo.

Once you've erased the portions you do not want visible, you can do something really impressive to the layer. Say you want the bottom portion of the new layer to fade out, to softly reveal a portion of the underlying background. You can do that with layer masks and gradients. Now, before you throw your arms up, assuming layer masking is too challenging, let me reassure you – what we are going to do is simple. To fade out the bottom portion of the new layer:

    1. Right-click the layer (in the Layer toolbox) to be faded.


  • Select Add Layer Mask...



  • In the resulting window, make sure White (full opacity) is selected and click Add.



  • In the main toolbox, select the Blend tool (small square with black to white gradient).



  • Make sure Black is chosen as the foreground color and White as the background color in the color picker of the main toolbox.



  • Click and hold the left mouse button at the bottom of the image and drag the cursor about an inch upward.



The bottom portion of the layer should now be faded (Figure 5). If you want more fade, simply redo the action (there's no need to undo the original blend), making sure to drag the cursor higher. Once you're happy with the fade, right-click the layer again (in the Layer toolbox) and select Apply Layer Mask. The fade is complete.

gimp 5 resized 600 A nicely faded layer using Layer Masks and the Blend tool

Adding a glow

Now we want to add a glow around our image, but the GIMP doesn't have a Photoshop-like "outer glow" plugin. Instead, we'll use the Drop Shadow tool to create the glow:

    1. Select the layer to have the outer glow.


  • Right-click on the image and select Filters -> Light And Shadow -> Drop Shadow.



  • In the resulting window, click on the Color button and select the color for the glow effect.



  • Uncheck the box for Allow Resizing.



  • Click OK.



At this point, you may or may not see much glow. If you need more glow, select the drop shadow in the Layer toolbox and click the duplicate button. This will duplicate the drop shadow layer, so you don't have to go through the process of creating another drop shadow. If you want the glow to encompass the entire image, you need to duplicate the drop shadow layer and then move the drop shadows around. To do that, click the Move tool from the toolbox, select one of the drop shadow layers, click on the drop shadow, and move it until the glow outlines the entire image (Figure 6).

gimp 6 resized 600 A drop shadow glow surrounding the image

You can now add text and remaining elements for the completed book cover. Selected the text tool, then select your font and font color before you start typing. Place the cursor where you want the text to be, click, and start typing.

You'll probably find that the font size is way too small. Enlarge the font size from the font settings in the main toolbar until the font is approximately the size you need. You can then relocate the text. Select the move tool, click on the the text, and move it to where it needs to be. You can add drop shadows to the text to give it more depth in the same manner you added the drop shadow for the glow effect.

When you're happy with your cover image you can export it from the GIMP's native format into a format online retailers will accept – most often, JPG. To do this, click File -> Export As and then make sure to add the .jpg extension to the file name. Your book cover should then be ready to use (Figure 7). Congratulations – you're one step closer to a best-seller.

gimp 7 resized 600 The final cover for Klockwerk Kabaret, done completely with the GIMP

The GIMP is an incredibly powerful tool. With a bit of practice you can create astonishingly professional-looking book covers in no time.

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