Ken's Guide: Indie Publishing on Linux (Cover Design I)

How to create a book cover on linux using open source tools. (Image

Ordinarily, cover design is one of the last steps in book production, but because I happen to be at that exact stage with my second book of short works, The Way Around, I figure it is better to describe the details while they're fresh in my head. Moreover, there is at least one aspect of cover design which should be initiated early --- perhaps even before the book is complete. The time-line depends heavily on how you intend to approach the cover, and we discuss it in more detail below.

As with out discussion of the interior, we assume there will be paperback, hardcover, and Kindle editions of the book. The print editions will be through Ingram-Spark for our purposes. Similar considerations apply when printing via Createspace, but the constraints may vary.

Illustration vs Design

There are two key conceptual components to the cover: illustration and design. In practice, the two may be fully integrated or completely distinct. In simple terms, "illustration" is the imagery on the cover and "design" is the placement of various elements. The illustration may be one large image, several images, a photo, or no image at all --- perhaps just some clever line-work. There is no limit to the clever variation which is possible, though care should be taken not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: selling books.

A note on etiquette: Anyone other than the author involved in the creative aspects of the cover should be acknowledged somewhere. I do this on the copyright page with lines like:

"Cover Illustration by so-and-so"

"Cover Design by so-and-so"

To distinguish the cover itself from the specific elements on it, we'll refer to a "cover image" as any full cover file, such as you'd provide to Amazon or Ingram or other services. The actual imagery will either be referred to as such or as “illustrations.”

Our Goal

Contrary to what one may imagine, a single cover image rarely suffices. Several versions are necessary for different purposes. Let's start by listing the cover images you may need. The exact set will depend on which formats you intend to publish and the details of your marketing For our purposes, we'll assume a paperback, a hardcover with dustjacket, and a kindle edition. For these, we'll need the following files:

1. Paperback cover: A single image file containing the back cover, spine, and front cover unfolded onto one large page. This will be a very high resolution PDF built from an Ingram-provided template.

2. Hardcover dustjacket: Another single image file containing the inside right flap, the back cover, the spine, the front cover, and the inside left flap unfolded into one large page (imagine the dustjacket removed and laid flat). This too is a very high resolution PDF built from an Ingram-provided template.

3. Front cover image: This is necessary for a variety of purposes. You'll need jpg, png, and pdf versions at various resolutions and perhaps aspect ratios. Here are a few examples of uses:

Kindle edition front cover

Amazon listing of book

Ingram listing of book

Kirkus review


Goodreads listing

Amazon "look-inside"

Your own blog/website or anywhere you want to show it

Amazon recommends a 1.6x aspect ratio and 4500 x 2813 resolution. However, the choice is optional and other resolutions are possible. One thing to bear in mind is that various aspect rations may be necessary to generate the thumbnail-sized images which arise in various places. Also, Amazon's recommendation isn't written in stone even for Kindle editions.

It is easy to resize (via high-quality resampling, if necessary), crop, or place an image on a background of a different size using ImageMagick.

4. Back cover image: For some purposes, a separate back cover image is needed. For example, the Kindle edition optionally includes one, as does Amazon Look-Inside. Note that you may need 2 versions. Generally, the front cover will be just like a cut-out from the paperback cover image. However, an ISBN appears on the rear of the paperback cover --- and this is specific to that format. For the Kindle edition, you'll want an rear-cover image with either no ISBN or the appropriate ISBN for the ebook. For the look-inside version, I recommend no ISBN.

Some timeline considerations

This is a good place to make a small digression about time-line. Although the cover may seem like the last stage in book design, having a usable version is critical for many pre-publication tasks. As I learned through bitter experience, lack of planning (or, in my case, bad luck involving the illustrator) can delay the project and throw quite a large wrench in the marketing plan. For most pre-publication purposes, a workable front cover will suffice, however.

To complete the cover, you will need several key items:

1. The ISBN. This is easy enough. If you (or your imprint) own a block — as you should — you can assign one at any time. Although Ingram demands an ISBN to provide a cover template, a fake one will do fine. When you eventually assign an ISBN, just obtain a new template from Ingram and copy the relevant ISBN object. ISBNs are easy and quick to purchase (though annoyingly pricey), so this can be done at any time. That said, having an ISBN on hand is very useful for many other purposes --- and I recommend assigning one early in the game.

2. Title. It's surprising how often this can change up until the last minute. You can do most of the work without it --- but be prepared for some serious adaptation if it becomes a lot longer or shorter! Also, the title design can be tweaked until the last minute.

3. Author Name. You probably know your own name, but you need to choose a presentation. First Last, First M Last, First Middle Last, F.M. Last, a single super-hip letter, the being formerly known as …

4. Reviews/Bio. If you want a review/bio on the cover, you’ll need it. A placeholder can be setup, but without the actual text it will be difficult to get things just right. Personally, I don't recommend a cover-review or bio, for reasons I explain below. Be aware that reviews take time. Services like Kirkus require a couple of months, and individual bloggers/authors may take a lot longer.

5. Trim size. You need to pick the physical dimensions of the book. Is it 5x8, 6x9, etc? While it's relatively easy to adapt most interiors to differing dimensions, cover illustrations are a different matter --- especially if they have been created with one aspect-ratio in mind.

6. Page count. In my experience, this is the biggest nuisance. It's very common for the page count to change late in the game. This can happen for many reasons --- editing, the edition of back-matter, etc. Small changes like the addition or removal of a couple of pages are easier to manage but still may require some rejiggering. Large changes may require substantial reworking of the cover. Why is Page Count relevant? After all, only the trim size should matter for the cover illustrations, right? The problem is the spine width. Even if there isn't one big illustration which wraps around the cover, the placement of various elements needs to be adjusted. At the very least, a new template must be downloaded from Ingram --- and the elements adjusted onto it.

One key piece of advice: if you're hiring an illustrator and/or designer, do so very early in the game. They can require a couple of months (or more), and this can hold up the cover, which then cascades into a slew of other delays and problems. The pre-publication dance is a delicate one, and it's best to plan ahead if at all possible. Pick an aspect ratio, lock down a page-count as best possible, and get the imagery done. You (or the illustrator) can tweak it later.

For our purposes, I will assume you are doing what I did for my first 2 books: hiring an artist to produce physical pieces of art (along with scans of them), and then doing the cover design separately. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. For The Man Who Stands in Line, I hired a separate designer to create a cover design using the artwork. With The Way Around, I'm doing the cover design myself, using the artwork I commissioned. A more common approach is to have a single illustrator/designer do both digitally.

Some General Suggestions

It is important to understand that POD (print-on-demand) is not exact. Neither is offset printing or any other technology — but in the case of POD the variations occur at the level of individual orders, while with traditional publishing technologies the variations are by batch. Variations are a known and accepted part of the industry, and the very language of typesetting (trims and bleeds) incorporates it. The fact is that books are printed from large sheets which must be cut. Both the printing and cutting steps may introduce slight variations. It is best to be prepared for these and plan the design with them in mind to avoid disappointment and frustration. This isn't to say you can't have a beautiful cover. You just need to work within the practical constraints of the system.

The following are some things to keep in mind. I prefer large illustrations which include both covers and the spine, but the same considerations apply if you have separate front and/or back cover illustrations.

1. There is variation in the centering of the front cover. This generally isn't noticeable unless the cover image or text is framed in some manner (even a clear boundary will do) near the edge of the cover. Avoid frames or other elements whose exact placement is essential for the cover to look good. Big wrap-around illustrations can avoid this, as long as there is no critical element which has to align against one of the cover edges. In general, a lack of symmetry is preferable to a slight misalignment. Small variations tell us that a mistake was made, large ones are imputed to design. To avoid compromising the aesthetics it is best to place any border elements away from edges — use a smaller bounding box or decorative element — or avoid them altogether.

2. The most noticeable variation, in my experience, is with spine text. Createspace doesn't even allow spine text for books 130 pages or shorter. Ingram requires only 48 pages. But the concerns are the same. Vertical variations in placement will be less noticeable than horizontal ones — as long as nothing is too close to the top or bottom. Left-right placement can be an issue, though --- so make the spine text small, with good margins on both sides. Also, make sure it isn't framed in any way. Otherwise the frame could look off-center or push onto the cover. If you follow these tips, spine text should come out quite well.

3. If a large image is used (wrapping around both covers and spine), it may be necessary to fade it along the spine to make the spine-text visible. This has been the case with both of my books so far. Spine text, in my opinion is very important. It should either be a very bright or very dark color (I use black or white) depending on the underlying image --- but it all should one color. It may be tempting to simply block out the image on the spine and simply have text — but that won’t work well. The blackened (or whitened) block constitutes a rectangle and may be noticeably displaced, sliding onto or off the spine. My approach is to create a layer with such a rectangle, and make it partly transparent. Then I blur it into the surrounding image to remove any noticeable edge. This sounds complicated, but actually is quite straightforward.

The Printer

As will be discussed elsewhere, there currently are two major options for POD printing: Createspace (Amazon), and Ingram-Spark (Lightning Source). I much prefer Ingram-Spark for several reasons. In particular, I've found their quality to be better than Createspace’s and they also are more flexible in terms of printing spine text on thinner books. I've printed one book of my own and have been involved in the printing of two others with Ingram --- and they've all come out beautiful. This said, printers change and quality can vary --- so it's best to do some research. There is no meaningful disadvantage to selling an Ingram book through Amazon.

Ingram-Spark is the retail facing end of Lighting Source, a major printer for lots of traditional presses. This has upsides. For example, by printing through Ingram your book automatically is available through to most physical bookstores via their distribution network. However, one big downside to dealing with Ingram is that Lightning Source is a big clunky company used to dealing with dedicated publishing personnel and large orders via invoice, etc. They produce a great product but you'll have to deal with a very primitive process. On the other hand, Amazon's Kindle-production process is even more frustrating despite being more modern.

Until recently, Ingram required PDF/X files. These are PDF files with certain guarantees built in --- so most PDFs wouldn't qualify. This wasn't a major issue (Ghostscript could generate them easily enough), but something to be cognizant of. Now they seem to accept regular PDFs. There are 2 key things they need in their PDFs, though:

  1. Embedded fonts. This can be checked with the command line program pdffonts, and is more of a concern for the interior than the cover. This said, it must be true for both.

  2. CMYK vs RGB. If the interior is color then this applies to that as well as the cover. CMYK is the color scheme used for printing, while RGB is that for on-screen viewing. Each is based on the native process involved in the respective technology. Many PDFs produced default to RGB. We will need to make sure that all print-ready PDFs are CMYK. It is easy to do, but something we must keep in mind.

Expect the back-and-forth with Ingram to take at least a couple of weeks and cost a few bucks. In my experience, they haven't been jerks about the "file change" fees when there are serious problems, but you still need to buy copies of your book to inspect them. There's no getting around this. You'll buy these at cost, but the shipping can be fractionally large for small orders.

Basically, you'll submit the interior and cover files and they'll tell you (after a day or two) whether they've been accepted by their automated system. Then you'll be able to inspect galleys online --- but that won't tell you anything about what the book actually will look like (at least color-wise). The only way to find that out is to order a copy. Order a couple, make any changes, then repeat the process, etc. If you screwed up or decided to change some things on your own, you may have to pay the $25 file-change fee. If it was their fault (some awful misalignment, etc) they won't charge you. Be firm and be insistent. Often, their people will claim they didn't screw up when they did. If you’ve followed my advice above, once everything looks good, future printing should be (more or less) spot on. Most issues arise up-front with how they process the files, map colors, etc. What you're dealing with is exactly what every publisher has had to deal with for every book. Be polite, but be firm (if you're in the right).

Ingram offers a few useful tools and guides.

1. Ingram Cover Template: If you don't have an ISBN, make one up in order to get a template of the right dimensions until the book is printed. It's just used for barcode generation for the template, so using one from an existing book will work too. Of course, it's best to have your own ISBN ready — and certainly don't forget to replace the placeholder with a real one when the time comes!

2. Ingram Spine Width Estimator: This is a helpful tool, but I suggest using the cover template instead.

3. File Creation Guide: This describes their guidelines for both the interior and cover. The cover part won't be necessary since we're using their template --- but it can be enlightening to read it.

4. They also have a helpful checklist with some handy tips.

The Tools

Now let's examine the tools we will use for the cover design. These are (largely) independent of those used for interior layout. Not all are essential, but I'll include the ones I find handy.

Cover design on Linux poses a unique challenge. Emacs and Vim (and others) long ago solved the problem of efficiently writing on Linux. TeX (and LaTeX) long ago solved the typesetting problem. But illustration and cover design are a little less polished on Linux. Perfectly serviceable, but not quite as polished as some commercial tools. This isn't surprising. If there's anywhere a windowing OS and mouse-based approach can shine it's in design and illustration. Fortunately, we need only wade into those waters to create a gorgeous cover. For that, the tools at hand are more than enough.

For the most part, illustration and design typically are done by trendy people in cafes working on Macs and using very expensive Adobe or Apple software. There are many reasons not to do that, besides expense. Some of these tools (cough Adobe cough) are more invasive than malware and can destabilize even a solid Linux system. The bad news is that there are no free Linux tools fully equivalent to these. The good news is that, as far as cover design goes, it doesn't matter. There are perfectly suitable tools which can solve our particular problem quite well.

I suggest installing the following:

1. imagemagick: Great for command-line image conversions, cropping, negation, etc. The two utilities we will make the most use of are "convert" and "identify".

2. eog: A good lightweight image viewer. Any such viewer will do.

3. gimp: This is the freeware alternative to Adobe Photoshop. I won't get into whether it is comparable, but for our purposes it is more than sufficient. We'll just use it to crop large images. Imagemagick can crop just as effectively, but for this one step in our process visual feedback will prove useful.

4. inkscape: This loosely can be described as the open-source answer to Adobe Illustrator. It's a vector drawing program, but also has layout capabilities, and is more than capable of what we need to accomplish.

5. scribus: Although I'm not currently using this for cover design, it too is capable of serving our purpose. Some may find it preferable. Scribus loosely can be described as the free alternative to Indesign.

6. pdffonts: I mentioned this above as a means to determine whether fonts are embedded. It is part of the poppler-tools package.

I should point out that although gimp, inkscape, and scribus are very powerful in their own right, they are not necessarily compatible with their Adobe counterparts. In particular, there is no support for Indesign files (this article hints at a workaround, though: This isn't an issue for us, because Ingram offers its templates as PDFs as well. However, if an illustrator/designer is employed it may be important to make sure they provide files in some compatible format to allow for future tweaking on your end.

In truth, any of the three — gimp, inkscape, or scribus — can fully serve for our cover design. I currently use inkscape, but all three easily can accomplish the rudimentary tasks we require. Which to use is a matter of personal taste.

Next Week

So far we’ve had lots of blather about tools and preferences and guidelines without really getting our hands dirty. That’s about to change. I suggest that this week you install the recommended programs and play around a little with them. Next week we will begin working on an actual cover.