Designing book covers in half an hour

January 18, 2013

Matt and I have been sniggering at the Lousy Book Covers tumblr (slogan: “Just because you CAN design your own book cover doesn’t mean you SHOULD”). A couple of evenings ago, he wondered whether we could do better. And whether we could do it in half an hour.

In no time at all, a competition was born. Here are the rules:

  1. You have 30 minutes total to create the cover from scratch.
  2. When the time starts, generate a batch of six random titles at the Random Book Title Generator.
  3. Choose the one you like most, and make a cover for it.
  4. Use your own name as the author.
  5. You may only use copyright-free or CC BY materials, and be prepared to demonstrate that you have done so.
  6. The cover must be in the correct aspect ratio for a “B Format” paperback (129 x 198 mm) and in a decent resolution — at least one megapixel.

There are probably better random title generators out there, but we just used the first one we found. It gave Matt these six titles: Silken Magic, The Missing Bridges, Theft of Abyss, The Sorceror’s Slaves, The Year of the Beginning and Cloud in the Petals. And it gave me these: Rough Eyes, The Trembling Spirits, Snow of Eye, The Wind’s Flames, The Names of the Name, and Mists in the Servants. Obviously some of these are completely unusable (“The Mists in the Servants” — I mean to say, what?) but you’re pretty much always going to get at least one that works.

Anyway, here’s what Matt came up with, interpreting his chosen title as non-fiction and sneakily inserting a subtitle:

Year of the Beginning

Pretty sweet work, I think — although Matt was unhappy with the vertical spacing, feeling that the author name was too close to the bottom. The baby-turtle image is by John Winkelman, from flickr, and it’s CC BY. (Matt cut the hand and turtle out so that he could drop the contrast a bit on the background, which accounts for the obvious ‘shoppage around the fingers visible at full res.)

I interpreted mine as a Fantasy novel, and I guess I sort of added a subtitle too, in a way. Here it is:


The background image is cropped and modified from Desert sky scene at dusk by Steve Hillebrand of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is public domain. The parts that work well, I think, are the different capitalisation, size and colour of the “the”s and “NAME”s; and the translucent star underneath the title. If I could do it again, I would swap the two dark reds, but there you go.

I ran out of time to do the author name nicely, so it’s pretty blunt. If I’d had more time, I would also have put a small but clear single artifact in the middle of the cover — perhaps a sword or lantern, or maybe something a bit more left-field like a scroll or a leather water bottle. But since I ran out of time, this is how it stays.

(One important lesson I learned is that I need to figure out how the get GIMP on my Mac to recognise more fonts — it has a tiny selection, and all the sans-serif ones look like they’re straight out of a PowerPoint presentation.)

So now we challenge you: what can you come up with thirty minutes total? If you have a go at this challenge, upload your images and post a link in a comment. (You can upload easily at sites like if you don’t have an account on flickr or similar.)

10 Responses to “Designing book covers in half an hour”

  1. Reblogged this on LemonChronicle and commented:
    Everyone has a loss of words or needs to unclog the creative pipeline. I found this blog to be the perfect rooter.

  2. Cool! Someone should steal the code and build an option with open licensing choices – allow people to use the CC license or their choice, or create their own.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Heather, what code?

  4. I’m not joining in with this, because I designed the covers for all seven of my books except the Beach Boys one, all of them were using either PD images or (in the case of the Monkees one) one I drew myself, and none took more than half an hour, so I’ve pretty much conclusively proved to my own satisfaction it can be done to a *much* better level than the horrible examples on that Tumblr. (And if you absolutely can’t find a public domain image you can use, then it’s possible to buy good stock images for less than a fiver. I’ve done this for a couple of my ebook-only short stories). The books on that tumblr are the kind of thing that give self-publishing a bad name, and make my blood boil.

    I did, though, want to thank you for the link to the book title generator. I’ve been thinking for a while of writing a whole load of short stories to pre-generated titles (something the writer Dean Wesley Smith suggests as a good exercise) and that will help me enormously.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    For anyone who’s interested to see Andrew’s half-hour book covers, they’re on Amazon. Mostly rather good, I think, and the Monkees hair silhouettes are a really clever approach. (The habitual hat is what makes it work.)

    Unfortunately, the book-title generator is not very good — it quickly starts repeating if not whole titles then at least words, and nearly everything sounds like swords-and-sorcery SF&F. But no doubt there are better ones out there.

  6. Thanks — I’d point out that the one for Bubble Universe is rubbish, but it’s just for a short story so I didn’t bother fixing it. Also that link doesn’t show the proper covers for the Beatles book or Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, but the simplified ones for Kindle — shows the paperback-format images where they’re available.

    (Incidentally if this shows multiple times, I’m having a problem with SV-POW’s login system…)

  7. You should do a posting on ebook and your experience for those that have no knowledge on how to self publish.

  8. Vertebrat Says:

    Yeah, most of them do sound sword-and-sorcery…

    Silken Magic: a mediaeval-Persia-ish romance (in both senses) with scrupulously accurate textiles and inscrutably emotional magic, justly called “sensual”.

    The Missing Bridges: Exactly what it says on the tin. Bridges are mysteriously vanishing. Why? Supernatural suspense in well-detailed environments.

    Theft of Abyss: Statecraft, intrigue, secret agents clinging to cliffs or walls (often!), realistically competent characters, world-destroying threats. Like the Malazan series, it suffers from not clearly explaining its complex high-magic setting. (Hint: take everything literally.) Better the second time through.

    The Sorceror’s Slaves: isn’t this one of the Conan stories?

    The Year of the Beginning: a variant Christian cosmogony, like Paradise Lost but with more than one relatable character. Would be more fun if the author didn’t present it as the True Interpretation of Genesis.

    Cloud in the Petals: Can you have a fantasy epic where the protagonist doesn’t go on any adventures? Yes – she’s a crippled seer who influences events from afar, or tries to. Low-magic ancient-China-ish setting. Subtle thematic imagery. Conveys the protagonist’s frustration to the reader, unfortunately.

    Rough Eyes: Companion to Sharp Hand – they depict the same events through the eyes of two different characters. Unfortunately, both works are undone by their literary ambition: in trying to contrast the protagonists’ positive perceptions of each other with their “complex” (i.e. nasty) true natures, they make both protagonists so thoroughly dislikable that I started cheering for their enemies. And they look like fools for liking each other, so even their romance isn’t sympathetic.

    The Trembling Spirits: The second volume of an otherwise suspenseful trilogy. The main problems were introduced in book 1, but the characters ignore them in favor of unimportant things like rumors of ghosts that have no apparent connection to the plot. There are also a bunch of unexplained inconsistencies, e.g. spirits can walk through walls but are affected by weather.

    Snow of Eye: Sequel to Sea by Breath, and every bit as mind-bending. The dreamlike, poetic narrative conceals dense characterization and a rigorous plot, but after the first few revelations (actually, after reading anything by the author) the reader is too disoriented to do anything but sit back and enjoy the ride. Everyone compares this to Gene Wolfe, but it’s really more like Tolkien disguised as Wolfe.

    The Wind’s Flames: Forgettable third volume of a somewhat formulaic series. Draws the disaster porn out way too long – I get the idea, now can you get on with the plot?

    The Names of the Name: a history of the ever-growing list of Names of God in Judaism, and the taboo on them.

    Mists in the Servants: a Mistborn/Wheel of Time crossover fic. As coherent as such a thing could possibly be.

    Sadly, none of them have any sauropods. On the other hand, Saltasaurus Magic, The Missing Bruhathkayosaurus (a real-life tragedy!), Theft of Abrosaurus, The Sauroposeidon’s Slaves, The Year of the Baurutitan, Camarasaur in the Petals (predictable, but it made me smile), Rebbachisaur Eyes, The Trembling Sonidosaurs, Snow of Euhelopus (trippy), The Wind’s Futalognkosaurus, The Names of the Nemegtosaur, and Mists in the Suuwassea

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Everyone STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING and read Vertebrat’s comment immediately above — the single most brilliant thing that has every appeared on this blog. I laughed out loud several time, and now find myself wanting to make covers for a bunch more of the books.

  10. […] at the start of the year, Matt and I had a contest to design a cover for a random book in half an hour? I came up with […]

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