By Peter Staadecker

Peter Staadecker is a KWL author and illustrator whose book The Twelve Man Bilbo Choir has been shortlisted for the 2018 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. He has kindly agreed to walk us through the process of designing his own cover. This is a guide for those authors who have a flair for illustration and design, and a firm grip on graphic software. (For those who would rather leave it to the professionals, check out our previous post from Damonza!)


“Your book cover is HUGELY important in selling your book. That means you should probably find a professional to do your cover.”

I have no gripes with that advice, except  . . .

If you’re early in your writing career, you’ll be unsure if your book sales will recoup the cost of a professional cover designer, which can be upwards of $500. And, how do you pick a design professional with any probability of the right outcome, the right price and acceptable legal terms?

Of course, pre-fabricated cover templates are available on the web. They do offer low price and certainty in outcome. However, they feel like . . . well, mass produced templates.

This blog then, is for those of you who are tempted to design your own covers.

The aptitudes you’ll need are:

  • Enough design sense to at least be a critic.
  • No fear of numbers. You’ll be converting between page sizes in inches, in pixels, and pixels per inch.
  • No fear of learning how to use two free computer graphics programs.
  • Enough time to invest in the project. Becoming comfortable with the two graphics programs may take you about a week, part-time. Thereafter, you may take about a week to produce your first cover, part-time. Your mileage will vary.
  • Familiarity with a digital camera, even if it’s just your cellphone camera.

The two computer programs you’ll need at a minimum are:

  • A “vector graphics editor”. Jargon aside, that’s simply a program that let you draw outlines using your mouse and computer monitor. I use a free program called Inkscape. It’s available for both PCs and Mac computers, and there are plenty of free online tutorials.
  • A “pixel-based graphics editor”. In highly simplified terms, that’s for colouring between the lines using your mouse and computer monitor. I used Adobe photoshop, but if you need a budget-friendly option, there are free alternatives like GIMP for both PCs and Mac computers. Again, free online tutorials abound.

How do you use all this? As an example, here’s how I used these tools to design the cover for my book The Twelve Man Bilbo Choir.


The book’s protagonist spends seven years in prison. I was idly browsing the web looking for images to inspire me. (Note: I said to inspire, not to copy!) My search for images of barbed wire and prisons bars also turned up images of caged birds, including a striking tattoo—artist unknown—of a raven fleeing from a cage with the key to the cage door in its talons.

The metaphor was powerful—the idea of the bird carrying its own key to freedom. However, the raven didn’t fit my story. My book did contain a chapter involving a bird, though. In that chapter, the prisoner is sentenced to solitary confinement. He shares his meagre bread ration with a cardinal that flies through the bars of his cell window. It’s a daily glimpse of the free world for the man. The bird drops a feather in the prison cell, something the man treasures for years after.

This was one of my early line drawings using Inkscape:

cage outline 4

Inkscape is well suited to drawing and replicating the regular geometric curves of the birdcage. My free-hand bird outline wasn’t bad either. The ribbon was a problem, though. It didn’t convey either captivity or motion. It looked downright festive.

I had avoided drawing a chain because drawing each link requires so much tedious effort. Then I discovered that Inkscape will replicate a pattern section on command. I drew a sample section of chain, just two links, and Inkscape replicated that to create a complete, long chain.

It’s an advanced feature, not for the faint of heart. I mention it to show what’s possible, and how I played with various small chain samples from which Inkscape produced longer chains.


Here’s the next stage of my cover design. This time it’s with a chain and with a more readable text font.

cage outline 4 v2 chain without feather

Something bothered me still. There was too much grey space to the right, and the image lacked a sense of motion.

The answer came from the feather that the bird leaves for the prisoner—the flash of brightness in his grey prison surroundings, a feather that he treasures for years. The addition of the feather led to the final drawing:

cage outline v8 for kwl blog

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about my pixel-based graphics editor. That’s because this image was highly stylized—poster-like with no fine detail. E.g., the cardinal’s chest is a uniform black, rather than showing individual feathers. Had I been working with a more detailed image I would have needed to say much more about my pixel-based editor.

The pixel-based editor is also invaluable when you incorporate photographic images into your cover. For merging images, removing distracting backgrounds, etc. the pixel-based editor is a must-have. In other cover designs, I’ve mixed photography with Inkscape sketches. The results—I think—are terrific. See for instance the cover of my book “Dropping Into Darkness”. But that’s another blog chapter for another day.

Finally, a word about copyright. You don’t want to become embroiled in legal battles because you’ve copied portions of your cover image from elsewhere. Draw your own images. Use your own photos. Or, if you’re incorporating someone else’s images, even in a highly modified form, make sure the image is in the public domain. Public domain means the image is free for you to use and modify, even for commercial purposes, without payment and without the obligation to credit the original artist. Be careful—there are many dishonest websites claiming to give you public domain images that aren’t public domain images at all.

If this walk through entertains you or helps you decide whether to try cover design yourself, great. If you are new to this and have questions, or if you’re an old-hand at this and have advice to add, please leave your questions/comments below. I’d love to hear from you. And if you’d like a chapter 2 on incorporating photos and using the pixel-based editor, leave your comments for the KWL editors.

self portrait dsc 0171 v3

Peter Staadecker is the author—and cover illustrator—of The Twelve Man Bilbo ChoirDropping Into Darkness and Just One More Page (cover and interior illustrations)

His first book, The Twelve Man Bilbo Choir, is shortlisted for the 2018 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. His children’s book, Just One More Page, was nominated for the 2018 Leacock Medal. Peter can be found online at:



















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