Q&A: Covers: Premade


Q: Why are prices for premade covers across the internet so different?

A: The short answer is because of the e-publishing boom. There are many service / product startups trying to get a piece of those profits. They compete by trying to out-price each other to attract your business.

For varied reasons, this industry bubble is going to burst, just like the “dot.com” boom of the 90s. E-self-publishing is here to stay, but the current (false) hype of “you can be a famous author, too” will lose its effectiveness. Many of these cover outfits will begin to fade away.

This is part of why prices are dropping, especially at cover “clearing houses,” which take their cut off the top before paying the designers. They often indemnify themselves from any binding legal responsibility for cover composition content. (Read their fine print, if they made it public.) You may not be getting everything you (legally) need for those bottomed out prices.

The long(er) answer is complicated. The best way to start is to walk you through how a premade cover is created here at NDSA. We will use a recent and simple one.

To understand (true) pricing of a premade “stock” cover, you need to know what goes into one. Below on the left is a single stock image from our archives used to make a recent cover. On the right is the finished cover. Click both to see pop-up enlargements. The original as seen was already subject to some preparation steps (with explanation to follow).

Stock after preparation NII0517_1024


Stock Preparation

High resolution photostock is a must; 90% of free images on the internet do not qualify. That is what you may get in an extremely low cost cover. NDAS does not do this.

You want a reasonably good cover, for that is your “product” packaging and what first attracts your prospective reader (customer). And even so, commercial stock may not be of high enough resolution for print editions.

Three transforms were made to the original stock image seen above, because it was:

  1. wider than taller,
  2. off-center and tilted slightly left, and
  3. though acquired at maximum available resolution, it was half of what was needed for NDAS master templates of 600ppi at 9” x 6” plus 0.25” bleed zones (to support print editions).

These are moderately common problems addressed in reverse order to minimize degradation of stock image quality.

NOTE: Commercial stock imagery acquired online at the highest resolution — with correct usage rights — is often not high enough for print editions. Enlargement must be done correctly, which is not accomplished through default capabilities in even industry level graphics applications.

The stock image was enlarged through a custom-scripted and automated algorithmic action in Photoshop CC to double the resolution while retaining 95+% of original quality. This was done on a 2.9Ghz machine with 16gig of physical memory and a 50gig swap file. Time: 17 minutes.

The figure leaned slightly left and held the sword off-center from its own centerline. The latter was ignored, as masking sword, hands, and arms to re-position was too costly (in time) for a premade cover.

A right rotation of 5+ degrees brought the sword level enough; selective masked sharpening was applied to target areas as needed. The image was positioned for a compromise between figure centerline and needed sword detail. Overall image was then cropped to fit format. Time: 6 minutes.

Three tiny areas needed separate touch-up; we will not go into which, as you cannot see them even in the pop-up previews. These were masked, lifted into separate layers, refined and adjusted, then (in this case only) merged back into the original. Additional level, contrast, and curve adjustments were applied to create a shadowy, somber air. Time: 15 minutes.

The stock image is now ready for composition work, as shown in the preview.

Image Composition

With one image used, you might assume only one image layer was needed. Effects and adjustments must remain editable and targeted (only a few are globally applied) to serve later client requested “tweaks.” All work must be non-destructive (non-permanent) where possible. So no, one layer for one image is not enough.

The refined image layer was duplicated 5 times for faster adjustment and testing of effects in overall combination within what was feasible. Still, for a premade cover, there are limits vs. cost (in time).

Each layer copied was used for different lighting effects and set to proper blending mode over the original. In addition, editable color, saturation, vibrancy, etc. control layers were added in different positions in the stack and/or linked to specific layers. Some were soft masked to affect specific zones and details.

NOTE: The green glow ring beneath the title’s bottom line was not added artificially. It is a lens effect generated from the breastplate’s hotspot. Lighting effects that extrapolate from an original image are better than artificially added ones. Similar was done for all separate or combined lighting effects.

The original image was also cold and desaturated. Adjusting this per zone and/or element without adversely affecting others is critical to creating the semi-warm (pseudo-romantic but slightly rustic) impression sought. Time: 40 minutes.

The image is now ready for the whole cover composition.

Text Layout & Effects

Photoshop and other applications usually require fonts be system installed before the application is launched. We use font management applications capable of activating / deactivating fonts while graphics applications (and cover master files) are open.

In this way, fonts from our archives can be applied on the fly to find one that fits the cover’s implied premises but balanced for legibility. And still, selecting a font can be time consuming… when a generic one is not used.

After this, text effects are chosen and tested from another archive of preset “styles.” All text layers and their effects are kept fully editable and can be altered and / or turned off in any combination.

Text layout is chosen to fit the cover’s composition. Because the leveled sword is the central eye-catching element, this cover has a dominant horizontal influence on the eye. Text layout needed to match but balance this with a subtle vertical influence. Hence part of the title was placed on multiple lines, and not just because of the length of the demonstration text.

The byline was a simpler, obvious choice; its effects match the title but are softened, so as not pull the eye away from the cover as a whole or the title. Time: 20+ minutes.

This premade “stock” cover is now complete.


We will use a hypothetical (unrealistic) standard. In recent news, employees in corporate owned locations of McDonald’s are seeking a minimum wage of $15 USD. Bluntly, this is below what a skilled cover designer should be paid. We will use this versus the time needed to create this cover, which is simpler than others seen in our premade “stock” cover gallery.

Hourly Cost: 1.7 hours x $15 = about $25 USD

That is not a living wage for any individual in the USA. If we add a standard retail mark up of 55%, the price jumps to $38.75, but we are not done yet. There is the cost of the stock imagery used, with the assumption that it was acquired with:

  1. maximum resolution available,
  2. Commercial Use rights, and
  3. (optionally) re-use rights

Cost of stock imagery can vary. Let us assume a reasonable $50 for one image with #1 and #2 above and used once.

Price: $88.75… or $89 USD

This cover has been priced at $75 USD, which includes ebook version, 600ppi print version, and the (coming) Social Basic package of online promotional graphics.

Selling at a Loss?

That is the assumption based on this cover; it is partially correct. When we sell a premade cover, it is removed from further purchase. After one year, one image element from a premade (not “custom”) cover may be used as part of another cover composition.

Since this cover has only one image element, that will not be reused… though some small piece of it might. So how do we make a profit on a premade cover?

We hope that through image element reuse that we make up the difference later. The same cannot be said of other cover designers, if they even openly state their stock use policy and acquired image rights. As to cover clearing houses, whether they indemnify themselves or not, make your own conclusions… since the designers who sell through those make less than the stated price.

Q: How could stock cost (even without correct rights) be recouped for as little as, say, $50… $30… or even $25 dollars.

A: It cannot be recovered at such prices. That is a clue to whether or not a cover designer acquired correct legal rights if commercial quality stock is used.

The Truth About NDAS

Honestly, all of us here work as a sideline endeavor. We all have day jobs inside or outside of the publishing industry, sometimes both. We all have a vested interest in that industry. Some of us are would be authors as well, but here at NDAS, we work collectively.

Staff members in the cover design have at least 10 years of graphics and/or design experience, though none are degreed in this field. Some covers are worked on by more than one designer. As a final note, though we do not generally identify individual designers… this particular cover was composed by J.C. Hendee, fantasy co-author of the Noble Dead Saga.

We hope this rather long response gives you food for thought about premade cover pricing but also with an implied warning. Cheap is not always safe.

As with doing business in any “bubble” industry on the internet, be wise and informed and get the facts before spending a single penny… anywhere. And thank you for taking the time to read this far.

N.D. Author Services [NDAS]

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