After seeing all the stuff that makes this site what it is, you probably won’t be surprised that I encourage indie authors and self-publishers to hire someone for book design. You don’t necessarily need to spend a bazillion dollars with original art and everything; a competent designer (and you determine competence by entirely by previous work, not by degrees or resumes or price range) can do wonders with some simple typefaces and free or nearly-free stock image resources.
But let’s say that even despite my efforts to dissuade you, you are determined to design your own ebook cover. Maybe you claim poverty; maybe you’re determined to take the indie ethic all the way by doing everything yourself; maybe you’ve always had an interest in graphic design and think that you have a latent talent for the work. Whatever your reason/excuse, here are some pointers for designing your own book cover. This isn’t a complete how-to course, because for that you should expect to pay at least a couple of years’ worth of tuition, but these ideas should get your head pointed in the right direction so that, whatever you turn out, you won’t find it on this site in the months ahead.
(Note: The assumption here is that you have access to, and at least a rudimentary working knowledge of, suitable image manipulation software like PhotoShop, or at least GIMP. If you can’t even bring that much to the table, then you really really really need to hire someone else who has the tools to do what you need done.)
Browse through Amazon and find at least twenty books with good covers that you would expect to appeal to the same readers as your book. They can be self-published, small press, or Big Six; what matters is that these are the books that your book is going to be both palling around with and competing with.
What is a “good” cover? It’s one that appeals to the reader who would likely enjoy the book. You wrote your book, so you probably like books in that same subgenre, so use your own taste to decide whether the book covers you explore are good or not.
Of the twenty or more covers you gathered, pick four or so that you could imitate given your design tools and skills. I’m not encouraging you to copy outright, but to use a template to give you guidance where you don’t have skills. You’ve just researched how potential buyers are accustomed to being marketed to; you’re now going to take what you learned and apply it. Make sure you don’t choose four images which are variations on an almost identical theme; you want four different book cover ideas, not four iterations of the same idea.
Where can you get images? There are free stock photo repositories such as Stock Exchange and Every Stock Photo; you can also search Flickr with the Creative Commons filter on, or just google variations of “public domain images.” Be warned, however, that if you settle on a not-quite-right image just because it’s free, your book cover will likely look not quite right. There are a number of cheap stock photo sources — iStockPhoto, BigStock, Shutterstock, and a host of others — where you could license appropriate images for under twenty dollars. The other option is to check out Flickr or DeviantArt for completed artwork that you like, and offer the (quite likely amateur) creator the same money you were going to use on stock photos.
When look at stock photo sites, remember: You’re not looking for “that perfect photo” that you can slap a title on and, presto, you have a cover. You’re looking for an element on which to build the cover that you already decided on. In too many cases, a stock photo with a title for a cover looks like, well, a stock photo with a title. It looks cheap.
Make “sketch versions” of your batch of four covers. If you need me to tell you how to do this, you shouldn’t be doing this. Hire someone instead.
Take your four covers and show them to people in your peer group. Now you see the utility of making multiple covers: If you had only one to show, you’d run the risk of getting “Oh, I love it, it’s just perfect” from people simply because they like you. With multiple choice, they have the obligation to say which one they like best, and will probably even volunteer why. For added oomph, ask them if there are any elements that should be transplanted from one cover to another (one font with another color scheme or image, for example).
Make your for-real cover. Pay attention to how it looks both big and small — you want it to be understandable and appealing at postage-stamp size because that’s how potential readers will first see it, but you don’t want their second look to be a turn-off, either.
Following these five steps doesn’t guarantee a great cover, but you should turn out an adequate one. And that’s all you can really hope for — because if you’d wanted a great one, you would have paid for it.
04/25/13 Update: If you need some more advice that meshes with what I’ve written here, you certainly could do worse than this.