I know how you feel. Self-publishing your novel sounds like the perfect solution– until you discover the costs. For the record, back in 1999 I paid a professional artist $300 to do my first ebook cover because anything else I could get looked like it was done by a third grader with kindergarten scissors. And then I had to come up with something myself anyway because the artist had been given the wrong deadline by the publisher.
Women authors in particular seem vulnerable to the cost of services of an editor, formatter, and cover artist. They're so used to doing things themselves that it seems hard to justify paying $100 or even $50 to someone else. Yet those things are as important as the story that has taken so much of their hard-found time.
Yes, it does make sense to me that authors might like to know how to make their own covers. So I'm going to give you some ideas on how to make a cover that looks at least decent, and possibly even professional. A lot of what I'm going to say might not make sense, especially if you know nothing about graphic arts. I can't help you with that, unless you want to learn. But this might get you interested in exploring what's available.
The most important thing: you have to have software that's capable of doing at least basic graphics. This often comes bundles with word-processing software, or free-to-cheap software can be found on the internet. I use Photoshop and it's darned expensive. Try the cheap stuff first.
First, you have to have an image that captures the essence of your story. Two great places to look are www.dreamstime.com and www.fotolia.com. Yes, you have to pay for them. Please don't just download an image from the internet. It's not yours to use unless you buy it. Later you can learn to work in layers but for now, you want one picture that says enough of your story's essence to use just that.
For all your covers, first set the size of your base photo at 300 dpi (or ppi) , 6" x 9". You can use smaller dimensions if you're only doing an ebook, but I never go smaller than 5" x 7.5". Keep these proportions, regardless. Buy a large or extra large size. Taller than it is wide is easier for you at first.
Let's suppose you've written a romantic suspense in which a man takes a woman on a romantic vacation to an exotic Caribbean island and she disappears. You titled it "A Simple Matter of Trust". If you'd called it just "A Matter of Trust", it might be a different story, but just one word gave Trust a sinister air. I chose a benign-looking romancey photo, Fotolia's 25538596. You'll see why.
The first thing to do is to just play with the fonts. Try to set them up on a new layer so you won't mess up your base photo, and you can make all the mistakes you want. Choose contrasting colors. I wanted white for the main lettering, but BLOODY RED in a sharply angular font for the word "trust". I didn't like my first fonts, but no problem there. I can see already I'll have a hard time getting lettering to stand out against the greenery.
FX is your helper here. On Photoshop you'll find it at the very bottom of the Layers panel. If you don't get any of this, I'll be around to answer questions.
I set FX for "Outer Glow" on the font to get that greenish haze behind it, and adjusted it to be semi-transparent. Then to make it look a little creepy, I set Outer Glow contour at "Double Ring" (the one with two very tall spikes). Notice too the black outline on the letters for more harsh emphasis. The name font is unadorned- something that looks like it was hit by a scatter gun. But there was still A warning about FX: What you think you have isn't always what you have. Try flattening your work, merging all the layers. If it's not right, back out with Back Arrow and adjust a teeny bit at a time until you have what you want.
One more thing I wanted to do– darken the photo. Just enough to make the jungle look sinister but not overly darken the playing couple. And there you have it. Not too bad for less than an hour.
Here's another easy one: Let's say your story is about a war vet whose eyes are damaged so he can't tolerate any but the dimmest light. (I can empathize with this guy! Been there!) It could be a romance, or maybe a deeper story. I started with fotolia's 17613225. Very stark dark blue monotones, and a guy who looks gorgeous but troubled. A blue drapery at the side. Nothing more. So let's keep that look. It's not the right size, though.
Set the width at 6", and 300dpi of course. Do everything in 300 dpi. First, use the eyedropper that grabs an exact color and pick the color at the very top, center. Then move that choice to the second box because that will become your background color. Then use the Canvas sizer, clicking on the low, center square, and set dimensions at 6" x 9"high. Now your base picture is 6 x 9, with the guy image at the bottom. You can probably see where the drapery ends, and if you want, you can use the smudge tool (a pointing finger) set at around 80-100 and about 90% to smudge the colors up into the upper area.
Now you need lettering. You could do a lot of things, but I'd suggest nearly white, very rigid lettering. I like the script for the less important words. I outlined this font in a turquoise color, using Stroke, but I'm not sure I like it. I set it to the upper right for better balance. If you want words in your lettering to be closer together, first "Rasterize" them. They hid this, so pay attention: First, click on the font layer you want to change. It should be highlighted. Then RIGHT-CLICK and go down that list to Rasterize, about in the middle. Click on it. You just changed your text to a graphic image. Now you can use the marquee box on your tool bar to select one word or line. Choose Move (the east/west, north-south arrows) . Click inside the selected area and move it closer to the other words, or wherever you want them. When you un-select, you can now move that entire group of words. Where you want them.
I did some more FX on the author name, but you don't really need to do this. If you start using the Bevel and Emboss and other FX tools, be prepared to spend a day or two investigating. It's addicting.'
There are lots of photos you don't need to do anything except lettering to turn them into a decent cover. Try this one from dreamstime #3804221. Just slap on some nice lettering and it will grab attention.
Want something else? A romantic Victorian? Here's one I did for fun: Sorry I have lost the photo ID but I think it's Dreamstime. I just added a bit of bluish haze to the sky and that bunch of flower in the lower right corner. A friend fell in love with it so I told her if she writes the book, it's hers. Only separating the flowers from their original picture was tricky.
I think you see the secret by now: Simplicity. Limit your color range, look for large spaces like the dark forest in the first example. Don't go crazy with fonts just because I do. Save your work before merging the layers, then re-name the new image because you may find you'll have to go back and do something over. it And always go over your entire composition, every tiny bit. You'll save a lot of re-do time if you do.
Have fun and try not to slap your heckling spouse.