Cheap/free paperback covers for Createspace using Canva

Part of the reason I've held off publishing print-on-demand paperbacks for so long was fear of the cover design process. Yes, I could have purchased such covers ready made, but the affordable premades out there - while undeniably beautiful - never seemed quite right for my books, and custom covers for my 12 backlist titles would require an outlay the size of my pension pot with no promise of earning it back... not a gamble I am willing to take!

If you are on a budget, this is how I managed to produce the following paperback cover for my book I am the Great Horse for no financial outlay:

I am the Great Horse - 2016 paperback cover
I am assuming some familiarity with Createspace, so if you have not used the site before then see Susan Price's post on Createspace publishing.

* UPDATE * Createspace is now part of Amazon's KDP. However, the process is very similar...

The first thing you need to do is decide on your 'trim size' for the book (i.e. size of your finished book) and format your interior file accordingly. This will give you the total number of pages for your book, which is important since this affects the spine width of your paperback cover. Armed with your trim size and page count, you'll also need to decide if you want your book printed on white or cream paper, since the different coloured papers have different thicknesses, and if you want your interior printed in black and white or colour. When you've done this - and making such decisions is the hardest part! - head over to Createspace's cover templates and download the correct one for your size of book.

I am the Great Horse has a trim size of 5.25" x 8" and contains 508 pages. It is a novel with small black-and-white horse silhouettes at the start of each chapter:

I am the Great Horse - interior

and a map by artist Brian Sanders, which to keep costs down I decided to print in greyscale:

Map of Bucephalas' Hoofprints - copyright (c) Brian Sanders

On the Createspace cover template page, I entered:
black and white interior
cream paper (best for novels)
5.25" x 8" trim size
508 pages.

Createspace will then supply you with a zip file containing a png image and a pdf. The png is the one you want for this method. My downloaded template looked like this:

You might notice the wording on the template claims this is for a 504 page book, whereas the file name Createspace assigns to this template suggests a 510 page book. But don't stress about this too much - apparently, templates do not exist for every single page count combination, and this one worked fine for my 508 pages.

Now you have your template, you can log into Canva and start a new project for your paperback cover. Again, I am assuming some familiarity with Canva. If you have never used the site before, check out Mari Biella's Canva tutorial.

For a paperback cover, you'll need to ignore the standard templates provided by Canva (such as the Kindle and ebook covers), and set up a custom size. Usefully, Canva allows you to choose cm or inches - choose inches.

Now you need to do a little bit of maths (don't panic, it's only adding up) to include the spine, and also the bleed for your cover... something I missed out the first time I tried this method. What is bleed? Think of it as the little bit around the edge that stops your fingers from bleeding if you were to try cutting your printed cover exactly to size with a sharp knife while holding it down by hand... I'm sure nobody actually loses fingers making print on demand paperbacks this way, but the cover has to be cut somehow. At Createspace, the bleed is 0.125 inches on each side, so you'll need to add 0.125"+0.125" or 0.25" to your custom measurements.

For I am the Great Horse, my Canva cover project worked out as:

(5.25 + 1.26 + 5.25 + 0.25)" x (8 + 0.25)"
(front + spine + back + total bleed) x (height + total bleed)
12.01" x 8.25"

That blank canvas might look a bit scary at first, but you'll soon fill it. First of all, upload your Createspace template (the png version) to Canva, and spread that over your canvas. It should fit exactly once you've resized it, but beware of making it too exact. Canva automatically assigns an image that fills the total canvas as the background, and you'll probably want some other kind of background, such as the sunset scene I used for I am the Great Horse - if you stretch your template almost to the edges, but not quite touching them, that should prevent Canva thinking it is a vital part of your design. The Createspace template is a vital part of the design process, however, and you'll need to turn it semi-transparent so you can work on your cover. If you like, you can make the template completely invisible while you concentrate on the finer points of your design and colours, just don't forget it's there! You'll need to delete it later.

Shortcut: If you already have a high-quality ebook cover for your book, it might be possible to upload this to Canva and simply add this image to your canvas as the front cover - see this post by the YA/NA Sisterhood - but beware. If your ebook version is not of sufficient quality, it won't print well enough for the paperback.

My Kindle cover for I am the Great Horse was a legacy jpg at low resolution, but the design seems to work for the ebook and I wanted to keep it more or less the same. So I uploaded my horse/title logo as a transparent png image (if you have a jpg image, like I did, you can use something like the free online photo-editor to transform this into a png) and selected one of Canva's landscape sunset images for my background to spread across the front and back cover. In my experience, the colours at Createspace print darker than they appear on my backlit screen, so I applied a filter to this picture to make it paler. I then used my horse logo on the spine and back cover at smaller size, flipped horizontally (something that is easy to do in Canva). I added the text using Canva's supplied fonts, and finally added a semi-transparent darker strip on the front cover to make the quote stand out better.

When you have your basic cover design, double-check everything is in the right place by making the Createspace template darker. There should be nothing important in the pink (bleed) areas, or under the yellow rectangle on the back cover (which is where your barcode will go). You might need to move things around a bit or change the size of the fonts. When you're completely happy with the positioning of everything, delete the template layer (take care not to delete your background by accident... if you make a mistake, you can always go back a step using Canva's undo tab and try again). You should be left with a paperback cover of the perfect trim size for your book. Download this as a "high quality pdf for print". I'd also recommend downloading a jpg at lower resolution at the same time for your website and social media.

Now you can go back into Createspace and upload your "print ready pdf" in the cover step. Createpace will add a free barcode to the back cover at this stage (in place of the yellow rectangle in the template). Unfortunately, there does not seem a way of soft-proofing your uploaded cover until after you've passed the file review, but when this is complete you can check your cover in Createspace's digital proofer, along with your interior, before ordering a paper proof. There is a clever little 3D-spin that immediately shows whether your spine is in the right place, and you can also zoom in to check details such as whether Createspace have flattened your transparencies properly (Canva seems to export transparencies for print without flattening them, but so far I have not found this to be an issue). At the file review stage, Createspace will also attempt to fix the size of your cover if you have forgotten the bleed, which seemed to work out okay for one of my earlier projects, but obviously it's best to submit as perfect a cover as you can.

Then you can order a paper proof for a final check, and ta-dah... it's a real book!

Note: The sunset picture I used for my background was free, but if you want something more specific Canva's paid elements are only $1 each for up to 2,000 print copies (if you sell more copies that that, you can upgrade to a more expensive license, or if you are anticipating mega-sales it might be worth going out with your digital camera seeking a dramatic image or two...)

That is how I conquered my paperback cover fears. I've now published three print on demand titles at Createspace using this method (including my backlist title Spellfall and its brand new sequel Spell Spring), and it seems to work provided you are careful about the measurements. There is also a DIY cover creator within Createspace itself, which might be another route to paperback covers for those on a budget - at least until you've sold enough books to purchase a professionally designed cover.


Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award for her debut novel Song Quest. She writes fantasy/legend for young readers and historical fiction for older readers.

I am the Great Horse is available as a print-on-demand paperback from:
amazon uk
amazon us

or as an ebook:
Kindle UK / US

Find out more about Katherine's books at


Wendy H. Jones said…
Excellent advice. I still wouldn't trust my abilities with cover design but you've done a fab job.
Dennis Hamley said…
Interesting, Katherine. I've paid for covers in Createspace so far, one reason being that I can't seem to make Createspace's own cover templates work for me (nobody will be surprised to hear that). I'll have to bite the bullet and try again, because this sounds like it could be the answer to a prayer.
Jan Edwards said…
Useful article. Thank you x
Debbie Bennett said…
I'm hopeless with design - it's not the technical side, but the eye for composition that I lack!
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you Katherine! I have picked out images but had a designer help me with my POD CreateSpace covers thus far. I'm working up a new title right now, however, and doing the cover myself if I can make it work. I've had a lot of experience with magazine and book graphic design, but working with small press partners. Your practical advice comes at just the right time!
Glad people found it helpful! DIY covers are definitely do-able, and if you are stuck where to start Canva has a selection of front cover designs (some free) you could customise. The back cover can have a simple plain coloured background to match your colour scheme.
Jim Green said…
this problem is related to the graphics device driver you decides to use (pdf to png, etc.).

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Meet Author Virginia Watts, a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Find Out How She Does What She Does

I Wish I May, I wish I Might... Understand What These Writers Are Saying says Griselda Heppel

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee