Authors use graphics for numerous things: ads, videos, illustrations, book covers, Amazon A+ content, logos, their website, and more. Of course, industry-standard software has industry-standard pricing, which puts apps like Photoshop way out of an indie or beginner’s budget.
Unfortunately, writers on a budget usually can’t afford to pay for someone else to create book covers, ads and other marketing content. They need to do it themselves, which can prove a daunting task. Not only might they not feel artistically-inclined, but creative options are often expensive.
Let’s dive into more affordable options for writers on a budget.
For the Non-artistic Writer
First, I’m going to cover a couple of apps that anyone can use, including writers who aren’t comfortable with creating their own graphics content. It’s a daunting prospect, to make covers, ads, videos, when you don’t have a good sense of what is effective. Canva and Pixlr take the guesswork out of it with the use of templates.
Canva is an all-purpose app and a fav among authors because the free version has a lot to offer. You can create your own social media ads, book covers and videos by using templates and stock images. If you purchase the pro version, you get access to more templates and images, but the free version is great–and you can upload your own images if you want. The downside? Everyone else is using it, too, so it’s difficult to create something completely unique.
Despite that, Canva is great for writers on a budget because FREE. If you are uneasy about creating graphics content, this program is for you. Choose a template, stick a stock photo in, add text, you’re good to go!
It’s a web app, so you do need internet access to use it.
Pixlr is a photo editing app with templates one can use to create ads specifically for social media, YouTube thumbnails and the like. It’s designed to be simple to use by non-professionals. Upload your photos and start the fun!
Its background removal is not too shabby, and the filters create a myriad of interesting looks. If you don’t have your own image to manipulate, it uses a stock photo site (the ones I messed around with were from Unsplash). Use the text tool to add words, and you have an ad. You can also add sound, and work with video.
Again, Pixlr is web-based, so you need an internet connection to use it.
Other options include, but are not limited to, apps like VistaCreate (previously Crello), Visme and Adobe Spark. VistaCreate strikes me as an app directed towards small businesses, and while it is easy to use, it may not be what an author needs. Adobe Spark and Visme cost money, and on limited budgets, $10 a month for Spark and $15 a month for Visme is a bit much, especially when there are free options available.
If you are more comfortable working with images, there are several programs out there for the budget-mindful writer. As with the writing apps, since I don’t own a Mac or an iOS device, I have no experience with Apple-specific programs like Sketch and Procreate.
Before you use a photo app, you need photos! It’s easier now than ever to access free images for ads, collages, covers and videos. Be aware, though, that not every picture is one you can use for your creative designs. Photographers and artists own the copyright to their images, and they must give permission for you to use them. Sites like Pixabay and Pexels say, upfront, that the images are free to use, and while they ask that you link back to the creator, attribution is not necessary.
Also be aware, that when you read “Royalty-free”, that doesn’t necessarily mean the image is free. Oftentimes royalty-free means you pay for an image (usually between $50-$500, depending on the resolution), but you don’t have to give the photographer part of every sale brought in by their artwork. That’s the royalty-free part. Adobe Stock, iStock, Getty Images and other services work this way, and cater to graphic design professionals and businesses. While they may provide a free image here and there, most of them are far out of reach of small budgets.
Oh, and do you know where NEVER to go to get media content? Google. That’s right. You need permission from the creators to use content, and downloading random pics you find in a Google search doesn’t provide that.
Pixabay is my go-to site (with Pexels coming in second, which really doesn’t matter much because Canva bought both of them and so they share images). They have a large selection of photos and art you can use in a variety of ways (and video and audio, too). If you make an account with them, you can download hi-res versions of images.
Not every pic is free to use on Pixabay, but it’s very uncommon to encounter one that isn’t. When you go to download the image, the pop-up will tell you whether the author will allow you to use it or not. I’ve only encountered one photograph in…jeebus, ten years? that’s asked that the image not be used for private or commercial use, so it doesn’t happen often.
And yes, you can alter images downloaded from Pixabay. In fact, it’s encouraged.
Pexels is the place I go if I can’t find something on Pixabay. I like Pexels well enough, but I prefer Pixabay’s search (and, as stated previously, it kinda doesn’t matter much anymore, since the sites share pics). I get the impression people tend to think of Pexels as having better photos, but I see it as equal to Pixabay.
I suggest, when using the program, if you see something that you like, immediately download it. Trying to retrace steps, or search for the author’s name or media title, is rarely successful. Pexels search is fine for general searches (bonfire) but narrow ones never produce results. Sometimes you can use Google to find an image by typing ‘Pexels’ then the title/author in the search bar. Sometimes.
Unsplash is concerned with the quality of the photos, so you won’t find a ginormous amount of images to sift through here. Sometimes having less is more.
Unsplash was purchased by Getty Images in 2021. I guess they wanted to get in on the “free” action because free photo sites are very popular. We’ll see if they keep it that way.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for on these three sites, look around; pictures posted under Creative Commons licenses can often be used. But remember, no Google. It’s best to stick to “our media is free” stock photo sites.
Completely Free Graphics Apps
Now that you have a photo, you need a program to spiffy it up! Let’s start off with the completely free programs.
FYI, there are a couple of different types of image programs. Basically, there are two types; ones that are raster-based (Photoshop, which works with pixels) and vector-based (Illustrator, which works with lines and nodes). Vectors can create higher-res images and are good for artwork and text, but they can’t manipulate photos like a raster program.
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is completely free and for Windows, Mac and Linux. It is a Photoshop replacement, and nearly everything you can do in that app, you can do in GIMP. There is a learning curve, especially if you have little to no experience with graphics software in general, but they have documentation and tutorials to help you along. And, if you want a Photoshop-style interface, you can get ad-ons to create a more familiar atmosphere.
You can crop photos, apply filters, add text, and much more. It is a powerful program created by people who believe software should be free.
I used GIMP for several years, until I upgraded to a 4K screen on my laptop. Yeah, their interface became small and unusable. A shame, but it is what it is. The most recent update I have (2.10.28) is a little better in that regard, but it’s something you should be aware of.
I used Inkscape to design graphics for ads when I worked as a librarian. I found it a bit easier to use than GIMP, but again, there is a learning curve.
Inkscape is a free SVG program for Windows, Mac and Linux. Consider it an Illustrator replacement. You can easily manipulate text and shapes, and apply some pretty nice effects to spruce things up. Getting a photo up to snuff in GIMP, then bringing it over to Inkscape to add text, is a decent way to make an ad, if you want more control over the results than what a program like Canva provides.
FYI, if you’ve used graphics software before, getting up to speed in GIMP and Inkscape won’t be a problem. Otherwise, things will feel foreign and frustration can set in because you have no idea what anything does. While it’s rewarding to sit down and learn, not everyone has the time, or inclination, to do so.
Photopea is a free, browser-based photo editing software that works with both raster and vector images. It even loads GIMP files. It’s easy to use, with an interface very familiar to anyone who has previously used imaging software. It has templates you can use for social media posts and ads. The goal of its creator is to make a sophisticated photo editor professionals want to use. It’s worth checking out!
Not-so-free but Cheap(er) Software
While there are freemium apps like Gravit Designer and Sumo Paint, these programs save their best stuff for the paid sub version (in Gravit’s case, that’s $99 for a year. And, frankly, when I was trying to view its website to see what it had to offer, I kept getting pop-ups I could not close, demanding I sign up. So I didn’t bother to use it, just clicked away).
Let’s look at a couple of these options.
I really like the Affinity suite (Photo, Designer and Publisher). I started using the apps after Photoshop 2021 began to work slower than a snail on ice (only a SLIGHT exaggeration). Affinity Photo is nearly up to Photoshop standards; it color grades, uses overlays and blending options, replaces skies, masks subjects, has a wide variety of brushes, and does it all without the price tag.
Affinity Photo is for Windows, Mac and iPad, and is a one-time cost of $54.99 as of this writing. That’s pricy, but the company often runs sales (probably to catch all the dissatisfied Adobe customers who have pulled out all their hair in frustration). I was able to pick up the program for $25 (as well as the other two apps for the same price. That’s a suite of graphics and publishing software for $75.) When you realize that the stand-alone Photoshop app is a monthly sub of $29.99, it makes Affinity a huge bargain. ‘Buy it once, it’s your’s forever’ is worth saving up for, especially if you plan on creating your own covers and media content for the foreseeable future.
While there is a learning curve, there are plenty of tutorials online for interested parties. It’s not a bad idea to learn the suite, since professionals who are looking for alternatives to Adobe are adopting these programs, giving Affinity even more reasons to produce great content.
If you want something with Adobe’s name attached, Elements is the least expensive option. At a one-time purchase of $99, it’s far cheaper than a sub for Photoshop or Creative Cloud, but it is also a pared-down version of its older sibling. It does a lot of the same things, but if you want, for instance, to use a pen tool that curves, you’ll need to find a different program.
The last time I used Elements, it was a decent program, and unless it’s been plagued with bugs similar to the Creative Cloud apps, it will be a fine purchase if you have the cash. Considering there are cheaper–and just as good–alternatives out there, it’s really not worth paying just for the name.
Time to Wrap Up
I’ll cover video as well as apps like Artbreeder and FlowScape in another post, ’cause this one’s long!
We’re lucky that there are options available to writers on a budget who need graphics software but can’t afford professional prices. There are many, many more options available than I have listed, and it’s worth the time to check out other apps and read reviews. Each person has a different way of working, so each one will have a different software appeal to them. And just because it’s cheap, doesn’t mean it’s terrible software–and just because it’s spendy, doesn’t mean it’s great.
I say this because the problems I had with Photoshop during 2021 put me behind schedule on illustrating book three in my Wellspring Dragons series. Combined with other factors, I ended up releasing it three months after I originally planned. So yeah, just because software comes with a name and a price tag to match, doesn’t mean it’s worth it. Sometimes, Budget is Better!
Shiobe Rising: The Wellspring Dragons Book 1, Trouble in Tindrel: The Wellspring Dragons Book 2 and The Glass Volcano: The Wellspring Dragons Book 3 are available in Kindle format. Lapis of Nicodem, a serialized dark fantasy, is available for free at World Anvil. Follow me, Kwyn Marie, on Facebook and Instagram. Check out my author website, and the Wellspring Dragons book site as well as the Lapis of Nicodem book site. And if you like what you see, buy me a KoFi!