These are resources I’ve used over the years, and most I continue to use often. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I’ve found these to be some of the best.
Boutique Stock (LGBTQ+ use friendly)
Stock images on these sites are made specifically with book cover use in mind. Many have genre-specific poses for fantasy, science fiction, romance, and more.
General Stock (LGBTQ+ use friendly)
Stock images on these sites are made for general use in any project. You’ll find anything from useful poses to objects, scenery, textures, and vectors.
Stock images on these sites are made with other art in mind first (matte painting, comic art, 3D texturing, etc). All stock images on these sites may be commercially used for book covers, but not all usage may be advisable, as these images haven’t been vetted for copyright restrictions. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s something like open scenery, skies, trees, or effects like fire or sparks, you’re safe to use it. If it’s recognizable buildings, shots of people without model releases, shots from museums, or anything that might come into copyright or property restrictions, best not to use it.
General Design/Photomanipulation/Digital Painting
Adobe Photoshop (subscription)
Industry standard design app that has some of the best feature sets and by far the most tutorials. The subscription can be expensive, though, especially if paired with the full Creative Cloud suite. Photoshop can also run slower on older or lower-powered PCs with large files, but you can install the 2014 version and earlier if 2015+ are running slow.
Affinity Photo (purchase)
Affinity Photo is almost identical in features to Photoshop, and even has some PS doesn’t. It’s also affordable, has a lot of compatibility with PS resources like brushes, and is easy to learn. It doesn’t have as many tutorials available as Photoshop, though, and there isn’t full compatibility with all resources and files. Still, it’s the best alternative I’ve found, and I really enjoy using this software.
GIMP is a free and open-source Photoshop alternative, with a lot of compatibility with Photoshop resources and a great set of free tutorials on the internet. While its backend is pretty powerful, though, I’ve found GIMP to be clunky to use, and it doesn’t have a lot of the PS features that make my design work a lot easier. If you’re strapped for cash, it’s a great option. But if you have a mid-range budget, Affinity Photo might be a better alternative.
Daz3D (free, with purchasable assets)
Daz3D is very useful in advanced cover design, giving the ability to make characters and poses not available in stock. I generally recommend you head swap out any character posed in Daz, however, and sometimes swap out the hands as well, as those are the elements that fall most recognizably into the uncanny valley.
Zbrush is pricey, but it is one of the most intuitive and powerful 3D modelling packages I’ve come across. It’s absolutely amazing for sculpting characters, objects, and scenery, as well as hard surface modelling such as for guns, tech, and spaceships. And while it is pricey, there is an intermediate version (Zbrush Core), and even the full version is less expensive than many other software suites.
3D Coat (purchase)
3D Coat does similar things to Zbrush, with a different design philosophy. Absolutely excellent for artists who come from a drawing background, as it allows for 3D sketching, too. It functions in many ways like a 3D version of Photoshop, and is around half the price of Zbrush, though it doesn’t have all of Zbrush’s features (or at least, they’re different).
Blender is a fully-featured and powerful 3D package that can compete with industry standard, but is open source and offered for free. While it can be a bit intimidating to learn, there are tutorials and plugins (to purchase) to drastically speed up the learning time and ease of use. I highly recommend Jama Jurabaev’s tutorials and recommended resources, especially the Introduction to Blender Workflow tutorial.
Keyshot (purchase, can be Zbrush add-on)
Keyshot is a rendering engine (takes the 3D geometry and textures and translates it into useable art) that is easy to use and creates stunning realism without much setup. It’s expensive as a stand-alone program, but if purchased as an add-on to Zbrush, it’s more affordable (though restricted to Zbrush use).
Marmoset Toolbag (purchase)
Marmoset is a great rendering engine that is easy to use, affordable, and with extensive tutorials available.
Marvelous Designer (purchase)
Marvelous Designer is a unique app that lets you design and realistically simulate clothing. This is amazing for making bespoke costumes for art, and can be paired pretty easily with Daz and Zbrush integration. There is a Steam version that’s less expensive than the version on the site, though it’s not upgradeable.
Other Design Software
Adobe Illustrator (subscription)
Vector design and illustration that’s useful for logos, vector work, and modifying the characteristics of fonts and cover text.
Affinity Designer (purchase)
Vector design app very similar to Illustrator, and much more affordable.
Suitcase Fusion (purchase)
Font manager that has excellent integration into Adobe Creative Cloud apps, as well as the ability to turn fonts on and off at need instead of installing them in your system.
Nexus Font (free)
Font manager that’s free and does an excellent job at managing your font collection. Doesn’t have some of the premium features of a suite like Suitcase Fusion, but if you don’t have thousands of fonts, it should do fine.
Portrait Pro (purchase)
This app is super useful for retouching on the fly without having to spend hours in Photoshop on the same tasks. Can reshape facial features, add or remove makeup, smooth skin and remove blemishes, and generally retouch.
OBS Studio (free)
If you want to record your process, this is an excellent free app that will record your screen, and also allows you to go live on Facebook.
Digital Painting Software
Corel Painter (purchase)
Industry standard for simulating real-world media, such as oils, acrylics, ink, and watercolors. By far has the most features of any of these apps, and can function in many ways similar to Photoshop, with filters and layers, though it’s not a 1:1 comparison, and has many painting features PS doesn’t have. Excellent if you want to add a painterly touch to your design work, though with the price tag, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it without trying Photoshop’s excellent painting resources first.
Best digital watercolor simulation I’ve found.
Comics creation suite. Has excellent inking capabilities, and an amazing suite of perspective tools.
Excellent free and open source painting app, with great traditional media simulation. Functions in many ways similar to Procreate, but for desktop/laptop use.
Brushes, Actions, Fonts, Assets
Ron’s brushes (username deviney on Daz3D) are by far the best and most professional PS brushes I’ve found for effects like fire, smoke, flares, etc. These can be pricey at full price, but check in often, because they’re often on sale for 50-70% off.
Graphic River has an amazing collection of all kinds of assets for digital art. My favorite assets on there, though, are the actions. There are some gorgeous effects on there like fire, digital energy, and other effects. If you purchase design elements (not add-ons) on there, though, make sure you take note of the license—many images are one-use only, and may have other restrictions requiring an extended license for book cover use.
Creative Market is one of my favorite places to get fonts, as they have an excellent selection, as well as many, many other design resources. Like with Graphic River, though, be sure to check the licenses on assets, as they may require an extended license to use.
While many of the design bundles on this site aren’t as useful for cover design, they often have many elements that are. I’ve built up a large collection of brushes, vector ornaments, and textures through this site, and almost all bundles come with extended licenses built in.
Also a great resource for getting a large amount of resources for a low price. Best to get on their mailing list if you want to watch for specific things—many assets in Creative Market come through here with extended licenses.
Same concept as other bundle sites above. Has some of the better variety of font and image resource bundles.
Great for building up a font collection, especially for designer script and vintage fonts.
Learning and Tutorials
My free tutorials on book cover design, which offer a quick start guide, model selection, and others. This is book cover specific info that I couldn’t find elsewhere, so I made it myself.
One of the best places for learning Photoshop, from beginning to advanced techniques. They have paid courses, but also many free tutorials on their site and on Youtube.
Courses geared around professional design, photography, and freelancing.
While Udemy courses can be a bit haphazard, there are some excellent and comprehensive courses for learning the basics of most popular software suites from scratch. Courses are generally very affordable (especially once you get on their mailing list).
Absolutely excellent courses for learning the basics of almost any software suite. Caveat, though, that you’ll definitely need to look beyond here for the advanced “tips and tricks” types of techniques. If you learn best by doing projects, this might also not be the best place to start, as courses tend to be exhaustively thorough.
Excellent courses geared toward professionals. Kind of like Lynda.com on steroids, with very in depth training to specific disciplines from basic learning to advanced techniques on many software suites.
Courses by industry professionals in the fields of illustration, concept art, 3D art, and animation. These are some of the best courses out there for upping your software and art game, but the subscription is pricey.
Similar in concept to Gnomon, but with full courses vs subscription model, and the chance at interaction with the teacher. These are some of the best courses out there in the art world right now. More geared toward specific art disciplines and honing certain skills. Courses may require industry standard (expensive) software.