Steps to creating a professional book cover for your self-published book are listed below. Once you've got your book cover, check out the Resources section of this page to read my article on, "How to Make Money by Self-Publishing a Book - Tips from Someone Who Made Money".
Pay attention to this step. This is what NOT to do. Don't use the canned templates from vanity presses. Talented designers do not earn a living making one size fits all book covers, that means the untalented ones do. Don't use a word processing program to make your cover. As well, never use Times Roman, Arial or Verdana fonts for your self-published book, inside or out.
Learn what a professional-looking book cover looks like. To do this, visit a bookstore and look at the books on the table displays and the bestseller racks. These are the books with covers designed to sell. Publishers pay to prominently display these books. Books are not displayed randomly, nor do the staff select the ones placed on the tables. Your self-published book needs to look like these book covers.
Use a print-on-demand publisher such as CreateSpace or Lulu. They have "cover wizards" that can be somewhat customized if you really can't use Photoshop. Otherwise, use the design template file that they provide.
For the front cover, there are 3 key elements: artwork, book title, and author's name. If you can't create your own illustrations, use a photograph placed on a white background. Take your own photo or browse Flickr. If you see a photo you like, contact the photographer and see if they will give you rights to use the photo on your self-published book for a modest price. Many amateur photographers would be happy to earn some money and get a photo credit.
For your book title and author's name, measure the size of the font on similarly sized bestselling books at the bookstore. For the book's title, pick a font and typeface size that is big enough to read from a distance. Your name as the author does not need to be big. Mimic the layout of one of the books at the bookstore.
For the spine, use one font for the book title and another for the author's name. The typeface should be simple and clean.
For the back cover, invest the time to write compelling copy to sell your book, but keep it brief. Many bestsellers include testimonials from other authors. You can contact authors of complimentary books and ask if they will review your book and provide a quote. In exchange, you promote their book by stating they are the author of "ABC Book". Use a different font from the front cover. Use a couple of typefaces. You'll notice the bestsellers don't use the same font for the entire cover. If you use the design template provided by a print-on-demand publisher, there should be a space for the ISBN bar code already marked out. Follow their directions with respect to the ISBN.
Finally, do the "Amazon test". View the front cover at a very small size and see if it still stands out and looks good. If it does, congratulations your ready to output the file as a PDF.
If you're interested in more tips on self-publishing a book, check out more articles I've written in the Resources section at the bottom of this page.