Canva Tutorial • Make Ad Images & Promo Graphics

One area where the bar has been raised over the last few years is that of branding. The savviest authors know that branding doesn’t just make you look more professional – although that is important too – but also something which acts as a tractor beam, pulling in your target audience.

I said in my book Strangers to Superfans, “If pacing is the secret sauce inside most bestsellers, branding is the equivalent outside of the book.”

As part of my research for Superfans, I spoke to one author who has stellar branding: Kit Rocha.

Branding is an extension of worldbuilding. My covers and my graphics and all of it combine to present an image that enhances what I want to say about my series.

Kit Rocha, in Strangers to Superfans

This is an area where I had to do a lot of catch-up, personally. One thing that helped hugely was discovering Canva (affiliate link), which is one of my recommended 12 Free Graphic Design Tools For Authors – in fact, it’s easily the best of the bunch, and the one I use most of all.

canva tutorial

Like… all the time. I love it, and hope this Canva tutorial can help you get the most out of it as well.

In case you haven’t heard a thousand authors raving about it, Canva is a free online design tool which allows anyone, even those with little artistic sense and no design skills, to create professional looking graphics with some practice.

Today, I’m going to try to give you some pointers on how to create effective promo graphics with this Canva tutorial.

Two important things first:

  1. If you are going to be spending serious money on Facebook ads or BookBub ads you should consider commissioning ad graphics from a design pro. Until you get good with something like Canva, graphics designed by a professional will likely convert much better. Over the long run this will save you money, rather than costing you. Plus it’s pretty cheap anyway.
  2. That said, it’s great to know how to put together something serviceable so you can make whatever ancillary graphics you might need – like an email header or website header or Facebook Page cover photo, or the million other things that tend to crop up around launch time. You might want to make a tweak to something you had designed already, to split test a variation or amend a price. It’s so bloody handy to know this stuff that I think every author should get to grips with the basics, unless you can afford to have a pro designer on call 24/7. (But even then…)

Like anything, the only way to get better with Canva is practice. But that’s hardly a chore as it’s such fun to play around with.

I’m not going to talk about what the core principles makes an ad which converts – that’s a topic all on it’s own, and one I covered with my mailing list last week.

Rather than the principles behind an effective graphic, I’m going to talk today about how to actually build one in Canva.

First I’ll mention a kind of cheat, where anyone with the ability to drag and drop stuff can make something really cool.

Then I’ll show you how to build something serviceable from scratch if that kind of cheat isn’t an option. And I’ll wrap up with some tips on how to pretty up those basic efforts to improve results.

The Cheat

If you look at the images on the right you will see two ads with a marked contrast in quality.

The top one was one of the first things I built in Canva and it’s awful! Even leaving aside the fact that the amount of text means it won’t work as a Facebook ad, it’s a decidedly amateur composition.

Below it is a more recent ad I used for the launch of an older edition of Let’s Get D, one which is worlds better. What happened in the intervening 12 months? Did I secretly take a course in graphic design?

No, I just asked a professional to make me Facebook graphics — and he bundled them with the cover for a nominal cost, as many designers do.
But that’s not the cheat. I knew that I would also want to make my own ad graphics and other promo assets so I asked him to give me the various elements too separately: background art, transparent PNGs, and 3D book images. Which means that by uploading those into Canva I can easily drag-and-drop and create my own pro-looking ad graphics — ones which actually convert! I can test minute iterations to my heart’s content, without bothering my designer.

And if other promo needs suddenly crop up, like the header on this site which took less than five minutes, I can pull something together. This amazes me! It’s a total cheat, because I genuinely have no artistic sense at all — I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler.

I’ll get into this cheat in more detail below. First, the basics.

Designing From Scratch

canva tutorial - david baldacci

What if you can’t hire a pro? What if all you have is the book cover and you need to make a quick BookBub ad image? Let’s go through it step-by-step, and hopefully the process will help you skip some of the early, ugly steps I made in Canva. You’ll still need to practice though!

To prove how easy this is, I’ve just plucked the first novel I saw in the charts, and I’m going to pretend it’s on a free promo today — but this is purely for illustrative purposes and no such deal exists, Baldacci fans. (I also hope the designer doesn’t mind me inexpertly butchering their nice cover in the name of design education…).

As I explained to my mailing list last Friday, I disagree with what seems to be a growing consensus to avoid using the book cover in ads. I always do, and my testing clearly shows that approach is more effective. In fact, I go further than that and often try to use the cover art as background, as well as having the cover itself in the foreground — a trick I pinched from Ernie Dempsey.

I’m absolutely convinced that having the ad match the landing page (your product page on Amazon in this case) helps with conversion. I think a mismatch causes readers to hesitate, and once they do that there is a chance of losing them — especially these days with over 200 other titles advertised on our pages and innumerable other ways for readers to click away.

Obviously, I don’t have the original cover art for this book, and only a very low-res cover to play with, so this is going to be a little rough, but you’ll get the idea.

I’m going to make a very simple BookBub ad using Canva, at this exact moment, as I write this post, to show that you can do it too.

The approach is pretty basic: I’ll zoom in on a section of the cover art, use that as background, and then drop a copy of the cover in the foreground. Then I’ll add a simple and eye-catching call-to-action in the form of a button, which endless testing proves is very effective on BookBub.

Here’s the step-by-step in Canva:

  1. Choose the size (for BookBub Ads that’s 300 x 250).
  2. Click “Uploads” in the left-hand navbar and upload your cover.
  3. Drag it onto your canvas and zoom right the way in until none of that lettering is visible. (The image will blur a little unless you are using a hi-res cover, or, ideally, the original cover art before the designer added letting.)
  4. Drag another copy of the cover across and place it to one side leaving room for a button or some other form of call-to-action or price offer.
  5. Click “Elements” in the left-hand navbar. Then select “Shapes” and pick the very first one you see, that big white square. The white square will now be covering your ad image. Click on it and drag the edges inwards until you have a rectangular button and move it beside your cover. Change the color to something eye-catching like red or yellow… if that fits with your palette.
  6. Click “Text” in the left-hand navbar and fiddle with fonts and sizes (top menu) until you have something you are happy with which fits nicely on your button.

That’s it! The whole process took me less than 2 minutes. Seriously.

I recommend you spend a little longer to make it pretty, of course, and with the proper file for the cover it will look much sharper and more professional. 

I’m just showing you something quick and rudimentary to convince you how easy it is to manipulate any book cover into a serviceable ad graphic in Canva.

Prettying Up

It’s much better if you have hi res files, of course, as well as a 3D version of your book cover — which your designer can mock-up for you very quickly (again, ask them to bundle these assets with your cover design, but it’s also extremely cheap to get done separately).

For the latest version of Digital, I asked my designer to provide me with the cover art without lettering, and a 3D version of the cover, and I was able to mock up these very effective BookBub graphics in about twenty minutes using the same steps above, just with a little more fiddling.

Social Media Branding

You can also get your designer to provide you with any ancillary promo graphics you might want, like email headers or Twitter cards or Facebook graphics, but once you have the basic building blocks like background art or icons or 3D covers, you can also build all these yourself – a very handy skill to have as you can’t always predict your needs, or what changes you might require.
Or when you might suddenly got roped into one of these:

Or when I realized that I needed a good graphic for my clickable reader magnet offer inside Digital at the very last-minute, just as I was about to upload and the clock was ticking! As a said, a handy skill to have…

Dealing With Tricky Backgrounds

Sometimes, however, your cover art just isn’t that suitable to use as background, and you’ll have to source something else, like stock art perhaps.

In the case below, that red cover was just bleeding into the red background, and getting lost, and the eye was being drawn to all the wrong places. To provide a little contrast, I used the map I had commissioned for that book instead.

Don’t get too frustrated with your first efforts – but also don’t settle for something mediocre. Ad venues like BookBub can be unforgiving and the images have to be top quality.

And test everything with small-budget ads first! Even the smallest tweak can sometimes turn a losing ad into a winner — something I learned from Phoenix Sullivan.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

40 Replies to “Canva Tutorial • Make Ad Images & Promo Graphics”

  1. Hi, David! I know this is an old post, but I’ve been trying to find a solution to my problem with making BB ads in Canva. When I create the image in the correct size and download it, it always looks blurry. I’ve found a few tricks people say work, but it doesn’t work for me. I can’t seem to get a clear image. I’m using a MacBook Air. Any advice?

    1. I suspect the fundamental problem is the unusually small pixel size of the BookBub ad images which Canva seems to have difficulty exporting sometimes without looking muddy or blurry. A workaround which often helps is to export a print-ready PDF instead of a PNG/JPG and then use a free online tool to convert it to PNG and then shrink it down to 300×250 – which is a bit of a faff but often works.

  2. Great post thanks but unfortunately, this didn’t work for me. Zooming just makes the image bigger but the text still shows. I’m technically challenged so appreciate it’s my problem, and not the instructions!

    1. For best results, you should use a copy of the cover art without the lettering for the background – in most cases. Your designer should be able to supply this, I was just using a workaround here.

      Also, some good news: Canva has created a Design School with lots of free resources to help you learn:

  3. David, I tried to Google “professional ad assets” but couldn’t find them. would you kindly reply with a link?

    thanks. BTW just finished Newsletter Ninja and loved it and of course reviewed it with 5 stars!

    1. I just mean that you should hire a professional designer to generate ad assets for you – the various bits and bobs you will need to promote your book. Facebook ads (1200×628). BookBub ads (300×250). Facebook Cover Photos which are on brand – i.e. match your ads/books/series branding. Email headers. Etc.

      The best person to do that is probably your cover designer, as they can spin these things up easily and cheaply, but if you need specific recommendations, let me know.

  4. Just a question about the CTA button. Bookbub’s own creative tool automatically links to the appropriate retailer in whichever country. How do we overcome this with the CTA on a Canva creative –unless it’s to a landing page?

    1. Hi Dylan – there is no actual button in that the whole ad is a button. The entire image will point wherever you want. BookBub does the heavy lifting on the geography too. At the backend you can set an ad up to target readers in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and India, or any combination thereof, and BookBub will automatically direct those clickers to the appropriate store. (Although I prefer to make individual campaigns targeting each location I want as I like to decide the level of serving each market gets.)

  5. Thanks for this, I’m terrible at graphics, but this gives me some hope that with a bit of trial and error I could create something good to help me with my promotions.

    I hope it’s okay that I share this with the Navigating Indieworld group I’m part of on Goodreads, I’m sure there are a few people there who will benefit.

    1. Absolutely, share away! And I can’t stress how little artistic ability I have. Canva makes it easy, and actually fun too – I was shocked on both counts. It takes a little while before you get really good, but the practicing part is the opposite of a chore!

      1. My pleasure 😀
        So nice to be able to give something back to you – your advice has been so helpful over the last few years as I’ve got to grips with my indie author business.

  6. I’m very new at this.
    1. Please could I get some help with where to find the size 300 X 250? The closest option I could find was “Web Ad” 336 X 280. Or have I misunderstood this?
    2. How do I color my rectangular button? I could only find colors to put on the background.

    1. 1. On the homepage click “Custom Dimensions” in the top right-hand corner and you can input whatever size you like!
      2. Click in the button first, then change the color in the top bar.

  7. David,
    Fantastic post, thank you! I love Canva, and use it to make all manner of promo & social media graphics.
    For an inexpensive, very easy to use site to slot your book covers into 3-D cover graphics of all kinds, I recommend (I am not affiliated with them in any way)
    PS, Can’t wait for the new book!

    1. I totally steal font ideas (and composition ideas) from those templates. Some people have a knack of intuitively knowing what font is needed and which one will look great in a larger size, or bolded, or whatever… I’m not that person.
      I do have a good magpie eye though!

  8. Great post. Just wondering if there are any legal or etiquette issues involved in using part of the cover as background? Obviously, the full cover itself is fine. But is “modifying” the cover designer’s art by selecting a portion and enlarging it OK? For that matter, is it OK with or without the full cover to the side?

    1. This really depends on whatever deal you have with your designer. I’ve heard stories here and there about designers wanting to only grant authors very limited use rights, or even time limited rights on the cover itself. That’s all crazy and authors shouldn’t deal with anyone like that.
      Designers are entitled to do business whatever way they wish, of course, but we are entitled to go to another provider who will be a little more realistic – and there is no shortage of them.
      You either want the full copyright assigned to you or the rights licensed to you in such a manner that you aren’t impinged on using the cover permanently, or adapting it/using it for promotional use. And if your designer won’t agree to that (which is 100% standard), then walk.

  9. Thanks for the informative post! I’ve always used Photoshop, but just had my laptop crash on me and haven’t been successful with trying to reload Photoshop on to it. I’ll give Canva a whirl.

  10. Never considered using a snip of the art for the backdrop – nice trick 🙂 Thanks for the post, David. And thanks for the reminder about Superfans coming out, I’d totally forgotten to order it :S

  11. Thank you, David! This is really helpful! I’ve always struggled with Canva, but I just whipped up two really great ad images!

  12. Great post, David. I’m Photoshop user myself (and can do it in under 2 minutes ;-), but Canva is a good alternative. But here’s a question: You state here and elsewhere that including the price in BB ads is a good idea (with a button), but BB itself says in its best-practice tips “Do not include the price. Including the price in the ad decreased clicks in our tests, so leave this out. Let your product page convince readers to purchase instead.”
    So what’s the deal on that?

    1. Good question.
      While I’m normally loathe to disagree with the data-smart people at BookBub, I absolutely 100% disagree with them on this one point. My testing shows that conversion is much better with the price in the ad (with the caveat that it must be a real deal, i.e. free, 99c, or, at a stretch, $2.99… maybe).
      BookBub has a limited view of the data here. They will see impressions and clicks and CTR, but they have no idea about conversion – they can’t see it. Plus they are making a very general statement and no doubt including full price books in that generalized conclusion.
      Here’s what my testing (lots and lots and lots of it) clearly shows, with little room for doubt:
      If it’s a free book and I stick a great big honking FREE button in the ad, the CTR is much better than if I don’t. Which makes sense, this is a deal hungry crowd and no deal is better than a freebie. Conversion is usually pretty great too.
      If it’s a 99c book and I put a big crude 99c button in the ad, the CTR is great and conversion is too.
      If it’s a higher priced book and I put the price in the ad, CTR tanks.
      And if it’s a higher priced book and I don’t put the price in the ad CTR is great… BUT conversion tanks.
      Remember, it’s a deal hungry crowd. When you have no price, they are expecting a deal and will click. But if it’s not a deal when they get to your product page, they will not convert.

      1. Good answer. And when it’s based on real-world testing, as you’ve clearly done, even better. So the key word here is “deal.” Got it. (and test it!) Thanks for quick reply!

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