The art of covering a book, as part of the MGC practical series we’re running for a week or three.
We’ve talked about this many times, here and elsewhere. I think last time there may have been an epic troll war in the comments section, which I’m hoping to avoid this time. I’m going to do this in two parts, this one being the preliminaries, and next week, a hands-on tutorial style how-to create a cover. Something I’ve come close to doing before, but in a little more depth this time.
There are multiple things going on with a book cover. I’m going to focus on front covers for now, and if enough people want it, come back to spines and back covers later. Let me know in the comments.
First, you have to understand what a cover does. It does not convey a real scene from your book. Now, I’m not saying that if your heroine is a blonde, it’s ok to have a brunette on the cover, but I am going to say that the cover does not need – and indeed, SHOULD NOT be a faithful representation of something from inside the book. Instead, your cover art needs to convey a sense of what’s inside the book, as a whole. Your cover sends subliminal cues to your reader, whether they ever stop to think about it, or not. Is your cover very pink (or purple)? Probably a romance. Barechested male on the front? Probably a romance. Exploding spaceships? Whoops… probably not a romance.
But then you get down to even more subtle signs than that. There’s a spaceship, and a star scene, and a abstract representation of a face in genetic code… probably hard SF. One thing you will never, ever see on the cover of a legitimate SF or fantasy book is a photograph. It’s always an illustration. Only with Romance can you get away with a photo.
How can you tell what your cover art should look like? Well, the first thing I tell anyone I’m consulting with on cover art is to go to Amazon and search for your subgenre. Not the entire genre: all of SF is too broad. On the other hand, western space opera cowboy… that might come up with something more usable. Or simply dystopian SF, or… you get the idea. Now, look at the top 100 paid titles in that subgenre. You will see a certain pattern appear as you do so. We aren’t saying you should copy anything faithfully. But you ought to find the overall pattern, and make your art fit into it, because this is the unseen cue that tells your reader what they can expect when they start reading.
Yes, it’s difficult when your book doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. I know this… my Children of Myth series is both fantasy, and SF. I have opted to go with something that looks more fantasy, as it’s closest to the core of the stories.
Now that you have a mental idea of what works – and not before this! Trust me, you will fall in love with an unsuitable piece of art, and that will only end in tears – you can go to a reliable site and look for stock art. Yeah, yeah, I know. You want an artist who will faithfully and lovingly render the perfect scene for you, with the biometrics of your main character perfectly aligned with your mental picture of them, and… you can’t afford it. Original art justly costs an arm and a leg, and until you are a blockbuster in the sales department (and then you can come back and write a guest post for us telling us how you did it!) you can’t justify laying out thousands of dollars on an artist.
If you find an artist who promises you cheap art, you need to get references – are they reliable? Will they deliver, or vanish with your cash? Are they capable of creating professional level art? – and you need to have a clear understanding of what’s being delivered. If you’re paying someone $50 to do a cover, you will get what you paid for.
So, stock art. You know what you are getting, with a minimum of skill in a graphics program you can tweak it to make it uniquely yours if you are worried about someone else having the same cover, and it’s very inexpensive. I recommend GIMP to most people for tweaking, and the text design a bit later, as it is freeware, there are a ton of tutorials available, and it’s not that difficult to learn. (Shh, all you out there. I’m teaching myself Adobe Illustrator, I don’t want to HEAR how hard you think Gimp is)
Those of us at MGC who do covers highly recommend that you don’t just grab a random piece of art you found on the internet. For one thing, you don’t know where that came from. It may be under copyright – most likely is – and you can’t just slap it on your cover and go. Whatever you pick must be licensed for commercial use. Make sure to attribute the art inside your book. Artists, like authors, have to eat and pay bills, and they can’t do that with stolen art.
For me, I can take bits and pieces of stock art and fuse them into an original creation. This is, I know, not that easy for most folks. And done badly, it’s almost worse than that teenage artist you found. I’ve seen some pretty bad cover art that was created from poorly joined stock pieces. However, there is hope.
Dollarphotoclub is just what it sounds like. A huge collection of stock, both illustrations and photos, which you can search for the right piece. Dreamstime is another good site, although pricier. For free stuff that will take a little more work on your part, try Morgue File. For small elements, I use Open Clipart. You need to keep a couple of things in mind as you are looking.
One, sometimes a photo can be modified to be used as an illustration. We who do this a lot and buy pro-tools like Filter Forge for this. But if you aren’t ready to lay out over a hundred dollars on a program, there are other options. I’ve seen some interesting results with Pencil Sketch, which is freeware. Gimp has manual filters you can layer on (just one won’t do, in this case) until it no longer looks like a photo. So keep that in mind as you browse.
Second, you need to make sure there is enough room for text without interfering with important art elements. The layout of the art, portrait or landscape, isn’t terribly important right now, because you will likely be blowing it up and shifting it around until it looks good, anyway (Oh, yeah, you need to be looking at high-resolution art. Minimum 300 dpi, to be able to use on print covers. Unless this is a short, and will never be in print. But KDP still has quality requirements). But there has to be room for text, which is arguably more important than the art itself. You also don’t want an overly-detailed piece of art. Most readers get their first impression of your book from a thumbnail sized image on the computer screen. Too much detail gets lost, interferes with the text, and looks muddy.
Next week, we have the art, now what? Or: the most important thing on the cover of a book is your name. Make it bigger, I said!