Getting Graphic with your Work

And I’m not talking about describing the gory bits in gruesome detail. No, I had planned to do a walk-through tutorial today about creating a logo for your writing business. I hadn’t anticipated two things. One, to do a proper logo you need to create a vector file rather than image or illustration. I’ll get into what that means when I do the post – for today it matters because a week ago I ended my subscription to the full Adobe Creative Cloud, dropping back to Photoshop and Lightroom, and that means I don’t have Adobe Illustrator for showing how to do a logo. Which isn’t a bad thing, because most of you don’t have that, either, or you wouldn’t be asking me to show you how to do this. I did a little research, and downloaded Inkscape, the cousin of my favorite freeware graphic program, Gimp. Then I ran into the second thing I hadn’t planned on. You see, I’m getting married next week. I’m also traveling for several days attendant to that. I am afraid I ran out of time this week to teach myself Inkscape and create a tutorial. So! I put together some odds and ends of graphic design projects that can be useful to you all, and one that I was specifically asked for. I will be around to chat in comments, so feel free to ask questions. Oh, and Amanda wanted me to point out that things I discuss in this post, like guides and flattening layers, are pertinent to those of you working on print covers. So pay attention!

Postcards and Bookmarks

Having something to hand to someone who is interested in your book is a great thing. You can, of course, default to a standard business card, nothing wrong with that. You can do a lot with those. But today I’m going to talk specifically about the layout and requirements of the bigger, more art-heavy promo material. I take them with me to conventions to sign for people who own my ebooks but want a signature. I hand them out to… anyone who remotely looks interested when I say that I am an author. I give my local libraries packets of 50 bookmarks to keep with all the others on their counter. I can mail the postcards to libraries, schools, and other venues and promote myself and my books (I rarely actually do that, but it’s a possibility).

While you are shopping for a printer, you will discover that there are a lot of variations in size available. I’m using a 4×6 inch postcard, the standard size, for this batch. I may switch it up with the next one. Book marks can be laid out in the same way, so I won’t cover them individually now.

In Gimp, open a new file. Set the size to 4 inches by 6 inches (or what your printer requires), and then drop the Advanced Menu down, and set the dpi to 300 or 400. Do not leave it at 72 dpi, the default, as this will be rejected by any reputable printer and will look terrible if printed. Now that you have your new file open, pay attention to the print requirements for bleed. You will want there to be no live elements (important text or graphics) within 0.25 inches of the edges. You can click on the rulers at the left side and top and drag what is called a ‘guide’ to mark  your bleed area so you don’t put something there by accident.

I chose to lay out this postcard with three covers and represent my Pixie trilogy. I would not put more than four covers on a card, you don’t want it to appear cluttered. postcard layout

Open as Layers (found in the File menu dropdown) the covers or art you want to use. I generally use a jpg or png version of the covers so I don’t have to manage umpteen zillion layers in GIMP. Scale the covers to the desired size, you can do this easily with a right-click on the image and selecting Scale Layer. Using the move tool, place the art where you think you want it. Keep in mind you may have to move it again. This card was designed to have text on the front and a blank back, but you will note there is not a lot of text. This is a tool to interest them in what you have to offer, enough that they will take the next step. In the highlighted box, I have my website address. In the other corner, I have a QR code. These are scannable with a smartphone or tablet: this particular code will take them to Pixie Noir’s Amazon sales page, where they can look inside and read the sample. I want them there so they can buy as soon as I hook them.

When you’re ready to print, you will save this file as a pdf, just as you did for the cover for print. Make sure when you do so that you first merge all the layers, but save your work before you start this process. If you look closely at the screenshot above, you will see several layers of images, text, and other elements. All of those need to be flattened, or bad things can happen in the printing process. Right click on each layer thumbnail and select ‘merge down’ from the menu. DO NOT SAVE your xcf file at this point! You want to preserve all your xcf (Gimp) files for later. I’ll show you why in a minute. Now that you have everything smooshed, drop down the File Menu and select Export. Export your file as a pdf. Close your file and click discard changes.

Batch-Editing Art and Covers

This last week I had a chance to help out a friend who was in a bind. He had commissioned art for the covers of several stories, but they lacked a unifying element to tie the series together, and he wasn’t sure what to do to further signal his specific genre with the typography. This is not something many of you will ever have to do, most of us deal with one book at a time, but there are occasions when it’s a useful task, such as aligning covers for a series. And I told Dave I’d show how I did it, so he can tackle it himself if it happens again.

What I did was to open the first layer of artwork and lay the text out on it, along with the graphic unifying element (tentacles, to signal Lovecraftian cthuloid elements in the stories).

I’ll explain how I added the tentacles. After poring through the Dollar Photo Club for something suitable, I came up with the illustration below.


This is an illustration rather than a vector, which is better, but it will work.
This is an illustration rather than a vector, which is better, but it will work.

The first thing you need to do is right-click the layer thumbnail in the righthand window, and look at the bottom of the menu, where you will choose ‘add alpha channel’ which allows you to have a transparency rather than white (default) background. Then I chose the ‘select’ menu, and then ‘select by color’ and clicked on the black around the octopus. Then I clicked on delete and eliminated all the black, leaving a suitable graphic.

The graphic element, I can now manpulate it without overlying it's background on the art.
The graphic element, I can now manipulate it without overlying it’s background on the art.

Finally, I had one cover laid out with title, author name, and graphic unifying element (hereafter GUE).

Note all the layers in the righthand window.
Note all the layers in the righthand window.

Choose ‘Save as” from the file menu and name the file appropriately. Save it as an XCF file for now, you may need to manipulate it again. You will note the GUE is seen in the upper left and lower right corners. I had put just a little bit showing, and changed the mode (see top of righthand window, above opacity) of the layer to make it look like I wanted. Experiment with this, dodge, burn, lighten… powerful effects here.

Now that I’m happy with the fonts, layout, and this cover, I can move onto the next one. I simply click the little eye next to the layer thumbnail and make the art disappear. Eventually I will delete the unused layers, but I want all of them right now in case I need to make changes.


The art isn’t gone, it’s just not showing on the work area any longer.

I've already altered the title, and the GUE, the author's name I don't touch.
I’ve already altered the title, and the GUE, the author’s name I don’t touch.

Now I go up and open the art for this cover from the File>Open as Layers menu. You may need to drag the art layer thumbnail in the righthand window down, until it is under the other elements. You may also need to scale it so it is the same size as the background you see above. Play around with your GUE layer some more, until it looks right on the art.

What the final product of another cover in the same series looks like
What the final product of another cover in the same series looks like

Using Save As, name and save this file, then repeat with changing the title and the art for each cover you are doing. Dave had six, but it took very little time once I had every thing set up to manipulate the art and GUE under the layers of the text and modifying elements (drop shadows and that sort of thing).

I’m probably missing something, but ask in the comments and I’ll explain.

29 thoughts on “Getting Graphic with your Work

  1. A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have understood a word you said. Now, after learning Pixelmator, and making my first cover, it all makes sense.

    I think it’s worth it for authors to make the effort to learn some graphic design, and a program of their choice (Pixelmator is inexpensive and powerful on the Mac, available for PC I think, too). Once you know how, you can also rent access to Adobe programs for a month at a time, long enough to do a cover or a project if you focus on it. GIMP works for lots of people.

    But once you learn the controls, and have done a lot of market research by looking at covers, reading blogs and books, and learning, you are set for life. From then on, you do what we do: put in your time and effort, instead of paying other people. It’s a very American and pioneer attitude, and fits right in with doing your own editing and formatting – all skills that can be daunting at first, but are not completely horrible to learn.

    It’s been a lot of fun.

    It also can save time, in the sense that working with designers means finding one you like, and going through the rounds of adjustments.

    I’m pretty sure the next one will be a LOT faster. After all, I now have licenses to the fonts I plan to use as my brand, and a ‘look’ that I can see myself repeating.

    1. It’s worth the effort to learn even if you DON’T wind up doing them all yourself, because then if you hire someone, you can see if they are screwing up royally. It sucks to pay for work and then get a substandard product you can’t use.

      Personally, I not only enjoy the creative aspect of laying out covers and art, but what you said about the pioneer attitude… I’ve gotten through a lot of rough patches by asking myself what my pioneer ancestresses would have done, and then learning how to do it myself instead of begging for help.

    2. One big advantage of open source is the ability to try different packages. Many years ago we settled on Corel at work, which means I’m now pretty well stuck on that path, work-wise, what with get-it-done-now and tons of artwork I’ve saved and reuse regularly for new ads and such.

      I really like the alpha channel manipulation in Gimp and have used it for ads and adjusting media backgrounds at church. It turns out that you can import bitmaps into Inkscape,and the trace function has some advantages over CorelDraw X3. Trace is really handy in converting bitmaps to vectors.

      WORD OF WARNING: VIRUS SCAN BEFORE INSTALL! Some places package legitimate open source software with various nasties, from nagware to outright viruses. Gimpshop, a version of Gimp made to operate like Photoshop, triggered a malware warning from AVG. It could have been a false positive, or maybe I didn’t download it from the legitimate site, I deleted it, anyway.

  2. First, the way you describe how you ‘hook’ new people brings up hilarious images of authors fishing at conventions.

    Second, isn’t it really spendy to make all the 4×6 postcards? Do you use a local Kinko’s or print them yourself? Is it actually postcard or thick paper, or is it just postcard size on regular paper?

    Third, if memory serves me, which it does less every day, vector graphics are just “instructions” about how to lay out the pixels that go into an image. Why is this better than just starting with an image?

    Congrats on the upcoming wedding 🙂

    1. I’ve blogged before about seducing one’s readers, so fishing is.. Yeah, that’s a better analogy 😉

      The last run of 500 postcards I ordered was on a sale, $20, with $14 in shipping. From a local printer I got 250 of them for $0.15 each. You do not want to run them off yourself, or on regular paper, they will look bad. With promo material it’s better to not have any than for it to look cheap or handmade. I prefer 100lb gloss cardstock of 14pt paper with gloss finish and coating. I don’t use Vistaprint because I’ve had materials from them in the past that looked horrible, and they are a bit scammy in their business practices. I no longer recommend Gotprint after a customer service issue, but if you’re willing to give it a go, their products are high-quality and cheap. If the local printer I’m trying out now works for me, I will put their information out in a post sometime soon.

      Vector graphics allow almost unlimited scalability. What this means is that no matter how little or small you make your finished product/image, there is no pixelation. For a logo that will be used in many different places and in different ways, this is far ideal to a jpg or png image.

      and thanks 🙂 It’s a con wedding, but flash mob style, so hopefully it will be a fun event.

      1. Of course, scalability. This is why Codex does the drawing.

        Your info here is very helpful. We’re prepping for Sasquan and want *something* that can both serve as a reminder of what we do and can act as bullet proof material. Stacked thick enough anyway.

        The post on “blurbs” you did a few days ago is great as well. We’re using stuff our mom’s have said. Or would have said if they knew I was going to quote them. It is great to be alive in 2015 where “nuance” is a synonym for “questionable ethics”!

        1. If you’re prepping for Sasquan, might I suggest bookmarks? Readers tend to grab those more than postcards, and there are print sales on those as well.

          1. I thought about that but there are a couple of problems. First, we are not selling anything. We don’t have a table. Tables cost money. Free web comics don’t make as much money as you’d think. Tables also make you into “stationary targets” and we might be considered *slightly* partisan in the Hugo imbroglio. A bookmark doesn’t have enough space to toss on some “representative frames” *and* include a great blurb or two. Like this one I may or may not have just made up:

            “It’s a comic. *Now* can I see my granddaughter?” — Q’s Mom

              1. Doodling yes, we thought about that. The odds of anyone wanting our autographs… yeah, okay, maybe if we’re in the bar. I’m not going to promise anything on the blurb, if would have to be awfully funny to compete with made-up quotes from our moms.

                But hmmm, we do have a lot of links to “people we like” so maybe putting links to “friends” around the border on the back side could be accomplished. I’ll run it by Codex (OvergrownHobbit). Or maybe we could leave you guys off for, you know, a small donation. Hey, maybe we *can* monetize it!

                Find us at

      2. Huh. We’ve gotten good results at self-printing even business cards at work. Yes, it can be pricey , but allows for small runs, where the local print shop has a larger minimum. For example, for a notice to go out to maybe a hundred customers, we did in-house. But for even a letter with company logo we needed to send to several thousand, we went to the printer.

        Now, this is a local printer, and not something like Kinkos, but he had the ability to subcontract with another printer to fold, place in envelopes, and mail, which was a huge help for us. Printers have resources that we might not be aware of, and it can pay to check them out.

        I should also mention that while I print small runs of business cards at work, I use one of those business-sized copiers connected to the network, and is essentially like a color laser printer. That way the cards don’t smear. I also use micro perforated edges so the cards have a clean, professional, look.

        I love vector graphics precisely for scalability. Unfortunately, most places ask for it in JPEG, though we did have one ask for TIFF in CMYK (CMYK for print, but be aware that Amazon wants it in RGB for display on electronic devices). Don’t know when we’ve had someone say EPS, which can allow you to use scalable graphics.

        1. When I caution against self-printing, I’m thinking of most folks with a color inkjet printer. You can get ok results with short runs at home if you have a good printer, and certainly for an office you can do short runs. But most people when they get promotional material are looking for quantities of a hundred to hundreds if not thousands (for, say, a really BIG con…)

          1. Oh, yeah. For runs that large, a printer is the way to go. And they can neatly fold and box it, too, which is a huge plus. Even with small runs in-house that can be a pain.

            Heh. I remember when we used ink-jets for small event stuff, like programs, and hoped it didn’t rain and no one had sweaty hands.

            That said, I once got roped into making a full color three-fold brochure promoting an event, and had to run that in-house. Occasionally I still have to help modify a three-fold brochure for someone who thinks they’re saving money by printing it themselves.

  3. NB: I am someone who has to use Photoshop in-depth in my work (photography studio; including graphic elements, logo re-creation, and rescuing badly-photographed shots.)(Also note that I’m several years away from doing this on a regular basis.)

    The one thing I’d urge everybody to learn is MASKS. When you mask off an element of an image, it’s hidden but not gone. This is far superior to erasing from an image, because you can always nudge the edges of a mask around, but you can’t get back erased content.

    Also note that the fastest way to get something you can dink around with without worry is to COPY your image. In PS, you go to the Layer menu, select your layer, and drag it onto the “New Layer” button. Instant copy to play with, and you still have your original if you need it (when you’ve changed it so far that you need to start over in whole or in part.)

    And when in doubt, keep it simple. “Clean” is easier to sell than “busy.”

      1. It’s amazing what deadlines will teach you. It’s also amazing what “beat the photographer” moments will teach you. (“You photographed a sports team in low resolution three stops too low? What were you THINKING?” <—Actual image I had to fix. Oh, that one was awful.)

        My own personal test for if someone really understands Photoshop is to have them do a braces removal. It's trickier than it sounds because the metal reflects off the teeth and changes the color—if you're careless, you can end up with a set of teeth that look dead. There are, of course, shortcuts, but they depend upon having a huge bank of pictures to work from (as, say, a high school full of senior portraits might be.) I've stolen a lot of tooth enamel in my day; the trick is getting someone with similar lighting and a big smile…

  4. I’ll have to read this in depth when the brain is actually somewhere within a light year of this planet.

    But I got the important part. Congratulations! Wishing you many, many happy years.

  5. Thank you from the bottom of my inky little heart! I’ve been trying to figure out some of these techniques, and this has been very helpful in that regard.

    Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! 🙂

  6. Cedar, I know that you are immersed up to your neck in projects, etc., but it would help a lot of people, I’m sure, if you would someday collect all your how-to writings into a book. I can guarantee you’d have one buyer!

  7. Incredibly helpful post. Any ideas about how to get fonts on gimp not yo look so… Gimpy? They’re what’s really busting my ptuchis. Well that and the scanner from 2002 and the no-longer working Wacom tablet…

    1. Gimpy? I am using fonts come from outside Gimp, primarily. For specialty fonts I use (always check licensing before downloading and using a font). You can adjust kerning for each individual letter, now. You couldn’t in previous incarnations that I remember.

      If you are making your own font, which is something I have not tried, I would suggest doing it in another program – Inkscape might be a good option, I don’t know. I do know that being able to scale is very important.

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