Comprehensive Cover Art and Design
Cover Art & Design: Again
We keep coming back to this, I know. But simply put, it’s one of the most-asked questions I get, and I find myself repeating the same advice roughly once a week. So this time I’m going to compile all the links, and have one link to rule them all…
First and most important: before you start designing a cover, creating art intended for book covers, or even thinking about a book cover, you need to look at book covers. A lot of them. Specific book covers to your genre is even better, as there are subtle cues you need to know and recognize, even if you aren’t doing your own covers. So first, before anything else, go to Amazon and search for your sub-genre (space opera, paranormal romance, werewolf stories, historical military fiction, whatever it is) and look at the top 100 selling books. Not the freebies (unless you are looking at what not to do). Make notes of elements you like, things you hate, and the consistent notes that many of the covers have in common. When you’re done with this, you are ready to begin.
Sarah Hoyt in A Cover Story points out two important things: “Your cover needn’t be – and in most cases shouldn’t be – a scene from the book. Yes, it might be highly
significant to you, but it is not significant to the reader. Say you have a photo of some trees, because your story takes place in a forest-world. What will this say to the reader? Travel book. Maybe inspirational. Why? Because that’s what travel books look like.”
We’re serious. Sarah goes on in a different post, Of Covers and Sales, “Forget what IS in your book. Consider instead how to sell the book. No, seriously. Take the cover to Darkship Thieves. There is no scene in the entire book in which Athena walks out naked amid the powertrees, because vacuum. Space.”
Dave Freer (in a very old post! Flash back to 2009) talks about covers, “I’m sure we’ve all seen books where the art director put in a redhaired freckleface instead of a dark-skinned dark-haired hero, put a romance cover on horror, or a horror cover on fantasy — didn’t read the book, and didn’t care. Of course, cover art doesn’t HAVE to be accurate. Really. It’s going to irritate the author, the hardcore fans — but if the arwork was good enough to get you to pick up the book and read the blurb… it was great artwork. Well, unless the artwork suggested horror, and the blurb is slushy romance.”
Before Dorothy Grant consented to come write for us here at MGC, she put a short series up on her blog I highly recommend (links can be found here.) and among a lot of other points, “Make your name bigger because trad pub has trained readers that big names are important, awesome authors that should be bestsellers, while small names are forgettable midlist. You want to be a bestseller someday – start faking it til you make it, because the reader won’t believe it if you don’t design your cover like it.” Yep, MAKE YOUR NAME BIGGER is usually the first thing I say to an Indie Author.”
What about art? In But I’m not an Artist! Dorothy explains “You don’t have to be a good artist to get great covers. Go back and read up on design, typography, layout, and art not with the despairing expectation that you’ll be called upon to create your own cover, but with the confidence that you’ll now know just enough to be able to tell the cover artist / designer you hire why you like their design, or why not, and what you want changed. If you can speak the same technical language as them, or even get fairly close pidgin, you’ll be able to collaborate for a far better cover than “Um, I don’t like it because it doesn’t feel right. I dunno, the thingie is just not good, so change it.”
Dorothy Grant makes a vital point later about hiring an artist to create for you in a different post, and you should read the whole post on How to Work with Artists, “So, what terms should you offer the artist? Do NOT start with Work For Hire What is work for hire? It is, very simply, where you offer to pay the artist for the art, and then expect to keep the artwork and have all rights and usage, leaving the artist with nothing but money. You’ve seen this from sidewalk artists and beginning artists; they create something, you hand them cash and walk off with it.”
In a very long post about cover art that goes into great detail (you should add it to your reading list) I’ve talked about this before as well: 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)
And last, but certainly not least, we’re going to do the most important part of the cover. “But wait,” you say,” a book cover is all about the art!”
Nope, wrong. A book cover is all about the text. Without the text, your reader is lost. Who wrote this? How will I find it? What’s it about? The title and author name are absolutely vital. Let’s put it this way. You could have a solid color (well, okay, maybe a little grunge or somethin’ going on!) cover, and if the text is right, that’s all you need to attract the eye. The typography in a perfect situation is part of the art of the cover, and it wouldn’t look right without it. Read the rest about typography here.
Now, finally, I’m getting to what started me on this road again. Doug Irvin asked in Sarah’s Diner “I want to learn how to draw and make cover art. I don’t expect I would ever go into business; but it would help if I could better express my concepts to a real concept artist.”
I promptly started firing off questions at him. This is, after all, what I do. I’m a professional artist, book cover designer, and sometimes even unpaid consultant (ok, usually unpaid all of the above) for people who are really trying and can’t afford me.
Well, I guess the first question is: what medium would you like to work in? Digital, acrylics, oils? Learning to draw is the foundation, but being able to paint is (as I’m learning) a whole ‘nother level and deeply complex. You don’t have to own a scanner if you choose a traditional medium, you can get away with photographs if you are only planning to show them to another artist who will execute your idea. Photographing for actual use is tricky, though, and a good flatbed scanner is a must then.
If you are truly trying to learn digital art, I recommend searching for tutorials even before you download software – DeviantArt is a great place to find a ton of them. This is a link to my collection of tuts. Youtube is another source. Using DA, or Pinterest, you can easily mark them to be able to come back to them later. This is my Pinterest board on digital art.
Second, I would start with one of the free software programs. My go-to is GIMP. While it’s not always a favorite because of an unfriendly GUI in the past, the new one is slick and intuitive for me. I actually like it better than Photoshop most of the time. I’ve just picked up Krita, another drawing program, and it’s got great potential.
Third, and perhaps the most sticky for you, is how you are going to draw on the computer. Drawing with a mouse is, trust me, a complete PITA. I’ve done it. The original art on Vulcan’s Kittens was done with a mouse. I now own a pentablet and love it to pieces. I have an off-brand tablet, an UGEE pentablet, which cost me about $60 and gives me an 6 x 10″ workspace.
If actually doing the art from scratch won’t work – I don’t use my own art for covers, it’s the wrong style most of the time – then there’s also the road I go most of the time when I’m creating cover art – transforming elements into art through the creative use of Photoshop (or gimp) and filters or overpainting. Photomanipulation takes some of the challenges of creating art from scratch and reduces them. You want to be careful with it, though, as it can lead to some truly dreadful effects if done badly. It’s worth learning how to do well.
There is a lot of material here. I’m going to ask you, dear readers, to tell me what I’ve left out. I realize this isn’t a hands-on tutorial type post (sorry, Doug) but it’s intended to be a huge info-dump that will allow us all to get on the same page, and then I can start breaking it down into chunks of ‘how-to’ in a reasonable frame. I will likely do some of those posts on my blog, so we aren’t waiting a week at a time for a lesson. We’ll see. For now, I’ll leave you with this: art and design are two hands of the same body, but they are different. If you want to learn how to tell a book cover design is good, or create one yourself, that’s one skill set. If you want to learn how to create art, that’s another skill set and the very first step to that is learning how to draw. I can help point people at resources for both, but I need to know where you want to start.
Before anything else. You must learn how to see.