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…

dragon thief
Here’s an example of a good cover, using elements that break some rules: letterboxing, and the color palette is not what you would usually see on a science fiction cover. What do these colors make you think of?
This is a good cover, beautiful art, but it does something most author's can't get away with - makes the title unreadable at the thumbnail size
This is a good cover, beautiful art, but it does something most author’s can’t get away with – makes the title unreadable at the thumbnail size

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 beand in most cases shouldn’t bea scene from the book. Yes, it might be highly

Here's another cover that improbably sells well, even though you can't read - can barely see - the author's name. But this cover has become iconic - not something a beginning writer can use.
Here’s another cover that improbably sells well, even though you can’t read – can barely see – the author’s name. But this cover has become iconic – not something a beginning writer can use.

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.”

Here, the art has possibilities. But the type falls down on the job - you can't read it in thumbnail, and there's plenty of room to make it bigger. Much bigger.
Here, the art has possibilities. But the type falls down on the job – you can’t read it in thumbnail, and there’s plenty of room to make it bigger. Much bigger.

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.”

The art here is ok, it's boring and safe but with the right typography could be adequate. This is not the right typography. Also, the title is huge, and badly laid out.
The art here is ok, it’s boring and safe but with the right typography could be adequate. This is not the right typography. Also, the title is huge, and badly laid out.

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.

This popped - pooped? - up in my search for science fiction. Um - it's great for a children's book. Very Mo Willems (go look for him, this is a straight derivative) but completely wrong for science fiction. Your readers would not be happy.
This popped – pooped? – up in my search for science fiction. Um – it’s great for a children’s book. Very Mo Willems (go look for him, this is a straight derivative) but completely wrong for science fiction. Your readers would not be happy.

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.

This is just bad. There are too many elements, there's no clear heirarchy (what's the title?) there are elements that don't belong (free preview) and it's just plain bad.
This is just bad. There are too many elements, there’s no clear heirarchy (what’s the title?) there are elements that don’t belong (free preview) and it’s just plain bad.

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.”

And this is where we see why you have to learn photoshop if you are going to bled disparate elements on a cover. It should never look like they were cut out and pasted on top of one another. And is that the prow of the Enterprise? Never ever use famous iconographic images in your designs.
And this is where we see why you have to learn photoshop if you are going to bled disparate elements on a cover. It should never look like they were cut out and pasted on top of one another. And is that the prow of the Enterprise? Never ever use famous iconographic images in your designs.

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.

This is a photo, which is a no-no on a science fiction cover. It's a bad photograph, and the text is something you would find inside the cover, the third strike against it. Rule of thumb, you don't put fonts on the cover you would use for the inner text.
This is a photo, which is a no-no on a science fiction cover. It’s a bad photograph, and the text is something you would find inside the cover, the third strike against it. Rule of thumb, you don’t put fonts on the cover you would use for the inner text.

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.

I don't even know what's going on here. The orange part isn't part of the cover. The art is badly placed - you don't put text or elements on a human's head, and the author's name is too small.
I don’t even know what’s going on here. The orange part isn’t part of the cover. The art is badly placed – you don’t put text or elements on a human’s head, and the author’s name is too small.

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.



63 thoughts on “Comprehensive Cover Art and Design

  1. Name of author bigger — I ought to do that for my next one.
    In the right hands, a cover artist can do amazing things with typography. My brother came up with some fantastic lettering for Sunset and Steel Rails: a beautiful Belle Epoque font, combined with a very mechanical looking one for the title element.:

    1. Usually author name bigger than the title works when the author is so well known that name alone sells the book. Take Stephen King’s grocery list, put a cover on it, and his name at the top in bold text, and it will sell.

        1. I think we (authors or designers) fall in love with the art and don’t want to cover it up with a name. “It’ll look cluttered,” I’ve heard.

  2. While I won’t be making any covers, at least as far as I can foresee, I can say that the issue(s) with GIMP work both ways. I started with that and once when I had to use PhotoShop I was utterly lost and often quite annoyed. And considering even only the PDF reader (the instant I found an alternate PDF reader, I switched), my sympathies to anyone attempting to decipher an Adobe product.

    1. FWIW, while software can both help and hinder, the real issue is putting what you see in your mind’s eye into visual form. I’ve had concepts that I thought would work well, but apparently don’t on paper, real or virtual.

  3. Would a starship against a starfield work as a cover for a novel that’s about a guy who sells his asteroid mine in order to purchase said starship?

    If so, does anyone know of a program that makes it easier to build a 3D sci-fi starship models? I’m under the poverty line, so for the first few novels I pretty much need my covers to be free.

    1. There are several kinds of open source software. The problem I’ve run into is that I come more from a drafting/CAD/CAM background and essentially want to photorender objects I draw drafting-style. Frankly it’s a puzzle. I’ve thought of Blender, tinkered with FreeCAD, and faked it with a simple object and vector art software, but I’ve yet to find anything I really grok.

    2. If you’re not dealing with particularly organic forms, FreeCAD may be a candidate. If the ships you’re trying to design are like the Imperial ships in Star Wars, the Federation ships from Star Trek, or the SDF-1 Macross, then FreeCAD may be viable. You can make curvy shapes, like a vase, but only by rotating or extruding a 2D profile, consisting of a spline or a series of arcs and lines. I’ve found that FreeCAD works well enough for shapes like buildings, bridges, airships, locomotives, and train cars. It does have a bit of learning curve, but there are online tutorials. It has a number of supported import/export formats, and some support for external renderers, such as POV-Ray.

      Blender is designed as a digital content creation tool, not a CAD package, and supports very organic shapes. However, I’ve found it to have steep learning curve, even with books and tutorials handy, and it isn’t very intuitive.

      POV-Ray, mentioned above, is ray-tracer that renders graphics based upon a file that describes the shapes in what is sort of a programming language. If you’ve got a programming background, or at least worked with markup languages like HTML, it may be OK. One downside: the only output from it is a 2D image file. You can’t really import your design into some other tool, only the 2D image it generated.

      OpenSCAD is somewhat similar to POV-Ray, but has more of CAD focus than visualization. You can render a 2D image of the 3D model you create with it, but it lacks much visualization options. You’d have to export the 3D model generated by OpenSCAD into another tool (like Blender) to actually give it nice materials (color/texture/lighting) properties.

      All of the above are available free. In the not-so-free category, Sketchup is a great tool with a shallow learning curve. Like FreeCAD, it does not handle very organic shapes particularly well. It is very intuitive, but the license for the professional version is around $700. You can try out the free version, but that has limited import/export capabilities, and you’re not legally able to use it commercially.

        1. I remember (figuratively) running screaming from the BRL-CAD website and not looking back. My general recollection is capable, but as you said, steep learning curve. Given the other alternatives I was already looking at (FreeCAD, Sketchup, OpenSCAD) I didn’t investigate further.

      1. Ship designs are going to vary quite a bit. Example: There’s a military design that looks vaguely like a Star Destroyer, designed so that when it faces you, ~90+% of the ship’s surface is visible and the weapon emplacements on said surface are able to target you in a massive alpha-strike. (Yes, they’re vulnerable to the rear. They’re made for fleet use, not independent operations.)

        On the other hand, the ship that the POV guy is getting is a reinforced spine with oversized warp rings and engines, designed to locate pseudo-ftl paths through deep space. It’s a “spine” because you attach whatever mission modules you think you’ll need before setting out.

        So . . . FreeCAD for original design, to OpenSCAD to convert into model form, to Blender for textures et al?

        1. You shouldn’t need OpenSCAD as an intermediate between FreeCAD and Blender. FreeCAD natively exports a large number of formats sub as OBJ, STL, Collada DAE, etc. which Blender can natively read. I haven’t experimented much with texture mapping in FreeCAD but it does seem to have some support (e.g. the View – Texture mapping menu option), in addition to basic coloring. I haven’t tried exporting and importing texture-mapped objects from FreeCAD into Blender yet so I don’t know how smoothly it will work, or which formats work best.

          Sketchup is somewhat friendlier with that type of functionality, but again there’s the license cost to use commercially. I’m seriously considering it because for building modeling for games/graphics purposes it is even smoother and more intuitive than FreeCAD, IMHO.

          1. Will have to look into Sketchup. Compared to even old versions of AutoCAD and Microstation, FreeCAD feels kludgy.

            i would be tempted to simply draw a rough horizontal and one vertical view on paper and sketch an old fashioned 30°-60°-90° perspective drawing, draw it, trace with an ink pen, scan it, and then shade it.Then use that as an object against the background. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, but might present a learning curve for someone without drafting experience. The point is that unless we’re going to use a 3D object in something more than a 2D cover, 2D works just fine.

            FWIW, I used to draw moonscapes with nothing more than a #2 pencil and a black ink pen. It worked well because without an atmosphere, shadows are razor sharp, hence the black ink pen. That razor sharp shadow thing might help in drawing space ships.

    3. Oh, and on the 2D front, let me mention Paint.NET It is a free but Windows-only, and lacks many of the features of GIMP or Photoshop, but if all you’re doing is some basic image post-processing, or placing text over graphics, it is often adequate. It is very intuitive with almost no learning curve. It does support layers. I don’t know if it will suffice for cover art creation purposes, but when I need to overlay captions over screenshots, highlight certain areas, etc. when producing technical documentation, I’ve found it adequate.

    4. Albert: You can get Daz 3D for free at , but building the models from scratch will take awhile. They do have pre-made models for sale in their store. You’ll need Daz 3D for the models, either way.

      Albert and Everyone Else: The best beginning Photoshop Tutorial I’ve ever seen is Photoshop Top Secret, which they are apparently calling Iphotoshop now, and charging through the nose for. I bought the DVDs for, I think, $150 dollars and now they’re charging $499 per course. I did a Google search and found a work around. You can get it on Groupon for $29 dollars.

      I don’t know if this is both Iphotoshop courses or not, but even one for just $29 is a good deal. I really like this course because it doesn’t assume you know anything. A lot of tutorials will say something like, “And now you just do X.” Well, if you’re a beginner, oftentimes you don’t know how to do X. Also, I like that this is a concepts based course, meaning that it isn’t just a random collection of techniques. Once you’re through with this, you should have a strong enough foundation to be able to figure out anything else that might be stumping you.

      Also, does Doug mean learning to draw in general or with a pentablet or both?

      (Keep in mind the above is just my opinion and your mileage may vary.)

      1. Beats me. I have kids who draw, a SIL who is a concept artist (out of work, but still?) and my wife does nice freehand sketches. And I can just draw a straight line – barely – with a fine point pencil and a straight edge. Years ago I took engineering drawing, but what you don’t use, etc.
        So art interests me, but it may be a matter of learning enough to be intelligible to an expert.

      2. Can you actually model things in Daz3D? Maybe I missed something or their website just didn’t make it clear, but when I was looking at it a few months ago it looked more like it was geared to scene composition, posing, animation, rendering, etc. using models purchased from their online shop. OTOH, those are all valuable capabilities, too, because the final goal is to render something impressive, not simply to model it.

        1. There are some primitive (As in basic object) editing tools in Daz 3d. But yeah, it’s mostly designed so that you can pose the objects you buy from their content store in scenes that you also buy from their content store, which thousands of basement dwelling boys use to take female figures with the breast-size slider pushed to 11 in physically impossible positions, and then upload the result to DeviantArt….

          1. A brief perusal just now of their online shop content does seem to indicate a large portion of the models they’re selling are of scantily or intriguingly-clad young ladies, some of whose bodies start of rather improbable. It might not be a bad package for combining stuff you’ve modeled or purchased (starship, castle, etc.) with some stock 3D characters purchased from their shop to create decent graphics for cover art.

            1. Renderosity is a place you can go and find free 3D modeled stuff (and sell it I think) but I would highly caution against using 3D modeled human figures on covers unless your characters are androids. They look plastic, and tend to hit readers hard with the Uncanny Valley. Not a good thing.

              1. Interesting. I notice a lot of covers with people and rendered background elements. Do you know if the people are computer or scanned art added atop the rendered image, or if it is done by manually touching up the faces afterwards?

    5. Yes, what you describe would work nicely – nothing cues SF more than a spaceship 🙂 I’m afraid I can’t help with a program, though, I buy 3D modeled ships and then alter them myself usually. I have enough on my plate without adding that learning curve!

      1. Hmm. . . . The old SF special effects standard was to combine model kits to make a space ship. IIFC, first they made a basic shape, then used the model kits for interesting do-dads glued to the hull. Someone skilled at putting together models might try that and photograph the results – as long as it’s not a straight-out model kit space ship.

  4. What caught my eye with Dragon and Thief is how the scene follows a book I once read on cartooning and flow of action. Can’t find it now, but it was by one of the artists who worked on the Tom and Jerry cartoons.

    Also,drawing tablets are now $60?. They used to run in the 100s, which was, of course, beyond my means. Usually I scan a sketch and have vector art software “trace” it into a vector drawing or trace it by hand with a mouse by making node points and smoothing curves. Note that this is mostly for line art, such as B&W cartooning, logos, and such.

      1. One wacom line is now in the $60-100 range. Easily equal to the “pro” models from no more than 10 years back.

  5. A comment on The Spacefarers cover: One of the problems with the text is finding a color that works with a light/dark colors mixed background. This is an issue that absolutely drives me nuts, mostly because I don’t have a good solution. If I can’t pick a color and shade that work, I try to a “shadow” effect around the text that’s sometimes just a slightly dark transparency.

    With The Spacefarers the solution is simply to make the title smaller and make sure it’s on the dark portion. Other times, though, we don’t have that option. Just last December I had to do one for a graphic on the company website, and it almost drove me up the wall.

    1. Using drop shadows and bevels, bumps, embossing – it’s all fair when creating a title that lifts off the page and has some presence to it. You also want to avoid fonts that are ‘skinny’ most of the time. Tightening kerning (space between letters and words) and line spacing can also help.

  6. Eh, I’m still not convinced about having my name bigger than the title. Or even the same size. I prefer a slightly smaller name to title font. :shrug: If that sells fewer books?

    Now I paid someone for my first and third books. First book looks awesome. Third book looked awful. So awful it made a debut on one of those lousy cover sites. I researched that dude. He did beautiful artwork. He had good reviews. And I got a cover that was nothing like anything I’d seen of his previous work or anything like the reviews. And short of hiring a lawyer, I’m out a wad of cash. (I subsequently found a better artist and paid her to build me a new cover.)

    I made the covers for my 2nd and 4th books myself, and they’re not bad. (I think. No one’s pointed and laughed yet.) I’m using an antiquated MS product that came free with FrontPage back in 2000. It works for me up to a point. I tried GIMP and got so frustrated because it wouldn’t do what Image Composer does that I gave up. I also tried RealDRAW. Meh. I’ll keep using my old program until it’s no longer compatible with whatever Windows version I have in the future.

    1. First, try Gimp 2.8 if you were trying the earlier iterations. Second, your name does not have to be bigger than the title. But it does need to be bigger, especially on an ebook, so it’s readable/prominent at a thumbnail size. People shop for you – not a specific title. Remember that.

      1. Oh yeah, I try to make sure everything is legible in a thumbnail. I just had someone suggest to me months ago that I needed to make my name bigger than the title because all the cool kids… err, big names… are doing it, and I assumed that’s what you were talking about. Sorry.

        Yeah, I just checked and it’s GIMP 2.8. I guess it’s the ‘old dog, new tricks’ thing. Fifteen years with this program has spoiled me. Or made me set in my ways. ;o)

  7. Other tools

    I check on GIMP every once in a while but for me it’s worth spending a handful of bucks (on the Mac side) for Pixelmator. While neither has non-destructive “filter” layers as of the last time I checked, the healing brush on GIMP just isn’t up to snuff compared to photoshop or Pix. Also – getting GIMP to do other things required fudging with add-ins, etc.

    That said, it is an immensely capable program that, while it may be several generations behind PS in features/etc., is still an outstanding option for people who need it, and IMO the best option for Windows and LInux that isn’t photoshop.

    One recommendation – While the main image should be done in PS/GIMP/etc., the type layout etc. should be done in a dedicated vector program like Illustrator (I actually use the open source/free Inkscape and highly recommend it)

    1. I recommend Gimp because it’s free. There are a lot of other programs out there, but that one will do it all and for no cost, which is an important consideration for Indie authors. Also, it will run on any platform, so you don’t need a Mac or whatever. The type layout can be done in another program, but does not need to, and again, I’m mostly talking to people who will do the occasional design project, not professionals. I’ve tinkered with Inkscape – should go back to it, and I hadn’t heard of Pixelmator, but my Mac is dying so I am not using it very often.

      1. I admittedly got settled into another cheap and effective non-adobe alternative before this last year’s improvements in the 2.8 series and GEGL for GIMP – which have really improved things. As you said, it’s free, it’s capable, and it’s cross platform.

        Do dive back into Inkscape. The fine control over kerning, character spacing, turning words and letters into shapes that can be further modified, running text over various paths, etc. that it provides allow for more professional and unique results than what you can get in a bitmap program.

      2. Also – going off topic – but loved your post a ways back on Rice cooking…. solved an issue I’d not been able to work around for years after I finally decided to break down and get a steamer.

  8. Cover art doesn’t have to be *accurate* but it does have to be *true*. Athena never walks out naked in the power trees but nothing about the cover leads you to expect something that the book doesn’t deliver.

    The Timothy Zahn colors reminds me of something my son was complaining about the other day and that was that videogames seem to have reached peak color dilution. Everything is grays and browns and actually far less colorful than real life.

    1. So, what you’re saying is that covers should deliver the opposite of “fake but accurate”? *Big grin*

      As for colors, there now seems to be a bit of a trend back away from the “grays and browns everywhere” look. Fallout 4, for example, is far more colorful than Fallout 3. It still has some grays and browns when appropriate, (and sometimes more than appropriate), but vibrant colors aren’t just a “blink and you’ll miss it” thing either in Fallout 4.

  9. One thing I learned from looking at Baen covers is “No Plain Text”. The titles all take the text, and even if it hasn’t been graphically manipulated to be on a curve or something, it at least has an outside color frame, and typically a red to yellow gradient on the interior of the text. It really stands out that way. The frame or shadow stops the artwork from intersecting with the lines of the text, and the gradients make them visually interesting.

    1. Frames aren’t always necessary, but some way to give the text action – as I mentioned above, drop shadows, etcetera – is vital. BUT do not go crazy with this. I saw a title not long ago that had been filled with a busy red and black pattern. It was all but unreadable.

      1. My paid job is working for a photography studio, back of house, which means I am an expert at Photoshop and a decent amateur at graphic design. One trick I actually picked up back in Broadcast Studies is that you should drop a B&W mask on your image (temporary conversion to B&W, just remove the layer to take it back to color) to see how the image looks that way. If you can’t make it out in B&W, you need to change things. Contrast is just as important as color when you want a visible image.

        BTW, that little line around a font face (or any other element) is called a “stroke.” That makes it easier to look up, if you need to. Strokes are good if the background is highly patterned or has a lot of different values.

        1. So that’s what it’s called! I thought it was called ‘shadowing’ and that you were giving the letter’s depth. I forget where i learned it ( grew up with artists, and still have a lot of artist friends) but it definitely does make the text stand out from the field.
          Definitely going to read that write up you did on Facebook, thanks!

          1. Depends. In computer graphics terms, he’s right: a shape defined by its outline curve can have “fill” and “stroke” set individually. But in terms of the desired visual effect other terms would be used. (See also traps.)

  10. I have made a lot of my own covers, and I’ve learned a lot about it in the process.
    And I’ve learned that for the stuff under my own name, that I want to be successful requires me to HIRE someone ELSE to make the covers 🙂
    I’ve been using ebooklaunch (I hope it’s okay to say that here) and I have to admit, it has made a big difference, having a professional do my covers for me.
    Yes, for the tawdry PNR stuff I still do my own (when I have the time to write them, I haven’t written one in over a year and a half now) but I don’t expect those to really sell that much. I write them for fun and they’re all rather short.

    When I started out I couldn’t afford to hire someone (I did my Children of Steel cover myself, and while I like the picture, I think I need to go back and redo the rest of the cover), I did the first four of my own covers.
    For one of my hard scifi books I hired an artist in the genre I was writing in to do the cover, and while I like it, I think if I had gone with someone who makes covers for a living, it might have come out better.

    But I got the best results ever when I hired a professional who does covers for a living. Just the ease of dealing with them alone makes it worth the money. The fast turn around times is rather nice too. It frees me up to concentrate more on my writing.

    There are a lot of good people making covers out there and I have been thinking of trying a few other companies/artists out for some of my other titles. Mainly because I have seen some great covers come out of these places. Just be careful about price!
    I have seen artists who want well over a grand for a cover, and I’m sorry, but I’ve yet to see one that is worth it (I’m not talking about the artists who do trade paperbacks either, I’m talking about the ones doing ebooks and self pubs). I set my own limit around 300 – 400, and I’ve been very happy with the covers I’ve bought in that range. As mentioned about, the book cover isn’t about the quality of the art, it’s about the ability to grab the reader.

    As an aside, the picture I used for the above mentioned book was public domain. 2 years after I used it, someone else tried to use it for their sci-fi book as well. I guess I inspired them? I don’t know. Last I looked the book wasn’t there anymore, but that does highlight the problem of using public domain photo’s for a cover: Anyone else can use it too.

    1. Exactly my solution – I do my own covers for the books that are ebooks only — mostly compilations of essays that were blogposts.
      My brother does the covers for my print books, and for other Watercress Press books. He’s a freelance graphic artist who has been doing professional design for years, and I trust his aesthetic sense. He’s done good by me, and by my company.

    2. A grand for a cover is too much unless you are licensing bespoke art with that. When I design covers my rate is about $250 (I don’t do a lot of design, I haven’t got time). As for using public domain art, the key here is to use elements, and make them your own in some way. I work with stock art I’m buying for covers, often, but I blend it with other elements and artwork I’ve done, to create a unique cover for a book. You don’t want to simply use any stock or public domain art ‘out of the box.’

      1. That is about what I budgeted to pay little Bro, given that the images used were all my own. It is possible to get some amazing covers … given raw material photographic stock and skill with editing effects …

  11. I was perusing Amazon and noticed that many short stories lack cover art that meets these guidelines, even where the same author has good cover art for novels. Is good cover design for shorts not worth it (a poor return on investment)?

    1. Yes, shorts make very little money. Certainly not enough to invest a couple of hundred dollars in a cover. Also, you may want to look at publication dates – many authors go through a learning curve (which is good!).

      1. I had a friend who gave me the lineart for Kiwi, I colored it and did the text in Photoshop. It helps to have artist friends who like your stories, even if hardly anyone else does.

    2. My shorts generally have “lousy” covers: photos on sci-fi stories, bad font choice. I sink the $$ into the book covers, and they tend to be pay off, aside from “that” cover, which has been analyzed already. If the book had been fantasy, it would have been great. Alas, not so for a mil-sci-fi collection.

      1. I’m trying to figure out my next move. Shorts have been a bust. OTOH, my non-fiction has small but steady sales. I don’t have another non-fiction topic that I’m comfortable presenting, and the experience with shorts makes me hesitant at longer fiction, even though I already have a couple written.

        Obviously my ideas for covers suck, for if they didn’t I’d have some sales. I know the graphic on my last cover sucked, but hit a blank as to how else to do it. Thought it conveyed the idea of fantasy, but apparently didn’t do so enough, and didn’t touch on the type of fantasy. And so it goes.

        1. Longer will sell better than shorts. Present anything from 40K words and up, and put it in KU with some promotion (there are free venues, MGC can help with finding them) and you will see some sales. Can’t promise wild success, but shorts are loss leaders to promote novels, keep that in mind.

  12. One of these covers displays yet another thing which will immediately kill any hopes the reader might have for your book: Misspelled title.
    If your book is titled Perihelion Shift, you could at least care enough to make sure the cover, in all its hideous Arial glory, doesn’t say Perhilion Shift. Then again, when the font is so ugly, no wonder one’s eye resists actually reading it…

  13. I went to a panel at Worldcon last year on cover design and took copious notes. My writeup—with images—is here. It’s Facebook, sorry. I’m attempting to port it to Livejournal and I’m having markup issues.

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