Going Indie For Dummies 3 -Signals and Sophistication

UPDATE:  If your cover calls for paintings or drawings one easy way is Filter Forge, and Tiffany Gray just posted this in one of my groups:  I know folks were talking about filter forge, and I don’t know if Sarah ever got her update or not, but, Giveawayoftheday.com has Filter Forge 4 Proffessional for free for the next 24 hrs (Give or take a few) and then after you register, Filter Forge has an offer to upgrade to FF5 for $69. So, for those who were waiting. (Which is even $20 cheaper than their current sale going on

Today we’re going to talk about covers.  We could talk about sealing ships and wax, but I’ve only had one cup of Deathwish coffee, so covers it is. (YAY.)

When I first went to the Oregon workshop about indie, back in the early days of ebooks, in 2011 — this was when Smashwords was still a leading player in ebooks — we were told to just use any covers.  Photographs, something that vaguely represented the story.  The big thing then was to make sure you had the right aspect, because many people publishing didn’t.

This was also the old days of formatting when you either coded the ebook by hand or you zipfiled it and put it through the coverter.  It worked, but it produced powerfully ugly books.

As I said pre-history, but things have changed since then.  I started out making covers with almost random pictures, and some lettering in the first font that hit my eye.

And then the sales dropped, and I started looking and comparing with other covers.  I ended up taking the wmg cover design workshop (highly recommended) and most of what I have to impart now comes from this.  Most, except for where I’m special needs.

Where I’m special needs is at learning from principles laid out or from explanations.  Cedar has done posts on covers where she lays out design principles.  I’m fairly sure she’s not writing them in Mandarin Chinese, but that’s how I’m reading them.  I bought design books too.  You know what, a cow can stare at a palace, but it won’t learn masonry.  It’s sort of like that with me and these abstract explanations.

But something had to be done about my covers and I’ll explain later this One Simple Trick, I found ;).

First let’s get to basics about covers and dispel some of the myths I see y’all come up with.

First and most importantly, no, the cover isn’t about your book.

You might think it is, but you’d be wrong.  The cover is not meant to faithfully display a scene from your book.  It doesn’t matter if the spaceships in your book aren’t the color they are in the cover.  No one cares.

The cover is a marketing vehicle pure and simple, which is why we’re talking about it before we talk of editing or other things to make your book better.  If you have the cover, you can put it at the end of blog posts like this and get people to pre-order your book, while you’re taking care of the other biddiness (Unless you’re like me and paranoid and need to have the prepared manuscript on hand before you put it on preorder.)

So forget all that stuff about having your hero looking just like he does in the book, which is why you need to hire an artist for ten thousand dollars and…  No.  that’s not how book covers work.

SECOND Yes, the cover should be an accurate representation of your book.

Wait a minute, didn’t I just tell you?

Yeah, I did, but what you need to think about is what you’ll accurately represent.  That is, the cover isn’t a representation of what you wrote, it’s a series of signals.  And those signals should signify first of all genre.

Seriously, if your book is science fiction/space opera reminiscent of Bujold which one communicates it better (and as apologies to friend for using her cover — but she’s driving me nuts not allowing me to do new ones and I’m being a bitch — I’ll link her book on Amazon) this:


Or this?


And yes, the lower one is slightly amateurish, because I was doing it with free images from Pixabay, just to show her what I COULD do.

BUT which one communicates “I am a space opera book with nobility in various planets?” to you, precisely.

(And yes, she’s going to be very mad at me, but both covers link to buy her book.)

The thing is that her cover was fine in the early days of indie publishing, but now we’re all trying to look like the big guys and that means looking at covers in your subgenre and imitating them.  Why?  Because people who scan thumb nails are looking for “looks like my genre” and “not hideously amateurish.”

Take heart though, most cover design in traditional houses unless it’s for a front liner is done by someone with a degree in English who just started interning last week.  And that’s what you’re aiming for, not the truly artistic stuff they slap on bestsllers.  And that’s doable.

3- It doesn’t matter if you like it.  Seriously.  I keep getting people saying “I don’t think this cover is very pretty” or “Why did you make the photograph look like a painting.  It was better as a photograph.”

This is not about your aesthetic judgement, but about sending signals to the buying public.  I don’t care if your photograph is the equivalent of the Mona Lisa of the photographic world (which it might be if you twist Oleg Volk’s arm) and the drawing the mainstream publishers are using for their cozy mysteries is obviously a collection of GIFS badly assembled.  The reader is looking for — mostly subconscious — signals that the book is the same kind he read and enjoyed in the past.  So if the trend for your books is googly eyed cartoons, you’ll put those on the cover and ENJOY it.

People don’t buy books on aesthetic judgements of the cover, or at least not usually.  I did buy a book, the Wandering Arm (mystery, can’t remember the author) FIVE times because the cover was so stunningly gorgeous and I was very ill and kept forgetting I’d bought it and couldn’t get past the first chapter before.  But see the Very Ill part.  Normally people don’t Do that.

And this brings me to my “One trick” to do covers.  I steal other covers.  No, not by copying them, but by copying the composition and the feel of the font.  For instance, when Amanda told me the covers we’d done for her UF were outdated, she told me she’d like hers to have the feel of these:


So we created these (the font is not quite right, but I don’t use Mac so I can’t access the fonts the pros use.  This might change.  And yep, there’s a buy link on Amanda’s book.  I figure Faith Hunter doesn’t need my help ;))


Interestingly enough I found when cruising historical fantasy that the ones about vampires followed Urban Fantasy rules.  So even though the previous publisher had given this cover a “classy” collage look that imho is much more aesthetically pleasing, this baby, with this cover, is doing a brisk business for me.  A stunningly brisk business.  Which is why as soon as novels for Baen are finalized and in,t he sequel to this hits beta readers, give or take a couple of days. (Cover links to buy, if you’re interested in vampires that have never sparkled and never will.  Free sample of the world here.)

sword and bloodcoverfinal

Next week “but I can’t draw” — how to find art without breaking the bank, and how to fine tune it, so it reflects your book without necessarily representing it.


  1. Yes, Rebecca Lickiss’s original cover signals fantasy to me, not space opera. I’d buy it anyway, because I read both, but would probably feel a bit of a jolt as I read the story.

  2. Learn the one “weird trick” that will drive your indie book sales!

      1. They definitely make a difference. My first set of DIY covers didn’t do me any favors, and after sales dropped down to a trickle, I splurged on a new set of pro covers (about $200 each) and things picked up markedly. I also snagged a Book Bub promo after seven rejections with the older cover, which I don’t think was a coincidence, propelling that series to a whole new level.

  3. I’ll have to keep this one in mind. Right now trying to decide if I should focus on releasing my first novel or if I should finish the second so that I can release it somewhat soon after. Trying to decide if/who to get for cover and what to actually focus on. This gives lots of food for thought.

    As for sparkling vampires…I bet we could make them sparkle…where is my styrofoam and gasoline.

  4. Using a Mac has nothing to do with accessing “the fonts the pros use”. Macs use the same fonts as PCs. It’s just a matter of locating and buying the font, or downloading a free clone (fonts can be legally recreated from scratch and given a different name).

    I collect fonts; at last count I had about 23,000 of ’em. There are dozens of sources online, and some have “find the damn font by how it looks” utilities. What I happen to have bookmarked:


    Or, make your own:

    1. Yes. But they’re expensive as hell — the fonts the pros use. Sorry, it’s not just Mac. It’s Adobe. If you use them/buy them you have license to those fonts.

      1. Yes. That cannot be emphasized enough. Check your licenses first.

        I’m a Photoshop expert who has graphic design chops through need (my job is in photography, but design is important when you’re selling anything!) One of the things I think is important to stress is that *you don’t need 23,000 fonts.* In fact, I think most people could do well through having rights to half a dozen or fewer.

        A couple of things to point out about fonts, especially when using them for sales purposes:

        1. All of the fonts that you use should be legible. And they should be highly readable at a small size. A somewhat popular font face that fails this test is Scriptina. It’s lovely, but honestly, what I use it for is completely artistic things that don’t need to be read.

        2. You should get a font that represents a particular style to you, and then you should stick with it. That font that’s on Sword & Blood up there “feels” swashbuckler. I notice that she’s stuck that on all of her magical history books, and that’s a great idea—you have the continuity of style as well as a signal that “this author wrote all of these and they have a similar feel.”

        3. There are about a dozen overused font faces out there. Times New Roman is the default, but also beware of Papyrus and its ilk. Lovely fonts, but when you can’t tell if it’s a housing development, an organic product, or a school play, it’s not a font you want.

        4. If there’s a font face you like, but it’s overused, chances are that you can find a similar font that is just enough different to set your work apart. Times New Roman is overused, but Footlight MT Light is lesser-known, and has a slight feel of early 20th-century to it that could be useful. If you want something light and fun, but you know better than to use Comic Sans, try Maiandra, which is what Comic Sans wants to be when it grows up.

        5. If all else fails, find another book in the genre and figure out which font they’re using. Get a similar one and stick with it.

      2. My comment’s in moderation, because I linked to examples. Anyway. Fonts. Check your licenses, and only use a couple.

          1. So it just got dropped. Damn. I hate losing work like that.

            (Still can’t post on your site. And it’s definitely my IP, since I’ve done it from other locations. Why, WordPress, why?)

              1. I figure some weird interaction between my IP and your site has me auto-tagged as a spammer or something. Whatever. I read the comments; I just can’t reply.

    2. The problem with a lot of sites where you can download fonts is that those sites don’t have the licenses to them. That puts the author/cover designer looking at possible liability issues — replete with damages being asked for — if they use them.

      1. Honestly? Font matching is only a big issue if you’re working with someone else or trying to emulate a font in existing artwork. For Windows machines, this can be complicated by fonts bundled with the OS, which aren’t necessarily the same between different versions. If you’re using CorelDraw on a PC in Windows 7, and you’re working with someone using a Mac and Adobe, you’re likely to have font issues. Two people using the same version of Windows and graphics software? Probably not. An indie author doing their own covers? No problem.

        Be aware that this gotcha can also snag you if you have previously designed artwork done in an older version of graphics software and older Windows version, and try to open it in the latest versions. But the most common place I’ve run into it is with Word and PowerPoint documents done on one machine and sent to another. At least in PowerPoint you can embed fonts and bundle everything up in a distribution package.

        1. You also have to be careful with those bundled fonts in Word, etc., because they may not always be licensed for commercial use, etc. That’s not something we tend to think about and we should.

          1. This deserves an in-depth discussion. I for one wasn’t aware of it, and it raises the issue of fonts installed on a computer by who knows what programs, and how to tell if the font is licensed for commercial use or not.

            Honestly, it’s looking more and more like I need to brush up on calligraphy.

        2. Font matching is an issue because — not documents, covers, Kevin! — people instinctively recognize the real thing from not. And I really can’t explain how. But I find myself doing it too.

          1. Okay, so this turned into a ramble and I really hope I’m not overstepping my non-writerly bounds. But I read appallingly fast, sell artsy stuff in another arena, and have occasional nuts-and-bolts thoughts about this kind of thing.

            As I read more and more indie, I judge a book by its cover less and less, BUT I have noticed what an ingrained spinal reaction I have to lackluster covers. When I click on something that has a random landscape/photo/free picture with no human interest, I have an immediate hackle-lifting moment that’s very similar to the cat going “that’s not a pill inside that treat, IS IT?”

            From my mostly-a-consumer standpoint, it’s really important to have some living thing on the cover to spark a connection with potential buyers. I was surprised by the difference in my reaction to the covers above (which book I am now off to look for, THANK YOU MADAM HOYT). It doesn’t have to be human – I bought “Off Leash” by Daniel Potter on the strength of the cougar on the cover. Speaking only for myself, spaceships and starfields make me mark it off as “generic sci-fi” and it has to be a REALLY good blurb to make me slow down and consider buying it – not because I’m super-choosy, but because I have family/dogs/plants to feed or emergencies to stop or minor crises to tend to and can’t linger.

            If I were an indy writer (I’m not; way too slow), it miiiiight be worth it to talk commissions or even royalties with some of the DeviantArt types. But like I said, rambling. 🙂

          2. Yes, the topic at hand is book covers. But I’ve had to deal with documents that suffer from substituted fonts to the point . . . shudder. Such as a brochure laid out in Word, or an event program. Have pulled up old vector artwork I did in CorelDraw and found I’d have to pop in the CD and load a missing font. It’s a “gotcha” that many don’t think about.

      2. That’s why I love Myfonts.com. They not only sell the licenses, they let you buy ebook licenses (suppose you want a fleuron to embed) or website licenses, etc. That’s my go-to site, because they let you search by licenses, and they often have sales, and the font designers are clearly involved. No one is getting cheated and you can buy with a clear conscience. Not only that, if the font is used strictly on the book cover, the general, low-cost license covers that.

        For most of the fonts, barring certain publishers, the general license will be cheap and the website license will cost a little more, and the epub license will cost the most. But you’d only need the epub license if you use the font inside the book, e.g., chapter headers, instead of just on the cover.

        1. Hmm. I’ve not heard of this site, will have to check it out!! It might be a worthwhile investment to pick up a couple of fonts if folks want to hire covers done.

        2. My husband is a fiend for fonts, and has had an account at Myfonts.com forever. They are the real deal!

  5. I guess my reply disappeared into moderation cuz I included a bunch of links. But anyway… using a Mac is irrelevant; PCs use the same fonts. There are dozens of sites where you can download free fonts, including clones (which are legal if made from scratch) of commercial fonts. There are also tools for making your own, like FontForge (free) and a few sites that can help you ID a font.

    1. No, they don’t use the same fonts. There are specific variations. And the publishing houses are all mac.
      And yeah, I can buy them piecemeal but that gets expensive fast. Or you can create them but htat goes into “I drew my own cover. by hand.”

      1. Indeed. Lettering is an art form unto itself, and not for either the faint of heart or impatient of hand (that latter would be me, heh).

  6. You know, I keep thinking I ought to maybe offer my services to folks (I have a bachelor’s in graphic design/illustration, I know typography, and can paint/draw traditional art to boot). I’m adore the idea of exchange of services (I do a cover for you if you edit my stuff), but sadly don’t have a manuscript of my own yet.

    Still. I’d love to open a discussion about what prices could be found to be reasonable without breaking the bank. I mean…I could go pretty cheap for all-digital work–I have a tablet that lets me draw on my computer much like I do in a sketchbook, and I’m getting better all the time at painting with a tablet pen rather than an actual paintbrush. I’m no Chris McGrath on the digital front, though, so if someone wanted something closer to that level we’d have to talk real paints and canvas, and so the price would naturally go up from that point.

    (Er. This isn’t really an attempt to drum up business–unless you really, really want it to be. This is an attempt to drum up talk on the subject, though.)

    1. I’d say that you should base your prices on a minimum of ten hours of work, because that’s what seems to me to be the basic “simple task” amount. And I don’t think you should go below $200 (or its barter equivalent) unless it’s a simple arrangement of elements that already exist.

      Heck, once I get a computer of my own again, I’d be up for services for rent. Particularly copyediting, since that’s something I can do fairly quickly to squeeze into my mom schedule. (I also do art, but that’s more time-intensive, and I also have a mandatory backlog to clear once I get a new computer.)

      Now there’s a use for the folk here. Putting together a talent-swapping site…

      1. Covers go between 250 and 400. I swap cover design for editing.
        On art, Sarah, it’s not worth it. Not unless you can do work on say Steve Hickman’s or Boris Valejo level. You can get stuff on pixabay and dollar photo club and dreamstime for $1 a piece or so, and combine it and run it through filters and it’s decent enough.

        1. I agree, full on painting would be cost prohibitive for most folks. And for Urban Fantasy, most folks do seem to want the Chris McGrath look (understandable, his stuff is awesome)…which digitally I can’t do at this point, and while I could probably produce something of similar quality (if somewhat different style) in oils or acrylics…heh, yeah that would take a TON of time I haven’t got, and cost more than the vast majority of folks going indie could afford. (I don’t claim to be Boris Vallejo good–but I *am* good with a paintbrush. Though at this moment in time, I am badly out of shape/practice, on account of not having done much art in recent years. I’m working on fixing that, and plan to start a painting this weekend.)

          But digitally mashing/manipulating photos is MUCH quicker, easier, and more cost effective, for certain…and you can achieve much the same result (if you have an inkling as to what you are doing. I have seen some appalling ‘digital’ covers that fall under the “I drew this myself!” category. This is why it is good to have a friend/acquaintance/*someone* you can trust to say “No, that sucks, go pay someone else to do it better.”)

    2. I kept coming up with “about $200” as a base-price, but was interested in other views. Some would say “too much!” and others “you’re underselling!” Good to know I’m not crazy. 😀

      I’m good with grammar/spelling/etc, but I read so fast (and can’t slow down) that trying to copy edit for someone (or myself) is a nightmare. I’m good for a beta-read of the “I like the plot, here’s where I think it’s weak/not weak/etc” variety, but the nuts and bolts would be more time-consuming for me than artwork, on account of having to read the thing twenty times and STILL miss mistakes.

      I do not (yet) know how to build a website. (Working on learning, though.) But I agree, setting up a talent swapping/selling site does seem like a great idea.

      1. I think that’s an awesome idea. In the short term, do you do business cards…? If you have something in need of an edit, I’d be happy to see about working out a swap.

        1. I do do business cards/logos/letterheads/envelopes. I don’t have something now in need of an edit…but I would not be unwilling to do it as a ‘I do this now, and give you something when I have something’? 🙂

          1. We should definitely chat. 🙂 Drop me a line at thornymom at Mail of G, please?

        2. If you want to discuss further, email me. Email is frostfyre7 at netzero or gmail (I use both, but make sure you put something very clear in the subject line if you go for netzero, on account of the fact that it will get shunted into the spam folder until I tell it not to.) 😀

      2. My copyediting skills went UP when I started working for the photography studio, because one of the things I had to learn to spot was if something was out of alignment. It means I spot things like double-space-after-period (when single space is the modern standard) with speed that has gotten odd looks from people.

    3. Actually, I’d love to see a conversation about that myself, because indy as a market makes me really happy and I would like to see it evolve. And also because I recently finished a *delightful* sci-fi novel by someone tangentially connected to MGC that…was awesomely plotted, nicely narrated, appealingly twisty AND made me think, but had godawful proofreading. I would’ve been shouting its praises to the skies if I hadn’t been skidding to a stop every three paragraphs going “apostrophes don’t work that way!” Admittedly, I do freelance editing and cannot shut that part of my brain up any more, but I loved that book and would’ve been so happy to see a little professional polish on it.

      1. Yeah…I’ll keep reading an otherwise awesome fanfic if it has errors like that, but if it’s something I paid money for I am much, much less forgiving. And while I know the state of grammar/spelling ability/etc coming out of the public schools in recent (or not so recent) years is execrable, there are still people out there who know how NOT to commit apostrophe abuse, and they are worth finding… 😀

        (In a pinch, I could probably even still diagram a sentence. But I think I may have been one of the last gasps before the “Powers That Be” decided that wasn’t important to know…)

        1. Yeah, I will give fanfic a bit of a pass depending on how crotchety I’m feeling/how good the story is. Profic, I am pickier, 🙂

  7. Oh! And Sarah–don’t fret about the design principles. You seem to have a good instinctive grasp of them anyhow. Your example covers (the ones you did) are very nice, and many, many, MANY cuts above a great number of the covers I’ve seen floating around out there (including, I’m sorry, a number of Baen’s…). I agree the typography is a problem but not one you could help. (It is INSANE what those places want to charge you for a font. I mean, I am aware of the work and precision that is in fact required to *create* a font, so I can’t really blame ’em, but still…)

    However, I think there *are* places out there where you can find many of the Mac ‘professional’ fonts to download if you’re on a PC. I have a PC, because Macs are stupidly expensive and I do things other than graphic design and art on my PC anyway (and whatever a Mac snob–I mean, aficionado–might claim, there is virtually no difference between graphics production on a PC versus a Mac). I know I have a huge font-pack of my own (er, not that I designed, that I’ve collected over the years), I’m willing to share if you’ll let me know where to send the zip file ^_^

    Number one typography/design no-no: DO NOT USE PAPYRUS OR COMIC SANS EVER. 😀

      1. Fair enough–certainly, it would be acceptable on, say, a particular kind of kid’s book or a superhero parody or something.

        There is, however, never an excuse for using Papyrus. 😉

        Awesome, I will see about putting fonts into a manageable zip file (or files) when I get home this evening and sending it along. 🙂 (This will also afford me the opportunity to clean out the various unusable non-English fonts that just show up as squares and the occasional weird widget…)

        ::hurries and writes a post-it note to stick somewhere visible so she doesn’t forget, because Sara is an airhead::

          1. I put it on my grocery list for today. So long as I don’t lose THAT (and I shouldn’t–it’s stuck to my writing-ideas notebook, which is never, ever lost) I should remember…

    1. One of my “backlog” jobs for when I get access to a computer with Photoshop is to clean up some letters that I PAINTED, for the simple reason that I don’t know a font that does what I want it to do. Eventually, these will become a font face, but I have to complete the alphabet to my satisfaction, three times over. (Large caps, small caps, lower case. Not to mention ligatures and terminal letters.)

      1. You, sir, have more patience than I. I took typography as a matter of course when getting my design degree(s), but while I appreciate it as an art form unto itself, I have little desire to create my own fonts.

        (Except for learning calligraphy. I do admit to kinda wanting to do that, and I have my eye on a couple of calligraphy how-to books for “When I am less poor.”)

        It is hard sometimes to find a font that a.) does what you want, and b.) doesn’t cost more than the month’s rent or grocery bill…(There was one I wanted SO MUCH…and cost upwards of $1200. I decided I didn’t want it so much after all.)

          1. My first name is long, and I developed the habit of using the initial back when you had to type your name every time*, because the embarrassment of misspelling your own name is hard to live down.

            The misapprehension of my gender is an amusing bonus.

            *And signing merit badge cards. I was NOT going to sign my full name on a two-inch line 200 times a week.

        1. My calligraphy is inconsistent. That’s why I’m doing individual letters over and over until I find one I like to scan and use.

  8. That first cover image looks not too bad until you realize there’s a modern metal handrail in the medieval castle . . .

    But yes, the second cover is a good guide for what should be shown to entice the reader.

    1. I find that the major problem with that first image is that it’s supposed to be for a scifi book. If I bought the book on the cover alone, I’d be expecting a fantasy, or at least a medieval historical novel, NOT space opera. If it were for a fantasy it would be fine. A bit bland and unexciting, perhaps, but it’s an interestingly angled photograph overall, and the composition makes for a decent cover (though the typeface needs work). Just not, y’know, for scifi.

      Now, you could, with a bit of Photoshop wizardry, overlay some scifi elements like circuitry on portions of the photo, or replace the blue sky with stars and planets or nebulae, or you could replace the texture of the tower with something metallic and sleek looking, and you could make it work as a scifi cover–the reader might then go “okay, scifi but with some castle-y/noble-y elements, I can accept that.” But just as-is…not so much.

      Heh. Basically, the above paragraph describes what Sarah did: combined elements from elsewhere (which is why her cover is MUCH better for the book at hand) to achieve the right ‘mood.’

      1. It would have to be run through filter forge. Go and look — I’ll wait — fantasy is NEVER photographs. Which is why to me that cover of Becky’s says “indie historical” or “travel book.” It could ALSO be historical mysteries because in historical mysteries photographs are overwhelming drawn because indie are overwhelming trad.

        1. I have never used filter forge–though if that was an example of what it did with photos, that’s possibly a better looking job than even Photoshop usually manages. (Or rather, what I can manage with Photoshop preset filters, to which I finally went with “Don’t do it, they’re all awful.” And am learning better technique with custom filters, but Photoshop is one of those things that you can NEVER learn all the things for…)

          Nice to know that Adobe hasn’t got a COMPLETE lock-down of the market after all…

          1. It works as an add-on on photoshop. Since I use paintshop (don’t ask. WHY would you ask?) I use it as a stand alone program. And it’s fairly cheap.

            1. Also works on Gimp. (I jut need to sit myself down and really learn how to use it. Both of them. In my endless spare time . . .)

            2. I can’t ever remember who runs this place – but see the addenda to your post. It’s actually FREE for another 11 hours or so.

              (Whoever did make that addendum – I hope you are getting my warm fuzzy feeling that is being beamed your way…)

                1. Uh-oh. Referring to yourself in the third person, now…

                  Yes, it has obviously been a hard week.

          2. “Photoshop preset filters, to which I finally went with “Don’t do it, they’re all awful.”

            I’ve done a LOT of playing with filters for varying reasons, and the thing that makes each one work is usually to take the image levels way out of whack first. The ones I used here involved “blasting” the photo first. (Apologies for the quality of the music; I had to use a rehearsal as a timing thing and the quality was much better by opening night. The DVD replaced the sound.)(Oh, and that’s doing credits with Photoshop and iMovie. The only effect is the Ken Burns. If you can’t do it with cross-fades, you may be relying too much on technology.)

            1. I do like messing about with levels–they can help solve soooo many evils.

              One of these days, in my *copious* amounts of free time, I plan to sit down and go through all those advanced Photoshop tutorials I have bookmarked on YouTube…

              I’m out of practice with AfterEffects (sadly, iMovie isn’t available for PC–I did enjoy using it when I was still in school), but playing around with stuff in there is a lot of fun. I suck at the sound editing part, though.

              1. I’m *very* good with color-correction, because that’s literally my job. And there’s nothing to teach you how to use Photoshop like having deadlines and having to fix something an idiot photographer did, like taking a team photo several stops too low ON SMALL.

                My personal test for figuring out if someone really knows Photoshop is to have them do a removal of braces. It’s harder than you might think, because if you don’t adjust for the metal reflections, the teeth will look dead.

  9. So, where did you get the drawing of the woman on the Faith Hunter books? For me, the imagines of people were always the hard part, where to find them (the few photo sites I went to wanted ridiculous money for licensing rights).

    1. There are free stock photography/art sites out there. I’m a bit behind on the current list of sites (I’ve been out of school and not doing much design work in recent years, on account of my job being in something else entirely.) The trick is to sift a ways down when searching, because inevitably the first hits you get on a google search for ‘free stock images’ aren’t ACTUALLY free, or the free stuff comes with yuuuge watermarks embedded in them.

      Dang, now I need to go dig up that old site I used and see if it’s still functional. It was *extremely* useful. (And it’s going to bug me until I remember what it’s called…)

      1. Guess I’ll have to look into filter forge.
        I have thought about hiring models and doing some of my own photo shoots, I’ve been doing photography for so long as a hobby I actually have quite the collection of gear.
        I used to do my own covers, but when I hired the current artist sales really took off. If that was coincidence or not, I don’t know, but I’m hesitant to try and go back to doing my own.

        1. No, it’s cheaper to get the pictures someone else took for $10 to $15 or $1 like dollar photo club.
          Though I had to get Oleg to do the pics for S & B because 99% of the pictures on websites of buys with swords are oriental swords and the remaining 1% are not musketeers.

          1. Totally a legit excuse to someday buy one’s own collection of swords… *cough* What? I didn’t say anything.

            Alas, I can only afford to drool on the Museum Replicas pictures…

            1. Periodically you find a cover you JUST need someone to pose for. If my fargin younger son ever loses weight (this is why I’m hounding him to do it, really) he can pose for Kate Paulk’s con books covers. He’ll need to wear fangs, of course.

              1. I’d offer up my Baby Brother (who is nineteen and, acne aside, shaped rather like a carrot), but alas, he’s leaving on a mission in the not too distant future and will be unavailable.

                I do have a rapier, though, and can be bribed to loan it…(I even need to make a trip to Ft Collins in the not-too-distant future…)

  10. Stupid Font Idea:

    It may be possible to use calligraphy for cover text by scanning. I’ve not done a proof of concept; only mentioning it as a possibility. So if some of us are handy with a pen, that might be a solution.

      1. For my old favorite, Chancery Italic, sure. Ditto my second old favorite, Blackletter. And other than cursive, print, and drafting free hand, that was it. But Sunday I had my old Speedball book out to practice Chancery Italic for the first time in maybe a quarter century or so, and noticed it started off with plain Gothic and Roman. Did tinker around with one-stroke Roman, which tends to be a somewhat “happy” looking font (OK, so I’m weird). But what I was wondering was if someone who was already proficient at this might could do some of the more “mundane” fonts.

        If someone isn’t proficient, it’s yet another time sink, and there’s the question of how well it would scan in and then color replacement and whether it could be handled as a bitmap or traced by software into vector. The end result would be an image instead of a font, and that might not be good outside of an indie doing their own cover.

        Shrug. Just something I was wondering about.

        1. I actually know a professional calligrapher. (And a fantasy photographer, a fantasy costumer, and a couple of professional fairies. Yes, that is a thing.)

          1. I’m getting back into it from an odd direction: improving my penmanship. It’s never been all that hot, and while breaking out the fountain pens, I remembered my old calligraphy pens. Gave one, with an italic nib, a try for Chancery Italic, then Single Stroke Roman for the first time in decades. Now I’m trying to get up the courage to try my old Speedball nibs again with the bottle of India Ink I bought from Wally World.

      1. ^ This is an important topic, and should always be paid attention to!! An otherwise awesome (or at least unobjectionable) piece of cover art can be utterly ruined by bad font choice/bad typography layout.

        1. And I have issues telling fantasy fonts from horror fonts. Might be something cultural and unconscious. DRIVES ME NUTS. See Witchfinder cover for a case study. It is not horror.

          1. I’m pretty sure that’s because the font used on that cover is one of the Gothics, or Gothic-related ones. Hence the horror-look. (And I agree, but I’ve seen a LOT of fantasy stuff in recent years using Gothic-style fonts.)

            Fantasy can be a tricky beast with typography, I think. Gothics–as mentioned above–aren’t a bad choice, but they’re also popular with horror. Script fonts are a problem, always, because of readability issues or looks-crappy issues. If it’s a short-ish title, then you might get away with the very scripty script font that looks like cursive handwriting (but I wouldn’t do the author’s name in the same font). The pseudo script fonts (where the letters are just kinda curly but not joined up–see the above first example cover with the castle pic for a classic example) they just don’t look right, 99% of the time. I’d recommend a good, not-too-heavy-but-solid serif, font for most epic and heroic fantasies. (Get too heavy, and you’ve got a Gothic, and therefore it looks like horror font.) Urban fantasy you can use the more grungy type fonts, but again you have to be careful because of readability.

            But, as with so many things art-related, YMMV and it can be subjective. (Like my deep hatred of certain script fonts, or comic sans :p )

  11. FWIW, this has me thinking about the covers for Rats, Bats, and Vats, and The Rats, the Bats, and the Ugly Neither show a scene from the books, but both convey a sense that this is science fiction and it’s not set on Earth. It’s something I know when I see, but can’t quite grok with my own covers.

  12. Of course, the combo of scantily-clad woman plus spaceship made from multiple phallic-symbols might signal something else entirely . . .

      1. I have a notoriously dirty mind. Mind you, with the proliferation of dino-porn and other such unlikely erotica, I have to wonder how much longer it will be until we see “Seduced by the Spacecraft”.

        1. “The Ship Who Sang” could be described that way if you look at it funny. Of course, it’s from the perspective of the ship in question…

        2. Didn’t that already happen (at least at the romance level, NOT erotica) with the “Ship Who…” series? (I could be wrong–I couldn’t get into that particular series, and only got partway through the first book in the bunch.)

        3. Space ship girls aren’t impossible to find. KanColle is wet ship girls, but has produced a lot of fan porn for years.

  13. Ooh, I hope you do talk Rebecca Lickiss into re-doing her cover. The first cover is more like a textbook, except I think a textbook would also use a display font. The second one would catch my attention. The second one promises fun and adventure, in the “Bujold mold.” I hope you can convince her she deserves that second cover.

    I also like the newer cover for Mac, with this she looks formidable and up to a challenge, which is followed through in the story. Very, very nice.

  14. The more time I spend here, the more the idea of diving into this rabbit hole starts to appeal to me…

  15. Sarah;

    A pro tip from a once and future pro. The pros don’t use the “Mac” fonts you so envy. The pros use DaFont and Font Squirrel. (And others the like.) The reason being … well. I started by personal font collection when I worked for Adobe. No. Really. I got all their fonts (or most of them) “free” (as in no money changed hands). As a result, I have a collection of Type 1 fonts numbering in the low five figures. And. No. Way. To. Search. Them. Well, I have a font manager (Bitstream Font Nav, if you must know), but it’s still hours and hours of tedium to try to find a particular font (say, to match a logo or a printed piece) if I don’t recognize it right off. And they have to be curated — organized into neat folders on your disk — so that you can find JUST the right one AND have places for new additions and random stuff the OS *insists* on installing with or without permission (because they can and it’s NOT your computer, now, is it?) thus messing up your OCD’d font base and rendering it inoperable and unusable and all that.

    So why bother?

    Just go to a handy-dandy Web site (www.dafont.com) where they have a search algorithm set up that lets you find faces by characteristics (It’s not Phil’s, of course, but then, who is?) and even type in a sample of the text you’ll be setting in it. Plus: Font Squirrel also has Web fonts that can be embedded in css (the licenses are set up specifically for that) to display the way the designer wants on a Web site. Neat, huh?


    1. I don’t envy them, and you’re wrong. The “pros” in question aren’t the REAL pros, they’re the drones at the publishing houses, and they tend to all fixate on one mac or adobe font a year for sf or fantasy or whatever. I know because I’ve taken workshops and been given lists of fonts that’s “what they’re using now.” I then search them…
      I use dafont to approximate whatever the current insanity is. Again, it’s not a matter of envy, it’s a matter of matching subconscious expectations.
      What you have to remember is these people aren’t design pros. They’re… well… publishing house drones.

  16. See, I have the tools, and the person who knows how to use them (and we appreciate the shout out :), but neither of us knows jack about signalling.

    I’ll look at urban fantasy covers, tell Oleg what to put in and we’ll both like the final product, but I’ve got people saying pretty consistently it’s not signalling urban fantasy and to study the top selling covers. I do, but since I’m not an artist, I don’t know what elements I’m missing.

    I literally do not see “elements” until someone points them out to me. All I see is the finished product and that mine is close according to what elements I know to look for.

    So there’s definitely a learning curve not just on the technical aspects of how to design, but on the artist ones of spot the signalling. 🙂

    1. FWIW, (and I’m sure this will start a food fight), my personal favorites at the moment for signalling UF are the Mercy Thompson books.



    On that Filter Forge offer – after you unzip the download file, open the readme.txt.

    You apparently have to register with the “Giveaway of the Day” website, and then wait for an email with your license key – otherwise you end up with a 30 day free trial only. (I am waiting on my own email.) IF you mistakenly run the program before doing getting the license key, you get locked into either the trial, or must upgrade. KILL that task (if you are on Windows).

    It also says that you MUST activate the “free license” before the time is up (some 11 hours yet). AND “Strictly non-commercial usage.”

    If you are going to take advantage of the upgrade to Version 5, that is also limited to the giveaway period, apparently.

  18. I wouldn’t sell photos short, especially if you get creative. A little work with photo shop can do amazing things. I also shoot stuff for reference when I’m walking around. It’s also amazing what you can find using google street view and cropping. If you have access to any 3D programs you can have fun using pictures and text as textures and seeing the effects.

    1. Photos are tricky, especially when cover designers try to add in non-photo elements that clash (i.e.: half the covers at Lousy Book Covers)

      1. Nothing wrong with collage – when it is supposed to be a collage.

        I made a little list of “things wrong” with the second cover that Sarah gave us – I think I at least picked up most of them, but I am waiting for her to tell us next week. Half the process of getting things right is knowing why they are wrong, which I am slowly picking up from the experienced people here and elsewhere.

          1. The “slightly amateurish” lower one that you did as an example.

            Sigh, of course it leaves me slightly below “rank amateur.”

            1. Oh. Well, I could have done styles that matched better, and run through filter forge to look seamless, but unfortunately I HAD to go with free art because usually the end client buys the gifs, and I can’t even make her accept them for free.

    1. Can’t find one, Doc. OTOH, the very few that are not fully licensed are really terrible for use on anything that is not really simple.

      The font lawsuits I know of were all filed against deep pocket companies (largely ad agencies and big artistic design firms), who don’t use the “OEM fonts” (or very rarely).

  19. Does everyone know know what Sarah was referring to when she said “aspect” in the sentence, “The big thing then was to make sure you had the right aspect, because many people publishing didn’t.”?

    If you know that she meant “aspect ratio” and what that means, then skip this comment as it won’t teach you anything.

    If you DON’T know what “aspect ratio” means, then you need to learn. The aspect ratio of a picture (or a video file, but so far nobody’s doing animated book covers so I’ll mostly limit my comments to pictures) is the ratio of its width to its height. Make a fraction with the width (in pixels) of the picture as the numerator, and the height as the denominator, and then reduce that fraction to its simplest possible form. The aspect ratio is then written as two numbers with a colon between them. For example, to find the aspect ratio of a picture that’s 1024 pixels wide and 768 pixels high, you’d write it as a fraction: 1024/768. Then find the greatest common divisor of those two numbers (I’ll save you a bit of effort: it’s 256), and rewrite the fraction as (256*4)/(256*3). So the fraction is 4/3, and the aspect ratio of that picture would be written as 4:3. Note that if the picture is in “portrait” orientation, where the height is the longer dimension and the width is the shorter one, the aspect ratio will end up being 3:4, but I’ve seen many people talk about aspect ratios for portrait-orientation pictures as being “4:3″ anyway; it seems to be common usage to always mention the longest part of the ratio first, then mention whether the picture is in portrait or landscape orientation.

    (For book covers, by the way, you ALMOST always want portrait-orientation pictures, since the standard paperback and hardback sizes are higher than they are wide).

    Most cheap, consumer-level digital cameras will produce pictures in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Slightly higher-quality (and more expensive) digital cameras will often offer a 3:2 aspect ratio as well, because that’s the aspect ratio that old 35mm film came in. And now that a 16:9 aspect ratio is very popular for computer screens (and some digital photo frames), you’ll find some cameras offering a 16:9 aspect ratio in their pictures, so that the picture fills the screen with no black bars.

    Aspect ratio also applies to real-world objects like books. As with digital pictures, you take the fraction of (width/height) and simplify it, though you might have to approximate. I don’t have a ruler with me right now to measure my paperbacks, and I’ve found multiple different sizes listed on the Internet. I’ll talk about trade paperbacks since they’re easy: a 6″ wide by 9″ tall paperback has a 3:2 aspect ratio. (Mass-market paperbacks, at somewhere around 4.25″ x 6.75”, are harder to simplify into a nice fraction, and you’ll sometimes see that written as 1.588:1 — when I said that you write aspect ratios as a fraction, that wasn’t always true).

    Now, if you’re publishing a print book, you want to make sure that your cover image’s aspect ratio matches the aspect ratio of the book size you’re printing. Otherwise this can happen:


    If you’re publishing an ebook, you’re not necessarily constrained by a single aspect ratio, but you should know the general pixel sizes at which your pictures will be displayed. Are they going to be a 500×500 image? Then you could use a 1:1 aspect ratio, though that won’t look like a paperback. You might use an aspect ratio that matches a paperback (roughly 3:2 in portrait orientation), but if you do, double-check that your picture won’t be distorted. The RIGHT way to fit a 3:2 picture into a 1:1 aspect ratio box is by padding it left and right with white, NOT by “stretching” the picture. Make SURE that the site you upload your cover to won’t “stretch” it, otherwise you’ll automatically look unprofessional and many readers won’t look past the awful-looking cover.

    That’s more than enough words for one blog comment. If you want to learn more about aspect ratio, Google the words “aspect ratio” and you’ll find several tutorials that people have written that go into more depth.

    1. Hopefully that was useful to someone.

      Also, if Sarah meant something other than “aspect ratio” when she wrote “aspect” in that sentence, then oh well, I wrote a decent tutorial anyway. 🙂

      1. I learned that a long time ago, Robin.

        Emphasis on LEARNED. Before that time, I had no idea – and everyone starts at that point. So always useful to write even the “elementary school” things.

        As a web page designer, I ran across far too many pictures that had been stretched. I have no idea why the people never looked at “crop.” Of course, then you get into things like layers and the alpha channel, and feathering with that, and… Sigh. I’m still not happy with how well I’m “tweaking out” hard lines in GIMP. Used to do a decent job in Photoshop, WAY back when.

    2. Something I encountered on the lousy book covers site to keep in mind regarding aspect ratio: People know that the moon is supposed to be spherical. If you have a moon in your picture, and it isn’t spherical, then Houston you have a problem with your aspect ratio. 🙂

      (And even if, for some odd reason, the moon in your book ISN’T spherical in shape…well, that doesn’t matter. A reader will still look at the cover and go: “That’s wrong.”)

      1. I once fixed the aspect ratio of a computer through using a quarter and a drawn circle. On MOST of the screen. The flipping thing was unevenly stretched.

        I do not mourn CRTs.

    3. IIRC, Amazon pretty explicitly gives sizes as well as a ratio. I’ve used 1000 x 1600, although they have larger versions, 1:1.6 was the ratio I seem to recall.

  20. I’ve seen a few times that “nobody cares” about the scene or things withing matching the text, and that’s almost true. When younger (and perhaps still now, but to a lesser degree) as I was not thinking of a cover as marketing rather than description, it bothered me when the spaceship or such on the cover looked nothing like the description in the book. Though now I also find that then the author had little if any control of things and it more likely someone told an artist (for whatever values of… yes) “We need a spaceship” rather than “We need a spaceship that looks $THIS_WAY” even if the author might have preferred such.

    As for marketing, I had an interesting experience once upon a time chatting with Mad Mike. I confessed that I had tried to read one of his then-latest (that $HOUSEMATE devoured) and just couldn’t get into it. The reply was on the order of “It’s not for everyone, but I’m glad $HOUSEMATE bought it. You don’t need to like my book(s), but I’d like you to buy them, even if you only do so to burn them. But if you buy a whole bunch and plan to burn the lot, I want an invitation to record it for marketing purposes.” And no, I’ve not burned any of them, in case you were wondering.

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