Re-Cover Time

Hello Everyone! I feel like we’ve done this before…

If you, too, are feeling some deja-vu, no worries, I’m going to include a bunch of links here, so folks can catch up, and when we’re all looking at the same vu, you can scroll past them.

If you are an Indie, and even if you’re not, chances are you’ve had cover woes. We’re all learning as we go, and some people have more experience with graphic design, graphic software, creating art, and of course, money to buy the services of someone more experienced. In other words, if you didn’t follow that lengthy sentence, some people reading this have the skills to create their own art, some don’t. Some have the budget to hire it done (someone like me, for instance, who offers layout and design for a reasonable fee). Some have neither. If you have the time and patience, however, you can make covers that are attractive to look at, and even more important, genre-appropriate.

So the links (and all of these and much more can be found in the Navigating tab up on the top menu bar):

Finding and using suitable fonts.

General notes on cover design, selecting art, and sources. 

Dos and Don’ts on hiring an artist for original art

Dorothy Grant’s excellent series on book covers (links compiled at my site)

Don’t have time to go there? Then go here. One post with all the info, and even more links. Seriously, this is a topic we cover a LOT around here.

So what am I going to do today?

Well, there were a couple of very specific questions that were asked in comments last week, and then *rubs hands together* I thought I’d assign homework. “But Cedar,” Amanda Green pointed out, “you’re busy and should be writing.” This is so very true. So instead of my looking at your homework and ‘grading’ it, I will post any and all covers sent to me by next Friday night, and then… you all get to grade them. Gently. I shall be on hand to make comments and smack anyone who gets nasty. Not that anyone *peers into corners* would do that around here.

So! Onward.

I was asked about simple, iconic covers. Sure. You can absolutely get away with them. Look at the Twilight series covers, or the Hunger Games covers, or scroll through this list, and see how many have very simple covers. The thing is, if you are going to do this, the graphic you choose needs to be very clean, very professional, and instantly recognizable. Keep in mind (for any art!) that an ebook cover is usually seen at thumbnail.

fantasy cover plain coverSF cover

The other thing you have to keep in mind with a symbolic cover is that much will rely on the typography. I grabbed a fractal graphic (I’m having a love affair with Apophysis 7X right now. Yes, the First Reader knows!) that could be, well, anything, and did some fooling around. Can you see the effect the fonts have? It could be a glowing crystal, a portal to another dimension, anything. The font and title define how the graphic is perceived.

I was asked about GIMP, for cover creation. Yes. You can absolutely use GIMP. If you have an older version, you’ll want to make sure you upgrade to 2.8, it’s a much saner and easier user interface than the older ones. I usually create a cover in stages – the art, save that with all layers, then open a new file. In that, I drop the art as background, and start fussing with the fonts and layout. Then I save as a hi-res jpg, and save the original files for later. Yes, png or TIFF is better for art. But jpg is what KDP wants, so that’s what it gets. I always format my ebook covers to the standard of what I’d use for a trade paperback – 6×9″ which works out to 1800×2700 pixels. I have a template for this, so I can simply select and open that, because I am making covers fairly often. DO NOT, for goodness sakes, vary from these proportions. It won’t look like a normal book, and that means it will look funny in the Amazon also-bot line-up, and scream amateur. Moving on! Gimp Open

Someone asked me about making art for book covers. I’m going to leave aside the traditional methods, since those are beyond my scope to teach. But I can tell you what I have on the computer, all of which can be used for one thing or another. All of these are free.

  • GIMP – with a pen tablet, and tutorials, you can absolutely do a ton with this program. Maybe not as much as Photoshop, but certainly enough.
  • Krita – freeware, much more for digital painting than anything else. I really like the potential, but haven’t really tapped into it.
  • Paint Tool Sai – again, for the digital painter. Very popular with a lot of manga artists. (edited to add – this one isn’t free, although it is reasonably priced)
  • Verve – looks like oil paint. Not at all intuitive. Amazing effects, but DANG that’s quite a learning curve.
  • Apophysis 7X – fractal flame generator. Surprisingly versatile, I’m using it to generate a library of nebulas, starfields, and much, much more. It’s not easy, but there are a lot of free tutorials out there.
  • Mandelbulber – 3D fractal generator – um. I still haven’t figured out how the heck to use it. Once in a while I get a really cool thing – a cubic I designated as space station, and a blobby alien spaceship – but I need to spend a lot of time on it before it’s a reliable tool.
  • Inkscape – freeware for vector graphics. I get super annoyed at it and do the project in Photoshop.
  • Nik – photo filter software. I’ve been using them to add another layer of filters to help pull disparate elements into a unified whole.

I’m probably forgetting something. Someone in the comments tell me.

The last thing I was asked about was a technique. I’m going to suggest that if you want to do this better, go look for double exposure tutorials. But…


Open a file, and then open as layers the image you want to fill in your silhouette figure. I’ve used the ray fractal (because it was there) and a clip art zombie from Open Clip Art, which is a very handy place to find free little elements like this. The zombie was a png file – in other words, a black shape with transparency all around it. That’s what the grey checkerboard means (yes, I was asked that recently…)  Keep in mind that jpg will NOT save transparency. You can retain it only by exporting to png.

Put the zombie layer (or whatever you want to mask onto) underneath the other image you want (rays, here) and then start messing with the mode, which is all the way at the top above. For this effect, you want Screen, but go nuts. There are a ton of cool effects you can get. When you have what you want, export it to png to preserve the transparency, and then you can open it as layers in the file where you want it. Like so…


Obviously you can use this in some very interesting ways. Here, I’ve simply applied a perspective shadow to the zombie graphic, selected some simple type for the wording. I also selected the words by color, and then filled a few with a pattern. Don’t know how to do any of that? Try googling for tutorials, and you’ll be able to figure it out! Don’t be afraid to mess up. The undo button is your friend.

Finally, with client’s permission, I have included some of the covers I’ve created recently, with my thoughts about the art. Maybe explaining what went into the process will help you with making yours.

This cover started with the base art – a stock photo of a man in a gym, clapping his hands together to get rid of excess chalk. I stripped almost all the background (I wanted the chalk) and then filtered the man to lose some detail and make him look painterly (then went back and added more hair for the client). I then used several textures, very low opacity, and set to screen or dodge, to create the ‘magical’ effects. The man is now holding a spell made up of a painted element, with an outer glow to make it look lit up. So this is more photobash than original art, but there are enough elements you’re not likely to see this cover elsewhere!
Enlisted cover-1
Here, the client’s only real specification was that there be an exploding spaceship on the cover. Having read the story, I knew that the space battle took place near an airless moon, so when I created the planet sphere (tutorials for this are easy to find) I didn’t need to do the atmosphere. The spaceship is an element that I bought, but I changed the lighting on it to suit the scene. Lighting is hugely important when blending several elements into a cohesive whole. With the explosion, I want to create a ‘cloud of angry bees’ with the debris.
inappropriate behaviour take 5
A modern spicy romance cover (yes, that means there’s sex in it). Here, I could use a photo, and it was all about the typography and cropping the art just so. The photo was bought, along with other similar shots, from a stock site. The characters have a thing about shoes, so all the covers feature them (no, it’s not a shoe fetish!). This is also an example of planning for a series and making sure you can make the art cohesive.
Time to Die Ebook
I usually try to keep ebook covers clean. Too much filtering and added texture can look muddy at thumbnail. On this cover, I knew it would be going into print. I also knew that there are a ton of zombie books out there, and this one needed to really stand out. If you look at the background, what looks like an explosion is also a blended image of viruses. In print, you’ll be able to see this – in thumbnail not so much.
Yep! This one's mine. It will be coming out later in the month, and you'll see it again as a link. But the cover for this is a fractal starfield and nebula, bought elements of the spaceship and station. I painted the engine flames, the green element under the title, and that was it... So clean and pretty. For my next project, I'll be working on creating my own spaceships so I'm not stuck buying and altering them.
Yep! This one’s mine. It will be coming out later in the month, and you’ll see it again as a link. But the cover for this is a fractal starfield and nebula, bought elements of the spaceship and station. I painted the engine flames, the green element under the title, and that was it… So clean and pretty. For my next project, I’ll be working on creating my own spaceships so I’m not stuck buying and altering them.


                1. Um, maybe? I do tend to be very independent. Possibly overly so.

                  I’m also doing art daily this year – my challenge to improve myself as an artist.

                2. There’s a couple of us on this site. 😉 Though I need to get my desktop set up since that’s where the software is at the moment.

                  1. I have the license installed on my desktop, my workstation, and my laptop. IIRC, its also installed on the ‘work test machine’

                    Anyone running a core 2 duo era PC i can recommend an inexpensive upgrade, seriously.

  1. A comment about Inkscape: If someone doesn’t like Inkscape, they probably won’t like CorelDraw either. Inkscape is very similar to CorelDraw,

    1. And conversely. Maybe. I tried using Corel Draw (IIRC, v. 4.x?) many years ago, and it drove me batty. YMMV, because that WAS many many years ago. GIMP (so far) I have managed to stumble around in and get things done, if not quite what I envisioned doing…

  2. All the tools you mentioned look like they’d be great. And you said that all of them are free, but that’s ALMOST true. One of them — Paint Tool Sai — is not free. It’s free during a 30-day trial period, but after the trial period ends, the software turns off the Open and Save feature, so you can no longer do anything useful with it until you pay for it. The cost listed is 5400 yen, which at current exchange rates comes out to about $52.60 in US dollars.

    1. My apologies – I have several programs which are purchased, and I’d forgotten I’d paid for that one (I buy art supplies when I sell some art. Programs count as supplies, right?)

  3. One thing that I would recommend is eschewing exotic typefaces if your title contains exotic and/or invented words. I have seen that a lot in self-published fantasy.

    The human mind tends to try to force text into recognizable patterns. I remember one cover that I saw that had an alien word that my mind insisted on reading as “Urinal”. (It was Vral- something, but the overly flowery font made it hard to recognize all the letters properly at first glance.) Silly as it sounds, my initial reading made it almost impossible to look at the cover without giggling, even after I knew what it really said.

    I would probably not have had that problem if the title had been in Helvetica or Times New Roman.

    1. Yes, but DO NOT use Helvetica or Time New Roman for your title font, either. There are sensible fonts which will work – really, what you have to do there is take the time to really look at several fonts, always steer clear of the ornate ones, and if you can, have someone else look at your cover design in more than one layout, to see what others like. Just like beta readers.

        1. You don’t want to use a font on the front cover that you would use inside for text. Mind you, I’ve broken this rule, but it was a rather specific reason, and I probably wouldn’t go back and do it again.

        2. Fonts, like words, have connotations. People react when they see them on a subconcious level. So if they see a font they associate with the text, they’re going to assume the cover was either created by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, or the main purpose of using a creative (not ornate!) font is lost. You have the opportunity with the fonts on the cover to completely create a feeling (in the case on my graphic covers above) or to re-inforce it (like the font on the exploding spaceship cover).

          Fonts that say one thing, and mean another can be beautifully illustrated like this:

          1. That URL is an excellent illustration, though I can think of a few instances where a frilly “Muscle Cars and Beer” would work exactly due to the contrast. Think James Bond in a tuxedo, a glass of beer in one hand and a Walther PPK in the other, and one of those muscle car mag “hood ornaments,” dressed in an evening gown, draped across one shoulder. Behind him is a Lotus Evora 400. It might even work with Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields in front of a Transam Firebird and cases of Coors just because of the humor. It would not work for Thomas Magnum in a Hawaiian shirt standing in front of a Ferrari GTS.

            Can also see the Blackletter “Relax and enjoy” on a sign in maybe a Mel Brooks move, maybe a list of restricted activities with “Verboten!” written at the top. But the idea is humorous contrast specifically because “Relax and enjoy” isn’t the sort of thing you expect to see in Blackletter.

            Never thought about using a different font for the cover than what could be on the inside. That’s good to know.

            1. See, this here is why playing with fonts is so useful – and so much fun. You’ve evoked images, and even whole stories, with black and white words on paper. Who knew! LOL

              More seriously, this is what it’s about. The fonts are as much a part of the imagery as the words they spell out are.

          1. Interesting. Well, I’m pretty much the only who likes my covers, anyway. I think that they fit the books, but not many people like those, either.

              1. Right – I found it. Looking at this one, you have a very clean cover. The graphic is crisp, what I was talking about above, and yes, from the blurb probably does portray the character nicely. You’ve used fonts that make the typographical allusions that I associate with literary, and ee cummings. But you have fifty reviews and a high average, so it seems to be working for you. The cover says nothing SF or Fantasy at all.

            1. They may fit the books but if they don’t signal the genre properly, you are losing readers. One thing Sarah points out — sometimes vigorously — is that the cover doesn’t have to show a scene from the book. It has to signal what the book is about and genre and, frankly, signaling genre is, imo, more important than signaling content. That’s what the blurb is for.

              1. That’s an issue, actually, because my readers seem to be people who don’t ordinarily read Science Fiction. I’m seeing a lot of readers who enjoy the fantastic elements in my work, but avoid anything that is labeled as “science fiction” because their perception of the genre is so negative.

                1. In that case, you may want to enhance the fantastic, but not the SFnal element. But if it’s selling, and you don’t sound like you really want to *change* your covers, keep on with it.

                  1. It’s more that I am not sure what to change them to. I was part of a story bundle earlier in the year and they made a new cover for Catskinner’s Book. (I was told that mine looked like it was for a book of haiku about cancer.)

                    I didn’t care much for the new one they gave me, but I was willing to go along with it. If the series ever gets re-issued by a publisher I am sure that they will get new ones. And I’m fine with that, the main reason that I am looking for a publisher is that I am pretty terrible at marketing.

                    I actually have a set of blurbs for the books that are written as sonnets, but I’m not quite crazy enough to use them on Amazon.

                    1. Mischa, I’m going to play a little with your blurb, never mind me here – the first thing I did cut the genre statement in the opening. The customers will generally know what genre it is by the time they get to your book, and if not, there’s enough hints in the blurb to get by. (Though not so much the cover.) The second thing I did was to break up the wall-of-text into two paragraphs, as it improves readability. See if you like it!

                      James Ozryck has a monster in his head. All of his life Catskinner has made him a fugitive, afraid to get too close to anyone, afraid to stay in one place for too long. If he does, the monster kills, without compassion and without warning. Now James has learned that Catskinner is not the only monster in the world, and the world is far stranger and more dangerous place than he imagined…

                      In order for James to survive, Catskinner will have to become something more than a monster. He will have to learn what it means to be human.

                2. The question to ask yourself is “are you limiting your readership be not signaling genre”? If you are afraid of losing those readers who don’t normally read SF, then look at your tags. Make sure you use appropriate non-SF tags. Note, however, that a lot of tags go cross genres which is why a book can be listed in the top 100 in police procedurals and UF at the same time, for ex.

                  1. I’ve worked on tags and tried to make them representative. I’m not quite sure how Amazon classifies books–at one point Catskinner was listed as #20-something in “metaphysical science fiction” (just under Gaimen’s “American Gods”, actually) which is a category that I had no idea even existed and definitely did not choose.

              2. If I were to see that cover show up in my Amazon recommendation lists, my instant reaction would be that it ended up there as a result of the same sort of glitch that put hundreds of straight up Romance novels in my lists a few months back despite the fact that I have never in my life purchased a romance novel. As a result, it wouldn’t get any more attention than the time it takes me to hit the Not Interested, Get It Out Of My Recommendations button.

                So, yes it is almost certainly costing potential readers.

                1. But it may not be costing me good potential readers. Honestly, someone who has never purchased a romance novel is not likely to care much for my work. Not that the romance angle is important to the story, but I don’t write typical science fiction. My work is more like Phillip Dick or Samuel Delany that Heinlein or Clarke.

                  I’d rather sell my books to people who are looking for something outside of the ordinary, because those are people who are going like my books, give them good reviews, and want to read the rest of the series.

            2. Well, I like your covers, Misha. Artistically, anyway. I am shamed to admit that I haven’t made it into Catskinners yet at all, so I can’t say anything about the “match.”

              But I do have to agree that they don’t say “SF/F.” Actually, I’m not sure just what genre they say to me…

      1. Go ahead, use ornate ones — IF the font is the major visual element of the cover. As in, utterly dominates it. And is large enough to be clear even if ornate.

        Can sometimes work. Most art, however, will prevent its working.

  4. I had a longer comment about the trials and travails of a newbie in mind the other day – and got sidetracked by weather related problems and trying to get the first toe into the publishing pool. I’ll probably do it in bits and pieces during the day now.

    One of the first things to trip me up was the “fiddly details” of beginning images. I have a desert as part of my first cover (Cedar has seen it). The son volunteered to do it for me, and he actually did a very nice one, better than the one I eventually used. But it wasn’t quite a high enough resolution for the Amazon requirements, so I asked him for the source file he started with. Come to find out, it was an image from a website – that had no indication of where the image originally came from. Sigh. Can’t use – no license whatever, don’t even know if the website actually had the right to use it.

    OK, look on Dreamstime Ah-ha! Found the perfect desert, just a couple of tweaks that will be needed, even has the road already just about the way I wanted it (that is another important element in the cover). Right in my price range, too (free). Went to download it – and found out it was editorial license only (meaning no real manipulation allowed). No, I don’t know why, but that was what it was. Little detail that got me there – I hadn’t set the “advanced” filters right. Sigh. Can’t use.

    Finally found the one that I ended up using – with quite a bit of manipulation – on Pixabay. Multiple hours wasted on photos that I could not legally use. Oh, always make sure the proper “release obtained” boxes are checked when you go to retrieve the image.

    Lesson – make absolutely sure that you are searching for photo stock that you can use. Sounds easy – but not. For one thing, Dreamstime I noticed reset the price range to the default when I started a new search. Pixabay for some reason refused to send the signup email to my Cox account – I ended up creating a dummy HotMail to get access to the high resolution source images that are needed for cover creation.

    (One “nice” thing that I am doing is to attribute the photos I use as base elements – along with a note that I am solely responsible for what I did with them. Public domain license doesn’t require that, but these people make beautiful photographs available for free, which I think deserves some credit.)

  5. I get a lot of use out of InkScape. InkScape is to Adobe Illustrator what GIMP is to Adobe Photoshop. I find it good for diagrams, maps or more geometric images.

    For Mac users, non-free but cheaper than Photoshop tools:
    Pixelmator: much easier to use than Photoshop or GIMP but not as powerful as either.
    Autodesk Graphic: a different vector tool – like InkScape or Illustrator

  6. I know enough to know I’m paying somebody to do my covers… sigh… I’m not about to try to do that too! 🙂

    1. Up til the last two, I’ve done my own. Half the artwork is bad, and I haven’t the faintest idea what the font signals. So instead of swearing that I could learn this too, I finally admitted I was better off writing and turning the covers over to some one with a clue.

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