It’s a Cover Up
It is a truism to say that teenagers know everything. I know I did, as a teenager. I remember, in cringing embarrassment giving my brother and his wife advice on raising children when I was 19 and had never had any.
I find most people who haven’t been through the mill and tried to acquire covers for indie books are doing the same as those teenagers. Sure, they have some knowledge. It’s highly specialized knowledge, in many cases. Even as readers, they know what they like, usually in a genre. (And this is fuzzy, as people tend not to look at covers as covers when they’re evaluating just the cover, not the book. So they might buy a book because the cover has all the right signals, then turn around and say it’s a bad cover, because this soft artistic one would be better.)
As many of you know, I was at LTUE (Life, The Universe and Everything) in Provo, Utah for almost a week (well, we flew in on Wednesday and it took us a day to “land” back.)
LTUE is primarily a “Writer’s and Artists’ symposium” and I was only sorry that my health didn’t allow me to attend most of the panels I wanted to attend. Ah, well, I’m better than last year, and will be better next year.
This brings us to why their mass signing was more sparsely attended than most such in a con that size – the fan to author ratio was much lower – and a lot of the people seeking signatures were other authors. That was fine, though. In the age of ebooks, it’s disputed whether the cons do anything for promotion (honestly mostly what they used to do was convince your publisher you had a lot of fans and they should push you, which in turn increased your numbers. While there’s still some effectiveness to push, it ain’t what it used to be.)
However cons are vital for writers in another way: this is a crazy business, and only crazy people engaged in it understand it. While we can get a lot of mileage off online friendships, LTUE proved to me, sometimes seeing people face to face (and hugging them) is like a fountain in the desert.
Anyway, at the signing, there was a maybe 14 year old boy, with pie-eyed girl in tow, who, out of clear blue sky, approaches my table where Dan was wrapping up a poster-board of Uncharted: Lewis and Clark in Arcane America (written with Kevin J. Anderson) to bring back (we decided to donate it to the auction at Liberty con, because it’s signed and both authors are known there.) I don’t know what his opening gambit was, because I was talking to a friend who came up behind the tables, but from my husband’s response “But it is a very good cover, you know?” I realized that the young man thought the cover was bad. We’ll leave aside the fact that even when I was a teen twerp I had some manners and understood you don’t march right up to the author of a book and tell him his/her cover sucks. PARTICULARLY since you could walk by and just tell this to your pie-eyed admirer, and let it go. In retrospect, I think he was so cognizant of the field that he thought my husband MUST be Kevin J. Anderson.
Young Mr. Twerp then proceeded to inform us he’d never buy a book with a badly rendered dragon and – superior pose – the whole cover is just inexpressibly bad. I have no clue what his standards are, and frankly couldn’t care less, but one thing stuck, because I have in the past been blamed for the cover of my books, for instance the cover on the hard cover version of Draw One In The Dark, or even the subsequent “this doesn’t look like Urban Fantasy” covers (though I like them as pleasing to the eye.) So I turned around and asked him what he thought authors had to do with the book cover, in the traditional market.
Mr. Twerp informed me, from the height of his ignorance, that writers get to pick the covers, of course. At this point, he had even Larry’s attention (he was sitting next to me) and it was obvious we were laughing at him.
Then he told me that well, if the publisher gave it that cover, I should fire them and go elsewhere. Pie eyed girl looked at him in wonder. I did too. There has been mention in the past of “when someone is so wrong they need an university-degree worth of education to even be worth discussing things with.” Of course the book was written because it was bought on proposal by Baen. You can’t just take it away and “hire another publisher.” On top of which, though Kevin is a big bestseller, he’s not that big. Anyone pulling that stunt would find themselves without any publisher, because why should they invest in editing and cover if you might just pull the book in a snit? J. K. Rowling might be able to pull it off, but for the rest of us that’s just stupid.
I feel like this every time people take it upon themselves to critique covers. Particularly indie covers. Are there atrocious indie covers out there? Yes, there are and a lot of them were made by “for hire” designers. The rest are often writers who simply don’t know any better.
But to pile on indie like that, you need to ignore the total boners pulled very often by traditional publishing. For a shining example, take the first cover given to Draw One In The Dark:
Yep, this was traditionally published, and I really had no say (whatsoever) on it. The book, btw, is a light urban fantasy set in a diner in a fictional Colorado town.
It’s not just that every element of the cover is objectively wrong for the book, it cues all the wrong signals. If I saw that and discounted the amateurish skill level of the artist (note that my kids, then in elementary, could do better) I’d assume a horror book involving castle and dragons. The dragon was the only thing in the book. And no, I don’t know who the zombie with an udder fetish, wearing a seashell in a necklace is. He bears no resemblance to anyone in the book.
And yeah, the amateurish art level mattered, because the message conveyed was “the house doesn’t care about this book.” It crashed my print runs (this was the days of ordering to the net) to 1100, and of course it was all my fault, as it is when a book fails. Honestly I only resent it for thwarting what could have been a very good series.
The cover for the paperback was much better, but what stores would want to stock it when they saw the print run for the hardcover?
So, what about beautiful art, indisputably so?
Oh, I got that with my first book:
Gorgeous, isn’t it? I thought so too. Note that I was very young. Looking at that book now, what it actually looks like is a non-fiction book (And for indie “it came from Gutenberg” — i.e. an old book given a cheap cover with an out of print art piece.)
Note that the quote on the beginning, if you don’t know the name Katherine Kurtz does nothing to dispell the feeling this is a non fiction book.
Oh, the fun we had. This book got shelved in theater, biography, history…. anywhere but the fantasy it actually was.
Keep in mind these are books that are published by traditional houses, with presumably all the resources behind them to make sure they sell. (Maybe, I’ve often wondered if publishing was a tax write off, and they needed most authors not to sell. Only that or utter insanity explain that.)
Now, yeah, there are covers that will tell you that the author has no clue what he’s doing. If those two covers above had been indie-published, you could have a good feeling that was the case.
The first cover says “gothic horror” the second says “scholarly non fic.” So obviously the people who chose those covers didn’t read the genre the covers are. If it is the author who chose the covers, then the author will make tons of genre-mistakes, up to and including explaining to you what elves are. (I’ve seen it, from inexperienced writers.) The first one, because clearly hand drawn by someone with a first-grader’s ability, also says “the author might have written the novel in crayons, on ruled paper.”
Unfortunately, I found myself pitchforked into doing indie covers for my reverted books, when I was not up to doing art, and didn’t have any clue where to find art.
Those who talk about how horrible indie art is, are probably remembering the wrong-aspect days of smashwords, with people using whatever thy could find from wikipedia. I had a few of those, fortunately for short stories, which I took off sale, to de-clutter my page.
I won’t say I can do covers like the best artists and designers in the field, but since as a midlister I never got that. At Baen I know I get the main cover designer, because everyone does, but I know for a fact at Ace I got a secretary who was told to choose art and letter it. I don’t know about Bantam, but I’d guess a romance aficionado which explains why the covers scream “romance” instead of “great magical adventure” (like say, the cover of uncharted. They are, mind you, objectively MUCH prettier art. They just give the wrong impression.)
Now, indie is a different kettle of fish. First, we’re not (any of us) competing to get on bookstore shelves (there is so much baksheesh… er opportunities for bribes in that, that we’re automatically locked out. Sure, you can get in, but that demands you be at least a medium publisher, with a person in charge of JUST that.) And we’re not looking to get on library shelves. Why not? Because when I donated books to the library, they told me that I had to show proof that I’d had three professional reviews to get the books on the stacks. Indies don’t. Sure, there are some you can buy, but none of the big sellers in indie, people I know making low and mid six figures are in libraries, so I consider that negligible. Sure, it could get me lots of money, but it will be almost a miracle if it happens.
So, if you’re an indie, doing covers, and you have no experience, and you’re as confused as I was when I started out? Some tips.
1- You don’t have to draw your own art. I’m starting to do some, now I can render/filter forge. BUT it’s still not necessary or even recommended. You can buy art at places like dreamstime, get free art from places like Pixabay, learn to run it all through filters like filter forge (or simply search for illustrations if you want that “painted” feel. And in 99.9% of the time it will be better than anything you can achieve. (I started playing with renders six months ago. In another six I’ll be good. For now? I make do.)
2- Should your cover be drawn or a photograph? And what type of photograph?
GO LOOK AT COVERS FOR YOUR GENRE AND SUBGENRE. This is enormously important, particularly since the art type/style/etc changes every couple of years, as indies adapt and now in some cases (historical mystery) traditional starts following indie. Take this great cover for the next Dyce book, done by the inimitable Jack Wylder:
The cartoonish style with just a hint of death is perfect for a cozy with humorous overtones. It would purely suck for Musketeer mysteries. (Note something else here, the background except for three central figures is fuzzed. This is something I JUST figured out you need to do to make the cover work.)
3- In fact, go study the covers in your subgenre, as my English teacher said when giving us vocabulary “till your eyes bleed.” This is your best tool. I started getting a clue in how to make selling covers by “stealing” feel, composition, etc. from more successful indie authors (which I’m not… yet. Mostly I put up reverted books, all except for one. Yes, that’s about to change, but it hasn’t yet.)
I still suck at composition. I know that. I suck at it in art too, which is why I steal compositions. (No, it’s not plagiarism. Figures are original and sometimes totally different from original, like tall woman instead of rocket.) Beware if you use dated compositions, it might give your book a dated feel.
4- Text on the cover doesn’t need to be immediately readable. If the art is otherwise appealing in thumb size, the text is right there with it. Some text SHOULDN’T be readable. The stuff on the cover like quotes, etc. shouldn’t be readable. It should however be there. Why? Because it makes it look more like “a real book” i.e. things people have been trained to expect.
5- IF YOU CAN make the art attractive. Yes, I know, you’re writing a horror book about decaying zombies. Put the non-decaying main hero on the cover. People find covers with people more attractive, and people PREFER covers that are appealing. If your cover makes you flinch, like this one
it might be an accurate representation of content, but it sucks as an advertisement. (There was a worse one, which I was in, but I can’t find it now.) If people don’t even want to look at the cover, it’s going to be harder to click “buy.”
6- Some of your covers are going to suck. As in any other artistic endeavor (and covers are, even when they’re not art) some days you’re more on than others, some things will speak to you more.
The only thing I can promise you is that as with writing you’ll get way better and continue getting better with practice, till your off covers are better than your “amazing achievement” covers a year or two before.
But you know, as above, traditional publishing sucked on covers at times, too. Keep working. Do some covers for books you haven’t written yet/ don’t intend to write.
Practice, practice, practice.
Creative genius is 1% talent, 9% craft and 90% sweat. This applies to covers as well as writing.