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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:
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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:

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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.

Nowadays?

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.)

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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:

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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
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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.

Go work.

 

 

107 Comments
  1. Mustn’t sleep . . . Cover will eat me . . .

    February 20, 2018
  2. I stated in another thread just recently that “stealing from others in your genre” is the best possible thing you can do—and more specifically, stealing from covers that are out right now is important too. Just look at the cover designs from Elizabeth Moon or Tamora Pierce books over the life of the book and you’ll see how quickly styles can change. (I can pull up nigh on a dozen covers for Tamora Pierce Tortall books, all for the same title.)

    And it’s not just artwork; it’s font choice and placement. And strokes—that line around the edge of the letters that separates them visually from the artwork. (Graphic programs have a button for that, so that you can play with it endlessly to find something clean-looking without damaging your original.)

    Note: I do graphic design for myself, but my self-descriptor is artist and has been since I was a small child. I’ve also been working with Photoshop for—egads—almost twenty years, with a four-year-stint of using it professionally and full-time. I am HAPPY to share particular answers with folk, because working under deadline means I usually have a way to do it faster and more simply. But if you’re starting from scratch, I’d suggest either a class or giving the work to somebody else while you practice, because the learning curve will hurt your sales otherwise.

    February 20, 2018
    • The only thing is, some of the worst covers I’ve seen were professional designers. They get the “pretty” not so much the “cue the reader right.”

      February 20, 2018
      • The way I heard it was “go for the second-tier sellers.” You don’t go for the bestsellers, because they’re often working off different concepts (like George R.R. Martin selling off name recognition.) You go for the second tier, since they’re the ones that have to work at it.

        February 20, 2018
        • Yep. Or even Hunger Games going off “hyperpush” so don’t need to make sense.

          February 20, 2018
      • Second Attempt:

        There is an example that does not include anyone in present company where the covers just didn’t convey that the novels had whimsical aspects. Then, then the rights returned to the author, the author chose covers that conveyed the whimsical aspect, but not some of the dark issue. Okay, so dark whimsical is hard to convey, but I’m not sure if the new overs are a good choice.

        OTOH, my best cover was a case of a blind hog finding an acorn. The cut-out paper effect didn’t work, but it was eye catching. The rest … meh. I thought my latest was pretty good, but that may have been due to the effort in drawing the crown. I’ve cooled on it a good bit since January, but nothing better comes to mind.

        Then again, I hope a cover for the second may work. It’s eye catching because the item on the cover is a bit unusual, but it’s exactly what’s said in the title. My hope is that someone with a passing knowledge of Northern Europe, circa about 800 – 1300 AD, will recognize it and give it a look, and those who don’t will look, anyway, simply out of curiosity.

        February 20, 2018
    • And it’s not just artwork; it’s font choice and placement. And strokes—that line around the edge of the letters that separates them visually from the artwork.

      Holy bannanas yes. Go to urban fonts and find something that matches what’s currently selling well mid-list in your genre. Note whether the author & title get different fonts (sometimes they do) Be careful choosing thematic fonts that make it hard to read the title when scaled small on a phone or tablet. That kind of thing.

      These are the subliminal cues that read “not professionally produced” even if you have clean artwork, nice atmospheric perspective softening the background behind author’s name & title.

      It’s a tricky balance: You don’t want your title (or name) covering up the character’s eyeballs, but you do want it covering up that brilliantly rendered castle behind him, that’s now softened and just barely visible behind the cover name. Sorry artist! All that work you put in went “bye-bye”! This was one of the hard lessons I had to learn about cartooning. Kill your darlings. You’re selling the story, not the art.

      February 21, 2018
      • Layers are a lovely thing. You can nudge things around until they look right. (Oh, and Guides. Set Guides to the centerpoints and about 1/4 inch in from all sides and that will help you to keep your artwork and titles where they need to be.)

        February 21, 2018
  3. Re. fonts and colors. Saw one of the featured books on my older black and white e-ink Kindle with an unreadable cover. I literally could not read the title or author name, because it was in white against a white grid over various pictures. I’m not certain how much better it would be in color as a thumbnail.

    Last time I checked, _Ill Met_ was shelved in the reference section with other literary style guides at the public library here. ?!?

    February 20, 2018
    • Yep. That’s where they shelve it. It’s a fantasy novel.

      February 20, 2018
      • Well, at least you are there, somewhere… I’m wondering how many libraries are going to see the other “Ill Met By Moonlight” from Baen and say “Oh, we already have that one, skip it.”

        I have my doubts about the latest Elfhome cover from there, too. Probably has something to do with the story, but I look at it and say “I could do that. I wouldn’t dare release it, but I could do it.”

        February 20, 2018
        • IMBM was from Ace.

          February 21, 2018
          • Sigh. This is why people should not Google late at night…

            First thing that comes up is the audiobook, then some of the reviews (not mentioning the publisher), then the Baen Webscription e-version, then finally the NESFA review that actually does say Ace. Way down on the bottom of the page.

            At least I realized that it is not a “novel by Mercedes Lackey and Sarah Hoyt” – as the Google Books sidebar has it.

            Oh, interesting. Just clicked on “This Scepter’d Isle” – and down in the also searched, that sidebar has “Ill Met,” with the Ace cover – and author Mercedes Lackey. I have not had enough coffee for this yet!

            Urk. One of my planned titles is “Counterstrike.” Now I’m afraid to do that – there is the game with the name (although with a hyphen) – and one of the creators was apparently just recently arrested for pedophilia…

            I’m off the webs until much later today, this is a strong hint that I should be getting to work.

            February 21, 2018
      • FWIW, I’ve seen Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead in the non-fiction section of a library.

        February 20, 2018
        • Shel Silverstein’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ is almost invariably found in the children’s section of bookstores. Recent editions have a big yellow “For Adults Only” sticker on the front cover. It doesn’t seem to help.

          February 20, 2018
      • Last time I checked, _Ill Met_ was shelved in the reference section with other literary style guides at the public library here

        You can get that fixed. Libraries both outsource and have radically scaled back their cataloging & processing departments. Books fall through the cracks. It’s really easy to get, say “How to build humane cattle-butchering pens for your small farm” out of the 300s (social issues) and into the 630s (animal husbandry).

        What’s tricky is getting your adult short story collection out of the 800s (literary works) and into the YA science fiction collection. That needs a librarian who can make a convincing case that no-one who actually reads the BORDERLANDS collection is going to find it next to shakespeare and milton, and almost no-one who goes looking for the latest feminist experimental play is going to pick up something with a Baen cover.

        But it can be done 🙂

        February 21, 2018
    • When desperate (on other projects), I turn to the color wheel and pick near opposite colors. That helps some.

      February 20, 2018
      • I’ve found this site very helpful for working with colors:

        https://color.adobe.com/create/color-wheel/

        There’s also a huge collection of nice (and not-so-nice) color schemes created by others under “Explore”.

        February 21, 2018
      • Also if you want a color to pop, but something grey / desaturated behind it.

        Which reminds me (Anon time): That background futzing? It’s two things.

        1) Atmospheric perspective. That is, as things get farther away, the atmosphere “fogs them up” even on a clear day. But if you’re doing this you need to be consistent. If that atmosphere is based on mist and fog, it shouldn’t just be in front of the character on the cover, but behind him, to.

        2) Focus. Think of those photos where the guy (or thing) in the foreground is all bright & sharp and everything else is hazy. If you’re doing this, you’ll want to look at other photos (Flickr) to see how it looks. The new Dyce Dare cover is a good example of this.

        google “CC search” to find a fairly easy one-stop shop for images.

        Basically, You want the name/title to be easy to spot. You can add a grey/dark or white/bright haze behind it. Or adjust the opacity (dark or bright + contrast) of the section behind the text.

        One thing that might help: Start with the main info (author & title) layout on the page & then add the art. Tweak the titles around a bit to accomodate, sure,, but when in doubt, pull the picture. Does the main text still work?

        As Mrs. Hoyt pointed out, the ancillary text: blurbs etc, can be worked into spots in the art work. Looking goo where they’re located w/respect to the rest of the art, the other text, nice color & font is more important.

        February 21, 2018
  4. Yeah, I remember someone here saying before you create or put a cover on, make sure it matches the genre you are publishing in. Good advice and I have some ideas of what to do for one of my books and that incipient series. Lots of good advice here.

    February 20, 2018
  5. Max #

    I remember someone genuinely trying to be helpful by giving me “advice” on book covers that got very offended when I pointed out that all of their covers were non-fiction or “literary” works, which had nothing to do with the genre I wrote and published in. They got quite offended and upset, arguing that they’d “put some thought into this,” and were quite upset that I was rejecting their advice.

    Age-old case of “I know nothing about your job, let me tell you how to do it.”

    On the plus side, I’ve found a good niche for my covers, and my last was quite well-received by reviewers and readers. Took a few books, but I got a better handle on things.

    February 20, 2018
    • Yep. I’ve had that happen.

      February 20, 2018
      • Max #

        I think everyone has. Writing is one of those careers where everyone seems to think they can offer advice at a pro. Wouldn’t surprise me if random readers tried to sit down with authors like Brandon or Zahn to this day to “explain” what they were doing “wrong.”

        February 20, 2018
        • Remember a couple of years ago when a Puppy Kickers with sales ranks in the one to two million range was lecturing Larry “Bought a Mountain WIth His Royalties” Correia on how to increase his sales?

          High comedy, that was.

          February 20, 2018
  6. Hey, I resemble this article!

    February 20, 2018
  7. “Damn it, Jim, I’m a writer, not an artist!” I don’t trust myself to be my own editor and I know I’m an atrocious proofreader. But since I’m likely to be the Marketing Division for my book, I want a cover that matches the tile and accurately illustrates a scene from the book. Truth in Advertising, sort of.

    February 20, 2018
    • Drop the idea you want a scene from the book. If you think about it logically it’s nonsensical. Before the reader reads the book they don’t care, and afterwards the most they’ll say is “that didn’t happen.”
      At any rate, you don’t want a “scene” cover in most cases. You want a character/spirit of the book cover. Yes, the cover for Uncharted is a scene, but that’s because that one scene encapsulates the whole adventure. This is rare.

      February 20, 2018
      • Confutus #

        But…but…but…some of my very favorite covers are illustrations of a scene! People do judge a book by its cover, and this scene nearly defines the main character! Medieval-era fantasy, check. Heroic deed and story centered around it, check. Waahhh!

        February 20, 2018
        • The new Forgotten Realms Drizzt book covers are, in my opinion, better than the ones from before (I liked The Crystal Shard’s cover by Larry Elmore though) – they’re not exact depictions of scenes from the books, signal what to expect (adventure, war, etc) and attract the eye. So, it does work sometimes, but not for all books. (Easier for established world settings and series like DragonLance and FR and such.)

          Cases where it worked for me included the original cover I first saw of So You Want to be A Wizard by Diane Duane. It depicts, inexactly, a scene from the book, but also has all the right hooks to attract the intended audience and signaled (early) urban fantasy.

          Otherwise, it’s try to get the current cues, which change so frequently (and I get lots of ones that look like a romance book cover because of genre-bleed) it can be difficult.

          February 20, 2018
          • Yep. It can be a scene (or close to it), so long as the scene signals the genre.

            Naval mil-sf? ‘Splody spaceships. They’ll be in some scene or another in the book, or you’re cheating the reader.

            Romance? Well, at some point or another, your characters are going to be in an “intimate” position (how intimate, of course, depends on how close it comes to erotica). Perfectly acceptable scene as the basis for a cover illustration. (Well, depending… Might not get into some libraries.)

            Of course, if you’re a “big name author” in a genre, that is the most important thing to get on that cover. The Safehold series all had scenes of wood ships in combat. Those might have signaled a historical novel of the seventeenth/eighteenth centuries, or even a dry history of the Battle of Trafalgar – but “David Weber” definitely said they were no such thing.

            February 20, 2018
            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

              IIRC Most of the Safehold Covers also contained futuristic elements. For example, Merlin’s shuttle craft is on the cover along with the “early modern era elements”.

              February 20, 2018
              • Hmm. I’m going to have to look at them again. (I only glance at them when I’m buying it anyway – habit I need to break, obviously, to learn to make better ones myself.)

                February 21, 2018
      • Luke #

        It might hurt my brain less if we find a consistent way to distinguish the dramatic scene from the landscape scene when having this discussion.

        Most books I’ve bought primarily because of the cover do show a scene from the book, in that the setting is accurately depicted.
        But not in the “this is the dramatic moment when X happens”.

        February 21, 2018
        • Ah. see, a scene is fine, but the “this happens” isn’t. Even for Baen they’re getting away from this (see cover for DSR or under a graveyard sky) because it’s hard to SEE in thumbnail format.

          February 21, 2018
      • Whot she said. When was the last time you saw a graphic novel / Comic book with a scene from the story used for the cover?

        Or a movie tie-in.

        And they have KILLER scenes-from-the-story to play with. Spoiled for choice! But they don’t.

        February 21, 2018
    • What I’m hearing you say you want is a classic “Baen” cover. i.e. garish with some sort of action going on.

      It’s not a bad thing to want but it can take a good deal of effort to do well AND IMHO it mostly works for Baen because it’s such a recognizable house style that people buy it because they immediately know “It’s Baen” and/or “I liked that other book by that Weber* guy which had a similar kind of cover”.

      However if you actually look at the Baen covers they frequently don’t quite depict a scene in the book. They depict kind of the scene only with bits from other scenes and other non-present characters in the background.

      *replace Weber with Flint Free Hoy Correia Ringo etc. as required

      February 20, 2018
      • Garish and with a lot going on works, but it is incredibly hard to do.

        February 20, 2018
        • Honestly, I think most Baen covers just get ignored. I didn’t discover Lois Bujold until after I discovered Baen. She had those “space nazi” covers. I remember picking them up and putting them down without even getting past the back cover blurb.

          Now I look for the little logo and give the first chapter a look-see.

          I AM the problem authors have. Fortunately, that works for me with my market. Unfortunately it makes me just as hard to sell to.

          I discovered Andre Norton because she had the same cover artist (Robin Jaques. Brilliant guy) as Joan Aiken. I discovered a whole bunch of authors because they had Trina Schart Hyman covers. But that worked because, as it turns out, she and I have the same taste in kids’ books, (across genres as diverse as American historical fiction and horror) and she got to read books before she agreed to do the covers.

          February 21, 2018
          • Yes. MOST Baen covers are ignored, which is why it has been a thriving business for decades. Do you read what you type?

            February 21, 2018
            • Clearly, that was ill-said. At this point it seems unwise to do anything other than say: I have a high opinion of Bean books output. I like it, and want to share it with young readers who will enjoy it too My apologies again.

              February 21, 2018
            • Draven #

              someone was grumbling about some Baen cover or the other the other week and i went to look at it and realized i had the eARC with a blank cover.

              February 22, 2018
          • BTW in certain circles, which you obviously aspire to running in, it’s not the COVERS. They’ll ignore Baen anyway. The economic power of those circles is shown by the fact for the longest time tiny Baen made more bestsellers than ANYONE else.

            February 21, 2018
            • Which circles are those? I don’t understand you here.

              I want more Indie books (and Bean) available to my library patrons, not less. And yes, if both Baen and I die eat trad pub for lunch, market-share-wise, I count that as a win.

              February 21, 2018
      • Confutus #

        I had in mind something more like the original covers for “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” or the “Wheel of Time”. For years, Michael Whelan was doing beautiful covers that illustrated characters, if not scenes, and which well matched the books they covered. No, I’m probably not going to get that quality of art, not on my budget. But I can try. The specific scene I have in mind clearly signals what the book is about; there are others that don’t.

        February 20, 2018
    • Mary #

      As long as your readers’ reaction is not “I was defrauded!” you’re accurate enough.

      Though I still remember a novel where the cover was of something that didn’t happen in the novel — and was still a spoiler. NO SPOILERS. Remember that.

      February 20, 2018
      • Confutus #

        Well, to take an example not at random, if the title is “Dragonkiller”, a picture of a guy sticking a sword into a dragon should neither be misleading nor a major spoiler. But if the picture on the cover shows a knight in shiny armor on a horse pointing a lance, and the text has none of those, I would expect complaints.

        February 20, 2018
        • Mary #

          The particular one had a winged character on the cover. As soon as you met the character with a back problem, you knew what would happen.

          February 20, 2018
      • I’m not sure it’s a sense of defrauded, with covers that don’t match expectations. Blurbs, yes. The problem comes when the blurb + cover design create an expectation of, say, fried chicken with an ice cold cola, and the reader is plunged into rare steak and red wine. They might LOVE the latter ordinarily, but with his mouth all set for that crispy salty-fat goodness, it’s going to taste off.

        I know one book that got this cover treatment, and in every case I had to work hard to create an opposite expectation for the reader.

        February 21, 2018
    • Depending on the genre, you may not want a scene. YA fantasy is very much into closeups on faces at the moment, or abstract variations thereof, so illustrating a scene would be the wrong genre signal. Look at books in your preferred genre, see what they’re doing—and do a variation of that.

      February 21, 2018
      • Yeah. Even Baen doesn’t have scenes.

        February 21, 2018
      • Hmm. I’m not primarily going for a YA audience. My hero is too old. Parents of YA is more like it. So far I have a romantic subplot for his daughter going, and she’s about the right age, and I mean the story to be family-friendly, but that’s still not the main target. Now that I have the waaahh! out of my system, maybe I can look at this dispassionately.

        February 22, 2018
  8. I had some difficulty wrapping my head around the cover Sarah did for The Kinmar. Frankly, i resembles nothing actually in the book (novella actually). But it cued “heroic fantasy” and given how bad the original was I figured it had to be better so I went with it. I’ve probably picked up a few sales and KU reads based on the new cover. (It’s a short and most of my works available are shorts so I don’t really expect a lot.

    February 20, 2018
  9. Oh, yes – steal (inspiration) happily from the best. I was stuck for a cover for my first book, since I couldn’t afford original art for it, didn’t know how to get hold of the right sort of art in public domain that would be good enough – and then I saw the cover of the paperback version of Memoirs of a Geisha. Vintage-looking sepia photograph, with pastel pinkish and yellow titles. Bernadette let me use one of her photographs – and it worked!

    They do say that one ought to re-do covers about every decade to fifteen years or so, just to reflect current fashion. Covers date as readily as dress style…

    February 20, 2018
    • Oddly enough, I happened to have a photograph of the accurate location, and removing the train track and desaturating it was easy.

      I’m not sure what the update would be, except that maybe a vintage map should figure into it.

      February 21, 2018
      • It’s another five years or so, before I think about that … but an overlay of a vintage map would work. I’d love to use elements of a contemporary painting or sketch of a wagon train party, but my bare bones budged doesn’t allow for that. Until then – my enduring thanks to you for the use of that photo. (And for the one of the vintage train!)

        February 21, 2018
        • I live in a good area for that time period.

          February 21, 2018
          • I know … and the locomotive pic for Sunset and Steel Rails made an amazing cover. It gets sales every month, although I hardly do anything to push it, since it is several books ago…

            February 21, 2018
  10. I know I need to redo all the covers on my books. Especially the ones I put up when I was having computer problems and couldn’t use GIMP, so I fell back on a less than ideal online image editor that didn’t have nearly as many features. (I may use it for a few visual effects that I can’t do easily on GIMP, but it’s simply not as versatile or sophisticated as GIMP).

    However, time has been a persistent problem. I’d thought I’d dig into the project in March, since I don’t have any conventions to go to (thank you very much Shutocon and Naka-con for waitlisting me). However, that time is now going to be given over to getting our online sales going again, which means a whole lot of time going through our inventory and preparing descriptions that are current and accurate.

    Maybe I can squeeze in at least some of the worst ones. But I also wanted to completely rebuild my website for my imprint, and some other business activities. And all the tedious number-crunching of income taxes for last year.

    So much to do, so little time.

    February 20, 2018
    • Time is a huge issue here too.

      February 20, 2018
    • Yeah, I can see that Mrs. KImmel. My fingers itch for the stylus when I see covers like Steampunk Cthulu. The “fixes” would be so quick with the Manga Studio software. Khuldar’s War, too, assuming that the sky, background & foreground are three separate images. The biggest time sink would be finding a font like oh… Neuropolitical and testing it to make sure it actually looked good with your name & title and stayed readable at 3 inch cover sizes.

      But using something ancient and clunky? Holy crud. Agonizing.

      February 21, 2018
      • I’ve painted with a mouse when I didn’t have time to get the tablet working. Agonizing, yes.

        February 21, 2018
      • Draven #

        ‘Clip Studio Paint” remember?

        (still on sale btw!)

        February 22, 2018
  11. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Young Mr. Twerp sounds like he has similar art tastes to a certain banned troll who likes to post Baen and MGC author covers at bad art sites.

    February 20, 2018
    • Well, of course it’s not a good dragon. It’s obviously a magical plesiosaur / river monster. How the heck do you get to be old enough to go to a convention, and not recognize a dinosaur/cryptid when you see one?

      February 20, 2018
      • It’s a river serpent.

        February 21, 2018
        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

          Who are you to say that the “River Serpent” can’t identify itself as a Dragon?

          Oh, I forgot. You’re a fellow Dragon. We can speak out against Fake Dragons. 😀

          February 21, 2018
          • Well, technically, a “drakon” is always a giant serpent, whereas dragons usually have limbs and wings and other accessories.

            My idea of a river serpent is the Cherokee uktena one, which is pretty much just giant snake with stuff. But one of the scariest river monsters is the giant 13 striped ground squirrel. Alas, I do not think you could ever use it as horror or kaiju without strictly using its Indian name.

            February 21, 2018
            • Don’t knock the blunt teens too badly. He MAY have told you something useful about marketing dragon books to 14-year-olds.

              On the other hand, if your collection is alternative-historical fiction, he told you something else, too.

              February 21, 2018
              • Christopher M. Chupik #

                True. Clamps does it out of petty malice, the teen is probably just misguided.

                February 21, 2018
              • He told me he was annoying, stupid and had no boundaries?
                Note he didn’t know me or Kevin or how publishing works, but he was giving me career advice
                And no, he dind’t tell me anything about marketing dragon books to 14 year olds. Because, guess what? I have no intention of.

                February 21, 2018
                • Yes. All that. I think (hope) I understand.

                  February 21, 2018
                • I realised just now that while I thought I was being clever and rational, I am (and was) quite full of sadness and terror. I suspect this made the worst elements of my nature more… forward. Seems wise to avoid comboxes for the nonce. All the best.

                  February 25, 2018
  12. As an author presently wrestling with my first covers, I appreciated this article, although it does make muh haid hertz.

    February 20, 2018
  13. Zsuzsa #

    Yikes on that Ill Met cover. It really does look like either non-fiction or a pretentious literary work. Even knowing who Katherine Kurtz is, I still don’t look at that cover or that quote and think, “Fantasy.”

    February 20, 2018
    • Yep.

      February 20, 2018
    • It earned out (and was taken out of print one pay period later) but I don’t think it was ever meant to. Or if it was they’re all mentally impaired.

      February 20, 2018
    • It’s very much in the Literary Classic Using Getty Images style. I’m rereading Jane Austen and immediately thought it went with that.

      February 21, 2018
  14. sam57l0 #

    “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.)”
    My money’s on “lose money to offset profits elsewhere”, as Dr. Johnny Fever figured out why WKRP was kept in operation.

    February 20, 2018
  15. Christopher M. Chupik #

    I saw one of those “best SF and Fantasy of the year” antho covers the other day and without the title, you’d have absolutely no idea of what the contents might be. It was that generic.

    February 20, 2018
    • They reprinted all of Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic sf, and the covers were all photographic fields and pastures and daisies.

      No, I am not kidding.

      February 20, 2018
      • Luke #

        That was to tap into the aesthetic of the Earthsea TV series. Golden oversaturated light visuals and fuzzy pastoral backgrounds were featured.

        Since they were marketing to that audience, it makes sense.
        Even if it does not at all match the images in my mind.

        February 21, 2018
        • Well, you relieve my mind. I dislike thinking that people are completely thoughtless.

          But it did not work. Le Guin complained about her incredibly sucky sales during that very period of interest. She was sure it was Amazon’s fault, but that publisher kept doing things like forgetting to include blurbs, or putting the books into women’s fiction instead of sf/f. (Not her feminist books or female character books, either.)

          Her kids books publishers, at the same time, had awesome covers and good blurbs and categories.

          February 21, 2018
      • An absolute perfect example of the author name selling the book.

        February 21, 2018
  16. Ugh. I need to redo and/or update probably half my covers. Anyone see my youthful energy around here somewhere?

    February 20, 2018
    • When you find it … maybe in an old purse at the back of the closet … see if you can spot mine, as well.

      February 20, 2018
    • It ran away with mine. The b*tches are in Hawaii oggling the servers and sipping drinks with umbrellas on them.

      February 21, 2018
      • Luke #

        Please tell me that banana daiquiris and yelling at foreigners are featured.

        February 21, 2018
    • Mine’s in the possession of a three-year-old.

      February 21, 2018
  17. This is actually not a cover for one of Chris Nuttall’s Schooled in magic books, but it is a remarkable rendering of Emily in a few years.

    https://dwtr67e3ikfml.cloudfront.net/bookCovers/4a43ed54f20ca1b082fa2684b69723b619c32d90

    On the other hand, I do recall seeing a holographic cover. It was 3D. It was colored in bilious green and even more bilious purple. It was astonishingly awful.

    On the other hand consider
    https://smile.amazon.com/Sword-Sorceress-Marion-Zimmer-Bradley/dp/B0027U0XE4/
    That’s a Whelan. I have a copy of the original, a numbered print. It’s gorgeous. What some art director did to the coloring for the cover is, well, appalling. The blues are magnificant..the were exterminated.

    February 20, 2018
  18. A friend of mine had a random person tell him the truth about the covers he had done for his novels. And it was the truth. My friend was not an artist, did not have a big budget, and did the best he thought he could do but the result was less than ideal.

    I had tried to hint a few things about composition, colour usage, framing, and such to him but there are times when you know the advice you’re giving is not being listened to and if you decide to be blunt the only thing you will accomplish is loss of a friendship and a stubborn refusal to change covers. I am not very diplomatic but when it comes to artwork I tend to only compliment or say nothing. Not because I want them to fail, far from it, but I find that people who are not artists (trained, or untrained) and try their hands at art get a very lofty opinion of that art and become overprotective. My friend was angered by the random person’s honesty and responded by ripping that person up and down and twice by Sundays. Not to their face, he is a polite dude, but behind their back later on to me (and anyone else who would listen) the vitriol he unleashed was a surprise. Which meant that I then backed off on the gentle, understated advice I’d been trying to give him and left him to his own devices.

    However, he surprised me by reworking the covers and significantly improving them. He’d been stung but he used that as motivation to study some of the things I’d been hinting at. Now, while better than they were, they’re still not exactly… good but they at least now look like covers.

    The question then comes down to what could a person like that do in his situation? Knowing his lack of budget, I recommended a cover designer rather than a cover artist (for the subgenre he’s in a simpler cover strong on iconography, colors and design would be a good choice), and while those are cheaper than a decent cover artist, they’re still not cheap. One idea someone mentioned was to plow profits to increase profits. Basically, get a half decent cover from a new artist, take what profits you get from the first book to invest in a better cover from a more established artist for the second and so on down the line. But to me that seems a little optimistic, assuming profit that may or may not be there.

    Though, one piece of advice I would give out if doing covers yourself or hiring someone else to do it for you is you need to think about the purpose of a cover. Yes, it’s designed to sell the book, but how is it supposed to accomplish that? By drawing eyeballs to the book. Getting attention. Making people stop, read the description, and be forced to make a decision instead of allowing them the freedom to not have to choose. I’ve seen a lot of indie writers who spent a lot of money on covers by very good artists but what they got was a very nice piece of art that works better as shelf camouflage than as a cover. It blends into its surroundings and disappears from sight. Sure, you look at the cover and it is well done but that doesn’t matter if it doesn’t catch people’s attention whether it’s online or onshelf. A strong composition with adequate artwork beats out great artwork with weak composition. That said, composition is tricky, and can be in the eye of the beholder (different compositions will work better with different genres. A man and a woman in a smoldering clinch in the foreground will ‘read’ as a romance cover no matter how many space ships you have blasting away in the background).

    A scene from the book might accomplish that. A character study might accomplish that. Best of all (for me at least) is a question I want answered by the book. Why’s that monkey in a biplane? Why is there an astronaut corpse on the moon as Neil Armstrong takes his one small step? But for others they might prefer character and don’t care about the question, especially if there’s something unique about the character (that can be represented in art). I also like when you can combine the two, an interesting lead character with a question; That scarred guy at the front of that Greek Trireme looks more Irish than Greek, weird, and is that a modern day mechanical arm with its plastic covering removed? Why is it rusted? Things like that. Though that’s also a composition issue. You could do that cover with your main character in the mid-ground with a side view of the trireme, or in the back, working one of the oars. Or you could put the character in the foreground with the rusty arm right in the middle, with the trireme in perspective receding behind him. The third choice is the one that nearly every customer would pay more attention to but I’ve seen authors who seem to want the more pedantic, more representative, more static cover and are willing to pay for that.

    Part of it is many writers don’t think visually, they think in information and want to convey as much information as possible, others seem to think of salesmanship as icky and want to avoid it at all costs. Some think of themselves as creating High Art and having a crass, commercial cover gives themselves the wrong signals.

    Almost as if they’d prefer to fail on their own terms rather than succeed on other terms. Another friend was describing to me the cover she wanted for the book she was writing (moody, gothic, atmospheric, castles and bushes kind of thing) and I stopped her halfway through and asked why she didn’t want the main character on the cover since I thought that was the best part of the book she was telling me about (a human-sized fairy in ripped clothes fleeing her captors in modern day London while holding a too-big-for-her bloody sword in defiance) and she said she didn’t want ‘that kind of cover’. You know, hot girl in skimpy outfit in peril and running while still clearly fighting. Because God knows no one would buy that kind of book with that kind of cover. I’ve certainly never seen advertisements with attractive women in various stages of undress. Certainly not on the cover of magazines by women for women. Nor on books for women, by women. Why, the very idea shakes me to my very core. But that wasn’t the signal she wanted to send. Her need to obey non-commercial directives to signal politics was more important to her than the work she’d done and her desire to get people to read it.

    Sorry that my thoughts went long on this subject, Sarah, but I always find your writings on art very helpful and allows me to organize my own thoughts so that even were I to disagree (and I can’t say I’ve ever found much to disagree with) I still gain value from them.

    Thank you for that,

    Steve

    February 21, 2018
  19. Great advice. Especially that bit about futzing the background (More anon).

    And libraries. Mrs. Hoyt is right about adult indie not needing to break into that market. If you’re trying to break into the children’s market (teen novels can expect to do okay selling as crossover adult), however it’s indispensable. And that’s a problem that covers can hurt – but won’t fix. Because

    1. You need to get into review sources (VOYA, Booklist, Hornbook, School Library Journal, etc.) and there’s only one I know of that our primary selector for teen materials reads that covers indie published teen fiction. And I strongly suspect that those “pay for professional review” sites that promise to get you into Booklist are a scam. That said, PW select is now free, though I’ve yet to meet a youth services librarian that takes the reviews as seriously from PW as they do from SLJ (even though PW will ding you if you have too many copy edits or a non-pro “looking” cover. Sigh) Link: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/diy/index.html

    I did a quick google search for “getting reviews” and found this: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/73538-the-indie-author-s-guide-to-free-reviews.html

    2. You need to get into Overdrive. And they’ve tightened up who they’ll accept. I’ve been digging into this (including talking to their reps at Library Cons) and found that they’re only accepting indie books that are part of either a indie publishing house (ala Kristine Katherine Rusch) with multiple books or a conglomerate. I also suspect authors like KKR were grandfathered in, and there’s… some convergence at work. Anyone from the BadThink crowd with a small press ala KKRs want to play guinea pig? There’s also the DRM issue: they may insist you apply more to it than you want to. I’m pretty sure this is why you can’t find Baen in your library’s e-book collection.

    The Good (ish) news about that is that as far as I can tell, kids and younger teens prefer paper copies. The bad-ish news is that if the only way they can get your book is digitilly, they will read that format just fine. The worse-ish is that unless you can sell to their parents AND their parents are reasonably trusted sources for books to read, they won’t buy your books with their discretionary money, but they will try to get them from the library.

    Which leads to… book covers. Because if I give the average Free Oyster Book Roundup to a teen to look at and ask: which would you like me to tell you more about, I can predict with 100% certainty which those books will be if I have a clue about the teens reading preferences. Close to 75% if I don’t. And yes, I can do the same with tradpub, which is why the long slow fight between children’s librarians and tradpub viz covers continues.

    Because when VOYA reviews their books, even if it’s not fair to the poor author, they do point out whether or not the cover will put off a teen reader from picking it up.

    February 21, 2018
  20. (Note: I keep forgetting that Brave & WordPress hate each other. If this is a duplicate, my apologies)

    Great advice. Especially that bit about futzing the background (More anon).

    And libraries. Mrs. Hoyt is right about adult indie not needing to break into that market. If you’re trying to break into the children’s market (teen novels can expect to do okay selling as crossover adult), however it’s indispensable. And that’s a problem that covers can hurt – but won’t fix. Because

    1. You need to get into review sources (VOYA, Booklist, Hornbook, School Library Journal, etc.) and there’s only one I know of that our primary selector for teen materials reads that covers indie published teen fiction. And I strongly suspect that those “pay for professional review” sites that promise to get you into Booklist are a scam. That said, PW select is now free, though I’ve yet to meet a youth services librarian that takes the reviews as seriously from PW as they do from SLJ (even though PW will ding you if you have too many copy edits or a non-pro “looking” cover. Sigh) Link: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/diy/index.html

    I did a quick google search for “getting reviews” and found this: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/73538-the-indie-author-s-guide-to-free-reviews.html

    2. You need to get into Overdrive. And they’ve tightened up who they’ll accept. I’ve been digging into this (including talking to their reps at Library Cons) and found that they’re only accepting indie books that are part of either a indie publishing house (ala Kristine Katherine Rusch) with multiple books or a conglomerate. I also suspect authors like KKR were grandfathered in, and there’s… some convergence at work. Anyone from the BadThink crowd with a small press ala KKRs want to play guinea pig? There’s also the DRM issue: they may insist you apply more to it than you want to. I’m pretty sure this is why you can’t find Baen in your library’s e-book collection.

    The Good (ish) news about that is that as far as I can tell, kids and younger teens prefer paper copies. The bad-ish news is that if the only way they can get your book is digitally, they will read that format just fine. The worse-ish is that unless you can sell to their parents AND their parents are reasonably trusted sources for books to read, they won’t buy your books with their discretionary money, but they will try to get them from the library.

    Which leads to… book covers. Because if I give the average Free Oyster Book Roundup to a teen to look at and ask: which would you like me to tell you more about, I can predict with 100% certainty which those books will be if I have a clue about the teens reading preferences. Close to 75% if I don’t. And yes, I can do the same with tradpub, which is why the long slow fight between children’s librarians and tradpub viz covers continues.

    Because when VOYA reviews their books, even if it’s not fair to the poor author, they do point out whether or not the cover will put off a teen reader from picking it up.

    February 21, 2018
    • Um…. It’s nice you say that, but you know the preferences of kids who come to the library. Weirdly, you know, I have a ton of teen readers? And no, my books aren’t aimed at them.
      I don’t know why you got on this kick, but I’d advise considering you might be wrong and your perspective limited, because you’re getting on my very LAST nerve.

      February 21, 2018
      • You’re right. It is a narrow perspective. I thought it was useful to you. It appears not or more likely, I’ve expressed it poorly. My apologies.

        February 21, 2018
    • We get it. You are the expert on covers, especially for teens. After all, you’ve managed to hit how many posts about it in the last week or so? You’ve managed to piss on mine, on Dave’s and others. You keep harping on teen readers but guess what? Most of us don’t write children’s books or YA. So we aren’t worrying about cuing for them with our covers. Something else you might want to educate yourself on — we can and do get on Overdrive. It isn’t a closed market to us any longer. You said the other day you didn’t want to “torque off” the writers here any more than you have — well, you haven’t succeeded. Coming in and lecturing us on all we do wrong tends to get on our bad side, especially when you apply your own rules for an audience we aren’t writing for.

      February 21, 2018
      • I’m really sorry Amanda.

        And I’m also ready glad you’re getting on Overdrive. I’d heard some worrisome things. Keep in mind, from my end, I’m trying to get your books ordered (the ones that are YA application able) specifically to share, and being told “we can’t get that.”

        Can I offer something to put this right between us? Free art? Copy edits? Your suggestion–? It really isn’t about disparaging you or your books.Or indie for that matter.. But I perceive that’s how it’s received. Again my apologies.

        February 21, 2018
    • The bit about why you can’t find Baen ebooks in the library is because Simon and Schuster, who own Baen but apparently keep a loose grip on it, won’t allow it.

      February 21, 2018
      • Thanks.

        February 21, 2018
      • Correction here. Simon & Schuster is Baen’s distributor, not owner.

        February 22, 2018
  21. I looked at the top 100 steampunk covers before hunting up something for “In the Vliets.” Er, hmm, I ended up finding something on Dreamstime that jumped up and down and yelled “Steampunk!” then got a steampunk appropriate font, instead of the gal-in-leather-bodice-with-goggles that is the trend for the top 25.

    February 21, 2018
  22. Well I love reading this but … I don’t understand my own genre and I’m the kind of person whose sister and daughter have to buy clothes for because my artistic vision is … missing? I see the differences in covers illustrated here but I wouldn’t see what they signified without someone shouting my ear.

    February 21, 2018

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