Cover caveats

The moment has arrived; your book is ready for its debutante ball. But no matter how finely honed its grace and manners, formatting and prose, it still needs to be dressed in an eye-catching cover that lets the readers of the world know exactly what genre and subgenre she is, and what promises are being made that will be revealed if they can take her home…

And if you’re like me, you’re not an artist. (Really; I just feed them.) So you have to get someone else to do that.

So where do you find your cover art and cover designer? Well, you can search the premade options put together by artists and designers, so you know exactly what it’ll look like when you get the “Your Title” swapped out for your actual title, and “Author Name” swapped for your pen name or real name.

Or you can get one designed for you. If you have no idea what you want or need, this can involve writing up a short description of the book or sending the book to the designer. Be aware that a busy professional designer probably will not read your entire book, but is skimming for worldfeel, character descriptions, possibly an iconic scene.

Or, if you’re a little more artistically inclined, you’ll send the designer / artist basically three sets of URLs.

First, links to bestselling books in the same subgenre that have covers similar to what you want. (send 3, so they can get a feel for what’s standard to that subgenre vs. particular to that single cover.)

Second, Send them URLs from stock photo sites that say “models like this”

Third, URLs from stock photo sites saying “backgrounds like this”

Artists think in pictures, not words, so communicate in visuals as much as possible. You’re going to use and abuse the English language and mangle it while searching for the precise technical terms artists use to talk to each other. If you don’t understand saturation, hue, rimlighting, filters… then just say “the soft painting-not-photo look” or “the kinda glowy visual effects” because your artist will understand.

But make sure to start off with current books in subgenre, or your artist will build a cover with what they interpret from your words, and it can deviate and drift.

Which brings us to… the artist sent a sketch, a thumbnail, or a low-res render. And you don’t like it. What do you do now?

First, take a deep breath, get some chocolate, and let the emotion pass. Then try to analyze why you don’t like it. Go back to the bestsellers and hot new releases lists, and compare the book to those, to see where it’s different. If you just try to fix it and tinker without really understanding what drives the problem, you’re more likely to end up with an unholy mess and a lot of frustration and time wasted than a good cover.

Once you have a handle on the problem, then go back to the artist. Find something you liked in it and compliment it – because this person just did a lot of work for you! Also, because that lets them know what they might want to keep. Then explain the issue.

On the most recent cover I commissioned, I was drawing a total blank on cover art, so I sent the book instead. (She likes the genre, so this wasn’t a great hardship.) The artist took the concept of a skyline that included alien ruins and built up a really neat alien ruin. But it took up the whole background, leaving no hint of city there. When I asked her to put the city in, it had to squeeze faintly around the edges, and the alien ruins were abstract enough that… although fairly true to book description… they didn’t signal subgenre at all, nor trigger “alien ruin.” When I ran the cover past a friend, they said, “Oh, you’re writing steampunk?”

And I realized that was the problem… the ruins really looked like steampunk embellishment. Wrong subgenre signaling! What I really needed to emphasize wasn’t the alien bit for science fiction, the action/adventure/thriller needed the city to be emphasized.

And the model herself, well, she had the right hair colour, but she had this dreamy expression that would look at home on a romance, and wasn’t nearly hunted enough for this book. Which makes sense, because the last cover she designed for me had a hefty romance subplot, so when she did a quick skim on this one, she might have missed the genre shift.

So I went back to the artist, saying thank you very much for all the work you’ve done, but I really need you to scrap the entire cover and start over. And here’s some of the covers I’m looking at, and here’s some of the models, and some of the cities…

And she came back with “How about this?” Of course, gal with city backdrop has gotten common enough in urban fantasy/paranormal romance that throwing an odd-coloured sky might not be enough to signal science fiction adventure instead, and throwing in a moon or two is Right Out. But the artist tried a planet with rings, and we could do that!

And the cover, lo, it was awesome. Much, much closer to genre and subgenre, and felt right.

However, she couldn’t find a redhead model. I found a perfect model that was redheaded, but she was also wearing a BDSM collar and that was most definitely wrong genre signaling entirely! So we ran with a brunette. And I shrugged, and noted that sometimes you don’t get the perfect model unless you shoot your own covers, and besides, she dyes her hair brown at one point in the story anyway, so it’s still plausible.

And the artist was happy, because they really do want to create beautiful, functional art that helps your story be the best it can be. And the customer was happy, and soon, I hope readers will be happy!

What do you think?

34 thoughts on “Cover caveats

  1. How do you signal stuff like:

    1940s two-fisted detective takes an atomic rocket to the Moon to investigate a murder?

    Cave-women with spears fight lizard-men but then encounter a robot in alien ruins?

    Essentially what I write so far I think would be “Adventure” overall, with some sci-fi mixed in to varying degrees.

    I haven’t finished anything longer than 12k words so far, but novellas are probably in my future.

  2. LOL, oh yes, the artist vs. artist interface, when neither speaks the other’s language… 🙂 It’s a multiple iteration process, and my goal with my artist is that both of us are pretty happy, and she’s willing to do the next cover! 😀

    1. Same goal here. And thanks for the suggestions, Dorothy; maybe they’ll result in fewer iterations on the next cover!

  3. I don’t know whether to say “awesome cover” or cry about how much work went into getting it right. I know genre is important but I’m still not sure what I’m writing….

    1. Relevant question: what do you like to read? What books would you use to describe your story as being like? That’s probably your genre.

      After that, if you write a blurb for your book, what do you emphasize? Is the sequence-of-events plot more important or less important than the emotional arc? That, too, can tell you your genre.

      Third, toss it at beta readers. Ask them what genre/subgenre it was. They’ll know where they’d look for it in the bookstore, even if you’re too close to it to see.

      1. Emma Lathen, Rex Stout, Ellis Peters, Mary Stewart, and of course Georgette Heyer. So murder/suspense with a little romance, or vice versa. But light entertainment is all I’m after… Maybe it’s not so hard…

  4. The close up version of this looks great. I think I remember seeing a sample or early version of this story, from the viewpoint of the male lead. I haven’t been able to find it, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this.

    1. You may have seen a very early, rough scene or two over at According to Hoyt’s writing prompt Sundays; Sarah’s writing prompts are, indeed, partially to blame for helping round out the world and characters. (Thanks, Sarah!)

      *sigh* It was supposed to be a light vacation romance. It rapidly became Worst Vacation Ever, with a side of So You Say You Want A Revolution? And the hero, well, I decided to base him on “What would my darling husband/LawDog/Jim Curtis do?” And he proved to be clever, thorough, very paranoid and very handy in a fight. But not exactly, ah, amenable to any sort of plot that required the characters to make stupid choices in order to get where the author needs them to be. (Rather like the gentlemen in question, come to think of it.)

      1. That’s probably it. No wonder I didn’t find it. I wouldn’t have looked at those because I’ve been needing to be busy, and have not be letting myself participate. (I try to save the prompts for when that changes.)

  5. Longtime lurker/reader, almost first time comment writer here,

    I am preparing to self-publish this December and I stumbled upon a design firm in my very small city that specializes in designs for micro-brew beers labels. It’s kind of outside the box thinking but I thought, “I would prioritize ‘Professional’ over the typical ‘Book Cover’ look, especially since I can’t afford a really, really good one”. Does that make sense? Anyway…

    I emailed the business owner and he gave me a proposal: $500.00 for a cover (and his designers would do all of the work on Amazon for me as well, making sure the image fit (I am the least computer-savvy individual that I know. The owner also heard that the book is set to be the first in a series of five or so novels so he designed the cover to be modular: Small tweaks and major color changes for each book so they look like they go together and it won’t cost me more than about $50.00 to have his designers work up each successive cover.

    They came up with a neat design. Even their ‘worst’ design they sent me (they sent a group of ten designs for me to look at after one of their designers perused my book), was quite good and professional looking. It definitely looks ‘different’ but I feel like it looks different in a very good way. And indeed, it looks extremely professional. It was a surprisingly easy experience dealing with his people.

    A podcast I listened to with Nick Cole (the Galaxy’s Edge series co-writer) really stuck with me about not skimping on the cover. So, my wife and I budgeted about $1,000.00 from one of my Savings Accounts when I decided to give the writing thing a ‘Go’ (She basically told me last year to Put up or Shut Up). I make a decent living already at my Day Job and can afford to give this a shot.

    1. Based on conversation here, $500 for one cover is a bit steep, but not unreasonable. The $50 each for the rest of the series sounds like a great deal.

      As for “different” – do remember the genre signaling issue. I’ve seen books in Amazon’s “Recommend” or “Customers Also Bought” that I skip over because they are “obviously not SF”.

      1. *waggles hand* $500 is pretty steep if they’re photobashing – putting stock photo art together and applying filter and typography. $400-900 is about right if they’re professional illustrators doing original digital art. It’s an absolute steal if they’re doing oil painting – those tend to run from $500-$5,000 for the license to use the art alone, and pay for cover design separately from the art.

    2. 500$ for a cover is fairly reasonable, IMO (there are some gorgeous artists out there who charge at least that much); but the 50$ per for the rest of your series? That’s a freakin’ bargain! Sounds like you got a great deal there!

      1. I should reiterate that they made the original cover “modular” in their words, so that they could, say, change the background cover from red to blue for book 2 and change the title and a symbol or two but its ultimately the same cover design.

        They were very good to me, very good to work with. And they had never done a book cover before, just beer labels. But they threw themselves right into the challenge.

    1. Not without sinking a lot more time into it… it’s actually harder than you’d think to erase a collar and make it look normal skin tones. Oleg taught me that anything significant on a model’s neck actually changes all the shadows and light on the neck itself, so you have to do a lot more than simply airbrush out the collar itself for it to look right.

      And at this point… there’s a diminishing returns here. How much is my time worth? How much is the artist’s time worth? Would it be worth me sinking another 15 hours into searching for the right redhead? Would it be worth all the extra time for them artist, on the third iteration of the second version of the cover, to spend another three or four hours trying to get the neck right and the light sources blended, and everything fitting together?

      Given I was paying her by the cover instead of the hour, I have no desire to try to get the artist to work for minimum wage because I kept asking for her to put more time in. That way does not lie happy artist. So I cut my losses, and went with the brunette.

      Ask me again in 5 years, when I update my covers to whatever new standard the market’s changed to… If the book is making enough, I’ll try again to get a redhead.

      1. Speaking as someone who has had to do that level of work on an indistinguishable level (suit to tux or vice-versa, when the photographer didn’t get the school requirements correct), it is a major PITA. And I’ve never had to do more than micro adjustments to a female neckline, thankfully. Though I’ve had to fix over-airbrushed neck & chest work as well. (My last call-in stint for my job was specifically comparing retouching to original photos, so that we could yell the retouching company into compliance before the fall flood. It’s amazing how few changes to the shadowing are required to completely change an expression to plastic.)

        About the only thing I’d rate as definitively more difficult than skin changes for artists who don’t specialize in life studies is removing braces. There are so many subtle things you have to do when you do that so the teeth don’t look dead. (Because we process a large number of senior portraits, the most reliable thing to do is to find a similarly-lit smile and replace the tooth enamel. And that’s the simplest technique.)

    2. The artist could. It would have looked like crap, as Dorothy pointed out. And there are other things that could have been done to cover it up, but the expression wasn’t quite right, either, and frankly unless the book is steamy, boudoir stock models tend not to work well.

      1. And the lighting kind of brings out the red in the brown hair anyway. Which is good of the artist.

  6. I didn’t read through all of the comments, so if this was already covered (no pun intended) ignore me. Well, feel free to ignore me regardless. ) So, I just wanted to pop in and post a link that shows how to easily alter hair color in PS. Even if you don’t want to pester your designer to make more changes to this current cover, the tutorial may come in handy for the future. If you don’t want to follow the link, search for ‘How to Change Hair Color in Photoshop Using Color Theory’ on YouTube. The tutorial is by Nemanja Sekulic. I find him to be a great teacher, full of enthusiasm.

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