Category Archives: cover design

Covering the Myths

I’ve written about this many times here at Mad Genius Club, but it’s a topic that gets asked about over and over. And it’s an important topic. The book cover is the first thing your readers see, and no matter how often they might insist that they don’t judge a book by it’s cover, they are judging silently in their heads.

Your cover sends subliminal messages, even when it’s the size of a postage stamp, and little things like font choice, age of model (hat tip to Dorothy Grant for pointing this out to me recently), and contrasting areas on the cover art can make a huge difference.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an author say… No, let me back up a little. Let’s talk about myths and mistakes.

Myth #1: The scene on the cover should be pulled straight from the pages of the book.

No, the cover should contain the distilled essence of the book in one powerful wallop. You know that cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words? yep, that one’s truth. Furthermore, if you choose one climactic, thrilling scene, you risk spoilering a whole story right there before they even start reading. I have to admit to having fallen for that one recently while working with a client. Both of us were very excited about the mental image his final scene provoked… but it would have meant the book was revealed on the cover. So that had to be set aside.

Myth #2: The cover art should be like no one has ever seen before.

Again, no. Just like most stories contain comforting tropes that allow authors to take shortcuts and pack a story into a hundred thousand words or so, avoiding explaining every last little assumption (unless it matters to the plot, you really don’t need to explain the innermost workings of your fundyminion drive and hyperquespace). Just like you can use some handwavium in the writing, you can use it on the cover, too. Genre covers change fashions like hemlines, and you’ll want to keep up with whether miniskirts are in this year, or ankle-length hoops instead. That being said, there’s a fine balance between following the herd, and finding a way to stand out (and standing out in a good way, not pink flamingo in a zebra herd, but pink zebra in the herd kind of way). If, say, you’re writing a romance the trope is heaving bosoms (male or female. Don’t ask me why male bosoms are a thing on book covers, because they are all shaved and oiled and frankly I prefer my men built like teddy bears in the chest hair department but you’ll never see that on a cover because evidently I’m weird or something). If you’re writing science fiction, it’s space ships or mechanized men in roboto suits.

Myth #3: The more detail the better! Gorgeous art you have to stare at until you’ve seen all the amazing points is the best!

No, no, no… so much nope. While this may have been true on print books (and I will admit to having picked up a few books just to stare at the art, but see above about hairy chests) it is certainly not true for the modern book marketplace, which is about 90% ebook. Ebook covers are usually viewed in thumbnail, maybe on a PC at about a tenth of the size they would be in print. On a phone? less than a postage stamp size. Now, when I’m building a cover, I format it to the size it would be on a trade paperback (6×9″, 300 dpi), but that’s file and image quality, not the size it’s going to be judged at. Ebook covers are all about contrast and one (usually one, there can be exceptions, but I’d say never more than three) focal element. Also, you need room for your title and author name, which brings me to my final myth…

Myth #4: I should be humble and make my name discreet on the cover.

Honey, this is no time to hide your light under a bushel. At BARE (bear… heh) minimum, you should be able to read your name when you’re looking at the cover shrunk down to a thumbnail. When I was first starting out fumbling my way through making covers, I took Dean Wesley Smith’s workshop on cover design, and that’s one of the major points he makes (I highly recommend that workshop if he’s teaching it, BTW). Make the author’s name bigger. Bigger than that. Put the name up in lights – you might not be a celebrity yet, but the readers don’t know that. Make it loud and proud and legible.

Mistake #1: Font Choice

I have seen so many bad fonts on covers. heck, I’ve *used* bad fonts on covers, although admittedly with Pixie Noir I was at least doing it on purpose modelling after the old pulp noir covers. Rule of thumb is to never use a font for a title that you would use in the book for the body of text. Fonts can subtly signal so much, take the time to look for one that says what you want it to say. And if you’re not a font geek, use the categories at dafont.com or 1001 Fonts to help you sort. But then, look at the title in thumbnail. Is it still readable? Is it readable quickly? Ask a friend (or two or three) to look at it. Can they read it? Ornate fonts can look terrific – if they are ten feet tall on a billboard. They shouldn’t be on a book cover. Readers are not going to sit there and puzzle it out. Now, you do have the benefit of a book description right next to the cover most times – but not always. Design the cover to be able to stand on it’s own two feet.

Mistake #2: Too much text

You do need more than just your title and author name. Not a lot more, though. The bare minimum would be (located near title) a series identifier: e.g. Book One of the Souldark Saga. Located near the author name, if you have other work, would be ‘author of Firstbook’

Where I have seen covers run off the deep end and into trouble is with subtitles, book blurbs (clue: they don’t go on the front cover on ANY book version), and pull quotes. Pull quote, singular, is about all I want to see on a cover that is well-laid out and here’s were we break the thumbnail rule: it should NOT be readable in thumbnail. What you’re looking for is the overall appearance of a modern print novel cover, and most (but not all) have pull quotes which are too small to read in thumbnail, but you can see there is text there. And if you have a print edition, it will be readable there. Really, this is a part you can skip, a lot of people do these days. I like it. I don’t use them on shorter works than a novel, though. It’s too much, and that’s not a story that will be appearing in print, unless it’s an anthology and then you do want a pull quote, probably from the foreword you talked someone into writing for you. Now that we’ve wandered far into the weeds, let’s find our way out again…

Mistake #3: Not being a Professional 

Ok, this one isn’t necessarily a mistake. It’s more a life choice when it comes to presenting your writing. If you want to be merely an amateur with your writing, go right ahead and use that painting your five year-old made for you on the cover. But if you want to create a powerful marketing tool that evokes an emotional reaction from a potential reader, draws them in to read the blurb (and then to read the whole book) then you need to have a professional looking cover. You can do it yourself, you can buy one, you can commission one – costs range from free, to a couple of hundred dollars, to thousands. No matter which path you choose, consider your return on investment, and realize that a properly packaged product sells far better than one which is presented shoddily wrapped. Consumer products brand design is wrongly predicated on the notion that shoppers make rational, informed decisions. In truth, most are purely instinctive and reactive. Eye-tracking studies show that consumers read on average only seven words in an entire shopping trip, buying instinctively by color, shape and familiarity of location. Best sellers succeed by appealing to the reptilian brain, which decides before logic has a chance.

I’d get into branding, but I think that this post is already long enough. So, I’ll check in on the comments, and I’m happy to critique those who are brave enough to present their cover concepts here and want help with them. Commentors, remember, be gentle! This may be their first time…

 

 

 

 

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, cover design

Cover Art: Fractals

I promised a cover post, and this is one. I’m not going to re-cover old ground (much) and talk about how the cover is not a representation of some exact scene from the book. The cover is meant to convey a sense of the book, to grab the reader’s attention, to draw them in and compel them to begin reading the blurb. The blurb then hooks them into buying the book and reading the first chapter… you get the idea. The cover also ought to signal the genre, loud, clear, and proud.

As an artist, I had long lamented that my personal style was not suitable for the kinds of books I write, or the people who hire me to create covers for them. I spent a lot of time working on becoming better, using the tools at hand… and then one day I discovered Apophysis.

Apo is a fractal flame generator, and it’s capable of an impressive array of special effects, including stunning star fields and nebulas. Suddenly, I could create a lot of space art that was cover-worthy. So in this post, I’m showing you how I do some effects, and where you can find the program (It’s free!) and a ton of tutorials that will help you learn more. If you want to see some of the things you can do with it, check these out: Last Exhalation, Zygotes, Apocalypse Rose, and Hydrangeas.

Explosion

here’s the workspace for Apophysis 7x, my preferred version of the program. You can start by clicking on one of the random flames that are in the left column, as I’ve done for this.

For very simple effects, all you need to know is that those triangles control the ‘shape’ of the flame. The gradient (icon in the top toolbar) controls the colors. I’ll show that later. if you click on one of the triangles and drag it, you’ll see your flame in the tiny editor box change shapes.

explosion 2

note that there are ‘variations’ and I have the red triangle (#1) set to: flatten=1, spherical 0.79, and swirl=0.20

This doesn’t work for an explosion, which is the element I’m working on for a cover. Too much geometry! It needs to be more fluid and abstract, since it’s going to be an exploding spaceship. I’ve dragged the triangles around a bit more, in the image below, to get the look I wanted. You’ll also note I’ve changed the colors with the gradient tool, using ‘summer_fire’ to get flame colors.

explosion 3

Now this is more like it. Here you can see in the editor window a few things: the gradient, which can be used to ‘paint’ the flame by sliding the center bar around. Also, I’ve changed the scale, so I can see what the ‘splosion will look like far away, and so I make sure I’m not clipping off bits when I render this.

You’ll note that it still looks very fluid. In space, an explosion is going to release gases and they are going to glow, and to behave differently than in atmosphere. Check out images of nebulas (like this one of the Crab Nebula), and you’ll see what I mean. You might want to keep in mind that a nebula is a space explosion, just on a really large scale, and that a LOT of the nebula images on google were actually created with a fractal flame generator. Anyway…

explosion render

Rendering is the most important part.

You’ll have to render your flame to use it, once you are happy with what you have. I keep mine set to a fairly low working render (between 15-20, you’ll see the drop-down selector for this on the top tool bar) so I don’t have a huge lag when I’m working on a flame. This means that the final render will be both smoother, and brighter than the view on the screen. Keep this in mind if you like (or hate) the grainy appearance. I set my elements to a reasonable pixel size – in this case 3000x2000px. I’m not usually using them for a full 6×9″ cover, so I can scale as I want to. The bigger you go, the longer the render. The density is important, this allows you to faithfully render tiny details. I usually set mine to 5000 or 10000, and the filter radius to 0.2 (you could make this bigger if you like the graininess) with the oversample at 2. Don’t increase the oversample unless you plan to render overnight. I have my computer set to use 2 cores, you could set to one (the default) or more if you have a bigger processor. This element took about 40 minutes to render. I’ve had renders run 13-14 hours. For some reason star fields can be freaking huge. Not all of them, and I haven’t figured out why yet.

oh, you may have noticed the flame moved and got bigger. I didn’t want to render it tiny – I’ll scale it on the image later – and I wanted to rotate it (same editor window as the gradient) to fit the image size better. Finally, while I have Apophysis set to a black background, the completed render is a png with transparency, making it super easy to set on an existing image without having to delete unwanted background. It also has some drawbacks, but I’ll show you what to do about them.

roughed in explosion

This is the thumbnail sketch I sent my client. He approved the layout, knowing the weird splashes of color will be replaced with a cool explosion. By the way, the ship and the starfield in the background are both fractals.

If you want to be able to make your own cool starfields and nebulas, check out some tutorials.  Bear in mind there are several versions of Apophysis. I have two loaded on my computer, along with three of Mandelbulb, which is what I rendered the spaceship with (I’ll do another post on MB3D at a later date. it’s awesome, but holy heck the learning curve is steep).

Capture

it’s not about the size, it’s about the placement.

I’ve dropped the fractal element on the image (having made my silly splashes disappear) but as you can see, you can see right through it. Hardly what you’d expect when a very solid ship blows up.

I’m going to scale the image by dragging on the corners, tilting and maneuvering it until I’m happy with the placement, and then I’ll duplicate the layer, so I get some opacity from it.

explosion

And here we have a classic exploding spaceship, at the moment of utter destruction.

I’ve duplicated my explosion layer, rotated it, set one layer to color dodge, and chopped up the edges with a smoke brush set to eraser tool. I also toggled back on the splashes (what, you thought I deleted them? Never throw anything out, you might need it!) and they add a little something under there, so I’m keeping them.

After some discussion with my client, we chose fonts for the author name and title (he’s using Counter Strike, from dafont, for the title). I applied those to the finished art.

Sabrecat cover3

Tom’s comment on seeing the cover “that right there is full of win.”

And hey, presto! All original art, all explosions, all science fiction. I could have spent a LOT more time on the ship, but it took me a month just to get this far. And I’m happy his book will have a cover that ought to enhance his sales a touch.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments! I don’t think WordPress supports image comments, but I’d love to see your efforts if you play with Apo, so try putting them up with Flickr or facebook or deviantart, and linking here.

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, cover design, WRITING: PUBLISHING