Tag Archives: book covers

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.


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).


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.


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.



Re-Cover Time

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

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

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

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

Finding and using suitable fonts.

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

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

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

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

So what am I going to do today?

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

So! Onward.

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

fantasy cover plain coverSF cover

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


This cover started with the base art – a stock photo of a man in a gym, clapping his hands together to get rid of excess chalk. I stripped almost all the background (I wanted the chalk) and then filtered the man to lose some detail and make him look painterly (then went back and added more hair for the client). I then used several textures, very low opacity, and set to screen or dodge, to create the ‘magical’ effects. The man is now holding a spell made up of a painted element, with an outer glow to make it look lit up. So this is more photobash than original art, but there are enough elements you’re not likely to see this cover elsewhere!

Enlisted cover-1

Here, the client’s only real specification was that there be an exploding spaceship on the cover. Having read the story, I knew that the space battle took place near an airless moon, so when I created the planet sphere (tutorials for this are easy to find) I didn’t need to do the atmosphere. The spaceship is an element that I bought, but I changed the lighting on it to suit the scene. Lighting is hugely important when blending several elements into a cohesive whole. With the explosion, I want to create a ‘cloud of angry bees’ with the debris.

inappropriate behaviour take 5

A modern spicy romance cover (yes, that means there’s sex in it). Here, I could use a photo, and it was all about the typography and cropping the art just so. The photo was bought, along with other similar shots, from a stock site. The characters have a thing about shoes, so all the covers feature them (no, it’s not a shoe fetish!). This is also an example of planning for a series and making sure you can make the art cohesive.

Time to Die Ebook

I usually try to keep ebook covers clean. Too much filtering and added texture can look muddy at thumbnail. On this cover, I knew it would be going into print. I also knew that there are a ton of zombie books out there, and this one needed to really stand out. If you look at the background, what looks like an explosion is also a blended image of viruses. In print, you’ll be able to see this – in thumbnail not so much.

Yep! This one's mine. It will be coming out later in the month, and you'll see it again as a link. But the cover for this is a fractal starfield and nebula, bought elements of the spaceship and station. I painted the engine flames, the green element under the title, and that was it... So clean and pretty. For my next project, I'll be working on creating my own spaceships so I'm not stuck buying and altering them.

Yep! This one’s mine. It will be coming out later in the month, and you’ll see it again as a link. But the cover for this is a fractal starfield and nebula, bought elements of the spaceship and station. I painted the engine flames, the green element under the title, and that was it… So clean and pretty. For my next project, I’ll be working on creating my own spaceships so I’m not stuck buying and altering them.



The Art of Design

I took a design course over the winter term, and there were some points we covered which I knew would be useful to the readers here. Design is not just for Graphic Designers, artists, and engineers. Indie authors can use the knowledge of what works (and what doesn’t) to better plan and approve ideas for book covers, promotional material, and ad design. I’m not going to replicate the entire course here, but I can recommend the textbook (which was surprisingly affordable) and hit some high points that I think are useful.

universal principles of design

The first one I wanted to talk about is the aesthetic usability effect. In a nutshell, people like pretty things. the books says that ‘designs that look easier to use have a higher probability of being used, whether or not they actually are easier to use.’ This may not seem applicable to a book – most people know how to use one, even ebooks. But the reactions of people to a book cover – that is where aesthetics comes in for the indie author. A beautiful cover will promote more positive reactions from the reader. So will a well laid out ad, or attractive art on promotional products. Striving for a more appealing overall look on your blog or website is worth the time and effort because the relationship browsers and readers have with you will be more positive. Here’s a very short video with some graphic examples.

Alignment, the placement of elements to line up their edges along a common (and usually imaginary) line, or their bodies around a center, is a somewhat intuitive thing for most of us. Alignment helps the eye connect related elements and speeds the comprehension when used with written elements. Area alignment is similar, but related more to images. When you are working with an asymmetric object, it’s better to line them up by the body of the shape rather than the edges.

click on image for more information.

click on image for more information.

Ever wonder why all the images you see on book covers are beautiful people? That’s because we humans perceive attractiveness as being related to intelligence, competence, morality, and sociability. There is actually a known waist-to-hip ratio (0.70 for women, 0.90 for men) that is ideal for the perception of attractiveness. Also, women with exaggerated lips, and men in expensive clothing… I’m not making this up! A related principle, and one that is easier to see immediate applications for book covers, is the Face-ism Ratio. The ration of face to body showing in the image determines how the person is perceived. A high face-ism ratio with just the face showing rates as being more intelligent, dominant, and ambitious. A lower face-ism ratio, where the face takes up perhaps 25% of the image, is perceived as focusing more on the sensuality and physical attractiveness of the person.

Image from Universal Principles of Design

Image from Universal Principles of Design

Let me show you why this applies to your headshots, also. Something to keep in mind – as an author, you’re not just marketing your books, you are marketing you. Choosing the right headshot for book or website use, for public appearance announcements, is important. Never use a headshot that is too old, especially if you do public appearances, as it will deceive the viewers and leave a bad impression.

A low face-ism ratio, combined with the costume, makes the perception of this image very different than the one next to it.

A low face-ism ratio, combined with the costume, makes the perception of this image very different than the one next to it. (photo taken by Leon Jester)

This has a very high face-ism ratio, and it is the headshot I am currently using in most places. Photo taken by Oleg Volk

This has a very high face-ism ratio, and it is the headshot I am currently using in most places. Photo taken by Oleg Volk

Moving away from imagery back into text, we should talk about Chunking, or why you shouldn’t swamp your readers with lots of text on promotional materials or the book covers. By using a limited amount of text and breaking it into smaller units, your reader will better remember vital information like your name, book titles, or website. Simplifying the design does not mean eliminating text elements, but rather keeping them short and tightly written – don’t waste a word of them. Consider the signal to noise ratio in your design. More signal, less noise, makes the message much clearer to the reader.

When it comes to catching the eye of the viewer, there are some techniques that you can use like Classical Conditioning, which provokes a response in the viewer based on the stimulus given. Kittens make people smile, an image with a badly scarred or wounded person makes them wince. I’m not saying kittens belong on the cover of your space opera. I’m saying that space ships, planets, and humanoids in space suits provoke a response to stimulus: oh, this must be science fiction! This is why we talk so much about cuing properly with the art on your cover, people are conditioned to react to elements they may not conciously recognize. If they pick up that cover with a spaceship and read about magic and fairies and… WTH? They are experiencing cognitive dissonance. While it can be used as an attention-getter, the design needs to alleviate the dissonance (say, in the blurb on the back) if the reader is going to be comfortable with it.

Which brings me to the von Restorff Effect. This is a phenomenon where things that are very different are more likely to be remembered that something commonly seen. A short video here explains it graphically, but you can easily picture in your head the effect. If you are driving down the road, you are surrounded by vehicles. Sedans, trucks, semis, but the one you will remember when you get home and tell people about, is being passed by the Oscar Meyer Weiner driving down the interstate. The thing that is different is highlighted (another important principle of design) in your memory.

Finally, we come to the Entry Point. Your book’s cover is the entry point. “The initial impression of a system or environment greatly influences subsequent perceptions and attitudes, which then affects the quality of subsequent interactions.” Yes, people do judge a book by it’s cover. A bad cover means that they are negatively influenced before they even begin to read the story you’ve worked so hard on.

Now, I’ve only lightly touched on the concepts you can use to make your output better. Do you want more? Let me know in comments and I will finish this up next week.

Oh, and Vulcan’s Kittens is free this weekend! If you’ve already read it, would you do me the favor of sharing a link for others to find?

Vulcan's Kittens

And due to yesterday’s giveways with no promotional push – I had that scheduled for today – the rankings are already:

I will update as I get insight from the promos I am running through Betty Book Freak and Ebooksoda.



Comprehensive Cover Art and Design

Cover Art & Design: Again

We keep coming back to this, I know. But simply put, it’s one of the most-asked questions I get, and I find myself repeating the same advice roughly once a week. So this time I’m going to compile all the links, and have one link to rule them all…

dragon thief

Here’s an example of a good cover, using elements that break some rules: letterboxing, and the color palette is not what you would usually see on a science fiction cover. What do these colors make you think of?

This is a good cover, beautiful art, but it does something most author's can't get away with - makes the title unreadable at the thumbnail size

This is a good cover, beautiful art, but it does something most author’s can’t get away with – makes the title unreadable at the thumbnail size

First and most important: before you start designing a cover, creating art intended for book covers, or even thinking about a book cover, you need to look at book covers. A lot of them. Specific book covers to your genre is even better, as there are subtle cues you need to know and recognize, even if you aren’t doing your own covers. So first, before anything else, go to Amazon and search for your sub-genre (space opera, paranormal romance, werewolf stories, historical military fiction, whatever it is) and look at the top 100 selling books. Not the freebies (unless you are looking at what not to do). Make notes of elements you like, things you hate, and the consistent notes that many of the covers have in common. When you’re done with this, you are ready to begin.

Sarah Hoyt in A Cover Story points out two important things: “Your cover needn’t beand in most cases shouldn’t bea scene from the book. Yes, it might be highly

Here's another cover that improbably sells well, even though you can't read - can barely see - the author's name. But this cover has become iconic - not something a beginning writer can use.

Here’s another cover that improbably sells well, even though you can’t read – can barely see – the author’s name. But this cover has become iconic – not something a beginning writer can use.

significant to you, but it is not significant to the reader. Say you have a photo of some trees, because your story takes place in a forest-world. What will this say to the reader? Travel book. Maybe inspirational. Why? Because that’s what travel books look like.”

We’re serious. Sarah goes on in a different post, Of Covers and Sales, “Forget what IS in your book.  Consider instead how to sell the book.  No, seriously.  Take the cover to Darkship Thieves.  There is no scene in the entire book in which Athena walks out naked amid the powertrees, because vacuum.  Space.”

Dave Freer (in a very old post! Flash back to 2009) talks about covers, “I’m sure we’ve all seen books where the art director put in a redhaired freckleface instead of a dark-skinned dark-haired hero, put a romance cover on horror, or a horror cover on fantasy — didn’t read the book, and didn’t care. Of course, cover art doesn’t HAVE to be accurate. Really. It’s going to irritate the author, the hardcore fans — but if the arwork was good enough to get you to pick up the book and read the blurb… it was great artwork. Well, unless the artwork suggested horror, and the blurb is slushy romance.”

Here, the art has possibilities. But the type falls down on the job - you can't read it in thumbnail, and there's plenty of room to make it bigger. Much bigger.

Here, the art has possibilities. But the type falls down on the job – you can’t read it in thumbnail, and there’s plenty of room to make it bigger. Much bigger.

Before Dorothy Grant consented to come write for us here at MGC, she put a short series up on her blog I highly recommend (links can be found here.) and among a lot of other points, “Make your name bigger because trad pub has trained readers that big names are important, awesome authors that should be bestsellers, while small names are forgettable midlist. You want to be a bestseller someday – start faking it til you make it, because the reader won’t believe it if you don’t design your cover like it.” Yep, MAKE  YOUR NAME BIGGER is usually the first thing I say to an Indie Author.”

What about art? In But I’m not an Artist! Dorothy explains “You don’t have to be a good artist to get great covers. Go back and read up on design, typography, layout, and art not with the despairing expectation that you’ll be called upon to create your own cover, but with the confidence that you’ll now know just enough to be able to tell the cover artist / designer you hire why you like their design, or why not, and what you want changed. If you can speak the same technical language as them, or even get fairly close pidgin, you’ll be able to collaborate for a far better cover than “Um, I don’t like it because it doesn’t feel right. I dunno, the thingie is just not good, so change it.”

Dorothy Grant makes a vital point later about hiring an artist to create for you in a different post, and you should read the whole post on How to Work with Artists, “So, what terms should you offer the artist? Do NOT start with Work For Hire What is work for hire? It is, very simply, where you offer to pay the artist for the art, and then expect to keep the artwork and have all rights and usage, leaving the artist with nothing but money. You’ve seen this from sidewalk artists and beginning artists; they create something, you hand them cash and walk off with it.”

The art here is ok, it's boring and safe but with the right typography could be adequate. This is not the right typography. Also, the title is huge, and badly laid out.

The art here is ok, it’s boring and safe but with the right typography could be adequate. This is not the right typography. Also, the title is huge, and badly laid out.

In a very long post about cover art that goes into great detail (you should add it to your reading list) I’ve talked about this before as well: If you find an artist who promises you cheap art, you need to get references – are they reliable? Will they deliver, or vanish with your cash? Are they capable of creating professional level art? – and you need to have a clear understanding of what’s being delivered. If you’re paying someone $50 to do a cover, you will get what you paid for.

This popped - pooped? - up in my search for science fiction. Um - it's great for a children's book. Very Mo Willems (go look for him, this is a straight derivative) but completely wrong for science fiction. Your readers would not be happy.

This popped – pooped? – up in my search for science fiction. Um – it’s great for a children’s book. Very Mo Willems (go look for him, this is a straight derivative) but completely wrong for science fiction. Your readers would not be happy.

So, stock art. You know what you are getting, with a minimum of skill in a graphics program you can tweak it to make it uniquely yours if you are worried about someone else having the same cover, and it’s very inexpensive. I recommend GIMP to most people for tweaking, and the text design a bit later, as it is freeware, there are a ton of tutorials available, and it’s not that difficult to learn. (Shh, all you out there. I’m teaching myself Adobe Illustrator, I don’t want to HEAR how hard you think Gimp is)

And last, but certainly not least, we’re going to do the most important part of the cover. “But wait,” you say,” a book cover is all about the art!”

Nope, wrong. A book cover is all about the text. Without the text, your reader is lost. Who wrote this? How will I find it? What’s it about? The title and author name are absolutely vital. Let’s put it this way. You could have a solid color (well, okay, maybe a little grunge or somethin’ going on!) cover, and if the text is right, that’s all you need to attract the eye. The typography in a perfect situation is part of the art of the cover, and it wouldn’t look right without it. Read the rest about typography here.

This is just bad. There are too many elements, there's no clear heirarchy (what's the title?) there are elements that don't belong (free preview) and it's just plain bad.

This is just bad. There are too many elements, there’s no clear heirarchy (what’s the title?) there are elements that don’t belong (free preview) and it’s just plain bad.

Now, finally, I’m getting to what started me on this road again. Doug Irvin asked in Sarah’s Diner I want to learn how to draw and make cover art. I don’t expect I would ever go into business; but it would help if I could better express my concepts to a real concept artist.”

And this is where we see why you have to learn photoshop if you are going to bled disparate elements on a cover. It should never look like they were cut out and pasted on top of one another. And is that the prow of the Enterprise? Never ever use famous iconographic images in your designs.

And this is where we see why you have to learn photoshop if you are going to bled disparate elements on a cover. It should never look like they were cut out and pasted on top of one another. And is that the prow of the Enterprise? Never ever use famous iconographic images in your designs.

I promptly started firing off questions at him. This is, after all, what I do. I’m a professional artist, book cover designer, and sometimes even unpaid consultant (ok, usually unpaid all of the above) for people who are really trying and can’t afford me.

Well, I guess the first question is: what medium would you like to work in? Digital, acrylics, oils? Learning to draw is the foundation, but being able to paint is (as I’m learning) a whole ‘nother level and deeply complex. You don’t have to own a scanner if you choose a traditional medium, you can get away with photographs if you are only planning to show them to another artist who will execute your idea. Photographing for actual use is tricky, though, and a good flatbed scanner is a must then.

This is a photo, which is a no-no on a science fiction cover. It's a bad photograph, and the text is something you would find inside the cover, the third strike against it. Rule of thumb, you don't put fonts on the cover you would use for the inner text.

This is a photo, which is a no-no on a science fiction cover. It’s a bad photograph, and the text is something you would find inside the cover, the third strike against it. Rule of thumb, you don’t put fonts on the cover you would use for the inner text.

If you are truly trying to learn digital art, I recommend searching for tutorials even before you download software – DeviantArt is a great place to find a ton of them. This is a link to my collection of tuts. Youtube is another source. Using DA, or Pinterest, you can easily mark them to be able to come back to them later. This is my Pinterest board on digital art.

Second, I would start with one of the free software programs. My go-to is GIMP. While it’s not always a favorite because of an unfriendly GUI in the past, the new one is slick and intuitive for me. I actually like it better than Photoshop most of the time. I’ve just picked up Krita, another drawing program, and it’s got great potential.

I don't even know what's going on here. The orange part isn't part of the cover. The art is badly placed - you don't put text or elements on a human's head, and the author's name is too small.

I don’t even know what’s going on here. The orange part isn’t part of the cover. The art is badly placed – you don’t put text or elements on a human’s head, and the author’s name is too small.

Third, and perhaps the most sticky for you, is how you are going to draw on the computer. Drawing with a mouse is, trust me, a complete PITA. I’ve done it. The original art on Vulcan’s Kittens was done with a mouse. I now own a pentablet and love it to pieces. I have an off-brand tablet, an UGEE pentablet, which cost me about $60 and gives me an 6 x 10″ workspace.

If actually doing the art from scratch won’t work – I don’t use my own art for covers, it’s the wrong style most of the time – then there’s also the road I go most of the time when I’m creating cover art – transforming elements into art through the creative use of Photoshop (or gimp) and filters or overpainting. Photomanipulation takes some of the challenges of creating art from scratch and reduces them. You want to be careful with it, though, as it can lead to some truly dreadful effects if done badly. It’s worth learning how to do well.

There is a lot of material here. I’m going to ask you, dear readers, to tell me what I’ve left out. I realize this isn’t a hands-on tutorial type post (sorry, Doug) but it’s intended to be a huge info-dump that will allow us all to get on the same page, and then I can start breaking it down into chunks of ‘how-to’ in a reasonable frame. I will likely do some of those posts on my blog, so we aren’t waiting a week at a time for a lesson. We’ll see. For now, I’ll leave you with this: art and design are two hands of the same body, but they are different. If you want to learn how to tell a book cover design is good, or create one yourself, that’s one skill set. If you want to learn how to create art, that’s another skill set and the very first step to that is learning how to draw. I can help point people at resources for both, but I need to know where you want to start.

Before anything else. You must learn how to see.





Adding the Sizzle

Grilled lamb with medjara rice

My job as a publisher is to make your mouth water over that book even before you’ve opened the cover. As a writer, it’s my job to make it taste as good as it looks.

There was an advertising saying somewhen, I don’t recall where I first heard it, that you aren’t selling the steak, you’re selling the sizzle. Needless to say, making books smoke and sizzle isn’t the way to sell them, but adding some polish is.

To return to the metaphor I started exploring last week, of books being marketed not in a monolithic marketplace, but in a bazaar, a fair full of fantastic wares full of shoppers who are on visual overload – how do you make your book stand out? One of the first things I can tell you is that it’s not all about the writing.

Don’t get me wrong: I am NOT saying the story doesn’t matter. It does. It’s vital. If that steak comes out of the kitchen sizzling merrily and smelling great, the reader’s eater’s mouth starts to water. But the plate is plunked in front of him by a surly server who grunts something about gender inequality and then disappears for the rest of the meal (or worse, hovers and critiques the eater’s taste in food, apparent privilege, neo-nazism, and so on). On the plate is a paper-thin cut of meat, cooked until it’s grey all over, maybe a hunk of charcoal on one corner, and it tastes like cardboard. You can bet that eater isn’t coming back unless there are no other choices.

Fortunately for readers, there are other choices. There are books that have been edited with care, wrapped into professional-looking covers, with proper layout and design throughout. It’s the equivalent of walking through that marketplace and being offered a really great taco from a street vendor. It smells wonderful, it tastes great, and you don’t have to pay for the expensive meal with the disgusting steak.


If you’re ever near Mason OH I can tell you where to find the place…

Don’t like tacos? Or steaks? You have choices as a reader in the new marketplace. As a writer, you’ve got the readers headed toward you hungry and looking. What are you going to do?

  • Either learn how to be, or hire, a professional cover artist. No, wait, let me explain. You don’t want an artist (well, you do, but I digress) you want a designer. Beautiful design will make up for lacking art.
  • Have your book edited. Structural edits if needed, proof edits for sure, and as I mentioned last week, you can either hire someone, or you can barter for services. The book might look beautiful but if it leaves the reader with mental indigestion they won’t be coming back.
  • Learn how to make keywords work for you. Readers don’t just browse the marketplace, they search out what they want. If your wares are with, say, the taco vendors when the readers are looking at silk scarves, you’ll be left wondering why your sales are so dismal.
  • Spend time on crafting your blurb, or find someone to hire/help you with that. The MGC commenting community has been helpful to folks with this in the past, so today if you have a blurb, put it in the comments for critique.
  • Don’t make your book look too different. Readers use certain cues, often unconsciously, to assess the worth of the product in front of them. Take the time to look at the top sellers in your specific sub-genre and break apart the components which are similar, dissimilar, and then look at your book to see how you can both signal “this is a zombie romance” and still look new, different, and you.
  • Chicken Satay

    Perhaps you prefer your meat on a stick for ease of eating on the go? (click on picture for recipe)

    Don’t offer just one thing. Yes, I know everyone has to start somewhere. But be ready to keep writing once you put that first book out there, and be prepared to not sell much until you have enough to make your booth look interesting to readers who prefer to know there’s more where that came from.

  • As a corollary to that last, make your series look coherent. Covers should have a common design thread (typography and similar art styles are good ways to accomplish this). Somewhere on the book, indicate that it is part of a series. Somewhere on the sales page, let the reader know which book in the series it is – most readers hate to pick up book three and feel totally lost in the story. Amazon has gotten very good at pulling series together and offering them as a bundle, but you must make it clear in your set-up or this won’t happen.
  • Do some active marketing. It need not be time-consuming or expensive. There are many different options from blogging to buying slots on promotional mailing lists, and we have talked about them here at MGC a few times!

Once you are up and running in that virtual marketplace, other options become available. You can ask your regular customers what they’d like to see you offer. I did that earlier this week on my blog, asking if there was interest in an omnibus version of my completed Pixie for Hire Trilogy. You can offer wares directly from your website for more personal touches, as I’ve started to do with signed books and original art. Now, I’ve gotten some interesting suggestions, like the requests for coffee mugs and t-shirts with my artwork on them. And I have thoughts on what may be marketplace mistakes (a coloring book?). But you don’t know what will work until you try.

You can also talk to your fellow vendors. Sure, just like in a real fair environment, some of them will be paranoid and suspicious and assume you’re trying to steal customers from them. Others will be gracious and helpful, and you’ll find yourself doing what I used to do: “Oh, yes, it is a beautiful scarf, isn’t it? And so warm! You’ll find them at the book an aisle over and four booths down. Enjoy!” Only now I acquire, read, and review books I think my readers will like. I know I can’t possibly write fast enough to keep even the slowest of my fans amused all the time. So I make sure they are happy by sending them to other authors too. I’m also doing this quirky thing called Eat This While you Read That, where I highlight an author’s food suggestion along with a book to read while the meal is prepared/eaten. It’s been fun!

Your fellow marketers can also help with finessing your set-up and delivery. That’s part of our mission here at the Mad Genius Club. I can’t speak for the others, but for me, I do this to pay back, or forward (longitudinal diffusion – it goes in every which direction!) the help that has been given to me over the years. I like being helpful. Plus, in the principle of ‘see one, do one, teach one’ I am in the teaching stage, and learning as I go. It’s all good, and the new authors who come comment here make it a joyful and fulfilling experience.

Huh. I wandered a bit off track there. Ah, well! See you in the comments.



Lost in the Weeds

Old alphabet book

This wouldn’t go out at a library…

Amanda sent me this link earlier in the week.  You should write about this, she said. I looked at the article, and thought a couple of things. One, I am not sure this is the whole story, and two, I’ve done that job… As I mulled it over in my head, I realized there are some relevant points for writers in the process of weeding.

Weeding in a library is as much an art as it is a science (So is weeding in a garden, but that’s a whole ‘nother metaphor). Sometimes it’s obvious that a book should come out of a collection. Especially in children’s books, where heavy use can leave a book tattered, worn, and with suspicious stains. It’s easy to say ‘ok, this hasn’t been checked out since before I was born, maybe it’s time for it to go’ (and the record for this in the small library where I was weeding was last check-out stamp of ’69. Alas, I no longer remember the title, only that it was a collection of anecdotes and essays on New England farm life). When you are weeding non-fiction, I learned, setting a rough criteria of last check out ten years previous was a good place to start. And weeding books on countries that no longer exist is good when you hit the World Geography section.

Once you have a stack of books off the shelf, you look at them again and decide if you need to replace them. Books on sharks for kids? Oh, yeah, we need those. Books on sharks for adults? Not so much, anymore. A lot of non-fiction isn’t going out of a library because the patrons can walk in, sit at the computer and google their topic of choice (and this is if they don’t already have internet at home). In no time they have more information than a small library can offer.

And it’s about space. The library where I worked was a lot larger than it had been when I moved to town twenty years before. Then, it was a single large room (maybe 20×16) crammed full of shelving to the high ceilings. It had been generously expanded a couple of years before I went to work at it, but it still wasn’t enough. Fiction, in particular, and the young adult section, was just growing too fast to possibly keep up with it.

The God's Wolfling

New book cover that is attracting interest.

And how, you are wondering, does this relate to writing and publishing? Well, here’s the thing. A topical book has a shelf-life, and so do covers, and as authors we need to anticipate this and roll with it. Topical is easy enough to anticipate. Covers? I keep hearing ‘oh, I never look at the cover, I just read the blurb’ and perhaps for a few that is true. But for the majority of people, and especially young people? That cover makes a huge difference. They aren’t going to readily pick up a book that looks old. They will instead reach for the new, shiny, slick cover of a new release. That classic copy of Black Beauty that was re-bound in dull maroon? It’s never going out unless a parent insists. The re-released book with a terrific art cover? Yes, little girls adore horsey books and you won’t be able to keep that thing on the shelf.

This goes for most adults, too, although I saw it more clearly with the children’s collection. So… as indie authors, your covers do matter, and it’s not about the art, it’s about marketing. Conveying a clear image that looks modern, bright, and clean. We haven’t seen it yet, but in time, I think I will plan to update my book covers every few years, to keep them in the trends. I’d rather not have prospective readers look at a cover and think, ew, that’s old…

Once they do pick up a book and start to leaf through it, another thing that will put them off is the old feel of the text. I had to fight my kids to get them to read some of the classics I had loved as a kid. Little Women, the Borrowers, Swiss Family Robinson… I grew up with them, being read aloud from them, and reading aloud myself when I was old enough. But my kids were more comfortable with the composition, pacing, and ‘feel’ of books like Harry Potter and the Magic Treehouse. They were bored and befuddled by the slow pacing and dated technology of older books. My SF reader put down Have Spacesuit and wandered off, and it about broke my heart. As authors, we need to keep this in mind. Write old-style, and it may not sell to the younger set.

One thing ebooks give us, as authors and readers, is an almost unlimited ability to expand our library. We don’t need to worry about shelf constraints. On the other hand, being able to find anything in there? When you are putting up your book on Amazon, you need to make sure it is properly keyworded. There is a terrific list  for Science Fiction and Fantasy here, and you can backtrack for other genres. This is what will help your readers find you on those endless digital shelves (I have this mental image of a library with vaulted roof, shelves on every side, stretching off into the distance, little wisps of mist obscuring the far end…). As readers, it will take a little more effort to stay on top of your library if you are a Kindle user, as they haven’t yet bothered to make that an easy process. Maybe if we all ask for that…

As for your local library, and weeding –

Antique books

There is a beauty in old books. But they won’t go out of the library often…

it was one of the hardest jobs I have done. I kept having to resist the urge to take piles home with me to rescue them. We did use the option to keep a book ‘just because’ fairly often, and a lot of times would track down and buy a new version of a book with a nicer cover, knowing that if it looked new, it would start going out again. We created a display of books with a sign that read ‘read me, or I’ll be weeded! Rescue a book today…”

Understand that a physical library is torn between lack of funding, lack of space, and need to keep their patrons happy. Is the school in the original article doing something wrong? I’m not sure… It’s rough to see the shelves so empty, and to know as a former librarian the kids just aren’t using the library like they once did. But reality is that young people don’t read like they used to.

It’s not that they don’t read. It’s that they don’t read paper books as much. They are far more likely to tap a screen and grab the latest thing that catches their eye, than they are to pick up a worn-out copy of The Swiss Family Robinson. This isn’t a bad thing. And perhaps the old books, available free, will get some attention again, too.

Speaking of free, want to win a shiny new print copy of The God’s Wolfling? comment on this link and enter to win a signed, and possibly sketched copy. Winner will be chosen at random (not by snark level in the comment, as tempting as that is) and announced on August 2, the day after the book is launched. Good Luck!  


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