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Posts tagged ‘choosing cover art’

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 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…





Covering Your Book: Part 1

The art of covering a book, as part of the MGC practical series we’re running for a week or three.

We’ve talked about this many times, here and elsewhere. I think last time there may have been an epic troll war in the comments section, which I’m hoping to avoid this time. I’m going to do this in two parts, this one being the preliminaries, and next week, a hands-on tutorial style how-to create a cover. Something I’ve come close to doing before, but in a little more depth this time.

There are multiple things going on with a book cover. I’m going to focus on front covers for now, and if enough people want it, come back to spines and back covers later. Let me know in the comments.

First, you have to understand what a cover does. It does not convey a real scene from your book. Now, I’m not saying that if your heroine is a blonde, it’s ok to have a brunette on the cover, but I am going to say that the cover does not need – and indeed, SHOULD NOT be a faithful representation of something from inside the book. Instead, your cover art needs to convey a sense of what’s inside the book, as a whole. Your cover sends subliminal cues to your reader, whether they ever stop to think about it, or not. Is your cover very pink (or purple)? Probably a romance. Barechested male on the front? Probably a romance. Exploding spaceships? Whoops… probably not a romance.

But then you get down to even more subtle signs than that. There’s a spaceship, and a star scene, and a abstract representation of a face in genetic code… probably hard SF. One thing you will never, ever see on the cover of a legitimate SF or fantasy book is a photograph. It’s always an illustration. Only with Romance can you get away with a photo.

How can you tell what your cover art should look like? Well, the first thing I tell anyone I’m consulting with on cover art is to go to Amazon and search for your subgenre. Not the entire genre: all of SF is too broad. On the other hand, western space opera cowboy… that might come up with something more usable. Or simply dystopian SF, or… you get the idea. Now, look at the top 100 paid titles in that subgenre. You will see a certain pattern appear as you do so. We aren’t saying you should copy anything faithfully. But you ought to find the overall pattern, and make your art fit into it, because this is the unseen cue that tells your reader what they can expect when they start reading.

Yes, it’s difficult when your book doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. I know this… my Children of Myth series is both fantasy, and SF. I have opted to go with something that looks more fantasy, as it’s closest to the core of the stories. wolfling

Now that you have a mental idea of what works – and not before this! Trust me, you will fall in love with an unsuitable piece of art, and that will only end in tears – you can go to a reliable site and look for stock art. Yeah, yeah, I know. You want an artist who will faithfully and lovingly render the perfect scene for you, with the biometrics of your main character perfectly aligned with your mental picture of them, and… you can’t afford it. Original art justly costs an arm and a leg, and until you are a blockbuster in the sales department (and then you can come back and write a guest post for us telling us how you did it!) you can’t justify laying out thousands of dollars on an artist.

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.

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)

Those of us at MGC who do covers highly recommend that you don’t just grab a random piece of art you found on the internet. For one thing, you don’t know where that came from. It may be under copyright – most likely is – and you can’t just slap it on your cover and go. Whatever you pick must be licensed for commercial use. Make sure to attribute the art inside your book. Artists, like authors, have to eat and pay bills, and they can’t do that with stolen art.

For me, I can take bits and pieces of stock art and fuse them into an original creation. This is, I know, not that easy for most folks. And done badly, it’s almost worse than that teenage artist you found. I’ve seen some pretty bad cover art that was created from poorly joined stock pieces. However, there is hope.

Dollarphotoclub is just what it sounds like. A huge collection of stock, both illustrations and photos, which you can search for the right piece. Dreamstime is another good site, although pricier. For free stuff that will take a little more work on your part, try Morgue File. For small elements, I use Open Clipart. You need to keep a couple of things in mind as you are looking.

One, sometimes a photo can be modified to be used as an illustration. We who do this a lot and buy pro-tools like Filter Forge for this. But if you aren’t ready to lay out over a hundred dollars on a program, there are other options. I’ve seen some interesting results with Pencil Sketch, which is freeware. Gimp has manual filters you can layer on (just one won’t do, in this case) until it no longer looks like a photo. So keep that in mind as you browse.

Second, you need to make sure there is enough room for text without interfering with important art elements. The layout of the art, portrait or landscape, isn’t terribly important right now, because you will likely be blowing it up and shifting it around until it looks good, anyway (Oh, yeah, you need to be looking at high-resolution art. Minimum 300 dpi, to be able to use on print covers. Unless this is a short, and will never be in print. But KDP still has quality requirements). But there has to be room for text, which is arguably more important than the art itself. You also don’t want an overly-detailed piece of art. Most readers get their first impression of your book from a thumbnail sized image on the computer screen. Too much detail gets lost, interferes with the text, and looks muddy.

Next week, we have the art, now what? Or: the most important thing on the cover of a book is your name. Make it bigger, I said!