Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘cover art and 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…

 

 

 

 

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…

zombiee

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…

zombie

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.

Embassy-1

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.

Get a Spine

You know what the problem is with ebooks? They’re spineless, that’s what. Nothing to look at on the shelf, they just disappear when they aren’t wanted into the Kindle or what-have-you until they are summoned again. But some people like a spine, and others judge books by the size of their spine. For them we want to create a paper book, and it’s a different creature to create a print cover than to set up an ebook cover. For one thing, you need a much higher resolution image than you can get away with for an ebook. Minimum of 300 dpi for print. I know I’ve talked about spending a little more and buying a higher-quality image for this reason, and this is why. Createspace, which is the place I work with to get print copies of my book, will not approve an image that is less than 300 dpi (dots per inch, it’s a resolution thing. Lower dpi means a fuzzy, pixelated image. You don’t want that) for print.

The first stage to setting up a print cover is to get the template from Createspace. You will use this to lay out the cover so it fits the necessary guidelines. The size of your spine is dictated by the number of pages, and your paper choices, and other factors, so I can’t say what it will be. There is a formula for figuring it out, but it is so much easier to plug the information in and download the custom template.

Once you have the template, you can begin laying out elements on it. I will often work with the background layer set to a transparency that allows me to see the guidelines for the spine, bleed, and barcode. You want to be very aware of these. Live elements, which include any text, cannot go closer to a bleed guideline than 0.25 inches, or it will not pass review and will come back to be fixed.

Guidelines

In the screengrab of the Dragon noir cover, you will see pink lines, those are part of the template, and you cannot have text over them. As you can see, with the art background transparent, it’s easy to avoid them.

Now let’s talk about what you will find on a spine.

Book spines

My book’s spines. If you look to the far left you will see my first spine, and the grievous error I made on it.

I used Baen trade paperbacks as a model for my later spines, when I had learned some things. And then I had books thick enough to put all the stuff on them. Vulcan’s Kittens and God’s Wolfling (which is on sale right now for a mere $0.99 shameless plug here) look thinner than they could for two reasons. I used bright white paper – cream is thicker, and easier to read on. I learned that much later, though. Also, had I gone with the 5×8 size you see on the Eternity Symbiote, they would have been as thick as it is. Ah, well, you can learn from my mistakes.

Book spines can carry a lot of information. After all, they are usually the first thing a shopper sees. I have been known to scan a shelf looking for the distinctive Baen Rocket logo. You can see it in a couple of places in the picture below.

book spines

Paperback spines usually have author name, title, publisher’s logo…

On the other hand, you don’t want to try and put too much on there, and make fonts so tiny they can’t be read, or give it a cluttered look.

Book Spines

Hardback spines tend to be formatted a little differently.

If you don’t have a clever logo for your publishing imprint, no worries. You can get away without it, although it’s a good thing to think about, as you can use it to tie many promotional materials together. But for now, you will want to have your name, and the title. Make sure they pop off the background art you are using. I don’t usually do the tricks I do on the cover to make the typography look raised, but I do drop shadows and gradient colors to create some life to the flat text.

I also put the name of my publishing company – Stonycroft Publishing – on the spine, at horizontal layout as you see on traditionally published formats. I started putting the price and ISBN on there, too. The idea is to make your book look like the other books so if and when a bookstore or library stocks it, then it doesn’t stand out in a bad way. Eye-catching is one thing, looking like something is missing is another, and not good. Now, I also put the broad genre of my books on the spine, but that’s just me.

Next week we’ll talk more about what goes on the back cover, and I will answer any questions in comments, or save the big ones for next week’s post.

Don’t forget to pick up a copy of The God’s Wolfling while it’s on sale. It’s less than a dollar today, and then tomorrow it goes up to $2.99 before returning to a pre-sale price on Monday. If you already have a copy, pass the word on to other people that they can get a good book for a bargain price (unless you didn’t like it…)