Tag Archives: cover art

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

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.

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, PROMOTION

Cranky Writer is, well, cranky

When I went to bed last night, I knew exactly (kind of, sort of) what I was going to write about this morning. It was a toss-up between a post on some comments about the cover of Black Tide Rising, an anthology based on John Ringo’s  series of books, and a response to an article The Passive Voice linked to about how real writers don’t go indie. As you can imagine, I had plenty to say about both topics. That doesn’t even begin to go into my thoughts about the condemnation and disrespect that has been flung Kate’s way because — gasp — she respects the wishes of readers more than the gentile feelings of some authors who are apparently worried that they have been recommended for a Hugo because — gasp again — the wrong sort of fans might have made the recommendation. But all of that seems minor in light of what has happened in Brussels this morning. That does not, however, mean it shouldn’t be said.

So, here goes.

Starting with the attacks on Kate and the desire to be removed from the recommended list Get over yourselves. Kate has run SP4 exactly the way she said she would. It has been in the open. The recommendations have been made on the SP4 blog. Kate herself spent more than a month here on MGC discussing each of the major — and some not so major — categories people could nominate works in. Those posts were not closed to comments. They were not hidden from view. They were, in fact, promoted on Facebook and elsewhere. No one was asked if they were Puppies, sad or otherwise. No one was told that only a certain kind of book could be recommended.

Did some people campaign to be included on the list? Sure. Not that it is anything new. Authors have, for years, reminded people what work they had that was eligible for the award. Funny how no one objected until folks outside of the “in club” started doing it. I guess it is a prime example of that old adage of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

As for those who don’t want to be associated with SP4, I suggest you go back and look at what Kate has done throughout the year. The list is not something she pulled out of thin air. This is a list that is based solely on recommendations made by anyone who wanted to take part. By telling Kate you don’t want to be associated with the list, you are basically telling your readers — your fans and the people who buy your work — that you don’t value their support. You are letting fear of what a few in the industry might think of you override what should be important: keeping your fans happy. Unless, of course, you don’t give a flip what your fans think and you like slapping them in the face for daring to support your work and recommend it for what has been one of the most prestigious prizes in the industry.

Which leads me into the article I saw listed on The Passive Voice. This oh-so-elite author doesn’t care if she starves. She will never, ever sully her writing by going indie. Serious authors shouldn’t even consider joining the unwashed masses, at least as far as she is concerned. She raises some of the same tired excuses we have seen for years. No gatekeepers to keep the dreck out. No editing. No good covers. Indie authors can be obnoxious with their constant promotion. You need to suffer for your art — oh, wait. That’s my take on what she has to say because she is the one who put a dollar figure on everything.

Look, I don’t care what course you take, be it indie or traditional. Both have strengths and weaknesses, although the line is thinning between the two. The reality is, if you go indie and you are serious about it, you will treat it as a business. That means you will get professional looking covers for your work. You will have it edited. You will develop a platform that will help get word out about your work. The hardest thing you will do is get your books into physical bookstores. That, too, is the one thing that traditional publishing makes easier. But, as I said, that is becoming less of an issue.

The second reality is that traditional publishing doesn’t always give you everything the article’s author seems to believe they do. The vast majority of traditionally published authors don’t get the type of promotion they expect. They, too, have to create their platform or “brand” to promote their work. Editing isn’t what it used to be for a number of houses. Yes, it can vary from editor to editor but it isn’t of the quality, on the whole, of what it once was. Ask Sarah about some of the copy edits she had from a non-Baen house where the copy editor apparently didn’t understand what a sword arm was and how it was suggested she “correct” the problem.

Read the article and let me know what you think.

Finally, the cover for Black Tide Rising. I hadn’t paid that much attention to it when the cover was first released. Then I started seeing the cries of outrage, first on Facebook when some of the usual crowd started crying over the fact that their hero, John Scalzi, would deign to allow his name to be associated with such a horribly sexist cover. The complaints continued across social media. Evil Baen! Bad John Ringo and Gary Poole! Evil, mean men using sexist covers. How dare they!

The problem is, the ones screaming and pointing fingers made one big mistake. They condemned the cover based on their own prejudices. They didn’t wait to see if it had anything to do with the anthology. All they saw were cheerleaders with guns and they made that weird, non-logical leap they have gotten so good at. Even when their mistake was pointed out, most of them continued to point fingers and scream “Misogyny!”

So here’s the deal. Black Tide Rising is, with one glaring exception, a great read — and this comes from someone who is not a fan of zombie books. (Ringo’s series is different from the other zombie books I’ve tried to read and a series I have very much enjoyed.) If I remember correctly, there are 12 stories in the anthology. One of them, Not in Vain, was written by Kacey Ezell and is the inspiration for the cover illustration. For those not familiar with Ezell, here is an excerpt from her bio: Kacey Ezell is an active duty USAF helicopter pilot. When not beating the air into submission, she writes military SF, SF, fantasy, and horror fiction.

Her story centers around a group of cheerleaders, their coach and what they have to do when the ZA happens. They are on their way home from a competition — hence the uniforms. They are, as most serious cheerleaders these days, true athletes and anything but the empty headed bimbos cheerleaders have been stereotyped as. Sure, they get scared because of what is happening but they adapt and cope. It is that or die. And yet, to those complaining about the cover, none of that matters. Cheerleaders, you know. Short skirts and bare midriffs and guns. Must be nothing but a bunch of old white men deciding on a cover that “excites” them.

Grow up and quit making yourself look bad by condemning something before you do your homework.

I guess what I’ve done is spend a little over 1,200 words proving that I’m cranky. I’m tired of people condemning things about my profession and about my friends without doing at least a minimum of research first. I’m tired of being called names and condemned because I don’t fall into lockstep with those who are trying to hold onto a professional business model that is outdated and that threatens the industry because the suits are too scared or too tied to their ways to adapt to changing times and demands. I’m tired of authors forgetting that they need to please their readers first and foremost or their books won’t sell. I’m tired of being told I’m doing it all wrong because I haven’t served my “apprenticeship” and bowed down to the gatekeepers.

Guess what, times change. The apprenticeship can be served in different ways now. Yes, it can be served by trying to break through the walls of the gatekeepers. Or it can be served by ignoring the gatekeepers and going straight to the customer. Please the customer and you make money. Don’t please them and you either have to learn your craft better or move on to something else. It is that simple.

So is the adage that the customer is always right — something certain authors have forgotten or have decided they don’t care about.

And, since I am one of the unwashed indie authors the blogger for the Guardian complained about, here is my bit of self-promotion:

Honor from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 3) will go live in less than a month. It is available for pre-order now.

War isn’t civilized and never will be, not when there are those willing to do whatever is necessary to win. That is a lesson Col. Ashlyn Shaw learned the hard way. Now she and those under her command fight an enemy determined to destroy their home world. Worse, an enemy lurks in the shadows, manipulating friend and foe alike.

Can Ashlyn hold true to herself and the values of her beloved Corps in the face of betrayal and loss? Will honor rise from the ashes of false promises and broken faith? Ashlyn and the Devil Dogs are determined to see that it does, no matter what the cost.

Honor from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 3) is part of the Honor and Duty (2 Book Series) series. Click either the link or the image to the left for more information on the series.

Thanks and now back to work for this writer who, for the record, does better as an indie than the blogger does as a traditional author. But then, I look at this as my business, as my profession and treat it as such.

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Filed under AMANDA, PROMOTION, WRITING

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.

 

 

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Random thoughts

I do have a post half-written. I really do. The problem this morning is that my attention is fragmented. I’m waiting for the repairman to get here to figure out what is wrong with the dishwasher that is less than a year old and, fortunately, still under warranty. My brain is busy trying to work out two different novels. That’s usually not enough to bring me to a complete stop but these two novels are very different in both genre, plot and writing. One is finished but needs major edits and the other is one-quarter written. The result of all this is that my head feels like that old cartoon of the human head with the Xs over the eyes and the cuckoo popping in and out of the top.

So let me touch on a couple of things. First of all, I had someone (and I will let you guys guess where they came from) basically accuse me of not having read Scalzi’s post that I referred to in my Saturday blog. The entire basis for this person — as well as the condemnation from the referring blog — seems to be because I didn’t link to the Scalzi post. Instead, I linked to Teleread. Well, let me set the record straight. I did read the original post. I didn’t link to it because I know the readers here on MGC have the ability to google and find the original source if they want to read it. Teleread had excerpted the parts I wanted and I happened to also agree, for the most part, with what Chris Meadows had to say. So, that is what I linked to.

There are basically two reasons why I don’t link to a post. The first is as I stated above. I know our readers here can go find the original if they want to. The second is when I don’t want to send additional traffic their way. This isn’t unique unto me or MGC. It is something many bloggers use. But now it appears that it is a reason for those who don’t agree with what someone says to accuse that person of not having read the piece. I so love that sort of “logic”.

Something else has come up of late in several of the groups I belong to: authors, all too often indie authors, buying ads and comparing their work to either the masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy or to whatever the the current best seller happens to be. I saw one yesterday where an author was trying to give away copies of their books by comparing their work to that of David Weber and the Honor Harrington series. No attribution for the quote saying it was as good as or in the same vein as, which left me to assume that the author was making the comparison. Worse, when following the clickbait link, it went to the author’s website and you had to give your email to get the book. The problems I have with this are multi-fold.

First, if you want readers to take such claims like “this book will remind you of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series” or “this is the next Twilight” or whatever, have the quote be by someone who the reader will recognize. Don’t just say it because you believe it. More often than not, when I see claims like this without attribution being made, it is an indie author doing it. That smacks of being a rank amateur. It can also be seen as misleading the reading public if your book doesn’t live up to the claim.

Second, if you want to give away books and want to do it from your own mailing list, be upfront about it. Don’t use a clickbait ad that you mirror on your Facebook or Twitter feed to direct people to your website and then spring it on them. For one, a lot of people will stop and leave the page the moment the email sign-up requirement becomes clear. The last thing most of us want is more email, especially unsolicited email, coming in. For another, I am always hesitant to download anything from a site I’m not familiar with and there are a lot of folks like me. We have been warned time and again to be careful of viruses and worms coming through email links.

If you want to give copies of your work away,either set it up through your publisher or, if you are an indie author, through the outlets your books are available from. There are ways to do it. If you aren’t sure what they are for any given e-store, either check the FAQs for that site or ask online. Someone will know the answer.

Finally, I saw a thread in one of my online communities today that blew my mind. The posters were commenting on e-books they had gotten that had no covers. What? If you are an indie author and you haven’t yet figured out how to embed your cover into your file, ask. The last thing you want is for your readers to open your e-book on their phone or tablet or ereader and not have a cover there to entice them into continuing on. It could be you simply don’t have it tagged right. It could be you had an issue uploading that you aren’t aware of. Please, please, please download your e-book after it has been uploaded and make sure everything went as you expected. Indies are gaining respectability — despite what some would have you believe — but that will only continue as long as we continue to push for better quality for what we put out.

Okay, the repairman is here. More coffee is still needed and my brain is still scattered. Until later.

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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!

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Indie concerns

Sarah is still feeling under the weather thanks to a virus that has made the rounds of her family. She pushed her luck by quipping that she thought she’d managed to escape it. Of course, that meant she was next to fall ill. So she asked me to fill in for her today and to offer her apologies. She will be back Wednesday with her regular post and then next Sunday with a new chapter.

After telling Sarah I’d fill in for her, I started thinking about what to blog about. I asked Kate and Cedar for suggestions and they were oh-so-helpful. Among the suggestions offered were doing a post explaining how I am not Sarah or actually writing an over-the-top chapter for her and seeing how long it would take before someone figured out Sarah really hadn’t gone insane. There was also a suggestion to do a post about the literati who, in an interview with the New York Times, said he never read fantasy because there was no death in it. What? No death in fantasy! Someone certainly hasn’t told George R. R. Martin that – or just about any other modern fantasy (of any ilk) author I can think of.

I’ll admit, going after the literati kind of appealed to me but I wasn’t sold on it. So I went searching for something else. That’s when I came across this post, “An Open Letter to Indie Authors”, by J. M. Gregoire. I highly recommend every author – indie or not – read and think about what is in the letter because it contains some pretty darned good advice.

I also understand what made Gregoire write the letter. The frustration expressed in it is something many of us share. How often have we shaken our heads after seeing an author attack a reviewer – either on their review site or on Facebook or Amazon – because the review wasn’t absolutely glowing? How often have we at least previewed an e-book that looked promising from the description or because we’ve already read something by that author only to find that it needed a really good editor? And yes, in my mind, this also applies to traditionally published books all too often these days.

So, what advice did Gregoire give to indie authors and publishers? (Note that I am paraphrasing some of the points and then giving my own thoughts afterwards.)

1. Don’t publish your book if it isn’t ready for primetime.

In other words, quantity does not trump quality. Yes, the more titles you have out there, the better your sales will be. However, if you are continually putting out what basically amounts to first drafts without proper editing, copy editing and proofing, you will drive away readers. They may forgive one or two stinkers, but not a continuing line of them.

2. Do your research before hiring an editor.

To start, understand what an editor is and make sure the person you are hiring knows as well. An editor isn’t a beta reader or a proofreader. An editor is someone who knows story structure and genre conventions as well as the technical aspects of grammar, punctuation and spelling.

From Gregoire’s “letter:

Beta Readers – These are the folks that read the pre-editing rough draft, and tell you what they do/do not like, what they feel does/doesn’t flow well.  They are there to analyze the story itself, not edit anything.

Editor – An editor does just that.  Edits.  Looks for mistakes – grammar, spelling, punctuation, made up words that don’t exist in any language never mind English, etc.

Proofreader – The proofer reads the final product through to catch any mistakes or typos that may have been missed somewhere along the way.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve talked with other authors who have paid big bucks for an “editor” only to discover they got nothing more than a glorified proofreader or beta reader. So please, do your homework, ask for references and samples of their work and make sure you both understand what an editor does before you sign any contract with them.

3. Social media is our friend – up to a point. There are a lot of folks out there who will “friend” every author they can find on Facebook and then volunteer to beta read. Please read and take very careful note of what Gregoire says here. Too often these folks can be more headache, and heartache, than they are worth.

Note here, choose your beta readers carefully. While I almost always have one who doesn’t read the genre of the book just written, my main betas are familiar with the genre and its conventions. The reason I have the one non-genre reader is to make sure I haven’t fallen back into tropes that signal those familiar with the genre but that will leave those not as familiar out in the cold wondering why my characters are acting as they are. I’ve heard horror stories of authors getting notes back from their betas with suggestions that make you wonder 1) if they read the same book you wrote and 2) what they were on when they read it. These are often the same beta readers who want to continually “help” you as you are writing, offering advice and plot ideas that not only don’t work but would never work in anything you write.

4. Books are judged by their covers.

Yes, I know there are those who say e-books aren’t judged by their covers. Bull. I agree with Gregoire here. We still look at the cover image on the description page and judge how “professional” the book is by how the cover looks. So put some time and effort into your covers. If you aren’t an artist, find one who can help. However, don’t spend a great deal of money on your covers unless you are already getting a nice income stream from your writing or have a job to supplement your writing. Spending a grand or two for a cover is insane. Heck, even spending a couple of hundred can be. Find yourself a graphic artist who is good and who is willing to work a deal with you for cover art. Ask other writers for recommendations. Most of all, look at their portfolios and see what sort of art they do. Finally, have a set date for delivery. Any change to that date has to be agreed upon in writing. Otherwise, you may find yourself waiting weeks or months, your e-book done but without a cover.

5. Don’t be an a-hole.

In other words, think before speaking – or hitting the “enter” button. If you don’t like a review, pull up your big boy pants and move on. Not everyone is going to love your book. Ranting and raving at the reviewer isn’t going to do you any good. It will lose you readers because that rant will make reviewers hesitant to review your next work and readers will simply move on to the next author. The drama might be entertaining for a few minutes but it isn’t something that will bring them back to your books later.

6. Don’t overextend yourself.

That’s pretty self-explanatory. Don’t overextend when it comes to time. Most of us can’t write book after book after book without a break. There comes a time when we not only hit the wall but it falls on us. We need time for a real life. The cat needs petting, the dog needs walking and the family would really like to have a conversation with you that doesn’t revolve around how long it is taking Character A to accomplish something.

It also applies to finances. How many of us know authors who financially strap themselves to go to every con, attend every writers’ workshop, etc., all in an attempt to “promote” their work? Cons help with networking but, on the whole, don’t have the same impact (in my opinion) they used to when it comes to winning over new readers. All you have to do is look at cons to see that they have the same basic concom every year and the same authors/publishers get the choice panels. If you aren’t one of the chosen ones, you are paying to rent a table and hoping someone buys enough of your books to pay for the table. Forget about recovering the other hundreds or thousands of dollars it costs to go to the con.

Am I saying not to do cons? No. But I am saying to be smart about which ones you go to and how much money you spend.

That same caveat about being aware of how much money you are spending applies to publishing your e-books/print books as well. Yes, you will have loss leaders. We all do. But if you are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars just to get your e-book into the market, consider how long it will take you to recover that cost and how many copies you will have to sell.

In other words, all the above advice, as well as everything Gregoire had to say, comes down to this: writing is our business and we have to treat it that way. Just because we can do it anytime and pretty much anywhere doesn’t make it any less so. Yes, we can do it in our PJs and we are our own bosses. But we still have to take pride in what we do and we have to put out the best product we can. So don’t rush it. Don’t skip steps – especially editing. Do invest the time into getting a good cover. Finally, follow Jim Baen’s rule and “don’t be a butthead”.

(Cross-posted to Nocturnal Lives.)

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