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Posts tagged ‘cover design’

Continuity of Design

Have you ever been driving along, not really paying attention, until that one house caught your attention? You know what I mean – the faux asbestos tile stones siding… or maybe that’s just an Ohio thing. It’s the most hideous stuff I’ve ever seen on a house, and I’ve been a lot of places. Or it’s the house that has the three dead cars in the yard in various states of assembly, and the dogs tied out front howling at you, and the washing hung on the front porch. It’ll catch your eye, all right, and not in a good way. I’m not just talking about last weekend’s expedition with my Mom to look at houses and land in KY (she did find a little farm and put on offer on it, yay!) although there was a funny moment as we’re driving and she asks in a startled tone ‘did they stucco that mobile home?’

There are so many things wrong with this cover: photo, bad photoshop, not readable in thumbnail, unreadable author’s name, box text for no good reason, it just goes on and on.

I’m actually talking about book covers and ebook formatting. Just like in a neighborhood, the potential buyers are judging your book not just by the facade of that one house, but the others around it. If the book really, really doesn’t fit in, the buyers are going to subconsciously reject it. Or even worse, they might buy it expecting it to be different inside, only to realize you’ve stuccoed a mobile home and instead of getting, say, a romance, they’ve just bought hard science fiction. And they will leave very unhappy reviews. So even if your friends swear they never judge a book by it’s cover… no. You know what? If you are showing off your cover, and people are saying ‘oh, I don’t judge books by their covers’ that is when you know something is wrong with the cover and you need help. 

This is a photo. It’s not hard to convert a photo to art – and this is a good photo which would convert nicely. it would take no cost, and very little effort, but none at all were made. So many headdesks…

Just like in a neighborhood, you want your book to stand out a little bit, but not to stick out like a sore thumb. If no other books in your sub-genre have covers with photos as art, for heaven’s sakes stop putting a photo on yours! I’ve seen this twice just in the last week or so, both times on books that really ought to have known better: one was ostensibly published by a small press, the other by a famous author. I’m head-desking so hard. Look, I am a professional designer. Taken classes and everything, I didn’t just hang up a shingle proclaiming myself one.

Continuity of design is what people expect. It’s roughly equivalent to filing the rough edges off so people don’t get splinters, or trip. You can be eye-catching in a good way, while still maintaining some continuity. There’s a neighborhood I drive through almost every morning on my way to work and I love to look at the houses. I’m always spotting something new to admire. It’s the gingerbread, you see. The neighborhood along the Miami River is all Victorian and Edwardian mansions. They fit together, but are all beautifully different. Which is also what you want if you are designing a cover for a series.

I know, I know, I’m asking you to walk a thin line between standing out, but not sticking up like a nail that needs hammering down. Where you should not stand out at all, however, is your internal formatting. I was attempting to read an ebook that was badly formatted the other day, and making heavy water of it as it was not properly formatted. The brain sort of bounces off a lack of paragraph breaks, you know. It’s like one long wall’o text, and personally my mind retreats to a fetal position in the back of my skull and starts whimpering after a while of that. I kept reading because professional reasons (including feedback on the need for formatting) but had it been a pleasure read I’d have given up on it entirely. I don’t care how you format your ebooks – Amanda has done some excellent tutorials – but they need to be similar if not the same to all the other ebooks out there. So they are easier to read. Anything that takes my attention off the words coming to life in my imagination is a bad thing. Don’t do it. Creativity in ebook formatting is doomed to failure, in really ugly ways. It just comes across as amateur.

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…





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.



Getting Graphic with your Work

And I’m not talking about describing the gory bits in gruesome detail. No, I had planned to do a walk-through tutorial today about creating a logo for your writing business. I hadn’t anticipated two things. One, to do a proper logo you need to create a vector file rather than image or illustration. I’ll get into what that means when I do the post – for today it matters because a week ago I ended my subscription to the full Adobe Creative Cloud, dropping back to Photoshop and Lightroom, and that means I don’t have Adobe Illustrator for showing how to do a logo. Which isn’t a bad thing, because most of you don’t have that, either, or you wouldn’t be asking me to show you how to do this. I did a little research, and downloaded Inkscape, the cousin of my favorite freeware graphic program, Gimp. Then I ran into the second thing I hadn’t planned on. You see, I’m getting married next week. I’m also traveling for several days attendant to that. I am afraid I ran out of time this week to teach myself Inkscape and create a tutorial. So! I put together some odds and ends of graphic design projects that can be useful to you all, and one that I was specifically asked for. I will be around to chat in comments, so feel free to ask questions. Oh, and Amanda wanted me to point out that things I discuss in this post, like guides and flattening layers, are pertinent to those of you working on print covers. So pay attention!

Postcards and Bookmarks

Having something to hand to someone who is interested in your book is a great thing. You can, of course, default to a standard business card, nothing wrong with that. You can do a lot with those. But today I’m going to talk specifically about the layout and requirements of the bigger, more art-heavy promo material. I take them with me to conventions to sign for people who own my ebooks but want a signature. I hand them out to… anyone who remotely looks interested when I say that I am an author. I give my local libraries packets of 50 bookmarks to keep with all the others on their counter. I can mail the postcards to libraries, schools, and other venues and promote myself and my books (I rarely actually do that, but it’s a possibility).

While you are shopping for a printer, you will discover that there are a lot of variations in size available. I’m using a 4×6 inch postcard, the standard size, for this batch. I may switch it up with the next one. Book marks can be laid out in the same way, so I won’t cover them individually now.

In Gimp, open a new file. Set the size to 4 inches by 6 inches (or what your printer requires), and then drop the Advanced Menu down, and set the dpi to 300 or 400. Do not leave it at 72 dpi, the default, as this will be rejected by any reputable printer and will look terrible if printed. Now that you have your new file open, pay attention to the print requirements for bleed. You will want there to be no live elements (important text or graphics) within 0.25 inches of the edges. You can click on the rulers at the left side and top and drag what is called a ‘guide’ to mark  your bleed area so you don’t put something there by accident.

I chose to lay out this postcard with three covers and represent my Pixie trilogy. I would not put more than four covers on a card, you don’t want it to appear cluttered. postcard layout

Open as Layers (found in the File menu dropdown) the covers or art you want to use. I generally use a jpg or png version of the covers so I don’t have to manage umpteen zillion layers in GIMP. Scale the covers to the desired size, you can do this easily with a right-click on the image and selecting Scale Layer. Using the move tool, place the art where you think you want it. Keep in mind you may have to move it again. This card was designed to have text on the front and a blank back, but you will note there is not a lot of text. This is a tool to interest them in what you have to offer, enough that they will take the next step. In the highlighted box, I have my website address. In the other corner, I have a QR code. These are scannable with a smartphone or tablet: this particular code will take them to Pixie Noir’s Amazon sales page, where they can look inside and read the sample. I want them there so they can buy as soon as I hook them.

When you’re ready to print, you will save this file as a pdf, just as you did for the cover for print. Make sure when you do so that you first merge all the layers, but save your work before you start this process. If you look closely at the screenshot above, you will see several layers of images, text, and other elements. All of those need to be flattened, or bad things can happen in the printing process. Right click on each layer thumbnail and select ‘merge down’ from the menu. DO NOT SAVE your xcf file at this point! You want to preserve all your xcf (Gimp) files for later. I’ll show you why in a minute. Now that you have everything smooshed, drop down the File Menu and select Export. Export your file as a pdf. Close your file and click discard changes.

Batch-Editing Art and Covers

This last week I had a chance to help out a friend who was in a bind. He had commissioned art for the covers of several stories, but they lacked a unifying element to tie the series together, and he wasn’t sure what to do to further signal his specific genre with the typography. This is not something many of you will ever have to do, most of us deal with one book at a time, but there are occasions when it’s a useful task, such as aligning covers for a series. And I told Dave I’d show how I did it, so he can tackle it himself if it happens again.

What I did was to open the first layer of artwork and lay the text out on it, along with the graphic unifying element (tentacles, to signal Lovecraftian cthuloid elements in the stories).

I’ll explain how I added the tentacles. After poring through the Dollar Photo Club for something suitable, I came up with the illustration below.


This is an illustration rather than a vector, which is better, but it will work.

This is an illustration rather than a vector, which is better, but it will work.

The first thing you need to do is right-click the layer thumbnail in the righthand window, and look at the bottom of the menu, where you will choose ‘add alpha channel’ which allows you to have a transparency rather than white (default) background. Then I chose the ‘select’ menu, and then ‘select by color’ and clicked on the black around the octopus. Then I clicked on delete and eliminated all the black, leaving a suitable graphic.

The graphic element, I can now manpulate it without overlying it's background on the art.

The graphic element, I can now manipulate it without overlying it’s background on the art.

Finally, I had one cover laid out with title, author name, and graphic unifying element (hereafter GUE).

Note all the layers in the righthand window.

Note all the layers in the righthand window.

Choose ‘Save as” from the file menu and name the file appropriately. Save it as an XCF file for now, you may need to manipulate it again. You will note the GUE is seen in the upper left and lower right corners. I had put just a little bit showing, and changed the mode (see top of righthand window, above opacity) of the layer to make it look like I wanted. Experiment with this, dodge, burn, lighten… powerful effects here.

Now that I’m happy with the fonts, layout, and this cover, I can move onto the next one. I simply click the little eye next to the layer thumbnail and make the art disappear. Eventually I will delete the unused layers, but I want all of them right now in case I need to make changes.



The art isn’t gone, it’s just not showing on the work area any longer.

I've already altered the title, and the GUE, the author's name I don't touch.

I’ve already altered the title, and the GUE, the author’s name I don’t touch.

Now I go up and open the art for this cover from the File>Open as Layers menu. You may need to drag the art layer thumbnail in the righthand window down, until it is under the other elements. You may also need to scale it so it is the same size as the background you see above. Play around with your GUE layer some more, until it looks right on the art.

What the final product of another cover in the same series looks like

What the final product of another cover in the same series looks like

Using Save As, name and save this file, then repeat with changing the title and the art for each cover you are doing. Dave had six, but it took very little time once I had every thing set up to manipulate the art and GUE under the layers of the text and modifying elements (drop shadows and that sort of thing).

I’m probably missing something, but ask in the comments and I’ll explain.

Reading Out Loud

What follows is the text of a speech I wrote and delivered as the final assignment in my Public Expression class. It’s written to a specific and highly formalized structure called Monroe’s motivated sequence, and was intended to be a call-to-action speech. I don’t know how it worked on that audience, but it amuses me to share the text with you all. Reading aloud offers special benefits to writers. By reading a story you can develop a much smoother rhythm to the dialogue, the flow of the story, and I highly recommend it if you can. 


The Art and Gift of Reading Aloud

A simple way to deepen your relationships and help your children succeed in life. Can you imagine one thing with the power to enhance mental capacity, boost your offspring to better lives, and keep your loved ones close? Reading aloud will do all those things, and it takes no more than a little time and trust.

In our modern culture, families are scattered and even when together, the TV, phones, or computers consume all their attention, even weakening their mind, according to Psychology Today.  According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Amanda Craig, in the Times, writes that until recently, with the advent of the television, reading aloud was a common family practice.

Marriages and relationships also suffer from lack of intimacy – not sex, but close contact in loving and playful fashion. As many in my audience are young, I will say this: begin as you mean to go on as parents, and as spouses.

Reading aloud to one another can deepen or mend relationships and enhance a child’s ability to learn, in addition to fostering a stronger mind in the reader. In the Handbook of Structured Techniques in Marriage and Family Therapy, it is pointed out that by agreeing on when and what to read, positive cooperation between partners is fostered, and trustful communication is facilitated. When you read to a child, MIT says in their Textual Tinkerability book, you promote critical thinking, questioning through dialog, and thoughtful conversation. Shared reading is “one of the most important activities parents can do to prepare their children for school.” When I was growing up, my mother read aloud to us every day. I learned how to read very early, and as I got older, my sisters and I would read aloud as well to the family. We were very successful in school and have precious memories of this family time.

You may have concerns. You might feel self-conscious about reading aloud: bestselling children’s author Francesca Simon says “A lot of people are very self-conscious about how to read. My husband had dyslexia, and it was always a source of anxiety, but doing it year after year he became fluent.” You might not think you have time in your busy schedule for reading. According to, the average American spent 734 minutes per day in media consumption. Television, internet, and others. Surely you can find 30 minutes to give as a gift to your loved ones?

With reading aloud, you could have a family with deeper bonds, a couple with shared interests, engagement, and quality time spent building intimacy. You can have children doing better in school and ultimately in life.  With a modern rushed life that impacts family ties, this is a way to bind those loose ties, and enhance your children’s education. Did I also mention that according to the Journal of Gerontology, reading aloud improves your own cognitive abilities and can ward off dementia? Start reading aloud now, and set a habit that can last you a lifetime.

Take time today to read out loud. Even a few minutes at first will help. Go home and talk to your partner, even read to your pets, and then trust them when you feel self-conscious not to laugh. Read often, and make it habit by doing it for 27 days in a row.

Step out of your comfort zone, take a risk, read out loud and proud!

You can if you want see this speech here, although I will warn you it’s a poor quality recording. 

On another topic entirely, I’m on Summer Vacation. This means that I am preparing for the wedding, trying to write (my brain is slooowly thawing out after the end of school), and that I am back in business for cover design and layout. If you are looking for a new book cover, or a re-working of one, send me an email. For the commentators, if you want a critique or hands-on help with DIY covers, ask and we can either do it in comments or if you’re not that brave (and I don’t blame you) via emails.

Here’s the latest cover I created for a friend and talented writer David Burkhead.

trevas children

Ebook Cover Typography

Last week I talked about selecting the right art for your cover. Remember, it’s not about recreating a scene from the book (which rarely if ever works) it’s about marketing the whole book. Now, 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.

A few rules of thumb…

Make the author’s name big. Really big, bigger than you think you need to. When a reader sees an ebook for the first time, they see it in thumbnail, and they need to be able to see the author’s name and read it. The title should probably be almost as big… and the title should not be a very long one. I’ve made that mistake. The story of Little Red-Hood and the Wolf Man is a terribly long title.

Do not, under any circumstances, use a font that you would use inside of the book. No Times New Roman, Calibri, Georgia… it will look wrong and put your readers off even if they couldn’t say why. Ideally, you would use a free font or one that you have purchased and are sure you have commercial rights for (do check. Some are licensed for personal use only). I use dafont recently because I can open the search options and sort for 100% free or public domain. font search

No, you don’t want a font that is hard to read on the front cover. But you do want a font that subtly signals what genre you are presenting. Look at Anita Semi-Square and tell me what that reads like, then go take a look at Endor… one is great for SF, the other for Fantasy. You wouldn’t want to mix them up!

Never use more than three fonts or variations on fonts on a cover. This is something I learned in general graphic design more than a decade ago, but it’s a universal. You could have a title font, a complementary author name font, but then for other text elements, I’d stick with either the author name font, or an italic version of it, if you must.

Don’t put too much, or too little, on a cover. Go grab a book by a traditional publisher, and take a hard look at it. Chances are, you will see between 4-5 text elements. Title, author name, blurb, and either ‘bestseller’ type text, or ‘series name’ type text. You might see all of those. If you put out a cover with only Title and Author name – and those very small – it’s going to look amateur to your readers. They might not be able to say why, but they will notice.

So… I decided I needed to re-cover Vulcan’s Kittens, which might not be the first book cover I ever created, but it is close. It was badly dated, with the art appearing ‘in a box’ which is now a dead giveaway for an indie or self-published title. Don’t do it. Seriously, it looks bad. The first thing I did was to go looking for the files… and discovered that I had not kept the original Gimp files. Without the ability to pull it apart into layers, I was forced to create the whole thing from scratch. So I painted an eye… LOL. You don’t have to do that, I’m just a little crazy.

I wanted a darker cat, as the original cover art is a photo of a sandy tabby, and none of the kittens in the story are sandy-colored. And I wanted to keep my text for the title in keeping with the mythology theme. Most of all, I wanted to keep the cover in a similar design to the other book in the series, The God’s Wolfing, which is an important thing to keep in mind.

cover template

I began with a new image in Gimp (I am using Gimp because it’s free, powerful, and if you use the other programs you ought to be able to backtrack easily from it), set to the dimensions I would need if I am using this in print (which I will be). Then I opened the art as a new layer, sized it and tweaked it until I was happy with it, and started laying text on it.

Layout time

I created a transparent layer above the art, but you don’t have to do this step, as each text element will appear as a separate layer. This does, however, give you an idea of what the art looked like when I started. You will see later that I changed it when close to finished.



I started by looking online to find a font, since I don’t have all my fonts on this computer yet. Once I had a couple of options uploaded, I created a text box, wrote the title, and sized it. Keep it from touching the edges – you will need at least a 1/4 in bleed if you take this cover to print. See that you can adjust color, kerning, and spaces between lines to keep your words straight. I applied a couple of filters to this text, a bevel to make it look raised, and a drop shadow to make it look like it is floating above the art. Because I was playing with a fire theme for this book, I went with red and yellow.

Later, on the Author Name, you will see I’ve applied a gradient to give the text more life. You do not have to do all of these. You should do something, so it’s not flat on the page. Give your text some life!Vulcans Kittens

Skipping ahead a bit, you will see what I’ve done. The series identifier is near the title. It would look off if it were closer to the author name than the title. My last name is very big, and first name tucked neatly away. You do not have to – and if you look at bestseller titles, you will see most don’t – put both names on one line. I’ve increased the size of the art. I wanted the eye to be central, and, well, eye-catching.  I might take a look at this in the morning and decide I want to change something, I often do after sleeping on a project. But I wanted to walk you all through the whys and wherefore’s of laying text on a cover.

before the New Design

before the New Design

I’m sure I’m missing something, but this is already pretty long. Ask in the comments, I will be around to answer questions today, as will others who can help.

Oh, and by the way, I have two ebooks on a serious sale today. Just in time for Christmas gifting, they’re a dollar on Dec 20th, but they will go up slowly for a few days, so jump on them now! Pixie Noir, which is usually $4.99, and Farmhand, my Lilania Begley book.


We were talking the other day, and it came up that it might be time to collect a glossary of sorts, to define and discuss terms. With the changes in the industry, new ideas coming in almost faster than we can keep up, and with them, new words and phrases for things that didn’t exist ten, or even five years ago… Time to do some jargon-busting.

Please, in the comments, feel free to suggest additions, and I will amend this as needed. Hoping to make it into a resource that might last a bit. Not long, with the way things are changing, but…

  • Publishing
  • Editing
  • Writer-Related Words
  • Story
  • Covers


Traditional Publishing: refers to the big five, these days, the last of the NYC-based publishers. may also refer to the larger of the small presses, but it has the connotation of being the dinosaurs in the industry: big, nasty, and full of teeth. Also known as Legacy Publishing.

Small Press: publishing houses that operate in much the same way as traditional publishers, but are usually a bit more forward-thinking and author-friendly.

Micro-Press: publishers that may only handle one or two authors.

Independent Publishers: the new breed, authors that handle their own businesses, hiring outsiders for some of the work, but overseeing the whole process like a publisher.

Self-Publishing: Ironically, this is usually not the same as Indie Publishing, although they are often lumped together. Self-Publishing tends to be an author who hands over their work to a self-publishing company that promises to provide “author services” and the results tend to be less than professional. Of the self-publishing companies I have looked into, most are scams, preying on the eager and naive. Also known as Vanity Presses. Good resources for researching before you commit to working with a publishing services company are Preditors and Editors, and Writer Beware. Keep in mind that many self-publishing companies pop up like mushrooms, and are gone just as fast, so keep in mind the cardinal rule: money flows to the author.


There are many sorts of editing, and your story may need one, more, or all of them. But it’s important to know what the editing is, before you hire someone, and to make sure they know what it is they are doing, something not all freelance editors understand.

Copy-Editing: Editing for typographical errors, common spelling mistakes, and general grammar. May also be called proof-reading. This is the most superficial and cheapest type of editing.

Continuity Editor: this person is checking to make sure your story holds together, might be helping to align it with previous books in the series, and in general making sure you know what loose ends are there.

Structural Editor: the editor who can have the most influence on your story, and the hardest to find a good one. This person should be very familiar with the genre conventions, you as a writer, and work well with you. Hard to find, and worth their weight in gold.

Writer-Related Terms

Pantser: one who writes by the seat of their pants, rarely outlining in any detail, this writer sits and churns out the story after the characters deign to start telling it to them. The sub-species of this is the Extreme Pantser, who can’t get their characters to tell them anything in advance, and have to just write, to find out what’s going on in the story.

Outliner: this writer gets it easier, they can plan where the trip (story) is takign them, and build a road map before they start writing.

Plotter: this writer has to build a story from the inside out, creating a plot like bones to hang muscles, flesh, and finally skin, har, and features on, bring it to life in stages.

Cat-Rotator: this is the poor writer who, nto knowing what is coming next, attempts to rotate the cats and otherwise distract themselves from the uncanny silence in their heads. Usually this lasts until the Cat-Rotator is doing something important and unrelated to writing, whereupon the characters all start to talk loudly, and at once.


By which I mean length, mostly, although I’ll add whatever you suggest to this section. With the advent of ebooks, length conventions are changing… again. It used to be that a book of 40-60K words in length was a novel. Then, the goat-gagger came into being, and suddenly 250K-300K was acceptable, where once that would have been at least a trilogy. However, with an ebook you don’t have that wrist-bending heft of the mass to assess a book by, and once again, a novel has become about the story. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Then it is long enough.

Short Story: In general, anything from 1K-10K words. Can be longer. Shorter is called Flash Fiction.

Novella: Somewhere between 17K and 40K words. I think, unless they have moved the goal posts on me again. Which is the problem with defining story lengths, everyone defines it differently. If you are submitting somewhere, check to see what they call it, and what length they want. In the new era of ebooks, novellas are doing quite well, as long as they have a true end, not a cliffhanger and the message “buy another book to follow along!” If you plan to serialize a novel, make that clear, or you will tick off readers (why, yes, I was bitten by this, why do you ask? LOL)

Novellette: I’m not sure, and I’m not sure who uses this term. Moving right along…

Novel: the granddaddy of them all. Conventional publishing has the novel beginning at 80K words and up. However, again, this is shifting due to e-publishing. Also, a Young Adult or New Adult novel is expected to be shorter, from perhaps just over novella length on up (40K words plus). When I put The Eternity Symbiote in print, I was surprised to discover that it weighs in at a hefty 250 pages long, even though it is only 50K words printed. It feels like a traditional novel in the hand, but it falls within novella length, so I labeled it as that. I think we will see novel come back to 50K plus words, as more people transition to the majority of their reading in e-formats. As long as it satisfies, feels like a complete story, and has a good ending, they aren’t going to notice the word count.


My own milieu recently, I’ve found that many people don’t know what they want when it comes to having a book cover done. So here’s a couple of terms.

Cover Art: original, bespoke art to suit your book, and exclusive to it. This comes in many stages of quality, and price, but in general, it is much more expensive.

Cover Design: the fine art of making your cover look good, with type elements and art elements in the right places, and the proper signals being given off to let the reader know, at least subconciously, that they will like this book and it is a professional production.

Cover Layout: Arranging the text elements on a book cover, very similar to cover design, although usually the designer is also choosing art, which isn’t part of layout.

Full-Wrap Cover: the front, back, and spine of a book, suitable for printing. An ebook cover is generally just the front cover, NOT the spine as well.

And this got much longer than I thought it would when I started! Well, for those of you who read to the bottom and I didn’t put to sleep, please, let me know what should be added. Thanks!