Okay, I’ll admit it. I started November off with the best of intentions. I wasn’t going to officially do NaNoWriMo. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to write. I needed to finish the next book in the Honor & Duty series. Then there was the next Eerie Side of the Tracks series to work on. And the next fantasy novel. Well, you get the idea. Lots to work on and not time to start a new project. However, I wanted to hold myself accountable and pledged to do the 50k words, just not on a single project. Then came the end of last week and Myrtle the Evil Muse infected me with a new story, one she demanded needed my attention NOW! For once, however, she let me off with only 5k words (mainly plot notes) and a cover mock-up. Read more
Posts tagged ‘cover design’
Last week, I described my first foray into Fiverr in search of a cover. I admitted the process was both easier and more difficult than I expected. Easier because the process of finding someone and staying in contact with them during the creation process is seamless and, at least for me, quickly done. More difficult because a number of those you will come across may be good to awesome at what they do, but they don’t all know the technical requirements sites like Amazon place on covers. So you have to be up on that information and make sure they know what you need.
But, that post and a couple of conversations I’ve had since them pointed me to another issue authors have when it comes to covers. Now, I’m not going to try to tell you how to create a cover. I’m not a cover artist or designer. Been there, done that and know I don’t have the time or desire or money to get the programs I need (and learn them) to make the quality of covers I want for my books. What I am going to do is talk to you as a writer about covers and about what you need to pay attention to when looking for a cover artist. Read more
So last week we talked about book cover rules, and I briefly touched on fonts, among other things. I didn’t want to dive into any of the rules, since that post could easily have become a book (a short book, but still) and that’s not the point. Today, I’m going to dig into fonts, at least enough to get the interested started. A good font choice can make a book cover sing to the potential reader like a siren to the sailors. A bad font can repulse them like the sleaze in front of a dive bar. Since we want to seduce the reader and that process begins from their first glimpse of a book, we want to put some time and energy into selecting the right elements for the cover. Read more
I feel like I harp on this topic. Covers, cover art, cover design… if it’s ever too much, tell me. Here’s the thing, though. It’s not just that I’m an artist and designer and I enjoy the process of book creation. It’s that even though people will say they don’t care about a book cover, they actually do. They will totally judge your book by it’s cover. And your book cover signals a lot about your book, whether you are conscious of it, or not. Every little choice, from font to color focus, says something about the book. I think by now everyone reading this knows the cardinal rule of a book cover: cover art is a marketing tool, not a scene from the book. Sure, there are rare exceptions where a scene depiction works as cover art. But it’s not common, and besides that, the second rule of book cover design is: it absolutely must be legible at thumbnail sizes. Read more
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?’
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.
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.
I’ve written about this many times here at Mad Genius Club, but it’s a topic that gets asked about over and over. And it’s an important topic. The book cover is the first thing your readers see, and no matter how often they might insist that they don’t judge a book by it’s cover, they are judging silently in their heads.
Your cover sends subliminal messages, even when it’s the size of a postage stamp, and little things like font choice, age of model (hat tip to Dorothy Grant for pointing this out to me recently), and contrasting areas on the cover art can make a huge difference.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an author say… No, let me back up a little. Let’s talk about myths and mistakes.
Myth #1: The scene on the cover should be pulled straight from the pages of the book.
No, the cover should contain the distilled essence of the book in one powerful wallop. You know that cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words? yep, that one’s truth. Furthermore, if you choose one climactic, thrilling scene, you risk spoilering a whole story right there before they even start reading. I have to admit to having fallen for that one recently while working with a client. Both of us were very excited about the mental image his final scene provoked… but it would have meant the book was revealed on the cover. So that had to be set aside.
Myth #2: The cover art should be like no one has ever seen before.
Again, no. Just like most stories contain comforting tropes that allow authors to take shortcuts and pack a story into a hundred thousand words or so, avoiding explaining every last little assumption (unless it matters to the plot, you really don’t need to explain the innermost workings of your fundyminion drive and hyperquespace). Just like you can use some handwavium in the writing, you can use it on the cover, too. Genre covers change fashions like hemlines, and you’ll want to keep up with whether miniskirts are in this year, or ankle-length hoops instead. That being said, there’s a fine balance between following the herd, and finding a way to stand out (and standing out in a good way, not pink flamingo in a zebra herd, but pink zebra in the herd kind of way). If, say, you’re writing a romance the trope is heaving bosoms (male or female. Don’t ask me why male bosoms are a thing on book covers, because they are all shaved and oiled and frankly I prefer my men built like teddy bears in the chest hair department but you’ll never see that on a cover because evidently I’m weird or something). If you’re writing science fiction, it’s space ships or mechanized men in roboto suits.
Myth #3: The more detail the better! Gorgeous art you have to stare at until you’ve seen all the amazing points is the best!
No, no, no… so much nope. While this may have been true on print books (and I will admit to having picked up a few books just to stare at the art, but see above about hairy chests) it is certainly not true for the modern book marketplace, which is about 90% ebook. Ebook covers are usually viewed in thumbnail, maybe on a PC at about a tenth of the size they would be in print. On a phone? less than a postage stamp size. Now, when I’m building a cover, I format it to the size it would be on a trade paperback (6×9″, 300 dpi), but that’s file and image quality, not the size it’s going to be judged at. Ebook covers are all about contrast and one (usually one, there can be exceptions, but I’d say never more than three) focal element. Also, you need room for your title and author name, which brings me to my final myth…
Myth #4: I should be humble and make my name discreet on the cover.
Honey, this is no time to hide your light under a bushel. At BARE (bear… heh) minimum, you should be able to read your name when you’re looking at the cover shrunk down to a thumbnail. When I was first starting out fumbling my way through making covers, I took Dean Wesley Smith’s workshop on cover design, and that’s one of the major points he makes (I highly recommend that workshop if he’s teaching it, BTW). Make the author’s name bigger. Bigger than that. Put the name up in lights – you might not be a celebrity yet, but the readers don’t know that. Make it loud and proud and legible.
Mistake #1: Font Choice
I have seen so many bad fonts on covers. heck, I’ve *used* bad fonts on covers, although admittedly with Pixie Noir I was at least doing it on purpose modelling after the old pulp noir covers. Rule of thumb is to never use a font for a title that you would use in the book for the body of text. Fonts can subtly signal so much, take the time to look for one that says what you want it to say. And if you’re not a font geek, use the categories at dafont.com or 1001 Fonts to help you sort. But then, look at the title in thumbnail. Is it still readable? Is it readable quickly? Ask a friend (or two or three) to look at it. Can they read it? Ornate fonts can look terrific – if they are ten feet tall on a billboard. They shouldn’t be on a book cover. Readers are not going to sit there and puzzle it out. Now, you do have the benefit of a book description right next to the cover most times – but not always. Design the cover to be able to stand on it’s own two feet.
Mistake #2: Too much text
You do need more than just your title and author name. Not a lot more, though. The bare minimum would be (located near title) a series identifier: e.g. Book One of the Souldark Saga. Located near the author name, if you have other work, would be ‘author of Firstbook’
Where I have seen covers run off the deep end and into trouble is with subtitles, book blurbs (clue: they don’t go on the front cover on ANY book version), and pull quotes. Pull quote, singular, is about all I want to see on a cover that is well-laid out and here’s were we break the thumbnail rule: it should NOT be readable in thumbnail. What you’re looking for is the overall appearance of a modern print novel cover, and most (but not all) have pull quotes which are too small to read in thumbnail, but you can see there is text there. And if you have a print edition, it will be readable there. Really, this is a part you can skip, a lot of people do these days. I like it. I don’t use them on shorter works than a novel, though. It’s too much, and that’s not a story that will be appearing in print, unless it’s an anthology and then you do want a pull quote, probably from the foreword you talked someone into writing for you. Now that we’ve wandered far into the weeds, let’s find our way out again…
Mistake #3: Not being a Professional
Ok, this one isn’t necessarily a mistake. It’s more a life choice when it comes to presenting your writing. If you want to be merely an amateur with your writing, go right ahead and use that painting your five year-old made for you on the cover. But if you want to create a powerful marketing tool that evokes an emotional reaction from a potential reader, draws them in to read the blurb (and then to read the whole book) then you need to have a professional looking cover. You can do it yourself, you can buy one, you can commission one – costs range from free, to a couple of hundred dollars, to thousands. No matter which path you choose, consider your return on investment, and realize that a properly packaged product sells far better than one which is presented shoddily wrapped. Consumer products brand design is wrongly predicated on the notion that shoppers make rational, informed decisions. In truth, most are purely instinctive and reactive. Eye-tracking studies show that consumers read on average only seven words in an entire shopping trip, buying instinctively by color, shape and familiarity of location. Best sellers succeed by appealing to the reptilian brain, which decides before logic has a chance.
I’d get into branding, but I think that this post is already long enough. So, I’ll check in on the comments, and I’m happy to critique those who are brave enough to present their cover concepts here and want help with them. Commentors, remember, be gentle! This may be their first time…
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…
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 be – and in most cases shouldn’t be – a scene from the book. Yes, it might be highly
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.