The Art of Book Covers

It’s true. I have been incommunicado.

I could come up with a million excuses,  all of them plausible like the holy trinity of holidays (Halloween, Thanskgiving, and Christmas) or major vet visits or any combination of house projects which there have been many.

But that’s not it.

The unfortunate truth is that I have been stuck in editing mode *again*. I would wax poetic about the tiny minutiae of the several different shades of Hell I’ve had to travel through on my journey for perfection, but that isn’t what this blog post is about.

Nope. I wanna talk book covers.

I have spent a lot of time and I mean ALOT of time on this subject. (ed. – FYI, I actually do know quite a bit about graphic design and photoshop having had a career in new media and videogames.) Even with my background, it was hard going. I have no idea how the novice out there is suppose to get through it, but I thought it’d be worth offering up some advice by using my experience of getting the Watcher cover done. You don’t have to listen to me, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Shawnee’s 5 Rules for Starting Your Cover

1) Don’t do your own cover unless you are a professional graphic designer.

I’m deadly serious about this one. Just don’t. Don’t do it. If you’re serious about your work and I’m assuming you are then don’t tarnish your budding brand by having a great story but a crap cover. I can’t emphasize this enough. Remember that whole “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Well guess what? It’s completely true and everybody does it so why would you spend say a year of your life writing a fantastic book only to scrimp on a DIY cover that’s horrible?

Nowadays, you can find a reputable cover designer for as little as a few hundred dollars. There are tons of them out there. Even better, find an art student whose work you admire and get in touch. SCAD, RISD, The Art Institutes . . . there are “starving” artists everywhere and you should be able to find one at there that suits your needs. (ed. – I found Anthony via SCAD’s employment site. It was important for me to have a SCAD alumni because of Watcher’s Tybee setting, but that aside, SCAD has got some freakin’ awesome and supremely talented artists.)

2) Make sure you have a contract with your artist.

It’s not being paranoid, it’s called business. As much as we want to be the artistic creative type, at the end of the day, your writing is your business. You need to treat it like one. That means having some sort of written agreement in place outlining what rights you have with regards to the image being created, who retains the IP, what happens in case of dispute, etc. The more clear your agreement is the better. Trust me, it will save you lots of headaches later.

To own IP or not,  that is the question. IP is intellectual property rights or ownership of the image that appears as your book cover. Some writers are willing to forgo IP so that they can get a better price with their artist. I am not an advocate of this thinking. It’s short sighted. If your book is successful and you want to branch out into other avenues you may not have the rights to do so. Ideally, you would have a work-for-hire contract in place – you are paying your artist for the creation of a final product, which you will own. Do a search for freelance contracts and look over some examples. There are many free templates online if you scrounge around. There’s no need to pay for one.

3) Know what you want BEFORE you talk to your artist.

Sounds simple, right? Wrong. I knew what I wanted before finding Anthony. I wanted Dave McKean’s work on a light background, but I couldn’t afford him. I loved that collage-ephemera-fontastic look. I knew that for my budget that sort of style would be out of the question and so I had to scale back. I thought about going for a corroded industrial ethereal look (goth roots, what can I say), but when I started to look around in the space that Watcher would inevitably be pigeonholed, that whole ethereal thing had been done to death. If I saw one more bird wing or Angel statuary I was going to scream. It was a bummer. So I had to go back to the drawing board. What I originally wanted just didn’t work anymore especially in a space where I needed to stand out. Which brings me to my next point . . .

4) Make your cover count. Create a brand.

The “hand with the apple” may have nothing to do with the content of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, but everyone the world over associates that image with that book. In fact, whoever came up with the stylistic theme for those books should be minted by now because you can not miss that brand from across the crowded room of a Barnes and Noble. Those covers are as much part of the Twilight brand as Edward Cullen. They’re genius even if you don’t like Twilight.

There are other authors (and their publishers) trying to take a page out of the Twilight book. Check out Maggie Stiefvater with the Shiver series. Her publisher even went as far as to color match the inks if you can believe it. Another favorite for me is the Garth Nix Abhorsen series. Strong branding. Distinct styling. Clever and successful.

The point being that your cover should be an extension of you as the brand, as well as, the book. It doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the book as long as it’s consistently good and helps define who you are as a writer to your core audience.

5) Make your life easier – become your own technical guru

It’s a fact in today’s indie author market – you need to be tech savy. You don’t need to know how to mock up an html page, or even own a copy of Photoshop. Don’t get me wrong, these things absolutely help. If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty then there is no better way to learn than to try. But that’s not my point. You don’t need to know how to physically do these things, but you definitely need to know how these things work. Research, read, play, do whatever it takes. Some of you will moan at me that you barely have time to write so when are you going to have time to actually get to grips with something like a design package or an html editor.

How about this for a scary fact: The average American spends 21-35 hours a week watching television.

There is time. Make it happen. The more you know about managing your “business” the better off you are. Buy a beginner’s book on Photoshop or vector images. Take an HTML class. Whatever it takes so that you can easily converse with the people that will have a major impact on how your book is portrayed to the masses. It’s worth the time and effort.

So there you go.

(ed. – Tomorrow I will try to put up the top rules of good cover design based upon what I learned from working on the Watcher cover with Anthony.)

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