Book covers – part II

I promised to talk a bit today about what makes a good book cover. Please note that this is completely subjective and my point of view only. I tried to gather some rules about good design in general, but most of the advice is explicit to books. If you’re bored already then move on – if not, here’s my two cents.

Anyone who knows me knows that I only work in two ways – the switch is either on or off. I’m not very good at middle ground. I have a tendency to go the whole hog so to speak and this was like 150% true with sorting out the design of the Watcher cover.

To start off with, I made the rookie mistake of thinking I could do it myself. I have pretty competent Photoshop skills for a non-trained artist and frankly, I didn’t want to blow my budget just on the cover. I had taken some great pics of some seriously ancient gargoyles at a ruined estate in the Midlands when I was last in England visitng family and I really like the texture and the look of them. One in particular suited my needs and given that I had a whole host of them I thought to myself, “Perfect. One for each cover, slap on some color, pick a font. Wha hey! I’m done.”

one of those gargoyle images

Well, that way of thinking lasted for probably the first 3 eight hour days of working in Photoshop. I cropped, adjusted, exposed, cloned, contrasted . . . you name it, I probably did it all in Photoshop. The thing was the more I messed with it, the more I didn’t like it. I even got an old artist friend to look at it and have a go. No matter what we did, it just didn’t work for me.

It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t qualified to do my own cover because my skills would never meet my expectation. That’s not a good realization, trust me, but it was a necessary. After a solid week of friggin’ around with several of the photos, I gave up and decided to find an artist.

My qualifications for another artist were this:

 

 

  • Had to be a better artist than me (you laugh but take a look at some sites toting themselves as cover artists)
  • They had to be within my modest budget
  • I really wanted a SCAD alumus or current student (read the book and you’ll know why)

So I scrounged around the web until I found the contacts at SCAD who I thought would be most likely to help me. I was lucky that I go a hold of a very nice chair or dean of a certain department who was happy to talk to me. He pointed me towards a student who had graduated and was doing some freelance comic work. His portfolio was awesome (think Dave McKean) and I was super excited. The professor didn’t go as far as give me his email address, but that didn’t deter me. I had the artist’s name and a quick Google search led me to one of his sites. So I dropped him a super excited email about how I was looking for an artist and I loved his work and did he want to do some work-for-hire? I waited patiently for his email and kudos to him, he sent me a response in a couple of hours. He said he’d love to do the work, but that he had an upcoming contract with a comic to do some work that would miss the deadline I had outlined in my previous email. Relieved that he hadn’t blown me off and thinking he was sincere, I wrote back and said that it wasn’t a problem for me to push back the timeline in order to secure him for the work. I really wanted to make this thing happen . . . he never emailed me back.

Well, I was pretty pissed I can’t deny. I’m a pretty straight up kind of person. I had placed an ad with SCAD and had gotten some students’ work which was utterly wrong for what I wanted so I knew how to say, “Sorry. Thanks, but no thanks.” I was irritated that he just didn’t come out and say I was too small fry for him. *Frankly, I secretly hope Watcher will blow the world apart so I can be snarky back at him some day, but hey, that’s petty, right?

Anyhow it was through a series of happy accidents that I ended up with Anthony. I had seen his portfolio on SCAD’s employment site and really liked some of his band poster work that was somewhere between steampunk, ephemera, antiquey, collagey . . . well, you know what I mean. He would probably laugh at this (I hope), but I cyberstalked him a bit before I actually contacted him. I wanted to find out everything I could before contacting him because I didn’t want to waste my time on a candidate who wasn’t up to speck. I got to see more of his work, checked out where he was working, and was pleasantly surprised that he lived in my state. Even better.

I contacted him and the rest is history, really.

I wanted that to be short, but I do have a tendency to waffle on. Sorry. Habits of a writer and all that.

Back to the matter at hand, ahem, good cover design.

Know what you want. Have a look around. Find other work you like and be prepared to send it to your artist and when in doubt, follow these rules –

5 Rules for Great cover Design

1) Less is More

Never was a truer word spoken and this is when K.I.S.S. really comes into play. It may seem ironic coming from someone who wanted a cover by Dave McKean, but a simple straightforward cover will always be better than a crowded, chaotic scene that makes your reader’s eyes dart around all over the place. Keep it simple, keep it clean. There’s a reason why single word titles and images are popular these days. It’s easier for the reader to remember your cover and look for it again when they go home to purchase it from amazon. Or if you’re ebook only then your book will stand out more when it’s this itty bitty tiny thumbnail and your competing with a whole bunch of said thumbnails.

2) Fonts count

I really could write a whole book on fonts. I’m obsessed with them like you wouldn’t believe. Typography is a secret passion of mine so I’ll try not to let it cloud my judgment here, but this is the gist. Please don’t over do it. You might love that crazy font that you’ve been dying to use, but that doesn’t mean your book is the place to try it out. Again, the K.I.S.S. rule applies – you want this thing to be legible whether it’s poster size or the size of a iPod shuffle. Using that very obnoxious circus font probably isn’t a good idea.

And if you’re stumped for a font, you can always use dafont. I love that place. The Birmingham font for Watcher came from there, of course.

3) Clipart is free for a reason

Seriously. Invest in some good stock photos. Istockphoto.com is decently priced and if you can’t find an image there you don’t like, well, you’re fussier than me!

4) Rainbows only look good next to Unicorns

If it looks like Rainbow Brite threw up on your book cover, you’re in trouble. Keep your pallet simple and clean. Try using the color wheel, the color picker in Photoshop, a pantone book, or even paint sample cards, but don’t go “GaGa” crazy on your cover. Pick one stand out color, then one neutral color that blends nicely with your stand out color and either black or white. That’s it. If you’ve got some shades in between then fine, but super rainbows of color are for kids toys or boxes of cereal.

5) Who are you again?

Your title should be the most prominent thing on your cover even more so than whatever imagery you’re using. You want people to remember the title and pass it on to their friends if they really liked it. That makes sense, right? I agree, it does, but I’m also an advocate for tooting your own horn when you can. After all, indie writers don’t have a publicist or PR guru behind them. We are simple folk trying to make a wage doing what we love. Let’s face it, this article is for the indie author because what publisher let’s their writers have this much say in a cover design? (it’s a rhetorical question)

My point is this, make sure your name is large and prominent on your cover. Don’t hide it in a corner, don’t obscure it with some wacky background graphics. Say it loud, say it proud. Not obnoxiously so, but you get my drift. When you shrink that cover down to thumbnail size, can you still make out your name, even just so? Good. That’s what you want. It’s in your best interest to self-promote and what better way than on the front of your book.

So that’s it. That’s my final thoughts on covers for now. Watcher is now finalized and I’m onto ebook conversions. Wish me luck.

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.)

Beta Readers

This week I sent my book to my first set of readers. Fondly called my beta readers (spent way too much time working in software), they are the gift bearers, the soothsayers, and the God-makers. Well, not exactly, but their presence in my life right now is ginormous.

Writing a book is like a 12 step program. I’ve been through the denial/writing, anger/editing, and now with my beta readers, I’ve hit another emotional high that I hadn’t expected right away – anxiety.

Yep.

It’s surprising how much anxiety you feel when you get to the point where you’re actually ready for someone to read your book. I mean you know you’re going to have some giddy anticipation mixed with a wee bit of apprehension, but I am surprised about how much I care about what they think.

“Ho, ho,” you might say. “You’re in for a doozey when the general public reads it and then gives you two stars for it on Amazon and then you’re trying to figure out if cyber-stalking M. Jones from Phoenix, Arizona – who gave you the two starts in the first place – is illegal.”

Yeah, I know, but somehow it’s easier to be dismissive of those people (someone’s going to take that the wrong way, I just know it – ed.) I think it’s harder to shrug off the criticism when it’s people you know and care about. I guess in some ways, they will be my strongest critics because they know me. Really understand who I am. Yet, somehow it doesn’t make it feel any better . . .

But it has to be done. You can’t live in a closet with your work. I mean you can, but where does it get you? We write for reasons. Each one is different. To be heard. To be validated. To expunge the demons. And the list goes on and on. Maybe part of that therapeutic process is the criticism. Maybe it’s what is required for the writing to feel whole, complete.

I dunno. All I do know is that it’s nerve-wracking waiting for my first feedback.

Here’s to counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds.

Editing is a bitch

Wow. Little did I know, huh?

I guess that’s the thing about writing your first book – you have no experience in which to base a solid, reasonable expectation. I was definitely deluded in thinking that once it was written, I was done, like “Ta da! Here it is world!”

Um no. Not like that at all.

I didn’t really gather my first clue until I got on the phone with Meredith Cole. Meredith, a published author, was also my writing teacher. I was about halfway through my book when I joined her class and so when I finally finished sometime after the class ended, I thought I’d get back in touch with her to let her know that her time wasn’t completely wasted on me.

Plus, I really wanted her to hook me up with a professional editor so I could get this puppy out the door for query.

Yeah, as if. Like it could be that simple. After an hour and a half phone conversation I realized very quickly how ill-prepared I was for querying. I mean I wasn’t even close.

The conversation went like this –

Shawnee: Hey Meredith. I finished. (Yay me!)
Meredith: Congratulations.
Shawnee: Yeah so anyhow, I need to find a professional editor.
Meredith: Have you gotten anyone to read it yet?
Shawnee: Um, no. So anyhow, this professional editor . . .
Meredith (in the voice of Obi Wan): Patience.

And then Meredith spent the next hour enlightening me on the finer points of editing and what I needed to do. Yes, it was great that I had already done two revisions but a 124,000 words was alot even for my sci fi/fantasy genre and that I needed to shave 10,000-20,000 words off. Oh and I definitely needed to have at least three other people read it and then get them to answers questions and then edit again. Oh yeah, what about the synopsis, all that formatting, and the rest of the hoopla? Had I started that yet?

Um, no. So anyhow on that editor business . . .

Yeah, not there yet. That’s the upshot. Like the Karate Kid, I’m still waxing on and waxing off. I’ve got a while before I get to the crane pose.

I completed the book

On Thursday, June 23rd @ 3:23PM, I finished my manuscript.

Congratulations to me. I got there in the end – all that aggro was for nothing.

photo credit : zyork