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Friday, October 7, 2011

About Covers

There are times when I think I should give up writing and design book covers. It drives me nuts when I see clumsy layouts or poorly rendered art.

For those of you new to my blog, I used to be an art director--and before that a graphic artist. But until I did my first cover, I had no idea what was involved since my experience had been solely with advertising layouts. It turns out, it's very much the same thing. Once you've found a good art database, the rest is just a matter of Photoshop expertise.

But this is where a lot of people get into trouble. There is so much more to a good cover than just merging a couple of photos. There's typography, layout, and legibility. The cover has to look good at 6 x 9 as it does at postage stamp size.

This week, I've seen no less than three covers that would not have passed inspection if they had crossed my desk. One was from a major publisher, the second from an electronic publisher, and the third from a self-publisher.

I give no slack to big publishers. None. I expect them to hire the best of the best.

Electronic publishers get a little leeway. Because they produce so many books, they're on a tight deadline. There's no time to make every cover unique. Plus, they're probably working with a 'house' look. I'm willing to settle for formulaic as long as the layout is executed professionally.

When it comes to self-published work, you see a wide range of caliber. I've seen some phenomenal work, some better than the pros. But there are also plenty of shoddy covers--the kind that make me feel the author got taken for a ride. On the same token, the author has to take responsibility for his decision in choosing the artist (or doing the art himself).

A bad cover won't destroy your credibility as an author, but neither will it help. Be honest with yourself. Get outside opinions from people whose aesthetic opinion you respect.

If you're going to hire an artist:

• Examine their portfolio carefully. Better yet, show that portfolio to someone with no vested interest in your work. Do they get the same giddy feeling?

• Do the covers look similar? Most e-press covers are remarkably generic. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but since this is your money we're talking about, steer toward an artist whose covers look custom-made for the book.

• The artist's skill level is hard to gauge without the benefit of experience. I can tell at a glance if the artist missed something or did a sloppy job merging the art. You're paying for expertise. Get your money's worth.

Please do not give the artist an inventory of items to put on your cover. If you crowd the cover, you lose the message. Less is more--most of the time. There was one series that deliberately used a crowded cover, but it was very well done. And considering the theme and genre, it worked.

I hate to see people get taken--or worse, fall in love with an ugly 'baby' because it was designed for them. Cover art can be expensive. If you're paying for it, demand quality.

Collecting great cover art has turned into a hobby for me. I'm always on the lookout for the next awesome cover. Are there any covers you've especially liked?

PS  If you have any questions about cover art or choosing an artist, feel free to leave them in the comments. I'll help if I can.

36 comments:

Mac said...

Okay...I've been stressing and obsessing on my covers all week, so your posting is timely. I've dropped one artist who...I won't go into it. But I'm looking for another for my fantasy series.

But, I like my simplish covers I've come up with myself. Would love to hear what you would think. I can't paste them here, darn it...but thumbnails are over on my blog (http://rmacwheeler.blogspot.com/)

--Mac

Jennifer Shirk said...

That's good to know, Maria!

Yeah, if a cover looks cheesy, I won't try the book.

Darke Conteur said...

*is all freaked out about her cover now*

I think with self-publishing, it's more of a money thing. Maybe the author in question only has enough money to pay for good formatting?

Maria Zannini said...

Mac: I'll take a look in a few minutes.

Jennifer: I'm afraid I'm in the same boat. I know it's wrong to judge a book by its cover, but we all do it to some extent.

Darke: Don't sweat it. If I remember correctly, you opted for symbolic imagery. It was simple and clean--always a good sign.

LD Masterson said...

Well, it's not posted on your front page anymore but one of my favorite covers is Touch of Fire.

Claudia Del Balso said...

Great post, Maria!
You're so right. I know it's cliche but the adage "don't judge a book by its cover" not always works. I am very visual so I'm attracted to the cover and the TITLE (very important!). Yes, some covers don't do justice to the wonderful work inside. Covers, titles, and MS go hand-in-hand. And I agree with you, writers should be involved in the whole process of book publishing from beginning to end. Thank you for this great advice.

Isis Rushdan said...

Maria, covers are so important. I've purchased books based on the cover (bad me) and I've put a book down always based on the cover. I wish publishers would take more time with this. It's just too important. The worst is seeing the virtually the same cover twice, only with different titles.

Maria Zannini said...

Linda: There's an interesting story behind Touch Of Fire. I didn't like the male model--or that Leda was completely nekkid at first, but the artist was so gracious about my suggestions. When she learned I was an artist too, we talked shop and she consented to finding me another male model and put more shadow around Leda. Samhain will not allow author intervention anymore, so I was really lucky the artist was willing to work with me. I sent her a thank you gift afterward for all her patience.

PS Touch Of Fire is still on the front page--just at the bottom.

***
Claudia: It never hurts to ask questions so that you at least understand what's going on in the background.

Maria Zannini said...

Isis: Sadly, most art is up for public consumption as long as you pay the rights fee. So it's not unusual to see the same model used. Can't be helped. Unless you hire someone to paint (or photograph) an original cover, you're at the will of the gods.

raelynbarclay said...

I'm far from needing a cover artist but trust me, I'll be picking your brains when I do :)

I try not to let a book's cover influence me, yay or nay, but I'm sure it does more than I realize. All your points are spot on.

Great post Maria!

K.T. Hanna said...

Your covers are gorgeous.

I have to agree though - I've seen a lot of covers that make me cringe, and I don't have an artistic bone in my body (for visual arts anyway).

Thank you for offering to help those who're uncertain about how to go about making sure they don't get ripped off.

Angelina Rain said...

I've been thinking of getting into cover design too. I took a graphics design class in high school and I was the top of my class, and I loved it. The only problem is I can't find stock images that are cheap enough for my liking. I know Dreamstime has some free images but it's not a great selection.


Evernight Publisher has a really awesome cover artist. I fall in love with all of her covers. Evernight's covers always win cover contests and everything. The artists is amazing. Not all publishers have that.

Maria Zannini said...

Raelyn: Pick away. Look at me as the bird seed of art ideas. :)

KT: Thanks. I can only take credit for the last two.

Angelina: Stock art is getting more expensive too. The place I was using went up in price this last time. I'm afraid you have to look at it as an investment. When building a portfolio, give yourself a budget of so many dollars and hunt the databases with that in mind. With any luck, you'll get that money back in clients.

Mike Keyton said...

Maria, I'm a sucker for period covers, however aesthetically...challenging.
Check out this link. If you click on covers they lead on to other covers.
http://www.petercheyney.co.uk/Cheyney%20Site/books.html#Anchor-47857

Marguerite Butler said...

A timely post since I just got cover art today. The right cover art will make me stop and read an excerpt. Shallow of me, but there you go. :D Bad photoshop where it looks like someone's arm is growing out of their neck or strange images juxtaposed in unnatural ways will make me cruise on by. If the cover looks amaturish, it makes me wonder if the book is as well. I think that's just human nature.

Tracy Jo said...

Hi Maria, I am new to your blog & happy to have found you. Great information here. Thank you!

L.G.Smith said...

I'm with you. I'm not a graphic artist, but I notice when a cover isn't up to standards. And I know it can cause a book not to sell. I know because I'm shallow enough that I won't buy a book if the cover looks stupid (unless someone has recommended it to me). I think subconsciously I assume the story will be bad too.

Heather said...

I'm not at the cover art stage yet, but when I am - I might hire you! :) I'm one of those idiots that would try to put something together myself (if self-publishing) and I'd have no clue what to look for if I had a publisher! Thanks for the amazing tips. Super helpful!

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: Cool link. How do you manage to write so much with all the neat sites you know?

Marguerite: And now I'm wondering when the rest of us will get to see your new art. Post soon!

Tracy Jo: Welcome! I've added your blog to my reader.

LG: I think it's only human nature. I depend on the more adventurous to recommend bad-cover books to me.

Heather: I'm all for authors to create their own covers first if only to get a feel for the process.

Margo Benson said...

I think most of us admit to being influenced to some degree by a cover. Not just for ourselves but that teeny bit of snobbery when we think others may see. I love your covers and would definately take some advice from you if the day comes when I'm ready for one!

Cate Masters said...

I'm always disheartened when I see the images used on one of my covers on another author's cover (and sometimes more creatively).
I like striking covers that tease the imagination and make me want to read to find out more. Not too much to ask, is it? :)

Angela Brown said...

When it comes to books, that tends to be the only time I can be somewhat shallow (shame, shame, I know). But when I see a cover that is done very poorly, I get a little concerned that either the author or the publisher didn't amp up the understanding that covers can matter.

Though the saying is "Don't judge a book by it's cover", it still happens, especially to books.

Maria Zannini said...

Margo: Advice is always free around here. :)

Cate: I hate seeing my art elsewhere too, but dems da breaks. All I can hope is that my cover is better.

Angela: We are at heart visual people--except maybe for the artist who did the bad cover. LOL.

Shelley Munro said...

I have to admit that I'm guilty of judging a book by it's cover too. Some covers make me blink because they are really bad, yet I know from experience that sometimes the author doesn't have a say. I've cringed at a couple of my covers...

Jenny Schwartz said...

*declares graphic ignorance upfront*

But I'm really curious about why so many covers include people. I saw a cover a while back that just had a landscape -- appropriate to the romance novel involved -- and for me as a reader, that really worked. Now I can't remember the book/author...drat my weekend memory failures! :)

Maria Zannini said...

Shelley: I know. It's heart-breaking when you get a bad cover from a publisher. More so because you get no say in the outcome.

Jennifer: Ref: people on covers.

Ooh, I know the answer to this. Psychologically, we are more amenable to images with people on them. That's why most advertising uses people. It makes the product relatable and reassuring.

But I think too, we can be over-saturated with the same kind of imagery--especially in romance novels.

I don't know about anyone else, but I am REALLY tired of tattooed models. It was neat in the beginning, but now it's everywhere. It's lost its appeal.

Jenny Schwartz said...

So that's why there's people. Hmm. Kind of like why we're meant to have our photos as avatars on Twitter and stuff? Seeinga person engages our emotional response?

Maria Zannini said...

Jenny: Exactly. We humanize ourselves and become more accessible to our reading public. That's why it's better to use an author photo rather than a book cover.

It's also important to keep it consistent. Use the same image everywhere. It reenforces your brand.

PS Sorry for being so formal earlier and calling you Jennifer. LOL.

Jenny Schwartz said...

It took me over a year to accept that I did have to have my photo up on the Net, on twitter, FB, etc. Hate photos...

on the name thing...I thought you were the tax man! So seldom called Jennifer :)

Maria Zannini said...

Jenny: :-) Sorry. There are a couple of Jennys/Jennifers that stop by and I had a momentary oldtimer's lapse.

I don't like my photos either. The one I use is my favorite only because it has me with my dog. It's dated, but I don't care. It tells the viewer all they need to know about me.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

LOL OMG, i was JUST talking to my sister about this. I saw a particularly hideous small pub book cover the other day and we had a long conversation about it. And then we were talking about you and how great your covers are

Maria Zannini said...

Sarah: LOL. Thanks! I'm also available for Bar Mitzvahs and piƱata parties.

Mel Corbett said...

Hi Maria, thanks for this. I've been thinking a lot about covers and such lately.

I'm not so far along that I really need to be obsessing about my covers yet, but I'll probably be making my own (I do have an artistic bent), but I don't have any graphic design experience, so I'm trying to learn what I can before I get that far.

Anyway thank you for getting me thinking.

Maria Zannini said...

Mel: Now is the time to start sorting your ideas. Believe me, as the book gets closer to getting completed, your time will be swallowed up by a million other things. Playing with images is like trying on clothes at the store. You keep trying things out until something clicks.

Dru said...

Good points for book covers. If a book cover doesn't please me, it will not draw me to the pages.

Maria Zannini said...

Dru: It's readers who don't write books whose opinions I value in situations like this. You are the voice of the masses.