Thursday, December 20, 2018

5 Tips to Improve Your Next Novel Cover

By J. Kathleen Cheney, @jkcheney

Part of the Indie Authors Series

One of the things I’ve been working on recently is getting my cover-making work started up. I’ve been making covers for myself since 2011, but only recently started looking at it as a sideline, and thus have been honing my Photoshop skills and trying to practice every day. Not unexpectedly, this has been an eye-opening experience for me, not only as to the limits of the PS program, but also how the parameters I’m given make the possibilities for covers better or worse.

So my cover artist self has some tips to pass on to my writer self that will help make my next cover better.

Tip #1: Short words are better for titles

I have run up against this more than once in my writing career. My first novel purchased by Ace/Roc was named Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy. It wasn’t too long, however, before they told me they wanted to change that name. It eventually became The Golden City. I’m not overly finicky about titles, so I didn’t mind too much.Although it was never specifically said, I suspect one of the reasons they changed it was that the word Ambergris has nine letters.

If I’m taking a cover and putting a long word across the front of it, that means the word has to appear in a smaller font (or be broken up, as in the cover of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.) The smaller we make a word, the harder it becomes to read, such as in the two covers above. Long words lose some of their effect, particularly when we look at a cover in thumbnail size. The SEA cover would still be legible at that size. The SERENDIPITY one? Not so much.

I recently put out a book called The Truth Undiscovered and wanted to beat myself for choosing that title. Unfortunately, I’d been using that title for almost three years with my Patreon group, so… I’m stuck with it. (And it’s from an Isaac Newton quote, so I don’t feel that changing out the long word would be appropriate.)

My solution was to put the long word in a different font, smaller and cleaner so it would be readable at thumbnail size. So there are workarounds, but I suggest avoiding the long words altogether if possible.

Tip #2: Remember that even book covers have fashion trends

If you pick up almost any book from the 80s, the cover probably looks dated. In fact, most people can pick up a book and take a stab at guessing its decade of origin. This is the primary reason that book covers with multiple printings come out with new covers periodically.

I was working on a cover recently, and one of the authors who looked at it said, “But you need to put in shadows behind the words.” Unfortunately, drop shadows are out of fashion at the moment for certain genres.

A few years back, a very skilled cover artist told me they were hoping to get some of their authors to switch over to flat lettering on the covers—letters with no shadows and no glow behind them to give them a 3D effect. Presciently, it seems, because that’s now common for Science Fiction and Thrillers. If you have a clear drop shadow on the cover of one of those, it might look a bit dated.

So the cover idea you have in your head might be dated. If your cover artist suggests something else, try to keep an open mind.

Tip #3: That image you have in mind for your character might not be available, so be flexible

For some writers, this is a very difficult hurdle to jump. You’ve been writing for a year or so with this character, and you likely have a clear picture of them in your head. When you go to your cover artist with that description, they may come up with suggestions for the character that you don’t like.

Traditional publishers have a long history of putting out covers that don’t match the characters inside. I’ve had a character who can loosely be described as Indo-Persian depicted in an illustration as a blonde European girl. This is one area where the indie author has a real advantage—more say in what comes up on the cover!

So why not just use that image you clipped out of a catalog, a pic of your favorite celebrity, or something you found on the internet? That’s free, right?

Nope. The vast majority of images out there are copyrighted and therefore cannot be used without specific permissions. In addition, the model has to have signed a release for commercial use (which is why you can’t use that photo of Orlando Bloom you took yourself.) What an artist can purchase and use for a cover is pretty restricted. The artist can purchase stock photos (which can run anywhere from free—not too common—to hundreds of dollars.) And if you’re having an illustration made or a photo session done to get it perfect, prepare for that to be on the higher end of the scale.

Costume is also a problem, as you’re unlikely to get something perfect out of a stock photo. However, I will point out to Author Me that we can work around that problem.

I loved the covers of my Golden City books. I had almost no input, but the Cover Gods smiled on me and the publisher did fantastic work on these. Even so, the costumes weren’t in the books. In the first book, Oriana is a paid companion…there is no way she’d be wearing that impressive jewel-draped creation. In fact, neither of those costumes were in my books.

But they were by the time the books went to print.

I deliberately wrote that black dress into the second book and changed out some wording to make that teal suit show up in the pages as well. Until the book has gone to print, words are flexible and can be changed.

In fact, I’ve even changed characters’ hair color and eye color before to match a good cover. Irina in The Sparrow in Hiding was originally a blonde, but I loved the stock photo used for this cover SO much that I just went back and changed her appearance instead.

Tip #4: Be willing to go a totally different direction

When I was starting off working on a series or covers for The Horn, I had a strong idea in my head what I wanted. I had already selected some stock photos for Kate to work with, and after an initial work period, she came back to me with a handful of mockups. A few were more abstract, but one was exactly what I had asked for on the cover.

And it didn’t look great.

I wanted to have the building that I’d mentally been using for Horn Keep in the background, and it was available as a stock photo, but… when she put it together as I’d suggested, it looked a bit junky. (See image below, on left). In fact, I messed around myself with some other photographs of the same building, and simply couldn’t come up with an arrangement that looked clean.

But she suggested I try those arches instead.

I had never thought of trying to represent the inside of the Keep, but it worked out much better—simpler, cleaner, and not as much distraction from the title and the main character shown. Now, that was not what the inside of my Keep looked like, but I could change that (see #3 above). And I’ve been really happy with these covers, even if they’re not what I had planned in the beginning.

Tip #4: You can’t copy someone else’s cover

Not only do cover artists have to assure that they have the appropriate license to work with the images, graphics, and fonts chosen for any cover, they also have to consider the ownership of the design. They can go for a similar look, but they need to keep their new cover design far enough away from the original that there’s no question of infringement. (No one wants a lawsuit over their cover!)

Therefore, when you go to your artist with a handful of covers you like, don’t expect them to copy the design or fonts exactly.

Here’s an example I can give. To the left side, we have the cover done by Ace/Roc for Dreaming Death. In the covers for the remainder of the series, designer Kate Marshall included elements that are similar—the hands, the city, and the design in the background—but she changed it up so that now there’s no question of infringement on the original cover.

Now there is an exception—when you have been specifically been given permission. In the above strip, the three covers on the right were designed by Kate, but I made that second cover. I asked her permission to use her design (because it’s a related collection of short stories), and she was kind enough to agree. So in that case—where I have written permission—I used the same mandala, the same font and placement, and similar buildings. The only thing that’s missing is the hands (because the two characters in question never meet in these short stories.)

Overall, the acquisition of a cover is a fraught business. It’s difficult to find covers that live up to your dreams, but if you’re willing to flex a bit, you can find ones that sell your books, and that’s what we’re all here for.

And if you’re getting ready to work with a cover artist, you might pop over and read these articles:

J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). Dreaming Death (Feb 2016) is the first in a new world, with the books of The Horn coming out in 2017, and the sequels to Dreaming Death in 2018/2019

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A prequel to The Golden City…

Before she arrived in the Golden City, the infante’s aunt—known only as The Lady—sought out a group of specialists from among the most powerful witches in the world.

Inspector Miguel Gaspar of Cabo Verde held the distinction of being the only Meter known to exist—a witch who could simply gaze at others and see what powers they held. Inspector Gabriel Anjos of Brazil was the strongest Truthsayer known to the Jesuits, and Nadezhda Vladimirova, one of the most powerful healers. Except… Gaspar was a mesti├žo, Anjos was dying, and Vladimirova was already dead.

The Lady herself was a bit of a mystery as well, a woman of unclear origin with an aversion to steel and church bells, one who wore no name.

Her job was to weld the four of them into a team to investigate the Special Police of Northern Portugal. However, they must first deal with demons, hunt for an assassin, and break a prison not meant for mankind…

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  1. Thanks, great ideas. Having a cover done right now. Just what the doctor ordered.