Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Two-Cent Tuesday: Publishing 101 Lesson 2

So today I'm talking about covers.  First off, are covers really that important?  If you're just publishing ebooks, do you even need much of a cover these days?  Well my answer is still yes.  The cover is still part of your book's face when you promote it on your website (see the right hand column!) or on other people's blogs or on other sites, etc.  If you have a blank cover then people are probably going to assume you don't really know what you're doing.  And if your cover looks like shit, people are going to assume your book is shit too.  The adage of "don't judge a book by its cover" is still so much bullshit.

Now then, the first thing about covers that's important is the title.  You want to make sure you have a title you're comfortable with.  Something I preach (to no avail) is not to use one-word titles.  Especially, ahem, unpronounceable one-word titles.  The reason I say this is that if it's an ebook people are looking for it online.  If you title your book "Betrayal" for instance, do you know how many results pop up in Amazon?  6,673!  Odds someone will scroll through all 101 screens to locate yours?  0%!  And God help you if you title it "Love" or something even more generic.  The only way to find you then is to search by your name.

Even my own "A Hero's Journey" is a little too generic in that over 3600 results pop up.  But who was #7?  This guy!  Of course since search engines are stupid even if I type in a long title like "Time Enough to Say Goodbye" it comes up with 230 hits, none of which are actually that title.  Sigh.  So much for machines taking over.

Of course the advantage with a really generic title is I suppose if someone is just searching for "Betrayal" they might come across yours by accident.  So there's that.

The inverse is that you don't want to make the title tooooooooooo loooooooooooooong or else it will be hard to actually fit the whole thing on the cover.  Some smart asses like to do that, like that one Fiona Apple album in the 90s that was like 60 words long or something.  I wouldn't want to be the graphic artist who had to try and fit that monster in.  Or the minion who had to key that into database systems.

So now let's say you have your great, not-entirely-generic title.  Now you need to put together a cover.  Of course you can hire someone to do that.  But think about this:  most ebooks make shit.  I mean I made about $550 last year on ebook sales and that was a GOOD year by many standards.  So if you blow $100 on a cover artist it's hard to turn a profit.  But you may be lucky enough that you can draw your own cover or you know someone who will do it for free, as Rusty Carl did for A Hero's Journey.

What if you don't and you can't draw for shit?  Well the good news is that you don't need to be to draw to make book covers.  I mean, I can't draw for shit and I've made a couple dozen of them.  I won't say they're great covers, but I think they're serviceable enough.  You can see most of them on my imprint's website!

If you do look those up, they cost me about $30 total.  Basically what you do is go to a stock photo site.  There a number of them around like Fotolia and iStockphoto where you can buy pictures.  Of course the hitch is you can't really buy one image, unless it's really huge.  You have to buy "credits" or "tokens" or such crap and then you can spend those on images.  For Fotolia it's about $13 for 10 credits, which generally buys me 4 images, usually 3 small and 1 maybe extra small.  I don't spring for huge sizes because why bother?  If you're not making a print edition then you generally aren't going to need them that enormous that you need to spend $40 on one photo.

Now some "publishers" like to combine a number of images together, like this:

I prefer to use just 1 image if I can get away with it.  It looks cleaner to me that way.  Take this for example:

Because the problem when you start layering images together is that it looks more like a collage than a real picture, at least in my mind.  That's why I tend to avoid that whenever possible.  Sometimes it's not because stock photo sites are annoying and don't have exactly what I want and it's not possible for me to create it myself, so I might have to splice a couple of things together.  But if you can, I say go with 1 image.  Plus it's a lot cheaper!

But before I go to stock photo sites, I always check out MS Office's online clip art gallery.  Why?  Because it's FREE!  And they include some images from the stock photo sites, so really you can save a bit of money that way.  And the more money you save, the more profit you make.  That's Business 101 right there.  Here's one I did from MS Office's clip art gallery:

Looks pretty much the same quality, right?  I mean maybe not the best quality, but good enough.  Again, it's not usually going to big enough where anyone's going to analyze it that closely.  I don't think you have to have Office to use it either.

Here's an issue that cropped up recently; be careful when you're buying images online that you don't use the exact one in the exact same way someone else has already.  I mean it's kind of awkward when you get into this:

As you can see they're the exact same picture, although the one on the left is cropped more.  Interestingly the one on left is by a traditional publisher.  So if you feel that using stock photos doesn't make you a "real" publisher, you would be very much wrong.  C'mon, be like the "real" publishers and slap some words over a stock image!

(Of course the person on the right insisted on using her plagiarized cover anyway.  They're not exactly the same!  Um, yeah, sure.  You keep believing that.  [shake my head])

It probably is difficult to know that unless you see a lot of book covers.  Still, you might want to be a little cautious. Maybe poke around the internets a little.

Of course before you go out and buy yourself a bunch of pictures, make sure you have a program to edit them in.  PhotoShop is probably the gold standard.  It's really expensive too.  I use Paint Shop Pro.  For the longest time I used an ancient version from early in the 21st Century because it was free and I knew how to use it.  Then from Amazon Vine I got a newer version for free.  It does largely the same stuff as PhotoShop from what I've been able to tell and I think it's cheaper too.  If you want to learn how to actually use those programs then consult a tutorial.

Now then, besides having a crappy title, what's the second biggest mistake most covers make in my non-humble opinion?  They make the title too damned small or in a font that's too damned hard to read!  Take another look at that one a certain "publisher" created:

 That Old English font might be cool, but especially at icon size it's a pain to read.  And that subtitle is almost impossible to read because it's too damned small.  The same "publisher" also created this:

You can barely read the title; it's harder to read than the author name.  That was something Rusty Carl rectified with his version of the cover:

Ka-Boom!  Now you can read the title!  Not really subtitle, but I blame myself for having too long of a subtitle in the first place.  You can't see my name either, but so the fuck what?  Unless you're Stephen King or on that level your name isn't important.

Of course being the morons they are, the "publisher" kept demanding we make the title smaller, because you know, who wants to be able to see that?  The final product ended up like this:

You can still read the title pretty easily, but the first version was better.  Anyway, I think you can start to see my point.  Make sure the title is easily visible!  Don't make it too tiny or in some weird font no one can read.  And make sure the color stands out enough against the background; that's kind of obvious but still some people probably screw that up.

At the same time, don't make it in a totally bland font.  When I saw my "publisher"'s version of the cover one of my first thoughts was, "Did they just make that in Arial?"  I mean really did they just choose the first font to pop up in the box?  Lame.  Though I'm glad Rusty picked the fonts out for the cover because to some extent they mostly look the same to me.  I'd have probably used Comic Sans.

If you don't have many fonts on your computer, you can look for more online.  Though some places want to charge you an absurd amount for fonts.  I mean $40 for a FONT?  That's freaking ridiculous.  Your font might be neat, but not $40 neat.  Grumpy Bulldog don't pay for fonts.

Anyway, you can see I used the same fonts on my covers for the rest of the Scarlet Knight series:
Look, you can almost read the subtitles!

You might wonder why they look like this.  The short answer is to find graphics big enough for a whole cover is a real chore.  This way I didn't need a graphic for the whole page, just the middle.  The clock came from MS Office so it was free.  The helmet was the most expensive and time-consuming part of the process.  I couldn't find a decent helmet photo at the right angle I wanted, so I bought a costume helmet for $16 off EBay, took pictures with my digital camera, and recolored it with a red filter in Paint Shop Pro.  (The real bitch then was cropping around the helmet so there wouldn't be a background.)

And even if you can't draw sometimes you can think outside the box a little and come up with something almost like drawing:

One last word on covers.  When you load them to Smashwords, Amazon, B&N, etc. they all have different sizes they prefer.  It can be a real pain in the ass.  Amazon is the best in that while they prefer a huge image they don't really care if you do it or not.  Smashwords won't publish the thing unless it's a minimum of 1400 wide.  That often leads to covers that are over 2000 pixels tall.  Which the problem then is B&N's MAXIMUM height is 2000!  Then some promotional sites or if you want to put it on a website like mine you need more of a thumbnail.  So in the end you need to make one base file and then make a bunch of copies to resize it for different uses.  Yeesh.

Tomorrow is another rambling entry about gun violence as the ramp-up to the Everyday Heroes Blogfest continues...


  1. I like the idea of a collage cover, but I seldom see them done well. I wonder if it's more accepted in some genres too, like romance, it seems that they tend to have the couple and some landscape, and maybe a scowling person... maybe not.

    But I appreciate the kind words about my cover design. I think you're dead on about how we can all work around our limitations with a little bit of effort.

  2. Like you, I prefer the larger type on Rusty Carl's version of your cover, but both are good.

  3. So by your standards, "Up So Down" is a colossal success: I just googled it with and without quotes and my actual book shows up in the first page, top 5 results in each. Not bad!

    I see what you're saying about covers and fonts and titles, but here's where I differ a bit.

    Especially with thumbnails on Amazon, I think the cover image needs to be rethought. It's one thing in a bookstore to have a cover that is 5x8 or 6x9 and has details and all, but on my computer screen, the thumbnails when I shop on Amazon are about 2" tall and 1" wide. On my kindle, where I do most of my reading and bookshopping now, they're like 1" tall, tops.

    I think with that in mind, you want an image that converts well to small size and doesn't suffer when it gets bigger. The title on the cover to me seems somewhat optional if you're doing e-books. I just went and looked at "Up So Down" on Amazon, and while the words are somewhat visible on the cover, the photo is (to me) striking and the title/author are right next to the book, so I can focus less on those and more on the image.

    Two of my ebooks, "the After" and "Scariest Things" don't have "cover" images for the ebook, but simply an image to go alongside it. That seems to work pretty well.

    But with that, I think your advice is sound: a good title and a good image might catch your eye when you see "people who bought this also bought..." down below the book you're actually looking at. On "the After," People who bought that also bought Michael Offutt's "Slipstream." His cover on my page is about 1", and at that resolution, it's mostly a green blur with a tiny speck on it.

    As for titles: I have "Eclipse," which I titled my book before I knew "Eclipse" was a thing involving sparkly vampires. I have achieved zero benefit, so far as I can tell, from the similarity. I've probably either made some teenage girls mad, or else my book is buried under the mountain of "Eclipse" google pages, so, yeah, you're right.

  4. If/when I get around to publishing with Planet 99, my book cover is going to be super simple. A plain background with a kind of seal on it, I think. No image of cities, people, places, things. Just a seal (like medieval-style fantasy kind). If done right, shouldn't take much time and it will be elegant and easy to modify for sequential books.

    And I'm terrible with titles. But, I really don't care. The damn books I write need titles so the ones I come up with are gonna have to do.

  5. That's a good point Pat. I think the tendency for one word titles started from X-Files which used one word title for the entire run. It sounds cooler, but is much more generic.

  6. Great advice for all indie authors!

  7. As a reader, covers are important to me. They say something about the story itself. A picture of a person says nothing about the book, no matter how well written the blurb.

    I think I'll let professionals work out my covers - providing I ever have something to sell . .




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