Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Cover Art Caught Between Art & Commerce

When I contracted my first book a long time ago—though in this galaxy, not one far, far away—I think it’s fair to say that I had seriously unrealistic expectations about the cover art that would be wrapped digitally around my new baby. Yes, I had high expectations for a book called Pig in a Park. I was young. And it was my first.
My poor publisher. I gave input and what came back—sigh. My “vision” of my cover was fairly scary in execution, though said publisher did her best to fulfill my cover dreams. After studying the cover nightmare, I asked my publisher what she thought the cover should look like. The result was a better cover that did a fairly good job of informing the reader what was inside. It sold books.
It was my first lesson in the push/pull between [cover] art and commerce.
We write a book and we want the perfect cover for it. It’s really that simple. 
As I was mulling this post, I asked AnaBanana, a cover designer I’ve worked with, for her top three tips on how to design a great cover:

1. Learn some basic design principles and approach your cover like it is ART - because it is!
2. Look at others’ work but don’t let it define your own work. Let your natural style come through. 
3. Don’t be afraid of failure. Think of it as a learning experience. You’re learning if your DOING something, but there’s nothing going on if you’re not trying.

Obviously she is a designer. Art is her business and she does it well. And if there is a chance that your book is going to be stacked in the big window at the local Barnes & Noble, you want cover art. 
But in this brave new world of the digital book, a lot of the nuance of cover art is lost in the thumbnail that is all that most readers see when browsing Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, GooglePlay or the NOOK store. 
This is where art bumps into commerce and art often gets dented. Maybe you get lucky with a first cover that hits the target perfectly between art and commerce. But what if your “perfect” cover art doesn’t sell your book?
At that point, you really need to focus on how to get readers to love that cover. 
Or change your cover. 
I fell for most of my covers at some point. I loved a lot of them. They were part of the package called published book. That makes it hard to break up when it’s time. It took me a while to realize that, at its most basic, a cover is...
  1. ...a part of your overall brand and...
  2. ...it’s a billboard that tells the reader as quickly as possible what kind of book is inside. Granted, in thumbnail it is a very small billboard, but a billboard none the less. 
This would be the commerce side of your art. 
If you can get some distance, some detachment about your covers, focus on their function and purpose, it will make it easier to break up with them if the business side requires it. Don't fix what isn't broke.
In my many, many years in the publishing business, I’ve had beautiful covers. I’ve had functional covers. I’ve had covers that I thought were hideous, but sold books. Because I’m not always the best judge of what will sell my books (and it pains me to write this), and because I’ve invested money in covers that didn’t always appeal to readers in that tiny thumbnail size, I finally realized that I needed to dive into (for me) the very cold waters of cover design. 
I won’t kid you. It was scary. I took a webinar, bought a cover design package, and didn’t open it for several weeks. I spent that time telling myself no one had to know or see my stuff if I sucked at it. And of course, WHAT IF I DIDN’T KNOW I SUCKED? 
Yeah, it’s a lot like, I don’t know, writing a book? 
Then I read this article by a long time author who pointed out (paraphrased), if she were smart enough to learn how to write a novel, she was smart enough to learn how to manage her writing business. And, I realized that—even if I never used my DIY covers—it was a good idea to know about this side of my writing business. Hey, I might even learn enough to give my designers better guidance and feedback. 
And there was another hard reality to face while I hovered at the design water’s edge. One of the HUGE benefits of being an independent author is the ability to be nimble, to change what wasn’t working. But if I couldn’t do even minimal cover design, I wasn’t nimble. 
Of course, knowing what isn’t working doesn’t help that much with finding out what does. I’ll be honest, a lot of it is trial and error. Some of my books have had four or five covers. Conventional advice is to study what works, but what if you don’t know why a cover works? A lot of really popular covers don’t push my “buy” buttons. And my books don’t fit neatly into the really obvious genre niches. 
I also needed to make sure that my covers tell readers, as well as I can manage, what’s inside. For instance, my former publisher put a gal in a corset on my steampunk novel and one reader thought it was sexier inside than the book actually was. You can’t control ALL reactions, but you can avoid the big mistakes. I don’t put bare-chested guys on my covers because any sex in my books is off camera. Way off.
Once a month, The BookDesigner does a blog post on covers. Designers and authors send their covers in and he comments on points, good and bad, and picks his favorites. I've learned some things reading those comments and studying those covers. Over time, he’s recognized that not everyone can afford a top dollar designer and now offers basic cover design templates that work with Word. I have not tried these templates, but have used his book design templates and they worked very well for me when I worked on my first self-published print book. Plus he offers customer support for all his templates.
Another resource is Canva. I had looked at it as a place to create free or very low cost promo images, but I found out some authors use it for cover design (the pay side). Also, they send out design tutorials for free after you sign up (which is also free). You only pay as much as you want there, but some features aren’t available for free. 
If you do not want to DIY, there are pre-made cover sites, so many I won’t link to them, but there are some very nice, very professional looking covers out there for purchase. With a pre-made cover, you do have to fit your vision to theirs. And, if you have to replace several covers, or ask for a lot of customization, the costs can add up fast. 
For super cheap, there’s Fiverr. I have not tried any of these cover designers, but I do know people who have had success there. If you have a lot of books needing covers, it is a low-cost, fairly low-risk option. 
If you'd like to give DIY a try, The Book Designer offers webinars for different services for authors and one week he offered the KD Cover Kit that I mentioned above. It includes basic templates (divided by genre, which really helped me get closer to the "right" genre design) that you can use to build covers by swapping out elements, images, fonts, etc, without having to have a PhD in PhotoShop. Ed is constantly adding videos on how to use the templates and other resources to the kit. Plus there is a Facebook group where you can share tips and get feedback from other authors. Thanks to help from Ed, I’ve been able to find an affordable mix of royalty free images and fonts. I also use images from the hubs. With the templates provided and feedback from the group and Ed, I’ve been able to begin the process of building a consistent brand for my novels. I even got a nice review for Core Punch’s cover. 
It also saves me time and money because I can create my own audio covers and swap them out as needed. (I have two audio books that have old covers. I just couldn’t justify the extra cost at the time I when I bought my high end covers for those two books.)
Of course, the real test is the readers. I’m seeing books that were sitting unnoticed on the digital shelves getting found and bought. And even better, I look at my bookshelf and see a consistent look, an actual brand spreading slowly through my backlist, and forward to my new releases.
I still have a long way to go before I reach the level of “art,” and honestly? I will probably never reach that level of design. I won’t pretend to be anything but a journeyman at cover design. For my business, I need to put the bulk of my time into writing books and save the art for the real designers of cover art. 
But if you’re looking to better understand the design process, or need to get better control of that part of the costs of your writing business, I’m here to say, you can do it. Hey, you were smart enough to figure out how to write whole novels. 
Do you design your own covers? Have any tips to offer this journeyman? Have you thought you’d like to learn? What resources have you found helpful?

The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the SFR Brigade.

Pauline has published 16 novels. Her latest release is Sucker Punch: An Uneasy Future. It is the second book in a new series that is a spin-off of Project Enterprise and The Big Uneasy. You can find Pauline here:
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1 comment:

  1. I agree. It's fun to learn how to design covers and it's good to keep learning.


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