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Cover Art: Doing it Right

More authors are experimenting with electronic self-publishing these days. I want to point out two recent releases by friends of mine. Aerophilia, a short story by Tobias Buckell, and Fright Court, a serialized novel by Mindy Klasky.  Specifically, I want to point to the cover art.


I love these covers. Aerophilia’s was put together by Jenn Reese, Fright Court’s by Reece Notley. (I’m noting these names for my own use, since I’m toying with the idea of publishing a few more mini-collections of my own.)

ETA: Mindy was kind enough to share her own first draft of a cover. You can see that, along with Mindy’s comments, here.

Remember my post last week about making it look easy? I look at these covers and think, Hey, I could probably do that! Maybe not the artwork itself, but if I found a good stock image, I could slap it all together. Because it looks easy.

Then I remember doing it with Goblin Tales [Amazon | B&N | Lulu]. Big shock: it ain’t easy, and skill as a writer means squat when it comes to visual art or graphic design. I did get professional artwork for mine, and I’m proud of what I came up with, but I think both Klasky and Buckell ended up with better-looking covers.

I’ve heard people talk about covers that “look self-published.” I’ve used that phrasing myself, but I think it’s inaccurate. It’s not that so many covers look self-published; it’s that they look amateur. Amateur isn’t a dirty word, and it’s not an insult. It means the work was done by someone who’s not a professional.

My friend Stephen Leigh gave me permission to pick on him. He’s an author with DAW, and has been doing this far longer than me. He recently released his dark urban fantasy novel The Woods [Amazon | B&N] as an e-book, and did the cover art himself. He used the cover on the left first. After receiving some feedback, he reworked the cover and came up with the one on the right.

I think number two is a better cover — easier to read, clearer visuals — but it doesn’t have the professional vibe I get from Mindy’s or Toby’s.

All of which leads back to the myth that it’s quick and easy to self-publish. Well, it is … but it’s not quick or easy to do it well. Slow down. Either hire people to do the jobs you’re not skilled at, or take your time and do the work Cover art and design are just two steps in the overall process, and there’s a reason publishers hire professionals for most of those steps.

Discussion time — how much attention do you pay to “professional vs. amateur” cover art when browsing e-books? What sort of things make a cover look amateur to you? (For me, I’ll admit to having a bias against most digital art.) And does it really make sense to invest in professional cover art for a small self-published project, given that most such projects probably aren’t going to see huge sales?

PS, All three of the writers mentioned here are wonderful people, and you could do much worse than to check out their books!

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 60 comments — Leave a comment )
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May. 12th, 2011 01:46 pm (UTC)
With pressure-sensitive pen tablets available, I would say that the phrase "digital art" is a misnomer. If a professional is trying to make it look like a watercolor ... these days that is totally doable. Cut-outs and Illustrator graphics, on the other hand... that is often what people seem to mean by "digital art". Like "self-published" vs "amateur", it's just, IMO, a matter of semantics.
May. 12th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
Good point. A lot of tablet-drawn art is pretty damn awesome. I guess I'm thinking more of things like digitally rendered people and objects, which I used to see on a lot of the earlier e-books. That particular style just doesn't tend to work for me.
(no subject) - beckyh2112 - May. 12th, 2011 02:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - atdt1991 - May. 12th, 2011 02:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 12th, 2011 02:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beckyh2112 - May. 12th, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - atdt1991 - May. 12th, 2011 02:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 12th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 12th, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
I think you're quite right. I would never guess that Tobias's wasn't from a major publishing house, and you have to look closely at Mindy's to tell the difference.

As in all design, the key elements are, I think, coherence of the design, and subtlety. For example, the thing that gives away most amateur cover designs is the text. People use far too big drop-shadows and color gradients and unnecessary text effects (embossing and so on), when really the clean, simple text on Tobias's cover is far more effective.

Stephen's cover suffers in terms of lack of coherence. The elements look dropped on top of each other, rather than blending in naturally as a single work of art. He would probably have been better advised to find a single really high-quality piece of stock art or photography an just used that.

For me, as a designer (although web, rather than print or ebooks), I do really notice amateur design, and it does put me off. It *shouldn't*, but it does.
May. 12th, 2011 02:09 pm (UTC)
Oh, and I would add, it's far easier to make text look good over a block of color (particularly black) than over an image.
(no subject) - chomiji - May. 12th, 2011 02:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 12th, 2011 02:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beckyh2112 - May. 12th, 2011 02:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankewehner - May. 12th, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankewehner - May. 12th, 2011 03:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - psamphire - May. 12th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 12th, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)
I've done a couple of cover illustrations, and it's very hard to do well: looking professional is only one aspect. As you point out, there's also readability (at a variety of sizes!) and what about market research for appeal, and so on?

But it matters to me. If the cover art looks amateur, I tend to assume that an editor was also not involved in the publishing process. And while I will read plenty of stuff that was not edited...I won't pay money for it.
May. 12th, 2011 02:38 pm (UTC)
I'll admit that I do tend to skip kindle ebooks that don't have a "cover". In most cases where I don't ignore them it is because there is a "known quantity" usually an author I already read and enjoy and the work is a short story, often one that has not been published elsewhere for one reason or another. I do judge my books, even ebooks, by their covers a fair bit - I "know" that style means romance, that one is chicklit, that one is hard SF, that one is crime thriller and so forth. Limited time to browse means that I need some way of shortcutting my selection process (especially when I have bad insomnia and can read 2 novels a night). Though the kindle with its "send a sample" ability does allow me to ignore covers and try a reccomendation regardless.

My Kindle habit was getting out of hand, so I suggested to my husband that we organise a monthly gift voucher for me to use as my "kindle allowance" to try and keep it under control *grin*
May. 12th, 2011 03:00 pm (UTC)
I can't remember if I commented on the Goblin Tales cover--but at the time I saw the post you were already swimming in good advice! I love studying book covers--it does matter a lot to me. It's amazing how sometimes even great art may not look good as a cover because the final combination of text on art can let the whole thing down. (My own post on bad covers: http://marrael.livejournal.com/243944.html And yeah, 3D art looks bad. http://www.changelingpress.com/ tends to use it a lot and gets mocked on Smart Bitches Trashy Books quite a bit.)

I'm a big fan of fading out art or using colour blocks where the text will go on covers. Looking at the covers I've done, I definitely fall back on it quite a bit! http://twocranespress.com/graphics/scs_cover-sm.jpg http://twocranespress.com/botany/graphics/fieldguidecover_400tall.jpg
May. 12th, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC)
People really do judge ebooks by covers. We created a relatively striking and interesting cover for my first book, and we got a lot of comments about how intrigued people were by it (second one down). If the cover had been dull, less professional-looking or run-of-the-mill, we wouldn't have generated as much interest.

"Professional" matters a lot for self-pub and small press. People trust the look and feel of the big houses.

It's difficult enough to create a cover that looks good on a shelf, but it also has to look good as a tiny, tiny image on an Amazon page.
May. 12th, 2011 03:15 pm (UTC)
Just adding my voice, to confirm that it was *beyond* worthwhile hiring a professional to do what I could not begin to do myself. (I cobbled together a truly amateurish cover for FRIGHT COURT, which was roundly criticized by everyone I showed it to.) In one week of serialization, I have earned more than I paid the cover artist.

Before finding Reece, I first worked with an extremely unprofessional artist (strung me along for two months, then stopped responding to all emails.) The best cover artists out there both create wonderful, appropriate art *and* run a business effectively.
May. 12th, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC)
"I cobbled together a truly amateurish cover for FRIGHT COURT..."

I think I speak for everyone here when I say we'd love to see it, if you're up for sharing :-)

ETA: And thanks to Mindy's generosity, here it is!

Edited at 2011-05-12 11:44 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - barbarienne - May. 13th, 2011 04:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wedschilde - May. 15th, 2011 01:16 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 18th, 2011 01:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wedschilde - May. 18th, 2011 01:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 12th, 2011 03:44 pm (UTC)
Another thing that I like to point out, that fits with your general premise, is that while it CAN be fairly quick and easy to self-publish well, that entails hiring work out. Unless you're one of those rare and gifted folks, like my author AM Tuomala, who happens to be a phenomenal artist AND writer, you're better off hiring out your cover design. You will always get a more professional result from a professional.

And e-publishing needs to take into account thumbnail images for covers, too, and setting up covers that look good at 300x600 AND at wee little size AND in B&W embedded in the file.

Seriously, get a professional.

Get a professional to do your layout and conversions, too, if you want really professional results. Hire an editor to make sure your content is up to snuff.

Do all these things, and you can self-publish like a pro. Because, essentially, you have just hired on your own publishing-house staff, and will get quality results if you hired the right folks.

It's worth the money to have a final product you're proud of, and that people consider worth paying for.

(I pay a LOT of attention to pro vs. amateur look when browsing e-books. I really do judge a book by its cover - if the author couldn't be bothered to create or commission professional-looking cover art to make a good first impression, it doesn't bode well for what the quality of formatting, editing, or actual story...)
May. 12th, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC)

When I got to the point of seriously needing a logo for my jewelry business, I asked around for recommendations of an artist who could do it right. The result is what you see in my icon; I think it fits my business name (Starcat Designs) perfectly, and I've had a LOT of complimentary comments about it from other artists at shows. And because I hired an artist to do my artwork, I'm doing my bit to support the arts as well. :-)
(no subject) - firynze - May. 12th, 2011 05:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 12th, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC)
Friends of mine have been self-pubbing ebooks and asking for input on various covers. I always show them to my wife, who has a lot of experience in visual media (although not book covers) and she always tears them apart. I'll be leaning on her to help me when I reach this step.

Some time I ago I put some foreign rights sales money toward making a book trailer, and I don't mean the "public domain art with the Ken Burns effect turned on". If I end up self-publishing the Twenty Palaces prequel, I'll probably adapt a frame grab for the cover.

It's an interesting development. I expect the prices for really good ebook cover art are going to start going through the roof, and soon.
May. 12th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you mentioned cover design as well as cover art. The best artwork in the world will fail if used with a crap layout.

I absolutely agree that the artwork and design on Buckell's story look like something you'd see on a hard-copy novel; they also say very clearly that this is a steampunk story. Klasky's cover is less to my taste, but also says at a glance that this is a chick-lit story with vampires; that doesn't appeal to me, but certainly will to a lot of people, so the cover is doing its job.

I'd be unlikely to pick up the Leigh (or whatever the e-book equivalent is of "taking it off the shelf to read the blurbs") with either of those covers, but especially the left-hand version. Blurry amateur photos on the cover don't fill me with confidence about the quality of the writing. (IOW, the cover is still talking, but the author may not like what it's saying to people.)

Here again, self-pubbing authors in the SF/F community have an advantage over a lot of the people trying this. We are likely to know artists who do book-cover work, and can negotiate with them about getting a cover illo. But I think anybody can poke around on DeviantArt until they find someone whose work they like, which seems like a good fit for their story, and do the same thing... if they realize that it's a necessary component of the work as a whole, which some writers don't.
May. 12th, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC)
I'm not an e-book person and I haven't shopped for them so I can't speak to that. However, I was in a bargain bookstore recently (because one never knows what one might find) and all I was doing was scanning covers to see what looked interesting. Judging a book by its cover is cliché, but so true!

In my experience, most self-published covers do tend to look similarly amateurish. The digital-ness is obvious and overdone, and/or (as someone already said it above) the individual elements are dropped on top of each other instead of designed as a whole.

Edited at 2011-05-12 04:47 pm (UTC)
May. 12th, 2011 05:08 pm (UTC)
I want to point out that your cover for Goblin Tales is quite good, and making comparisons to Toby's or Mindy's is apples-and-oranges-ing. Covers are about cueing the target audience. Toby's is slick and speaks of a more modern setting. The airship says "steampunk," but the blocking also contributes (that says "mainstream friendly"). The title font says "steampunk" and the author font says "mainstream friendly" again, reinforcing the overall impression. I would expect the story to be a steampunk tale that is also comprehensible by someone who's never read any SF before.

Mindy's has a humorous chick-lit quality. The art style is very much what's been done on chick-lit for the past decade (with no sign of slowing); likewise the fonts. Then, with the title, the bats, and the (I think) vampiric hand putting the cherry on the cupcake, I expect this to be a humorous story about a twenty-something woman who deals with vampires in court. (I would not be surprised if the judge is named Harry T. Stone.)

Yours is very much what we see on the covers of low-tech, created-world fantasy. Title font based on writing from the scribe-n-quill ages? Check. Four-color, realistic or quasi-realistic art? Check. Wide range of color palette? Check. Full bleed? Check. Lead character prominent? Check. That the cover character is obviously not human and the title is Goblin Tales makes it clear who the stories will be about. This is obviously genre-genre FANTASY.

I haven't read either Toby's nor Mindy's books, so perhaps I'm wrong about what they contain. But from my perspective, all three covers make definite statements about who they expect will want to read these books.


By contrast, neither of Stephen's covers are working because I don't know what they're trying to tell me about the contents. That the photos are blurry and amateurish, and the silhouetting is a crime against Photoshop, are secondary issues. Both covers fail right at the outset because the concept isn't clear. All I get is "something about some woods." I suspect the story might be scary, and apparently there is a female character--presumably the lead--but I don't know anything about her. Is she threatened by something scary in the woods? Is she a detective solving a string of serial murders that take place in a forest? Is she an arborist? A lumberjack? An eco-terrorist?

Professional art is good, but even before the art is chosen/commissioned, the designer of a cover should know what the cover is trying to say, and should work toward that goal.
May. 12th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
Annnnnnd you just articulated all my thoughts about all of these covers.

I really don't like EITHER of Stephen's covers because they're both amateurish and confusing - I simply don't know what I'm to expect from this book. I never would've guessed "dark fantasy" if I hadn't been told; I would've gone more "back country romance-thriller."
(no subject) - mindyklasky - May. 12th, 2011 06:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - May. 12th, 2011 07:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 12th, 2011 06:01 pm (UTC)
Amateur vs. professional looking is exactly the difference, Jim. It's also about having a good eye for balance, color and space. It always helps to know if that is one of your strengths.

Covers can be very inexpensive yet awesome. I've released five short stories on BN and Amazon, and I'm thrilled with the covers. My daughter is a graphics arts major in college now and she did three of them (and she's sold to other writers). I did the other two. I used Shutterstock for the stock photos which were $10 each, quite the deal as far as I'm concerned where e-book use is cool and I can use them forever. Picking the right cover photo is half the deal and most of the fun for me.

I think that cover art for e-books will eventually evolve into something different from cover art for print books. IMO, the needs are different, and the future of e-booking will demand adjustments. For instance, two of my self-published titles were originally printed in DAW Books anthologies. I reference those anthologies on the cover as draws. I also however advertise the anthologies in the summary page and suggest that the full anthology is available at that store on e-book and in print. I call it a win-win for me and DAW.
May. 12th, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC)
Indeed -- I"m realizing that while a book cover's job is to catch someone's attention in a store at 5x9 or something, an ebook's cover needs to sell the book at 250x180 pixels. much more challenging.
(no subject) - sylvanstargazer - May. 13th, 2011 12:02 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 12th, 2011 06:14 pm (UTC)
steven totally should have called me!
May. 12th, 2011 07:10 pm (UTC)
Yes, I judge cover art, for the same reasons everyone else has mentioned: I have approximately zero patience for poorly written / poorly edited fiction, and if the cover art -- the whole point of which is to sell me the book -- is too obviously amateur, I will tend to assume that other aspects of production (such as interior design, copy editing, and proofreading) have not been handled professionally either.

This may be unfair -- for all I know, the cover looks amateurish because the writer spent his/her entire budget on high-quality professional editing and interior design -- but, well ...

The one exception is that I will happily buy a self-pubbed ebook with not-so-awesome cover from an author whose work I know I like. If the quality is significantly below that of trade-published books by the same author, I probably won't buy the next one, but I will certainly try it once.

I would buy Aerophilia. (In fact, I may go and do that later today.) The cover is well designed and appealing, and it clearly says "Here be airships!", and I like airships. I would probably not buy Fright Court, not because the cover isn't good -- it is -- but because the cover tells me very effectively that the book is Probably Not For Me. (I might still check it out, though, because I have enjoyed Mindy's previous work in somewhat different genres.) I would almost certainly not buy The Woods, because (a) what I said in paragraph 1, and (b) I have absolutely no idea what it could possibly be about.

Since the typical Kindle or Kobo ebook "back cover" blurb is very short (and many cut off in mid-sentence, just as you're starting to figure out what the book might be about), the cover has to do more work than it would on the shelf at Bakka-Phoenix...
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