Being a Better Writer: Cover Art

Hello readers! Welcome back to a Monday edition of Being a Better Writer! I know, it’s almost sad that I have to celebrate the posting of a Monday-centric series on a Monday, but my other job lately has been nuts. As in, I could write an entire post about how it’s an example of the dumpster fire that corporate America has created/become. I sort of want to, for my sanity as well, because … well, that’s a tale for another time. Or day.

Thankfully, things with this job are going pretty awesome. How so? Well, you might have missed it if these posts are the only ones you ever check out, but Shadow of an Empire (the snazzy cover you saw in the featured image) is available for pre-order! That’s right! It comes out June 1st, and joins my slowly-but-ever-expanding roster of adventures. If you’ve been reading Being a Better Writer but haven’t checked out any of my books yet, this is the point where I tell you that you definitely should. You’ll get to see all of the topics, elements, etc, that I talk about in these BaBW posts on display in some awesome fiction.

Also, if you haven’t, this week’s News Post is pretty packed-full of cool news and updates. Price drops, Reddit AMAs … check it out!

Okay, news and stuff out of the way! Let’s talk about a really tricky, often dividing topic among authors and writers: Book covers.

Look, covers are important things. There’s no denying that. They’re usually the first thing any prospective reader sees with your book, which means that even before they open the pages (digitally, or in the real world) the cover has to entice them enough that they pick it up, look at it, and—here’s the scary part if you don’t know what you’re doing—make a number of assumptions about said book that add up to “look inside the pages/don’t look inside the pages.”

Now, you might have noticed the “if you don’t know what you’re doing” bit about cover art in that prior paragraph, and, well … It’s true. Also, it comes with this kicker: Most authors don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to cover art. Why?

Well, for the same reason you wouldn’t hire a painter to write your book: It’s a completely different skill set.

Now, that isn’t to say that an author can’t or shouldn’t have input on a cover—they should! After all, they wrote the contents of the story, and a good cover should reflect the story within the pages of the book it’s gracing. And the artist does not have the time to sit down and read the writer’s entire alpha/beta/finished draft. So a good cover artist is going to rely on assistance from the author to get the cover “right” so to speak. There’s a back-and-forth there we’ll talk about later.

But point being: Unless you’re an author who went to school for graphic design and art, odds are … actually no, fact is, you know less about art than the artist does. It’s a safe bet to assume, I’ve found, that you know as much about writing and art (in that order) as the artist you commission usually knows about art and writing (in that order). In other words: You have your field, they have theirs. Trust them concerning art the way you would want someone to trust you concerning writing. Your artist, if you’ve gone and hired someone who is an artist, has experience, education, and knowledge concerning their field. Trust them on it.

Now, there is a caveat to this entire subsection worth bringing up: If you’re going to go the traditional publisher route (tough, but it’s possible), in all likelihood you will never have the chance to worry about this. Even if you hate your cover art (which happens a lot in the Trad-pub industry), unless you reach a point that you’re a rock star for your particular publisher, or happen to be working with a really flexible, cool publisher like Baen Books, odds are you will never have a say in your book covers. You will be on tap for the writing of the manuscript, but that’s it. Covers? You won’t have a say. Well, you can say something, but your editor will likely, if they don’t cut you off, just grunt and say “Tough cookies, deal with it or go buy yourself a box of kleenex. Now write that next book.”

However, if you’re going the more modern route, dealing with a more flexible publisher or staying indie, cover art is going to be something you become very familiar with. Or at least, something you should know about in order to most effectively pick the style and genre that best expresses your book.

Wait? Genre? Style? Why yes! That’s actually one of the first things you should know about putting a cover on  your book: Different books have different styles and genres of covers to choose from. And these “styles,” when done well, are used to help readers make snap judgements about the contents and style of the book. A good cover, thereby, is one that will help a reader identify the type and style of story the book is telling. A bad cover, meanwhile, will send the wrong message, resulting in the wrong swath of readers picking up your book and then setting it back down again.

For example, let’s take a look at the cover for Shadow of an Empire. And not just because it’s the big news here on Unusual Things right now, but because there are specific elements of the story chosen to tell the reader what kind of book it is. Here, have a glimpse:

Shadow of an Empire

Okay, looks nice, right? But there’s more to it than simply being a neat-looking cover.

For starters, there’s the way the text is arrayed over the background image with no obvious framing. Instead it’s title text atop the image without part of the image lending a “frame” to it. If you pick up a lot of “literary” fiction and observe the covers, you’ll notice that the majority of the time, their covers “frame” the title text in something. For instance, check out this cover for Before We Were Yours. Notice how the title text is framed as the central focus of the cover? The same is true for The Midwife’s Revolt. Which even includes an actual frame for the author’s name. And then with The Girl from Krakow there’s even a straight frame over the image.

Why? Well, with literary fiction, the cover image is not important. Crud, some literary fiction books out there barely have cover images; I’ve seen some with a small, square postcard of an image surrounded by massive framed text resulting in the actual image being less than a third of the book’s cover. Literary book covers are about the title and the author foremost: Not the image on the cover (and you could definitely make an argument that this “style” is reflected in the focus of the text and its approach). To the degree that it’s how literary covers are. Readers looking for a literary book know from exposure that the framed text and author name are what they’re looking for. They’re not there to spend time looking at the cover image and how it reflects on the book … though even then, the literary covers often adopt other “telling” elements of book covers.

But more on that in a second. What I’m getting at is that genre book covers (Mystery, Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Action Adventure, etc) tend to do far less of the framing than more literary works. So a genre title is more often identifiable by the text being less framed by the background cover and more part of the cover. Therefore, the text is simply on the cover, as the reader’s eye is invited to look at the image and then text, rather than the text, then the image.

But there are other differences between covers. For example, the scope of the cover. Looking at the cover for Shadow of an Empire above here, what would you, as a reader, expect the scope of the book to be? If you said large or vast … you’d be right! The book is an epic, and the suggestive, long-shot view of a scenic desert full of background elements? Often (but not always), used to suggest that.

Going back to those literary covers I linked, we find that they do follow some of the same trends. The two with close-up shots of the characters? Close-up character pieces. The one with the shot of the town countryside? Surprise surprise, it’s about the protagonist getting used to and learning about a new town. So even though the cover is not the focus over the image, the covers still subscribe to some of the same conventions.

So yes, scope is something to consider when creating your cover. What’s the scope of your book? What’s the “breadth” it’s covering, and will you represent that in your cover? Shadow of an Empire clearly shows the potential reader a wide, sweeping desert landscape, implying a journey inside the book that sees much of that landscape (and indeed it does). The background details (like the train) also hint at other elements of the story.

Where it all began ...

But, if the scope of the book were different, such a thing could easily be conveyed by shifting the scope of the cover. For example, let’s look at the cover for One Drink (which I’ve left smaller, because it’s an older cover and not quite as nice full-size as Shadow’s). One Drink is a much closer and tighter scope than something like Shadow, focused on only a few characters and a single, small town. As a result, the cover is very close in, showing the protagonist, his opponent, and some of the scenery the story revolves around.

And fair warning, this is not a great cover. It’s … adequate. But the close-in focus actually works to tell the prospective reader “Hey, this is the focus of the story: narrow, not broad.”

Dead Silver FinalWith the sequel, Dead Silver—which still isn’t the best cover, but serves here to illustrate the point—you can easily see how the expanded scope of the story is portrayed by the expanded scope of the image. Dead Silver is a lot large and a lot broader in its reach, and the cover was designed to reflect that.

Also, someday both of those will get new covers. Probably in time with a print-release.

But in each case, the cover’s focus was used to offer a suggestion of the focus inside the pages. Be that a close up shot of the characters and setting or a distance shot to show that there’s more to the story than just the quick bite of the cover image.

Now, at this point I want to tie this point of discussion off and move on to the second half of today’s topic, because we could be here all day, and still be talking about this … but you could get the same thing by simply browsing through book covers at a library or bookstore. Which I would actually suggest. Go look at book covers from the genre (and style) of book that you want to write. Do they have sweeping vistas on their cover? Close-in character shots? Are the characters standing in dramatic poses? Or are they in action shots? What does that suggest to you about the book you’re about to pick up? Look at different genres, different approaches.

Oh, and be sure to note outlier trends like movie covers (when a book or series is redone with film-poster stills or poster covers to link the two) or copycat covers (for example, books that copy the cover art styles of breakaways like Game of Thrones, Twilight, or The Hunger Games in order to draw in that audience). Look for what works, and from there start building ideas in your own head about your own covers based on your genre and style.

Got it? Good. Let’s move on to part two of this discussion: getting a cover done.

Okay, you ready for this? Because we’re going to start with something that can be a bit of a bitter pill to swallow, but one that need to accept if you’re going to be an indie author. It’s one I’ve talked about before, and it holds true for covers as much as it does for the interior: Your book will be judged much more harshly by many simply for being indie. And that includes the cover. Unfortunately, that judgement isn’t without cause. And not external cause either (though there are plenty of articles out there even today more than willing to talk down indie books and authors despite the market’s successes). But because by and large, a lot of indie books do have terrible, cheap, or both covers.

Don’t believe me? There are websites devoted to finding horrible book covers from the indie publishing realm. You can find your own horrible covers quite easily just by browsing a bookshelf somewhere. And while this doesn’t mean that trad-pub books can’t have horrible covers (oh do they ever), the stigma of it has become associated with indie books.

If you’re a long-time reader, you may recall that I’ve spoken before on how many readers will judge an indie-book much harsher than they would a trad-pub simply because of bias towards trad-pub. So a trad-pub book with fifteen typos in the first half can still get five stars for grammatical correctness, but an indie book with one typo in the first half will be given three.

Well, unfortunately the same is said for your cover. An indie cover will, as a result of the stigma, face much harsher criticism for being indie. As I’ve seen it, there are two common reactions to this from indie authors.

The first? Stop caring and just get a “functional” cover. Spend fifteen bucks to purchase the rights to some stock art, mix it up in Gimp (an open-source free Photoshop alternative) and apply some filters so that it looks “drawn,” slap some text on it, and call it a day. As long as it’s adequate, who cares? The text is the important part.

The other approach is to go out, hire an artist—a good one—and commission something good, with the knowledge that it needs to be pretty dang good to get past the indie bias and break past that wall of “this is automatically sub-par because it’s not from a trad-pub.”

Okay, look, let’s talk about these approaches. Neither is “wrong” depending on how it’s done, and both come from different places. I can’t say that I’ve not ever loaded up Gimp to do some photoshop-style work, because that’s exactly what I did with the cover for Colony, though that was only to add title text, the image itself was already a piece of artwork I acquired permission to use for my cover. But to save money, that’s what I did. I had a friend who was an artist coach me on how to use Gimp, watched a lot of Youtube videos, and built Colony‘s cover.

This is a viable approach. Crud, some indie authors even take their own photos and touch them up in photoshop/Gimp to create a cover. Or, as I said, they buy stock photos.

There’s a catch here, though. Actually, there are a lot of catches, but let’s start with the big ones. Remember what I said at the beginning about being an author, not an artist? Well, as pointed out with the plethora of bad covers out there … many authors are not artists. All that training, work, and experience that goes into knowing what a good chapter is, how to write one, etc? The same goes into creating a good book cover. Which means that unless you’ve got all that training and experience … what you create in all likelihood isn’t going to be very good.

Worse, buying stock photos comes with risks all of its own. I recall once I was on an author’s blog where they were proudly displaying their newest book cover that they’d photoshopped together from some stock photos they’d purchased the rights to. Which included, front and center, some very familiar super-soldiers.

They were, well, Spartans from the Halo series of games. The source was obvious: someone had purchased some of the detailed action-figures, made some stock action poses with them, and then was selling them (the photos, not the figures) online as stock.

Several commentators, including myself, pointed out to this author that their new book cover quite clearly was, despite the photoshop filter, portraying Spartans from Microsoft’s big series. The author—who in all fairness new nothing about Halo—replied that the original seller of the photos had assured them that while they looked similar, they were not Halo figures … when they clearly were. It wasn’t until I fired an itemized list of the various Halo armor-pieces on display, which included links to the actual action figures the ‘art’ was derived from, that they finally took the artwork down, covering their slip by explaining that they’d decided as so many people had seen similarities, they needed something more distinct.

Why do I bring this up? Because that author could have found themselves in the crosshairs of Microsoft’s legal team because they’d trusted a nameless stock-art provider. They didn’t have any knowledge of what Halo was … and so they very nearly put themselves in a highly compromising situation.

Look, if you haven’t guessed yet, I’m not a fan of the “stock art plus photo filter to look drawn” that many indie artists go for. It’s cheap, sure, but it also looks cheap because authors often aren’t graphic designers. Plus, there are licensing pitfalls like with the near copyright violation Halo cover. You can do it … but my advice would be to avoid it. If you must, at least hire someone else to do it, though in my experience companies that exist to do that for authors tend to be a bit overpriced (they know they have a captive audience) for what you get (and there are also rights to consider, though we’ll talk about those later).

So instead, I honestly do recommend the second option: Find an artist and contact them expressing interest in commissioning them for a book cover. How you do this is up to you. Me, personally, I have a folder of bookmarked websites for artists whose work I enjoy, and tend to browse art forums and subreddits often. But there are plenty of sites like Artstation that exist to provide portfolios and tagged art for thousands of professionals (and yes, I found Michal Kváč, artist behind Shadow of an Empire‘s cover, on Artstation) to search through and contact. Use them!

Now, once to contact and artist, be polite. Read through their site; some will have the information you need to know (cost, etc) on their site, and an e-mail asking them to repeat that is a sure way to make certain the artist never bothers with you. Likewise, some will have information about what to send them up front so that they can decide whether to pursue your offer further. Read the site so that you can be professional.

From there, figure out the most important elements before you ever start getting artwork. These are: the specifics of the contract between you, artwork rights and usage, and payment methods.

Figure out all of these before you start getting artwork. Don’t get me wrong, the artist will need basics like size, complexity, etc so that they have a realistic idea of how much time and effort the piece will take. That’s part of the contract details. But do not start getting artwork until you’ve hashed out those details, as well as usage rights and payment.

For example, when I commissioned the artwork for Shadow of an Empire, one of the very first things discussed (that I made sure to bring up) was method of payment. I wanted to make certain that I could pay the artist without any hiccups along the way. And I’d imagine from their perspective this was good to hear too, as one of the clearest concerns on my mind was “I want to make sure that I can pay you for your work. Your compensation is very important to me.”

This step is also important for later in the year, when you file your taxes. Yes, you’ll want to have detailed records of the transaction because depending on how much you paid, and for how long, and … well, we won’t get into that, but you’ll want to have your receipts and the like.

Likewise, they needed sizing and detail information to give me a more accurate quote on price. As I conveyed what I was looking for with regards to size and scope, asking for a wallpaper sized image that could be used to wrap around the spine and back of the book as well as given away as a cool desktop wallpaper (which my Patreon supporters already have access to), Michal’s response was that it was a larger commission piece than a normal cover, so they would have to up the price. They then quoted the amount it would go up by for my consideration. I agreed in a heartbeat, because I was asking for more work.

Lastly, and again before getting any artwork from them, I made sure to get an explanation of rights of ownership and usage. Because different artists have different standards and expectations here. I’ve contacted some artists who explain that I am merely purchasing the usage of the image for the cover—the artist will maintain all other rights, ownership, etc. Some will get even more specific. The cover for Unusual Events, for example, is a digital-only cover: I only have rights to use it as a book cover online, and would be required to pay the original creator more money to do a print run if I wanted to stick with this cover.

Rights and usage are very important. Some artists sell limited-time usage, or for a set number of sales (seen it). Other, more corporate (and evil) art houses will actually lay claim to the physical representations of the characters in your story if you let them, so that if there’s ever a graphic novel, film, or other representation, they have an excuse to get their fingers in your pie and take a few slices for themselves

Always ask about rights and usage. With Shadow, I got in no uncertain terms that the image is now mine to use as I choose. I own it and everything that came with it. But I made sure I knew what I was getting before I agreed to any artwork.

Once those three things are determined, then you can agree on artwork.

Now, most artists will ask you what you’re looking for. And what I’ve learned is “be general.” Do not descend on them, especially in the sketch stage, with a bunch of detailed demands for the picture in your head. They’re an artist, you speak with words. Let them determine how to bring the elements together. If you can, show them art they’ve done before that you want to grab a particular element or feel from. But be general with everything you can.

It can also help to give an artist access to a few key chapters that set the “mood” or explain something you’d like represented in the cover. Suggest it, see what they say. Some are all for it, others are not.

But be general. For example, with Shadow, my requirements were “one of the protagonists, a sweeping, open desert scene similar to what’s described in the book, and other elements as you see fit from those descriptions.” We sent sketches back and forth hashing out details from there (no cacti, for example) working on a more concrete setup, and then at the end, I was presented with the awesome picture that became the cover. Elements like the train in the background? I didn’t even ask for that, the artist just read the sample setting chapters and, based on our talks, had the vision.

And I trusted that vision because they were the artist. Not me. Yes, there was plenty of discussion along the way working out things here and there, but for the most part, a lot of the work on my end was making sure I explained what sort of creative style and result I was looking for so that the artist could create that.

All right, two last bits to round off this segment of the larger BaBW pieces I’ve ever done: The internet is a global world, so be prepared to hit language barriers from time to time contacting artists. If both of you are determined, you can make it work. Just be aware you’ll want to be even more clear about rights, what’s expected, etc. Also, be sure to think of time. I’ve had to delay a release before waiting on a cover. Be sure you know what you’re expecting as far as a timeframe goes.

And … that’s it. What a titanic post, but as with all these posts, if you learned something from it, then it was worth it.

So, good luck. Now get writing.

And then get working on a cover.

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Cover Art

    • Depends on how good of an artist you are. For example, you’ll often see graphic novel artists creating their own cover art, but that’s because they’e already professional artists.

      But if you’re a hobby artist and took some scattered classes here and there, you’re probably better off leaving it to a professional. Even if doing your own cover art makes you proud, you may be better off getting that professional touch for your work.

      Liked by 2 people

      • *Sigh* It would’ve been so cool to draw stick figures for a cover…
        When you put it like that, either I’m going to have to take those graphic art classes or maybe just stick with somebody else making them for when I write my book. Probably better for everyone’s eyes to take the ‘getting a professional artist’ route. 🙂


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