Making a Bookcover, Redux

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friends do not let friends use horrible cover art.

A while back, I did a post about basic cover making because someone had asked me how I made the mock covers I used to post. I thought I'd do another, with a bit more detail, for those of you who need to make your own for uploading e-books to Kindle, nook or the like.

Most self-published covers look something like this:

They're obviously amateurish, with blocks of color that don't really match, an irritating font (Papyrus should only be used by people with "Ankh-Amun" in their family name. Bonus points if you're a king named Tut.) There's nothing visually stimulating about this cover, nor is it memorable. There's no clue about the subject matter or age group.

Perhaps, if you write a decent blurb, this is a surmountable obstacle, but why risk it? Why put the same cover on your book that thousands of others have used? You don't want people to think your book is one of the tidal wave of self-published slush, do you? Then you're going to have to put as much effort into the execution of the cover as you do the contents of your novel.

First off, book covers tell as story every bit as much as the narrative itself does. It's a one frame deal, like those comic strips that only get one little box in paper, but with some planning, you can turn that one frame into something that will make someone stop browsing and read your blurb. Maybe even check the writing sample. By that point, you've got a shot at making a sale.

This is the cover I'm using as my example. I made it this morning.

Big difference, no? Same title, same (potential) blurb, but put up against the other cover, which one do you think would get more clicks?

This cover tells us something. It sets a dark tone with shadows and highlights. We can tell that it's likely YA, with a boy protagonist.The metallic/industrial font gives a hint to genre, and while we may not know what this "cube" is, we know from the tagline that it's going to be the setting and part of the struggle. That little frame in the top left corner confirms that our protagonist will be entering something. Our journey is to follow him as he tries to get out.

Now, how does a person get from blah to something more marketable?

Much like the process of plotting a novel, you must plot your cover. Think of this as your query letter to the reader. When querying an agent, you get a tiny amount of space to pique their interest in your characters and plot - the same applies to cover art.

What's the tone? Who's important? If your book was a movie, what would be the tagline on the poster. Think about these things, and then go find photos or artwork that conveys what you want to get across. You will either do this by taking your own photos or going to a site that allows you to license their stock photos. For this particular cover, I used Shutterstock, but there are others.

DO NOT STEAL ANYONE'S PROFESSIONAL WORK. (For that matter, don't steal their amateur work, either.) They are in the same boat as you, putting their craft out there in hopes of making money from it. Don't be the jerk who decides no one will notice if you use what you haven't paid for.

For the tone, I went for something dark, and painted a blank page black to use for my base. Easy Peesey.

Then I went searching for photos on Shutterstock.

Since this was a darkish story, I used "sad teen" for my search and was rewarded with page after page of angst. From that, I chose four images that fit what I wanted. (Actually, I chose five, but one got the boot.)

I had only gone in search of faces, settling on these:

But one of them was near this image:

which fit perfectly for the idea of entering this thing called The Cube.

Now that you have your pieces, you have to decide how best to assemble them. In this case, the boy is the main character, so he gets to go in front. The girls are supporting characters, so they're used to frame the center line of the cover, keeping a potential reader's attention where it should go.

I cut each teen's face from their original photograph and pasted it as a separate object on my black background, then played with the sizing tool until I got them into the right configuration. I used the "Fade Out" brush to make the edges transparent so all three images would blend. (I've also found that if you'll set the main image transparency to something like 5%, it will make the tone and layering look better as a whole.

After I'd removed the logos from the clothes, and adjusted the lighting on the main character's face so it wasn't so stark, I was left with this:

Next, it was time to place the boy in the door. I did a bit of clone-brushing to give him a haircut, and chose the left side of the cover because of the way the boy in the photo is walking. Flipping the image or putting it on the other side would have made him look like he was going with the grain instead of against it, and this needed to look like a decision being made. I tilted the frame with a distortion tool to make him look off-kilter. If your guy's going to be headed into another world, especially a dangerous one, then things are going to be a bit off center for him.

Now I had this:

Which left things perfectly placed for the title on the right side, top.

Most people don't think about fonts, but I can guarantee you, the eye notices them. You need to choose a shape that fits your genre and a color, alignment and size that meshes with the rest of the image. I chose something high impact, with all caps, and a rusted metal finish. By coincidence, the space between the "c" and "u" fit perfectly over the point of the guy's hoodie, so I went with it. Each little detail adds up to a more complete picture.

The tagline should be smaller than the title, but you can use the same font (make sure it shows up when placed). Try and locate a simple, punchy sentence that encapsulates your story or the struggle your characters will face in it. It doesn't need to be complicated. "Getting in is the easy part." is fairly straightforward, and that's what you want. Intrigue without confusion.

Ideally, your cover will generate good questions along the lines of "I wonder what happens." rather than "What was he/she thinking, and why should I care?"

So there you go. How to create a book cover in a few simple steps, and one really long blog post. There are, of course, dozens, if not hundreds, of options for every book's cover, and you may even think I've blown it with this one because the process is highly subjective. But, if you're set on going it alone, then you're going to have to find a way to pick the ones that work best for you.

12 Chiming In:

Matthew MacNish said...

This is just an example, right? You didn't actually write this book?

Josin L. McQuein said...

At this point, I'll say I had a reason for doing the favor that turned into creating this cover. If anything comes of it, I'll post about it, but right now, "Author Doe" would smite me. :-P

Michael Seese said...

Actually, though, I like the Papyrus font.

Literaticat said...

where will you put the author's name in the good one?

Josin L. McQuein said...

Grrr. I haven't thought of that. But there are a couple of blank spaces I can use if I need to, or I can resize to fit one.

Way too soon to worry about that, if I ever have to think about it at all. ;-P

Wilson James said...

I totally agree that covers are way more important than many of us authors want to believe. You have given some very helpful, practical, and important advice. Thanks.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Covers are hugely important! People have told me that they bought Woman of Honor because of the cover. You want one that stands out and is eye-catching and makes people pick it p.

New follower, btw. :)

D.G. Hudson said...

Hi Josin, I've seen you around in the blogosphere, but am now following.

Very interesting post re-book covers. Thanks for sharing.

Lydia Kang said...

That's so cool. Thanks for sharing how you did it. It turned out great!

J.L. Campbell said...

Awesome! What programme/s did you use to create that cover?

Josin L. McQuein said...

I use PhotoImpact. You can usually find a version on Amazon that's one or two generations off the newest one for less than $50.

J.L. Campbell said...

Okay, thanks again. Very useful.

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