Monday, April 2, 2018

Cover Stories

Unless you're Stephen King, Dan Brown or JK Rowling where simple name recognition sells your books, the cover is your most important marketing tool. The cover holds the power to make that all-important first impression, to attract and induce a prospective buyer to take a closer look. How much control an author has over her cover depends on whether she is traditionally or independently published. I've been both (aka a hybrid author) and here's what I've learned.

1. If you're traditionally pubished, as I was for my first novel, the publisher has total control over the cover design. 
In many instances, the first time the author sees the cover is when it appears in stores. I first saw my cover online and was taken aback. There was nothing to indicate that the story was contemporary romance--just a woman sitting in what appeared to be some kind of concourse. Since important scenes in the story take place in airports, I assumed this was the publisher's rationalization for the cover...

It wasn't until many months later that I discovered the cover had been created for someone else's book. When the author withdrew her novel the cover was repurposed--and slapped on to my book. To say that I was startled by this revelation is putting it mildly. The first version of the cover had already been sent out to stores before the book was withdrawn...and it's still out there in places like FictionDB. Bizarre, huh...

2. When you publish independently, the cover hurdle is all yours. 
I published my second novel independently so I had total responsibility for the cover. I spent long hours searching stock image sites and finally found two images that I liked for the cover concept I had in mind. I did a (very) rough sketch and hired a highly-recommended cover artist (Kim Killion of Hot Damn Designs) to execute it. I thought the final product was beautiful, and perfect, and exactly what I had in mind. (Kim also has hundreds of stock images and pre-made book covers. I found all the images for my historical romance series on her site.)

3. If you have some basic design skills, you can make your own covers.
I generally don't recommend going this route, but I've done this for most of my short stories and novellas. I buy a stock image that won't need a lot of tweaking and upload it to one of the cover creator tools on publishing platforms such as Amazon's KDP or Pronoun (now defunct) where all I need to do is find an acceptable font and layout for the title, subtitle and author's name. I also did this for authors that I published in the past to keep costs down. Here's one I created for a short story for a client:

4. Cover artists work with stock images. If you're looking for someone to produce new and original art for your cover, you're opening the doors of hell.
I no longer publish other writers, but I do provide editing services and I collaborate on covers. A client wanted an original illustration for his new book, so he hired a graphic artist off of Fiverr who had done a cover for him before--from a stock image, of course. He explained to the artist that he was not going to work with a stock image this time but wanted an original illustration/drawing. The artist said he could do it.

The first red flag went up when Fiverr dude asked to be paid up front. I have NEVER had an artist ask for money before I approved a draft, and I've worked with several to date. The sequence goes like this: I approve a cover draft>>I pay artist>>artist sends me hi-res final images. The second red flag was when he asked to be paid outside of the Fiverr system so that he could avoid paying the commission on the sale. My client agreed to pay half up front and, predictably, disaster ensued.

The sketches were horrendous, and it became obvious that the artist could not draw. I know 8-year-olds who would have done a better job. My client gave the artist many chances to present something we could actually use, but the sketches just kept getting worse. Even the title fonts were atrocious, despite the fact that we sent the artist samples of the sort of font we wanted. Eventually my client had to fire the artist, who, of course, did not refund his money.

Then, without discussing it with me, the client hired someone who had never made a cover before. NEVER do that. NEVER. Did you get that? Not. Ever. This guy took us on an unbelievable, month-long ride before finally producing something we could use. He got things wrong that I did not think it was possible for anyone to get wrong. He disregarded instructions, sending PNG files instead of JPEG files for the e-book. He got the sizes wrong. He got the DPI (resolution) wrong. He got the RPG color profile wrong on the JPEG, using a CMYK format that is used for print, not digital images. He got the specs for the PDF cover for print wrong about 5 times. He sent the spine for the print book separately from the front and back. He neglected to leave margins around the back blurb on the print cover, or a space between the header and the body of text. All of this despite being given clear instructions, links to further explanations, and examples of previous projects. And just like the first 'artist', he could not create acceptable art from scratch despite his protestations, so my client had to finally give in and provide him with stock images.

When we finally got images we thought we could use, CreateSpace rejected the PDF for the print version, and Draft2Digital rejected the JPEG cover. I've published 50-plus titles, my own books and on behalf of clients, and I'd never had D2D reject a cover before. I hit Google to figure out what D2D meant by RPG and CMYK color profiles, then it was back to the drawing board.

So what's the takeaway from my experiences?
1. Be prepared to have zero input on your covers if you're traditionally published.
2. Understand that you have total control over your covers as an indie author/publisher.
3. You can design your own covers if you have basic design skills and can work with the cover creator software that's provided free by some platforms
4. Self-made covers tend to look self-made, however, so it's always best to hire an experienced cover artist.
5. If you use services like Fiverr, play by the rules. Do not pay for artwork until you approve the work, and do not make payments or deals outside of the system provided. The system is your protection.
6. Do not ask someone who has never designed covers for e-books and print to make your covers. Capiche?

Do you have interesting cover stories of your own? Please share them in the comments.


Linda Thorne said...

This was interesting and I've heard similar stories. I was lucky with the cover my publisher came up with for my first book. I asked to have it toned down as it initially looked like a book of horror rather than mystery. Once the cover was changed to a more traditional mystery look, I liked it. I suggested adding a clue in the mystery onto the book cover and the publisher liked the idea. In my case, I had no idea where to begin preparing a cover and appreciated having the free help from a professional.

Liane Spicer said...

Linda, I understand that some smaller publishers involve authors in cover decisions, and that's great as the chance of hating something you've had some input into is much less. No one knows the story like the author, so getting the author's input seems a good idea, as in your case.