This will seem to be a post about publishing. It actually isn’t.
Yesterday at Mad Genius Club we had someone get very snooty over one of my covers – which, btw, I know it’s not the best it COULD be. I’ve seen the work of professional cover designer and I couldn’t do it. Not yet. – completely ignoring what I’d said I was trying to do and say with the cover. (Long story, but so far as I can tell – and I confess I haven’t spent an awful lot of time looking at the publisher name, though I did look at the covers – the only people still doing historical mysteries are my old publisher Prime Crime. Being cheap and in a sub-branch they think will never sell well, they mostly seem to use photoshop of buildings and/or figures cut out of paintings. So, my cover was trying to imitate that.)
The reason my covers don’t look as though they came out of a professional designer is because they didn’t – they came from me. I’m at best a semi-trained beginner.
So, Sarah, you’ll say, why didn’t you hire a professional cover designer?
Two reasons. The first one is the vile metal. Yes, I know. “If you’re going to do this you should do it right. You should hire someone.” It’s a lovely idea except that most professional cover designers are working on SALARY for the publishing companies. As with everything else, if you find one willing to work piecemeal, they’re likely to either be in a completely different field (there’s a lot of non-fiction book designers, but that’s not the same cues, and they might in fact be worse, since they THINK they know what they’re doing and won’t look) or to be youn’ ones laid off in the current crunch.
Does that mean there are NO good cover designers out there for hire? Oh, by no means. Kris and Dean have an excellent cover designer. On salary. (I’m taking a cover design workshop with her.)
As with artists (I found one, and hope the cover he’s doing for Witchfinder works out, even if I’m very new at cover direction and he’s very new at covers. We’ll see. I know he’ll work for Shadow Gods, but for this one I’m afraid it will signal either “funny” or “young” which the book isn’t. Though a lot can be countered with cover design, but non funny/YA is new for him) the problem with cover designers is only partly money. The other part is finding them. And the problem is related – the cover designers I can find and/or pay for are likely to be just a little better than I, and that advantage might be lost between the things they know that just ain’t so and my inability to explain myself as to what I want.
Add to that the fact that I have to bring out 11 novels as soon as I can, and you’ll start seeing the scope of my problem. Say I pay a cover designer $250 – a really low price – to do a cover design. Now multiply that by 11. Then add in the fact that the two times I tried to hire a cover designer, it got dropped on the floor, and I wasn’t even told that it was no longer being worked on (maybe my instructions offended them mortally. Maybe they got better work. I don’t know.) And consider that my main job is/should be writing, and that riding herd on artists/cover designers takes time from that, which is – after the all – the main way I make money.
There was this publisher – Science Fiction Age – that used to send out rejection letters that started with “In an ideal world this would be an acceptance.”
Well, in an ideal world, there would be battalions of cover designers out there waiting to work for every indie writer, for a very reasonable fee — or any fee. They would be prompt and courteous and versed in the signaling for every genre and sub-genre and it would be much like hiring out proof reading.
As I screamed back at SFA rejections “This is not an ideal world.”
Some writers start off at a much higher peak for cover design. My friend Cedar Sanderson, for instance, or Kevin J. Anderson. (Maybe you need to have a name ending in “son” – how does Hoytson sound, ya’ll?)
While I’m not wholly without artistic training, I have been shorting my art for the last five years (because I’ve been so busy) and as with any artistic thing (yes, including writing) a lot of it is training. In this case, training the eye. You can know everything cerebrally, but – I swear this is most of art classes – if your eye isn’t trained, you will still suck. Most of my art classes were “learning to see.” And like things that are muscle memory – piano playing, painting, or even running – if you’re away from it for a while, you lose it. Mea culpa, and all that. Amanda Green has told me I need to go back to classes and practicing, though I think she meant it for mental health. Well, I need it for helping to design things too. And one of the legend-artists of SF tells me that I’m actually quite gifted, (okay, what he told me is that as much as he enjoyed my books, I’d missed my real calling. It hurt a little.) but “gifted and out of practice” still boils down to “amateur.”
So I’m not one of those “comes in with a lot on the ball” designers. It’s all cerebral, not eye yet. So it will scream “beginner.”
Does this mean I should either spend the next year going door to door trying to find someone who can professionally design my covers or sit on my hands until I can do it at the “required” level?
Oh, for the love of Bob.
First of all, not all the books that come out of NYC look like “best professional designer.” The reason for this is obvious.
As in everything else, from proof reading to editing, there are the main people at the houses, who are extremely well paid and who work only for the high least. And then there are the low-level trainees, who are just learning some of whom are just out of high school/college.
I’m not here going on the “most of what comes out of NYC is cr*p.” A lot of it is, of course, because they don’t invest money on it. But most of it is “good enough.”
Well, my intention with cover design is “good enough” – though of course, I aim higher. But I know where I fall.
In fact, when I audit cover designers – by looking at their stuff on line – most of them are about as good as I am, with a difference. A lot of them get stuck in one genre. Like literary.
There was a page of “clever” cover designs going around – I can’t find the link now – for things like 1984 and Metamorphosis. They were very nice, but here’s the thing: if they weren’t classics and most people didn’t know what was in them, they’d make no sense. Like the 1984 cover with silhouettes of rats around the front cover. Would a potential reader of anti-totalitarian books buy it on that? Probably not. It could work with a great blurb, but it wasn’t, by itself, a “selling cover.”
Most people out of college try to be similarly clever and “high class”, just like most editors and agents just out of college want to do “literary.”
What I’ve been doing is going over to Amazon and looking at the bestsellers in print, then trying to imitate that. I discard “made famous by a movie” books like GRRM because, well, his series was doing okay before the movie, and now they’re designed to fit with the movie. And then I look at the genre and subgenre, to see not only what is being done, but what is being signaled.
For instance, I started out with the Musketeer series, wanting the cover to show a scene from the novel. I tried to draw it, so I could show it to an artist who could then improve on it. (Believe it or not artists understand pictures better than words. Shocking.)
Then I went and looked at the covers in mystery-cozy-historical (yes, it’s a cozy in the sense it’s not a hard boiled.) And got a shock. What they’re using now – foreshadowed by the last two covers for Musketeers, which seem to be stock paintings, for some reason involving apples – is something evocative of the time, like, a piece of architecture (for Victorian) or a figure from a painting (for everything else.)
To put the scene I wanted to put on the front cover would simply date the books as being abt. 10 years old.
Having determined this, I raided pictures of musketeers from paintings. I learned not to put the entire painting in, because it gives off a “classical” and “literary” feel. I still feel the background is not textured enough, but overlaying say a wood cut of the time, no matter how faded, becomes “cluttered” with all the lettering these books have.
The covers still feel cluttered to me, because I’m reclaiming the books. Having found out that at least half of my readers on either side don’t know Sarah D’Almeida is in fact Sarah A. Hoyt, I am doing them as Sarah A. Hoyt writing as Sarah D’Almeida. This is a hope to integrate both readerships, or at least a significant portion. (The musketeers have a “fantasy” feel to them, anyway.) And I know I’m not doing what professionals do with balance of mass and lettering. I am sort of at the edge where I can “sense” that, but not do it reliably yet. Because knowing it intellectually is not the same as learning to see.
So, the book won’t say “High push.” Well… it’s the reprint of a midlist series. It’s possible – I still get fan mail for it, five years after the last came out – that doing the sixth book will revive the series, in which case it might very well pay off. BUT even if it pays off, it will be at around the 10 to 20k per book, not the millions. (Oh, I’d love to be proven wrong, but historical mystery is one of those genres that has run off its own readers and it will take a while to find their way back. So I’m looking at it as “old faithful” not “gusher of money.” Frankly neither is science fiction. If I were doing this JUST for the cash, I’d just be doing Paranormal Romance. I’m not. — though I might do some in the future, of course. But never the only thing.)
This is the part where this is not about publishing: I know I’m doing an imperfect job. I also know I’m improving.
I was never one of the worst cover designers out there. For one, as an author, I’ve seen a lot of covers. I can go back to the styles of my youth, because that happens to everyone, and sometimes I missunderestimate what a font says (I think that’s a cultural issue, too. I didn’t grow up here) but when I started I already understood “the cover is a sales tool.” I never had that kind of cover you used to see at Smashwords, with the wrong aspect and the letters that looked like a ransom note.
That said, my early covers were pretty bad. One or two, unexpectedly, rose to the sublime. But most sucked. Fortunately, in the herd of authors putting their back stuff up, they were fairly normal and passed unnoticed.
However, every few months, everyone ups their game, and I look at the old covers and go “OMG” and redo some – I wish I had the time to redo them all. (That said, I also buy books in the store and go “OMG” at their covers.)
Does this mean I should wait until I get good at it? Or wait till I had the money and the perfect cover designer?
Keep in mind every week those books aren’t out is lost income. Even if it’s less than a hundred per book per month. It’s still income. And every little bit helps. An imperfect cover out there will earn me more money than the perfect cover in a year or two. (I can always change it in a year or two.) And the chances of my even recognizing the perfect cover if a designer did it in a year or two, if I have no experience, are zilch.
As I said, this is the part where it’s not about publishing. There are things you can only learn by doing. Writing is one of them. Cover design is another. (Though if I can find a design course in the local community college, I’ll take it. Like writers’ workshops it won’t be a magic bullet, but it will probably help. And I am taking Dean’s cover workshop.)
I could sit around and wait for that time when I’ll be perfect.
Somehow that time never comes, and it’s even less likely to come if I sit around waiting for it (witness what five years of no practice – part of it born of the frustration of seeing my mistakes and not knowing how to fix them – have done to my drawing.)
Look, I feel the exact same thing about writing. When my first trilogy was published, I knew I wasn’t up to snuff. I kept expecting people to come along and say “Hey, who let the amateur in?” Now? I don’t read it. I’m sure the thumbs would show all over the clay. They would to me at least. And yet, people love it.
But then, even though now I think I’m pretty up on my craft, if you force me to re-read one of my books (something I must do when getting back into a series) you’ll see me cringe. Yes, even Darkship Thieves.
This is merely a sign I’m progressing. Am I perfect? Oh, heck no. I hope never to be. If I’m still working, I hope I’m still progressing… which means I’ll never be perfect.
So, what is this post all about?
Some things you only learn by doing. You know those “Might have beens” – try them. Make an effort. If what stands between you and what might be is the consciousness of your own failure, give things a try.
First, you’re always your own worst critic (in fact, you should only worry if you think you’re perfect.) Second, you will improve in the doing. Third, while it’s embarrassing as heck, some things have to be learned in the public eye and on stage, as it were. Because I can spend my life doing covers (or writing) and putting nothing up, but the ultimate test (“How does this sell?”) just won’t be there, and my subconscious will treat it as “just play” and eventually I’ll stop doing it. (Like my art.)
If what’s stopping you is that you aren’t perfect, consider that no one is ever perfect. And you certainly won’t be if you don’t practice.
I don’t know why in certain artistic fields – and in a lot of non-artistic others, like public speaking or even software design – people think they have to be good to start. In others: painting, music playing, dancing, sewing – people know that they’ll spend years practicing and years as apprentices. All talent does is give you a leg up. BUT it doesn’t make you perfect.
You aren’t a good writer? Try it anyway. You aren’t a good painter? Try it and learn in the doing. You aren’t a good cover designer? Well, honey, neither is most of NYC. You can’t explain politics eloquently? Hon, give it a shot anyway, your voice is needed. You want to do a podcast and aren’t sure about your voice? Study what others are doing and learn. You’ll improve. You want a date, but don’t know how to approach women? Well, as Jane Austen pointed out in Pride and Prejudice, that too is a matter of practice.
You learn in the doing. You don’t do, you don’t learn.
You pays your money, you takes your bets. Sometimes the paying down is in money, sometimes in time, sometimes it’s in effort. And sometimes, after all your time and effort you find you’ll never rise above “competent” (if you really put time and effort in it, you’re unlikely to be lower than that.)?
Well, that would be tough. But if you don’t bet you can’t win. And you’re left sitting by the fire with the memories of the life unlived.
What’s worse, you’ll never know how good you could get – if you’d only try and work at it.