Cover Me! I’m Going In

Over at Mad Genius Club, my group writers’ blog, Amanda Green has been doing a series on Digital Publishing how to.  It’s an amazingly good series, so go look at it.  She asked me to come in and do the segment on covers, possibly because she got tired of hearing me moan about the covers some of my mentees put up.  So… keeping in mind this is not my metier, but a trade I’m being forced into, I’m echoing the post here:
Cover Me! I’m Going In!

I was brought in by Amanda to do the segment on covers because I’ve more or less taken over this duty at Naked Reader. The various people who did cover design and art selection/direction before were sweet and about as clued in as I was. In fact, one of my first things out with Naked Reader Press, I did the cover which is now up to be redone, because it was wrong, wrong, wrong, miles and miles of wrongitude. That was A Touch of Night, which I’d drawn the art for, too (so, sue me.) I might actually keep the art, since it could be worse [Grin] but that blue border and the lettering… How bad is that lettering? Can you read it? No, I didn’t think so.

The A Touch of Night cover just screams “amateur.”

So, how did I come to make this mistake? Oh, very easily. I had been trained by years of covers. What do I mean by that? Well, take the book that was on my bedside table this morning, Georgette Heyer’s Frederica from 1965 (when I’m not feeling well, I not only read stuff I’ve read before, and often light stuff, but I tend to read only the — happy — ending.)

Now, we can all agree, right? that whoever designed this cover did not intend to scream “Amateur”. But the sixties book market was quite different. I don’t actually KNOW as such, since — though I learned to read at four, that was a year later than this and — I wasn’t reading, much less buying, romances, but from what older friends have told me, you bought books from the corner store often from one of those spinning racks. With the book about at your eye level face out — and if not, you knelt, I think, or at least I used to — that cover is great. The author name, which is the important thing, is still readable. But the title just doesn’t quite come across in the digital age, does it?

These are the books we grew up looking at and loving and they formed our idea of “good cover” only, of course, times have changed.

How much have times changed? Oh, boy… well… First they changed so that you had to see something that caught your attention spine out on the shelf of a megastore, and picked it up. This led to any number of wrap around covers and what I call “brocade and embroidery” particularly for what they considered a “prime” title or a “classy title” covers. The publishers were going for feel and impression, rather than in any way representing the book:

And for a slightly different feel, something from the thriller isle which still shows that concern with “let’s get the customer to pick up the book and give it more attention” — here’s the first Repairman Jack I read (we’ll return to this.)

Hosts is a little better, because it’s from a slightly different era. It was given away for free at World Fantasy 2001 — which means the publisher was pushing it.

Unlike the other two, which came in around that time, too, and quite unlike Frederica, the cover for Hosts takes in account a new reality — Amazon. While most of the books were still sold in paper (correction, most of the books still ARE sold in paper) Amazon was coming up from behind to become a leading outlet for those, which meant how things looked in thumbnail mattered, at least if your publisher had a clue. (Many publishers STILL aren’t Sherlock Holmes.) So you see on that cover that you can read the title and the author’s name in high contrast. But you can also tell the title was foiled (covered in foil, not “curses, foiled again” in a way that makes it harder to read electronic. that was because electronic was a negligible market and that short of shimmer and fade on the title meant it was foiled, which is an expensive process and therefore signified to your mind “pushed.”

In fact, you should go to the Repairman Jack site and look over the cover retrospective. In particularly, look at the Young Repairman Jack series which came out wholly in the electronic age and see the difference. But, you’ll say, the difference is also that it’s YA. Right… but no. Look at the very last of the Repairman Jack titles, Night World — that’s a title fully in the electronic age and they finally got the message. See how the title is HUGE and the art recedes in importance? Right. That’s part of what’s happening. Let’s do a quick retrospective of “highly pushed titles” (Pushed = what the publisher paid big bucks for and wants you to believe is the best thing since sliced bread) over the last few years, shall we?

Do you see how the covers become more and more “inconic” and stripped down, till all that is left of the art is usually a highly memorable image, having more to do with logo-making and image-making than with actual “art” as we used to think of it for a book? The contrast is particularly great if you compare it to the brocade (or small details) era of just ten years ago.

Now mind you, not all publishing houses have got the memo, and a lot of them too, aren’t doing a lot of their selling in ebooks,(Yet) or — the idiocy — are trying to discourage selling that way, under the belief if they keep their fingers over their ears and scream “there’s no place like home, auntie Em” they’ll be back in the — for them — halcion days of the nineties. As sad as that is, most of the houses HAVE got the memo and as you can see the covers of  their headliner books have changed a lot over the last ten years.

Now, for a snapshot of the amateur leagues, let’s head over to smashwords, where most of the books are self published. I am NOT picking on these people — my early covers for Goldport press were as bad or worse. Here are some books up on the first page when I looked this morning, while writing this post:

Okay, is there any chance, no matter how remote you’d think that was a traditionally published book? Well… no. First of all the book “orientation” is wrong. It’s wider than it is tall. And while you often see that in printed children’s books, the rest of the cover also screams “amateur.” The type is so small you can barely read the title. the author name IS there, but runs off the page on Smashwords, and I guess it didn’t copy. And while the cover is a gorgeous photograph, with tons of visual interest, and has a doggy on it, it is a photograph, which almost by itself, these days, screams “self published” (except in some sub-genres, though I’ve found even including a photograph as PART of the cover seriously brings my sales down in GP. Go figure. People are internalizing the new signaling, I’d guess.)

I’ll confess to you I didn’t check if the next book is self or traditionally published. It might VERY WELL be traditionally published, because it’s poetry, where covers are always screwy at best. However, as a cover it screams “amateur” — that is, if you can read it at all.

I can’t. Oh, it’s the right aspect, though it came up poster size, taking up the entire window, and when I reduced it, I might have done it violence, and it’s a painting or someone at least treated a photograph with one of the “brush stroke” simulating programs, to look like a a painting. But that title and the author’s name… what is that, exactly?

So, so far, let’s go with our lessons, shall we? “no fonts so fancy you can’t read them,” “No fonts so small you can’t read them” and the right aspect for books. (Aspect meaning orientation and size. Set your program for nine inches by six inches, the size of a trade paper back. Unless you’re using sigil where Amanda tells me, at least the cover to go on the inside needs to be 590 pixels x 750 pixels. I recommend making a different one for the inside, then, because otherwise the “aspect” instinctively says “textbook.”

More random examples of covers up on Smashwords this morning:

Photograph AND the title and author’s name sideways. I’m not sure why but… oh, no. Also, the contrast makes both almost impossible to read and they’re WAY too small.

And this last one: The picture actually works, for what it is, though to me it says “WWII fiction” instead of a contemporary article.

Yes, I know if I look at details I can tell it’s far more recent than WWII but the faded look first gives that impression. HOWEVER the letters are still too small. FAR FAR too small. yes, they can be read, which is good, but they trigger our mental “self published” triggers.

None of this is written in stone, okay? You can still look in the kindle paid bestsellers and find astonishingly “antique” looking covers. The Help’s cover comes to mind. But then if you step back and ask yourself what THAT marketing strategy was you think “movie + marketed to ‘literate’ people” and you realize it might very well look that way on purpose.

I’ve found that the covers that do best for me (by and large) have the following characteristics: relatively simple art (I’m no advertising maven, and I have so far fallen short of finding a “branding” type image. Large type,usually in Times New Roman or one of the other simple fonts (remember fonts are copyrighted. You can’t just pick one up off the web without making sure you have the rights to it. OTOH if you’re using a program to make the covers and the program is freeware OR licensed to you, you’re fine.) Large enough that it can be read from a distance, or in thumbnail side. No tilting, funny fonts, running blood or anything of the sort, unless VERY EXCEPTIONALLY because of the book it is. (I tilted the title of ConVent because it is supposed to be a convention banner, also, italic — PROVIDED IT’S LEGIBLE, which a lot of it isn’t — can work for romance.) Usually a tag line somewhere there — which is too small to read in thumbnail but readable if they click on it. Don’t ask, but this gives the impression that it is a printed book, even when it isn’t.

When I can, I use a drawing rather than a photograph, though photographs are de-rigueur for certain types of books — just go look at the books that have done well in your subgenre FIRST — that, btw, NEVER includes SF or historic romance.

So, where do I find this art? Do I just take it off the web? No. Art is copyrighted, and I try not to steal others’ work. Do I commission it? Well… this is a little difficult. If I end up bringing novels out with Goldport, I probably will commission the art, unless, of course, I happen to find art that fits so wonderfully that there is no point (It happens. My collection Five Far Futures is one of those — look below.) However, for short stories, it’s a numbers game. I get most of my money from QUANTITY not from individual shorts (tons of people don’t buy shorts, etc.) So… Well… go here and you’ll find any number linked, including public domain sources. Most of my art comes from Dreamstime because it’s a large enough site to have a lot of things and their search engine is actually pretty good once you understand the logic of terms used (which might make you cry for the general education or psychology of the users, but that’s something else. For instance, if you search for handsome man, you come to realize most photographers have no clue what that word means — occasionally either of those words.)

If you’re publishing only in ebook, you can usually get away with buying the extra small size because your eye simply can’t see details past a certain point, not on the screen. So, go for it, then expand the image to the size you need. Now, if you’re printing, you’ll have to buy the larger size or resign yourself to extreme pixalation (which sounds like a reality show.)

Keep in mind a few things: first, if like me you have a bunchaton of covers to make, you’re not always going to hit a homerun. In fact, if most of your covers are meh but professional, you’re ahead of the game. The cover doesn’t necessarily have to reflect the content. In fact, if Baen rejects A Few Good Men (I hope not, but they might. It’s a “risky” book — not risque, but risky — for many reasons, the cover I’d like is a man in a tattered shirt (war tattered, not romance-tattered) holding up an arm, which holds a futuristic weapon. From his wrist hangs a broken manacle. Behind it, a tattered American flag (very tattered, I found a nice image of it practically in ribbons, which I am saving to show artist) and there might be a flying car/air-to-space in the distant horizon. Now, my character was never shackled, but he was imprisoned for fifteen years. Symbolically that works. (On other levels too.)

Keep in mind too, that you’ll get better with practice (save for those days you’re “off”) and just keep doing it. And keep in mind that as long as it’s electronic you can always mess with it. For instance, I need to go do something about the cover of Nocturnal Serenade because it doesn’t come across at all that there’s a sexy woman silhouette behind the letters. Amanda is going to kill me, but I’m going to muck with it next week, sometime.

The only other advice? If you think your title and author name is large enough — bump it up a little. This is where most of us err. Also, for the love of heaven, make your name either the same or close to the size of the title. Name of author has been used for so long to indicate “known, well selling author” that people look at little ones and the back brain goes “ignore” — so, make yourself a lead author. Go for it. You have my permission.

Okay, now some of the covers that I made which PROBABLY don’t suck:

76 thoughts on “Cover Me! I’m Going In

  1. I noticed this same trend about covers. They are designed to be instantly recognizable from across the room or as a thumbnail online. I had big plans for a full narrative cover, until I noticed the same thing you are discussing and just went for a simple graphic and big background over a subtle hieroglyphic background.

    Check it out:

    Not exactly what I wanted but it reads at all levels.

      1. Thanks. It’s still a bit plain for my tastes. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s in the era when the Hildebrandt bros did some great fantasy and sci-fi covers. I like the large narrative scenes, but the simple design is more suited for thumbnails.

  2. Sarah, on copyright and fonts, I just assumed anything MS Word had available was public domaine. I haven’t a clue how to check. Any pointers at where to start?

    1. If you own MS word, yeah, you can use them. Public domain, no. But if you look through that page, you’ll find that there are fonts you can download and use that are public domain or small donation.

    2. Or do what I did. If you are familiar with photoshop or Illustrator it is easy enough to take an existing font and tweak the vector paths to something entirely new with not much trouble.

    1. The only problem with that is SUBSCRIPTION. Since I put my stuff out “when I find time” it doesn’t pay. Now, Kevin Anderson, say, can buy a subscription for a month — he knows the novels don’t need “fixing” (some of my shorts do) and he remembers what they are, so he can just pull them up, one after the other. He uses another one I can’t remember now, but every indie author has favorites, I swear. I SHOULD also have mentioned deviant art, but so far on that I strike zero for zero — either they don’t answer or, if they do, the art has been commissioned and they can’t sell. (And one of them sounded offended I ASKED, even though the art was commissioned by a friend for the novel the friend was intending to write, and the artist was not pro. (While offense would still have been unwarranted as pro, unless he/she was, say, Valejo or Bob Eggleton or even Picacio or one of the artists who have made or are making a name in SF and he/she was upset I didn’t know the name. But frankly, unless they catch my attention on an sf/f show, I don’t KNOW artists, so it wasn’t warranted. I think.)

      1. *sneaks in to offer as a potential source — she asked artists to comment, if they were open to ebook commission requests*

        (Speaking of which, I must double-check and see if a certain artist’s thesis has et said artist, or if something fell on the floor.)

        Another potential source of art, if your book style fits, is webcomic artists who do commissions. I’ve got another one of those in progress.

        The downside of those is that getting Really Good Art can be expensive. *sigh* Long tail, long tail…

    1. You’re thinking of the cover as a reader. As a writer, we also get et up that covers don’t match the inside. I just had an email from Dave Mattingly asking what Thena and Kit look like, because he’s had writers crawl up his nose before. BUT as a publisher — which I try to think as for GP — and as an art director (for Naked Reader) you REALLY need to think more in terms of “what will cause people to look inside and/or download a sample?” For THAT looking like the interior of the book means diddly.

      1. Yes and No Sarah, if the cover art “screams romantic comedy” and the story is “action adventure”, then something is wrong with the cover art. [Smile]

        1. Oh, THAT I give you. Like the Draw One In The Dark hardcover, where the cover is “horror with zombies who are udder fetishists”… when it’s light fantasy and not even really supernatural, much less dark.

          1. Really, now I’m going to have to walk upstairs and look at my copy, I honestly didn’t even look at the cover (very seldom do, but then I’m apparantly in vast minority that way) just bought by title and author.

            And the fact that I had already read Gentleman Takes a Chance, so I needed to read Draw One in the Dark. 😉

  3. Smashwords is always a great source for bad covers, including my first ones, but a recent change means there are now more of the truly awful, like the landscape wolf. Smashwords now requires a cover if you want your book to show on the “recently published” pages. Unfortunately, they haven’t set any standard for what a cover is supposed to be, so all kinds of abominations are showing up, including drawings or photos without any text at all.

    1. As I said, I didn’t want to pick on anyone because my early covers were awful, but I see too many otherwise intelligent people make AWFUL covers, so I wanted them to SEE what I mean.

  4. Of your 4 non-sucky examples, I think “The Serpent’s Tail” is on the borderline. All the others are, I feel, very professional looking, but that one doesn’t quite get to the same level. It doesn’t scream “Amateur” but I think the color choice isn’t quite there. Perhaps if you had a gradient in the background colors (like this )? as I think solid colors are one indication of amateur… In fact that’s one of the issues with the “A touch of night” cover. That blue is definitely an amateur one because it’s right off the standard 16 color chart. The colors in Sepent’s Tail aren’t as bad, but something still seems a little off in them.

    1. Francis,

      I will add a word of warning here about gradients, especially if used in the text of a cover. Most e-book readers are still black and white, whether back lit or e-ink. That means you have to be careful to make sure that what looks good in your photoshop-like program, looks good in both full color and gray scale. I’ve seen too many covers with gradients that loose the sharpness that’s needed to make them good.

      1. Shit. I knew I forgot something with that cover. I need to do a test upload on Amazon, and see what it comes out like in Amazon’s dopey monochrome format.

        Thanks for reminding me Amanda.


      2. Amanda;

        Oo! Excellent point! How can you test for this — in the absence of actually having a book cover on Amazon? Is it necessary to fake up a Web page and convert it to .mobi or .epub? Or would a .jpeg file embedded in an ebook file suffice? Or… is it possible to simply make a conversion in — frex — Photoshop? What IS the display of a Kindle? 8-bit grayscale? Or something more arcane?


        1. The wiki page says it has 16 levels of grey at 600×800 pixels. I read somewhere a better size was 520×622, but I think even that is covered by the menu bar at the bottom. This is for the cheap one, not the fire or other color ones.

          To mimic this in Photoshop all you’d have to do is add two Adjustment Layers at the top of your file. One that turns the art greyscale (Hue/Sat with the saturation turned all the way off), and the other a Posterize set to 16 levels. That should fake it pretty well, and can be turned on or off by turning on or off the layers.

        2. Mark and Wayne, you really don’t have to upload to Amazon or BN to see what it looks like in grey scale. Most photo editing programs allow you to view the image in grey scale. That way you can check it as you are putting your cover together.

          1. Yes, I could do it on my computer, but I’d rather see how their system does it. Sometimes Amazon does funny things. Same with Smashwords. I’ve had documents that looked perfect, fail on one system, and work on the other.

            So I’ve gotten a little bit paranoid, and check online.

            One other thing I do now, is save the source out to a text file, and then reformat the entire thing. It saves me having issues with formatting artifacts, which even with “Show Invisibles” turned on, aren’t always noticeable.


            1. Trying this again since the interwebs ate my response. I prefer hand coding, but don’t have the time to when, between NRP and my own stuff, I may be putting up several novels and multiple short stories a month. Then there’s writing and real life, such as it is 😉

              But you are right about checking everything once uploaded. That’s just as essential as checking your work in native e-reader programs before uploading and learning which format uploads and translates best per site. As for Smashwords, I hate their system. I can’t tell you the number of titles that have been converted by them and end up with huge, if not massive, chunks of text in small caps, etc., and it is solely because of their meatgrinder process and nothing that was present, even if hidden, in the original document.

              1. Problem is if you want an alternative to the proto-Monopolist, Smashwords is currently the best option. I’ve got the Apple and Barnes and Noble forms, and they are a freaking nightmare.


                1. But it is a lot easier to format and know what the probably outcome of the conversion will be using EPUB to upload to BN or Apple, as well as using EPUB or MOBI for Amazon, than it is with uploading a DOC to Smashwords and seeing what happens as it goes round and round through the meatgrinder. Also, the other outlets and formats available for upload give you a lot more control over layout and appearance of your e-book than does Smashwords.

              2. I admit that the current plan is to sideline both Smashwords and Amazon by setting up my own store, and documenting it. It really isn’t all that hard, and since I:

                A) Don’t give a shit about DRM/TPM (I used to design it, I used to break it, and I know why it is useless)

                B) Want to keep 100% of the sales whenever possible, so the writers and I get a better deal.

                C) Publish the documentation so that everyone else can do the same.

                I don’t like having to depend on Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, Sony, B&N, or anyone else. If fans show up directly, or from the writer’s website, and want to buy, I’ll happily cut the distributor’s throat.

                One of the hats I wear is “Futurist.”

                Long term I believe that the 70% rate from Amazon won’t last. Take a look at the margins that the company makes (I’ve read their financial reports – I’m that sort of lunatic). Amazon looks to be in a dangerous position right now. If shareholders turn around and demand better financial returns.

                One way to get them is to put the screws to the writers, after all, where can they go? Ninety percent of their sales come from Amazon. Cut from 70% royalties to 60% royalties, and most writers will bitch, but accept it.

                Amazon will laugh all the way to the bank.

                I’m getting ready to back stab them first.


                1. If I knew how to set up my own store, I might actually spring for a website of my own someday, instead of relying on a journaling one that I’ve already paid a flat fee for.

                  And I, too, believe Amazon is like Fire — a good servant, but a poor master — and want ways to get around it if necessary. Just having those ways around will hopefully keep them from getting too egregious. (Such as cutting all royalties to 35%, instead of just the under-2.99 ones; when Amazon first took self-published Kindle books, it offered 30% royalties, to everyone at any price range. It seems a lot of indie writers forget this or think that Amazon’s so great, they would never think of doing that again. Yeah, never — so long as Apple is offering 70% or so, and so long as Amazon has to beat B&N’s 60% or so.)

                  1. Okay, I didn’t answer Wayne because I thought he should know better — but Beth, I’m one of the VERY FEW indie authors who don’t have their own store. There are easy programs to do it, etc. The reason I don’t have one? Time to setup and — nota bene — NO TRAFFIC for most of these. From what I hear from my fellow writers, it’s like paypal donations — you’ll get a couple dozen from your most fanatic fans. Otherwise people prefer the convenience of the big stores they have accounts with. Heck, even I do — it’s a matter of security. You never know when some small site will get hacked. While it can happen to the big ones too, they take greater precautions and have the resources to take greater precautions. To be blunt, at this point unless you have a lot of start up capital — as in the order of millions — you’re not going to “compete” with Amazon, even if you carry other authors. You’ll have to go against an address people know and are used to, by now. You’d need MASSIVE publicity. Otherwise you’re dependent on people looking for that specific author (you or someone you carry) stumbling on your store. Unless you’re a mega bestseller and even then, unless you’re J. K. Rowling, you’ve just cut out MOST of your potential buyers.

                    1. I’ve actually set up a store for my wife’s business (the Candle Witch), and I think you are correct. Its a lot of work, for not a lot of money. I did find a very cheap (maybe even free still ) shopping cart called Mal’s e-commerice, and we found using ProPay for processing credit cards is not bad, but the amount of time it takes to deal with each purchase (especially at the price of most e-books) cuts your income (if any) down to almost zero pretty rapidly. Its a good solution if you have all the time in the world and are wealthy. Otherwise, the prepackaged solutions simply save you time.

                    2. The lack of visibility is a problem for the store of most authors.

                      Less obvious but potentially *vastly* more damaging is that with operating the own store comes liability for safeguarding customer data. CC information is the usual example, you don’t want to be known for loosing that. Really, if you want all of the money you have to handle all aspects of the business including the everyday tasks of the administrator. (Or pay someone to do it!)

                      Another common problem is not keeping the WordPress (or other blogging software or CMS) current. Infecting your readers computers with malware because your outdated site got (subtly) hacked is *not* a way too sell more books. – At least as far as my reading habits are concerned. =)

                    3. I actually agree with you. For a single writer, a store isn’t going to be profitable. Thing is I’ve got a half dozen writers that I’m publishing, and about seventy books that I’m in the process of formatting.

                      Each of these writers has works in progress, so there are more books in the pipeline. I don’t know how I’m going to work this. Release on my site first, and then on Smashwords/Amazon, or what, but I want to try whatever I can.

                      Do you know that even though I don’t live in the United States, that Amazon thinks that it is appropriate to collect United States Income Tax on my sales? Pardon me, but they can go fly a kite.


            1. Mark, absolutely. I’m lazy though and just check it in gray scale through the appropriate menu option on my editing programs. Also, it is all to easy to forget to turn off the layers or to “flatten” the image as some of the sites require.

              1. Been there, done that. Worse, I’ve flatten a layered file, and saved it! Ouch!

                In Photoshop there is a lovely option under the Image menu called Duplicate… If you check the box that says: Duplicate Merged Layers Only it will open a flattened version of your file in a new window, leaving your original layered file in whatever state you left it. This still doesn’t protect you from leaving the adjustment layers on, but it does help some.

                I color red all my layers that need to be off on the final pass. I also only place them at the top of the layers palette. That way it makes it easier to double check to make sure you got it right. Its not perfect, I still make the odd mistake, but it does tend to remove 90% of the stupid errors.

              2. Amanda;

                Heh. They don’t come any lazier than me. But I have all the cyclical checks of the printing industry burned into my DNA. Yeah, I make mistakes, but I have the habit of testing everything. Saves me from having to do things twice.


    2. Actually to me it looked like a professional cover from 20 years ago, don’t know if that was the look Sarah was going for or not however.

  5. Thanks for the great advice! I’ve linked it on the Writers of the Future forum, where we have an ongoing workshop on cover design.

    “The only other advice? If you think your title and author name is large enough — bump it up a little. This is where most of us err. Also, for the love of heaven, make your name either the same or close to the size of the title. Name of author has been used for so long to indicate ‘known, well selling author’ that people look at little ones and the back brain goes ‘ignore’ — so, make yourself a lead author. Go for it. You have my permission.”

    Heh. That’s easier advice to follow when you have a nice, short name like Sarah Hoyt. Even adding the “A.”, that’s still manageable across a cover. But I had real problems with “Martin L. Shoemaker”. (And because of Heinlein and Longyear, I’ve always stubbornly used my middle initial for professional credits.) If I try to put my full name on one line, it’ll never fit legibly. If I split my name across two lines, the last name is so long it “unbalances” the other two.

    After much experiment and advice, I ended up shrinking my first and middle names and in-setting them in my last name:

    I’m fairly happy with the result, but it took a lot of trial and error.

    If I ever adopt a pseudonym, it will be seven characters long. Counting the periods in the initials.

    1. Martin, They make typefaces that are easy to read yet designed with the letters narrower so the same word can be taller, yet take up less width. My favorite for this is Compacta, although there are many others.

        1. Most of the credit is due to the cover workshop on the WotF forum. They rejected (kindly but firmly) some of my other ideas before finally saying I had a workable idea here. They’ve been helping me to fine tune the look since then. They don’t always agree with each other, and I don’t always agree with them, but they’re educating me.

          They also convinced me to look at Dreamstime. I’ve found some really fantastic work there for low licensing fees.

      1. Thanks! I need to do some font shopping. I have all the fonts from Word 2010 and a couple of other programs that I own, but I need to buy more. I find it a confusing process. It’s often hard to decide what’s going to look good. So I’ll look for Compacta.

        In fact, I’ll gladly take suggestions for other fonts or font packs that are good for covers.

        1. I honestly wouldn’t know where to begin. I always pick the font to match the design, so just owning fonts has never been the goal. Owning the right font for the right job is.

          A search for a font catalog might be a good place to start. I’m partial to House Industries, but they are often very “designery”, meaning some of their fonts would be difficult to use without a solid design background. The same can be said for another typeface place called T-26, which I also love.

          There are a lot of internet font sources to look at, and most of them categorize their fonts by style, which is very helpful. Just remember to keep your choices simple, and (above all) readable.

    2. Talking about name length…

      I’m editing a book for publication by M. Ann Margetson and that is how she insists her name go on the book. If I could just talk her into dropping the “M.” we could loose three digits. Sigh.


      1. Heh. After insisting on my middle initial, I can’t criticize her choice. I just asked an anthology editor if he could reduce his font for the author names. The cover design included a list of authors, and my name was already the longest WITHOUT the initial.

      2. The real fancy typesetting programs (like Adobe InDesign) allow the user to adjust the width of the fonts, making them thinner or fatter. This is not as “pretty” a solution as using fonts specifically made narrow or wide, but does allow for minor “fixes” to a pesky chunk of text. One can also adjust the spaces in-between the individual letters, both as a group (the whole word), and the specific spaces between certain letters. (Try putting a capital A next to a capital W, and you’ll start to see the need.) These are the little tricks available for those woking in print that make the job of designing a book cover so much easier.

        1. I go with what is affordable. For covers, I use The GIMP, which is Free as in Speech, and Free as in Beer. It is also incredibly powerful, and I have someone (my wife) who has a talent with it.


  6. Very nicely written coverage of cover art for the 21st Century. It sure has changed since I got given my first Tom Swift Jr. books when I was ten.


  7. This is a nice post Sarah. As it happens, I am a professional designer (although I’m a piker compared to most of the really amazing designers I’ve had the pleasure to work with). Your advice is perfect in that it is simple and fairly easy to follow. Keep it clean, when possible keep it graphic (our word for a more representational and/or iconic style, and less literal), and make it easy to read.

    As a general rule of thumb we attempt to design so that the art tells the reader a story. One that can be read in 3 seconds or less. Think of it as a visual expression of the “back of the jacket” synopsis.

    The only thing I would add is a possible suggestion on typeface usage. As a rule of thumb one should only use two typefaces for the cover. Preferably one typeface with serifs and one san-serif. There is a plethora of wonderful “fancy” fonts out there, but if you do not know when and where to use them, or what kind of emotional response each one will bring, then stick with the big bold basics. There is nothing worse than a comedic typeface on a serious book (or vice-versa).

  8. Sarah,

    Would it be in line for use to post our sources? I have a list here of free as in speech (as well as free as in beer) stuff that I can post.


  9. My first reaction: Fans of Georgette Heyer care first and foremost that the book is by Ms Heyer. Then they will check to see if it is a new title. Then they make sure it is not one of her mysteries — I have yet to meet anyone who recommends those. My copy of Frederica is the one you use for illustrative purpose. It was obtained used, because at the time I discovered her she was out of print. (Thankfully this is no longer the case.) Except that it is a Heyer, I would never have considered anything that looked like that.

    I am far more comfortable porting around books with Frank Frazetta like beefcake and gore art or a picture from some museum, generally framed in black. Penguins always looked like Penguins, although I do see signs that they are trying to modernize (painfully). What you think a cover should be reflects not just what, but when you first started purchasing. (To me foil screams the 90s, as does ‘big’ hair, banana colored tights, air craft carrier shoulder pads … I am thankful to see these go.)

    You are right about the effect of electronic thumbnails. Somehow, in a changing world of marketing you have to lay aside your found memories of ‘how things should be’ and face the new world. That is if you like to keep eating.

    (BTW: Good choice and nice range of covers for illustration.)

    1. (I liked the one Heyer mystery I got at a library sale… The romances are better, but the mystery was entertaining enough.)

        1. Huh. I thought the one I read was fairly cute — it had the odd-ball cast of characters, a background romance-plot that had a twist, and an amusing whodunit-and-how. It was a lot more shallow, but I’d figured that was because the Main Plot was the mystery, which was all motives and Clever Deathtrap — much as the subplot in a given romance tends to be a lot more shallow than the romance itself, from what I’ve experienced of the genre.

          Ah, well — if other people don’t like ’em, then all the more chances at the mysteries for me, when the library sales happen! 😀

  10. Some resources. Some I’ve used, some friends have told me about but I haven’t tried yet. I have this habit of bookmarking everything… My bookmark file is insanely huge. But that is what search is for, right?

    DAFONT – they claim over 14,000 fonts.

    Font Squirrel – Only the best Commercial Use Free Fonts or so they claim.

    52 Great Blogs for Self Publishers – Kris and Dean are not included, so take this list with a grain of salt.

    Sigil is a multi=platform EPub editor. Haven’t tried it, seems like everyone wants Word format (Smashwords, Amazon) anyway.

    Calibre is a great tool, I use it to compare my documents with Smashwords conversions. A warning to anyone submitting to Smashwords, what looks fine in Word often isn’t.

    Wikimedia Commons is a great source for images. I’m publishing a series of religious poetry books, using out of copyright old master paintings for covers. Which breaks Sarah’s rule, but is what the customer of this sort of book expects.

    Picasa and it’s competitor Flickr are great sites for photos, many of which are labeled with Creative Commons information, or you can contact the photographer. Not so hot for most Fantasy or SF books, but I’ve got this book on Catalytic Converters I’m researching in my so called spare time… Even Google Images can turn up the odd thing if you have the time to use it.

    There was an article that I’d found which had a huge collection of links. I’d never actually checked the links, but if I was going to recommend the article, I thought I should. Some of them were, a year later, changed. Big surprise!

    Public Domain Pictures
    Creativity 103 – Free Creative Design Elements
    Chandra X-Ray Observatory Photo Album – U.S. Government documents are all public domain by law, but cannot be used to imply support in an advertising campaign.
    Search NASA – another place to find NASA images
    Hi-res Stock Travel Photos – UK site, so might have castles and manor houses?
    Animal Photos – Creative Commons licensed – check which one before using.
    Car Pictures – Creative Commons Licensed
    Pay as you go Stock Photo site
    Stock Photo site – part of Getty Images, which means they should be avoided. Getty Images and all subsiduaries should be avoided, see their Wikipedia page and read about how the company operates (this is a personal thing, your mileage may differ)
    Romance Novel Covers – Specialized site – looks like it would make most women drool
    Free Stock Images – This is a website squatter. He’s making money by directing your traffic to pay sites, AVOID THIS SITE!
    Stock Photos & VECTOR Graphics as well – says it is a free sign up.
    Pixmac Picture Market – Sells pics royalty free – this place worries me. They run an affiliate program, which is usually a sign of a scam going on.
    Hot Damn Stock – Looks like they do everything from steamy romance up to the edge of porno.
    Think Stock – Subscription Service
    Shutter Stock – Subscription Service
    H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society Fonts – for when you want to leave your readers a quivering wreck
    The Good Old Creative Commons Search Engine – Which someone has probably already mentioned, I’m just doing this in the article’s order
    Vector Portal – Source of free Vector Images
    Vectorss – another source of free Vector Graphics – saw a neat Angry Birds one there
    Open Clipart – Free Clipart
    BittBox – Ignore this one, it’s a blog with a “Pic of the Day”
    Deviant Art – lots of neat stuff there
    Safe Creative – This appears to be a search engine put together to make the corporate lawyers happy. I’d ignore it.
    Can Stock Photo – Another pay site – supposed to be low cost
    Dreams Time – Believe Sarah has already covered them
    Clipart dot com – subscription clipart site
    The Free section of Dreams Time – the gateway drug to the paid section
    Stock Exchange – part of Getty Images, which means they should be avoided. Getty Images and all subsiduaries should be avoided, see their Wikipedia page and read about how the company operates (this is a personal thing, your mileage may differ)
    Burning Well – Public Domain Image Source
    1001 Free Fonts – That’s a lot of fonts
    Misprinted Type – a font maker
    Bolt Cutter Design – Also has fonts
    Moor Station has a collection of talented font designers (the link in the article was wrong)
    BlamBot appears to have both Free and Pay fonts, so watch what you select
    VTKS Design does fonts and Vector Art

    Ain’t the internet wonderful?


  11. I used a photo from Stock Exchange ( or Dreamstime, free to use fonts from DaFont (you have to check near the download link as to what the rights license is), free tutorials on blogs, and PhotoShop to create the cover for my humor/cleaning book:
    As you can see on the Amazon page, for some reason the cover didn’t turn up inside the book, but I think the overall message is conveyed (humorous, naughty guide). We’re a brand new author collective, so I’m sure we’ll work the kinks out.

    I think one can use GIMP, which is freeware, to create similar effects as one can in PhotoShop, but I’m happy with PS and have used it on and off for years, so I see little reason to change unless the updates are outrageously expensive. Note that I cannot afford the full Creative Suite.

    1. Minor quibble. The Gimp is not Freeware, it is Free Software. There is a huge difference in the definition.

      Freeware is usually produced as a cheap advertisement for more expensive software, and quite often is missing important features to encourage you to upgrade.

      Free Software is produced under the Gnu General Public License, a philosophical view that all software should be freely modifiable by the user. Now I don’t have the skills to modify it, but I could always hire someone to do the work for me.

      Unlike Freeware, Free Software tends to be full featured, and a lot of it, like Linux, is far more advanced then the proprietary competition (before you start to disagree with me, consider that over 90% of the world’s Super Computers run Linux), and that Linux typically introduces technical innovations months and years before Apple or Microsoft (Apple’s Mac Software Store is an imitation of the software store every Linux version had had since 2005).

      While it is legal to sell Free Software but most people don’t.

      Which i great, because I tend to rely heavily on software released under the GPL and LGPL licenses. It is often the most powerful software available to use, and since it usually is free, the cost can’t be beat!


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