Things I’ve learned Making Covers

black zone with extrasWhen I first started making covers for my books, I took the concepts literally (Ha! Punny).  With each one, I’ve learned.  Every genre has its own style.  Every reader has their own preference.  Every author wants to brand their work.  Trying to get all of that to happen every time?  I’m convinced it’s a small miracle.

After being a published author for a whole year – and releasing 8 books – I’ve learned a few things.

First: Vague is best.  Never, EVER, try to tell the entire story in a single image.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words?  Well, my books run around 120K.  That means I’d need 120 pictures to show the reader what it is I’m talking about.  I get ONE.  How about I choose something that catches the feel of the story, without catastrophically violating any of the details.

Black Zone2Second: Symbolic is best.  The title of the book is usually symbolic, why shouldn’t the cover be the same?  Does it need to be a literal planet, or does the silhouette of one work better?  Does the landscape need to have exactly the right house, with the car parked on the exact side, a baby carriage by the front porch, empty, and every other detail from that one scene?  NO!

See, the people who are going to pick up your book haven’t read it.  They don’t know what those little details mean.  We authors love to pat our own backs over the intellect we tossed into the story, but who cares?  Most readers don’t.  What they want to know is the genre, the tone, and the necessary information.

Trust me, how much the book costs matters more than how many leaves are on the tree!

And third: Characters matter more than scenes.  A while back, there was a theme with paranormal fantasy where the main (female) character was always wearing skin tight pants and facing away from the “camera”.  In part, this was to allow the reader to imagine her face.  In reality, it had more to do with number four on my list… but it also is because we want to see the PERSON, without being spoiled on the person.

In romances, this tends to end up as the faceless beefcake.  C’mon, you all know what I’m talking about.  The guy with rock hard abs, his pants ready to fall off, but nothing shown above his mouth.  The potential buyer can see his manscaping perfectly, but not the color of his eyes.  We can decide for ourselves what that dark haired hottie looks like.  We aren’t “forced” into placing the cover models face on every salacious scene in the book.

Which brings us to the fourth thing: Sex SELLS!  We’re all guilty of it.  In actuality, we’re programmed for it by our DNA.  Beautiful women, athletic men, and sensual poses have a higher click rate than a flower laying on a table.  That doesn’t mean every book is going to have a beautiful woman, athletic man, or even sex… but it still sells.

Want an example?

My book, When We Were Kings, has undergone a few changes while I learned what the readers want to see.  On the left is the final cover.  On the right is the next to last version of it.  No, we won’t talk about how many times it changed before I learned this stuff.  *ahem*  But, as you can see, the left image draws you in a lot more than the one on the right.

Why?  Because you can see Leyli.  Her face makes you wonder what she’s thinking.  The soft light of it sets the tone (wistful, hopeful, dreamy).  The armor tells you it’s got some fighting in it, even though I lost the gladiatorial accents from the right image.  Yeah, Tristan’s gone, but who cares?  The book isn’t about Tristan.  It’s about Leyli’s journey.  It’s symbolic of the realizations she goes through over the course of the novel (hence the expression on her face).

But mostly, it just makes you feel like you want to know HER.  You want to read her story.  Granted, my cover artist did an amazing job making that picture.  See, with fantasy, it’s hard to find a stock photo (free or paid) that has enough things right to work for the already written book.  So often, it’s close – except that the main character is black, not a blonde caucasian, or such.  Because of this, I found someone who can make me “fake” people who fit the traits I need.  Like ears on Salryc Luxx.

And what brought this up?

Rise of the Iliri #4!  Tonight, I got the first pieces of the cover art, and it’s so good.  Everything, from the landscape to the characters headsets matters, but it doesn’t give away the good parts.  Looking at it one way, you can think “hey, here’s what that cover means.”  After you read the book, you know “Oh, that’s why the person is…”  Oh, yeah.  And it’s really pretty.  From the vibrant colors and intense shading, to the picturesque scenery and amazing layering skills of the artist, the whole thing just has that “look at me” feeling often found in so many 3D renders like this


found on a free wallpaper site long ago

I’m not perfect with my cover designs.  I’m pretty sure no one is.  Even the big trade publishers miss the mark at times – and they have a whole lot invested in getting it right.  For me?  I just want to make sure my readers can pick up a book they know they’ll like, and find a story inside that meets their expectations.

And who knows what I’ll learn in another year.  For now, I’m going to focus on getting the next book out, and keep hoping that my fans like what they see on the front.


Let’s talk about making cheap covers!

1 One More DayMost indie authors are working on a budget.  Usually a very tight one.  We still want a cover that’s good enough to make sales.  I’m going to show you how to do it on the VERY cheap.

My first book, One More Day, was an experiment.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to this whole indie author thing.  I certainly didn’t want to spend a few thousand on an attempt that might go bad.  I also happen to have a whole lot of experience in marketing and advertising design.  In other words, I was pretty sure I could make a cover that would do the job.  The final version is doing well on Amazon, and One More Day is currently my best selling book.

In other words, the cover is working.

But let me tell you how it started.  THAT was not my first cover.  With a love story that is about a girl with cancer, I didn’t want a cover that would come across as sensual.  I felt that would give the reader the wrong impression.  It’s a story about hope and friendship, not jumping in the sack with a hot guy.  Hell, the main character has CERVICAL cancer.  (To quote a character in the story, “I know where the cervix is, man”) So sex was off the table from the start of the book.  Instead, I needed to push the emotions.

I started with something easy.  My first cover was decent but not great.  It had the right idea, but did little to make potential readers feel a connection.

One More DayI took a lovely stock image of a hand-drawn heart and some art supplies.  In the story, the main characters are a tattoo artist and a girl who went to college to paint, but had to drop out due to real life.  Her drawings are what brought them together, and art has a major place in this book.

Sadly, that’s not what the potential reader will KNOW when shopping.  They aren’t looking for someone drawing hearts with oil pastels.  They are looking for a story about people.  This is a romance novel afterall.

But I still had a cover that sold a few copies.  The font was free from 1001 Free Fonts.  The effects are little more than a couple of button clicks in Paint Shop Pro (like Photoshop but a lot cheaper and with less toys).  Total cost of this cover?  $80 bucks for the software – which I can use over and over to make many more covers, teasers, and such.

But, I realized that it’s not about crayons.  This story is about a girl struggling to make it one more day, then one more after that.  In other words, I needed a better cover.  So I found myself a half decent free stock image:


Ha!  This one had the cup of coffee that keeps cropping up in the story.  The look on her face is perfect!  Like she’s lost in her own thoughts and nothing else matters.  The lighting draws the eye to her face, but it’s too dark.

So, let’s crop this up a bit.ASJL0UIGOR

Then color the whole thing in cervical cancer purple.


Make it a bit bright and adjust the contrast around.


And now we’re looking at her face.  Increase the vibrancy of the color, add in the title, layer on the author’s name (ahem, mine) and…….

1 One More Day

Eventually, I got something that made the reader want to know more.  It’s not the best cover in the world.  It’s probably going to be replaced one day, when I can figure out how to do it better, but it is a massive improvement on the stock image that I started with, and took a few hours.  It was within my budget.

I’m not trying to say that I’m the best cover designer out there, but after seeing so many crappy books being hawked on Twitter the other day, I think that showing how “easy” it can be might help.  I’m hoping that some author out there is willing to put in a little more effort, and see that it does have a huge impact.

This book, with this cover, is my best seller.  It’s in the top 1% of all books on kindle, and even seven months after release, it’s selling very nicely.  Total investment: $80 bucks for the software.  I made that, and more, in the first month.  Plus, that investment allowed me to create:

Now I have some options when talking about my book on social media.

Cover Re-design (Kinda)

Wold of Oberhame seriesThe Wolf of Oberhame series has always been the hardest for me to design the “right” cover for.  I have struggled with it repeatedly, but thanks to the magic of Amazon, I actually get the chance to try again, and again, and even again if I still haven’t gotten it right.

And, let’s be honest, I’m not exactly some veteran author who has been there, done that, and knows exactly what will grab the reader.  I need to experiment a little.

On the flip side, I have the luxury of being able to make my own covers.  I studied design and advertising layout, so have some basic knowledge of how this is done.  Granted, it could all be outdated, and I’ve learned that scale is rather important, but I have that knowledge.

For those who know, this is also the one aspect that has slowed down a few of my releases.  Getting something that WORKED for the When We Were Dancing cover has been a bit painful.  Finally managed, and……..realized why I am not in love with the above covers.  The scale is all wrong.

What people care about isn’t the scene, it’s the character!

I should know this.  I mean, that’s what I write about.  Where they are, what they do, and how they do it are all symptoms of the person involved in the story.  Every book I write is a character driven novel.  Bringing these “people” to life is my goal… but I designed covers built around the scene?


And so, I’ve rolled out new covers for these two books, and When We Were Crowned will have one that matches.  I have yet to see how this will affect sales, as they’ve only been live a few days.  It’s a learning process,and I’m trying to learn fast.


One more off my list

Sal RunningCover, editing, series, move to the next.  THIS is the problem when you write about a novel a month for almost two years.  The entire process gets all bottle-necked.  Let me assure you, it’s an amazing problem to have.

You see, at first, I wanted to have my books published by one of those big places.  You know the ones I mean.  The problem is that I don’t write the stories they want.  Vampires?  Nah, that’s been done.  I make genetically modified humanoids subjugated by population.  Feudalistic Europe?  I’m more of a Germanic/Rome kinda fan.  Humans vs. monsters?  I prefer monsters vs. humans.  Over and over my fans keep saying two things consistently.  1.  Characters that feel real.  2. Unique plot.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict the sales of a “unique plot”.  That means companies who are forced to watch their bottom line get a bit nervous.  A series about gamers, written in a style like romance serials but with an action/adventure style plot?  They can’t figure out how to market it.  Then again, I can’t either, so I just tell my fans on twitter and facebook and hope that word of mouth really works.

But, the rambling point I’m coming around to, is that while waiting to see who would be interested in my first, second, or whatever book, I kept writing – and researching.  The deeper in I got, the more I realized that trade publishing may not be the answer I’m looking for.  There’s no way the big publishing houses can keep up with my writing.  They wouldn’t give half my books the time of day because there’s no profit/loss research on that subject.  And….

Truth be told, I’m a fan of the indie control.  I don’t have access to $5000 cover artists, but I do have people with skills.  Maybe it takes my artist longer.  Maybe my editor has a day job.  Maybe my beta readers are literary fanatics sick of reading the same ol’ thing.  Everyone involved in getting these books out to the fans are readers, the kind who like to curl up with a book and escape for a while.  And now that I have decided to throw all of my eggs in one basket (indie publishing) they are right behind me making this happen.

Which means two new series for my readers.  And yeah, all of these books are “done” (but waiting for editing and the finishing touches).  I just don’t want to scare away my fans, making them think their favorite series will be forgotten.  Most of these books are complete, sitting on my hard drive, waiting for a little polish to make them worthy of being seen.  Most of the work needed to get these books to the readers are things out of my control, so while I get excited about a new cover, or being able to announce yet another release date, know that I’m at home, frantically typing away on the rainbow colored list of corrections that need to be made so you all can get the one after that.

And this is why I love being an indie author.  Because I can tell you all the truth.  I am not gagged by an agent or publisher, urged to hold my tongue so that expectations aren’t crushed with the print is running late or the release date is pushed back.  I love being in control, even if that means accepting that I’m going to make mistakes.  I love knowing that the book I created will be the book you see – and hopefully love enough to tell all your friends about.


The birth of a Cover

How a cover starts.  For the first time, I am actively involved in not only arranging, but also designing the cover models of a book.  Above are Tristan and Leyli, from my soon to be released book “When We Were Kings”.  As you might be able to tell, it’s about gladiators.

My artist has been working hard to get in the ball park of what I asked for.  Tristan needs to be a proper gladiator.  Leyli needs to have second hand weapons and attire.  He’s fit and toned, she’s weak but resilient.  Most of all, don’t want her to look like she is willing to cower.  I think we’re getting close.  Now to have a few tweaks, make my artist want to kill me a little more, and see how it all turns out for the finished project.  (I’ll be sure to post that as well!)

And thanks to Jason for working so hard to fit in every detail I said had to be there.  Promise, I’ll make it up to you!

Cover Art

Just got the first peek at a potential cover for the first gladiator book.  I’m pretty impressed.  The artist and I debated the positioning of the fighters, to make sure that the main female character is not seen as some flimsy damsel in distress.  It’s a story with a strong brains/brawn trope, where the strong man is smart and the smart girl has her own strength (including physical), they just have to realize it.  Unfortunately, while the story is fair to the woman, finding cover art that is both true to the story, and doesn’t portray her as a sidekick character?  Ugh!  Not easy.

It’s amazing to me what goes into preparing a cover for an ebook.  This is the main marketing option of most authors: see the cover, decide if you want to look inside.  It has to raise questions, peak interest, and not insult, all while being clean, clear, and legible.  And then the font……..Don’t leave it lack luster, don’t over produce it, don’t get too intricate, make sure it’s large enough to be seen, etc, etc, etc.  In the last two days, I’ve learned more about book covers than any human should try to cram into their mind.

Yep, we’re on the final stretch.  =)