Intro and a Bit on Book Covers

Okay. I’ve started writing this post several times now. As the premiere post of my blog, I think it’s pretty important that I get it right. Twice I started writing a simple introductory post, describing what this blog will be like, a bit about me, and who might find this particular blog (amongst the hundreds of writers’ blogs out there) interesting. Three times I began posts that dealt with various writing topics with which I have some particular insight and experience. And now that I’m on my sixth attempt, I’ve finally realized that neither approach is really what I want. A straight introduction would risk coming across as a tad self-absorbed. A straight informative post would risk jumping into the meat of things a bit too fast, without establishing some kind of authority over the subject. So, instead of doing one or the other, I’ve decided to do an abbreviated version of both.

A brief intro:

I’ve been writing, in some form or fashion, all my life. It wasn’t until 2003, however, that I finally decided to get serious about the craft and went back to school. Since then I’ve earned a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. Throughout that entire, invaluable process, in which I gained an enormous wealth of knowledge on the subject of writing, the one thing I didn’t learn through academia (and through any of the hundreds upon hundreds of writing books out there), was how to craft prose. No college or how-to book ever got into the details of how to actually put the words on the page in the correct manner (though a few came close). That I learned myself, with the help of a few individual sources I’ll get into later. In the end, after eight years of intense study and analysis (I also have a BS in Computer Science and currently work as a software engineer, so dealing with theories and algorithms comes naturally to me), I developed a breakthrough new process for crafting prose. This process, called The NORTAV method, will play an important part in this blog, as it is the one area within the craft of writing in which I consider myself an expert. And, with any luck, the topics I write about here in the blog that concern The NORTAV method will eventually end up in my book The NORTAV Method for Crafting Prose Like the Prose. When/if I talk about other areas of the craft, I will usually (forecasting here!) give my opinion and try to point you to other, more authoritative sources.

Another important part of this blog will be sharing my experiences as a new indie publisher. I’m sure there are plenty of others wading through the quagmire that is indie publishing, trying to get their own work out into the market. Sharing my lessons learned in that area would not only be valuable to others currently dealing with some of the same problems and challenges, I suspect your responses and comments will end up being quite valuable to me as well.

Lastly, I hope On Becoming a Writer serves as a living record of my thoughts and progression both as a writer and as an indie publisher, and I hope it can be of some use to others who are following the same dream. Will I succeed? Only time will tell.

And with that, let’s move on to a quick craft topic.

A bit about book cover design:

As I’ve been working book covers nearly non-stop over the past few weeks, let me put on my indie publisher hat for a moment and give you a few things to consider. I’ll caveat this by saying these are my considerations based on my lessons learned. If something else works for you, that’s fine. The only test is the final result. If you produce a professional-looking cover, than how you did it is irrelevant (provided you did it legally!).

Some suggestions for good cover design:

1. Composition
A good cover will have an overall composition that is pleasing to the eye. Meaning, the components in the cover, the overall shapes, colors, and sometimes textures, will come together to form some kind of interesting pattern. (If I had more time and space, I’d create some visuals for this. Maybe I’ll do that in a subsequent post). For example, if you had a cover that was entirely black, that had the author’s name in a white large font at the top, the title in a white large font at the bottom, and a picture of the moon in the center, the overall pattern or composition would be an all black background with a rectangular white bar at the top and bottom, surrounding a white circle in the middle.

Sort of a like the graphic on the right. Okay…so I took the time to make a graphic anyway. The point here is that the colors and shapes work together to form interest for the reader at a compositional level, regardless of what those colors and shapes actually depict. If your cover doesn’t have some compositional form in this respect, it will appear muddy and indistinct.

2. An un-Powerpoint look
One of things that really makes a cover look amateur, at least to me, is a cover that has obviously been done in Powerpoint. I do recommend Powerpoint as a layout tool (see below), but when using Powerpoint to handle the text for the title, author name, and other textual cover items, you really need to be careful. Take a look at the text on the cover of traditionally published books. Usually there is something more to the text than a simple, straight use of a font. Either the font is special (not a typical font known to most readers), or the text has been manipulated so that it doesn’t look like it’s just a standard Powerpoint text box. Take the extra time to render your text on your cover so that it doesn’t appear as ‘stock’ Powerpoint. Combine textboxes to make words so that each letter, or perhaps just the starting letter, can be a different size or can have a different shape value.

3. Large text
This one is getting some airplay on other blogs. Because so many books, especially in the indie pub world, are being published as ebooks, the covers need to have titles and author names that are readable when the cover is shrunk down to the small icon size typically used on Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Icons can get as small as 120×79, at 200PPI. Take your cover and resample it down to this size. Can you still read the title and author name? Can you still make out what the cover art depicts? Tweak your design accordingly.

4. Good art reflects the work at hand, conceptually and artistically
This one is a tad subjective, but in general, make smart decisions when it comes to choosing the type and style of the art and the font for your cover. For instance, don’t pick an Old English font for the title of a sci-fi novel. Don’t buy a royalty-free picture of a cubist painting and use it on a historical novel set in Egypt. Choose styles and art that reflect or conjure the style and time period of the piece at hand as well as making sure the art itself accurately reflects the text of the work. Or, at a minimum, choose styles and types of artwork that are stylistically neutral and therefore won’t conflict with the style and type of your work.

5. Highest DPI possible
Even though ebook covers get shrunk down to tiny icons, they still end up being viewed in larger sizes as the ebook cover on the reader or on the PC, or possibly as a POD cover in the future. Use the highest DPI/PPI resolution possible, preferable 300DPI. Lower DPI resolutions can pixilate when viewed at larger sizes.

Suggestions on tools and art sources

1. Source of artwork
For artwork, you only have three choices. (Well, a few more if you blend them.). You can hire a freelance artist to work with you to create your cover art. You can, if you have the talent and the time, create the artwork yourself. Or you can purchase or download royalty-free artwork. A fourth possibility is to modify a piece of royalty-free art yourself (if the license allows). I won’t speak to the first two options, as there are plenty of other resources out there to help you. On the last, however, I can recommend two sites that hold a wealth of royalty-free fodder for artwork:
www.clipart.com
www.photos.com
Each requires a membership, which can cost some scratch, but if you’re doing a lot of covers, it’s worth it. Or for a small fee, you can buy pieces individually.

2. Tools
Finally, I’ve found there are two types of software you’ll need to create cover art. A graphics editing tool and a layout tool. As to the former, the better the tool, the more options you’ll have when working with the art. If you plan to heavily modify royalty-free art sources (as I do), then you’ll want a tool with some horsepower and a good selection of editing/artistic options. Photoshop is an obvious choice here, but it’s pretty expensive. A cheaper alternative is Paint Shop Pro. Also, I’m sure there are some open source, free editors out there. You will have to experiment and see what works best for you in respect to changing the look and/or size of a graphic. Now, you could use this tool to layout the entire cover, but I find that once the artwork has been massaged and tweaked, arranging it along with the textual data on the cover and any other objects is far easier to do in a layout tool like Powerpoint or Microsoft Publisher. In these tools, each object of the cover can easily be resized, flipped, mirrored, and arranged on the cover. The issue you’ll have with using a layout tool is keeping the BMP export resolution high enough. Powerpoint (as far as I know) only exports at 96DPI. That’s okay for some people, but for me it’s far too low. Microsoft Publisher works just like Powerpoint, has additional features above and beyond Powerpoint, and can export at 300DPI. I’m not sure what the going price is for either of these tools, but if you can afford it, go with Publisher.

Anyway…I’m approaching 1700 words and I think I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. By now you should have a good idea about who I am and what this blog will be like in the future. I hope you’ll come back and participate in my little Burkean parlor.

Until then, keep writing!

–Jim

2 comments for “Intro and a Bit on Book Covers

  1. May 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Hi Jim, spotted your name in the comments on the blogs of Dean Wesley Smith & Kris Rusch and thought I’d come here for a look. Your covers look great!
    – Lee.

    • Jim
      May 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm

      Thanks Lee! Appreciate the encouragement.

      –Jim

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