Think Like A Publisher #6… Covers and Publisher Looks

Okay, I have escaped unhurt from doing the “Basics of Production” chapter and I had a lot of requests to talk about covers, mostly the production of them. And covers and how to do them is where things get really spread out in author and indie publisher tastes.

So, just as the last chapter, when it comes to the “how-to,” I’m just going to list my way of doing it and my beliefs about why I do what I do. And each of you can take it from there.

But first, there is something more important to talk about that has to do with covers: Publisher Look.

Early Publisher Decisions About A Business Look

What I mean by that is pretty simple. All publishers, or more accurately, all imprints, have a certain look about their books. And honestly, for the most part, this is done on purpose because it helps readers identify a book from an imprint or press they trust and like.

There have been lots and lots of studies over the last forty years about readers buying from a certain traditional publisher, and the moment the publisher gets to be too large, the value of a publisher “look” vanishes. Customers, for the most part, just don’t buy books because they were done by a certain large traditional publisher.

However, as you go down in imprint size, or to mid-sized presses, and now indie publishers, buying from an imprint becomes a selling point for readers. And an imprint name is often a sign of a certain quality.

The buyer might not consciously know the name of your press, but they know they like stories or books that “look like that.”

Before 1950s or so, readers used to go direct to publishers to buy books. Now that practice is coming around again since traditional publishers have lost their hold on distribution and indie publishers can go direct to readers.

A couple of examples of publishing looks:

Back when paperbacks were first getting started in the 1940s and publishing was changing a great deal, sort of like now, all the new paperback publishers had very different looks for their books to attract the new readers. They all had distinctive logos, all had very clear designs, and all bought certain authors to establish a content consistency for their line.

Dell Books, for example, had a very distinctive logo at the top with the price, they numbered each book, and for every book (for about the first decade or 800 books) they put a map on the back illustrating the setting of the story.

This was so distinctive that Dell Map Backs are still collected today. I have about 500 of the first 800 Dell Books and I love them, mostly for their packaging.

For a time in the 1960s-1980s, Daw Books put yellow spines on all their books. And that became a buying point for readers. For the longest time, because of those bright-yellow spines, Daw Books could be seen across a bookstore. And many people both collected and looked for the yellow spines for top reading.

When Kris and I started Pulphouse Publishing, three or four of the finest specialty presses in the history of science fiction and fantasy publishing were in full production. Arkham House, Dark Harvest, Zeising Books to name a few. All of them had fantastic book design and beautiful covers. And to be honest, I just didn’t know how to go into that world and compete with those fantastic and very beautiful books.

So right up front Kris and I made the decision to drop back to a very simple design to contrast with those other books. (And it was something I could do.) Did I want to do beautiful books like those others? Hell, yes. But Pulphouse became quickly known for the simple look with high-quality fiction inside.

We did foil stamping on leather, the simple sketch covers, and simple limitation pages. And we also became known because I picked a top bindery and paid a ton extra for quality oversewn binding. And many book buyers in those days appreciated that.

But all those decisions were made before our first book came out. Over seven years we stuck with it for the most part. On one book about five years in I did a beautiful-covered book for a special project and one dealer picked it up and said, “This doesn’t look like a Pulphouse book.”  And he put it back.

So early on, the decision of a certain look will be critical to your long term survival.

If you don’t understand this completely, just think of a book series. If all the books look similar, with different art and titles, but you can clearly tell they are the same series, then readers that like the series can easily find the next book. That’s what your publishing business needs to do as well. Different, but similar, with a certain pattern to the look.

In this wonderful new world we live in, no look or design is permanent. Even though I understood this “look” issue completely, it took those of us at WMG Publishing almost thirty books before we started settling on some design features. And we are still fine-tuning the look for electronic books.

And now we are working on the POD look and unlike Pulphouse, WMG Publishing paper books are going to be far from simple. I finally get my wish to help design some really pretty books.

What Features Help Create A Look?

Here are some basic elements that can help create a certain look on book covers.

Electronic Covers

— Types of Fonts

— Use of Fonts (stressed, bold, thin and so on)


— Author name size and title size and layout

— Consistency of choice of artwork for certain types of projects

— Borders and shapes on the covers.

—Choice of stylish or realistic.

—Choice of photo or created art.

—Placement of the different elements on the cover.

Now, understand, one book does not make a look.

Scan down the side of this article through my challenge books and the other WMG books in the next column over. And then go on down under the challenge book covers to look at the covers of traditional publishers I have been in lately. You might not tell exactly why you can see a “look” in WMG books and you might not like it, but there is a pattern in all the books there that are WMG Publishing. It is sometimes subtle or by author (Dee W. Schofield books look different). But the look is clear.

Give yourself time to develop a look that fits your eye with covers. You can always go back and change a cover later, which I am slowly starting to do with some of the early covers of both mine and Kris’s books through WMG Publishing.

How to Build a Cover

I’m going to run through how I build a cover step-by-step and why I make certain decisions working with the WMG Publishing look.

There is no right way to do this. I believe in the Keep It Simple Stupid (K.I.S.S) way of thinking about electronic books. But your milage may vary. Life is far, far too short for me to spend far too many hours or days on a cover. I would rather be writing.

Step One:

You have a finished story or novel. Step back and ask yourself first “What would sell this book?”

Or even more importantly: “Who Do I Want To Sell This Book To?”

Step Two:

With your readers clearly in mind, find the art or photo.

Yeah, yeah, I know, so easily said, so hard to do.

So in this search for art, the first thing is decide how important the project is.

—If it is a novel you have spent a year on, then you might want to commission an artist to do a cover for your book and pay them a great deal for the right to use the art on your cover.

—But if this is your weekly story, you will want good art, but one that doesn’t need to fit as much.

Expensive Art

Commissioned art is often expensive because the artist is doing it for you and your book. So to find the artists to do that, you need to do some footwork and research.

First you need to find artists whose style fits your vision of your book. Look on any art site, or go to conventions and browse through art rooms. One place online to find artists is DeviantART.Com. If you like an artist’s style, contact them and ask them if they would be interested in doing a cover for your book and their rates.

Also on any of the royalty free art sites you can always contact an artist directly.

DO NOT PAY FOR THIS BY GIVING A PERCENTAGE OF SALES. No artist in their right mind would go for that and the accounting over the next seventy years will kill you and your kids and your grandkids. And at some point you will end up in court. Not worth it. Pay up front or by payment plan or find another way.

Cheaper Art

By cheaper, I do not mean less quality. Far from it, actually. The art world and the photo world is changing right along with publishing.

Right now a great income and exposure can be made by artists putting work up on a royalty-free web site and letting people download the work under a certain license for certain uses for small amounts of money depending on the size of the file.

Key Factors to Consider When Licensing Artwork or Photos for your cover:

—Only use a reputable site. There are many.

—Only use royalty free sites. (Back to my point above and what Joe Konrath and I have argued about with the paying percentages.)

—Carefully read their limitations to make sure that book covers and promotion for your book is allowed in the use.

—Give the artist credit on your copyright page.

Key in Pricing When Buying Art

Artists charge for the size of the file you download.

For my challenge short story covers, since they will only be online and I don’t mess with them much, I download a small file, so often it only costs from three to five dollars.

And remember, all the online publishing sites such as Amazon or Smashwords will not allow you to download a huge cover file. They just block it. So most of the time a smaller picture file is enough. Experiment and decide for yourself.

If you are going to use the art for a POD, then pay for and download the larger files and reduce the art size for the electronic edition. You will need larger files to keep your covers from having issues through the POD cover process.

Key Point: Consider Size and Shape of Art

Book covers are basically 3 to 2 ratio. Three units high, two units wide. So when looking at a piece of art, imagine the book cover.

If the art is wide and thin, it won’t work without you doing some graphic tricks. If the art is busy and bright, it’s going to be hard to put names and title over it. And so on. Imagine the art in the shape and you save yourself a lot of time later.

And I often only use just part of a piece of art. If that is the case, make sure the license with the artists allows you to crop and change their artwork to suit your needs. And download a big enough file that when you crop a piece out of it for the cover it is still large enough.

Step Three:

Study, study, study.

You must, and I repeat must study other covers. Stand in front of book racks and really look at bestsellers and see if you like the cover design, the font, the use of colors and art. Go through your own bookshelves.

And for heaven’s sake, look at tag lines on the covers and blurbs and quotes. And the size of them. All that goes into a professional look in a cover. And you will need to learn how to write blurbs and back cover copy for your POD books.

Then just browse online through Smashwords and Amazon and so many others, studying the covers that catch your attention. And figure out why.

Step Four:

You have studied, you have a piece of art or photo picked out and purchased that fits your story. Now what?

It’s time for the dreaded (by me) conversation on programs.

I use two different programs to do covers. For most online covers I use PowerPoint because it is simple and quick and decently powerful. For POD covers I use InDesign.

Yes, I do have PhotoShop CS5 and could use that, but that program is just too powerful for me. And that power would allow me to do things I just don’t need to do and play too long. I see no reason to do that. I did build a few covers in PhotoShop and then thought it was silly and went back to my K.I.S.S. thinking with PowerPoint.

Use whatever program works for you. I honestly don’t care as long as you can produce a jpg file and a professional-looking cover.

Step Five:

Set up templates right at the start.

If you have a template, you are not constantly inventing the wheel with every cover, and also a template will help you hold to a style for your publishing house.

Don’t be afraid to change the look of the book, because you want each book to be different from other books you publish, even though they have a similar “look.”

Step Six:

The elements of a modern bestselling professional cover are these:

—Large Title

—Large Author Name

—Great cover art or photo that does not distract.

—Blurb and tag lines.

—Bright colors.

Some tricks with electronic books:

—Outline the outside edge of the book in a heavy three point line so that any light color or white background does not vanish into the listing page. Also the line makes the book look finished to the eye.

—Watch your contrast. Switch your cover to black-and-white to see how it will look on Kindle and other devices. If everything becomes mud, change the colors and shades.

—Caution with drop shadows. Some use is fine to help words stand out from art or photos, but use sparingly. You are better served to outline the letters.

—Caution with stressing fonts as well, meaning doing things that you think look cool to the font. Twisting it, punching patterns in it, fading part of it out, and so on. I think WMG has stressed three book titles in over 160 so far. Usually it makes covers look like a beginner did them unless you know exactly what you are doing and have a reason for the stressed font.

Down the road I will talk more about POD covers and what is needed for them, but this should get you started.

Go Play!

Early on in this process there will be learning curves. Learning a new program or finding and bookmarking a bunch of art sites or trying different fonts. But as the process goes on, it does get easier.

And you can always change the cover.

So get out of the worry that if you design a bad cover you have screwed up. No, you haven’t. You’ve just learned something and you can just change the cover.

I have a folder already of art I have bought for a cover, did the cover, came back the next day and took one look and said, “Wow! That Sucks.” Or Kris shook her head while looking at it which is her way of saying, “Wow! That Sucks.” So I start over, save the art for something different, and go at it again.

Honestly, doing covers is great fun. It just seems scary from the outside.

So go play. And trust me, when the parts come together and suddenly there appears on your screen a great cover for your story, it will feel so good, it will erase the stress you were feeling learning how to do covers.

And you will never worry about doing a cover again.

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