Lev Butts Judges Books by Their Covers

KI have never been a fan of the People of Walmart internet meme. It seems to me that much of it simply stuck-up jacktards making fun of poor people by taking snapshots of them at their most vulnerable: shopping at  America's #1 haven of low-priced, cheaply produced crap (Seriously, who isn't going to look like a sideshow freak when trying to shop with small children in tow?). It's a way for idiots to feel superior by laughing at other people just trying to get in, buy some batteries, groceries, and ammo, and get out. The message is clear: We are so much better than poor, uneducated people. Clearly the only people who shop at Wal-mart are these freaks and the rest of us taking pictures of them.

That or "No matter how bad your life is, at least you're not
middle-aged guy buying crappy films in a fat ballerina costume bad."
Over the last couple of weeks, I have come across several internet articles showcasing what is rapidly becoming the publishing world's answer to these unfortuante sites. If you clicked on any of those links, I'm sure you picked on the unstated thesis of them as well: Self-published books are the moral equivalent of the people of Wal-mart: something to be simultaneously pitied and ridiculed because of how they look.

Don't believe me? Google "bad self-published book covers" and click on some of the articles. Then go to the images tab, find the worst cover and read the connected article.

I picked this one. Who couldn't pick this one?
Do you see what I see? Almost every one of them not only implies that self-published writers are pathetic wannabes, they state it outright in no uncertain terms. In each, the argument begins with the crappy covers.

The truth is, self-published writers don't have a monopoly on shitty covers. There is no shortage of horrid covers for great traditionally published books.

Caitlin Kiernan is one of the most talented writers I know. I can tell you
there is zero chance she had any say in these travesties of slash-fic book covers. 
Somewhere in New England, John Irving looks at these covers
and wishes he could die so he could turn over in his grave.
James, Shelley, Orczy, and Twain are just glad they are already dead
As self-published writers, though, we get all the blame for our covers. With traditionally published books, cover design is handled  by a committee that generally does not include the author.

In lieu of a committee, though, there are a few things we can do to make our covers better:

Hire a Professional

This option may get you the best-looking cover. There is no shortage of professional artists more than willing to read your book, and design a cover for it. The best options are going to be artists who also have experience in commercial design and/or advertising. After all, your cover, is your primary source of advertising for your book.

When Zack Mason published his Chronoshift Trilogy, he chose this option, and the result are book covers that look as if they came from the best traditional publishing houses:

I bought them from a local bookstore and had no idea they were self-published. I did not regret my decision either. These are good books regardless of their covers, but the point is I'd not have picked them up if they looked like this:

The downside to this method is, of course, that it is expensive, prohibitively so for most of us. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for a professionally designed cover, probably more. I can't speak for you, but unless I charge $500.00 a book, I'll never make up the cost of my cover in sales.

Fortunately, there are still other options.

Learn to Use Photoshop

This is probably the best solution of the three I'll discuss here. While you may get a better product paying someone to make you a cover, chances are they will be using Photoshop to do it anyway. Learn how to use the program (or any of the free alternatives) and you are one step closer to designing your own cover.

But, you may be thinking, I already use Photoshop.

Read that section heading again more closely
The key here is to learn to use the program. Understand the controls. Know what each effect does and when each is appropriate. Remember, just because many of the effects are interesting, you should not feel obligated to use all of them.

More importantly, understand what you want on your cover before opening the program. There are plenty of online instructions on cover design. Read them.

In general, decide on a single image that encapsulates your novel and work with that. This can be an image from a pivotal scene in the novel or an image/motif that runs throughout the narrative. Don't try to tell the entire story with images mismashed on the cover.

The original cover of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, for example has one image: an armadillo. This armadillo, though, is an image that runs throughout the novel as both motif and foreshadowing. Similarly, the background color and text of the cover resemble a granite gravestone, both referring to the title character who is the son of a granite quarryman and acting as more foreshadowing of future events:

It is simple, yet it still grabs your attention.

Brad Strickland, writing as Ken McKea, is a good example of using this technique in cover design. In each of these Photoshopped covers, he has chosen one powerful image that draws an audience in:

In the following example, the cover I designed for the re-release of Richard Monaco's Blood and Dreams, I found a public domain image of a painting that seemed similar to an early scene in the novel, then used paint.net to flip and alter the image to better fit the characters in the novel.

(Left) Original painting by N.C. Wyeth
(Right) Book cover
However, you may not have the time or inclination to learn image manipulation software. Perhaps you just want to write your book and get it on the shelves as quickly as possible. Perhaps you just feel technologically inadequate.

If so, there is still the final option:

Use Your Publishing Platform's Cover Generator

If you are publishing through lulu.com, Amazon's CreateSpace, or Books-A-Million's new publishing platform, you have access to premade cover templates that are as user friendly as the rest of the platforms. In other words, if you can navigate your selected platform well enough to upload your files and publish, you can use its cover templates as well.

In each of these platforms many of the design decisions have been made for you: You may have little control over where your title or name appears on the cover. You may or may not have the option for an author photo. You may have a limited selection of type fonts available to particular page layouts.

However, you should still keep the basic rule of cover design in mind: a single image that stands for the the whole narrative. Keep your cover relatively simple.

Below are two different covers to my own Emily's Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories, one from lulu.com, the other from CreateSpace. You will notice that in both, as different as they are, the image of an old cabin predominates since the cabin setting is important throughout the primary natrative.

(Left) lulu.com cover
(Right) CreateSpace cover
Simplicity is key.

Whichever option you choose to create your cover, remember this:

Just as you should ideally have a beta reader for your manuscript to offer feedback and suggestions, you should also have others look at your cover ideas and offer their thoughts.

As embarassed as you may be having someone you know ridicule your work before it's published, it is nothing compared to your mortification when your poorly conceived cover becomes an internet meme.


JO said…
Or have a daughter who has married a kind, artistic and helpful man who understands covers and does it for you! (I do understand not everyone is so fortunate, so this is great advice for anyone else!)
Jan Needle said…
great stuff, lev - thanks. (but how i wish i'd never agreed to model for that cover. the skirt colour is just all wrong...)
Lydia Bennet said…
it's just tutu bad, Jan! Plenty of duff and hilarious covers about in both self pub and trad pub these days. Thanks for an entertaining post as ever Lev.
Mari Biella said…
Am I the only one who thinks that the cover of the Russian Werewolf book is sort of brilliant? :-)

I've seen some highly-praised covers that I thought were awful, and some widely-mocked covers that I didn't actually think were that bad, so I suspect that personal taste does come into it to a degree. There's another option for those who want a nice, professional cover but can't afford a custom-made one: pre-made covers. Obviously you don't have as much flexibility as you would if you were employing a cover artist directly, but I've seen some pre-made covers that were so gorgeous that I was tempted to buy them and then write a book to go with them.
glitter noir said…
Well done, Lev. But I for one would definitely buy the book about the Tiny Dancer. Maybe even the one on the Russian Werewolf.

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