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I’ve heard a few things lately about book covers and stock photos that have been bothering me. First, let’s go into a primer of how stock photos work with regard to book covers.

How Stock Photography Works from the Photographer’s Perspective

When a photographer takes photo sessions of a model (or a landscape), they add keywords to each photo they wish to sell. A given photographer may have relationships with as many as 15 or 20 different stock photo agencies, but not all photos may be uploaded to all agencies. Each agency has different audiences and different plans.

Let’s take this photo as an example. Here it is on another site.

Some stock photo sites list how many times a photo’s been sold, but that’s only how many times it’s been sold on that one site. A cover artist (or an indie author doing their own cover) may pick a photo that has relatively few sales on one site and believe they’re picking something that’s not overly popular. But that same photo may be significantly more popular on other sites.

Also, the same photo may be used for completely unrelated purposes. Like buying a new car and suddenly seeing that car all around you, buying cover art has the same perils. A photo I bought for a book cover has also been used in a Korean cosmetics ad. Not all those image uses will be to a given stock photo purchaser’s taste, so unless one wants an exclusive cover shoot for many, many times the cost of a stock photo, one’s just going to have to put up with the fact that this photo may be used in very different contexts, also with the photographer’s permission.

As a final point, within traditional publishing, covers get re-used all the time. Even covers designed to illustrate a particular book get reused, just with different text.

If You Are an Author

Unless you paid for a photo shoot and exclusive rights to all photos taken in that photo shoot, do not contact another author whose cover uses the same photo (or a photo from the same shoot) accusing them of copying/stealing your cover.

If you did pay for that photo shoot, you might want to contact your photographer first in case there was some kind of miscommunication…before engaging with another author.

If You Are a Reader

Do Not criticize an author, either publicly or privately, for using the same cover photo as another author. If the author you’re trying to support said that they had an exclusive shoot, then contact the author who you think was hurt. Let the author make that call.

Originally published at deirdre.net. You can comment here or there.

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For Westercon, I made a Lousy Book Cover for comedic effect. After all, I had to have one to show at the panel, right?

So I picked a great photo. I picked a great typeface.

And deliberately made a grievous error.

Behold.

terminator-2-comedy-cover

Courtney Milan Talks Type

I bring this up because Courtney Milan’s got a great blog post called How to Suck at Typography. Ironically, I missed it because I was at Typecon.

First, I absolutely love the Borges font she discusses. It’s called Desire. It is truly one of the showcase pieces of what can be done with OpenType.

What she says about free fonts is largely true, but there are some good ones out there. The one I used was Great Vibes, which is the free cousin to Good Vibrations. I mention this for a reason: sometimes there’s significantly better typographic features on the paid version of a font. And sometimes it’s the bad fonts that get thrown to the free bin. (Or packaged up by the hundred for seemingly low prices.)

Personally, I’d like less space between Te so it feels more like Ju. Similarly, I’d like a tidge more space between Da so it feels more like Ju. Given that the paid font seems the same at first glance, evidently the font designer disagrees with me on that point.

There Is One Point of Violent Disagreement, However

Font effects are the opposite of tasteful covers. They are harder to read at best, and migraine-inducing at worst. The worst fug in the world comes from font effects.

I’ll half agree with the last. Granted, she’s talking from a historical romance perspective.

I’ve been working on a poster off and on for a month. I just couldn’t get the right approach to say what I wanted to, so I put it away and get back to it.

Yellow Design Studio is one of my favorite indie font foundries. I love love love love love their font family Gist, which is really Gist and Gist Upright, Gist Rough and Gist Rough Upright, and GistX.

One of the things Gist has is the line version of the font along with the regular—so you can separately style/color. Let’s say you’re making a poster, in navy, for an upcoming nautical clothing line. Put the text in white, and make the line red (or green, as that’s another combo used for nautical clothing). Perfecto.

In this case, I’ve been fussing with this poster, and, once I decided on Gist, I started randomly clicking layer styles for the line until I got this:

layer-effects-mmmm

I love it. I love how the beveling turns the corner between the u and the s.

The catch is, it’s applied on a relatively small part of the type. It’s the mint leaf served in your chocolate dessert.

Drop Shadows and Outer Glows

There is one reason to use these two features: to separate the type from the background. I used an outer glow in my sample bad cover. It’s subtle enough that if you don’t know what to look for, you’d miss it.

As a general rule, that’s how it should be. The secret is to reduce the opacity of the effect. I often reduce it from the default 75% down to 25-35%. Also, increase the radius of the effect from a few pixels to 20 or 30.

Coming Back Around

Getting back to the original picture, there’s one aspect that Courtney doesn’t talk about: appropriateness of the type for the project. It’s not just whether it’s a good font. It’s not whether the layer style, kerning, etc., works—there’s a bigger thing going on.

Is the font, the most appropriate (within reason) font you can use? I say within reason because I love Skolar, but it’s going to be a very long time before I’ll be able to afford it.

I recently heard a cover designer say that if the book got the person to read the blurb, the cover had done its job.

I agree in part and disagree in part. When they get to the blurb, they have a mindset in place that may lead them to interpret the blurb fundamentally differently than the blurb was intended.

Your cover needs to give the reader the feel for the book. Typography’s a huge part of that. As an example, a friend wrote a historical fantasy. Someone did a cover for her, but the fonts were all super-modern, so they’d lead someone to expect a really different book. For that reason, she went with a different cover entirely. Good call.

Remember that saying I found so profound? “A one-star review means the wrong reader has found your book.”

The purpose of a cover is to find your book’s five star readers and turn away the one-star readers.

The main problem with the cover I’ve given for Terminator 2? It would find mostly one-star readers. They’d be wanting something nice and cozy with tea and biscuits, and get something else entirely.

Find your five-star readers.

Originally published at deirdre.net. You can comment here or there.

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e-book covers mockup

The subject of using contests (like 99 Designs) for making e-book covers has created huge controversy in the graphic design world, including complaints of driving down prices, etc.

My own feeling is that not every designer works the same way, and e-book contest covers can be a compelling way to get a decent cover at an affordable price.

Below is a comment I submitted to this post on Joel Friedlander’s blog, The Book Designer, about using contests for e-book covers.

I’m a writer who has, in the past, done graphic design for a living—everything from layout to burning plates and occasionally minding the paper folder. Catch is, that was the 80s, and it’s a huge technology shift that I haven’t kept current on. In the 80s, I joined a consultancy that had a mix of software engineering and graphic design clients, though we also did some music-related stuff for a gaming company.

At one point, my partner and I decided that we were too unfocused and we should concentrate on one thing, so however we earned the most money in the next six months would narrow our focus. We made more money in software engineering, thus gave up the design part of our business. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake.

In between software gigs, I did still work in graphic design on occasion, though not through the partnership. After the company folded, I went back to graphic design for several months before heading off to Ireland. I was burned out and fried, and working on setting travel agency ad copy and laying out restaurant menus was far less stressful. I was the first to use the new typeface Lithos for Mexican restaurant menu design (for El Torito), and every time I see another Mexican restaurant using the face, I smile. It may be a super-small trend I set, but it was a move away from more stereotypical ethnic typefaces.

I’ve done cover designs on 99designs. Never won a gig, but I’ve been in the final round several times (mostly for hidden contests). I get asked to submit designs every now and again.

There are good and bad things about it, so I’m going to be frank with what I feel works and doesn’t work about 99 designs—and why I bother to do it at all.

First, I’m not an illustrator in any sense of the word. I’d love to have that skill, but not so much that I take the thousands of hours it’d need to really develop it. I’m really, truly at the “daisies like a six-year-old draws” stage of illustration skill. After I get my current book done, it’s actually part of my commitment to myself that I’m going to learn how to draw better as well as finally learn Illustrator.

I view the contests as “Photoshop homework where I have a risk of making some money.” That’s it. I’m looking for a challenge as an artist: what do I feel I have to say about this topic? And what can I challenge myself to learn? Also, do I have a photo that I think works for this?

Especially where there are photo-based covers, sometimes 99designs can feel like a race to find the killer stock art. For Tim Rymel’s forthcoming book Going Gay, when I saw the artist submit the winning cover, I inwardly folded. What I’d found was nowhere near as good. Tim obviously agreed, as he ended the contest early. Could he have gotten a better cover? Possibly. But I think it does an awesome job. In that contest, only a handful of designs were submitted.

The other extreme I’ve seen is where the client just keeps chewing up designer time. This contest had a mind-boggling 1265 entries. But, because they were paying $450 (rather than the more typical $200 or $290), people kept on submitting. I don’t want $450 that badly; I’m so glad I was eliminated early. I’m guessing the winning designer probably earned around $2 an hour.

Another problem is the person who’s self-published a book with an awful cover, then comes back to get a better one when their book isn’t selling. Catch is, if their taste was that appalling to begin with, it isn’t much (or any) better now. They’ve only decided it’s worth spending (more) money for. For you great designers out there, these people were likely never your customers. They’ll often reject good design. The beauty of 99designs for these kinds of situations is that you can look elsewhere for how you make your money. There are plenty of people willing to be awful for the client.

Look, I get that those of you who are real designers for your day job feel that these contests are a threat. And those of us who design a cover every now and again when we have the time aren’t really in your business at all. I’m far more interested in the one-off client where there’s no future implied obligation because I’m a writer first and designer second. You generally would prefer to have repeat business or at least referral business.

For those of us who find this kind of thing a bizarre form of entertainment, one of the reasons I do it is to hone my sense of design. To play with my font library. To try to figure out how someone else did something and have a go at it myself (not to knock off the design, but just to learn). To see what I like (and don’t like) about other people’s entries, and try to articulate why it does or doesn’t work for me. For me, that’s what the real benefit is: not the money, but the education.

One of the things I’ve had to spend a lot of time on is documenting the rights I have. Do I have rights to use this in a commercial project?

Speaking of fonts, I’ve learned how much of a font freak I really am. When some unexpected money came my way, I decided to go to TypeCon in July. Their program and workshops sound fabulous. So that’s a direct result of 99designs contests.

Almost every penny I’ve earned this year is as a designer. (I’ll have books out later this year, and I expect that, at year’s end, design will only be a minor part of my income. One hopes.) Did I design my own covers? Yes I did. Ultimately, that’s why I’m doing this: so I can do a better job for myself. Even if I get to where I think hiring someone else is a better choice, I will be better working with a designer because of my experience.

Until then, I’ll just write every day, publish books when they’re ready, and sell a bunch of t-shirts and the occasional clock or shower curtain.

Note: Book mockup template in header by Picseel.

Originally published at deirdre.net. You can comment here or there.

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Just for the record, the amount of time it takes from the time someone decides to to use a new pseudonym to:

  1. Google the potential problems with the name, then register the variant that’s the most promising.
  2. Wait for DNS to propagate.
  3. Find a theme for a landing page site template.
  4. Upload the bare bones to the writer’s server of choice.
  5. Find the right stock art and fonts for the right look. Requires searching five different sites, but you think you nailed it for not just the one book, but the planned series.
  6. Start setting up the email accounts. This needs another round of DNS propagation for reasons you never have figured out, and it’s two in the morning already.
  7. Restart Apache. Whoops.
  8. Web server down! No………..
  9. Obligatory teeth gnashing step.
  10. Oh, that’s why. Doh.
  11. Web server running again. Phew.
  12. Design the book cover from scratch. Fuss with it a few times.
  13. Hack and saw the web site template into something resembling what you need right now.
  14. Verify that the email accounts now work. Woohoo!
  15. Hack and saw the background image that isn’t as perfect as you thought it was. What’s that jaggy edge? Ewww.
  16. Write all the copy for the web page.
  17. Have the author sign up for Twitter.
  18. Have the author sign up for Smashwords.
  19. Figure out how you broke the author’s web site’s layout. Twice.
  20. Fix it, declare victory!

…eight hours have passed. And $35 or so ($15 for domain, $12 for landing page template, $8 for art).

Just in case you’re ever inspired to, you know, do the same.

I can has nap nao?

Originally published at deirdre.net. You can comment here or there.

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