Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Creating a great book cover (or How to accelerate male pattern baldness by ripping one’s hair out in frustration)

Whoever the asshole was who first warned not to judge a book by its cover was either bald faced liar or a peeved author. The cover, like the play, is the thing to catch the king. If your cover is awful, readers will simply dismiss your book as dreck and move on. Mind you, the opposite is true too. A fantastic cover can lure readers into buying an awful book. I don’t know about you, but I’m guilty of that one. 

When I put out my book, Bad Wolf, I made a number of initial blunders. All of them due to impatience. After the thrill of finishing that first novel and reading all those heady blog posts by authors who were cleaning up in self-publishing, I was mad to hop on that gravy train. Haste makes waste and I suffered through editorial glitches, proofreading gaffes and cover trouble. 

I asked a good friend of mine to make the cover for the book. He’s an amazing illustrator-artist who works for some major ad agencies here in town. Years ago, we had downed many a beer over plans for a comic book. The book never panned out but we had fun so when it came time to create a book cover, Nabil was a natural go-to-guy. And he came up with a beautiful illustration. 

Take a closer look at that image. It’s beautiful and I fell in love with it. Who wouldn’t? The problem was it didn’t work as a book cover. And the blame for that was mine. I hadn’t put enough thought into what the cover should be nor did I communicate very well. 

Like the title, the book cover has to convey a number of ideas in an instant. Genre, tone, feel, worth. Achieving that can be tricky and the book cover I had, as cool as it is, didn’t express any of those. I didn’t see it at the time, being too in love with the illustration itself. I had also made things trickier with this book as it was a genre mash-up of horror and police procedural (homicide detectives hunting a suspect who turns out to be a werewolf), so I had two genres to convey, instead of just one. The wolf looks too benign to convey either genre, as do the fonts and background. One of the things I liked about the cover was that it didn’t look like a book cover (if anything, it looks like a graphic novel) but that in itself was a mistake. All book covers look similar (image, font, shape), especially within genre and if a reader can’t recognize it instantly, they will simply look to the next book. 

So I had to redo it. I was reluctant to ask my friend to rework it, as he had done me a favour the first time but I was also reluctant to hire a book designer too. (Again, this may be another mistake. We’ll see.) As loath as I was to learn yet another program, I was gunshy about collaborating with a designer and all the back and forth discussions and tweaking that would follow. However, since I plan to put more books in the future (and be able to tweak them later), it made sense to hunker down and learn to do it myself. 

I downloaded a graphics editor called GIMP (free, open source) and started a slow learning curve to master the principals. I’m not a quick study and I still get frustrated at the complexity and detail involved working with graphics but I stumbled along and came up with this:

Some improvement here, at least in suggesting genre. I drew the wolf image by hand, scanned it and tweaked it in GIMP. But it’s still not working. While I think it stands out, the image is too cartoonish, as is the text. It’s lacking something and still doesn’t look like a real book. I used it for the time being, fixing it onto the book and reloading it onto Amazon and Smashwords. There was little to no impact on sales or interest. 

I had also made the tactical error of showing the monster. I’ve seen other books make this mistake too. What you want to do is suggest the monster, not reveal it, because no matter how brilliant the image, it still pales against the subjective imagination of the reader.

 Here’s an example (not to slag on Jeff Strand, I loved Wolf Hunt):

That implants the image in your head, trumping your own imagination. But how much better is this, when it’s simply suggested...

See? It's elegant in its simplicity but conveys everything but still lets your imagination speculate as to what's locked behind those bars.

And this doesn’t just apply to the monster (or fantastical aspect of the story), it applies even more to the characters. Staying with the werewolf genre, take this edition of Kelly Armstrong’s bestseller, Bitten. 
I’m supposed to imaging this blonde girl as the protagonist? You just undercut my mind’s eye, thank you very much. How much better is this?
Now that just fires my imagination to a whole world of possibilities because it’s suggestive, not specific. 

So back to the dilemma; how to suggest not just one genre but two without being too specific and spoiling any reader’s chance to utter “wow”. I was flummoxed for a while about which genre to suggest (crime or horror), thinking it had to be one or the other. Stress the crime aspect with images of guns or cops or dark alleys, or focus on the horror with a monster or a full moon diffused through creepy branches. 

Then I thought, why not both? Ta-da...

 By splicing in two images, again without being specific, conveys both genres. The bottom image suggests the crime/cop procedural aspect and the jaws at the top implies the monster without really giving anything away (in fact those teeth don't even belong to a wolf, they're dog chompers). 

After hours of trial and error, I tweaked and fumbled my way into making it look semi-professional. If there's an ass-backwards way to task a job, I'll be sure to find it.

An added bonus is that this cover template lends itself nicely to a sequel by simply tweaking a few elements to achieve something like this...