Those of us who self-publish need to provide our own book covers. The cover artist is just one of the things we lose by choosing Self Publishing over Traditional Publishing. On the other hand, we have tremendous freedom to decide what that cover should look like. There are plenty of people ready and willing to help us. In fact, they make their livings designing covers the way we make ours writing what goes inside them.
Conventional wisdom says do not design your own book cover. The results can be less than stellar. In fact, there is a whole website devoted to such train wrecks, called Lousy Book Covers. Take a look at it. Not only will it provide hours of hilarity (or stomach aches), but it will also guide you to know what to avoid.
If you can, hire a cover artist. You know what goes into a book. They know what goes on a book. This needn’t be expensive. The website Fiverr has plenty of professionals who will produce an outstanding cover for $ 50, sometimes less. They have as many stock photos as you have ideas, and know how to blend them together to make an original piece for you. This is a boon for the writer of romance or mystery. Browse romances on Amazon some time and see what they look like. For fans of brawny men, you will have a field day. For fans of erotica, I must quote George Takei and say, “Oh, myy!”
Fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers don’t fare as well. No matter how deep an inventory the cover artist has, few have stock photographs of women in Medieval garb hefting a sword, a spaceship hovering over the surface of Rigel X, or a werewolf about to devour a child. So, what are we supposed to do?
Well, the first choice is to hire an illustrator to paint the cover. Most fantasy and science fiction covers are paintings. You’ve seen them. We grew up with them. I could spend the rest of this post listing all the names of the great cover artists, but I’ll stick to Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Ken Kelly, Ralph McQuarrie, and the Hildebrandt Brothers. They set the tone for the genres. Another choice is to hire a photographer to put models in costume, take them to an appropriate setting, and tell them to have fun. Both of those are the optimal choices. They are also the expensive choices. A good illustrator can charge $ 500 or more, and photographers and models charge by the hour.
As someone who writes in a genre with few stock photograph options, and as someone who had to wage a Kickstarter campaign to afford the ISBNs for his books, that left me with only one option: design my own cover.
Here, I have an advantage. I’m also a 3D artist. Oh, I’m far from the best. My work lacks the photorealism craved by so many (including myself). But in nine years, I’ve learned much, especially how to pose the characters, thanks to studying Frazetta. In no way do I recommend that you follow suit. What I learned about designing my own cover, however, may help you tell a professional artist what you want for yours.
Here is my original cover design.
I designed it to reflect what lies inside. It is symbolic of Aura’s journey to discover herself. Yet, it just didn’t feel right. Mostly, I didn’t like Aura’s dress. No matter what I did to it, that dress looked plastic. The cover also looked pedestrian to me, literally, as Aura is simply walking.
So, I set out to redesign the cover. For that, I turned to Susan K. Quinn’s book Indie Author Survival Guide. She devotes an entire chapter to covers, what they do, and what they don’t do.
Ms. Quinn says that the cover is marketing. It is designed to capture the reader’s attention and arouse his or her interest. It should convey the genre in one image. It does not tell the story. That is what the blurb does. The cover does not have to match the story. It just has to convey the idea. Whether the writer uses people, landscape, items, or symbols is personal choice and dependent on genre. Symbols work well for science fiction, people work best for fantasy and romance, items such as guns and maps are standard for mystery, and close ups of faces are the trademark of young adult. Ms. Quinn specified that the two genres that fare the best from an illustration, as opposed to a photograph, are children’s books and fantasy. She used the cover to Indie Author Survival Guide as an example. The cover shows a mountain climber facing a mountain. The book has nothing to do with mountain climbing. On the other hand, it does have to do with surviving what can be the figuratively rough landscape of self-publishing.
Armed with that knowledge, I returned to DAZ Studio. 3D art is an illustration. In fact, my less-than-photorealistic images work better with Ms. Quinn’s guidelines.
Before I started, I asked myself, “What would Frank Frazetta do?” He was a professional cover artist, knew a cover was designed to grab the reader’s attention, and nothing is more riveting than drama. He wouldn’t focus on the landscape. He would focus on the character. That meant Aura had to be front and center, dominating the cover. I kept the steps, symbolic of the story, but now they are just there, not the focal point. Frazetta would also pose the character in action. Again, that sense of drama. Aura did not have to do anything she does inside the book, just look interesting enough to convince the reader to buy it.
Putting Aura in an action pose forced me to discard the dress. No 3D dress works well in an action pose. Now, at this point in the series, Aura wears a dress. She does not acquire the red corseted bikini that some of you are familiar with until the third book. If I can’t use the dress, and won’t use the bikini yet, that left only a blouse and pants. However, she doesn’t wear them in the book. Is that permissible? I’m sure you’ve seen a cover to one of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels. On every cover, Harry Dresden wears a hat. In the stories, however, he never does. The hat is an inside joke between Butcher and his artist. So, yes, it is permissible. Remember, the cover does not have to match the story, and that includes the character’s clothing.
To convey the idea that this book is fantasy, I gave Aura two of the traditional emblems of a magician; a staff and a cloak. I also posed her with one hand raised, as if she is about to cast a spell. That emphasized that A Path of Stones is a sword-and-sorcery story, heavy on the sorcery. Finally, I wanted to convey some idea of who Aura is and what the story is about. Her motto is “defend the defenseless, help the helpless, and give hope to the hopeless.” Few are more defenseless or helpless than a child, so I had her defending a child from an unseen threat.
Setting up a cover is not the same as setting up a scene to post on DeviantArt. A cover has a title and an author’s name that go somewhere. Space has to be allowed for those. The colors of the illustration cannot conflict with them, either. I spent an entire day tweaking the colors of the set to permit the title to show, and moving the camera around to avoid overlapping the figures.
Here is the result.
I like this much better. Certainly, it doesn’t match the story. It doesn’t have to. On the other hand, it actually does. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t have 3D art skills.
A 3D artist may be the cost-effective route, should you not have the funds for an illustrator or photographer, and Fiverr artists don’t have the needed resources. Many will take commissions, and be happy to collaborate on a commercial project. Their commission rates are affordable. Browse through DeviantArt, find a few 3D artists whose work you like, and contact them.