Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cover Art Secrets

In my previous posts in this series, I discussed branding and basic cover construction. I've addressed topics of software, fonts, and sources for stock photos. I've illustrated ways to take a basic image and make it something unique and eye-catching, and how to supplement that art with fonts and colors that will appeal to your market. But there's one thing I haven't talked about, and that is what happens when you can't find the stock photos and art you want

It's bound to happen eventually. Maybe you can't find an artist whose work fits your needs (or credit limit!), or perhaps you just can't find a model who looks like your character. There just isn't a stock photo in the whole world that gives you what you need. You know exactly what you want, but for some reason you just can't get it. Well, don't be dismayed. Here's how you can do it: The answer to your problem just might be 3d modeling. 

Don't dismiss this idea right away. Don't assume that modeling is beyond your abilities. If you can use Gimp or Photoshop, you can use 3d models. And don't assume the price is beyond your reach. The truth is that some models and modeling programs are free! Just like public domain images, resources abound for 3d models. You can use models that are cartoonish, anime, or incredibly photo-realistic 

So where should you start? 

I'm going to point you in the direction I started, and that is with DAZ3D. This company is amazing. They are the Kindle of 3d models, thousands available within just a click. They even provide a very powerful modeling program absolutely free. It's called DAZ Studio, and you can download and use it free of charge. DAZ Studio is a powerful modeling program that allows you to use figures, such as humans, animals, and 3d objects to construct scenes. Several models are included with the program. The site also provides extra freebies that rotate monthly, and thousands of low-priced models that will astound you. Download it. Play with it. View their tutorials and learn how it works. 

An early version of Breeze (left) from T1, and a later version (right). Not the differences in lighting, posture, and props. Small things make a big difference in the final product!

Without going into too much detail, this is what you can expect: DAZ and other modeling programs allow you to load 3d models into a graphical environment. It's something like the 3d environment of a video game. You can change your perspective, circling around the object, pulling in close or pushing out to a great distance. You can load multiple objects, for example a man, a woman, a car, and mountains for a backdrop. You can pose the characters simply by clicking on one of their limbs and moving it around like a doll. You will also learn that there are pre-configured poses for characters, and a variety of different ways to manipulate objects.You can also modify the features of a character. For example, you can make a man thin and wiry, athletic, muscular, or even overweight. You can change features of his appearance that make him look like a teen or an old man. Same thing goes for females and to an extent, even to animals and other props.

Once you're happy with the characters, you can dress them in different clothes, change colors and textures, alter their skin and hair appearance, and manipulate the lighting to dramatic effect. Essentially, you can create your own characters, dress and pose them as you please, and then take a picture!

A scene I created for the cover of Shadow Born. This is what it looks like loaded into Poser, a 3d program very similar to Daz. I used a basic free character (Michael 4) with some modifications, clothing and props, etc.
 The final process, the picture-taking, is called rendering. This is where the software takes over, calculating the light, colors, and so on, to create an image based upon the scene you've created. Depending on the complexity of the scene, the resolution, and the processing power of your P.C., this can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. 

When you're done, you have a scene designed exactly to your liking, and ready to load into Gimp or Photoshop for post-production:
The render based on the above scene.

One version of the final cover, post-produced using Gimp. Effects used: hue/saturation, contrast/brightness, softglow, and cartoon.
Doesn't sound that hard, does it? That's because it's not. Of course, you should absolutely expect a learning period. Just like any other software, these programs have their own unique interfaces and idiosyncrasies. You might find one program doesn't like your computer, or that you just can't stand the interface. Don't worry, you have options:

DAZ Studio: I highly recommend you start here because it's user friendly and free. Test the waters before you spend any money. They have only the highest quality models and customer service is second to none, and I mean it. I've had to contact DAZ a couple of times with issues, and they went above and beyond for me. Their non-free models are a bit pricey, but still a great value, and some of the best looking models you will find anywhere.

Poser: Similar to DAZ but with a slightly different interface. Not free, but older editions can be had for as low as $30 US. New editions come out regularly, and features have become quite powerful. Poser is compatible with most DAZ models. Look for older (cheaper) versions at Amazon.

You have a number of other options that I haven't included here because they're either prohibitively expensive or focused more on landscapes and scenery than characters. Obviously, these can still be very useful but don't fall under the strictly utilitarian purposes of this post. Perhaps I'll do an extended post on this topic later...


Daz3D (see link above)  
ShareCG: a great place for free models. Remember to check licensing requirements on anything that's free. Some require an acknowledgment; some can't be used commercially. (Hint: Book covers are commercial)
Renderosity: A huge online storehouse of 3d figures. Prices vary, quality varies, but they have just about everything. They also have a free section.
PoserWorld: For fans of Poser, these guys have a ton of stuff. They have various types of paid accounts, all at low prices, and hundreds of models available to download.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you stick with it, you'll get to know these websites very well and probably find a dozen others. You will find fantastic models for free, as well as a lot of junk. 

As with all things, the key to success is practice. Eventually, if you stick with it, you will spend money on this. Good news, though. A lot of this stuff can be used as business deductions. Remember, if your writing produces income, it's a business. Cover art, publishing costs, and even books might be deductible. (See your accountant for specifics. I'm not a tax expert and none of this should be considered advice!) And remember, the difference between a lousy render and perfection doesn't just require a good model. It requires, patience, practice, and skill. Take another look at the T1 examples above and you'll see what a difference a few minor tweaks can make.

If you found this blog post helpful, take a look at the previous posts in this series. Also take a look at the "Books" tab, where you can find a list of all my published works. Or, click the Amazon banner to go directly to my Amazon page.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Making Book Covers, Part 3

In my last two posts, I discussed branding and source material for making book covers. This time, I want to delve a little deeper into some of the tricks you can use to make a cover unique and eye-catching. I'm going to be using Gimp because it's free, it's very similar to Photoshop, and probably ninety percent of the digital artists out there use at least one of these programs. I'm going to assume you understand the basic menu features. If not, you can figure them out quite easily (I also recommend surfing Youtube and Gimp forums for techniques)

As an example, I want to show you how I made the cover of my short story "Worlds Apart." I began with three stock images, all purchased for a very low fee. I think the entire cost of this cover was less than $15. The first image is a nice, simple graphic of a forest, which I cropped to size (I make all my e-book covers 6x9") and then sharpened using the hue/saturation feature and the brightness/contrast feature. These two adjustments are extremely important, because getting a good balance of contrast and color saturation is the trick to making a cover pop when it's shrunk down to Amazon's menu size:

Next, I shrank the resolution of my dancing fantasy couple to an appropriate size. I didn't want them to be a major part of the image, just a subtle cue hinting at the romantic element of the story. I used the softglow filter (filters/artistic/softglow) to create the lighting effect around the couple, and then simply pasted the image on top of the first and dialed up the contrast.

 The third image I used is this graphic of a fairy. After resizing appropriately, I used the colors/color to alpha feature to convert the black to transparency. This removes all of the black (or whatever color you choose.) This can make the image look a little strange if you're not careful. In this case, I was going for a ghostly look anyway, so that's exactly what I wanted. After converting to transparency, it is possible to adjust the color/contrast and opacity of the image after you lay it on the first, but only before you anchor or flatten the image. If you accidentally anchor it, you can either go into the image history in your toolbar and go back a step, or go to Edit in the menu, and select Undo.

With the final image complete, I once again adjusted the color saturation and contrast, bringing out the forest and the fairy, darkening the edges nearly to nothing. And of course, I chose two fonts that fit well with the fantasy theme. As an example of the importance of color saturation and contrast, here's my final version alongside another, without these adjustments:

I also added a border (filters/decor/add border), because images that are largely black or white tend to vanish when viewed online. The border helps define the size and shape, so viewers immediately understand what they're looking at.

Ultimately, I think it came out pretty well. I could have spent more time working on the various features, perhaps finding more lively fonts and adjusting the size and opacity of the various images, but there's a point of diminishing returns when it comes to covers. Even though I made this cover on the cheap, there is still an investment of time and energy that I have to take into consideration. With a few hours of labor on top of the $15 I paid for the images, I knew I could recoup my expenses. If I had chosen to spend $100 on a cover for a short story, it might take years to show a profit. Same goes with time. A few hours to build one cover is a small investment. A week? Two weeks? Not so much. Then you're spending time that you could be using to write more stories, and the cover art is only one small part of the recipe if you want to make money in writing. 

Now, for the sake of argument, let's say this wasn't an ethereal fantasy. Maybe we want horror, suspense, or sci-fi. Or maybe adventure? What could we do with this same base image? 

It's not hard to see how a few clicks can completely change the mood. The nice thing about Gimp and similar software is that you can produce impressive results at relatively low expense, and in a very small amount of time. Of course, the more you practice, the quicker you'll reach results you like. There is always an investment of time when learning a new program, but a couple weekends worth of experimentation can pay off for years to come.

Eventually, you'll want to do something but can't figure out how. Or, you'll do something you didn't mean to and won't know how to fix it. That's where Google and Youtube come in. The internet is full of tutorials for using Gimp and Photoshop. Use that resource! In very little, time you'll find that you'll be capable of producing results that absolutely blow away anything that was on a cover just a few years ago.

As a side note, thanks to everyone who took part in my giveaway last week. As I posted in last week's update, T1 was downloaded thousands of times. In the week since, sales have jumped dramatically. I'll be watching my numbers closely to see if this bump is temporary or the real thing. I'm also planning more promotions, so keep an eye on this page!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Building Covers, Part Two: Source Material

I recently did a post about branding considerations in cover design. This time I'd like to talk about the building of an actual cover. This is something that not every writer will want to try, or even be able to do. It helps to have a preexisting familiarity with graphics software, but is not absolutely necessary.

To get started, you will need some editing software. Adobe Photoshop is one of the longest running and most popular programs out there, but a quick search will turn up dozens of others. Adobe is the 800 pound gorilla. It comes in a variety of flavors now, but most are still quite expensive. If you can't afford Adobe or other professional programs, you still have a few options. Download.com has a selection of freely downloadable graphics editors, but many of these are shareware with limitations built in.One of my favorite editing programs is called Gimp. This program is FREE, and it contains much of the exact same functionality as Photoshop. You can use it to cut and paste, to resize, alter contrast and color, and perform thousands of other operations. It comes preloaded with a nice selection of filters that will automatically convert your image into an old photograph, create a border, or add dozens of other effects. There is a learning curve involved. If you really want to master this or any other graphics software, expect to spend a few weeks working with it at the very minimum.

Of course, the ability to edit images does you no good if you don't have images. So what sources are available? The first and most obvious is you. If you have any artistic or photographic abilities, you can integrate these into your cover. You can also purchase stock images, which are licensed when you buy them, or you can use free public domain images. (some of these require an acknowledgement, so pay attention)

Here are a few sources for stock photos that you can purchase:

Shutterstock.com  -over 35 million images on file
Gettyimages.com   - This place has some very high quality commercial images, but they are extremely pricey.
Canstockphoto.com  - If you're on a budget, check here. They have thousands of images, photos, and graphics, and some of the best prices I've found anywhere.

For free, public domain images:

Wikimedia Commons
Google.... yep, just do a quick search and you'll find quite a few more.

Keep in mind that all images have some sort of licensing, whether they're free or not. Watch out for non-commercial only licenses or attribution requirements. Sometimes it's worth the price to buy an image, just so you know what you're getting.

Once you've selected your cover material, I highly recommend making four or five different versions of the cover. Try different images, different colors and fonts, and so on. I often find that the image I have in my head doesn't translate that well onto the page, but then I find something that works even better by accident. It also helps to distill the essence of the idea down to one or two simple graphics, rather than a large complicated scene that won't translate well when shrunk down to size.

Whatever you do, DO NOT just slap a stock image onto a cover and put it up for sale. Everyone recognizes this type of cover, and they know to steer clear! This practice all but guarantees no sales, regardless of how good your book is. Unfortunately, the truth is that people do judge a book by its cover. Sometimes, people buy a book specifically for the cover, even if they never plan to read it. So look at your cover as a serious work of art, and give it the time and respect it deserves. As in all things, don't expect perfection but strive for it.

I will do another post on this subject soon. In completely unrelated news, I'm going to be running a promo soon. I'm still working on the details, so I'll have more info on that next week.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

New Look, Same Great Taste! (a word about branding and making book covers)

I felt like it was time for a change, so I've updated my blog theme. I feel it's more in keeping with the weather around here in NorCal (if this "drought" goes on much longer, we'll be canoeing across town) and perhaps a little easier on the eyes than the previous gold text and dark background. As usual with Blogger, I'm not 100% satisfied with the results. There are certain elements that I can't change manually, or I can't do without a great deal of time and a better understanding of HTML. Sadly, I thought those days were over and I gave up programming years ago. Still, I do like this theme and hopefully others will agree.

I have also updated some of my book covers over the last two weeks, and most of the final changes are now live. For some of my books, this has been an ongoing annual process. Over the last few years I've not only learned a lot about cover design, the market itself has also become more sophisticated. Back in 2010, readers were used to (frankly) lousy covers. Big publishing houses didn't spend a lot of their budgets on cover art, and since the majority of authors had no say whatsoever in their book's appearance, covers tended to be quite bland and in many cases, genre neutral. Not so anymore.I have to say that Independent authors have really raised the game. A few years ago, we were all Photoshopping together two dimensional stock photos and slapping on some text. Now, a quick perusal of Amazon's charts will reveal some absolutely stunning artwork and an extremely sophisticated system of author and genre branding.

In my case, I'm just trying to keep up. I've been familiar with Photoshop since the early 90's and I was confident going into this that I could build covers just as good as those on most of the books I owned. For the most part I was probably right, but sadly I didn't realize at the time how much better things could be. It didn't take long to learn that generic Windows fonts aren't enough, and that there are far better options than simply Photoshopping stock art. Of course, while working towards better covers, one must always keep branding in mind. It's important that when readers see your covers, they instantly recognize them as yours. Artwork is one aspect of that. 

For example, in my Tinkerer's Daughter series, I've always used the main character on the covers (with the exception of the very first cover I created, and immediately realized it was a mistake). The combination of font and image lets readers know right away that this is an adventure, and that the protagonist is a young female. If done correctly, there are genre-specific cues that knowing readers will recognize, possibly even subliminally. For example, Breeze has long, elfin ears, pointing towards a fantasy theme. She carries a sword or a spring-powered revolver, and dresses in a steampunk fashions reminiscent of Victorian England or colonial America. Readers unfamiliar with the genre may find these contradictions intriguing, but steampunk fans will instantly know what they're looking at. It's a fantasy-themed steampunk adventure series that revolves around a young female protagonist. Piece of cake. 

Likewise, the fonts you choose as well as their size and placement on the cover relay a vast amount of information to readers. The font you choose on a romance novel is very different from the one you'd choose for a science fiction novel. These cues let readers know what they're in for, and if you get them wrong, may lead to readers being disappointed or even angry. It's not hard to imagine a one-star review proclaiming, "I thought this was romance, but it was all about spaceships and aliens. I couldn't even finish it!" This is the sort of thing we avoid with a correctly branded cover. 

The easiest way to get a feel for branding is to browse the covers in your genre at Amazon.com. They will vary, of course, but you will probably pick out certain themes. Do they usually contain characters, or simple inanimate objects? Is the art on the cover larger, smaller, or equal in size to the name of the author and the title? Do colors tend to run bright and vibrant, or perhaps dark and moody? You may have an idea you really like, something that nobody else has done, but always keep in mind that when you experiment, you defy cues that let readers know what they're getting. The reason for this is that most readers aren't rushing out to find something "new and different" even if they say they are. They're really looking for something as familiar as a warm blanket by the fire. They want a romance that's different from the last romance, but not too different. Same with fantasy, sci-fi, and pretty much every genre. Don't abandon this type of branding lightly. If you do, be prepared for it to cost you some sales, at least in the beginning. The nice thing is that since you're an Indie, if the cover doesn't work you can change it at the drop of a hat.

I'll get more into the details of cover techniques in the future, but for now I want present some of my covers. I'll put the old versions up too, to give you a better idea of the things I've discussed here. I'll start with T1, one of the first book covers I ever made:

 As you can see, the first edition wasn't necessarily awful, but it doesn't make the grade by modern standards. I was doing something with the fonts, but they didn't quite do the trick, and the artwork is far too vague. It looks like what it is: a cut and paste job.

The current version on the right isn't perfect, but it's a vast improvement over the original. My font choice here still could use some improvement, and the art is perhaps a bit small, which means details are lost when it's shrunk down. But overall, it's definitely a major improvement and I'm fairly happy with it. Any changes I make in the future will probably be relatively minor.

This, incidentally, is what came between the two versions:

Next, T2:

Again, the improvements are obvious. Clearer, larger image, better fonts, and a stronger emphasis on both title and author name. While the previous versions were consistent in terms of series branding, I hope I've taken that to a new level with the latest versions.

 And now, T3:

All the same issues, and largely the same improvements. What do you think?

You can find all of these and the rest of my titles by clicking the advertisement on the left side of this page.