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. 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:  -over 35 million images on file   - This place has some very high quality commercial images, but they are extremely pricey.  - 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.