Let’s Talk Art: How to Create Affordable Covers for Your Indie Book

There is nothing wrong with this cover, if -- read the description -- what you're writing is somewhat "literary" (what the academics consider literary) a little highbrow, and appeals to a limited audience. It would, however, be a terrible cover for your bodice ripper, your sword and sorcery fantasy, your commercial urban fantasy, or anything else not "literary and little." This is also how most cover designers you can get (i.e. not the ones working for major houses) design covers. And this is why it might be best to learn to do it yourself with resources at hand.

No, don’t run away (yet.)  While my family has a tendency to go through the art museum making fun of things and pretending we think the trash can is an installation (it might have been, now that I think about it) and making all the arty people mad (well, guys, we pay our membership.  We enjoy at as we want to.  We’re not shouting.  Stop getting close enough to us so you can seethe at what we say) that is not the sort of talk I want to have (though a stroll through the art museum with a camera followed by a “the Hoyts desecrate art post might be fun.)

I’m talking of art in its right and proper place and not exactly high art, either. (Yes, I know high art.  During one of the worst depressions of my life, a book with reproductions of Leonardo DaVinci’s paintings and sketches pulled me through.)

The art we want to talk about here, is the sort of art that is needed in a certain place and needs to be good enough to pass muster in that place.

It’s sort of like the wallpaper patterns painted on canvas and mounted on cubes that are used on hotel walls.  As “high art” they fall short of the mark, neither elevating nor communicating any other emotion.  As art for your own home, they’d probably get incredibly tiring (unless you’re one of those people who uses his/her apartment as a crash pad.) But as “hotel art” it does break the monotony of what would otherwise be institutionally bland walls, and doesn’t have anything particularly memorable to offend or confuse a fussy guest.

The type of art we’re going to talk about is sort of the same: book cover art.

You must have something on the cover of your books.  I’ve already talked about signaling and how to make sure your book fits with its genre.  Most designers – and for that matter most artists – you can hire will in fact give you “art” and “cover design” that fits only with the “literary and little” set.  This is because until very recently that was who the artists and cover designers who hadn’t quite made it worked.

The other problem with “hiring the professionals” is monetary.  I’m now making around $500 a month from my indie (mostly backlog of reverted novels and short stories) publishing.  But that is after two years and with my having a lot of backlog.  Yes, it’s also on the low side due to these being reverted novels and my only having about a third of them out. I have friends who are making the same from one or two indie-published-from-the-get-go novels.

My art is okay, but not exactly cover quality.  Not unless we're going "literary and little" And besides, I'm out of practice. My art is okay, but not exactly cover quality. Not unless we're going "literary and little" And besides, I'm out of practice.

But the thing is it’s a craps shoot.  You might have ten novels out and only one of them sells regularly.  Or you might put one novel out and it sells 20k in a month.  I’ve known both extremes.  I’ve also known novels that don’t sell for a year and suddenly sell 8k in a month, then returning to 100 or so a month after.  This proves it has very little to do with quality (beyond basic readability) and everything to do with the novel being discovered (and no, there is as yet no reliable way to make your novel be discovered by the right audience.  It will come.  But not yet.)

What I’m trying to say, though, is that the indie publishing field is as yet too unstable and new for indie writers to go around paying hundreds of dollars for a cover (and that’s low. Professional artists get paid thousands) then hundreds for a cover designer, then hundreds for a book interior designer, after paying hundreds for an editor.

I know people whose first book out cost them 4k. Are they going to recover it?  Who knows? If they’re lucky they might recover that in a month.  If they’re not so lucky it could take two years.

I went through the Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith workshops. What I took from them is that money flows to the writer.  Yes, I do understand the need sometimes to hire out to do stuff, and I will have a list, later on, of people I know who do various services. BUT that is only justifiable if you’re already a going concern with a few stories out, and a baseline of what you’re likely to make, if your story is long enough you’re likely to sell a reasonable number (short stories sell less than novels) and if your life is so busy you can’t truly add another thing.

On that last – it might be worth it to you to pay to have stuff done instead of learning to do it, if your alternative is to stop writing while you learn to do it.  But even so, you’ll want the best possible job for the lowest possible money, right?

Every time I come to this point, in a talk with a newby writer, I get hit with the same thing, “but I can’t draw.  I can’t.”  The stompy foot is optional.

This always makes me wonder if this person has ever looked for art on line.  Because the alternative to “hire an artist to create a dedicated piece of art” is NOT “draw it yourself.”

My drawing, it is better than average, but the time for art classes has got squeezed out these last 4 years, and my skills have suffered.  I can do sketches to show what I want, but they’re not “cover quality.”

This is the type of photo that might be perfectly okay as a cover, with a bit of manipulation by various programs. It's from Morgue File, which means I don't need to give credit, but why not do it?  It's by DodgertonSkillhause This is the type of photo that might be perfectly okay as a cover, with a bit of manipulation by various programs. It's from Morgue File, which means I don't need to give credit, but why not do it? It's by DodgertonSkillhause

You see, cover art can be bad, or very bad, but it has to look like a professional drew it.  The worst cover I ever had (the hardcover art for Draw One In The Dark) looked like it was drawn by a 10 year old.  Heck, my (then) ten year old could have done better.  The problem with that cover was not the bad signaling (horror, instead of light fantasy) or the inexplicable stuff (a seashell around the guy’s neck) it was the fact that it looked like an elementary student had drawn it by tracing off an anime cover.  (Yes, there are reasons.  The publisher had just had a stroke.  He then died.  This happens.  The book is being reissued in an omnibus with its sequel, under the title Night Shifters this summer.)

A lot of covers are confusing but look professional. And professional is not something you can do, not unless your other degree is art.

So, let’s talk seriously.  I don’t expect you to draw your own covers.  I expect you to buy them.  But the covers I expect you to buy are not commissioned/dedicated and they will cost you – usually – well under $100.  Some might even be free.

I’ll cover (ah!) what program I use (mine are as always heterodox but also cheap) and how to manipulate it to make it look good.  In fact, I’ll start with one of my own early covers (as my friend Pam Uphoff said “the covers that were acceptable in early KDP are now very very bad.” So I have a lot of them needing redoing.  And that’s the best way to show you how to do them.)

Here, I’ll just cover “Where to get art.”  (And don’t fret too much if that art is photos and you need drawings.  We’ll get to that.  Promise.)

First, there’s several free sites for art.  A lot of them are collected here.

I’ll confess I often routinely go through all of them and fail to find what I want, though.  My go to sites for free art are EveryStockPhoto.Com (make sure you read the “about” on the picture. Some photographers forbid commercial use, some want you to write for permission and almost all insist on credit.) and Morguefile.com.

I’ll be honest with you, neither is much good for photos that require people and where the person will be identifiable.  That’s because neither of them has a model release, which is something else you need to look for when looking for photos. But they’re both often quite good for animal or object or scene photos.

This was done with a $15 piece of stock art. This was done with a $15 piece of stock art.

My next go to place, particularly when working on historical stuff, is ArtRenewal.com.  If an artist has been dead since before 1927 (some later, but my lawyer has threatened to flay me alive if I use anything later than that, with a few exceptions) then you can use the art. (Note not the frame, though.)

For various reasons, including that if you use a painting in toto it gives the impression it’s a scholarly or classical reprint, it’s best to use a figure or a detail of the painting.

Under that heading and not exactly free, but cheap, I have an extensive collection of Dover Publications titles of old paintings.  You know Great Victorian Fantasy Paintings, or what have you.  I’m sure I haven’t (yet) used enough to justify what I paid for them, even at discount prices, but looking through them sometimes sparks an idea for something else.

But let’s imagine you’ve gone through all of those and not found anything you want.  You’re doing a cover for a period romance, where the face of the model has to show, say, but it has to be a photograph, so old art won’t do.  Or you want to do a specific fantasy setting and you’ve not been able to find the right look.

The answer is to go to one of the stock-for-pay places.  I use dreamstime.  I use dreamstime because it’s best for my piddly use.  (I.e. I buy half a dozen photos a month or so.)  As you know, PJM uses Shutterstock.  My friend Kevin J. Anderson’s company – Wordfire – uses Shutterstock also, because he buys in batches of a hundred or so and the “monthly membership” comes out cheaper.

How much will art for a cover set you back?  Well… the cover above cost me $15 for the maximum size, which means I can use it for print.  Now, is it exclusive?  Oh, heck no.  In fact, I’ll have to get away from this artist, because they’re head and shoulders above all other designers, and so a lot of fantasy authors use the exact same cover.

(Yes, the cover design sucks and the lettering is so so – it’s a learning curve, okay?  I am better now, but there are a lot more cryingly bad covers I have out there.  This one will wait its turn.)

Now, if you go through all of that, and still don’t find what you want, you’re either going to have to change what you want (some of us have done it!) or you can cruise Deviant Art.

I have never got anything from Deviant Art.  My requests for price or asking whether things are for sale go unanswered 9 times out of 10.  The tenth time I get an indignant “it’s already sold.”  That’s fine.  That’s me.  I have friends who’ve got art there, though.  Be careful before you enquire, though, and run the art through a reverse image finder.  I’ve found people posting as theirs public domain or – worse – someone else’s art.  I don’t think this is exactly “on purpose” or to defraud, but very young artists who just want approval, but there it is.

Anyway, that’s where to find art.  The rest we’ll leave for next time, including how to manipulate a photo so it looks like a drawing or painting.