Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Indie Life: cover art

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

This month, an offshoot of my thinking about how the larger sexism and racism controversies in SF/F can trickle down to even little self-publishers like me. Have you seen Jim Hines' spoofs of the silly poses women are put into, on book covers? How about the "girly" versions of famous (male) authors' covers?

I follow Lousy Book Covers -- though not too closely, it's depressing -- and also some "beautiful book covers" Tumblr feeds... it should come as no surprise which one has the most traffic.

I've been a graphic designer for 15 years or so, and I know enough about advertising to say that there are reasons why marketers package books the way they do. I've seen enough data to agree that even while we object about the gratuitous sex, violence, etc., we still buy it. It's a deep and complicated problem with plenty to unpack from it... and that's too big a topic for here and now. I want to think about what goes into a book cover. As a self-publisher, I try to take all of these things into account when giving my cover artist instructions.

The primary purpose of a book cover is to give the viewer an idea of what to expect from the contents. Among the things the cover tells the viewer are:

My book's cover:
Fantasy, non-Earth, monsters,
dark/grim/gritty, adventure/travel,
girl looking tough.
What do you see?
There's a stock of images associated with every genre, whether it's spaceships, aliens, and electronics for science fiction, or dragons, swords and castles for fantasy. The vocabulary's large, and there's overlap to some degree, but it's easy to classify a book by its cover.

Those stock images can be very specific (a cybernetically enhanced person), or combinations of them can indicate a specific sub-genre (vampire plus teenaged girl). Also, the cover can indicate any unexpected overlaps with other genres. If you've got steampunk with dragons, or a spy thriller with supernatural elements, the cover art is a good place to alert readers to that.

Darkness? Humor? Idealism? There's an equally large stock of associated imagery with all of these things. Lighting and color palette can convey this, too, independent of the images.

Major themes
With the rise of ebooks and the need for covers to look good as thumbnail images, there's been an increasing abstraction in the artwork -- simplifying it down to a single image, maybe two -- which can be powerful. But it can also be vague. It's perfectly valid for a fantasy novel to have just a sword for its cover art. But that doesn't tell the reader much, unless it's a very distinctive sword.

What do I mean by "major themes"? All of those cheesy romance covers of a woman languishing on Fabio's shoulder do convey the theme very efficiently: ROMANCE. A World War II novel with Mustangs dogfighting on the cover: ACTION. It's in how the genre-related elements of the cover are interacting.

Interesting details
The cover is a chance to intrigue readers with unexpected combinations or fun details. Bear in mind, though, that a viewer knows absolutely nothing about the story inside, so only the most general things can be conveyed here. If your characters have a cool gadget, its presence on the cover will be entirely as a cool gadget. Its magical powers or time-travelling capabilities aren't easily explained. Which means it had better be pretty darn cool, to be on the cover. Tread with care.

What quintessential aspect of your character can you tell the reader, in the book cover? That he's tough? That she's frightened? If there are people in your cover art, this is not optional -- the viewer will see personality in them. Choose carefully.

Symbolic vocabulary
How do you know what elements communicate what? To some degree, you already do; we've all been drenched in advertising symbolism all our lives. We all love books here, as well, so we have plenty of chances to study their covers.

And to some degree, you've worked on this vocabulary as part of mastering the craft of writing. Yes, we use words but what we convey to the reader are images. You've hooked your readers and drawn them into your story by way of powerful images.

How have you translated those into cover art?


Laura Pauling said...

Publishers and now authors use similar covers - for a reason. They sell books. I def. don't even click on books if I don't like the cover. I hate to say that, but its true.

Thanks for participating!

Kimberly said...

I agree the book cover is really important. I think my son is a good example, like Laura, he won't even pick it up if he doesn't like the cover. (He's a teen). :)

Kimberly said...

P.S. I tried to follow you but it says the page cannot be found. I even closed and re-opened your blog.

L. Blankenship said...

It's giving me an error when I click on my followers list, too. Google did just retire Reader, and they own Blogger too -- maybe this is related to that...

shelly said...

I'm going to give my book a new one after I finish writing the second book in my series.

This was a great post.

Hugs and chocolate,

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