Before you get excited about cover art….

This one is more for people looking into commissioning cover artwork (self-publishing seems to be the big one, although there are so many new zines out there this probably applies to some of them), but also check out this awesome post on E. Kristin Anderson’s blog with all kinds of great insight into the cover process.

Anyway, I recently heard a horror story about commissioned cover artwork (from a friend who was directly involved in the mess), where the only person who really came out on top was the skeevy designer. I did design and Photoshop work through college and a bit afterwards, and I dip my toes into photomanipulation a fair bit, so a lot of this information is based on what I’ve seen around. (Also, there was this point in time where I did an art minor—I took all two digital art classes woooooo.) Sorry for the lack of definitive sources. Read the link above. 😛

I think the worst part of this by far was that the photographer/model wasn’t even informed of what was happening. If there’s any plans to commercialize a work, everyone who has contributed it needs to be aware. Some people are generous enough to release their work without limits, but honestly, if money is involved, better safe than sorry.

1. Research the stock (source photography).

There are plenty of people (like me) who are Photoshop wizards but haven’t got the equipment to make our own stock. Which inevitably means that we’ll turn to stock websites, including Fotolia, Stockvault, CGTextures, and Creative Commons-licensed sections of sites like Flickr and Wikimedia.

Licenses vary, depending both on distribution and non- vs. commercial use. Stock sites that start off paid like Shutterstock are generally more liberal with what you can do, but if you’re planning to distribute more than 250,000 copies of a work then even that becomes a problem.

I still see stock.xchng linked all over the place, and they’ve said explicitly that they don’t allow photomanipulation, so I would steer clearly of them entirely. The usage license, if you read it closely, is very limited.

You will want to do this. BUT YOU CAN’T.

The moral of the story is that authors are just as responsible for making sure that their covers are legitimately sourced as the cover artists. There are skeevy people out there. But they’re not distributing the product, you are. So the burden of covering bases falls on you, because you are the point of contact for an irate photographer who’s just now finding out that, for instance, a photograph of their daughter has been used on an ideologically insensitive piece.

2. Respect the model.

Authors tend to be big on privacy. So imagine how you’d feel if you went to the grocery store and saw your face plastered on cartons of baby seal meat. Okay, fine, that’s not a thing, but even for something you approve of, it is hella shocking to find that your image has been used without permission, especially if there’s money involved.

Giving a heap of money to the cover designer doesn’t ensure they’re paying everyone else. Make sure you’ve seen the model’s signed release (yes, that’s supposed to be a thing) and, again, that people know this is happening.

If the model has a problem, listen to them. Seriously, it’s your fault for paying up without being 100% sure everything is kosher first.

Obviously, these things shouldn’t come up if you’re working with a reputable cover artist. But, honestly, authors aren’t good at design. How do you know that the person is good at what they’re doing, aside from taking a crash course in design?

3. Pay attention to trends.

The piece the author got screwed on here was that the cover was, well, not good. Given how much money they were paying, I could name several people who would’ve done a better (and legal) job.

Even without the poor use of glow effect, the fact that none of the covers on this person’s site clearly indicated a genre should’ve been a big red flag. If you’ve done the smart thing and read that post I linked at the top, you know that there are certain expectations designers play on. (Sara Megibow’s factoid about shades of green has blown my mind permanently.)

Is the person making your cover plugged into the industry well enough to know about these things? Are they connected with other cover designers as well as publishing industry people (it could be small press, it should just be a press)?

I saw a self-published work by a guy who did design predominantly, and while the book was ignorant of many publishing basics, the layout had decent aesthetics. It didn’t fit the market he was aiming for, but it did get me to attempt the first chapter. Covers matter.

I wear double sunglasses to shield myself from bad fonts.

4. Designers and illustrators aren’t the same thing. Actually, there is no one big ‘art’ box.

Sit down and let me tell you about another person who commissioned an animator to make her cover. The results weren’t pretty.

Generally speaking, modern designers are expected to be competent illustrators (although more so in Illustrator, which is vector-based where Photoshop and anything photograph-based is going to need raster), so yeah there’s a bit of overlap. Not to mention that any decent artist learns the basics of composition, so there’s a chance it’ll come out okay.

But otherwise sane illustrators can do things like pick out unacceptable fonts (Papyrus, anyone?) or stick the title/names in places that draw zero attention to them.

If your cover designer can’t recognize at least 15 fonts on sight, or doesn’t know what kerning means, that’s not good.

Anyway, this is all just based on stuff I’ve seen/heard. Feel free to add more!


6 thoughts on “Before you get excited about cover art….

  1. i’m more on the other side of the table, but this is nevertheless informative. nice write up.

    re 3. yes, especially if the prospective reader happens to be one that is visually inclined (like one that has an appreciation for good aesthetics), covers definitely matter. some artists/designers do read, after all… but usually after we gawk at the pretty pictures first~ >[:p

    re 4. yes, there is overlap between art/design fields, and cover art design is but one field out of many.
    oh, crap, time to look up “kerning…” **googles** what, there’s a NAME for that concept?! jk~ 😉

    • Thanks, glad you found it so 😀

      Hahaha yeah, there’s a difference between good *art* and good *cover art* and I think if you don’t touch visual at all you don’t realize how noticeable it is. Fantasy/scifi is the one category I’ve seen that does heavy illustration; nowadays it’s a lot of stock art and typography, seems like.

      Hehe, there’s a whole site that teaches people how to kern.

    • I would generally agree, although photomanipulations are popular in some genres (and spec fic still does a fair bit of illustration), so there can be both components 😀

  2. The important thing to remember is to make sure everyone agrees to these terms up front, and if at
    all possible, get them in writing. There are sites on the internet that cater to
    freelance writers that connect freelancers and the clients that want to hire them.

    You earn money (small amounts) off of those you refer and also those who you refer in turn refer.

    • Yeah, contracts are great, and if you read them thoroughly you know what you’re in for!

      The issue with this case is that the cover designer was using illegally sourced material…not everyone who signs a contract is kosher.

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