Kay: Anatomy of a Cover

Building a book cover is a complex operation. Finding an image that conveys a suggestion of your plot as well as your book’s tone is difficult. Often several images are needed to get a background in, and depending on what your cover artist is willing to do, sometimes changing elements (like hair color) might not be possible. And then you have to hope that when your designer puts together the image(s) and type that they have the same vision you do.

This yellow cover for my book, Betting on Hope, was designed in 2011. I’ve always liked the image. The book takes place, as the cover shows, in Las Vegas. It’s a romance. It’s light-hearted—essentially a comedy—and while the book is not “about” card playing, poker is the story hook or perhaps theme by which I ramble on about found family and the strength of community.

So I like the expanse of yellow, which gets the mood and desert setting right; the insouciance of the figures; and the relegation of the small single playing card to the corner. I think the image is perfect. On the other hand, I’ve never liked the type treatment.

And that’s the result.

Seven years later, I’ve been thinking I need a new cover. I’ve been wanting to make this book available in print format, so I’d need to get a back cover and spine built. And one of the assumptions of the Amazon algorithms is that “refreshing” your book every so often (optimally every 90 days) keeps you higher in the sales rankings, not that I could sink much lower. Besides those practical considerations, it’s been seven years; cartoon figures for covers are largely out of style, at least for adult romances (YA is another story).

I was feeling frisky, so I engaged in a Cover Experiment, with mixed results.

Multiple freelance sites offer the services of contractors of all types, including book designers/cover artists, often at prices that to me are unbelievably, almost horrifyingly, low. How can people make a living if they charge only $25 for an original cover? And what kind of cover can you get for that price?

I decided to try it out. I found an artist on Fivrr who offered to do a cover for $25 in three days. I liked her sample covers, so I signed up. I made some choices that added to the price (I asked for both a print and a digital cover, and I gave her “coffee money”), so I paid $42. You choose one image from the stock agency that either Fivrr uses or the artist uses, I wasn’t sure which. You can supply your own image, but if you don’t, the single stock agency listed was the only option.

I didn’t have my own image. The stock agency had 128 images in my “category” to choose from, and three of those hit my basics: a smiling couple wearing hats in a garden; a smiling couple, both of them wearing white shirts and black pants, holding a hand of cards and sitting in front of a white background; and a woman alone, laughing and wearing a hat with an out-of-focus yellow and red autumnal background. (If you have a book that features a couple and a beach, you’ll be in luck: there were a lot of images of couples on beaches.)

I had gone for hats as an iconic image because I had a significant scene in the book where the hero and heroine buy a hat together. I liked the woman-alone shot the best (the colors, the hat, and the facial expression most clearly reflected the book’s tone and location), but a woman alone usually signals women’s fiction, and my book isn’t that. So I rejected it. I didn’t like the black-and-white tonality of the second image, so I went with the smiling couple in the garden.

At Fivrr, there’s not much communication between the artist and the buyer. Most of the artists seem to offer one or three or sometimes unlimited changes (but those covers cost a lot more) after the work is done, but input going in is limited. That’s more or less okay with me. I’ve hired a lot of cover designers and looked at a lot of covers in my professional life, but I’m not visually creative. I always figure, if the cover designer is any good, s/he’ll know what to do with a concept a lot better than I will.

Three days later, as promised, I got my cover. Here it is.

In many ways, I was pleasantly surprised. The cover looks polished and professional. The designer cropped the photo well. The key elements are central. She screened back the inessential elements. Without my telling her, she added “gambling” elements that drift over both the front and back covers. She included dice, which are not in my book, but overall, that addition works well and has the (small) importance it deserves. She took initiative to do that, which made me happy. I like the type placement and font choices. The back cover looks good.

If I’d asked for revisions, I would have asked her to take out the dice and make my name a lot bigger.

However, I’m not going to use this cover. Two big things are wrong with it from my point of view, and both of them are my fault:

  • The color palette is wrong. I picked an image that included a garden, and the garden’s colors are green, blue, and purple. If I want the cover to say “Las Vegas,” the color palette has to be yellow, orange, pink, and red. And if I can get it, sparkles.
  • The tone is wrong. The mood of this new cover is warm—those people are having a nice time—so that’s good. But I need something that either looks funny or silly or joyous. The book is over the top, and I think I can get something stronger than “nice time.”

What did I learn from this experience? First, I’d try Fivrr again. I’d go back to this artist, or try another. I still don’t see how these folks make a living, but the work I got from the woman I hired was good. She knows how to design a cover and she went out of her way to include elements I hadn’t asked for but was delighted to have. So that was all good.

Second—we all know this, but picking the right image is important. I picked the best available image, but it wasn’t the image I needed. None of the available images was. This cover artist would work with an image you bought and sent her, and that’s what I’d do next time if I had any doubts.

Third—you can’t beat the price. At $42, I could have four or five print covers done for the same book and choose the best, compared to the price I paid for one digital cover alone.

I’m not saying that Fivrr is the best option for all books or all authors. Different artists always bring different things to the table, and some Fivrr designers will be more experienced or skilled or intuitive than others. But the cover artist that I hired produced a high-quality cover that, with minor revisions, would have been completely acceptable if I’d picked an image better suited to my book. So I’ll definitely be trying them out again for future projects (and Betting on Hope still needs a cover)…

Edited to add: I went to the stock agency I bought the yellow cover image from, and I didn’t find the cartoon, but I did find this. Cropped well (that is, cropped on the left to take out the woman in the red top, maybe right through the center of that tall palm tree), this might work. What do y’all think?


28 thoughts on “Kay: Anatomy of a Cover

  1. Oh, that is very interesting! I really love your original cover; I like the colors, I like the simplicity of the cartoonish artwork, and I like the promise that this is going to be fun and freewheeling (girl standing in the convertible). I even like the lettering — it reminds of something comedic from the 1930s art nouveau era. Maybe it could stand to be a tad thicker, but I really don’t know about these things. The only thing is that some of the people details are hard to work out — heck, the lizard is almost bigger than the people!

    The new book looks like a Hallmark special, and there’s something in the artwork that makes “Hope” seem a little corny and not a name, but a life improvement strategy. I didn’t notice the dice until you mentioned them, but now that I see them, I like them a lot. In fact, if I could ask for a change, I would say, “OK, cut the pics and the non-desert flowers, and just give me that splay of dice, but maybe in orange, yellow, pink and blue. I don’t know if that would work as a thumbnail, but I think there’s enough gambling elements there to do the job.

    I find the lettering competent — not super-eye-catching, but not clunky or bad, either. (-: My non-expert opinion!

    Really, not bad at all for $42! I think that’s a great point that you make: choose a stock pic that is going to represent your color palette. I think colors can be changed, but maybe not for $50. (Unless there’s a filter or something.)

    So interesting to get insight in your process for getting a cover, and I’ve had a tremendously fun half an hour playing armchair publisher.

    • I’ve put together a few book covers, and one of the interesting things I found was that on a relatively low-cost cover—say in the $150-$250 range—one artist was willing to change hair color, and one wasn’t. So on their side, changing the color of objects is possible but in some cases, evidently, too much work for the payback they’ll get for their time. Finding a stock image that incorporates the points of your story is difficult, but you’re on surer ground and it’s easier for the artist if you can find images that hit your sweet spots. And there’s the rub!

      • I ended up changing a character’s hair color because I found an image I loved, but it didn’t match the “shock of straight blond hair that hung unfashionably thick over his forehead.” Although, to be sure, matching character images with what one describes in one’s book is difficult when you’re going with stock art. Particularly when the stock art options are limited (like they are for historicals).

        • You’re so right! And I’ve found that no matter how many images there are to choose from at a stock agency, none of them exactly matches what you want. Compromise is inevitable. And in changing hair color, one thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes it doesn’t work all that well. A designer changed hair color for me on one cover, and it looks great. I don’t know how she did it, because we’ve all seen covers where the changed hair color looks like it was cut out with a scissors, it’s so flat- and straight-across looking.

      • Oh yes! Even for a blog post, it can take me hours to find the right image. For a whole book? Wow.

        (-: Good point that it doesn’t hurt to ask — one artist will, the other won’t. Could be the pic, could be the artist, but as someone who can open the Paint program and that’s about it, *I* can’t tell what’s possible. I trust them to know what they can do.

  2. The new cover is very pretty, and would probably attract readers, but I’m not sure it would attract your readers. It’s a shame cartoon covers are out of style, because the original cover really does capture the vibe of your work (at least, those that I’ve read).

    Interesting experiment!

    • It was an interesting experiment, and I’m glad I tried it. I think I got a good cover for a general type of romance novel, it just doesn’t really fit my book. So I’ll have to try again.

      I love that yellow cover. That image just hits every important element of my book. One of the issues in changing it is that I want to make a print copy of the book, and I can’t find that image anymore at the stock agency from which it was purchased. The artist purchased the picture so I don’t have it. If I did, I might be willing to keep it even if the style is dated, and then just extend that yellow in a solid frame to the back cover. But I can’t do that without the original image.

      That actually is another lesson learned from this experiment—some authers make a point of purchasing the images that are used on their covers, even though the designer usually incorporates that expense as part of their overall charge to you. If the author owns the image, they’ll have it if they want to change cover designers or use the image cropped differently in a different layout, or if the original artist decides to take it off sale at the agency. Buying the image yourself adds an expense to the costs of the cover, but if you own the image it’s yours forever, so you have the security of having it with you if you want to use it again.

      • I love the yellow cover, too! It really captures the feel of your book, and I’m not so sure the style is dated. Cartoon covers still abound for cozy mysteries and paranormals, so I think they might work for capers? The new experimental cover is pretty and professional, but it looks like a straightforward sweet contemporary. Funny how many genre signals we pick up without even realizing!

        That’s a very useful tip about purchasing the images used on the covers. Thank you!

        • Your point about cartoon covers on cozy mysteries and paranormals is dead on, I think. That was the argument I read that made me think I should change artistic direction: that a cartoon cover, if it’s not a cozy mystery, sends the wrong signal about genre. Bummer, is all I say.

      • I purchased the extended license on the images I have on my covers, because I don’t want anyone else using them on their covers (although if they already have, I wouldn’t know that). Again, I’m in a weird market, with historical images that get repurposed on other covers all the time. So as much as I can make mine original, I will.

        In fact, and this stems from the convos we’ve been having with Lois McMaster Bujold’s cover designer, I just asked my next door neighbor’s son (who is really something lovely to look at) if he and his girlfriend would be interested in posing for a cover. He enthusiastically said yes (so did she; they’re both in college). I then asked him if he had any friends who were photographers who wanted to add to their portfolio. Again, a yes! And did he have any friends who might be interested in modeling. More yesses! (He was even kind enough to tell me that if we do it in the spring, he’ll be in some sort of weighlifting competition with a bunch of friends they should all be more ripped than the models that appear on Period Images’ website).

        The disadvantage to this is I need to rustle up some period-appropriate clothing, which could set me back a couple hundred dollars (or more, if I can’t find used stuff). Or, I spend time sewing (which is not how I should be spending my spare time). So I’ll probably be buying mens and women’s clothing.

        The advantage of this is that my models will be original and I will own all the rights on the images (assuming I can work that out with the photographer, but I don’t think it will be a problem) and my models (and period clothing) will be unique. My cover designer should be able to take any image and make it look how I want, so it’s not like I have to get the photographer to do that. I just need good lighting, period clothing, and some sultry looks. I hope!

        • Oh, good going, Justine! Having your own models and photo shoots will definitely make your covers original. You also know what all the books in your series are about, right? So you can plan your shoot accordingly. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, but be sure to get model releases from the models.

          And depending on what you want your covers to do, you might not need much in the way of costumes. Your guys–a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, open down the front, photo cropped at the waist. And for dresses–you could get away with one or two. As we’ve discussed, the designer can change the color of it and crop the photo in different ways. Or it could be sliding off a shoulder to give it a different look.

          One thing about extended licenses, though: I don’t think an extended license restricts usage. In fact, I think it extends usage by allowing an image’s use on, say, T-shirts or other mass-market commercial items. But it doesn’t limit the agency from selling that image to anyone else—other authors, for example. At least that’s my understanding. At least at the agencies I’ve used. 🙂 And the plain, royalty-free license lets you put the image you want on book covers and web sites, so that’s always worked for me.

        • Good advice on the model releases. I’ll look into that.

          On Period Images site, when I buy the exclusive rights, it means no one else can purchase the image. These images are for book covers and related marketing only. It’s not as wide as, say, Deposit Photo. So buying the extended license means it won’t be purchased by anyone else.

        • Maybe take half the shots with masks on? Limited niche, and actually, photoshopping a mask on doesn’t sound like it would be terribly difficult. But yes, unique faces would be nice. I was only considering the poses as being exclusive.

        • Justine, I hope you do a post on this! It would be interesting to have a brainstorm post where everyone has suggestions as to what they’d like to buy in a cover like that. You need a clear space for the title/author (and in the examples the Ladies have done lately, that’s been done by a) negative space, b) a non-decorated expanse of dress. (I think sky and ground also count as negative space, but I’m not sure if that’s correct. They are something, not nothing.) I wonder what else a photographer needs to keep in mind? What would our list of directions to our photographer be? (My daughter takes some really nice pictures, but my books would involve major photoshopping to get the not-our-world aspects into the cover.)

        • Actually, there are some guidelines I have for photos in a shoot I do. I will definitely take notes on this whole process. As it moves forward, it might be a fun set of blog posts. Especially the lessons I learn. 🙂

        • Oh, that’s amazing. And it’s on “Thinkstock by Getty Images,” which is interesting, since I bought my colored version on Dreamstime. Of course the artist can put those images on multiple sites, I believe.

          And those are the sum total of the words I understand on that site, too. 🙂

        • (-: I think Google or Getty did some stupid location stuff. All I could find was the Japanese site, with no obvious “find your language here” button.

          That’s a rant in itself. Why do so many Japanese sites put the language button in Japanese??? Instead of writing “ENGLISH” they write it in Kanji characters, which is no help to the non-Japanese-literate person. (And this little window does not support Japanese, unlike the main WordPress page. Double humpff.) Rant over, time to put my anger to productive uses!

  3. Hi Justine,
    The format wouldn’t let me reply to your info about the Period Images site. Interesting, and good to know! Looks like you have the original cover thing totally under control. I expect blog posts!

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  5. Jilly and Michaeline—you guys are brilliant! I’d found the English site of ThinkStock, and I’d found the creator’s handle, and the black and white image, but I ran out of steam looking for the colorized version. Thank you! I don’t know if I’d use it again, but I might. I love the image, and I could get a new type treatment to go with the paper cover, and that would make me feel a lot better. So we’ll see. Anyway, now I have that option.

    Also, looking at the image (if you did), you can see another issue of covers—this image is essentially square, not on a vertical orientation. So the artist has to do something to extend the top or bottom of the image—either duplicate the top or bottom part of the image (in this case, the top) or add a color bar so that the image fits a cover aspect ratio (5″x8″ or 6″x9″, whatever you’re using). Not necessarily difficult to do, but it’s something to think about if you’re buying stock art.

    Thanks again, guys! Very exciting.

    • I’m so glad! And the thing about the desert is that it’s VERY natural to expand the sky, which also makes a natural place for the title and author name (precisely what your designer did). Or, lengthening the ground is easy in the desert, and you can put design elements there, as well.

      Looking at your photo that you added later, I think it would be very difficult to crop out the girl on the left. Okay, maybe if you cropped by the palm tree, then had the sky copied over to block out red-girl’s hand. Then, if you extended the sky (again, by copying the topmost-layer of sky, and maybe fading it back to that same light blue that we see lower in the picture), you’d have room for author name/title. I don’t see an easy way to extend the foreground; you’ve got to find a bottom part of a car with the same angle in order to photoshop it in naturally. A bar of plain color might work, but it seems a little weird for me (usually, you only see it in the well-researched/older historical subgenre, as far as I can tell).

      In Japan, most of the paperbacks come with dustcovers, and there’s often an extra bit of paper folded along the bottom advertising other books in the series or various things. It can be used as a bookmark, and it’s my understanding that it’s important to keep all those things together for the used book market (better value). The thing is, it looks busy. A reader can take it off if it gets too overwhelming, but in general, I think Japan’s design sense is very forgiving of “busy” in a commercial setting. (Yeah, I know — we think of Japan’s design sense as being very minimalist, but really, it takes all types.)

      Here’s a Nora Roberts in Japan, with a square image. https://www.amazon.co.jp/月明かりの海辺で-上-扶桑社ロマンス-ノーラ・ロバーツ/dp/4594080383

      Crazy Rich Asians got an interesting treatment: https://www.amazon.co.jp/クレイジー・リッチ・アジアンズ-下-ケビン・クワン/dp/4801915833

      VERY small image. Also, note that the title has been truncated to Crazy Rich, lol. Also note, this is the second half. A lot of novels in Japan are published in two parts. The physical book is smaller and handy to put in your pocket or a small purse for reading on the train.

  6. Pingback: Kay: Anatomy of a Cover, Redux – Eight Ladies Writing

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