The book cover problem is driving me crazy. The rest of the self-publishing process I can do myself, but I’m not a competent visual artist, nor am I up to speed with the latest version of Photoshop. I wouldn’t mind learning Photoshop, but doing so wouldn’t make me a competent cover designer. And even if I were a competent designer, that wouldn’t solve the problem — not really.

Right now I have a fellow working on a set of covers for my four-volume series. He’s giving me a great deal because he’s just now trying to break into the cover design business. I like what he’s doing, but I’m starting to have second thoughts, and it’s taking a long time. We’re still floundering around discussing what objects to put on the cover of Book 3. A friend of mine, a professional designer, looked at the roughs and said, “They’re better than most self-designed covers, but they don’t look professional.” I’m afraid he’s right.

I found a great design team, Deranged Doctor Design, and exchanged a few emails with them. Their covers are high-impact and fully professional. But when I had articulated my desire for a non-traditional, non-generic cover, they punted. They suggested that I go hire an illustrator instead.

I’ve concluded that the elephant in the room is Amazon.

Amazon ebooks are the primary sales outlet for self-publishing novelists, so of course your book cover must look good on Amazon. If it doesn’t, you won’t attract readers. The thumbnail images of book covers on Amazon are one inch wide by 1-1/2 inches tall. That is the amount of space within which you must entice the prospective reader to take a closer look at your book.

This is why today’s book covers, specifically in the fantasy and science fiction area but I’m sure in other genres too, are designed the way they are. You just can’t shoehorn much information about the book into a space the size of a jumbo postage stamp. You got your Big Girl Face and maybe a lightning bolt, and you’re done.

My story (it’s a four-volume series that tells a single long story) is complex. There are about 20 viewpoint characters at one point or another! There are four evil wizards and two other villains (each of whom is the viewpoint character in at least one scene). There’s humor and tragedy. There are dragons, a ghost, an ogre, elves, railroad trains, burglaries, a talking statue, good wizards, a magical flying machine called an aerosphere, people getting killed, a magic wand that turns into a serpent, gods, traitors, healing spells, a woman who turns into a tree, three different girls (the primary characters) all of whom fall in love along the way, the girls’ strange boyfriends — and I’m supposed to convey the essence of this story on a postage stamp. Well, on four postage stamps, but still…

The advice sometimes given to authors who are about to hire a cover designer is exactly that: Boil your story down to its emotional core. That core, that essence, is what we’ll put on the cover.

Well, that list above IS the essence. Deal with it.

Another stock bit of advice is, “Go look at a bunch of book covers online, and tell us which ones you like.” I don’t like any of them. I mean, I like some of them graphically. They’re beautiful. But none of them is even remotely right for my books.

Once upon a time, children, there used to be record stores. You could go into a record store, paw through the bins, and find a record that looked interesting. The cover of an LP was 12 inches wide and 12 inches high. Some covers were simple and elegant, to be sure, but others were quite detailed. One thinks, for instance, of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Staring at that complex collage and trying to figure out who was in the collage was a fun thing to do while you were stoned. Or so they tell me.

Then the CD came along. LPs died. A CD cover is 4-3/4 inches square — less than a fifth as much space for graphics as the cover of an LP. I haven’t done a systematic survey, but I’ll bet the graphics got simpler. Because how could they not?

Just for fun, you might want to take a look at the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s as it’s displayed on Amazon, at 1-1/2 inches square. You can’t even read the name of the album. (It’s on the drum head.) If this were a new product whose cover was being designed today, that cover design would be a 100% failure. No competent designer would produce anything like it.

I want a 12″ book cover, damn it. I need a 12″ book cover!

I didn’t put it to Deranged Doctor Design in quite that way. What I said was, “How do you convey complexity in a simple image? You’re the experts — you tell me.” That was when they said they didn’t want the job. And I can understand why. They perceived, correctly, that I was going to be hard to please. Trying to do my covers would not be cost-effective for them as professionals; it would take too much time.

What’s the solution? I have no idea. Maybe I should have the Deranged Doctors do a set of generic high-impact wonderful-looking covers that completely misrepresent what’s in the books. That feels dishonest, and I wouldn’t be proud to wave the physical books around at a personal appearance — I’d find myself apologizing, over and over, for the preposterous, misleading, embarrassingly generic covers.

Maybe I’d be happy with a book cover that’s an animated collage. But the technology isn’t quite there yet. There are animated .gifs, but I doubt Amazon wants to display them in the postage-stamp size, and they wouldn’t do well as print covers. (Speaking of which, the Rolling Stones did once do an LP cover that included an image that shifted if you tilted the cover. That was in the ’60s.)

I hate this problem.

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