The Cover Story

Okay, so you’re writing fiction. After being ignored by a few literary agents (or maybe more than a few), you’ve decided that self-publishing is the way to go. This is likely to be a sensible choice, for several reasons. You’ll make more money per copy sold, you won’t have an editor telling you to cut 10,000 words, and you won’t have to wait two or three years to see your book in print.

The downside is, you’re going to have to handle a bunch of stuff yourself that a publisher would handle for you. Editing and proof-reading would be near the top of the list. But today I’m contemplating cover art. Specifically, the fraught and perilous process of commissioning cover art for your novel.

I’ve done it a few times. That banner up at the top of the blog shows part of the cover art for my Leafstone epic. These covers were done by Karri Klawiter (artbykarri.com), and I like the covers for books 1, 3, and 4 a lot. I’ve never liked the cover of book 2. I had her redo it entirely, and I don’t like the new one much better than I liked the original. And do you see that water flowing from the pitcher on book 3? I had to go back to Karri with more requests on that water about five times to get it to where it looked right. She did the work, and she’s a talented artist, but I had to ride herd all the way down the line.

I’ve brought out three more books since then, all with commissioned cover art, each of which has involved a struggle of one sort or another to arrive at a good design. One of the hidden advantages of being published by a major publishing house is that you have no control at all over the cover. The first time you’ll see it is when they send you copies of the finished book. Or at least that’s the way it used to be. It’s been 30 years since I had a novel published by a New York house.

Right now I’m trying to get a cover for my next book. I’ve already spent upwards of $400. And what I have is nothing I can use.

It’s a truism in self-publishing that everybody makes money except the author. You pay for editing, you pay for cover art, you pay for interior layout and design, you even pay for the ISBNs so your book will be registered as a commercial product. That’s not to say that some self-publishing authors don’t make money, because a few of us do. But most self-publishing authors can expect to see a very modest return on their investment of time, passion, and cash.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Cover art. I’m just about ready to throw in the towel and design a boring all-type cover myself using GIMP. Will it sell the book? No, it will not. Do I care? Probably not.

I have to own part of the problem myself. The book, which is called Woven of Death & Starlight, is YA fantasy, but it’s also a whodunit. The fantasy part is not big or dramatic, it’s just some magic stuff. (There will be more magic in the sequel, which I’ve already started writing, but don’t hold your breath. It may not appear for two or three years. I write quickly, but I also revise extensively.) There’s some YA romance. There are even paragraphs about clothing: I was aiming at the genre. But the whodunit has several scenes with, like, actual blood, so the story will meet the expectations of a typical YA reader rather badly.

The story is not a good fit for any genre, and that’s part of the problem. Book cover designers, of whom there is no shortage on the World Wide Web, spend most of their time designing generic covers. In fact, you can buy a pre-made cover (for a lot less money) rather than commissioning a designer to do something special just for you. The designer slaps your author name and book title on a cover design they whipped out last month, and you’re ready to go. It’s as generic as all holy shit, but you don’t care about that. The book looks terrific! In fact, the cover is probably a lot more professional quality than your writing. But I digress.

Just for kicks, I grabbed some fantasy covers from the website portfolios of a couple of designers. I’m not out to criticize these designers. Their covers are very good indeed. But they’re generic fantasy. Handsome young people (usually of the female persuasion). Glowing colors. Viz, to wit:

It is to barf. Here’s another slate, from a different designer:

You’ll notice that this second set are pre-mades. In place of the author name, the designer’s company is shown, so I can’t hide their identity. If you like this sort of thing, now you know where to find it. But if you’re champing at the bit to see my all-time favorite Ultimate Bad Fantasy Cover, wait no longer:

I grabbed this from an actual cover designer’s actual Web portfolio. And I’ll tell you something: That’s an illustration, not a photo treatment. Illustrations are not cheap! This one is, of course, stunningly cheap, but in an entirely different sense.

I’m tired of hassling over this stuff. I’d rather spend my time and energy (what of it remains in the reservoir now that I’ve passed my 70th birthday) actually writing.

Maybe instead of doing an all-type cover, I’ll just flat-out steal the cover of Dino Island. What do you think? It would sell more books.

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