Monday, October 22, 2012

The Subtle Art of Judging a Book by its Cover

Samantha Scott's Emaline's Gift Cover
A fellow Christian indie author mentioned that she was putting together information about the different options available for authors when it comes time for the cover design. I offered to write a blog post about the Freelancer contest that I set up that ended up resulting in the cover for Emaline’s Gift—and, hopefully, a longterm relationship with illustrator Samantha Scott, who I hope to commission for all subsequent artwork related to The Magi Chronicles in the future. I was very pleased with the contest and with its results and am very happy with my final cover art and with my new friendship and business relationship with Samantha.

One of the questions that one hears a lot from indie authors is how they can create a professional-looking cover. The short answer, in my opinion, for the vast majority of askers is: You can’t. Yes, I realize that there are indeed authors out there with the skills and software necessary to design professional covers. I think. I mean, I’m sure they are. But nobody’s great at everything and the skills that it takes to write a great book do not overlap with the skills that it takes to make a great cover. And there are a lot of bad covers out there on a lot of indie books. I’ve seen them, you’ve seen them, and let’s just be honest and admit that we all judge books by their covers. If we see an amateurish cover, we assume that what’s inside will most likely be amateurish writing and we avoid it.

My Original Design
CreateSpace's Cover
Creator Version
I’m not trying to speak from any sort of arrogant position, mind you. I’m not remotely pleased with the cover for my short story, The Book of the Harvest. I did it myself. You can tell that I did it myself. People have raved in the reviews that the book is a wake-up call and how the Holy Spirit is using the story in their lives—but I realize that potential buyers may well have a difficult time getting past the cover. It’s something I should address. The paperback cover looks nominally better (although the basic design is awfully generic) because I needed to use CreateSpace’s cover design templates and I should probably, at the least, replace the Kindle version with that one. But, in my opinion, both covers look just hopeless alongside the one Samantha designed for Emaline’s Gift. One of the main reasons that I commissioned the artwork for the latter is that The Book of the Harvest is a $.99 short story on Kindle. I get about a third of that price per sale. Emaline’s Gift is a novel and so the price is appropriately higher and it seems more likely that I will recoup the expenses I spent on the cover than if I were to spend the same amount on the short story. Indeed, Emaline’s Gift has already brought in more revenue than The Book of the Harvest despite the fact that the former has a more narrow demographic (fans of Christian fantasy) than the latter (Christian readers) and despite the price difference. I think having a great cover matters.

The Freelancer contest was not my first attempt at hiring someone to make the cover. I found an artist who had done other quality work in the field—his cover had caught my eye—and contacted them initially. It didn’t work out. I had a pretty clear vision of what I was looking for in my cover and described it to the artist. As soon as I made the payment, he stopped communicating. It wasn’t until I contacted him again after two weeks had passed (he had told me that it should take a couple of days) that he sent me something. It wasn’t remotely what I had asked for (for example, the red flames on the official cover are important to the story, but this designer had ignored that and drawn standard yellow flames) and—worse—the design was completely inappropriate for my Christian audience. I realize that some of my potential audience will never pick up the book because of the “magical” elements, despite the fact that I think the story deals with it in a very biblical manner, but this artist’s cover had Emaline looking evil/possessed and that, in addition to not fitting the story at all, would have repelled my target audience! The artist did not respond or ever send me anything else, and I finally was able to get a refund since I had paid through Paypal. When it comes to dealing with people or businesses you have no experience with, Paypal is your friend.

Going with the established artist whose work I admired didn’t work, so I decided to  look into a Freelancer contest. Actually, the minimum amount to create a contest was, in the end, less than the previous artist would have charged for full rights to the design: he individually licensed the work for print and electronic uses, but the final design from the Freelancer contest would be mine entirely and I could use it however and wherever I wanted. There are different options that can drive the price up: you can make the contest worth more and try to attract a higher-caliber talent and there are options to feature your contest which might get more entries. But the contest carried a money-back guarantee if I didn’t find a design that would work, and I know that would appeal to a lot of cash-strapped indie authors, especially if this was their first time trying the contest.

There were some options that I should mention. The first was the option to “seal” the contest. In a sealed contest, only I would be able to see the entries. In a normal contest, the designers could also see the other designs. Most of the designers who entered—you have the opportunity to talk to them privately and publicly through the contest—encouraged me not to seal it. They said it was for my protection to keep it open because they could call foul if there was a designer who was plagiarizing work from elsewhere. Only one of the designers wanted me to seal the contest because he was afraid of his ideas being stolen; well, when he finally submitted his entry, it wasn’t very good anyway, so it didn’t matter. The other option was to guarantee the contest. The big issue with the guarantee is that you are saying that you absolutely will assign a winner and award the prize money. This means that more artists (in theory) will submit to the contest because they know the contest-maker won’t back out, but it also means that you lose your money back guarantee from Freelancer. A number of the artists encouraged me to guarantee the contest, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. I honestly wanted to find a winner—otherwise, why would I do the contest?—but I had no idea what the overall quality of the entries would be.

But I understand why the designers would push for the guarantee. And I appreciate those who disapprove of these contests because the artists who enter are often so desperate for work that they spend a great deal of time on their designs when only one person is actually going to get paid (as the one who initiates the contest, you do have the option of purchasing more than one design—but most of us just don’t have the money to burn and we really only need one, don’t we?). I tried to give feedback quickly and make it very clear when a design was way off base because I didn’t want to inadvertently encourage someone who just wasn’t at the same level of talent as some of the artists. I thought it was best to be completely honest so artists could decide whether it made sense for them to continue putting work into the contest or not.

A Late Entry That Caught My Eye
Overall, I was thrilled with many of the submissions and could have picked several (perhaps with a bit of tweaking) for my cover and been very happy. I wish I could show them off here, but of course the images belonged to the artists who created them. There is one I can throw up here because I noticed that the artist made the picture available online, so I can link to it here. I actually really liked this one as well, but it came very late in the contest so it was too late for me to give feedback and get them to make some little changes (in particular, the perspective on the arm and wrist in the foreground looked wrong to me. Samantha’s drawing had actually been uploaded very early in the contest and she remained a frontrunner throughout. Freelancer lets you put together a little poll, which I did and made available to my Facebook friends. I took my favorite images and let my friends vote on it and, once again, Samantha’s drawing was a favorite.

Would I do the Freelancer contest again? Well, for The Magi Chronicles, as far as I’m concerned, I won’t ever need to. Retaining Samantha as my official series illustrator will bring consistency to the series. She’s been great to work with, and we’ve struck up a bit of a friendship as well and I look forward to continue to working with her in the future. But for other projects that Samantha’s style might not be right for? Sure. I don’t know for sure whether I would be confident enough to guarantee the contest just yet (and thus forsake my money-back guarantee  if the entries don’t work out), but I definitely saw enough creativity, talent and professionalism to go back to the Freelancer well again.

One caveat is that I had a pretty clear vision of what I was looking for with Emaline’s Gift. I wanted Emaline on the cover (and I passed along to the designers the description of her from the book) and I wanted her to be staring in wonder at red flames that she had inadvertently conjured. It’s an important part of the book and I think that it speaks to both the fantasy genre and the primary protagonist. Now, my readers will know that the scene on the cover doesn’t match up exactly to the one in the book; I simplified it for the cover and think that was the right decision. Now, if I was going in to the Freelancer contest without a clear vision for what I was looking for, would I have been as happy with the results? I don’t know. Even with the parameters I gave, there was a wide and satisfying range of interpretations that I loved seeing—but there was also a consistency that might have made it easier to judge.

Anyway, that’s pretty much my experience. I hope it helps make some decisions. With Freelancer’s guarantee, I figure you’ve got no reason not to give it a shot if you’ve got the money to do it. And, for what it’s worth, all this chattering about how unhappy I am with the cover for The Book of the Harvest has inspired me to give it a facelift, which I’ll go ahead and post. If you do go ahead and do it yourself, the good news is that there are always chances to tweak and improve. If you think your cover might be holding you back, spend some time on it. Experiment. And then hire a professional! That’s still my best advice if there’s any way you can afford it. If not? Well, keep at it. You’ve got nothing to lose.

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