Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cover Design 101: Interview with Cover Artist J. Allen Fielder

It's no secret that I'm in love with my cover for THE BOY WHO LOVED FIRE. When I decided to indie publish, I put feelers out there for a quality cover designer. Gae Polisner referred me to J. Allen Fielder. I'm so glad she did. Jeff is a pleasure to work with, and he creates a great product for a fair price.

I thought it would be fun and informative to take a peek into the world of cover design. Here's a Q and A with my cover designer, Jeff Fielder.

What makes a memorable cover stand out?

There isn't any one thing that makes a great cover, but there are many things first-time self-publishing authors do that can break a cover. A good cover tells a story, piques interest, and grabs the eye, but it shouldn't tell the whole story. You also don't want to mislead the reader. We've all been trained (whether we know it or not) that certain colors on the cover will give you a hint to what's inside. Take for example bright oranges, yellows, greens . . . probably a humorous book. Red? Thriller or military. Soft colors: Romantic. This isn't an always thing, but if you write a thriller and put soft colors and a couple almost kissing a la Nichols Sparks, you're probably going to miss your target audience.

Another common mistake is fonts (really, typefaces, but that's a discussion for another day). Too many authors grab a photo from Shutterstock, place it in Word, use clipart or some other whimsical or scripty font, and call it a day. Nothing says amateur like comic sans.

Look, I'm a graphic designer, and this is how I make my living, but the truth is, you CAN design your own cover, just like you can edit your own book. It CAN be done, but all too often the results are not what you want. Your book can only be born once. Your cover matters. Take the time, invest the money to get it perfect, and take pride in what you've done. Only you know what you want, so don't let your artist stop you from reaching your vision. A good designer will help you and guide you, but won't dictate their vision on your book.

What should authors consider when formulating a cover idea?

You have to be somewhat realistic about your vision. It would be lovely to have the budget to get custom photography, model releases, and hundreds of hours of graphic arts time (often billed hourly) to get Tatum Channing dressed as a clown riding a Mustang over a rainbow of fire, but unless you have deep deep pockets, you're probably going to be be looking at some sort of stock photography. That's just the reality of your budget. Can you take a cool picture of your neighbor kid for $50 and call it good? Absolutely. But those are rare special cases.

One thing I tell my clients is to share their ideas with me, but have an open mind. Typically when I get started on a project, I talk to my clients, get an idea for their vision, and then mock-up 5, 10, 15 concepts. Then I tell my clients to NOT settle. If we're not there, let's mock-up 15 more. Like I said before, your book can only be born once. Take the time to reach YOUR vision.

You may not know what you want until you see what you don't want. Don't be afraid to ask your artist to try something. Any artist worth a damn will mock-up what you've asked for, even if he or she doesn't believe in the concept. It's not our cover. It's yours.

Another tip to save you money is to do some of the background research yourself. I don't charge to hunt through stock photography to find an image, but some artists will. If they bill hourly and you send them on a wild goose chase to find a specific image, you're wasting money. Go on the stock photography sites and find some concepts yourself. Not only will this save you money, but you'll have more ownership in the final piece. You might also find other ideas along the way that you'd like to try.

What do you need from your clients to help you zero in on their vision?

Rule No. 1: Have an open mind.
Rule No. 2: Know what you want.
Rule No. 3: Have an open mind.

It sounds funny, but there's an old Dilbert cartoon I often refer to where the client asks him to build a prototype, he does, and when he brings it back they say, "That's not what we want at all." He asks what they want and they say, "I don't know. You're the expert." Every author out there has an idea for a cover when they're writing their book. At some point, you write a scene and you think, "Oh my God! That would make an AWESOME cover!" That's the point where you need to tell your artist what you want. Is it the right cover? Maybe not, but only you know for sure. However . . . don't get stuck there. Getting the perfect cover is like writing the perfect scene. You may rewrite 50 times before you get it just so. Your cover should get the same respect and treatment. 

How do you and the author know when you've created The One?

At some point, you just know. But let me give this advice: Once you have THE ONE, do a couple more. I LOVE THIS COVER! is great, but I always tell my clients to sleep on it, show it around to a few close friends, take some time to breathe and dream about it. Look at it until you're sick of it. And if you still love it, you've found the one. It doesn't hurt your book to wait a couple days and get feedback from people you trust.

I will tell you this. While not all artists are the same, I can make mock-ups of the same book for eternity. The only time I know we've found the right one is when the client is happy. Personally, I can tinker forever. I have sent mock-ups to clients even after they've said, "THAT'S THE ONE!" and changed their minds. Love is a fickle thing.

What is your biggest challenge with cover designs? Your greatest joy?

Biggest challenge? Clients who don't know what they want, or know what they want and won't budge. There's a fine line between demanding and unreasonable. Clients should be demanding (it's YOUR money!). But you have to be willing to bend or hear other ideas. Just like when your editor tells you to change a scene, if you're rigid and refuse to listen, your book will likely suffer for it. Some things just don't work, no matter how much you want them to. And some people aren't going to be honest with you. As a designer, I've created covers that I'm not proud of because at the end of the day, it's the client's money and the client's cover. As much as I can guide, I simply can't dictate.

Greatest joy? While I'd love to sound altruistic and say my greatest joy is a happy client, the truth is, my greatest joy is seeing my covers in print. I love being proud of my work. When I see a cover I love and I know I've worked hard and the client is happy and I can put that book on my shelf . . . there's nothing better professionally. Yeah, I'm as narcissistic as the next artist. Writers may say their greatest joy is connecting with a reader, but nothing—NOTHING—feels as good as seeing your book in print that first time. When I create art that can stand on its own . . . Yeah, it's an amazing feeling.

How much should an author expect to pay?

Designers charge either a flat fee or an hourly fee. Some may even charge a combination of the two. Like anything else, you pay for what you get. If you're on a really tight budget (defined as $200 or less), you might consider hiring a high school or college art student. But keep in mind, you're going to get what you pay for. You might get lucky and get a great artist who wows you, but that's not often. Most established cover designers have been doing this a long time and have a better understanding of imagery, typefaces, depth, and they know the rules for bleeds, resolution, and color space. They know how to make covers that work in print and in electronic for Kindle or as a small thumbnail for Amazon . . . there's a LOT to know. Personally, I try to price myself mid-range, because I know most authors are going to struggle to recoup their costs. I would recommend capping any cover project at about $300 in today's market. Don't let someone convince you you need to spend $1,500 on a cover because the chances of you making that back in the self-publishing world is very slim.

You also have to decide how much you want to do yourself, and how much you want to pay someone else to do for you. A good designer should be able to give you print, electronic, interior, and eBook versions of your cover and copy. Some artists ONLY do covers. Some only do interior layout, design, and pagination. I do both, and there are a lot like me. For a full book project, expect to pay between $400-$800. Anything more, and you have to ask yourself if you can make that back in royalties.

And before anyone says "I saw a Web site that says it can do covers for $50!" I'll say again, you get what you pay for. There are a lot of places that will sell you a pre-designed cover. And they'll sell that same cover to the next author. And the next author. And the next author. If you use stock photography, you will probably see that image on another cover someday. Nothing you can realistically do to prevent that. But do you really want a cover that is being sold to 100 other authors and the only difference is the title and author name?

What happens if my artist and I don't agree?

Some relationships don't work out. I have once been fired from a job. It sucks. After 27 revisions, we still couldn't find the author's vision. It was a failure mostly on my part, but the author had a clear vision and didn't know how to articulate it. We both got frustrated and finally decided to go a different route. This was early in my career, and I didn't charge a retainer. Even if I had, I probably would have refunded the money, but had it been all on the author, I might not have. Most designers will charge a small fee up front to make sure they don't do 20 hours of work and then the author takes off never to be heard from again. Likewise, authors need to protect themselves from unscrupulous designers. Don't pay everything up front. Agree to a retainer, pay a small fee to protect both parties, but just like hiring a fence contractor, don't pay the bill until the work is done. If your designer insists on you paying everything up front, find another designer. The short answer here is, don't be afraid to fire your designer. It's your book. It's your cover. If it's not perfect, don't settle. If that means you're out your retainer, find comfort in the fact that you're working toward something perfect, not something that'll just do.

Thanks so much, Jeff! *pets pretty cover*

Friends, what's your experience with covers? Have you ever picked up a book based on the cover alone? Have you set a book aside because you didn't connect with the cover? If you've published a book, how was your experience with the cover designer?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Are you the Tiger Woods of Publishing? Does it matter?

Welcome to this month's IndieLife post. Wanna join the crew at IndieLife? Click here and sign up!

I've blogged before about Hugh Howey, and how much I loved his story WOOL. But his novel isn't the only reason I've become a fangirl. I love his stories and his characters, for sure, but I adore his perspective.

He wrote an article for, "The Best Days of My Life." Do yourself a favor and read the entire article. I guarantee you'll be inspired.

There was one section of the article that made me want to run around my house, holding a bath towel like a super hero's cape. Here's the part that spoke to me:

"If you are twelve, and reading this right now, know that I was twelve once, too. I was twelve, and I dreamed of being a writer. I filled composition books with stories, but I never finished them. Part of that was because there was no youth NaNoWriMo group showing me what was possible. And there was no KDP or Smashwords to give me the freedom to turn my stories into books. There was no easy outlet for my rampant imagination. Now there is, but it means ignoring those who say you shouldn't go for it.
Remember that it's okay to write and publish just to make yourself happy, to make yourself fulfilled. There will be authors out there, readers, publishing experts, and booksellers who say that this outpouring of unprofessional drek is ruining the industry, which makes me wonder if these same people drive through neighborhoods yelling and screaming at people gardening in their back yards, shouting at them that, "You'll never be a farmer!" Or if they cruise past community basketball courts where men and women unwind with games of pickup and shout at them, "You'll never make it in the NBA!"
There is a kid learning to dribble a basketball right now who will go on to play shirts-and-skins, lead their high school to a national championship, get drafted in the first round and make millions, and this is no reason for the rest of us to not go out and experience the thrill of a 3-pointer heaved up and swishing right through the net. There is some parent teaching a child how to grip a putter right now and take aim at a clown's mouth, and that kid will get a $50 million endorsement from Nike, and this is no reason not to go whack a bucket of balls after work. Implicit in the message that only some people should publish is the stance that all publishing is commercial, it's all about making money, about being a bestseller, a pro. But that's not the reason I do it. It isn't why I celebrate writing and encourage people to self-publish. I've been doing both for a long time. So if anyone tells you that you can't do it, that you shouldn't do it, that you'll never make a living at it, I urge you to agree with them. And then go do it anyway."
Right? Do you want to run around your house wearing a bath towel like a super hero's cape?

If you're that writer who wins a slot on the New York Times bestseller list, we'll support you. And if you're that writer who relates to the golfer who hits a bucket of balls after work? We'll do the wave with each swing. Pinkie swear.

Have you read this article by Hugh Howey? What's your opinion? I'd love to know!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Run Toward Weakness #IWSG

Welcome, Insecure Writers! If you want to join the Insecure Writers Support Group, created by Alex J. Cavanaugh, click over here and join. Now we're all legit and stuff with a website and Facebook page.

This month I'd like to talk about weaknesses. All writers have them, yes? Whether it's plotting, characterization, time management, or finishing a project—we all struggle with something.

My Super Supportive Hubby, a firefighter—and the bravest man I know—recently graduated from a strenuous leadership class. He was totally inspired by a retired chief who spoke during the class. This chief is a man my hubby has known for maybe 20 years. He's a well-respected guy with a trail of successes during his time on the job.

This chief admitted his weaknesses to the class: spelling, writing, and reading. My hubby's ears perked up; he could relate. Hubby never had a clue that this successful chief had similar doubts and insecurities. Yes, the chief had struggled with spelling his whole life—still struggled with it—but he said, "I've learned to run toward my weaknesses, not away from them."

It reminded me that we should run toward our writing weaknesses—not shy away from them or fear them.

My writing weaknesses? How much time do you have? I'm thankful that I recognize these weaknesses, and focus my learning time toward improving my skills. For instance, I read "The Fire in Fiction," by Donald Maass. The exercises at the end of each chapter are worth the price of the book.

Recognizing a weakness can sometimes be discouraging, especially after I've read a book with killer pacing and jump-off-the-page characters. But recognizing a weakness is a blessing. It's the first step to running toward it, and turning a weakness into a strength.

Some cool quotes to ponder:

"Our strength grows out of weaknesses." — Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The greatest weakness of all is the great fear of appearing weak." — Jacques Benigne Bossuel

"Growth begins when we begin to accept our own weakness." — Jean Vanier

What are your writing weaknesses? Do you turn from them or run toward them? Please share!