Mittwoch, 31. Mai 2017

How Book Covers Happen

Book covers get books sold. From indies as well as from publishers I got this feedback again and again, without even asking.
Of course it's not the only relevant aspect, but the cover is the first glimpse of a reader upon the book, and that first impression cannot be revised. What captures attention is the outstanding, the daring, and the individual.
Wow, now that sounds narcissistic in the context.

There are countless ways to approach the making of a book cover. Publishers use to know them, and often have their own work standards. Indie authors may have a specific idea or just like my style when they ask me.
Meanwhile I heard a couple of times that authors did not ask at all, because they had no idea of their own.
There's a simple answer: ask the illustrator of your choice. The likes of us are creatives, we will have ideas.

The Money Issue
When a client wants a specific motif, the first things to talk round are: what will that cost? And if that is too much: how can the general idea be made possible with the resources at hand?

Illustrators mostly live from their jobs. Some hundred Euros may make an indie author gulp, most of all because it may take ages till they're earned from book sales. But for an illustrator it's the payment for the painting as well as the communication and paperwork, and the means to keep their business going (office expenses, and don't forget the chunk of money that goes to tax even beyond VAT). The average illustrator's hourly fee is way below that of most other jobs.
But since we're talking work here and not alms, think about it this way: What's your book worth to you? A great cover that stands out and has just the one picture on its wrap that belongs there, or just another stock photo that others use as well?

A good illustrator will draw a financial line below which they cannot work at all, and they use to understand other creative people who may be counting pennies. I for my part do understand that an indie author (or a small publisher) doesn't have money bags ready to toss out of the window. It's about fairness on both sides. If that is given, you can discuss everything. Don't be shy to say: "I can't pay that" or an undefined "That's too much".
There is hardly an answer worse than no answer. Not answering because the discussed costs appear too high leaves the artist in the dark and the client without a possible solution.

Fairness includes that I do not create unexpected costs. Everything will be talked about up front, including things like: if a change means additional work and costs, I'll say so during the process before I start to work on it.
Every single of "my" indie authors and small publishers was fair as well and never suddenly turned up with a complete change shortly before the work was finished, or even turned me down with the complete work done. My thanks to all of you! (I can't say that oft enough.)

So what if the payment is low because indie and low funds and stuff? Will that be enough for a good cover?
Limitations are okay. They're just another premise to work with. A picture can be incredibly detailed, or painterly, rather quickly done, and still capture as much atmosphere. Of course this does not work for every book, just like ornaments don't work for every book.
A wrap that involves the spine and back cover can be styled simple, yet still fitting and beautiful, or it could be fully painted like the front. That's pinned down by scribbles and briefings in advance: decide on a motif and a style, and get the best out of the given resources.

Book Anatomy
I'll ask early during the work process for the actual measures of the cover: ebook, print, wrap, spine width, bleed. Maybe I'll write more about that in another article, here it's just for not skipping this information. Should you know the basics, just send me the specs (please note that big changes in the layout also mean additional work and may cause additional costs). Should you have no idea about all the print stuff, simply ask. Each on-demand publisher and printer will have their own specs. If you're working with a print company and wonder what exactly they want from you, I can also communicate directly with them, and you in CC.
So what if the book isn't ready yet? Front covers are no problem once you decided on the book's size, while the spine width can only be calculated with the definite page number and the printer's multiplicator for paper and binding. And that can be easily added as the last step.

Scratching up Ideas
So whether an idea exists or not, I'll ask for additional information. How does a character look, what mood is intended, or just: send me a scene that captures the mood of the story. Send me some examples of covers, pictures, photos you like a lot.
I'm fairly good at coming up with ideas for a cover if an author has none so far. There's no shame in having no specific idea. People think differently. I would never have an idea for a good soundtrack until I hear it. But I'm good at stories, characters, impression and visuals, so that's my job.

With this information, I'll scratch up a few thumbnails, small scribbly versions of a possible cover. Sometimes I skip this step at my own risk if I sort all versions except for one out. This is my personal way to work; the first idea was the best so many times that I know if a thumbnail is any good or not. Though should you request many, you get many.
Once a thumbnail or two are decided upon, I'll start to work on these and bring them to a scribble status. Changes are possible, and here's still the possibility to say: no, sorry, that won't work, let's try something different. I'll not do that countless times, but so far, the number of scribbles never went out of hand.

Art Work
Once a scribble is fit to be worked on further, I'll send in a few more steps until the mood is right, and then finish it. Starting over from scratch at this point would be sort of unfair. A lot of work would go down the gutters. In such a case, I would ask for additional payment. Of course I could just grind my teeth and do the changes, but it's of no use in the end; unhappy artists don't make great pictures. Happy artists will work till they like the result (artists are their own biggest critics), or until nothing goes any more because their stack of undone work crashes down on their head. Should I be unhappy with the way to work on something, I'll say so. You'll never have to expect sloppy work from me.

Most artists use to make sure they can't be made working on something forever by saying: the price involves three changes to the picture. I do that too. But I also ask during the working progress, which both keeps me on track and does not count towards changes. As long as no major ones happen all a-sudden and kill hours of work while they could have been avoided, I don't care about the exact number of changes. After all, it's a question of schedule and quality, and again, fairness.

Feedback & Critique
Another part of fairness is that I will say when I think that something might work better a different way. This will always be constructive criticism and involves a possible solution or different approach. It does not mean that I don't want to do what I've been told to do, but that I deem it unfair not to point out possible weaknesses. The decision lies with the client in the end.
Same the other way round: you can always tell me "the eye is too big" or "this green looks like goblin poop", or simply if you're not happy with something, even if you can't point out a specific reason. It's my job to find it or ask till it gets clear.
Feedback is important, and teamwork uses to yield the best results.

Licensing and Copyright
Once the cover artwork and layout are done, one issue remains: copyright. Rights to use a picture for a specific purpose are calculated depending on this use. Since indies and small publishers don't throw tens of thousands of books on the market, these rights won't be immeasurably high. And of course, they as well are pinned down upfront. I added this simply at the end because it's a whole topic on its own.
Copyright (German: Nutzungsrechte - unlike Urheberrecht) can be bought completely. Such a buy-out usually means that a lot of money goes down the gutter for nothing. Will you ever make use of the rights to use this picture in a movie? Would you put it on another book? Or do you only use it for this book and what's directly tied to it (advertizing etc), maybe for a 2nd edition as well? Then just buy those rights. Maybe even buy the later edition rights only once they're due and you won't pay without knowing that you can sell the books. And should indies want to find a publisher later, this publisher will just have to poke me with a stick err, email, and we'll see about their usage of the picture.
Copyrights aren't meant to rob people clean, they're meant to keep artists from starving. Like an author receives royalties for every book sold, artists also get money for additional use of their work. But instead of meticulously counting pennies for each volume or postcard sold, which would be one hell of work and expenses, they are paid once for a certain amount of usage. It's easier, and cheaper.

Some authors may wonder whether their pic might find other uses as well if they don't buy all copyrights. For my part, a commissioned work is a commissioned work and not something I could wildly reproduce. I believe that every book deserves its very own cover. The rest is fairness.
Licensed pictures are another thing; if you like a pic which I've finished out of my own accord. If it is already in use, you'll know that upfront before I work on anything. In general, I prefer single use of any artwork.

I like to make sure that I can use pictures for my portfolio. If that's completely out of question for you, no problem. If you want me to show it only once your book has been published, no problem. I'll put your logo on the pic and link to you if you wish.

Why aren't there any premade covers?
Purpose! Making a book cover without a specific story in mind bores me to death. It will look generic since it needs to appeal predominantly a target group of authors who buy the cover, instead of readers who buy the book which the cover is supposed to represent.

Time Frame
I don't make work cheaper if I have more time - it's still the same time used up in the end, and I need to buy coffee - but more time means more possibilities to lay a picture aside over a weekend or a night, work on something else, get my mind off the matter. When I pick the picture up again I'll inevitably find overlooked flaws, get your feedback, let subconsciousness do its job. Time means a possibility to enhance quality without effort.
If I work on something for two days of actual painting / design, but have a week or even a month of time, you still only pay two days, and likely get a much better result. There's a giant advantage for Indies here.

This is not a shop. Legal issues, sorry. I cannot put a fixed price on something as variable as art, I cannot afford to pay on top in working hours, and will not waste time digging up paragraphs I might not even know about yet. Feel free to ask about my daily rate via email.
For licensing fees and copyrights usual in the business, check out the very neat ICOM handbook (Interessenverband Comic), or just trust the artist of your choice to make a fair deal. :)