What most of you may not know about my indie writing endeavors is that I ALSO design all my own book covers. Obviously I can’t compete with the visual awesomeness of some professionals in the industry (mostly sci-fi artists do some astounding work) but give me enough time with Adobe Photoshop and I can at least compete with the likes of the Stieg Larrson books. I’m sorry, the traditional silver cover for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a total cover crapfest. But as an artist and a writer, I have seen my share of atrocious independent book covers and it has made my heart break because their writing may be exceptional, but most people will never know because despite the old cliché, everyone judges books by their covers. Everyone.
If there’s one thing you might have noticed about my own covers for Naked in Korea and The Last Cup, it’s that I love me some big-ass titles. I don’t know what it is about huge titles that attracts me to a novel. I guess a part of me is like, “Oh my God! If the title is that big, just think about how big the plot must be!” Let’s face it, books with huge titles have two things going for them. First, they look epic—and everybody loves epic. Second, there isn’t much blank space on the cover, which makes your book look important. My thought process is “WOW! This book has so many cool things going on inside that there’s barely enough room on the outside to contain it all. This book is like a loaded baked potato with cheese and sour cream just spilling over the outside!”
Now, if I were a famous author, I could flip all of this on its head. Do you know when you’ve arrived as a writer? You have arrived when you can afford to replace the ridiculously gigantic title on your book with your ridiculously gigantic name. Nobody does this better than Stephen King. You can virtually judge the progression of Stephen King’s career by the size of his name on the outside of his book covers. Let’s look at this through the various versions of his bestselling horror novel Salem’s Lot.
Here’s an older version:
Here’s a later version:
Here’s an even later version:
Now here’s the most recent version:
I don’t actually know for sure that those books are in the proper order, but they’re close and they serve my purpose so I’m keeping them that way. My point is that if they ever do another print of Salem’s Lot, they’ll have to include an insert of Stephen King’s name inside the cover that the reader can fold out like a map.
More important than the size of the author name and the title, however, is the actual content of the book cover. For The Notice, I tried to capture the ghostly suspense and murder of my novel by picturing a small girl coming upon an elderly woman’s body after a brutal crime. There are a lot of subtle things happening on that cover that most people probably don’t…wait for it…wait for it…NOTICE. I’m clever like that. For example, the little girl on my cover is actually three girls I found on the internet stitched together. Yeah, I know, it looks seamless, right? You see, I have a problem just straight up ripping pictures off of the Internet (even though I do it all the time for this blog) and putting them on my cover. More on that in a minute. So, I found three little girls and combined them. The legs are from one picture. The clothes are from another. And the arms are from ANOTHER. I knew the pose I wanted, found the pieces and then stitched them together. I also digitally rendered the grass from five different pictures of grass. Yeah. I am THAT intense about cover design. The hand is holding a Bosnian lily, which 99% of my readers will never know but that 1% who might recognize it probably just s*** a brick! And of course, the fact that it’s all inscribed by a cross against a stark, black background also plays with the social/religious conflicts at play throughout the book.
For Naked in Korea, I went in a totally different direction. I wanted to keep it fun and playful, like the book, so I just had my girlfriend snap a picture of me naked with a bath towel (she used my camera phone). Then I photoshopped the logo from the Korean national flag onto the towel and distorted it a little to make it look like it was actually on the towel and then I added the title in afterwards. I chose the “orangish-red on white” color scheme because it matched some obscure textbook from the 80s that I had to read for my grad classes and something about that cover stuck out to me. In case you’re wondering, the Korean characters on the left-hand side of the cover mean “Welcome”—an open invitation to any Koreans who might want to pick it up. How many authors get to pose naked on their own book covers? Advantage: Chandler.
Finally, for The Last Cup, my upcoming sci-fi novel, I wanted to tell the reader about three things going on in my book while still opting for the gigantic title. The purple infant in the “The” portion of the title refers to the embryonic genetic experimentation that is a theme of my book (the book was partly inspired by Brave New World). The apocalyptic city landscape in “Last” was completely rendered by myself using small cuts and splices from devastation photos of Hiroshima, Iraq, Lebanon, and the regions surrounding Fukashima after the 2011 Japan earthquake, interspersed with clippings from photos of city dumps, cars, storm clouds, and a dried out mudflat. It took me about five hours to put all the pieces together in a manner that satisfied me. The touch of green around my name is a nod to the grass on a soccer field. Yeah, that book incorporates all of those elements. It might sound weird but I can’t wait for you guys to get a load of it.
But enough about me. The point is that designing a good cover can take about six or seven hours if you have any expertise with Photoshop. If you don’t have expertise with Photoshop, um… I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve been honing my PS skills for the better part of 10 years now. You may not have that much time. However, there are tons of freelance indie book cover artists out there who would probably cut you a good deal and BELIEVE ME, the money for a professional-looking book cover is money well spent because, despite the aforementioned cliché, EVERYONE judges books by their covers.
This brings me to my last point and this is something I’d like to know more about from people are educated on the matter. Surely…SURELY it is illegal to just rip photos off the internet and use them as covers, right? Seems common sense, and yet I see tons of people who do it. I have seen independent authors use artwork by Goya and Rembrandt, slap their titles on it, and call it a day. Not only does that look lazy and cheap, it’s either already illegal or should be illegal. If you’re not artistically inclined, accept that shortcoming and find someone who is, because a bad book cover is the bad query letter of e-book publishing. You are setting yourself up for rejection from every potential reader coming the free reads on Amazon or Smashwords. Covers scream professionalism or amateur. I’m not saying I’m necessarily a “professional”, but at least with my decent covers I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Let me know your thoughts. I enjoyed writing this post and I’m really interested to hear your thoughts.