Wednesday, August 20, 2014


They say not to judge a book by its cover and for most of my life, that's how I've approached books.  I don't really care what the cover has on it, only what the story is.  The blurb on the back or inside jacket mattered more to me than the cover, so I never paid them much attention.

I'm like that though.  I've never bought a product because of an advertisement.  I get hungry when I see good food ads, but not filled with a desire to buy that food.  I tend to resent and respond poorly to attempts at manipulation and advertisement, being naturally suspicious and cynical, I suppose.
But that's not how most people are.  Companies advertise because it works.  Book covers are carefully crafted because that advice about covers isn't heeded.

Especially these days when you shop online for books and can't pick one up to flip through it or read a bit, buyers are much more reliant on covers.  And those covers have to be easy to understand and recognize at smaller sizes because they're going to be listed in thumbnail size, not full size.
This is where my books are at their weakest.  Lacking the funds to hire an artist to make me a nifty cover, I had to make do with my own skills and available tools.  The problem is, designing a cover is a set of skills that is different from my artistic strength in illustration.

What works well in an image doesn't necessarily work well in a cover.  So when I showed off my Old Habits cover, one person said "I didn't notice the title at first."  Another noted that the font was wrong for the story of a thief in a fantasy setting.  There were a lot of little things, but nothing major.  And I decided to make an analytical, detailed study of cover design and what works.

I've come up with a list of some rules, but I'm still not there yet.  I want the rules and concepts to be so familiar and comfortable I don't have to think about them; so that the design of a cover is something almost instinctive.  So far the rules look like this:
  1. The focus of the cover is the title, not the image.
  2. The cover needs to be easily recognizable and clear in thumbnail size.
  3. The title should be unique looking but easily readable.
  4. The author and title should be in different, but related fonts.
  5. Unless you're Steven King, the title should be significantly more prominent than the author's name.
  6. The cover needs depth, so you feel pulled in and attracted to it .
  7. Bright colors and contrasts draw attention well.
  8. The cover gives a hint to genre and should not contrast with it.
  9. The reader's eye should move from title to author.
This means composition is distinct from illustration in many key ways.  It also means that the key to a good book cover is actually almost nothing about the actual images, and everything about layout.  Images matter; number 8 especially requires a particular sort of image, but its less important than the rest.
For example, this cover has a beautiful image, one I'd love to have as a poster.  But its a poor cover,  despite being such a wonderful work of art.

This gives a nice fantasy genre feel, but the problem is you almost don't really  notice the title.  The image is so compelling and has so much movement away from the title that your eyes don't grab it yet.  The boxing helps, by pulling your mind away from the picture which otherwise would draw it deep within, but still it doesn't work well.

Ideally your cover needs to draw attention through your title, down to your name, and feels like it has depth to pull attention toward it.  This kind of cover works well at this task:

Its asymmetrical, which means the eye is not pulled to a central point of the image, but instead down the image toward the title.  The contrast of black and white draws attention without being distracting, and the image gives a sense of a burglar or assassin perched high on a castle or cathedral.  The birds give a different sense of peace or promise.  Overall it works very well telling the reader something about the book without specifics.

So the quest goes on, to find the ideal cover.  I'm getting better at it, and analyzing covers regularly, discussing them with fellow writers.  Hopefully soon I'll be able to craft truly great covers for my books because I'm certain its hurting sales to have the ones I currently do:

Monday, August 18, 2014


“If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors or mounted policemen.”
-Dashiell Hammett
When I started writing my first book, I kept it largely to myself.  I didn't discuss it with people, I didn't ask for help, and I wrote alone in my room.  I knew people wouldn't take me seriously as an author until I was done and had a book, so I kept the book private until then.  Once I had an actual book to show people, they took the idea of me as a writer more seriously.

That's often how it is.  It seems like these days everyone is writing a book, because its so easy to write and publish from a technical standpoint.  Typing up a book on a typewriter or writing by hand is hard work, getting it published in the old days was a series of nearly impassable hurdles.  These days you type it up on your computer and post it online yourself.

But that glut makes it harder for some, perhaps many, to take a writer seriously.  You're writing a book?  So's my cat. I'll believe it when I see it.

Maybe if I typed with my eyes closed
Even more trouble is when someone has a hard time taking themselves seriously as a writer.  The self doubt is strong in almost all writers - is this really any good or am I fooling myself?  You get praise from friends and family, but wouldn't they praise you anyway, like a child drawing a picture stuck on the refrigerator?

Probably this self doubt is useful for most authors, because it forces us to try harder, write better, and not take what we do for granted.  A bit of humility and self doubt can keep us honest.

But often that goes too far, crippling us, hurting our work, and cutting us off before we finish.  Sometimes that fear or that doubt can make us stop and give up.  And if you have a story to tell, that's a shame.  I would hate to think some wonderful tale was lost out of fear or depression.
So here's an old saw that is worth repeating again and again:

If you write, you're a writer.  Period.  You don't have to sell, you don't have to be successful, you don't have to be published.  Writers write.  Its like being a jogger.  If you go out and jog, you're a jogger, even if you don't get into the news or compete in some bizarre jogging athletics.  You don't need sponsors or fame.

If you write, then you're a writer no matter what anyone else says or thinks.  You might be a great writer or a terrible one.  You might be a simple writer or a sophisticated one.  But you're a writer.

If you're published, then you are a Published Writer.  Here I like to shift the term a bit and say "author" even though its a meaningless distinction.  Authors have published works, whether online or in magazines or other works. You can be lousy at it, and sell nothing but you're still published.  Publishing an e-book is still publishing.  If someone else publishes your book, that's no less official and published than doing it yourself.

If you sell a lot of books, then you're a successful author.  Again, you can be lousy at it - there have been several very recent examples of lousy writers who were published and successful.  But you're still a successful author.  If you make a lot of money selling books, then you're in the minority, you have made it in your career.  Congratulations, you're one up on me!

But the simple truth is that sales or not, publication or not, even if all you do is write poems for your family in cards or a little story for your kids... you're a writer.  Don't let people or especially yourself get you down.

Tastes like doubt and exhilaration, alternately
If you want to be good at writing, well then you're facing the same effort as being good at anything else.  Nobody starts out a brilliant, polished, capable author.  Nobody.  It takes time to get good at it, and hard work.  Expecting to be a best-selling author with your first written work ever is like expecting to be signed by the Yankees the first time you step up the plate.  Even if you hit a home run on your first swing you have a long ways to go before you can even consider making a career out of baseball.

Writing is the same way.  You have to write and read and study and think.  You have to research and learn and write, and write, and write.  After a while you can get pretty good at it, and stop driving your editor crazy.  And some day maybe you can even be great at it - but you'll always need an editor.

But the place to start is by putting those words down, one at a time and not giving up because you feel doubt or people don't believe you.  Writing isn't like many other endeavors.  Nobody can make it happen but you.  Others can encourage you and support you and help your sales, but nobody but you can tell your story.  So tell it.  Billions of readers are eager to read.