My Book Cover Experience

Well I finally did it.  I created a book cover for my first novella, Loose Ends, coming out here very shortly.  So how was my experience?  Well it was very interesting.  I learned quite a bit, but only after a lot of trials and errors.

So what was the end result?

Overall, I am pretty happy with how it turned out.  I had never attempted an illustration like this, certainly not for a book cover.  So it was not only fun to familiarize myself with the process but dabble in a form of art I’ve never really been involved with before.

When this story started it was intended to be a short.   I would simply put it up on my blog in some form and call it a day.  As I actually sat down and wrote it, however, the story became too much for a short and evolved into a novella.  At this point I decided I would need a cover if I was going to put it up on Amazon.  “How hard could it be?” I asked myself.  After all, I am a professional artist, and a book cover shouldn’t be that different from what I do day to day.  Oh how naive I was to think that.  I quickly learned that book covers and game art, while have some similar approaches, are two very different demons.

What did I want the cover to have on it?  The first challenge.  For this particular story I can honestly say that wasn’t much of a challenge.  Before I even finished writing the story I had the cover in mind, and I think what I ended up with is pretty close to what I was seeing in my head as I described the environment.  So what’s next?  The shot itself.

This ended up being one of the most challenging aspects of the entire process.  Once again I let my experience in video games direct the angle and camera position of the shot.  I chose a shot that allowed for manyof the items described in the book to be visible.  This sounded perfect, and it’s how I would do it for a game screenshot (or even just a regular illustration I might be making.)  So why did this end up so challenging?  Well, I completely ignored the fact that this is a book cover.  Unlike game images or a random illustration which I can release at 1600×1200 pixels (or even larger if I so choose), book covers will be around 100×100 pixels for the thumbnail, and go up to about 500×500 pixels for the “Preview” if you were to click on the thumbnail.  Most of the objects in the scene worked just fine.  They read fairly well even at a smaller size, and there was very little confusion as to what was what.  This ended up not being the case for the rose petals on the bed and floor.  About half of the people I showed the cover to assumed correctly that they were rose petals.  The other half assumed it was blood.  While thematically the blood isn’t necessarily a bad thing to imply, it doesn’t fit the description of the environment, and it sends a message that I wasn’t wanting to get across.  While I wanted the scene to feel ominous and a somewhat fetish-like setup, my goal was to avoid someone’s mind from going to blood as a result of the tools next to the bed.  This ended up being a very fine line that I even go back and forth with still.

This made me learn a very important rule for my future covers.  There are really only two types of camera shots for covers that have an actual scene on them.  If you want small details to show, you need to have a close up shot that doesn’t allow for anyone to question what that detail actually is, especially when the alternative option is something that could really spell out something different.  My approach to the cover was to intrigue the reader and have them want to know more, not to disturb/disgust them.  The other camera shot is a wide shot that perhaps shows the entire environment (much like I did with the cover) but using broad stroke objects only.  Not to say you can’t have fine details on those objects, but – at least for me – relying on detail on one of those objects to tell the story is not something I’ll do again.  My cover was kind of a catch-22 for me.  If I did a closed in detail shot of say, just the bed, the rose petals would have read more clearly, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact I was going for.  Doing it the way I did ended up causing confusion with the rose petals (NOTE: the full single stem roses on the ground are a new addition, and hopefully clarify a bit more the presence of the petals).  So there wasn’t really anything I could do.  Short of choosing a different scene for my cover (which I didn’t want), or perhaps adding some rose petals in a more “in-your-face” manner on the cover (which I also didn’t want, as it would bring it’s own set of confusion I think), I was stuck just using the scene I had, and hoping most people will read the red splotches as rose petals.  For me it’s easy to read as rose petals, aside knowing what they are already, I also know how I would do blood stains on cloth a lot differently, but not everyone would know that.

The Font was the other thorn in my side.  It’s the same problem as the rose petals.  If I made the font fun and different and have a lot of charisma, then I was risking it to become so muddy and busy at a smaller scale that it would no longer be legible.  I’ll be totally honest, Sometimes I don’t read the link text on Amazon.  If I am looking at books, I look at the thumbnail to read the book’s name.  Not a smart approach on my end, but it is what it is and I bet you many others do the same.  So several nice folks who have already published advised me to go with a plain bold and contrasting font.  As an artist I want to pull my hair out at the sight, as a consumer, I am appreciative of the easy-to-read title.  It’s a double edged sword.

The rest of the process?  Fairly simple and a lot of fun.  Of course it’s not as high quality as I would like it, but it was my first stab ever at doing an illustration and I know I will improve with each new cover I create.  My process was pretty simple:

I created the basics of the scene in a 3D Program called 3D Studio Max.  I used version 9, even though it’s outdated by about 3 or 4 years, it’s the version I own and all the necessary tools were there.  With the scene created with 3D models there and basic materials applied to them, I set up the lighting and camera angles and told it to spit out a high res image of the scene with nice bounce lighting.

After that I pulled the image into a program called Photoshop.  This is probably more familiar to people than 3DS Max. It’s a really in depth painting program.  I recently upgraded to CS5 which has loads of new tools and gadgets for the very work I am using it for.  I actually did as much work in here as I did in Max, if not more.  I gave a lot of “texture” to the scene.  The dirt and grunge on the bed, the cart, etc.  I added “rim lighting” to many of the items in the scene that made them pop out a bit more.  I added FX, such as the volumetric fog from the lights that are off camera, as well as the dust particles flying through the air.  I even added the open door in Photoshop after a friend of mine suggested a secondary point of interest for compositional purposes.  The entire cover could have been made in Photoshop, but I lack good perspective drawing skills, so I use 3D as a base for my scene so I keep everything in perspective.  I also did a lot of color correcting, shifted hues/brightness/levels, etc. making the image have a bit more contrast than what originally came out of 3D.  I also faded areas to black that I didn’t want to be showing,  and just overall cleaned it up.

If you are interested in a detailed write-up of the process just leave some comments, I’d be happy to write up how I did it in general, and post a lot of pictures at some point.

Hopefully this was an enjoyable read but more importantly something useful for you as you create your own cover.  I’m sure there are other ways to create cover shots than the way I described above (close-details/far-broad strokes) but I determined those will be the rules I use in the future for covers that are of an environment.

About AJ Powers

I am a professional game developer during the day, but at night, my true passion comes to life when I read and write books.
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3 Responses to My Book Cover Experience

  1. Steve says:

    That’s fantastic, what a detailed write-up! I don’t think a lot of indie authors put a lot of time into the cover (unless they farm it out); the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” creeps into people’s mind, but in today’s market, the cover may be the only thing consumers ever see.

    Awesome to see you did this all from scratch, you definitely have talent in graphic design. All the best on the release!


  2. J.T. O'Connell says:

    Liking the result. Can’t wait to grab it on Amazon!

  3. AJ Powers says:

    Thanks Steve and J.T. I’m looking forward to doing more in the future!

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