My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Do Authors Need Expensive Cover Art? (Mailbox)

Image description: The closest thing
to an 80's mailbox our image intern
could find. We should fire him.
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I have a LOT of backlogged questions right now because my life is a dumpster fire, but I will try to eventually get to all of them.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Oh and I. Am. BACK.]    

Sonja F asks: 

Do you need to pay lots of money for a cover artist to make your cover?  

I'm going to assume this question is about self-publishing because if you go through a big five publisher cover art is actually one of the decisions that is typically taken away from the writer (sometimes to no small amount of resentment).  Small print presses usually can't afford really snazzy covers, so you just get a single image (maybe a photograph) and the title. It doesn't look great, but small presses use other ways to sell books than by looking good in big bookstores.

Sonja, this question caused me to have a flashback. And I mean a flash-way-back. 1985 way back. The shoulder pads were big and the hair was even bigger. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were somehow even bigger than the hair. Marty McFly was hopping into his Delorian for the first time on the big screen*.  And if you started to "Do the Mario" a fair number of people would actually sing along. And while the three hundred and twenty five season run of Full House was a couple of years out, Growing Pains and Family Ties were laying some of the groundwork. Your intrepid but terribly cute writer was even terribly cuter at the venerable age of....um....y'all aren't any good at math are you?

*True story: if Back to the Future were made today with the same relative time frames, Marty would be going back to the 80's. Marty would actually be going back to AFTER the original movie's main timeline took place. Feel old yet?

But I need you to understand the nature of this flashback because it went all the way to this horror show called Kids Incorporated. (It's probably best you don't click that link, TBH.) And when I say something is bad "for the eighties," I desperately need you to understand that we didn't have nine million cable channels and Netflix. This shit was up against shows like Small Wonder and Manimal and still made me cringe.

Kids Incorporated is kind of what would happen if you took Glee, reduced the median age of the kids by eight years, removed the sexual tension and replaced it with bangles (that's the bracelets OR the group), just had actors do atrocious lip synching instead of actual singing (which was still regularly just a little flat and awful), stripped it of any attempt at all to have socially relevant plot, made it one of those shows that came on after the cartoons ended on Saturday morning and you only got to see when your parents were too distracted to kick you out to go play, and puffed everybody's hair up by about eight centimeters. Other than that, just like Glee.

And yet a couple of those FUCKING SONGS decided, despite playing in front of my pre-teen sensory input systems exactly once, to bore their way into my consciousness for all of time. One such shitty songs was the culmination of a childhood of being finger waggingly reminded, warned, chided, and castigated not to judge books by their covers. It is not a thing that can be described. Not with words I possess, and I possess a decent lexicon of words. Perhaps the eldritch language of the Old Ones can fully describe its horror, but English cannot. It must be experienced.

I probably should have told you this before you hit play, but one week after you watch this video for even a second, a wannabe with pink tiger-striped capri pants and black lace forearm covers will crawl out of the well of the Smurf village, then through your monitor and karaoke "Like a Virgin" to you.

Anyway, I better get to the point. This post is in imminent danger of going off topic, and we wouldn't want that.

The point is that this was generally prescriptive advice given to little kids who didn't like the simple embossed title (and maybe author) of "boring" books. And maybe behind that there was some overarching advice about snap judgements based on appearances. But the fact was–and still is, despite all the things that have (thankfully) changed, we all do it.

Or I guess what I'm trying to say is that after we get that advice, our response is: "NOT!"

Let me give you an example. You see a cover. It is an airbrushed picture of a woman with a look of ecstasy being leaned back by a shirtless dude with rippling pectoral muscles who is quite apparently not in a state of disbelief about what may or may not be butter. Do you need to read the back to figure out if you want to read this book? Do you need to read a hundred pages to give it a good faith try? Or are you pretty sure you know what's coming? How about if you see a dude in a flight helmet and a picture of a space battle? Or a dragon?

Yeah, any of these could be the pinnacle of their genre and I'm not dissing genre. If you haven't read Lord of Scoundrels or Shane because of the obvious genre of their covers, you're missing out some really good books, but it doesn't mean we don't judge. Grabbing a book because "Oh, cool. Spaceship!" is a judgement too. And every book a little kid brings you to read has been thoroughly judged by its cover.

These days we may even do more of that cover judging than we used to. Though thankfully this may mean we don't have to look forward to a Glee cover of this particular Kids Incorporated gem, it also means that writers hoping to self publish should be even more aware of how their cover art can affect their sales. Even though the publishing industry is going through changes that are generally exciting and new voices are finding audiences and artists are monetizing in ways that don't require problematic gatekeepers, a cover tells us a lot about a book in just a few seconds, mostly about its quality. A book with a plain or shitty cover is a big signal that the book might have been kind of slapped together or hastily rushed through publication. What else was rushed? The copyediting? The revision process? Is this a book worth taking a chance on at all? It will probably greatly affect who will buy your book without some kind of heartfelt endorsement or friend recommendation. (One that doesn't involve them saying "Psyche!" at the end.)

But don't take MY word for it. Look at some of these terrible covers. Just be ready with some bleach so that when your done you can do one of those bleach enemas. On your eyeballs.

I don't know if you need to pay "lots of money" Sonja. There are certainly artists who will do commissions for book cover art at a rate that would be very reasonable, especially if they are struggling to launch their own burgeoning career. You may even come to some mutually beneficial deal with them for an exchange. Just remember they're a struggling artist too, and don't take advantage of them or pull that "for exposure," crap.

But if the question is if you should take your cover art seriously and do what you can to make it look eye catching and professional quality, yes you should. It's the first thing anyone will ever see about your book, and none of us paid a damn bit of attention to either the finger wagging or this festering pimple squeezing of a video. Folks are going to take ONE look at your book and judge the fuck out of it. It may well be the only opportunity to get someone to open up and read a few lines. And they will absolutely think that schlocky art is indicative of schlocky writing. And then they will say your book is grody to the max and will avoid you like The Noid while wondering: "What's your damage, Heather?"


  1. If you get a friend to do it for free don't insult them by telling them the exposure they get will be valuable. They are doing you a favor that should acknowledged and not diminished. If exposure is so valuable you take the exposure as payment and give them the money.

  2. The "lousy book covers" link now takes you to an empty tumblr account (no posts, no archive). Shame, because I needed a motivational cringe this morning.

    Still, good advice as usual. I've seen cover artists offering to do the business for less than $100. WHatever they produce will be far better than anything my pathetic Photoshop skills might generate.