Adventures in Self-Publishing: Cover Art

Almost-official cover, take two.
Almost-official cover, take two.

Today’s work included taking the step of buying a stock photo and finally utilizing my sort of decent art skills for future profit. I used the most basic plan on Shutterstock: $41 for five downloads, four of which I’ll use at a later time for the other two books in the trilogy, and maybe a future project or two.  That was the easy part.

The hard part was thinking three or four steps ahead before I even started. There are a few things that I had to keep in mind before I went anywhere with this.

Image Resolution. Many places like Smashwords and BookBaby require high resolution of the finished product. This is so your potential readers will see a nice clear picture on their e-reader, and won’t cause pixelation (i.e., it won’t look all blotchy and fuzzy if you blow up the picture larger than necessary).  Thus I downloaded the highest resolution, which I believe was 3400 x 3400 pixels. Much higher than necessary, but after cropping, it still looks good.

Cropping ratio.  This is something that is actually pretty important yet not too many people think about.  The most common ratio for e-book covers, I’ve read, is 1:1.33.  That is, 1.33 times taller than it is wide.  And looking at this cover take, that makes sense, because it’s roughly the same shape as most tablet and e-reader screens.  I admit I went a bit lo-fi here to figure it out:  I took a ruler and measured the picture on the screen.  In the above thumbnail here, it’s 2.5″ wide.  If you multiply that by 1.33, you’ll get 3.325″, which is very close to the height I ended with.

Fonts: color and placement.  I have to thank album covers for being able to understand this one.  For my example, the most important part of the cover, aside from the visual, is the title, right?  So in this version, instead of bannering it up on top like the previous attempt, I chose to spread it down the entire center.  The font had to be larger than the other two lines I’d be adding (the subtitle and my name).  BUT — it also had to stand out.  In this case, I asked for assistance from one of my artist friends: since I knew I’d be using this photo and that its primary color was blue, what is the opposite of blue?  [This is actually pretty easy to figure out: here’s a color wheel chart you should save for reference!]  In this case, it’s yellow, so I used a very light shade of it for the title, to make it stand out, even more than the subtitle or my name (both in standard white).  The fonts themselves were provided on the free version of PicMonkey.com…the title is Geo Sans Light and the other two are De Walpergen Pica.  All three were placed with a bit of ingenuity:  I aligned the sides of the text blocks with the sides of the picture, and had everything center-aligned.

Clarity.  My original outtake in the previous post used the Edo font on PicMonkey, but here my wife suggested a different, plainer font.  It’s a bit unexpected to be sure, because it doesn’t look like a genre font.  It’s classic and plain, but it still looks professional.  The trick here was to ensure that none of the words vanished in the white spots of the picture behind it; yellow stands out well against blue, but gets lost against white.  Everything is readable, and that’s the most important part.

Viewing it in different sizes.  This is another thing that sometimes gets glossed over or forgotten, but it’s actually quite important, and ties in with everything else.  Think of it this way — say you’re looking for that new book you know has just come out, but you need to scan the New Release shelves and the endcaps in order to do it.  Chances are when you see it, you’ll be at least a good ten or twenty feet away.  Same goes with e-books: when you’re browsing online, you’re not looking at the actual-size cover, you’re looking at a thumbnail cover.  This is another reason I downloaded the high-res version: the picture itself doesn’t look too sketchy, but more importantly, the fonts are still readable.  It’s okay if the subtitle is fuzzy; it’s not important.  What is important is the title and my name, so I had to make sure they were large enough to be read.  This is why I’d tweeted it right after I’d completed it:  I wanted to take a look at it on my phone, to see how it looked on a much smaller screen, plus I’d get feedback from my friends as well.

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Granted, I already own Photoshop (a birthday present from a few years back), and I’m kind of lucky that I have a lifelong interest in art and a passable ability for it, so I’m able to do most of this myself, which is exactly what I wanted to do.  Some of you may want to hire out a professional cover artist instead.  There are many out there — The Creative Penn has some good links to a few out there, for instance.  And many of them are quite affordable.

In the end, the cover still remains one of the most important parts of the book (or e-book), because it’s the first thing every reader sees.  You can let the pros take control of the cover creation, and all you’ll need to do is explain the images you’d like to see.  But if you have the ability and want to go it alone, definitely keep the above in mind.  Don’t just throw something together and call it done, either; just like musicians, save a small handful of differing takes and use the one that works best.

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