Category Archives: Covers

On Process

THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE BEEN PAYING ATTENTION will have noticed that I am building in my Pinterest profile a series of boards full of pins containing reference images of stock decorative elements. The main board (the oldest one) is called Art Lessons. One of the more recent boards is Art Elements:

Many of the elements I’ve pinned there are oriented toward the design of ceramic tiles, about which I know a little (very little), having designed one.

In the fall of 2003, Sting’s Sacred Love album was released. And shortly thereafter, preparations began for a tour in support of the record. When long time Sting associate and tour manager Billy Francis contacted me to begin design work on the passes for the tour, he told me that Sting had played with a lot of diverse influences from around the world and wanted, as a theme, some Islamic influences. I immediately thought (though I didn’t say it then) of the line from Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat”: By the blue-tiled wall near the market stalls/There’s a hidden door she leads you to./’These days,’ she says, ‘I feel my life/Just like a river running through/The Year of the Cat. The key point there being the “blue-tiled” bit. Moroccan tiles are famously blue. And intricate. And of wonderful workmanship. I don’t remember which one of us zeroed in on the ceramic tile design, but whoever it was, that became one of my focuses.

First, I found an image to be used as a reference. The image I found was perfect. It represented perfectly the tile I felt we were looking for. The only problem, as I remember it, was that the image was a photograph taken at an angle and the design wasn’t perfectly square and true, which meant, if I followed it exactly, my design would be all wibberty-jobberty. Not on. So I had to use it literally as a reference and NOT as a pattern. I had to figure out the size and proportions and the intervals, angles, and repeats geometrically. It wasn’t hard, but it was tedious.

Somewhere along in the process, I received in FedEx a DVD of photographs of Sting. The images were from a photographer (who works with Sting a lot) and had been heavily processed for use in the CD packaging for the Sacred Love album. Billy and I talked through ideas for the various pictures — this one to be used for the satin passes, that one for laminates, the third for signage and so-forth. We’ll do some post processing on one of them for the second leg and specials. (That may not have been the run of the actual conversations, but that’s how the process generally worked.) In the lot was a picture of Sting, barefoot, sitting on the floor with his back against a wall. The wall was in heavy shadow (The picture may appear in the CD package — I don’t recall.) I conceived the idea — harkening back to the “Year of the Cat” quote, of making a wall out of the tiles I was building — tilting them in perspective — and masking the figure of Sting to “float” above them so it looked like the wall he was leaning against was made of these beautiful Moroccan tiles of blue, white, and gold. Similar treatments in monochrome for the satin passes. (At the time we were still printing satin passes offset, not digitally, and so couldn’t print full-color except at great cost. Laminates were digital and so full-color, as well as being higher-value, so worthwhile doing something special (more on that in a bit).)

I worked the eventual pattern of the tile in CorelDRAW — giving myself the leeway to work the geometry in a vector application, which provided greater sharpness and precision to the design. Then I saved it out to Illustrator format which could be exchanged with Photoshop, where I had the ability to overlay color and lighting effects.

A fully-realized copy of the design, called startile with grout.

Although the image looks natural — and does more so in a smaller format and in perspective — it is wholly artificial. The geometric patterns are flat black-and-white. Each has an added color overlay and various shadowing and embossing or debossing to add the third dimension The white border is the “grout” to ensure that, in a step-and-repeat wallpaper pattern, there is a space between the tiles.

And, the “finished” product. Well, not completely. This is the base art, without type — which is added in CorelDRAW just before making up for printing. And I faked it. This isn’t the “real” image, but one I reproduced from memory. And, on the top-level laminate, issued to the inner circle of band, crew, staff, and management, the Sting logo script was stamped in gold leaf. I wish I could show the process of masking the image of Sting, and adding the shadow, but I no longer have access to those images, as they are the property of my former employer. Although, if you do a Google image search on Sting Sacred Love laminate, you’ll see a lot of other designs I did for this tour and other ones. (I never got the Sacred Love laminates onto my Pinterest board and, for some reason I can’t fathom, Otto has stopped displaying passes on their Web site. (CB: If you read this, can you shed some light on that?)

Apologies to All

INCLUDING READER Random Lurker (We’ll call him Randy.), who commented on the bewbage, for not having posted in a frakkin’ week.Sorry ’bout that, Chief. And more bewbage later. And, yeah, I know the rules: “Never apologize; never explain.” But it just felt like the right lede. I do more of that that I probably should admit to — going on gut instinct.

Anyway, through a creative use of paid holidays, I have managed to stretch my vacation to the end of the year, starting Monday just passed. And then for another week into 2014, using days from next year’s vacation days (I did the same at the beginning of this year, so it kind of rolls over.) All-in-all three weeks of free time, with the exception of family visits on Christmas Day.

My intentions were threefold (and still are, to the extent that life rolls have messed with my momentum). I want to write substantial wordage on Discovery — the working title of the current novel. I want to get started on a regimen of yoga and develop the habit of exercising daily. And I want to start working to get my drawing chops back. I had, in fact, hoped to have reports of developments on all three fronts — and can report that I have written 5,000 new words — but life has conspired to fuck my shit up.

Kris Rusch calls these little bobbles in the event continuum Life Rolls. I can’t argue. Life does roll — right over you. But I can’t help snarking back — life doesn’t so much roll as it sucks. But I’ve had a few minor life rolls in the last few days.

Last Thursday evening, I was fixing dinner. Chicken and Spanish Rice. On this occasion, I had discovered a package of white mushrooms in the produce drawer and figured that, since they were almost two weeks old, they probably ought to get cooked before they started to spore. I washed theme, breaking the stems off the caps and running the stems down the disposal. I cut up the caps and was sauteeing them in butter when I noticed that the water had not gone down in the sink. No panic. This has happened before. I got the plunger and wanked the drain with it.


Yeah, Dolly. Ever seen somebody plunge a sink drain?

…Oh! Wanked. I see.

Anyway, no joy. the water went back-and-forth between the plain drain and the disposal, but none of it went down.

Then I noticed my feet were wet. “Why is there water on the floor, coming out of the base cabinet?” I asked myself. “Where could the water be coming from?

As it turned out, it was coming out of the bottom of the disposal.



Did I ever tell you how much I HATE working on the plumbing under the sink?

I just didn’t feel like messing with it on a school night. So, I sent an email to Toni (who was on an away gig) that the kitchen sink was non-operational and went to bed. Friday, went to work, had an amazing day. (Why do customers always call with last-minute projects right when you’re trying to get out of the place for vacation?). Friday evening, I had leftover chicken and Spanish rice. Washed my dishes in the bathroom sink, but resolved not to trust it and re-wash them all once the kitchen sink was fixed. Toni wondered if that was sane, but once she saw the situation for herself, ratified my decision.

Some quick research on the Innertubez informed me that water leaking from the bottom of the disposal means the disposal’s main seal has blown. I should take it out and take it to the nearest service center (which is clear the other side of the county). In-Sink-Er-Ator verified this on their site, so I felt pretty confident I had the straight poop. (Remember: they can’t put anything on the Internet if it’s not true.) Meanwhile, Home Depot told me a new one would cost $80.00. What do you think the service center would charge to replace a main seal? Add in gas and time and. No brainer. Get a new one. Did. Put it in. Didn’t fix the no-drainee problem.

Tried various flavors of chemical drain cleaners. Couldn’t find a microbial variety at Home Depot, which I suspect would have worked just fine. Advise from the Internet (verified, of course), was that the next step is to snake the drain.

Oh, joy.

Now, I had a snake already. But it was one of those long-straight ones that you attach to your drill, pull the trigger, and it twists into a pretty plumber’s braid. So, back to Home Depot (one more visit and it’s a project), to get a better snake. One with a reel and a crank handle.

SO. The video instructions for the snake show a guy standing at a kitchen sink. His narration leads me to believe that he was dealing with a single drain that went straight down to the trap and then straight across to the wall. How convenient. But not in this house you don’t.

Here, you have a different situation. One side of the double-bowl sink is the disposal. Even I know better than to put a snake down a disposal. the other side, the drain goes down to where it meets the cross connection that would have been the join if there were NOT a disposal on the right. Then there’s an elbow onto a straight shot…

No. That’s not right.

Oh, I don’t know.

Then it all goes back to meet the laundry drain. But somehow, this all goes down to a last horizontal run that joins with a brass compression fitting to the side drain that services then across and down to the trap, then to the side line that serves this side of the house. That last run is where I want to insert my snake into the line. It’s about two inches above the floor of the cabinet and way at the back. NOT someplace you can get to standing up. Or even in a comfortable crouch.

I could have used a creeper just about then.

Swewnneyway, I spent a good portion of Sunday afternoon spinning away at that snake, lying on my back, with my hands over my head in awkward positions. (It would have been fine if my elbows bent the other way. As it was: pain.) The lip of the cabinet was sharp and hard, so I grabbed a bunch of throw rugs to build up a support for my shoulders. It worked, sort of. After a lot of shifting around, I finally found a position I could stand and cranked the snake out to its full length (25′) and brought it back. Cranking five or ten minutes, then breaking for five or ten… or fifteen… or twenty.

Aside from a few stray strands of… don’t ask… there was no sign on the snake of any serious blockage. But, when I put the drain back together (Yay! for threaded, hand-tighten PVC connections.), damned if it didn’t run free. But that managed to blow two days’ free time, and thus no bloggage.

Then, Wednesday morning, I woke up with a cough. Last couple of days, it have been just a thrill to be me.

At the moment, I’m still under the weather, but feeling better than since Wednesday. Here’s hoping this cold-flu-whatever continues to improve.

It. Is. Up.

I DON’T FEEL SO much like a poseur any more — talking a good game while not actually delivering. But, after 50 years of trying, I’ve finally published my first novel and it’s up for sale at Amazon. And, if you go and buy it by clicking the link at right, you help defray the costs of operating this site at no additional cost to you.

Everyone around Gabrielle Francesca East — Dolly to her friends — has an agenda. Mitchell Drummond, her lover, guardian, and Geppetto wants to wrap her up in bubble wrap and protect her from the world. Dolly just wants him to make her forget her name by making hot, monkey love with her. Her family resent Dolly’s fortune: a fortune they assert is rightfully theirs. Dolly? She just wants to shop. Half the Gods want to control her; the other half want her dead; Dolly just wants to party with her friends.

When clones of blonde, Hollywood starlets — probably from the same lab that made Dolly’s body — start showing up halfway around the world, Drummond and Dolly set out at the head of the Troll Action Team to find out what’s behind the clones. The answer will send shock waves through the whole shebang.

Growing out of a long series of email exchanges on The Center for Xena Studies, a Xena: Warrior Princess mailing list, The High T Shebang is the first volume of the long-awaited epic, the Dolly Apocrypha. See where it all began.

Truth in advertising disclaimer: Violence. Explicit and graphic sexual dialog and situations. Adults only. Parental discretion strongly advised. Not for children or young teens.

Coming in 2014, The Baby Troll Chronicles continue.

Also. Some time ago, I promised that anyone who became a member of my old blog site would get a free copy of my ebook. About a thousand responded. While this is a different book, I feel it incumbent upon me to honor that promise. As soon as I can figure out how to do it, if you are among that thousand-or-so, you will be receiving an email detailing how to get a copy.

So… I Got Squirrelled Yesterday

cvr hi-t sm 0913BY AN INTERESTING post and discussion of Human Wave self-and-mutual promotion over at Sarah Hoyt’s blog (not to mention grocery shopping, which seems to take it out of me more than it should), so I didn’t get nearly all the work done on re-drafting Chapter 3 of The High T Affair, but I’m real close, now.

In the meantime, I had a few bored minutes near the end of the day and I opened up the cover art, which I’ve been staring at on and off for the requisite days, in Photoshop and messed around with a few things at the margin — mostly adding a muzzle flash to Dolly’s gun and putting the old map of the East family demesne in the background. The whole overall still looks to action-adventury and cartoony to me, and not enough dark-and-gritty urban science fantasy-y. But, as I review each characteristic, I don’t see an alternative that moves in that direction. So — to quote Pooh — bother.

The question cropped up in the above-alluded-to discussion, “Why is this work Human Wave?” Good question, and more than a little bothersome. But, here goes.

First off, the lead character in the Baby Troll Chronicles, the eponymous Baby Troll (a.k.a., Gabrielle Francesca “Dolly” East) is an anarchist. She doesn’t think so — she may be the most relentlessly apolitical character you’ll ever meet. But she is. As I describe her (in the perspective of her lover, Mitchell Cary Drummond), she is a teleological chaos machine. But she also resents anything or anyone who gets in her way, which makes her a natural anarchist, even if she wouldn’t respond to the description. So, while not a libertarian per se, she acts in a manner that reflects a core belief in the supremacy of the individual human mind.

She gets that in large part from Drummond. While she is the reincarnation of the Hero of a Thousand Generations, in this lifetime, her early development was greatly influenced not only by Drummond himself, but by his influences. In her time as a dolly (whence comes her nickname), she was confined largely to Drummond’s Over the Rhine loft in Cincinnati and limited for her input to Drummond’s cable subscription and his library, which took up an entire floor of his building. She had to struggle to deal with books that, in many cases, were larger than she, but there were so many of them. And, from Adam Smith to Ayn Rand, Lysander Spooner to Murray Rothbard, she steeped in the philosophers of liberty.

And put her own spin on it.

And Drummond is a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian. Agonizes over it. Goes overboard in his respect for individual autonomy to the point he wonders whether he has the right to urge Dolly to get medical treatment.

And the larger situation. Upothesa, the vast, global conspiracy to which both owe fealty of a sorts is a supra-national un-governed organization. Involved in commerce, it almost inevitably engages in smuggling, albeit never of arms, drugs, or humans. Being supra-national and pre-existing all nations, it has little respect for government and goes its own way on the “Do what you like, just don’t let the policeman on the corner see you doing it” principle.

Upothesa started back in the Stone Age as a partnership between Gods and a family of Men. Since the Twilight of the Gods, which began with Zarathustra and continues to this day, the Gods themselves have diminished and Men have become greater. At the time in which Dolly and Drummond swim in these waters, great changes in the power structures of Upothesa portend. I can’t say much without spoilage, but the Trolls — traditionally very xenophobic — have begun to admit select members of other hominid species into their secret worlds. Gods are increasingly withdrawing from the daily affairs of Upothesa. There is a great conflict brewing between Trolls and Elves. And the very edifice of Upothesa is threatened. All of which means that mankind — if it can sieze the day — faces a future fraught with possibility.

The very definition of the Human Wave.

Not that I intended it. When I began writing the Dolly stories fourteen years ago this winter, the Human Wave wasn’t even a glimmer in Sarah Hoyt’s eyes, though in retrospect, it would seem to be inevitable. But, then, historical moments almost always do. But, as I think on it and work through the issues of getting the stories on the page and screen, it seems a natural fit. Mankind is shedding its gods and marching toward a future in which we must stand alone, masters of our own destiny. That’s Human Wave. That’s why the Baby Troll Chronicles are Human Wave.

Now I Have to Stare at It For a Few Days

cvr hi-t 0913BUT, FOR THE MOMENT at least, it answers most of my concerns about earlier design attempts. Click through the category link to compare and contrast the changes.

How I Spent My End-of-Summer Vacation

cvr hi-t 0813SO I TOOK A COUPLE of extra days off to extend the three-day weekend to five. Days, that is. My intent was to, by the end of the weekend, have a copy of my ebook edition of The High T Affair that I could send to beta readers, and to have made contact with all those who have volunteered or been roped into volunteering to beta-read this thing. (Apparently, none of them read BTB on a holiday weekend or they haven’t taken the hint, because none of them have gotten in touch with me.)

Well, just after bedtime on Tuesday (before going back to work at the Patch Factory on Wednesday), I have a nearly-perfect conversion (sans table-of-contents and with an extra scene separator) to show around. Yay, me.

So, the first lesson here is to never give up until you win. Because you will always — ALWAYS — lose until you win. So, if you give up before you win, guess what? You lose. And that, my dear readers, may just be the canonical definition of a loser: someone who gives up before they win.

Take me, for example. At dinnertime, I was in the depths of despair. I had been beaten by a primitive (open source, yet) word processor. But then, I remembered that word processors leave tons of cruft in their files. (Most programs do. Modern, well-made programs clean up after themselves when they save. Progams made by teenage wonks don’t. Let that be a lesson for you. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs may have been heroes to their mothers, but they were teenaged wonks and couldn’t code for shit.

The second — and final for this post — lesson is to NEVER, NEVER, NEVER involve Microsoft Word or any Word emulator in a production workflow in which consistent results are needed time and again. There’s a reason why pro graphics houses WILL NOT accept ANY input from Microsoft — and that includes their mis-named (dis-named, as in disinformation?) MS Publisher. And that is, if your livelihood depends on it, Word will let you down every. Single. Time. Now, in my case, it was Open Office, but the principle holds, whether it’s Word, Word Perfect, Atlantis, Open Office or Sigil or any of the myriad other out there whic MAY be used to provide input to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. They embrace fundamentally flawed premises. And why on earth the engineers at Amazon decided to depend on — or to permit or accept dependence on — Microsoft products for what is essentially a graphic-arts process is beyond me. As we say about Stupid Engineer Tricks day after day at the Patch Factory, “Why would you want to do that?”

As for me, I’ve somehow gotten my clock adjusted to Vacation Time and I have to get up early as all fuck in the morning. Say, “Good night,” Gracie.

Good night, Gracie.

So What’s Been Going On

cvr hi-t sm 0913IN THE WORLD since I’ve been gone?

You were gone?

Ha! Ha! Very funny. No. BSN. I spent all day Friday and Saturday combing through the final edit of The High T Affair and setting named styles for EVERY. SINGLE. CHARACTER. (Including spaces.) (Especially spaces.)

I have this to conclude: Word processors are aggravating as hell. They never get it right. You tell them to do something and they get it wrong. You tell them to do something the same way twice in a row and you get two different results. The rituals required to get ANY results are arcane and inconsistent. Asking for consistency is asking for the blood to go back in the moon. The documentation sucks. For example: In Open Office (version 4) — TRY to find a list of what all the special characters mean. Just TRY.

And then, output. Why are supposedly modern word processors STILL using a brute-force, inline-style driven approach to rolling HTML? Why are they still rolling HTML 2.x? WHY ARE THEY STILL USING UPPERCASE TAGS?

On the other hand, I have gotten a fairly clean and elegant build in both MOBI and ePub of the book. A few minor tweaks (which Murphy tells me will take all day TODAY) and I should have something to send to betas.

Oh! And I’ve changed the cover. Not final, but a radical departure from where I was before. I need to write post or posts about THAT. Don’t know when I’ll be able to find the time.

Looks like pub date will be pushed back a week.

Late On the Deadline for the Cover

I KNOW, I KNOW! I’m working furiously away on the edits. I promised to get the latest round to Jaime. She’s just turned in the last book of her trilogy and has about a minute, thirty to pay attention to Dolly — her goddaughter — so I have to hustle. That’s OK. I’d have to hustle even if I didn’t have to make Jaime’s window of availability. I have to keep grinding away if I’m to have a hope in hopscotch of making a September 1 on-sale date.

Why do projects always come down to the last minute?

Maybe because you schedule them that way? Why can’t you go on sale September 2? Or October 1?

Dunno. Maybe when I get this thing on-sale, I’ll have a free second to think about it. Meantime, here’s a whole flock of free ice cream that’s been backed up in the queue for a little while.

The Eyes Follow You

I intended this post to appear last week, but got caught up in the failure of my home machine to perform up to spec. Accordingly, this appears a half-week late. The alert from Outlook advising of the cover deadline has already popped up. The deadline is this coming Friday. I shan’t assume I’m going to miss it just yet. Rather, I intend to make a heroic effort to meet the deadline despite the setbacks. ‘Cause that’s what pros do. In the meantime, some other ideas have cropped up which, given sufficient time, may prove superior to the one working here at this moment. Stay tuned.

thumb_dolly_eyes_originalIN THE PREVIOUS POST of this series, we finally got around to working on the image itself. In the meantime, I have been playing with the image. My purpose in this play has been to learn about the image and what I can and cannot do with it. Also in the previous post, I mentioned that I cheated, having shown you, faithful readers, the modified version of a photo, but planning to use the original. Here’s the original.

The aim in this exploration is to find the way of least effort to my end vision or some variation of it. I have broken the bits of the image into its components. So far, most of the work has centered on the model’s eyes. First, I need to “float” the eyes independent of the rest of the face.

This is not because I want to — as I might in other circumstances — resize or reposition the eyes. Rather, what I want to do is uncouple the eyes from the face so that I can minipulate the face without greatly influencing the eyes. My aim is to be able to paint the model’s freckles against a white background, which, in essence, floats only the eyes and the freckles on the white ground.

In my experimental exploration, I have determined that the tint values of the freckles and the skin tones are too close together and too light for me to be able to magic wand select them. I could paint a selection mask, and may do that eventually, but really what I need to do is trace or rotoscope the freckles and thus do away with the rest of the face. While doing that, I want to preserve the eyes. So I have to float them.

So now I have to figure out how to cut the pieces apart and yet put them back together seamlessly. Unfortunately, the image doesn’t come with little dotted lines along which to cut. So I have to make my own. The process is simple in conception, if tedious in execution. You simply duplicate the image and remove everything NOT of the piece you want. The trick here is to do this as little as you can get away with, but also to preserve your options to go back to an earlier version.

pal_layrs_1Fortunately, Photoshop has mechanisms which permit the user to do just that. First, never work directly on your original image. There are two layers of this. First, preserve the original as a separate file. Second, make liberal use of Photoshop’s Undo and History features. Finally, if you have the experience to do so, watch the results of your work closely and be ready to step backward through recent work. At right, you can see the state of my layers palette at one step of the way. I suspect I’ll make many more layers as I go, but these are about the elements I anticipate working with at the moment.

I also anticipate that there will be two places where I’ll have to do intensive pixel-editing-slash-painting. Those are isolating the eyes — particularly masking the eyelashes — and picking out the freckles from the skin. Below at right, you can see the model’s right eye. The image I’m after is the eye and the upper lid, more-or-less as draw by the model’s eyeliner. The tricky part is, in order for the image to look natural, I have to pick up the eyelashes, too, which means I have to mask them, hair-by-hair.

scr_eye_rightAnd I have, as a matter of fact, just made a decision, which requires me stepping back. I had started taking the fold of the upper lid as my edge. Then I decided I wanted to cut it tighter, getting only the actual stroke of the eyeliner. And then I saw the result and changed my mind again. So, now, I have to start over. A couple of hours lost, but the whole of the work is saved from my indecision.

So the new direction established, I duplicated the original layer, merged the floating eyeballs layer down to it, then deleted the background except close in around the eyes and started masking off around the eyes and the eyelashes.

Next, once the eyes are floated, we start in on the freckles.

This post is part of a series of posts on the subject of books covers, directly primarily at self-published and independently-published authors seeking to design their own covers. It is in the category “Covers” and can be seen with all of the other posts in that category by clicking on the link in the right sidebar. The sophistication of that display page will improve as time goes on. The next post in the series will appear here within a couple of days.


IN THE LAST post, you met Dolly’s eyes. Now I get to work to develop this basic image into a book cover illustration. I open the original JPEG file, downloaded from Dreamstime, in Photoshop and immediately resave it under a new name eyes.psd. This is a PhotoShop Document, which uses pack bits (lossless) compression and supports layers with variable-transparency and various built-in blending effects. I will be using these tools to alter the image to suit my needs.

Warning: icky sex talk. If that squicks you, skip the next paragraph.

The original idea is to focus on Dolly’s eyes, looking up in love at Drummond (whom we do not see) at the moment he penetrates her while they are making love. It is an expression most men will know and most women have assumed — whether or not either is sincere, though in this case, I think Dolly is. It is a wide-eye expression, almost one of surprise, with the eyes turned up, as the man is usually looming over the woman at this moment. (Both of them in the horizontal position.)

OK. It’s safe to come back, now.

The image is to focus on and isolate the woman’s eyes, even stylize them a bit, and render them in what’s called a high-key image on a white background. I figured that I would have to have a source image to modify by painting in a pixel editor. I don’t draw well enough to satisfy my perfectionism and don’t-have-slash-can’t-work-with a model. So I did the stock search described in the previous post.

And came up with something somewhat different. But close enough. I think I can modify this image in Photoshop (perhaps with an assist from a 3D app — modo or Poser — to get the eyeballs themselves JUST right, but we’ll see). But the really interesting part is the torn paper frame and the silver paper background. It intrigues and offers new directions. I may abandon both, but I will proceed in a fashion that permits me to do either ad lib and only once I have seen both images and chosen between them.

It is experience and practice which allows me to A) do this, 2) see that it can be done and 3) how to do it so as to preserve my options to the end and D) — perhaps most importantly, that it’s desirable to do so. I’ll refer back to this a lot. I’ll call this concept preserving my options.

So there are two basic options — work with a very high-key image on white (I’ll show you what that means in a bit) — or with the background, either as it exists, or with an entirely different look. No, that’s not three. That’s One and Two, with a possible Two-B. The reason to think of the either-or should become clear down the road.

The first thing to do, then, is to save under a new name, which I’ve done. Then the next is to prepare the image to be worked over. In order to do that, I’m going to establish my frame and pull the thing apart into layers.

Experience teaches me that, if you don’t start out establishing two factors at the very beginning, they will devour you in the end. The first, as we say at the Patch Factory, the most important specification, is the deadline: when do you need it.

Weren’t expecting that, were you?

I’m not surprised. Even experienced, sophisticated, and knowledgeable people come acropper of this problem. But time is a key factor in any creative project. How much time there is to do the job determines each choice made in a binary fashion — yes or no, do it or not — and most fundamentally at every step of the way.

In this case, the goal is to have an ebook on sale in the KDP Select program by September First. Now, there are a lot of stumbling blocks, not least of which is that the text may not be ready. BUT… if it is ready and the cover is not, then the cover is holding up the release, whereas if the opposite is true, well, nothing to do but push the deadline back, but that decision is being taken for the right reason — that the product itself is not ready, and not that the packaging needs work. Remember that; it’s key. The book is the thing. The cover is packaging and of secondary importance UNTIL it becomes the deciding factor in a sale. In any case, the cover cannot be permitted to drive or drag on the on-sale date.

(Aside: A friend who is trad-pubbed did just that — she and her agent forced her publisher to change the cover. The publisher pushed her book back a whole year. Not in retaliation, mind. It’s just that that was the first available slot.)

Now, the way to establish deadlines and schedule is to find a delivery date and work your way backwards until you get to now, at the start of the job. It is (as I write this) the Second of August, so I have twenty-nine days. I need to lead my on-sale date by an as-yet-unknown period. Dean Smith asserts he can have a book up in minutes. (Fifteen, if memory serves.) That assumes, I imagine, that you already have your account set up at Amazon and know what you’re doing in clicking the “Publish” button. But it doesn’t seem as though the lead time should be more than a day or two at most. I know that I can do the work necessary to producing this cover art in under two weeks. My editor claims that he can have the MS back to me with notes and edits in two weeks. That seems to indicate a timeline that has the final prep of the work happening between the Fifteenth and Thirtieth of the month. Shouldn’t be stressful.

So the deadline (checks the calendar) is the Sixteenth. Mark it on the calendar and set a reminder five days prior. We probably won’t need the reminder, since this project will be pretty much our sole focus this month, but you should never rely on that kind of stuff. Always be disciplined and organized about your work and you’ll avoid that overwhelmed, too-much-to-do feeling.

OK. That’s the deadline. But you’ll remember, I said there were two factors. The other may be more obvious, but, again, you’d be surprised by how many putative pros get this wrong.

In — scorn quotes — “fine” art, you can wing it. You can frame your image or object ad hoc as you go along, as the mood moves you. The canvas can be any size, and the image wherever and whatever size you plunk it down. In commercial art, however, what you’re doing, first and foremost, has to serve a purpose. And, in most cases, it also has to be made — usually by someone else. The image has to be producible in a medium that costs thousands of dollars to throw the on switch on. And, all the digital cheerleaders notwithstanding (I kid you not) digital costs the same to operate whether you’re printing something or not. Digital printing costs pennies per copy. The cost per widget only adds up when you have multiple copies per widget. The prep cost, far from being two thirds of the cost of a printed project old-school, is ninety-to-ninety-five percent of the cost new school.

This means you have to get it right, and you have to get it right the first time. Your trim size has to be right, as do the bleeds and margins, and the creep allowed for in folding signatures, and… and … Or the job comes out — in technical terms — fucked up.

Now, here again, we’re having to push against some unknown factors. Of course, there is no size for an ebook. Every ereader and ebook format assumes a different screen size. So what size is the cover? I’m going to side-step that for the moment and assume I’m going to eventually do a paper edition and will want to use this image for the cover of that. And, at CreateSpace (and from other sources) I see that the most common advice seems to be to think in terms of a 6″ x 9″ layout. No problem. I can deal with that. So my trim size is putatively 6″ wide and 9″ high. That makes my bleed size 6.25″ wide and 9.25″ high.

(A bleed, for the uninitiated, being 1/8″ of an inch margin OUTSIDE the trim. And, if one side bleeds, then a bleed image — even if it’s just blank white — must be provided and accounted for on all four sides in the engineering of any job.)

But my image is square. Ish. That means I need to either crop it or add image to make it taller. But before I do that, I realize that, because I have (at this stage, pretending we haven’t already played with the type) no idea how much space the type will take up, I need the ability to “float” the image in the frame, I need to separate the image from the background and make it a layer. In Photoshop, I do this by finding the layers palette and double-clicking on the layer. I get an option to rename the former Background Layer as Layer 0, which I accept. The layer the image is on (the only one in the file so far) thus becomes Layer 0, a floatable layer, which I can work on independently of the other layers in the document (as they come into being). It can also be blended with other areas, depending on the relative modes selected. For now, it is in Normal mode, which makes it the effective background.

OK, now. If you’re following along at home, or have a really good grasp of what’s going on, you may have noticed that, once we get the image settled in with right and left bleeds indicated, that the margin to the corners of the model’s eyes is only a quarter of an inch. Which is acceptable, but it worries me. I don’t know HOW much time I’ve wasted over the years faking in image to meet an acceptable margin and/or bleed because the important image was JUST that much too big for the live area, had to be shrunk to fit, and left insufficient, as I say, margin or bleed. Now, what I could do would be to fake in bleed left and right now, at the outset. But instead, I’m going to cheat.

Well, I’ve already cheated.

Remember that I told you I’d bought three images? Ever wonder why? Well, it’s because THIS one is not the original This has been modified by the photographer with the addition of the torn paper frame. It indicates what his vision was in making the original photo, but it’s not the thing itself.

That is an image of the model’s face, full width, from about the bridge of her nose to just below her hairline (which is how I could tell fersher she’s a redhead), with her hands held up flat either side of her face like she’s shading her eyes against oblique light.

This is valuable because there is more image in the width, but also in the height, either of which can prove useful in my repurposing of the image. Also, even though it probably won’t change my crop, that there is additional image to the sides can potentially save me a lot of trouble.

What I want to do is use the original, but treat it in some ways like the modified image. In order to do that, I need to drop the original down on the modded pic and match the two of them pixel-for-pixel in size and position. Since I really want to work with the original — always work with the original if you can — I drop the mod onto it. And realize that, in pixel dimensions, the mod is smaller than the original. This is good, because it means I’ll be able to work at an even higher resolution than I had originally thought, and at this stage of the game, I’m hoarding resolution like a gamer hoarding strength points. The final piece will be resolved more coarsely, but for the moment, it’s like speed or gasoline: it is life itself.

I slide the transparency of the mod to 50% and stretch it to match the original. (I use the corners of the eyes as guides.) As I do so, I discover that the mod was stretched anamorphically (differently in x and y axes). The delta is slight — perhaps three or four pixels over several thousand, but noticeable when overlaying as I am. I finally get the two to match and resize the final piece to fit the frame (greedily retaining the extra bleed just in case).

At this point, I can de-couple the process from the modified image and work exclusively on the original, saving the mod only for reference. Next time, we inspect the image even more closely.

This post is part of a series of posts on the subject of books covers, directly primarily at self-published and independently-published authors seeking to design their own covers. It is in the category “Covers” and can be seen with all of the other posts in that category by clicking on the link in the right sidebar. The sophistication of that display page will improve as time goes on. The next post in the series will appear here within a couple of days.

Dolly’s Eyes

Dollys_Eyes_Source_1WELL, THE TEXT OF THE book is in the hands of my editor. I expect it will come back to me in shreds and I’ll have to sew it back together. But for the moment, I’m content to leave it there and move on to the cover.

I’m still in the experimental phase, searching and testing imagery and type, but I am getting closer. I’ve come back to focus on the erotic component of the plot and the relationship between the two lead characters. As such, I’ve hit on a narrow-focus shot of Dolly’s eyes at the moment the docking probes engage, so to speak.

I chose Dreamstime as my source, more to narrow the selection down than for any other reason. However, since I have an account there already, it is simplicity itself to find something. I searched on the phrase eyes wide and found within the first page of results a satisfactory image. It also has the bonus of providing — already built-in — a dramatic presentation in the torn paper edges. This has a dual advantage in, One, as I say, a dramatic presentation, and B, limiting the amount of image I have to work on.

And work I must. It’s fortunate that the model is a redhead, with the requisite freckles, and light-colored irises. But that’s about the limit. You’ll see as I go along where my vision is going to take me and why I don’t want to have to work on a full-face or full-body image.

There will be other elements, but this image is the starting point.

I checked the license on offer and it is appropriate. The rights owner provides a royalty free license, to use on books (up to 500,000 copies — with higher quantities negotiable), permits modification, does not ask credit, but I intend to provide it. If the artist is worthy of his hire, he’s worthy of the fame for it. That’s my take and I see no reason not to hold to it. On the other side, there’s no claim to modifications, so what I intend to do becomes mine to use so long as I adhere to the terms of the original license. All agreeable. I picked a resolution that permits me nine inches of width at 300 pixels per inch. (I intend to pad the height, so the width is the relevant factor.)

As for tools: I am working this image in Photoshop (CS6). No apologies. As I’ve said here and elsewhere, if you want pro results, you have to use pro tools and skills. It’s possible to do this stuff in free or cheaper aps, and Grid knows, there’s tons of them, but I’ve been using Photoshop almost since the beginning (version 2.5, actually, in the early ’90s) and I not only have a high skill level myself, but I also have access to experts who can direct me toward tutelage on particular skills I may lack. In another app, I’d have to climb that learning curve all over again.

I understand that some people starting out or struggling due to expenses in other areas might not be able or willing to make the investment, but I do strongly advise everyone to give hard consideration to the realities. Remember that you are competing for eyeball space with pros who use these tools for their daily bread. Neither they nor the book buyer will cut you slack because you chose not to invest in the right tools.

Now, Photoshop is a bitmap editor, primarily. It can handle vectors — most especially and valuably, type — but it’s primary utility is in handling photos, paintings, soft blend effects, and suchlike. For straight vector art and simple one-up illustration, I use CorelDRAW. This is a matter of preference. I first learned vector drawing in CorelDRAW and find Illustrator, for example, to have a deeply opaque interface and metaphor which I, as a wax-and-exacto-trained layout artist, find very alien.

You may find Illustrator more to your liking. That’s fine. The concepts translate, albeit clunkily. Inkscape is another possibility, but, frankly, I don’t have the time to climb yet another learning curve, so I’ve only looked at it briefly and messed around with it. It appears to support most tasks, but I haven’t delved into it enough to say much more than that about it.

As for alternatives to Photoshop, there are, as I say, multitudes. Primarily, I’d say, your choices boil down to GIMP or Corel PhotoPaint. I have a problem with PhotoPaint similar to the one I have with Illustrator — I don’t grok the interface or the task metaphors. So I can’t speak much about it. However, several of my colleagues in the Corel community swear by it and prefer it to Photoshop OR PhotoStyler — which is an old and, now, abandoned app that actually preceeded Photoshop on the Wintel platform, and which should tell you how far back some of this goes — both my work in the field and my association with other experts.

In addition to these apps, there is the realm of the third dimension. 3D apps, such as 3D Studio Max, Maya, Poser, Bryce, and a long list of others, allow artists to model real objects and render them to photo-realistic images. If I had the chops, I’d be doing this whole image in a 3d app, and may do future, similar projects in one. But I have to take myself to school first, before I can commit commercial art in one.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I have done paying work — sold it in five figures, as a matter of fact — in 3DS Max. But the license I have is getting long in the teeth and unlikely — for myriad reasons not relevant here — to be updated. So I am learning a new app — modo. And, if you (or I) think the differences in interface between Draw and Illustrator are stark, you ought to try between 3D apps across a ten-year delta in development age.

But I degrease.

In a Heinlein hagiography — Requiem, I believe — Spider Robinson avers that he is writing an essay debunking a bunch of BS about Heinlein to save himself time — so that, when confronted with loud nits making bogus assertions at cons, he can just hand them a copy of the essay to shut them up and go back to having fun — rather than engaging in a long, verbal flame war. So I hereby take that as my text for this bit of bloggage. I’ve ranted enough about what I see as the foolishness of cheaping out on tools. I don’t want to do it again. From now on, if the subject comes up, I’m linking here and moving on.

If I can remember to do it.

This post is part of a series of posts on the subject of books covers, directly primarily at self-published and independently-published authors seeking to design their own covers. It is in the category “Covers” and can be seen with all of the other posts in that category by clicking on the link in the right sidebar. The sophistication of that display page will improve as time goes on. The next post in the series will appear here within a couple of days.

Major Milestone – First Novel Edition

thumb_dolly_eyes_source_1I’VE WRITTEN SEVERAL MILLION words in my lifetime. And in all those words, I’ve never really finished — finish finished — a novel. Until now.

I sent the send draft of The High-T Affair to editor Jeff Hill today. In advance of actually seeing the thing, Jeff thought there would be a good chance that I’ll be able to have the thing up on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing on or before September 1.

I have also picked a cover image. This will be extensively modified to suit my vision, but this is the starting point. And, by the way, people should know, I have purchased the rights to the image (and two others). Just frex as to what’s the right thing to do.

Update: I meant to write “second” draft, but perhaps my typo — “send” — is more accurate. Actually, the first draft was the original Apocrypha story, written back in ’99 and trunked. The second draft was the one I started for NaNoWriMo last year. This is something like the third-and-a-half draft. Except none of them are exactly complete drafts, so you have to use dot-release indicators like they do for software. Which gets to be too much of a bother. Bother!

Just My Type

cvr high-t 1 0713THIS POST IS ABOUT my process. Your mileage may vary. Hell, my mileage varies. This is not the entirety of my process; it’s not even the only approach I take to a given project. I may take a half-dozen approaches or more. And your process will reflect your character, your desires, your state of mind and emotion, and your blood levels of a caffeine. At least, it does in my case.

Creative projects often change directions like a drunken sailboat skipper sailing against the wind, looking for his keys — tack after tangent after reversal. No Less this one, the cover for my first-published novel, The High-T Affair, Book One of the Dolly Apocrypha arc of the Baby Troll Chronicles.

I have a welter of ideas running around in my head, like a bunch of bratty characters, each one trying to grab the wheel, all shouting at the tops of their lungs for my undivided attention so they can pitch their notion.

Makes it hard to pick just one. In fact, I’m toying with the notion (only one-sixteenth seriously) of doing them ALL and publishing them ALL and seeing which one sells best. Yes, the reasons not to do that are myriad and obvious, but nobody ever accused me of not wanting to have it all.

So, here is the first result. This is the pretty, so-I-can-show it off version. Click on the image here to see it larger. Click on the image that pops up to see it full size. I strongly advise you do both. You will be able to see just how clean the image is. This is very important. To quote everybody’s favorite goth lab geek, Abby Sciuto, there’s no substitute for quality source imagery. This image is as sharp and clean as it can be made. And, yet, I’ll wager that the resampled rendering by your web browser makes it look fuzzy and pixelated at some magnifications. Imagine what can be done with an image that starts OUT fuzzy and pixelated.

Why is this important? Well, I’ll tell ya. A lot of what pros learn to do with graphic imagery in product packaging and suchlike is subliminal. Not in the hidden messages kind of subliminal, but in the details that are important, but that nine out of ten people wouldn’t be able to pick out of an image. Despite that latter fact, those same nine will be able to say that something is off — though whether it’s a color mismatch, a bad mask, an out-of-focus image, a mix of high and low resolution in the same image (denoting bad compositing) — or whatever they may not be able to say exactly.

cvr high-t 1 thumbs 0713And these are the actual-size thumbnails that would show at Amazon — 300 pixels for the display on the book’s own listing page, 160 pixels for the results page of a search — however it is found — and 135px for the “suggestions” or “also-boughts.” There are smaller renderings, but these are enough to see how the thing “reads” at postage-stamp sizes.

For the reference of those following along at home, the original layout is 6×9, done in CorelDRAW (x6). The fonts are from DaFont — Motion Picture, and from my collection of licensed fonts from over the years — Onyx (a Monotype font) and Copperplate Gothic bold (this particular instance a URW font). (Most of my licenses have come with copies of CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator, but many have been purpose-bought for some project or another — or, just because I liked the face.)

The version of the Motion Picture script is licensed as free for personal use. Once I’ve settled on it for actual use, I will buy a commercial license from the foundry. At $60, it might seem a bit pricey, but, as I see it, an individualist libertarian has two moral choices — buy the thing at the price offered or don’t use it. Support your local (and global) type designers.

And, on that tack, let’s discuss fonts for a moment. Typeface designs are NOT copyrightable. Font programs are. That is, the shape of letters (glyphs), or a set of letters, are not protected by copyright law. In computer use, however, what is protected is the program code used to instruct the operating system’s rendering engine (including a printer’s marking engine) how to draw a glyph or a block of text on the screen or a marking drum for transfer to paper: the font file(s). What this means in technical terms is you can use a legally-licensed “font” program to set type, convert the type to curves, and none the wiser, the type is yours.

Where you may get into legal trouble is when you exceed the terms of the license. Typically, you may permanently install the font file on a set number of computer systems (desktop/workstation) and a single printer on a single site. Adobe’s licenses (with notable exceptions, see their EULA pages) permit a number of seats (5, 10, 20, et al), with a work-home allowance and ONE printer with a permanent download. (If you convert to curves on printing or only download on a per-job basis, there is no printer installation.) Note: YOU and ONLY you are responsible for ensuring that your practices are in compliance with the software licenses granted you. Read and understand the EULAs which accompany all software. If you install on more than the permitted number of systems, or egregiously pass font files hand-to-hand, you’re liable to be prosecuted for piracy and the penalties can get severe.

What this means in moral terms is something else altogether. A lot of type designers will license a font free for personal use. But this is manifestly a commercial situation, and this foundry has a requirement to buy a commercial license for such use. Not only that, but, like writers, type designers need to eat. Not only that, but their work benefits the world all out of proportion to the effort they put into it and they deserve to be compensated for this outsized contribution to the common weal. Also, we as individualist proponents of free markets and human commerce owe it to ourselves to behave in a manner consistent with our beliefs. It is the socialist who steals the property of another for the sake of convenience or need. We don’t do that. If you NEED something that belongs to another (and it is for sale), for God’s sake, PAY FOR IT! (Even if there’s not a price tag on it, donate to the designer. It can come back to you in myriad strange ways.)

And, in reality, fonts are cheap. Even the Motion Picture script used in the above examples, at $60 for a single font is dirt cheap. And, considering all the notionally free fonts we get bundled with our application software, tossing a Benjamin in the pot every once in awhile doesn’t seem too great a burden. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re all poor and counting pennies to eat. Boo-hoo. Pay the five bucks, as the saying goes. It’ll do your karma good. In fact, even though I’m probably not going to use it (see below), I’m probably going to buy the Motion Picture font because it does look like a very useful script — good color, well-made, pleasing letterforms. And I just hate to have trial versions of software lying around because I never know when I might pick something up in the throes of creativity and forget I haven’t paid for it. Don’t want to risk that, so I — as a colleague says — cope ahead.

End of lecture on software licenses and karma.

The notion behind the design is a nod in the general direction of a current retro fad in design which harks back to deco-ish trademarks and print ads from the ’20s and ’30s. You can see lots of examples at sites like Emigre. Having taken it this far/fur, I may develop it farther/further, adding elements and rearranging what’s here to better suit the style. But my original notion (and this illustrates how the graphic design analogs of plot bunnies pop up) was to just get some idea of possible type arrangements so I could get a feel for how to make illustrations to fit. Those who’ve been following along may recall that I had some other notions earlier (and may still use some of them) — a silhouette of Dolly at the peak of being pleasured by Drummond; a model of a testosterone molecule (which is relevant for reasons exposited in the story); icons of Mexican Washingtonia palms, (also relevant for reasons to be found in the text); a 3D rendering of an “escape” ring, which plays a part in the plot. Choosing among them, arranging them in a coherent and unified design, and placing type (which itself must meet certain criteria of readability) over or around the images while still permitting them to “read” at some size (albeit probably not at thumbnail sizes) are all part of the design process, but it struck me as a possible first step that I could play with the type. And thus this tangent.

Or tack.

cvr high-t 3a 0713And, just to throw a little more confusion in the pot, we, as the customer, are going to reject the first draft design. First off, the use of three type faces violates a cardinal rule of design. This particular aesthetic fashion usually only permits two faces — a script and either a serif face or a sans-serif headline face. IF you want to get silly, of course, you can make your design look like a ransom note, with a different typeface for each character. But we’re serious, here, and — remember the bit above about details the layman may not spot, but will notice? — well, here’s one. So we want to regularize our type choices. Not only that, but the Motion Picture script is not really suited to the overall design aesthetic of the line, so the customer politely asks the designer to PLEASE use the designated script — Floridian Script — in the three-piece pattern established on our Web site (q.v.).

So, back under the designer hat, we bin the Copperplate and the Onyx, and we browse through our collection of type until we come across a well-designed headline face with several variants — Bodoni. And we set the title and other items in Bodoni variants and resubmit to the customer.

And then we step back and look at the piece. It’s been a long week and we’ve been pressed by multiple tight deadlines and we haven’t really had a lot of time to think. It’s just bang-bang-bang, one job after another. So a long session of just catching our breath and basking in the design seems called for.

And we realize we missed it entirely. This doesn’t say anything about the book. What it is is a cover announcing a book for rabid readers who are already looking for it. If it were trad-pubbed, there would be an inside second cover with a rich illustration on it. But we’re indy, this is a first novel by an unknown, and we need to put our best sell on the outside. If you didn’t know the series, this cover says more that this is a political non-fiction book, not an erotic science fantasy thriller. So, although we’ve got some clear notions about type, it’s going to be back to the drawing board on Monday.

And we sigh and shut down our work station in preparation for going home for the weekend.

Our next step is going to be playing with pictures — those images mentioned above, which provide symbols and hints as to our story and which should excite the prospective reader’s imagination and make him or her want to explore further.

But at least we have some notion of what the type might be. We may abandon it altogether. We may warp it beyond all recognition. Or we may layer and meld it together with the pictorial imagery.

But what we no longer have is a blank screen. Before today, we’ve had inchoate notions and stray fantasy images. Today, we’ve made an start on our design.

My intent is to work next on imagery. But I have this tendency to … squirrel! … so we’ll see. And you know what that means.

Esprit de l’Escalier

SO SARAH HOYT PUT ON a Cover and Blurb Clinic. I went and partied like a guy who hadn’t been out in … ever. I may need to send some apology notes and mend fences. We’ll see if anybody starts acting hurt or something.

And it went on for a large part of two days, so it’s kind of like every discussion thread on the Internet and it’s time to kill it. (I really miss the threading ability in CompuServe forums. That was da bomb. Everything the Internet has thrown up in that line of country is second best AT best.)

But I have some afterthoughts that I want to get down somewhere where I and others can find them. Otherwise, they’ll be lost. (And God knows, they’re so damned valuable! </sarc>)

First: enough with the modesty, people! Who are the artists we respect the most? They’re the ones who stood tall and proud, delivered themselves of their art boldly and without apology. If I hear somebody offer another apology or belittlement of their work before the public, I’m gonna scream.

As an artist, it is your responsibility to Make Your Work the Best You Can Possibly Do. I don’t recall anything in that commandment about convenience or the ease of use of the tools or how long it might take to find the exact right image. What I do remember is “Best”. To me, if the best I can do isn’t perfect, I will keep at it until it is. I’m not going to accept second best cover art for a short story, and I’m not going to apologize for flaws in the work with that as an excuse.

Here’s why.

Your name is on the cover.

Ultimately, that’s your brand. Trad-pubbed authors don’t have that level of control over their covers (Although, my friend and first reader, Jamie Moyer, and her agent fought for a better cover and got it for the first novel in her forthcoming trilogy. And we should be vicariously proud of her for it.)

But one of the things we keep saying is primo about indy pubbing is the control over covers. OK. So now you’ve got it. And you’re going to put crap out there with your name on it because doing it right is hard? I’m sorry, I think I missed something. You may not be able to afford the best source image. OK. It’s like a house. Some you can buy in move-in ready condition. Some are fixer-uppers and you have to exert some sweat equity. But the fixers are cheaper. You can buy in at a lower cash price, but the ultimate cost is about as broad as it is long.

So the quality of your project — of your writing — is first and foremost represented to your readership by the cover image. “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover,” you say. Bitch, please. The cover is something that the reader will have in his environment LONG after he’s disconnected from Amazon. In his mind, it will become an icon representing that product — your product. Under YOUR brand. It’ll be on his nightstand for a week, his bookshelf and/or his Kindle (one hopes) far longer. And whether it’s a short story or a novel, it is out there under your brand, and you damage the brand if the packaging on your product is less than perfect.

I didn’t mean for that to sound as harsh as it does. But now that it’s out there, I think it’s right. Not for the harshness — that’s just texture — but for the bold-facedness of it. You NEED to insist on the best. And you owe it to yourself and the business you’re building to be strident about it — and most especially with yourself. Demand it. As close to perfection as you can get. I hope putting it out there at this distance will permit some perspective and honest reflection without the emotion and immediacy of a personal critique.

If you want to learn about type by osmosis — by exposure to good typography, check out this book. It’s called Type Matters and is a neat instance of funky artistic book design, as well as being informative on the subject of type.

Back in the day before soft fonts became widely available, there was a shop in Washington DC (They’re still around.) called Phil’s. They were a general digital service bureau (and, before that, a type house). And they had a catalog published, Homage to the Alphabet: A Typeface Sourcebookphils_fonts_book I got my copy almost by accident at the North Light book sale that F&W Publishing holds every year. The neat thing about the Phil’s catalog is that it’s organized by type style. Serif, Sans Serif, Script, and then the subcategories. It’s an incredible immersive tool and can teach you a lot about typefaces in the course of a simple font match search. And Phil’s taxonomy is the one we use at Otto and I use to organize my personal font collection. It’s that strong.

That is all.

That’s enough! Sheesh!





Say, “Goodnight,” Gracie.

Good night, Gracie.

Speaking of Covers…

PASSIVE GUY WAS on a roll last week with valuable bits of lore for self-publishers. Here he took note of a Joel Friedlander article done for Guy Kawasaki on the topic of offset printing. It’s a lightweight piece, but it does point out the potential value of the process — with the caveat that it can be capital-intensive, albeit with a potentially marvelous ROI.

On a side note, I was taken aback by the thumbnail of Kawasaki’s book cover. Based on that alone, I — for one — wouldn’t take advice on the topic of self-publishing from somebody with such a shitful cover design. But that’s just me.

A Cover Story: Chapter 5 – Bad Cover! No Biscuit!

I’m pushing back the intended next chapter another day because of some serendipitous content that flew in over the transom, so to speak. The blog The Passive Voice has featured a couple of items relevant to our process, and so I thought it appropriate to toss them in. We will resume forward progress tomorrow.

PASSIVE GUY points to a gallery of very bad book covers. Since we’re on about covers in this series, naturally, we should take a gander. And, I think, most of the covers blatantly display the reasons they were chosen for the list. But… Not all. I’m not certain I disagree with all of the choices the cover artists, art directors, and editors took. For example, I don’t get the criticism of the Hemingway. Not my cup of tea, but I wouldn’t, as the saying goes, kick it out of bed for eating crackers.

Of course, those covers which do sin against all good sensibility do so … shall we say … dispositively. The sins range from poor composition to purely awful image selection. Many of them are so bad as to cause readers to want to remove them from the book store shelves and given them a decent burial or commit them to the flames or something final-rest-y like that. So as to not cause harm to other, innocent onlookers. Anachronism, for one, utter inappropriateness for another. (Tell me: how do a modern briefcase and a kitten relate to a tale of intrigue and adventure set in France at the time of the Revolution?)

On the other hand, you don’t have to search thirty-year-old catalogs from used book stores to find purely awful covers. There are myriad examples to be found among the top editors’ picks at Amazon. For example this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or, in my own genre — science fiction and fantasy — this one. Or this one. That last actually intrigued me and I clicked through from the search listing to the individual product page, but the utter awful type arrangement (I will not dignify that abomination with the ancient and honorable term of “typesetting”.) just sent me running into the howling outer darkness. OK, not that bad, but not good.

This says nothing whatsoever about the quality of the books, only that of the covers. The books themselves might be masterpieces, but their bad covers diminish their chances of ever being read, and more’s the pity. And, if the reasons that I selected the ones I did are unclear, ask in comments and we can discuss.

I do think, however, I should make it clear that my choices have little to do with my personal taste. There were a good many covers I didn’t like and would never choose for my own work. And also many I did like but still would not choose to cover a book of mine. The ones I point out are those that jumped out of the search listing at me as REALLY bad in thumbnail form. And I only clicked through to the one. The rest were judged SOLELY on the basis of the 160×160 pixel image. Keep that in mind. Your work will also be judged on that same basis.

PASSIVE GUY ALSO points to some tools for color. The one I like is the one called Kuler which helps you make a color scheme or theme. I like it because it forces a limited palette. Or, at least, it does if you actually use it.

Limited palette is important because… In order to draw a potential reader’s attention, you need to draw their visual focus. You need to make them PAY ATTENTION to you. And, for the most part, a very good way to do that is to make your cover image a thing which is perceived to be of a single color.

Why? Well, the eye is drawn to the unusual in a scene. And most scenes — look around yourself and you’ll see what I mean — have an incredible amount of noise in them. Which makes it hard to see a particular individual object in a scene unless there’s something to draw your attention to it — to make you focus on it to the exclusion of all else in the scene.


A distinct and clear shape that stands out from the background is one thing that will do this. Military folks have been using the inverse of this for practically ever in the art of camouflage. If you break up the outline of an object, you make it harder to see. Conversely, if you strongly limn the edges of an object, it will stand out — be more noticeable.

Color can accomplish much the same thing. If most of a scene is either a single color or incredibly noisy and an object is of a single different color, or NOT noisy, the object will stand out from the background. So, if you use a limited color palette in your cover design, and do so wisely, you can make of it an object that stands out from the background and yet contains in it other objects — the title and author’s name, or the featured object in the source image — which in turn stand out from the cover. Ideally, you want all of your major elements to read effortlessly at that 160-pixel square size.

Another thing about that tool, (which may mean that SOME of you (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Hoyt) may not be allowed to use it), is that it’s by Adobe. And integrates (or so I’m told) with Photoshop. I haven’t been able to figure out how, yet, but I’m told it’s possible.

But, it’s also an online tool, so isn’t locked into the Adobe apps. You can note the color values in RGB, HSV, CMYK, Hex, or LAB… and transfer them manually into whichever app you’re using. With practice, that’s actually not too bad. I use a similar technique for reading colors from Photoshop into CorelDRAW. Not because I really have to, but because, on an ad hoc basis, it’s fast, easy, and lightweight. Doesn’t take a lot of setup and effort to do. Sometimes the low tech way is best.

A Cover Story: Chapter 4 — The Pressures on a Commercial Artist

I originally set out to draft this post back in January. It wasn’t originally about book covers specifically or technically, but more about a general philosophy of commercial art that would support a certain set of notions about book cover design. I never could get to finishing it, so abandoned it. (A lot more work gets abandoned for lack of motivation or a sense of how to proceed than you might think. Call it a false start.) Since then, a lot has changed, and events have developed beyond it. And I’ve come back around to the concept of writing about cover design and want to include this in that wider project. However, rather than attempt to bring it into continuity with the rest of the saga, I leave it here as an intercalerary piece (thus the weekend post), and hope that the quirkiness of it is found charming rather than distracting.

AT LEAST, WHEN I SAT DOWN TO compose this post, that was the title that popped into my mind.

Sarah’s been after me… Well, no. Not really. She mentioned it once.

But, to have it even popped into mind among the other things she has going on in there (including a perfectly pellucid dream fable of totalitarianism and the subversive nature of art), it must be important. That is to say, there is a certain need for this, not that it matters to Sarah. The thing has to be important.

I’ve struggled for months with the ideas and strictures of lending my experience at the top levels of graphic design in service to the selling of creative product (that’s as specific as I can get without giving away my employer, who really doesn’t need to be associated with my far-out right wing extremist views). How do I do a workshop — or even a post — on the subject of book cover design. Yes, I’ve designed book covers. Just not New York City (said in the tobacco-juice-spitting accents of those Texas cowboys who love them some Pace picante salsa) published mass market stuff.

I’ve decided to focus on one aspect of the subject. I have to figure either you already know the rules of composition, perspective and proportion, line and mass, color and contrast, hue, and tint, and the language of symbols, and how to make attractive headline-type layouts or you don’t and I can’t teach you in 500 words, or even 5,000, so why try. Instead I’ll focus on one aspect of the subject — source imagery.

What is source imagery? Well, if you look at a book cover and strip away all the type — the author’s name, the title of the book, the publisher’s name, the price of the book, the marketing tag line, AND all the other graphics (including plain borders and large areas of solid color — what’s left is usually a picture, photograph, painting, illustration. That’s your source image. It’s what conveys the sense, mood, concept, and a little about the characters and even the plot. It is also what is going to attract the reader to your book. Your entire career is resting on this image. So you can understand why authors obsess so about covers. And they’re right to do so, even if they’re sometimes wrong in how they go about expressing their obsessions.

Abby Sciuto, the hyper-smart Goth forensic tech on NCIS puts it, “There’s no substitute for high-quality source imagery.” And it’s so true. I wince when people tell me they use free clip art and photos and do their layouts in Power Point. There is far more to getting good output than just throwing pretty pictures on a computer screen. A lot more.

In doing commercial package design — and that is what you’re doing — everything has to be perfect. Otherwise, your product label will look bush league and, even if the potential customer can’t articulate why she thinks so, she will be turned off your book. She may still buy it, but your chances of closing any individual sale just went down — by more than half. Trust me.

So, what do I mean by perfect? Oh, let me count the ways.

First, it has to look good. Then it has to suit your purpose, third the execution has to be clean, fourth it has to be tough… have heft… make you horny. And last, it has to work mechanically with the reproduction process.

That’s five. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

1. Look Good. Way too many book covers have art that looks terrible. It’s weak, lame, amateurish, unprofessional. These are all attributes that signal to the buyer, “This is a book which may disappoint you.” It may not, but, if the cover is poorly done — which is built on your source image — that’s a signal. A negative signal. That is, it can’t look like five-year-old painted it in those cheap-assed finger paint watercolors they let you use in grammar school. More than that, it has to look like a competent artist made the image — whether it’s a photograph or a painting or a drawing, or a comic, or whatever.

That’s not to say the technique can’t be rough — far from it. But there does have to be technique, even if it is rough. For example:

Back in the days of Punk, when such things were in fashion, I used to get photocopied imagery. The senders wanted us to emulate the cut paper, high-contrast photo, Xeroxed style of the punk rock promoters’ flyers — the things you used to see stapled up on telephone poles all over the place near colleges and hip business districts, advertising concerts and parties. And might still, for all this old fogy knows.

But the point was, the photocopied image was never the starting point, and what had to be done to the image to get it to look rough and cheap and tough and all that was long, protracted, and — need I say — expensive if you wanted to hire a pro to do it. As an amateur labor of love, it could be cheap, but amateurs can flake out on you at the worst possible moment. But trust me, those Clash and Sex Pistols album covers were done by pros working in pro studios and may have been cheaply produced compared to — oh, say — a Beatles cover (back cover, Abbey Road), but they were out of reach for your average garage band. Trust me. You can’t interface with a pro production establishment by submitting crap. It has to meet certain minimum standards or fixing it will cost more than it’s worth.

And, yes, crap has been published. But do you want to bet your career on it? No. Of course not. So: perfect, make it look good.

That’s not to say that all source imagery has to meet or surpass the standards of classical art or the renaissance mashups of it. This is not “Grandma Moses need not apply.” I’m not here to argue whether folk art is art.

Although it is interesting that when people want to parse things, they start with arbitrary taxonomies that make no objective sense. Why is Rembrandt not folk art? Was Rembrandt from another world? An alien from Arcturus Centauri A? Of course not. He was a people. Doesn’t that make him folk? What people who seek to divide “fine” art from “folk” art are expressing is a snobbishness about training versus talent. Me, I don’t give a shit about either. I’m concerned with discipline and production. I know a superbly trained and talented artist who, the last time I saw him, was selling fresh fish in a chain grocery. All the talent in the world (and he had it, trust me) availed him nothing. And, yes, the world is poorer for it. But… YOU have to put product on the metaphorical shelves, and it has to be done to certain standards.

But-tennyway… It can be the crudest, most primitive, objectively immature work in the world. If it’s well-executed, THAT is what counts.

2. Suit Purpose. As a book publisher, you have several requirements for your package label. It must

• Attract attention, either of a reader already familiar with your work who may be actually look for this particular title or of a reader browsing book listings (or an actual, physical shelf).
• Turn the reader on. There’s an attractant that may reside in the same place as sex — thus the notion “sex sells — whatever, but it certainly appeals to the same brain-side nervendings, whether it’s an image, a sound, a taste, a scent, or the mental stirrings that come when you read words or hear a radio drama.
• Finally, make the reader buy the book — turn him/her from a generic reader into your reader, at least in potential.

3. Clean Execution. Part of technique, of course, is execution. Any pro will have definite opinions on this, but… The execution of any project should be evident in the output. It should be clean, of course. It should flow smoothly from one element to another. It should fit properly into its frame. It should HAVE a frame — a frame of reference, which might not be apparent to the casual view, but to which all parts of the artistic unity refer.

And you’re going, “What the farg is he on about?”

Artistic unity is that all parts of the whole refer to one another, or to some external frame of reference, in a systematic, visual or philosophical way. If you plunk something down in a design, it has to relate to the whole, in scale, position, attitude, color — somehow — or it will look out of place. In The Door Into Summer, Heinlein wrote that you don’t put a propeller on a bathtub just because you have one handy. On the other hand, you might put one in a bathtub if you’re making a Jacuzzi. It’s all a matter of context and your frame of reference. The illustration you use as the source art for your book cover has to relate, not only visually to the rest of the design, but also conceptually to the content of your book.

That’s not to say that the busty redhead on the cover has to be a literal portrait of your female protagonist. But the visual cues — the symbolism included — have to make sense in the frame of reference of your book or you’ll get dinged for artistic fraud. At least.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard or read the same horror stories I have about how books were killed by covers that were commissioned by art directors who had not even read the executive summary of the book, let alone the whole manuscript. Those covers would be, therefore, the veriest definition of a lack of design unity, and were, also by definition, poorly executed. But I’d go further and guess that the vast majority of them were also badly-done. I know, I have seen examples of such and have thought them all to be shoddy work.

That relates to the cleanliness of execution in that the total work, as seen by an objective viewer, should appear to be well-made.

Ever seen a bad Photoshop job? What did you notice most about it? The edges. The seams. The stray pixels, the mis-matches in color, resolution, sharpness, perspective, lighting. Those are all earmarks of poor execution. The artist was in a hurry. Not attentive to detail. Too cheap to spend the time and effort to make a clean mask, to find photos that match up in the other matters. These things jump off the cover and smack the reader in the eyes, making him/her move on to the next book on the shelf. And the bad part? These things are emphasized, not hidden, by down-sampling or scaling an image. So tiny little details in your large-scale working image will, when the cover is shrunk down to a thumbnail, be exaggerated. You need to make sure, by properly executing your work flow (and testing your image at different sizes and resolutions) as well as making sure the image is well-formed.

So: technique, clean execution, suit purpose. What else? Well…

4. It has to have heft. Sorry, I don’t know how else to explain it. And, also sorry, this is something a lot of designers get wrong. The ones who get it right?

Aubrey Powell. Po. Does album covers. Based in London. Was, with Storm Thorgerson, half of Hipgnosis.

Hugh Syme. Does album covers. Based in Toronto. I’ve had the honor to work with Hugh and he is as brilliant as his work might let you think.

Michael Whelan. SFF fans will of course recognize Whelan for his work covering works by C.J. Cherryh, Heinlein, and myriad others.

A West. West’s hand-drawn mini-masterpieces enhanced album covers, posters, newspaper and magazine ads for such artists as Tom Petty, Billy Idol, and Fleetwood Mac. His Brass Ring Circus Studios was a fixture in southern California in the ’80s and ’90s. I’ve lost track of him since and miss his presence on the scene.

OK, you say, I’m not an artist of that caliber. Well, here’s news — neither am I. You don’t have to be to do a good design.. But you have to see what these guys (and others at their level) do in terms of shape, volume, composition — the language of form — in order to do your fakes and cheats to make the primary images on your book covers. You have to come up to that level in terms of the toughness and the sexiness of your images. Why? Because others will, and you’ll be competing with them for eyeballs and, eventually (as Heinlein put it ) their beer money. And, if you come up short, you’ll lose.

OK. Tough. Heft. What else.

5. Meet mechanical requirements. The image has to be, in addition to beautiful, clean, and well-made, properly built for its mechanical purpose. It has to display and print properly, or it won’t serve its purpose. It must be of the correct resolution, with the requisite bleeds included, of the right size and aspect ratio, and in the correct file format.

A Cover Story: Chapter 3 – Elements

Base Lips ImageANY DESIGN IS MADE UP OF ELEMENTS. What are elements? Well, there are Elements of Design and then there are the elements of a design. The first set refers to the overarching principles that inform good design — line, color, texture, space, and form. The second refers to the collection of — for lack of a better term — objects which make up a particular image. For our purposes, a book cover will have a source image or images, type copy, type faces, color, and composition. Except for the creation of a source image or of type, we will make little direct use of line. Color will be a big part of the tools we manipulate for our purposes, as will texture and form. And we will attempt to create space and form as we go.

But first, we must gather our elements and decide on a design.

My exemplar cover is a live project intended for the first novel in the Baby Troll Chronicles, Dolly Apocrypha, current working title Report from New Xenaland. That’s going to change, and will have to be pretty well settled before we proceed too much farther on the cover design, but it’s open at the moment.

And thereby may hang a tale. Because the direction take for the final sale title for the book will — should, must, ought to — influence the look of the cover package. Are the reasons for that clear? If they are not, post your questions in comments and we’ll discuss it. But for now, I’ll take them as both obvious and given.

As the story is a part of a larger series — indeed also as the anchor story for the first of three or four distinct series or story arcs featuring these same characters and this same built world — the covers for the entire series will have a unified look. I have a great deal of experience in this, as I use the concept daily — albeit in the service of a wholly other end — and I will be able to pass along some of the tricks and techniques I and my teammates use to this end. More on this later.

I will have to emplace three marketing tags in addition to the book title and my name on the cover, which implies that I’ll have to be most clever with the arrangement of the type to get all that in and still keep it readable, both close up and life-sized an reduced and down-rezzed to thumbnail for Amazon et al.

Also, as I do not have the time (or, to be honest, the skill set) to produce figurative illustrations of people or scenes, the tack we’ll be taking will involve abstracts, symbols, and found objects to denote (and connote) our themes. This implies that we must consider how to tie the look of all the series’ covers together and still differentiate them from one another. As I say: more, later. So. The elements:

  • Source illustration
  • Background texture
  • Colophon (publisher’s logo)
  • Volume indicator
  • Title
  • Marketing tag One: “The Baby Troll Chronicles”
  • Marketing tag Two: “Book One of the Dolly Apocrypha”
  • Marketing tag Three: “Something clever and enigmatic Dolly says in dialog.”
  • Front cover blurb:”Something nice somebody you’d know says about the book or me or Dolly.”
  • Back cover blurb: “In 1996, the Goddess Aphrodite cast the soul of her servant, Gabrielle Francesca East, into a 12-inch plastic Xena: Warrior Princess action figure. A dolly. On Valentine’s Day in 1998, Aphrodite arranged for the soul to be transfered into a human body. These are the adventures of that dolly. For fifteen years, the world has eagerly awaited the arrival of the final versions of Dolly’s stories. This is the first volume. The wait is over.”

I’m not holding my copy up as an example of The Way, The Truth, and The Light. Along my way, I will be running these by real pros in the field and listening to what they have to say about them, adjusting accordingly. But I know those elements need to be there for my cover to look — to be — professional. So I’m putting in placeholders to be altered as required down the road. This will complicate the production of the cover art, but it’s necessary they be there, so we accept the complications as part of the process.

There will also be a set of elements which the printer will require. At least one will be the bar code, which will probably subsume an ISBN. (What? You’re not buying an ISBN? Are you serious? Or are you just playing around? Go. Buy at least one, ten if you can afford them.)

Here’s why. First, if you don’t buy ISBNs for your titles, your books don’t exist. Don’t complain to me; I didn’t design the system. Yes, there are myriad other identifiers. Yes, “they” (that ever-present and amorphous “they”) say that the ISBN is going away. All that may be true. But, now, here, in the real world, the ISBN is the number that everybody uses to identify a book. Even Amazon does, though it’s not their preferred identifier. Bowker charges $125 for the first one, but will sell you the next nine for $13.89 each (rounded up). If you find it hard to turn loose of that as an investment in your business, fine. Cut your own throat. You can get “free” ISBNs issued by some channels — CreateSpace and Smashwords both offer free or discounted ISBNs. Read the fine print carefully to see whether these services suit you. But DO NOT attempt to publish a book without an ISBN altogether.

And the point for the purposes of this discussion is that you need to make provisions for the ISBN and bar code in your design. The Create Space template includes requirements for it. They will place it on the cover, and I recommend you go with the flow on this. They’ll encode the number, and decide whether to print the human-readable alpha imprint in black over your art, or knock it out to white. Just leave room for it and be aware it will be there.

Now, let’s start looking at the elements in more detail.

1. Source Illustration: The illustration needs to tease the story without giving anything away. No spoilers. It does not need to be a literal portrayal of persons, places, or events in the story. But readers may refer to the cover illustration while they’re reading, and if there is a dissonance, you’ll hear about it. I don’t have a completed illustration — don’t even have a rough sketch, yet — so we’ll be hand-waving for a little bit. Possibly by Chapter 5, we’ll be working with the actual image(s). For now, let’s talk about the overall concept.

The story takes place in Auckland, New Zealand and its northern suburbs — in particular the Rodney District and Snell’s Beach area. The setting does not serve as much but a ground for action to take place. Auckland does have significance to the overall saga, but never figures as a character in the story in the way that New York does in the Nero Wolfe stories or London in Sherlock Holmes. However, there are themes and tropes in the novel that ground the story and we will use some of them visually. These elements will also help down the line to identify this particular book among its litter mates, when there are more of them on shelves actual and virtual. Among those will be the silhouette of a certain species of palm, not native to the city, but nevertheless a familiar in its public spaces.

Finally, a good deal of the character development hangs on events sexual in nature, and I will be looking for a way to portray certain — erm — climactic scenes in the abstract, using symbols and objects to hint at what is a good deal more explicit in the text. The ideal I’ll be striving for is represented by the image at the top. (You can click on any of the images in this article to see it full-size.) However, that particular pic is not suitable for several reasons:

  • First, it’s not mine. I don’t own the copyright on it. And court cases on the subject have made it clear that derivatives of images must be unrecognizable as such to not infringe.
  • Second, it’s from the wrong angle. It’s a full profile, whereas I want something that’s turned toward the viewer at least a quarter.
  • Finally, it’s — subtly — the wrong expression. I want something more like the images shown in the screen grab of my image directory below.

There are several other factors mitigating against direct use of this image, but others that make me want to use it as a base, not least being I want to use it as a reference for the texture, detail, and gloss on the lips. All three may go away, depending on what I do about the style of the illustration, but they start out in the mix for the moment.

But back to the cover source image. Right now, the only element in-hand or very far along at all is the lips. The rest will come along as I go. And, for future discussions, I will consider the background texture as a part of the source illustration, although I will be breaking it apart from this particular cover and re-using it on others in the series.

3. Colophon Really? Why? Well… Same as with the ISBN. You are going to turn potential buyers away if you make your book inaccessible. Many distributors and retailers will not carry self-published books. That prejudice is slowly going away, but it does still exist. There’s no point in poking it with a stick. There is also the possibility that, without at least the appearance of a discrete publisher — as separate from the author — you’re going to scare off some readers. You face enough friction slowing down potential sales. There’s NO point in adding to it if you can easily eliminate it. Publishing under your own imprint is one way to do that. And a solid anchor for taking advantage of the practice is to include a publisher’s logo in your cover design. My imprint is Dreamflower Works. I have the domain name and everything (although the web site is embryonic at the moment). The logo image is a morning glory blossom in a frame with the imprint slug under the flower.

scr adobe bridge 130318The image to the right (and the similar one below) are screen grabs from Adobe Bridge. I have arranged and configured the display in each case for my illustrative purposes in making the grabs. There is a great deal more possible with the application than meets the eye here.

The creation process in making the logo can be divined from these grabs. I wanted originally to make a Mucha-esque corner spray of three blossoms, some leaves, and vines. But, short on time, I decided to simplify the thing, (always a good approach to improving a design). So I drew as my text, the tattoo flash of a single morning glory blossom (second row, second from left in the screen grab), and used as my guide for drawing the blossom the photo of the white flower, (fourth row, farthest right). I did the drawing in CorelDRAW!. It took, perhaps, an hour. Then I threw together the logo badge. I have always liked the typeface. It’s called Arnold Boecklein, or, in some font kits, Arabia. Boomer fans of the band Yes might recognize it from heavy use by the album cover artist, Roger Dean. The rest of the design stems from a desire to make something tough looking that will read well small. I intend to make a line version of the flower for use in print versions of the book as a scene and chapter break “dingbat”.

And I observe from my previews, that we’re running a bit long. Plus: I promised this post much earlier today, though I doubt there are more than a handful of you out there waiting with ‘bated breath for my words of wisdom. And, it’s past time for dinner, so I have to go. Chapter 4 is already in the queue and will appear tomorrow morning.


scr_adobe_bridge_2_130323A side note, here. I love Adobe Bridge. And if you need a reason to buy Creative Suite, this app is one. I understand that some of the features I really like in it are not available in earlier versions, so keep in mind I’m describing the version with CS6 (or later). I’m finding it a bonzer production tool. It has just enough cross-platform and inter-application heterogeneousness to make it useful to someone who uses apps by other publishers, but is powerful and flexible enough if you just use CS. (Or the other apps, but you wouldn’t have it if you weren’t using CS.) There have been many attempts to provide this kind of function before, but they have all failed in trying to control too much of the user’s experience, instead of simply sitting there and let the USER decide how to use it. What it provides is a combination of search, archiving, production process control, app- and task-switching, and visual access to all of the collateral an artist will use in regular production. I find I can tunnel across the network to other machines and snatch up content from alien drives and archives as easily as though it were on my desktop. Claims have been made of this before, but, in my experience, most have fallen short of the ideal. Adobe seems to have hit a home run, here.

A Cover Story: Chapter 2

I SAID IN THE PREVIOUS chapter that I would challenge some accepted conventional wisdom on this topic. Let me start out by attacking two seemingly contradictory shibboleths all at one fell swoop.

One: you can do this. It’s not rocket science. You don’t have to be a professional to do it. But: B, professionalism does count. It doesn’t take any special talent (although talent helps), but it does take discipline.

People will either tell you that you can’t do it — hire a pro — or they’ll tell you that you can, and the concerns that pros voice on the subject don’t matter. They’re just silly gatekeeper notions that can be swept away because the person speaking said so.

Juxtaposed like that, you should be able to see the risible idiocy in both contentions. So, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t do this, but I am going to tell you that you need to trim your expectations as to the potential results. And, in aid of that, here’s a dirty little secret about professional, commercial artists:

We don’t all draw.

Oh, we can. It’s kind of like what Heinlein’s Johnny Rico learned about K9 dog handlers in Starship Troopers: if you’re not enough of a dog-lover to sneak one past your mom, you’re probably not cut out to be a K9 handler. That applies here: if you’re not an art geek — drawing pictures and doodles, making images, shooting photos, working WAY outside your comfort zone every waking minute of the day, you’re probably not going to find the field comfortable. While you may find it frustrating that you don’t get to use your skill with a pen or pencil (or, in this day and age, a stylus) every day, you do keep your chops up.

But you don’t get to use them all the time, simply because, unless you’re a cartooning savant, it simply takes too long. And time is money. My time is worth up to $300 an hour. I don’t get to waste it noodling around with a pencil. So I learned — a long, long time ago — how to cheat. Yes, you do trace. Yes, you do use Photoshop. Yes, you do steal images. And you learn how to both file the serial numbers off, but also how to take those stolen images and make them your own. (The two not being utterly unrelated.)

One of my artistic heroes, Michelangelo, famously asserted that one cannot call himself an artist if he cannot draw. That is, if he cannot accurately reproduce what he sees before him, or in his mind’s eye, in — at minimum — the basic level of a marking medium on a loose sheet substrate. BUT… that is not to say that one cannot use mechanical aids. Yes, a steady hand is an asset. But it is not a sine qua non. In fact, it is one of the grand gifts to the world of art from the explosion of personal computing technology that computers provide mechanical aids to drawing which permit someone with less-than-brilliant eye-hand coordination to nonetheless produce nearly-perfect drawings with remarkably little skill, talent, or training.

(But not, it should be added with haste, none.)

So, imagine what you can do WITH those things. And a computer. And a set of software tools at a high level of quality and ease of use.

Back when I was in junior high school (what they call middle school these days), I played in the marching band. One day, our instructor went up in front of the class with a beautiful horn in his hand. It was a Getzen trumpet — worlds away better than the Bundy horns we were playing. It looked like that snowy dove, trooping with crows, that Shakespeare talked about. It sounded like the voice of angels. And it was easy to play. It practically blew itself. It also cost. Even back then, Getzen trumpets sold new in four figures. By the Candy Bar Rule, that means that a $2,500 trumpet in 1967 would be worth $25,000 today. Or more. Herb Alpert played one. And a whole raft of others did, too. For me, it was the first name-brand instrument I learned to recognize not only on sight, but by sound.

Yes. With years of practice, one might be able to approximate the beauty of the music that came out of that thing with a cheap-assed hunk of brass and tin. And, in the hands of a virtuoso pro, our dented rentals could sing like those angels. But the tool was and remains ineffably superior, and there was and is a very good reason why top pros choose it.

Back in the days of the 486 computer, when Photoshop was in version 2 and Illustrator was in 4 or 5 and CorelDRAW! somewhere between versions 2 and 5, I used to say that the best that’s out there was barely adequate to our task. That’s changed in the years since, but, even so, pros are always pushing the outside of the envelope. And it takes a long time for the results of those pushes to trickle down to the open source level. And you’re beginning to see where I’ve been headed. Tools. While it’s a poor workman who blames his tools for bad work or failure, the quality of your tools will be reflected in your work — at the very least in how easily you can get it done.

People will tell you (I’m looking at YOU, Dean Wesley Smith) that you can do acceptable cover art in PowerPoint. I’m here to tell you that he’s full of it. He got away with it, but if you saw some of his early efforts — before he and Kris hired a real artist to do their covers — you’d shudder like I did. I will tell you this: here where I work, we WILL NOT accept as ready for production ANY image prepared in ANY application in the Microsoft Office suite — and that includes MS Publisher. And, if work is submitted in one of the formats, we’ll charge at our confiscatory hourly rates to translate it into a format that actually — you know — provides salable output. This is not an unreasoning prejudice (like I used to joke I had against Aldus apps). It is a hard-earned wisdom gained over years of struggling to get those applications to cooperate with professional level output devices and the tool sets associated with them. Things have, as I say, improved since, but there still is a long-established work flow to getting marks on paper, and Microsoft seems to think they know better than a global industry which goes back to Gutenberg and knows a thing or two about the art and science of it. And you learn — the hard way — that using the wrong tool for the job is a waste of time and money. And, at these hourly rates, that’s a real big waste.

A lot of people — usually salesmen — will hand-wave all that away, saying in essence, “If I can’t see the difference, I’m going with the low-cost way, no matter what.” And this is where I started this column: you don’t have to be a pro, but you do have to exhibit the pro wisdom, or pros will come along and eat your lunch. Because, you see, you have to remember that you are not a stand-alone phenomenon. Your cover does not exist in splendid isolation. It has to elbow its way to a potential reader’s center of attention throw a virtual Rodney King riot of competing covers. It has approximately a tenth of a nanosecond to do it in. And it has to NOT send any subtle, nearly subliminal, negative cues to observers during its instant in the spotlight.

What does this mean to you — the non-pro, who doesn’t have the time or inclination to become a pro, just to make a few book covers? Simple: be aware that there are pros — and non-pros willing to put forth the effort — against whose your cover will be competing. If you’re not willing to put forth the effort to learn these basic principles, which I am attempting in my own, poor way to exposit here, do not come crying to me about how tough the competitions is. Talk to the hand.

And here’s a final bit of wisdom for you to think about, and to tease you until next time: details matter.

With regard to tools… You can get away with using a vastly underpowered tool set for a while. However, if you’re going to be doing this for a living (by which I mean design your own book covers for publication and sale) (and if you’re not, hire a pro), you will eventually have to invest in doing-it-for-a-living level tools.

So, yes. Investigate and learn how to use GIMP, Inkscape, Xara, and the rest of the free and cheap applications. For one, the greater variety of tools you can use, the wider your perspective becomes, and the greater your facility with all of them. BUT… plan to invest. My recommendation, if you’re not able to turn loose of the admittedly significant bolus of cash for Adobe Creative Suite, is that you look into CorelDRAW!. Yes, it’s PC-only. But the Corel Graphics Suite includes both the (in my opinion) best vector drawing tool out there, and a powerful, top-end bitmap editor, and the ONLY bitmap-to-vector tracing tool still on the market. Plus, as I have noted elsewhere, Corel’s PostScript output is far superior to Adobe’s own. However, you will eventually have to invest at least in Photoshop, even if you don’t get the rest of CS. So start planning for it now. Save your pocket change, if you have to. But don’t put it off too long.

There’s a rule in business. In broad general it goes like this: if you spend more by farming work out than you would obtaining the ability in-house, bring it in house. We bought our first imagesetter (a 6-figure investment) when we were spending more every month with a service bureau than the cost of the machine lease payment and the consumables. Since we were charging back the rates the service bureau was charging us, those fees went straight to our bottom line. The same will apply to you. When you are spending more per cover on outside art than the tools and training would cost you, and you have the ability to do the work (and the time, but that’s a different discussion), then it’s time to take the plunge.

But, possibly, not before.

A Cover Story: Chapter 1

I’VE BEEN MEANING TO WORK this series up for some time. I don’t ordinarily get all didactic on my readers…

Yeah, right.





Very mature.

And the horse you rode in on.

Andy way. I think I might have some cogent and salient points to make, here — something of value and worthy of note to add to the conversation on the subject of book cover design.

And, in order to explain, let me tell you a bit about my credentials.

First: what I can’t tell you. I cannot tell you the name of the company I work for. Or the industry in which I labor. Nor the names of any of my clients (although you would recognize them all). I can’t even describe the products I design, because they are unique in the world and, in that venue, I am too well-known. And (here’s the kicker), the field in which I till is so deep in the fever swamps of leftism, so set about with so-called — scorn quotes — “political correctness” that you cannot see the shore from here, and very few people in the business are even allowed independent thought, let alone capable of it.

Now, for myself, I wouldn’t care. If I did, you wouldn’t know squat about my political or economic or social positions. I’m that practiced at keeping them to myself. But my employer would rather not fight the battles (not to mention that one owner is a Republican, the other a Democrat), and I see no moral case for imposing myself on them. Really, morally, politics and religion have no place in business, and it’s only due to the importunate Left that they have been intruded where they are unwelcome. But that, too, is another fight nobody here wants.

So: what can I tell you? OK. What’s relevant, here. I have been in this field for 30-plus years — a career in other words. The field where I till is global in scope, high-profile, and inhabited by a highly-educated, well-to-do, demanding clientele, impatient of incompetence and imperfection in goods or services. In short, it’s a truly Darwinian field, where the weak, the stupid, the clumsy, and the lazy do not survive. It also is highly dependent on graphics, and its practitioners, by en large, are literate in the jargon and symbolism of the visual arts. They know good art when they see it. And, yet, they are not unwilling to be innovative, albeit with a strange and quirky conservatism — even in their transgression. As Wilde put it, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

Personally, I have little formal training in the graphic arts. My education in the field consists mainly of tutelage by excellent teachers in public schools, and a fair grounding (garnered at home, by the way) in aesthetics and art history. I have, however, always had a deep and abiding interest in making pretty pictures. I have always taken pencil and paper and drawn on my imagination. In high school, I took up photography — including darkroom work — and gained skills to be considered a serious amateur. Even did some work at a pro level, although I found the business aspects of it unpleasant and so failed in the enterprise.

At that time, I thought my main career thrust would be in show business. I was on the stage crew at school and intended to work in legitimate theater (think: Broadway) as a lighting technician. But it was not to be. The why is not relevant to this story. Suffice it to say that, in my mid-twenties, I found myself working in the offices of a failing entertainment venue and looking around for the next step. And my boss took me along on his own leap into … this company. The one I still work for. It was, in the main, a printing company. And I began an intense apprenticeship in all matters related to getting ink marks on paper. If you are familiar with the apprenticeships of Michelangelo or Rembrandt, you might get some notion of what I underwent by the age of thirty. I cut paper, ran machinery from slitters and round-cornerers to cameras and presses. I set type, did pasteup, shot and stripped film, burned plates, engineered jobs, and eventually ended up running the shop — all the while also serving as the customer service rep to this industrial segment where the company had hit on its particular specialization.

In my early thirties, I had as my clients ninety percent of the top figures in that industry segment. And, due to the vagaries of the business, was essentially also serving as designer and/or art director for their projects. By 1990, I could accurately claim to design 90% of what the global industry used from our product line (and those of our few competitors). I was (and remain), in short, a world-class designer in a big-money field.

In the ’90s, the spread of microcomputers through the graphic arts industry accelerated. The Mac was introduced in 1984. By 1990, it ruled the roost and PC makers were beginning to take notice. And Microsoft introduced Windows 3. And the company for which I work began an intensive drive to computerize all of our graphics operations. I took to it like a duckling to water. By 1992, I was a sysop on the Corel and Adobe forums on CompuServe and becoming a recognized expert in the desktop publishing field, writing regular articles in tech journals on the various aspects of the use of software published by both companies, a state of affairs that lasted until the Clinton administration popped the tech bubble by its persecution of Microsoft in 2000.

So, now you know why you should pay attention to me. We will mention it no more. Don’t take this as an appeal to authority, merely an argument as to why I’m not wasting your time or squandering your attention. And by now, some of you whom I have not told will have figured out who I am, and I will stop dropping more clues. From here forward, judge the value of what I write on its own merits.

What I’m proposing to do here is to offer some insight into the processes of getting artwork on paper, and some verities of design that appear to have gotten lost in the mix. I am going to burst a lot of bubbles, and speak counter to wisdom conventional and not-so-. The next installment will begin my perorations. And, while it will not become immediately relevant, I propose to take as my text the requirements for getting a cover done by CreateSpace, so, as a prerequisite of sorts, you might hie yourself there and at minimum obtain their cover template and instructions. And, you could probably do worse than signing up and getting yourself an account there while you’re at it.

I’m not entirely sure how fast I’ll be able to turn these columns. They take a good deal more effort than mere political bloviating, and so might come at rarer frequency, but I will attempt to keep them coming at least once a week. Watch this space.