William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Evolution of a Killer Cover

I'm a firm believer in paying for professional services. My CPA costs several hundred dollars per year, but he's got decades of experience and knows how to trim thousands of dollars off of my family's tax bill every year (legally!) in ways that I couldn't hope to grasp. When you need legal representation, you don't try to muddle your way through a court case; you hire an attorney. Almost invariably, good professionals will return several times over the cost you paid for their services. This begs the question of why I've been so slow to take my own advice when it comes to publishing ebooks. Judge for yourself if I've made a smart move...

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When you sell a novel to a traditional publisher, the publisher typically takes responsibility for producing cover artwork. But when you're a small, independent publisher of your own material, you often start out with no budget for artwork and no prayer of generating enough revenue to have such a budget. As a result, the fledgling self-publisher does the best he or she can manage for virtually free. The trouble is that the results generally look free. Since we all inevitably judge books (and also short stories since we're talking about ebooks) by their covers, this does not bode well for sales and success.

A little over a year ago, I released my first ebook title, a poetry collection titled Rough Crossing. The photograph was donated by a friend, the ridiculously talented pro photographer Gary Wilson.

As you can see, it's not much of a cover. I have very little experience in graphical design, and it shows. The photograph itself is outstanding, but as a book cover this image fails almost completely. The text is illegible when the image is seen at thumbnail size -- which is how people will see it 90% of the time on ebook retail sites -- and all of those steel beams look like a tangled mess. Now, I know that nobody reads poetry, plus I'm giving the book away for free through Smashwords, so I don't lose much sleep over this early experiment.

Fast forward one year. I've now released a free collection of technology essays, two ebooks of fascinating "celebrity" interviews, and a short but sweet horror tale called "The Sound of Autumn Night." In each case, I've done the covers myself. For the short story, I bought two images from a royalty-free photo service. The total cost to me was $10 or $12 and an hour or two of Photoshop time. You'll probably agree that the cover's appearance matches its cost.

Heading into 2012, I've set myself a much more aggressive self-publishing schedule. First up on my to-do list is a short story I've been working on since last spring, a Civil War-era zombie story called "The Followers." Now that I'm into the home stretch on revisions and preparing to publish, I had to make a decision about the cover art: go big or go home? I've done the home thing up until now, and the results have been...well, they could be better. Ready or not, I think it's time to take my game up a notch.

One of my magazine editors volunteered to help on the story editing, and his input has, I believe, helped to improve the tale considerably. More to the point, though, his wife, Andria Cogley, is a design professional. We worked out a deal that my budding budget could manage, and I sent off an initial cover concept based on two royalty-free images pulled from iStockphoto.

Because cannons figure prominently in the story's battle scene, I thought that having a cannon on the cover would be pertinent to the content and convey the Civil War setting. As for the zonbi (an older alternate spelling that I use in the piece), I knew there was no way I could portray my key monster as I'd described her, bound and gagged on the floor of a tent. The makeup, modeling, photography, and time are far beyond my capabilities at this point. So I wondered about the one key standout characteristic of my creature and decided it was her eyes. With that, I was able to locate a piece of photography that could serve. I threw together the image you see here and sent it to Andria.

She requested a little time to sketch something out, and I expected a doodle, like something you'd do with a Sharpie pen and a cocktail napkin. This is what came back to me a couple of days later:

I was stunned. An electric thrill went through me the moment I first opened the image. I suppose that feeling you hear about when authors receive their very first copies of their first book in the mail might be more intense or fulfilling, but I'll tell you what. Every time I looked at this image, I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. Still, I knew it was a first pass. I replied back, noting my amazement as well as a couple of criticisms. One, I wanted the title to be bigger. I'd learned my lesson about readability at thumbnail sizes. Second, I thought the eyes were too sexy. The zonbi needed to be roughed up a bit. She was decaying, after all. My wife commented that she looked like a green version of the Na'vi chick from Avatar.

That was when my editor friend replied that his wife, Andria, had done the photography herself -- from a self-portrait. Ah. Awkward.

A few hours later, this revision came back. So much better! I confirmed that the text was indeed legible at the tiny size Smashwords shows for search results. I loved the scar running down the left eye (our left, not the zonbi's). But in doing the texturing, I felt the left eye had become oddly darker than the right. There was also a gap in the right eyebrow that had mysteriously crept in. Speaking of which, I commented that those were some very well-maintained eyebrows and lashes for a a Civil War-era corpse.

Andria did another version, lightening the left eye and patching the right brow. However, I now felt that the scar running down the eye looked too pale, making it look more like a Photoshop effect than a wound. Quickly and without complaint (at least that I could hear from 2,000 miles away), Andria issued a fourth revision, and I couldn't be happier.

I made this the background image for my triple-display Windows desktop. I still get a thrill every time I see it, and the constant reminder keeps my mind churning on what should be the final text revision now in progress. Hopefully, you agree with me that this is a kickass cover, and now I feel even more pressure to make sure that the story itself lives up to the incredible artwork.

The moral of the story, of course, is that it really is worth the money to use professional services, especially when you're trying to build a business. I'll be extremely curious to try and assess what impact the cover image has on sales over the coming months.


  1. Check this out too..... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSGnxsUhYF8

  2. Wow. And I thought *writing* the story was a ton of work!