The original book covers I did for Road Rules and (when it was available) “A Walk in the Rain” were, to put it mildly, horrible. Actually, the first Road Rules cover wasn’t too bad, but blindingly red. The Nick Keplers all had either photographs of the sky that I either shot myself or bought off a photo site. The skyline came from Erin O’Brien as a favor. The second Road Rules cover looked better, but not great. It pixelated badly, though I liked the layout until I realized I left JD Rhoades name off the cover. (He wrote the intro.)
When it came time to release Bad Religion. I was absolutely stuck coming up with an idea. Then I learned the broke indie author’s best friend: Barter. So, in exchange for a thorough beta (bordering on a full edit, I suspect), Li’l Sis stepped in. After some brain storming, we came up with the idea of a “keyhole” image, a transparent silhouette made over a shot of the skyline. We tried Erin’s photo, which worked quite well for the ebook editions, but, because it came from a cellphone, did not work for CreateSpace. (I suspect the same goes for covers from Lightning Source and Spark.) So I bought a new shot of the skyline that became part of the Kepler series’ new signature look: Transparent silhouette over the Cleveland skyline, over a subtly patterned background, and the title in a “shattered glass” font. In the meantime, I found some Cadillac images and a photograph of the Little Miami Bike Trail that I took and combined them into a new Road Rules cover. I should have spent the extra $5 on the Caddie as CreateSpace warned of pixelation again. (It turned out OK and didn’t hurt the cover at all.) By then, I was starting to understand the arcane art of making a book cover. For The Compleat Kepler, a collection, Jen took black silhouette of a man with a gun and placed it over the Cleveland skyline, which became the background. It sort of looks like the Kepler series, but separate from it. The fonts all remain the same.
So now I got it, but I also realized that Corel’s PaintShop Pro wasn’t cutting it for me. It doesn’t have the control over the image that Photoshop has. It does, however, have a price tag that’s a fraction of Photoshop’s. For $45, you can have a decent graphics program to manipulate to your little heart’s content. The trouble is that there’s little documentation about PaintShop Pro. It’s not that popular, and not as many people love it the way they love Photoshop. What people do love is GIMP, or GNU Image Manipulation Program, which is an open-source alternative to Photoshop.
And it’s almost as powerful. Plus, I don’t need a course in GIMP. (They don’t teach them anyway.) There are plenty of places on the Internet, including YouTube videos, to show you how to do things. And you have to relearn anyway. Some of GIMP’s basic functions are not as intuitive as Photoshop or PaintShopPro. But then you really should learn a graphics program before diving in head first anyway. So I had to learn, from scratch, how to make things transparent, manipulate layers, save files (GIMP exports to jpeg or png, not “Save As” like most Windows and Mac programs), insert components into pictures, and resize objects. If the instructions refer to something not in your version of GIMP, put the version number into your Google search and boom! It’s powerful, fast, and, best of all, free.
But having a good graphics program is not enough. I’ve seen web designer after web designer point out that they’re “not some kid with a pirated copy of Photoshop working on their parents’ Windows 95 machine.” No, you have to apply some graphics principles to what you’re doing. I am not a graphic artist. Someday, I may be a decent photographer, but even that is not enough. It’s one of the reasons Li’l Sis did the Kepler covers. She started out as a graphic designer before becoming a an evil code monkey like me. But what’s a graphically challenged independent author supposed to do when he doesn’t have a spare $300 lying around?
“Hey, stupid. You’re a writer. You research things. Go do some research.”
That’s right. Once again, Google’s your buddy. I searched for some basic design principles to guide me. I’m no expert, and the sample of the partially completed cover for the upcoming The Compleat Winter (Watermarks left in since I haven’t bought the source photography yet) is not something I’d pay someone else to do for me. But it’s getting there. I need to play with fonts and font effects now. But so far, it’s shaping up nicely. I started with the streetscape and almost pestered author Toni McGee Causey to use one she posted to Facebook recently. (Almost. I like Toni, and would like the feeling to stay mutual.) I went with the iStockPhoto background you see here. It didn’t “pop,” which is what covers need to do, so I found this lurid picture of a woman with a knife (also at iStockPhoto) and placed her over the streetscape. Since the streetscape is partially obscured, it’s not really clear why she’s where she is with a bloody knife, but I like it now. The fade-out effects on the cover were a terrific discovery in GIMP, and it opens up all sorts of possibilities. However, it also took me about five hours to get the cover to just what you see here (plus the background, which I don’t have in a standard image file yet). Clearly it’s not done yet. And when I buy the photos, I have to do it all over again. The blatant piracy you see to the left was done just to see if it all works.
Covers are something I probably won’t do for money in the near future. As I said, I’m not a graphic artist. But I have other skills I can barter for edits, covers, etc. With technology and the programs out there, money should not be a barrier to entry for the indie author, only ingenuity, talent, and networking. Those I can’t help you with.