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Crappy Cover Photographs are not Cover Art

I’m on a very short high horse here. I don’t think any of my covers are works of genius. I do think they are good and in some cases great, but none are truly awesome.

I don’t like when works of fiction use photographs as cover art.

I think it’s lazy and cheap. It lowers my hopes of the work being well written.

Fiction covers should be works of art such as paintings and not stock photography. That’s not to say photography is not art. Photography is an art form and there are artists whose medium is photography and these artists create art through selective angles, lighting and subject matter and often Photoshop. Very few photographs can create a feel that a work of fiction is going to be good fiction. For the sake of simplicity, when I mention art from here out, I am talking about drawings and paintings, be they physical or digital.

Photographs have a lot of detail. Our eyes notice the detail. I think this is not the idea of a book cover. A book cover should convey a short, simple message about the book. Art, no matter how detailed, does not have the level of detail of a photograph. A painting will always convey something of the artist’s perception of the subject matter in the way it focuses on some details to the omission of others.

The worst part of using photographs for cover art is that the pictures are so often just stock photographs taken from Flickr. They are not even designed to be that book’s cover. Sometimes the author actually uses some Photoshop to focus the photograph. Usually, they just extract the people from the background and paste them over some other blurred photograph. I see quite a few of these in an author promotion group I joined. The author promotion page sounded like a good idea until I really thought about it. As near as I can tell everyone on that page is an author and no one is actually reading the books the other authors are promoting.

Nine out of ten of the covers of these books are lazy photograph repurposing junk.

There are ways to use a photograph as a book cover. The first thing a fiction cover needs of a photograph including people is a clear view of a character’s eyes. People stop to notice eyes. Actually every animal will stop to notice eyes. It’s instinct. Of course, the independent authors, no matter how talented they are in story craft, are rarely good at selecting photographs as covers. Since romance/erotica is so popular these days, most of the pictures show a man, either shirtless or with a loose shirt, embracing a woman whose clothes are falling to the wind. Often they are kissing.

This is not a good way to sell a book. We are raised to be embarrassed by other people’s acts of affection. We have an ingrained behavior to look away. A voyeuristic person will then look back, usually out of the corner of their eye, but most of us won’t. And those that look back will then spend too much time examining picture on the cover.

And that stock photography is generic. It’s not made to be the cover of that book and often its painfully obvious. I swear one trilogy I saw was the same stock photograph flipped with one of the books featuring someone pasted in front of the old picture. Photoshop is remarkably easy to use and so hard to use well. Ask my wife who thinks I’m a Photoshop expert. I’m not. I just understand how to manipulate color.

My high horse is short because of the cover I use for ‘Of Maia’s Mist’. That is a photograph I purchased the rights to from a photographer. It replaced a hand-drawn colored pencil sketch I had drawn myself. That photograph was a submission for that call for art because the photographer thought the picture would represent the character of a ‘nature girl’ well and it does.

Every other book cover I have out there right now is computer generated art made by me. The cover for Sheillene is the laziest of those since I clearly use a 3D character animation program and the background is a stock painting. But every other cover is exactly what it should be. Ok, so ‘The Nightstone’ cover kind of sucks, but the book kind of sucks so it’s a good cover for that book. The book is only published to give a little more history to the world in ‘Of Maia’s Mist’ which does not suck.

The vampire trilogy covers are also computer generated. ‘Second Blood’s cover was a digital painting using a stock photo model. The other two books from that series are heavily Photoshopped lips generated by the same 3d Character animation program I used for Sheillene. As simple as they look, the cover for ‘Blood Huntress’ took four or five hours and the cover for ‘Blood Reprisal’ took me over twelve hours. Most of that time was working with a digital paintbrush to adjust the colors and clean up some of the shapes. Still, the covers tell you what to expect from the book. Book One is a vampire feeling alone in a new world. Book two has her identifying her relationships with others. Book three has her in a struggle against an “angel”. Spoiler, those are air quotes too.

But that’s just my covers. I am also writing a role playing game manual. The expectation of the potential audience for that book is one work of art for every other page. The book is a hundred and fifty pages long. I spent most of the last two years finding and commissioning art for that book. It took a huge investment in time and a bit of an investment in money. I use a lot of stock art because I don’t have a budget. I did collect about a hundred works of art and used just over half of those because I found a place to marry them to in the book. A few of the works were commissioned for specific pages. I still had to resort to doing a few drawings myself.

Painting and drawings only look simpler than photographs. Any of the three, when done by an artist, will convey a complex message most of us won’t be able to put into words. And the people that can put them into words are just being pretentious. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but that’s an understatement. The trick with a book cover is to have the cover art represent the book. To do that, it should be created for the book. There are good photographs out there that make excellent covers, even for fiction. These cannot be found in stock piles. They must be commissioned to be for that book. It’s so obvious when they are. The thing is, a good commissioned photograph isn’t any cheaper than a good hand or computer drawn/painted cover. Low end professional cover art costs $300-$500. My budget means I have to hire amateurs. Good Amateurs are hard to find. Chances are, if they are really good, they go pro.

Anyone looking for a great amateur cover artist should look up Gabrielle Ragusi on Deviantart.com. She didn’t break my bank for the work I commissioned from her for that role playing manual. No, deviant art is not about deviant art. It’s just an art (all kinds from painting to photographs to handcrafts) website. I have a page there, too. My “art” needs the air quotes.

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