Stories, I always thought, were pictures that somehow slipped past your eyes and made it into your mind unfiltered. Now I’m interpreting for reading classes in a high school (for students who for one reason or another are not fluent English readers). I hear, and interpret, the teacher telling the kids to imagine what the words are saying. “Let the words make pictures in your mind,” she tells them. How perfect is that?
On the other side of things, as I head toward my own first publication, I’m looking into the need for cover art. I need a picture that will tell people just enough about the story so that they will be interested, but not be a spoiler. I’ve had to tell my cover artist all about the story and what I think the characters look like. What do I want the picture to say, and what do I want it to NOT say? Such hard thoughts, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the differences between my thoughts and those of my cover artist. It’s been an adventure, and one that has made me think far more about the connections between pictures and stories.
One thought that keeps coming up are the stories about how much trouble Octavia Butler had convincing her publisher to put people of color on her science fiction book covers. She told them over and over again that she didn’t write white characters (and why should she?), and yet time after time, the publisher decided that a white model was the right one for the character. Really? As a reader I always feel gypped when the cover art doesn’t match the description of the characters. It’s like a bait and switch. I don’t like it. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t the author’s fault when that happened – at least back in the day when the traditional publishers were pretty much the only game in town. That’s changing and in the case of indie publishing, it is now the responsibility of the author to make sure that their cover art is right for the story.
“Right for the story”, what does that mean? It means that it gives a proper backdrop for the imagination of the reader to build the rest of the picture that is the story around. It means that if your character is described as “olive skinned” that you get a picture of an olive skinned model for your cover. It means that if your world has purple grass and red trees that you make the cover art show that, not green grass and trees (Photoshop is your friend). It means that the art needs to show the kind of book that you are going to be reading – don’t show a glowing sword if your story is a hard sci-fi with laser guns as the primary weapon. If you are writing a romance, sexy people on the cover works. For a gore fest horror, you should probably have at least one blood trail. A space opera should have some image of space travel like a space ship, star scape or character in a space suit.
Finding a good cover artist, as an indie publisher, is a must. A good cover artist isn’t necessarily the best artist, if they aren’t willing to listen to what you (the author) say about your story. Just because someone can produce art to rival Monet or Picasso won’t help you if they don’t use the right colors for the characters or world. They also need to be able to produce on a time line. The best art in the world isn’t going to help you sell books this year if you aren’t going to get it until next year. The artist also needs to be able to handle feedback. No one wants to have to fight for what they want, and an indie author has enough stress in this world that you shouldn’t put yourself in a contentious relationship with your artist.
On the other side you need to be reasonable to work with as well. Have some idea of what you want (not like a sketch or anything) before you contact your artist. When you get the initial sketches give constructive feedback: “This part here isn’t working for me because…”. If you can, offer suggestions that will get it closer to what you want. Be reasonable with your time lines. Art takes time to produce. If you don’t know how much time to allow, ask. If you are planning a series and want the cover art to match, ask for as many of them as you can up front, or at least warn your artist that there are 2 or 3 more books in this series. Especially if they are going to have to hire a model. It’s easier and cheaper for them to get a number of different shots of the same model in one session than it is to schedule the same model over and over again. Most importantly, don’t ask for miracles. Sometimes they happen, but if you expect it then it won’t be so amazing when it happens.
Cover art is an important part of book marketing, but it won’t do it all. Once you have a good picture for your book, you still have to have a good book and a way to tell people about it. Be good to your artists and they will be good to you. Be good to your audience and they will buy more of your stuff.