According to my indie author mentor Bernard Schaffer, self-publishing is a double-edged sword. You’re ultimately responsible for your own success or failure, because you are in charge of not just the quality of your product, but also its presentation and marketing.
I’ve seen some awful covers in the indie world, and I’ve seen some great ones. This isn’t going to be a discussion about that. I just have a pair of points to make real quick before I go on:
1) Using licensed art from a site can be dangerous: A friend recently experienced a slight setback when it was pointed out that someone else was using the same cover art as him for ebooks released within a week of one another. Fortunately, the two writers knew each other well and got it taken care of without any hard feelings: it wasn’t that the art was stolen or anything, it was just a licensing thing. I helped whip up a new cover for my friend.
2) Trying to make your own cover, without any kind of talent for it, is equally dangerous. I have what’s called an artist’s eye, but none of the talent, so I at least know what I want. But when it’s outside of the scope of my abilities, I know better than to try it.
So what do you do?
Well, for The Machinist Part One: Malevolence, I had a specific image in my mind that came to me. It was inspired by the classic Spider-Man story from the 60’s, “Spider-Man No More!” I actually own the two issues that make up that plot, though they’re in terrible condition. They replicated the layout of that cliffhanger splash page in Spider-Man 3: Too Many Fucking Villains.
While I do really love the cover as it stands, the scene it shows never happens in the story. I’m working the amazingly talented Mark Williams on a new cover for Part One, and we’re in talks about Part Three (once I finalize the appearance of the main villain)… and I have an amazing idea for the collected Parts One through Three (available March 2062 at the rate I write).
How I found Mark, and Doug (the artist of the original Part One cover) was pretty easy, honestly. I went on DeviantArt, and started searching for paintings (digital or traditional) of superheroes. I might be biased from having played the game for seven years, but searching for commissions of City of Heroes characters tends to net you quality stuff if you’re seeking out superhero or cyborg themed art. I found artists, I looked at their galleries, flagged stuff I liked and then looked at their own favorite artists or pieces, and repeated the process. I found three or four artists I liked, and sent them direct messages. I can’t pull up the exact ones, but here’s the jist of it:
“Hello! I really love your work, in particular <something of theirs>. I am working on a self-published ebook that needs a cover and think your style would be a match. Can you email me back with your rate and terms if you are interested? Thank you! <my name> <my personal email address>”
After waiting a few days—and leaving the artists alone, you pesterers—I got replies from all. A few “no thanks” but several “sures.” And quotes, or requests for more information, then quotes. I didn’t go for the cheapest options, but I got the best value (this is subjective, of course) for the quality of the art versus the price. I worked out a payment plan with Doug that was split in three: a partial advance, some more when he sent me conclusive proof of progress, and a final payment after a final proof was approved. After that, he sent me the full size final image. Mark, we just did a 50-50 split (advance, then proof, then final payment, then he sent the full image) because his rates were less painful than Doug’s.
You can, of course, get your art other ways. I’ve done some covers in Photoshop for friends, for no charge just because I like them or because they’re as broke as I used to be. One friend of mine gets his covers from his graphic designer brother, or alternately from an artist he met through his ex-wife. Another person I know is an actual graphic artist in his day job, so he’s able to make his own (Michael Shean, you cover and website-making artsy bastard. I’ll get you).
So back to my original point, that you—the glorious self-publishing, promotion-managing and ultimately-responsible-for-their-own-success individual that you are—are probably most curious about: The process of collaborating on the cover for your book.
The topic of today’s essay will be the creation of the spectacular cover for The Machinist Part Two: Retaliation that Mark Williams did for me. I’m going to use some sample sketches from emails between myself and Mark, who has graciously given me permission to do so.
The first issue I wanted to address with my second cover was I wanted it to have some action. The first novella’s cover is kind of bland, in addition to not actually featuring any content that appeared in the story itself (Mark and I are working on something new that fits the story better). So I made sure I had an action sequence in mind that I knew was going to make it into the final version of the story.
I envisioned that Mac was being assaulted by an unknown, electricity-wielding opponent. I know who that character is, but I’m being intentionally vague since the book is months away from release. This enemy has overpowered Mac and knocked him to the floor, and is hovering over him in a menacing way. Electricity crackles around the assailant’s black, power armor covered forearms and fists.
Here’s the final version of the cover. After you have a look, I’ll tell you the story of its production:
I sent that description, and character reference art I’ve had produced previously, up to Mark. I also sent him a template for the basic layout of the cover’s text element placement and he got back to me in a day or two with his initial sketch. I’m not posting it, because it showed off too much of our mystery villain’s body and would’ve given away a big chunk of plot. There was also an issue with the actual pose, in my opinion. I know Mark forgave me for this, but I wrote back and explained the issues I had with the sketch, and wasn’t terribly kind. But he’s got thick skin like me, understood that I was going for a certain look to make a dynamic cover, and he just got back to work. He’s trying to make a living, and so am I, and we’re responsible for the quality of our own work: If he ticked off a client with a bad commission and fought over it, he wouldn’t get paid and might lose referrals. If I have a bad cover for my book, no one’s going to buy it and my fiancée’s going to yell at me for wasting time writing. We’re in similar boats, so we worked it out.
In addition to my revised/clarified desired image description, I sent Mark the following… absolutely fucking terrible sketch:
Mark, I’m sure, had a good laugh, and wrote me back in a few hours with his take on it. This time, the mystery assailant was perfect, but Mac’s pose was a tad bit off.
I rearranged Mac’s limbs in Photoshop, attached it to an email, and explained what I was thinking. The next day, Mark sent me this:
Fuckin’ perfect sketch. I gave Mark the thumbs-up and let him go at it. After a day or two, he sent me his first run at the image’s background, which I thought was interesting enough to share here.
After a little more time and a few iterations that involved changing the color palette a little bit, we got here:
As you can see, aside from a few things, it was mostly done. I had an issue with how Mark had arranged the electricity on the bad guy’s arms, and sent my own sketch back. He followed through! I asked if it was too much to ask to have the scene be a dark day, with rain and puddles, and stuff—honestly expecting Mark to say no or ask for more money. He did neither, and eventually we got here:
There were a number of things I noticed immediately that were different, on top of what I’d asked for: Mac’s coat was actually leather, his metal was, well, metal, and the light was glowing. This was some quality stuff. I showed it to all my friends, who consistently bugged out at its awesomeness.
So that’s the story of Machinist 2’s cover. And just for your entertainment, here’s my sketch for the Philadelphia Comic Con 2013 promotional story Mark did a cover for, and his near-final product. I sent him some reference along with that crap sketch, but I had a specific pose (kinda) in mind.
I guess you could say that the jist of this article is to point out the fact that even if you cannot produce art yourself, you need to know what you want from your cover and be as informative and communicative about your desires as you possibly can be. Because you’re the one whose livelihood may count on sales that your cover brings in.