J. Michael Gonzalez

Cover Art Blues

I was excited about doing the cover art for Half Moon Chronicles; it was a chance for me to find the perfect way to capture the mood of the story -- to continue the creative process that made HMC:Legacy so gratifying to work on. I started out researching for general pointers about making an ebook cover and quickly found that the decision to include depictions of people on the cover is a matter of some debate -- do you let the readers create their own mental image of the characters, or do you risk compromising their mental image with a presupplied one? According to Google, I found that the human eye is naturally drawn to a face or a human figure over an abstract design or object.

In my intial forays on stock photography websites, I got incredibly lucky, finding the image currently being used for HMC:Legacy. Knowing that HMC is going to be a series, I decided to plan ahead and see if I could capture the essence of that first image for subsequent (yet to be written or published) books. I began visiting stock image sites, looking for images with a connecting theme (as an excellent example, see Dan dos Santos' amazing covers for the Mercy Thompson series).

Stock photography is a strange niche of the creative world. I won't go into a lot of detail, but after almost two days of scrolling through images -- often with the same model, props, and lighting, but with dozens (and sometimes it feels like hundreds) of minor variations; standing, sitting, smiling, not smiling, grimacing, side shot, back shot, front shot, with a prop, without a prop, smiling with a prop, etc -- I felt as though I had become so numbed by all the minor variations that I had lost the ability to tell if I was looking at something that was good or if I was just scrolling and clicking by rote.

I realized that the first cover image I found for Legacy was a fluke. I tried to use that as a beachhead to find similar images. Unfortunately, this approach wandered very quickly into the borderlands of softcore photography. While some of the shots were interesting -- often creatively artistic -- they weren't ideal cover material.

After two long days, I had found about a dozen images from 123RF and Shutterstock (I found the pricing model for my usage pattern slightly more reasonable with 123RF, but Shutterstock seems to be the industry standard used by most creative artistic or advertising professionals). Some of the images were great...some were eh. Even the best ones needed tweaking so they'd show at least vague commonality with the first one. Not having had the chance to purchase or learn Photoshop, I figured I could do just fine with Pixelmator. Paint spiller, here I come!, I told myself.

After about 2 hours of fiddling with paint spiller, the paintbrush at various sizes and opacities, the magic eraser, along with a few other ill-advised tools, I had a cover that -- to my eye at least -- looked like something a sugar-crazed four year old with a dull scissors had mutilated half to death before giving up in a frenzy of savage magic marker strokes. I tried to convince myself that no one would notice, that this would totally work, I just needed to have a little faith in my DIY cover. Unfortunately (fortunately?), no amount of squinting or RCA-dogging would assuage my unease. After another half hour of hopeless fiddling, I finally admitted to myself that I just don't have the artistic skill set for this.

In short, I needed a professional. In my earlier research, I'd encountered a couple of articles that suggested addition of a professional cover created a spike in sales. With that in mind, I'm going to take the plunge and commission a professional.

I started doing some (more) research (starting with a somewhat dusty survey of cover design sites) to get a sense of what was out there. I found prices ranging from $100 for a cover based on a stock photo up to $500+ for a completely custom design. Ultimately, the one that looked most appealing to my sensibility was James at GoOnWrite. This will work for my first cover since I found a great stock photo, but I'm beginning to think that for subsequent books, I'll probably commission a professional photographer and a model to do my covers, which I'll then send to the cover artist to convert to a cover. Eventually, I'd like to be able to take the pictures myself and have more creative control...perhaps even learn Photoshop and learn how to make the covers myself and take creative control of the whole process.