Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Happy Halloween!

 This Week's Topic: On My Mind

What's on my mind today? Pfft. Sugar highs, candlelight, and spooky sights!

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Cover Tough Love

 Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "Judging a book by its cover: cover trends and what you look for as an author or a reader."

There have been excellent posts this week exploring why we buy covers, what we look for and love in covers, even being misled by covers. What I'm going to talk about is what a cover ISN'T for an author. And yes, this is something that's hard to hear. Stop now if you're not ready for a little tough love.

What a cover isn't: It is not an expression of the author's creativity.

I say this because I've heard more than one - usually a newer author - say that they want it to be. I recall one time that my aunt asked me to talk to a friend of hers who was a first-time author working with a small press to publish her memoir. She was super unhappy with the cover they developed and fighting with them about it. I think she fully expected me to give her ammunition in that fight. Instead, I gave her this tough love talk:

The cover of the book is not an expression of your creativity. The BOOK - what's inside the front and back cover - is the expression of your creativity. You got all those words and pages to convey the story you want to tell. The cover is not, and should not, be an extension of that story. 

Now, I'm not saying that the cover CAN'T reflect the story, but a book cover has two jobs:

  1. Catch the reader's eye in a pleasing, enticing way.
  2. Convey genre or some sense of what kind of story it will be.

That's it. Simple, but also very difficult. That's plenty of work for an image and a few words to do. Those jobs don't need to be further complicated by putting the author's story-vision into an image. In fact, when authors try to insert that vision, they can get in the way of the primary two functions of the cover.

So, I know it's hard. I have been there and I have had covers I hated, where the characters looked NOTHING like what I had in my head. I have had covers I loved that did nothing to sell the story inside. I've had horrible covers that I'm convinced tanked sales. I've had covers that readers rhapsodized over for no reason that made sense to me. When I work with my cover designer on the covers of my indie books, I really have to take off my author hat and put on the publisher one - and remind myself of the two rules. Tough love for myself, too!

Saturday, October 28, 2023

What's in a Cover?


Reader Me:

I bought a Sherlock Holmes retelling at a used bookstore the other day. The cover looked spot-on: dark blue background and silvery fog, a hypodermic needle in the foreground, flowers along the border, and the cityscape in the background. All the spooky murderous emblems I needed to pick up the book.


I didn't look closely enough at the names of the authors. 

When I got home, I realized that an NBA basketball star has co-written this book.

In fairness, I should have noticed. My bad. In fairness, this novel is part of a three-book series published by Penguin Random House and the series is a bestseller. Like Marcella Burnard describes in her post this week, I was lured by the pretty cover.

If I had noted the basketball star's name, I may not have given it a chance. So the book cover creators did their job properly. The name was prominent--for those who might think that is of interest, with the co-authored name also listed prominently so we readers might rest assured that someone with an MFA contributed to the book--and the other elements told me exactly what kind of book I was getting.

Have I started it yet?


But I plan to. If only out of curiosity. And after looking it up, I'm actually intrigued to see how it turns out.

Author Me:

Book covers are easier when you have a traditional publisher, since they have people for that. I can weigh in with my preferences and comment on a draft design, but I don't need to come up with the entire concept, find appropriate images, and put them together to suit the book. This is a weight off my mind, since I'm a perfectionist and I second-guess myself a lot. 

Too many options! What if purple is better than red? What font should I use? What elements should stay consistent across the series and which ones can change? These decisions are best left to the professionals, imho. (And I am certainly not good enough to do this myself, although many of my indie peers are.)

There are also lots of freelance book cover artists that indie authors can use: many produce premades and will do custom mades. These can be expensive, although you can always find deals. And the quality will vary. There is more onus on you to determine the look and find what you need, but it can be worthwhile.

Some good advice I received (at a workshop run by 100 Covers) was to scroll through the Amazon bestseller lists on a desktop to see what the top 100 books in your category are using in their covers. A quick scan through the thumbnails can give you a good sense of the features that readers expect to see - for more on these features, see K.A. Krantz's post this week. Then, you work the same magic as you do when you write genre fiction: just as you use the tropes and conventions in an exciting way to attract and keep your reader's interest, so you incorporate the cover elements that readers expect but in a fun and exciting way.

BTW, I'm not an artist, so every book cover that's presented for my work seems like the best thing ever made. Like looking at your newborn's face for the first time. BUT a little objectivity can be a big help--ask your friends and fellow authors for advice to see what they think. 

And enjoy the process! It can seem fraught with pitfalls that can fill one with anxiety. Still, it's important to remember how exciting and wonderful it is to put your book baby out into the world. Revel in the wonder! 

Friday, October 27, 2023

Cover Contrarian

 Who among us has not been lured by a gorgeous cover only to find the contents between the covers lacking? Who among us has not had this happen multiple times? 

Is it just me? It might be me. 

Honestly, I admire covers for what they are. Covers. I do not at all judge my books by them. Not anymore. Maybe it's a function of my age, which we will not discuss, but the fact is I had to navigate a number of cover trends that left much to be desired. Covers were not how one picked a book. For several years, books sported single, solid color covers with contrasting title colors that would never pass a usability test today. Then someone got bold and started putting racing stripes on covers! In clashing colors that made your teeth vibrate just to look at them. (Look, y'all, it was the 70s and I was a kid, but I was THAT kid, reading stuff well above grade level and yikes those covers sucked.) 

Anyway. Long story slightly shorter: I have cover trauma resulting in serious trust issues. I am eternally grateful that recent cover trend history has tended toward artistic endeavors with an eye for conscious design. Covers are a thing to behold now. I love that. Still don't trust 'em. It's back cover copy for me. I expect back cover copy to convey genre and a hint about the story. If it hits my particular 'might be yum' buttons, I'll crack the cover and scan the first page. I'll know right away whether the story and the author are going to work for me. If the cover is pretty? Bonus. But yeah. 

You kids get off my lawn.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Book Cover Deliberation

six books sitting in a circle: Dead Silence, Poison's Kiss with a green snake on the cover, Her Radiant Curse with a woman's profile, Isle of Blood with a black background and an ancient sea dragon drawn in blue. Contagion with sci-fi green tech, and Take the Lead with a man and woman in salsa clothes dancing

Books wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to pick up if they didn’t have amazing covers. Covers give you a glimpse into the story, they set the scene, and they set expectations. And for me, book covers mean different things depending on if I’m looking at them as an author or a reader. 

Reader View: If I see the back of a woman running away in the dark, I’m getting a mystery thriller, possibly some romance. These covers don’t do much for me, likely because I don’t read a ton in the genre. If I see a big ol’ sword in hand accompanied by anything foresty, I’m expecting an epic fantasy. If I see flowers or snakes or another inanimate object surrounding a sword then I’m expecting a different kind of fantasy, one likely written by a woman and there’s a good chance there’ll be kissing. If I see a solid colored cover with anything tech or medical related I’m expecting a thriller, hopefully sci-fi bent, especially if the image evokes robotics or machinery. 

As a reader I clearly use covers to tell me what kind of book I’m checking out. I frequently pick up books because the cover art caught my eye, especially fantasy books with incredible art. There are many book covers out there deserving of their very own gilded-frame!

Author View: I’m looking at book covers to tell me what kind of press/publishing house produced them to then decide if it’s the right kind of look I’d want for my books. The covers with a photoshop image superimposed on a background with un-matching font isn’t a place I’m going to look into. Covers with the right tone for the genre, well matched font, and/or beautiful art are definitely places I’m checking out. 

As an author I use covers as a quality gauge. The more professional looking the book, the more likely I am to put them on my list. Even if you have an agent it’s a good idea to do your homework and be knowledgeable of what types of books certain publishers produce. Then you’ll have an idea of what editors are more likely to enjoy reading your words. And when I say types of books I mean more than genre. Angry Robot is going to have a totally different fantasy flavor than say Wednesday Books. 

So, how do you look at book covers? 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Fantasy Covers: Elements Convey Sub-Genre

 This Week's Topic: Judging a Book by Its Cover
Cover Trends and What I Look for as an Author and a Reader

Hell yeah, I judge a book by its cover. If the cover looks like crap, I'm assuming the story was written like crap too. I don't have to use the "Look Inside" feature to know it wasn't professionally edited, either. Life's too short and my TBR pile is too big to waste time on a book with a shitty cover. A good cover is more than well-rendered art, there's the matter of the appropriate font too. I've seen eye-catching art ruined by bad font, and I weep. Anyone trying to resurrect ye ol' WordArt should be shot from a cannon, FWIW. Bad font screams "amateur" and "badly written content inside." 

Buuuuut, what about those covers that look like every.other.cover. in the genre? Are they bad for being too much alike? Ahahahah. Welcome to the wobbly line between delivering on reader expectations and trying to stand out in a listing of millions. Urban Fantasy covers tend to look a lot alike, and that's because readers identify that similarity with the genre so authors/artists deliver for the sake of sales (chicken->egg->chicken, yes). The core elements of a UF cover are: 

  • Hot chick (or dude) on the cover
  • Magic representation (aura, array, shifter-sidekick, etc.)
  • Urban-ish nightscape
  • Weapon (8 times out of 10)
    • A gun or a sword are the most likely, though there is an occasional dagger or crossbow.  
Does the formulaic cover mean the book is formulaic too? Uh, maybe. Does it mean the story hits the big UF tropes? Probably. That's what the artist and author are trying to convey with the composition of elements on the cover. Wanna read a shifter novel? Look for an animal on the cover. Wanna read a vampire book? Look for the fang with a blood dribble. Witches? Pentagrams or familiars. Angels? Wings. Demons? Serpentine eyes. As long as the humanoid on the cover doesn't look like remedial Poser and the other elements have been properly layered and blended to create a cohesive picture, then we're headed in the right direction.

On the other hand, Fantasy books--be they High, Epic, Grimdark, Hopepunk, RPG, etc.,-- have a wider pool of "typical" from which to draw. Some don't have people on the cover at all, it's mostly symbols and swirls. Some have the caped man in various landscapes. Some have brilliantly illustrated--straight from a graphic novel--look to them. Regardless of the composition, it's the quality of the art and the appropriateness of the font that matters. Fantasy readers are picky as fuck about quality. It's not a genre where DIY covers are a good idea (unless you're a professional designer/artist in your other life). 

When it comes to using AI art on covers, keep in mind that most of the art produced by AI is stolen from artists and then remixed by algorithms; therefore, it doesn't have the appropriate commercial image licensing that's legally necessary for book covers. Yes, yes, yes. I know authors are publishing books with AI covers, but just because it's possible doesn't mean it's legal or ethical. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Ergonomics for the Healthy Writer and Faroween!

Guess what? I'm a participating author in Our World or Others: A Faroween Scavenger Hunt October 19 - 29! Visit the FaRoFeb website on October 19 to choose your quest and compete for a chance to win incredible prizes including giftcards, paperbacks, ebooks, and more! There are six main prize packs as well as some bonus quests and games.

Everyone who completes one of the quests will win something! This is for anyone who loves reading fantasy romance, paranormal romance, and urban fantasy romance. Can't wait to see you there!

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "Tools of the Trade Ergonomic Edition." Because, let's face it, writers are notorious for experiencing various physical pains. Comes of sitting for hours everyday, hunched over a keyboard or paper (writing and reading!), forgetting to move but never forgetting those important snacks that keep our brains going. So, what do I do? I walk!

Yes, I have a walking desk with a treadmill, and have had one for nearly ten years now. Best investment I ever made! The current treadmill is from iMovr and goes from 5mph to 2.5mph. I usually walk between 1.5 and 2.2mph - the variation is really important! I have a hydraulic desk, the same one all these years, originally made by GeekDesk, which I can adjust to allow me to sit, stand, or walk. The minute height adjustments are particularly great, allowing me to have my forearms and wrists flat on the desk, my back straight, and my monitor at eye-level. I also vary them slightly from day to day and even hour to hour, so my body won't solidify into the same position for too long. 

No more butt in chair, hands on keyboard, people - get that writer body moving!


Friday, October 20, 2023

How Not to Hurt

I’d been ready to say that I didn’t think much about ergonomics, but then I took a look around. The lifelong pursuit of anything that might keep migraine pain to a dull roar has given me a whole lot of tools in my ergonomics toolbox. Some are things I just like. The rest are attempts to mitigate or prevent pain.

In the ‘I just like it’ category:

  • Positive click keyboards. Straight. I expect some acknowledgement from the keys when I type. I need that sensory feedback or writing isn’t writing and I will be deeply dissatisfied.
  • Writing in front of the fake fireplace on the sofa, usually with a cat in my lap – NOT ergonomic but warm, cozy, and purry.
  • Writing in bed. Also not ergonomic, but at the end of a day, it’s a lovely segue into sleep.
  • Noise canceling headphones. I swear to you these are why I am not currently doing life in a deep, dark prison somewhere.
  • Creeptastic playlists. Ambient music has grown up on YouTube. I can find SciFi themed creepy stuff, I can find stuff that’s themed to particular fandoms – Alien, Cthulhu, zombie movies all kinds of stuff to write mayhem to.

In the ‘No Pain, Please’ category:

  • Putting my monitor at eye level and my keyboard at waist level. I have an adjustable laptop desk with legs that can be adjusted any number of ways. I use it to get my laptop up high enough, so I look straight ahead at it. I use an auxiliary keyboard and mouse on my work surface to promote upright posture and to keep my head in a neutral, upright position rather than tilted down or carried forward of my spine. There was physical therapy involved in learning that this posture was my goal.
  • Stand/sit desk – this is basically a desk that lets me stand when I want or sit when I need to, I also have a treadmill desk with one shelf set at eye level for the laptop and a waist high work surface for the keyboard and mouse. Variety, it turns out, also helps prevent pain.
  • Blue blocker glasses. These really help reduce migraine pain. Not incidences of migraine – but with blue blockers, I don’t start a migraine and go from 0 to 60 on the pain scale in a few seconds flat. The blue blockers give me a much gentler ramp to ‘hey stupid, get flat’. If you need these, don’t cheap out. Real migraine glasses target two specific wavelengths of blue light. Cheapy glasses just throw a filter on some plastic and call it good. The real thing gives you targeted protection that’s worth the extra cash.
  • Taking a daily 20-minute NSDR break. This isn’t just for posture. It’s for the brain and your entire nervous system.
  • Exercises - I have a set of specific back and neck exercises designed to keep the shoulders pulled back and to counteract overstretch in the back of the neck. Those help.

In the normal course of generating a story, writing shouldn’t hurt. If it does, there’s likely a reasonable ergonomic solution. Sometimes, it means getting a professional like a physical therapist involved. Sometimes it means breaking up a repetitive motion cycle and giving weary muscles a rest. Ergonomics come down to you conducting a set of informed experiments to find out what helps you. It’s hard to have fun when what you love hurts you.