Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cover Story - M. Terry Green

M. Terry Green is one of those authors fortunate enough to have graphic design skills. However, she learned that the path to cover creation can be a tortuous one. She was generous enough to provide us with a history of her Techno-Shaman series book covers.

Hired an Illustrator

First cover for Shaman, Healer, HereticFirst Novel - For the first book in my urban fantasy series, I hired an illustrator who did a great job and I was thrilled. She created the raw artwork by painting in Photoshop and then I put the cover together using Photoshop and Illustrator (I have some background in graphic design). Although I liked the cover (in fact, it’s still my favorite), I did receive some negative feedback from reviewers (which wasn’t specific).

Second Novel - Prior to releasing the second novel, I wasn’t yet convinced I needed to change the first cover and so went back to the illustrator who had done it and asked for artwork for the second book. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visualize my protagonist in quite the same way. We called it quits after a few iterations and I paid her for her time and thanked her for her hard work. At that point, I decided to start from scratch on both covers and design them myself.

Drew Them Myself

I Can’t Draw - Unfortunately, I don’t have the artistic chops to either draw or paint. My graphic design skills are relegated to digital work that’s mostly line art. So, the first thing I tried to do was create a line art version of my protagonist. Because it’s a series, I hunted stock photo sites for a reference model who bore some resemblance to my character and who was available in different poses. I did find a model at iStockphoto and contacted the photographer in Romania for a color version of one shot in particular. She got back to me quickly (she was just about to go on maternity leave!), uploaded the photograph, and I purchased it from the stock site.

Second cover for Shaman, Healer, HereticLine Art Misfire - But, my fantasy protagonist is a young woman with blindingly white hair. That’s not a tweak or a filter that can be done in Photoshop. So, I set about rendering her in Illustrator. I was pleased with the end result (after creating over 1,000 paths to do it) but then decided I didn’t like it on the cover (!). I know from previous graphic design work that I sometimes have to see a concept through to the end before I can tell if it’s going to work or not. So, after an intense weekend with Illustrator, I went back to square one.

The Competition - I collected urban fantasy series covers in an effort to understand what the rest of the genre was doing. You might expect that this should have been my first step and yet I knew that the protagonist I had created (a techno-shaman) was going to be at odds with most urban fantasy leads, in that she’s not a kick-ass, bare-midriff, crossbow-toting babe. Instead, I focused on how books in a series are linked by design motifs, colors and fonts. Because I wasn’t happy with an illustrated white-haired protagonist, couldn’t find stock photos that could be manipulated to portray one (let alone in multiple poses with regular street clothes), I decided to forgo the protagonist entirely and concentrate on objects in the stories.

First cover for Shaman, Friend, EnemyObjects - Although I liked the tripartite division of the original cover, I abandoned it in effort to get something that’d look better at a thumbnail size. I decided to keep the reference to the urban skyline and added specific objects related to the story plus a dose of design elements that refer to shamanism. I was glad to have two covers that I could use for the first and second novels, though I wasn’t thrilled with them. Again, the response was tepid to negative.

I Wanted an Illustrator

I Was Sick of Designing - By the time the third novel was close to being done, I had decided yet again to go with an illustrator. I wanted to be hands-off with the graphics and let them worry about the motifs and models. I cruised deviantART and found photo-manipulators and illustrators whose work I liked and who were entirely out of my price range. Most of what I liked was more than I wanted to spend and the work that I could afford looked like something I might be able to do myself. Even so, I found the work of some the artists that I ran across so extraordinary that I decided to spend some money.

What to Tell Them - My first step in hiring an illustrator was writing a description of what I wanted–and I was stumped. I don’t expect artists to read all three books in my series to understand what the cover needs to be. I thought I ought to at least be able to do that. And yet, I didn’t have a clue about the essential visual elements that would tell a prospective reader what they’d encounter inside the book. In hindsight, I think the object-style covers failed in this respect and my inability to describe the necessary look and feel to my initial illustrator is one reason we were never able to settle on a look in our second effort together. In terms of instructions, I tried to distill the common visuals in each each story: my protagonist, the use of high-tech goggles, lightning, an urban setting, and action. I also surveyed covers again for examples to which I could point, concentrating on the growing number of independently published urban fantasy covers. Frequently, I was able to discover who did the artwork (discussed about in writer forums, thanked in acknowledgements or a blog, found independently by Googling book cover artists and seeing their portfolios). I found that other indies were running into the same problems I faced: urban fantasy covers are dominated by photo-manipulation; it’s hard to find the same models in different poses; the photos that fit the bill are getting used repeatedly. I was back to designing my own.

Me Again

In my second survey of covers above, I made a few new general observations: indie covers in a series change little from book to book; human faces and figures are obscured, cropped tightly, or silhouetted; the quality of indie book covers is on a dramatic rise; traditional publishing covers are still clearly identifiable through their use of dedicated photo shoots and models.

My final versions of the covers employ several of my specific findings for my genre:
  • a textured background to imply the grunge of urban fantasy
  • a primary unifying visual (the goggles)
  • a secondary unifying visual (lightning)
  • the same fonts (including a custom letter to hint at shamanism)
  • the same layout (author name up top, snippet of a review, unique visual within the goggles, title as big as it can be, name of the series at the bottom)
  • a change in color for each book
  • a varying silhouette of my protagonist
Although only one reviewer has mentioned liking the new covers, that’s an improvement. In terms of graphic design, I played to my own strengths by colorizing stock photos, using two-dimensional art in multiple layers, and keeping it simple–a big help in making sure the covers worked at the thumbnail size. At this point, I can say I’m satisfied and able to create new covers relatively quickly and easily. And that’s important because all I really want to do is write.

All three novels are available for purchase with the latest covers. Go through Terry's website to select your preferred book format or store.
Third cover for Shaman, Healer, Heretic
Second cover for Shaman, Friend, Enemy
Shaman, Sister, Sorceress

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