Yes, People Do Judge Books by Their Covers

Books are judged by their covers, and according to Mark Coker (founder of Smashwords) there’s a connection between excellent covers and good sales of a title. Here are some of his insights as to what constitutes a quality cover, and why such a cover is important to a publisher and the author: Yes, We Really Do Judge Books by Their Covers.

More and more authors are recognizing this truth, which is what keeps me very busy these days. Speaking of which, if you need a quality picture for the cover of your book, please check out my Book Illustration Portfolio. My clients include award-winning authors and best selling writers, and I’d love to add you to my list of clients.

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When the Honeysuckle Blooms

Well, the honeysuckle is now in bloom beside our house, making it officially summer (at least to my mind).

When I was a child, our home had two honeysuckle vines that grew up the columns of the front porch, wicking the heady odor from the flowers into the house, especially at night. Now the scent takes me back to the summer after I’d completed 4th Grade and was free of studies, able to read for pleasure rather than by dictate. It was that summer that I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs, read some Robert Heinlein for myself, and found other treasures including Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys mysteries — all at the Sterling Free Public Library.

I think (according to Google maps) the library no longer housed in the original brick building where it was in my youth (with a WWI “potato digger” machine gun on a war monument out front of the library), though the building still stands and is in good repair. In my mind, that’s where the library remains, populated by those helpful librarians of the past, with an occasional rock collection on display on deep blue velvet, and the smells of ink from new books and the parchment, cloth, and leather of the older treasures. Just stepping into the building was magical because it offered a cool respite from hot summer days and the burning Kansas sun.

Those days were like something from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Kinder, gentler, magical times that I often dream I might return to. And how I wish I might somehow have shared such relaxed, quiet times with my children, rather than the hustle and bustle of modern-day life which they grew up with.

I have a feeling Heaven must have honeysuckle growing along its golden streets.

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Enduring the Darts and Slings of Critics

No matter which of the arts a creative person works in, there are always “critics” offering their opinions of the artist’s work. Some critics may be well-meaning. Others, however, are simply spiteful little trolls who would destroy if they could, and barring that, are happy to sling their warped notions your way as “friendly advice” or “honest assessments” in the hope of doing damage.

During my years working as a writer / illustrator, I’ve seen all sorts of critics from a high falutin college professor turned critic (who had apparently failed to publish enough to keep his position and therefore felt it his duty to take pot shots at my first novel) to people who offered genuine criticism that helped me improve my work. Those in the latter group are great (though their assessments may still sting); I like to think the former have a place prepared for them on the sixth ring of Hell.

Perhaps the weirdest criticism I’ve had to date came from a preacher who sent a long email, the key point of which was his opinion that my Christian art proved I was the “Spawn of Satan” (exact quote). At the time, his hateful missive really hurt, doubly so since I was trying to help the same community he claimed to be a part of. Fortunately I had been working with a preacher (the ever-wise “Johnny the Baptist”) who offered support and reassurance.

Today the hurt from being branded the Spawn of Satan is no longer there, and I can now laugh at it now. And except for this spawnish blip my experience with Christian groups has been quite good with many continuing to employ my artwork for religious books, presentations, and in one case a large print behind the main pulpit. (I’ll note that sadly there are some bad eggs out there working behind he pulpit; but in my experience, most “men and women of God” do an amazing job, often working for little pay, and generally without much thanks. Where I’ve been slighted this once, they are slighted on a daily basis, and it’s hard for me to imagine they don’t get pretty discouraged because of this.)

This is not to say Christian groups aren’t without fault when it comes to the arts. There’s a tendency of churches to view the arts as propaganda tools, or at least only methods for spreading a message, rather than seeing each beautiful work of art as a glorious gift that reflects the Lord of Creation.

One writer that addresses this issue if Franky Schaeffer in Sham Pearls Before Real Swine and Addicted to Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts. While I don’t agree with all of Schaeffer’s views on Christianity, he makes some very valid points about the church and the arts.

Franky Schaeffer writes, “The modern Christian world… is marked in the area of the arts and cultural endeavor by one outstanding feature, and that is its addiction to mediocrity…. Of all people, Christians should be addicted to quality and integrity in every area, not be looking for excuses for second-best…. Art, creative human expression, and the enjoyment of beauty need no justification. The ultimate justification is that they come as a good and gracious gift from God above.”

(I suppose his skewering of the church’s attitude toward art might also be a criticism of some of my own artwork given its use by some Christian groups, but I hope not.)

Of course outside the church the arts have become more or less a religion in and of themselves for many, and that can take some strange twists and turns no religion ever even thought about. Bottles of excrement, piles of cans, or other rubble and trash are declared art by this religion’s high mucky mucks run amuck with their disciples unable to perceive the ridiculous results of their blind faith. In a world where some live in squalor, the prices tacked onto such “art” seems in itself as obscene as some of the subjects portrayed in the artwork. As John Weaver has noted, “When an unmade bed is valued at £150,000 and yet an African child’s life is not valued at a dollar, something is seriously wrong with the values art promotes.”

Robert Hughes nailed the situation when he wrote, “When you have the super-rich paying $104 million for an immature Rose Period Picasso — close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states — something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honor to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological.”

So there are flaws enough to go around.

As for critics, the catch with many is that they aren’t knowledgeable about what they criticize or, if they are, are petty, hateful, and jealous people deep down inside. Such folks can do a lot of damage to the ego of creative people. And in my experience, many creative people are actually more sensitive and emotional than the average person — making them vulnerable to the slings of the jealous.

So hurtful critics often leave wounds of the artist’s heart. Minor hurts, yet they can be very discouraging to an artist, especially those just starting a career. Yet for most, the wounds eventually heal to leave scars not unlike the red badge of courage received in battle. In the long run, these injuries can also make an artist stronger once they are overcome.

But it is wise to limit the damage. Avoid negative people. Never seek out reviews about your work.

Woody Allan never reads reviews of his movies. I think perhaps this is good advice for anyone in the arts. As are the words of Charles Haun: “What did you gather today? Were you in the field of bitterness filling your hearts with an abundance of bitter attitudes because someone hurt or offended you?”

An artist should never wander into fields of bitterness. One way of doing this is to avoid reading what critics write.

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Bleed and “Color Space” for Book Cover PDFs

Book illustration art picture by Duncan Long

For self publishers or those starting a small press, the process of creating a print cover PDF can seem pretty daunting the first go around. Fortunately after a time or two it becomes pretty much “old hat” and can be taken in stride (though this isn’t to say that new and varied hiccups don’t occur even for seasoned pros).

The last few corrections and changes to a print project often seem to become increasingly troublesome. Part of the reason is when correcting mistakes discovered during proofing, new mistakes can be created. For example a “z” may appear when the graphic designer fails to do a complete control-z undo command, leaving only a “z” in its place. That can not only leave the error that failed to be undone but also add a new one, too!

The key to keeping such mistakes from going into print is to proof the ENTIRE cover after each correction. Yes, this is time consuming, but it can save some real headaches when the book is in print. Nothing is quite as discouraging as seeing a “z” in the middle of a book title, right?

For those being introduced to the printing process, the concept of “bleed” can be a little confusing. “Bleed” is the extra amount of picture or inked area around the outside of a cover (or page) that goes beyond the trim points on the sheet. The purpose of the bleed is to allow extra area so that any minor calibration errors of the trim blades won’t leave white at the edge of a cover or page. As equipment becomes more precise, the necessary bleed has shrunk over the last few years from a quarter inch to 0.125 inch.

With the PDF that will go to a press, the bleed trim marks are shown with black embashes at the corners of the cover. If you imagine extending lines from one emdash to that opposite it, you’ll have the location of where the trim should occur.

One of the odd things with cover layouts is that while there are calibration marks for trim (and colors as well as black ink in some cases), there’s only a “pie chart” looking mark to show the center of the spine. The areas where the spine folds aren’t shown. The reason for this is that the folding process that creates the spine is more or less “automatic.” So while your graphic designer may center the spine down to a thousandth of an inch, the viewer of the PDF is left more or less clueless as to where the spine should be (outside of perhaps printing the PDF and measuring the width of the cover from each bleed trim point).

That said, if you’re really concerned about the spine fold points, you can ask your cover designer to place some white lines at the fold points for you to see — just don’t get that file mixed up with your print PDF or you’ll have those lines on your cover!

Some presses like to have color calibration marks on the PDF. Others don’t require these as they work from the sRGB color space (which is nearly identical to what is seen on a properly calibrated monitor, making it very convenient to work with). So some designers creating a cover for CreateSpace or other presses calibrating to sRGB will leave the color specs out of these PDFs (with the theory that this makes it a bit less apt to cause confusion with the company’s automated process).

As the “finish line” of submitting a cover PDF to a press approaches, it seems like the last few inches are made in baby steps. But it’s always better to be thorough and cautious in order to prevent errors from going to print. When your “baby” go to press, it’s comforting to know you’ve done your best to make a perfect offering for your readers to enjoy.

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Duncan Long is an illustrator who often also does the layout for book covers for small presses and self-publishing “indie” authors. You can find examples of his work in Duncan Long’s Portfolio.

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Art Software

art software used for this painting - Corel PhotoPaint

I often receive questions about what software I use (or recommend) for artwork (along with that ever-common,”Do you use software or only brush and oils?”). So I thought a post on all this might be in order.

First, my artwork is digital from beginning to end. I seldom sketch on paper except to make “notes” on a project when I’m on the phone. And I almost never paint with actual media these days (though I do have pen-and-ink as well as painting experience in my background).

Most of my illustration work via the paint and blend features in Corel PhotoPaint, one of the programs in the company’s Draw Suite. I still use an old version from Draw 8. I upgraded and tried several of the later versions — but have found Corel’s updates and new versions of this program are so bug riddled that I returned to 8. And until Corel gets its act together and offers stable programs, I can’t presently recommend any of the company’s software (which is a shame — as Corel’s Painter has a lot of potential).

I do have Photoshop — and almost never use it. It’s a quality program, but just too clumsy for my tastes (and over-priced, I think). Adobe’s recent decision to make its programs subscription services seems a dubious plus as well, given that like a pusher, once they have the user hooked, prices can be raised according to whim (yes, I am cynical about how big corporations treat their customers).

What programs do I recommend?

I know this may be heresy, but I don’t think Inkscape (for vector drawings) and the unfortunately named Gimp (for bitmap) lack the polish most pros need. I know some love and swear by these two programs, and they’re free so by all means try one or both out if you’re looking for art software. If they fit your needs go with them — free is hard to beat.

Another free paint program with promise is Paint.net; this is the software I’m currently watching for that sad day I have to retire PhotoPaint. Again, Paint.net lacks some features you might need, but it has a lot of good qualities. And did I mention it was free?

MS is also working on a free paint program Fresh Paint which is currently available but lacking some of the features it will eventually have for a full range of oil, watercolor, etc., effects. Unlike some of MS’s previous art offerings, this one looks promising.

Artrage is another simple paint program with a low price tag. It is also another that tries to mimic actual art media (a concept I have mixed emotions about); ArtRage has an easy learning curve, too.

Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro is pretty slick IF you wish to draw in a cartoon/illustrator style with heavy outlines. Pretty affordable, too. If you’re interested in cartooning, graphic novels, etc., this is one to consider. (If you are totally into cartooning, then Manga Studio might be of interest as well.)

For vector work, Serif’s DrawPlus is slick and affordable. And I love this program. I don’t do a lot of vector work, but when I do, DrawPlus is what I pull out of the digital toolbox. All of Serif’s software is rock stable, and the software recovers well on the rare occasions it freezes or fails. Its programs are very affordable, and Serif offers older versions for free as demos. (To my mind, Serif is the way all software companies and programs should be — but too often are not.)

I do on occasion create logos and typefaces. Often this pairs DrawPlus or PhotoPaint (for the creation of the design) with HighLogic’s MainType. Among other things, MainType has an amazing engine for importing graphics — in most cases I can just copy and paste a bitmap into it and instantly have the vector icon or letter I want ready to be manipulated and eventually ported as a TrueType font. Very nice for typography work.

There are a lot of other minor art programs I use from time to time. But the above will serve a digital artist well and about 98 percent of all my work is done on one or more of the software listed above.

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Nice Review of Lesser Gods on SciFiPulse.Net

Front cover of Lesser Gods science fiction novel

I got a nice surprise in the ol’ inbox today: SciFiPulse.net has written a nice review of my science fiction novel Lesser Gods — as well as providing a link to my blog. Sweet — and a big “thank you” to the folks at SciFiPulse.net.

The illustrated Kindle version of Lesser Gods is available from Amazon.com as is the the paperback version of Lesser Gods (with additional artwork inside) is available via Amazon.com.

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When not peddling his books, Duncan Long works as an illustrator for self-publishing authors as well as presses including HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Mermaid Books, Pocket Books, ILEX, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Moonstone Books, Enslow Publishers, and many other presses. You can see his work at Duncan Long’s Online Illustration Portfolio.

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Authors Beware!!

Yes, there are scam artists out their, preying on authors. And the terrible thing is that some of the major publishing houses are now running a few of them.

Here’s a good round up of “publishers” that are best avoided: The Author Exploitation Business.

And a look at how some Literary Agents Have Sold Out Their Authors.

Interesting twist: Self-Publishing Grabs Huge Market Share From Traditional Publishers.

And an interesting take on why Self Publishing May Be Saving the Publishing Industry.

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Collaborative Summer Library Program Poster Arrives

Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP) Poster beneath the surface

Two large stacks of boxes appeared on the front stoop today. They contained the print samples of the illustrations (posters, bookmarks, notepads, t-shirts, etc.) for this year’s Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP).

Yes, it was sort of like Christmas.

The prints turned out well and it’s going to be pretty exciting to see my artwork appearing in libraries all across the US.

It’s a dream come true. When I was a kid, I practically lived in the library or was reading books checked out from the library all through the summer. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Hardy Boys, and Robert Heinlein among others proved to be great company. Often part of the experience were the neat displays and posters hung around the kid’s area. So it’s a real thrill to think I’ll be playing a tiny part in helping kids across the nation have the same great reading experiences during their summer — a chance to “pay it forward” as it were.

You can read more about the process of creating the artwork for my part of the CSLP project here:

Creating Artwork for the US CSLP (2013): Part I

Creating Artwork for the US CSLP (2013): Part II

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A Few More Thoughts About Piracy and Books

Zombie illustration for a book cover or magazine by illustrator Duncan Long

An excellent overview of the “free” culture, and why it is killing the creative process (and some possible solutions to the problem) from Elmo Keep: Combating The Cost Of The Free Economy.

For those wanting to find out if their book is being pirated — and how to stop the piracy — there’s this nitty gritty piece: Hacker Tools to Combat eBook Pirates

If you’re unsure there’s a problem with piracy and the book industry, there here’s a place to start (it’s a tad dated but still interesting): Five reasons why piracy will kill the ebook digital publishing industry.

In Moving away from free Connor Tomas O’Brien notes: “We all recognize that the Free Economy is broken, but, as consumers, we face a prisoner’s dilemma situation: because there’s no clear incentive for any individual consumer to pay, nobody pays, which means we all end up getting screwed when artists are no longer able to create the content we enjoy.”

In his “state of the industry” piece, Scott Turow tells of The Slow Death of the American Author. Perhaps most to the point is Scott’s contention:

“It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense. Authors practice one of the few professions directly protected in the Constitution, which instructs Congress “to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The idea is that a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy. That culture is now at risk. The value of copyrights is being quickly depreciated, a crisis that hits hardest not best-selling authors like me, who have benefited from most of the recent changes in bookselling, but new and so-called midlist writers.”

Turow’s opinion piece garnered this responses: A few notes on “The Slow Death of the American Author” by Scott Turow

If worries about piracy weren’t enough, now Amazon is threatening authors’ revenue streams as well: Amazon Ebook Resell Plan May Kill Author Royalties

And finally, one interesting article that is NOT about piracy: How New Technology Is Reinventing Typography.

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Some Useful Links for Self-Publishing Authors

Mary's Hope-002

Some useful tips and suggestions for writers and self-publishers:

Self publishing is changing the marketplace. Here’s a look at Some interesting winners and losers in this process: Ten Ways Self-Publishing Has Changed the Book Industry.

Tips on writer gender-specific dialogue.

Marketing ideas for non-fiction that can be applied to marketing novels.

Rules are made to be broken, right? Well… Maybe… Writing Rules: 10 Experts Take on the Writer’s Rulebook

Part of good novel writing is the “torturing” of your characters — here’s a good place to engage in this: Creating emotional frustration in your characters.

Writing a “hook” that grabs the reader (and perhaps an editor) is essential for success. Here are some tips: Grab the Reader from Page One.

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