Friday, February 24, 2012

Ebook Covers: Do It Yourself or Not?

As so well documented in Dean Wesley Smith's Think Like a Publisher, the decision to go indie requires an up-front, unwavering dedication to the practical aspects of getting a book to market. This post addresses only one of the tasks facing a new indie author, that of designing a cover for an eBook, and I'll limit the scope to the question indicated by the subtitle.

Which reminds me of a favorite bit of dialogue from the movie Jurassic Park:

Hammond (Richard Attenborough): I don't think you're giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody's ever done before...
Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum): Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should. 

First, let's deal with the issue of whether an eBook cover is important. The answer is an unequivocal "Yes," but it's not my purpose here to justify that opinion. If you don't believe it, stop reading now. If you're unsure as to what you believe, do some research and the tally the results. Or save yourself the trouble and take my word for it. Respected sources will always vote in the affirmative.

If you're still here, thank you. Now consider the next important question, which is: Can an amateur with no professional training in graphic design come up with a cover that works? If your answer is "No," quit reading now. If you've seen the cover for Pilot Error and think it's ineffective, quit reading now. If you like my cover and you're unsure about whether your want to try it, I recommend that you do some more research. Many online sources help you through the process of cover design. But in this case, you'll have to weigh two sides of the issue.

Graphic designers will justifiably maintain that they can do a better job than any amateur. And that's not a matter of false advertising. They do it for a living and have the training and practical experience required. It's analogous to the famous words (paraphrased) of Red Adair, oil-well firefighter: "If you think Adair Enterprises is expensive, try hiring an amateur."

But that raises the question, "How good does a cover have to be?" Award winning? Capable of eliciting gasps of admiration from all who view it, readers and other graphic designers alike? Or can we consider that the most basic purpose of the cover is to stay out of the way by not shedding the interest of potential readers? And if the cover entices the reader to click on the thumbnail image or the sample, has it not served its function?

When facing this decision, I researched the cost of hiring a professional, and economic considerations ultimately forced me to design my own cover. I began with full acknowledgement that it would be an experiment, and that I might have to abandon the effort. But with more time to invest than discretionary funds, I researched the basics of cover design and opened up Photoshop Elements 8 for the very first time.

This "Photoshop for Dummies" application came bundled with a scanner I'd purchased the year before, and this yours-truly dummy was immediately overwhelmed by all the icons and menus and windows and a blank screen with nothing in it that I was going to have to fill with a cover. 

This post will not address the details of what turned out to be over two months of steady effort teaching myself how to use the application and design a cover. And when I had one ready to show my fellow writers, the comments ranged from thumbs down, to level, to up, just as they do when I ask for comments on the words behind the cover.

And as in all things writing, it became an iterative process of revising, accepting comments, revising again, until I finally gazed at a version with confidence that I had designed a cover that did exactly what I thought it should. Could it be better? Undoubtedly. Does it have to be better? I don't think so. Would I like it to be? Absolutely.

And maybe the next one will be. 

In the meantime, I leave you with this: If you are facing this decision in your indie journey and are willing to spend between $200-1000 for a professionally designed cover, save yourself the headache of doing it yourself. But if for whatever reason you need (or simply want) to give it a go, there's something especially rewarding about packaging your words in your own cover.

Which again reminds me of the scientists in Jurassic Park . . .

Tosh McIntosh is the author of Pilot Error and the upcoming Wings on my Words: Tales from the Writer's Desk, Words on My Wing: Tales from the Cockpit, and Red Line, second in the Pilot Error series.