As self-publishers we all have heard how important covers are. And as readers we know it’s true. Covers are extremely important – they can help create a brand not just for a series but for an author. As much as we’d like to say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” we do.
I know that many self-published authors look at covers as a burden, something we “have” to do. I look at covers as an opportunity. I think it is beyond cool that we get to have control over this part of our work and image. I always, always feel so sad for an author when one of their books gets re-released with a truly bad cover.
I posted before about some good stock image / stock photo sites and today I want to talk about planning for your image search as well as the image search itself.
Here are my Top Eight Rules for Image Searching.
1. Know What You’re Looking For
Finding a needle in a haystack is hard. It’s even harder when you don’t know that you’re looking for a needle. It may be possible that you find something so amazing and wonderful and it wasn’t what you were looking for at all. This, however, is different from randomly looking for images with no idea of what you’re objective is. I’m not saying that you have to have a complete picture in your mind of your finished cover, but you have to know what you’re aiming for and what options you’re open to. Not only will this help you narrow down what sites you search on, it will also inform your search terms.
You can even use image searching as a part of the “what am I shooting for?” process. For example, with Attempting Elizabeth I thought of a few different ideas for the cover. One idea was to have a close up on a “split face” – One half Kelsey’s face and one half Elizabeth Bennet’s face… this is a fun idea but the lack of photos with regency appropriate hair and a model that fit the description who also happens to be looking straight ahead nixed that idea for me. Another idea was to have Kelsey looking into a mirror and Lizzy looking back at her. Similar problems with this idea. Another idea was to have Kesley holding a copy of Pride and Prejudice and “thinking” about jumping into it. Of the three the most potential for conveying what I wanted and finding an image that worked was that one.
2. Know What’s Going on in Your Genre
This is almost a subsection of point one. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you look – really look – at covers of books that are similar to yours and know what you like/don’t like about them. Personally, I’ve seen enough covers that I recognize stock photos on certain sites. Why is this important? There’s a great image out there that would have been a pretty perfect image for the cover of Atone: A Fairytale. However, this image is on no less than three books in the YA fantasy/paranormal genre so I kept looking.
Knowing what the trends are in your genre can help you avoid using the same image as someone else – or ensure that you use the image in a different enough way that your books won’t get confused. It can also lead you into avenues you wouldn’t have explored before. If there’s a trend in your genre that you really don’t like it can help focus your search in other directions.
3. Invest the Time or Invest the Money
This probably should be number one because to me it is the most important. Like I said before, you’re not just a writer you are a publisher. Your cover is the first impression people will get about your book. The number one investment you can make in your cover is time. Investing the time, or paying someone else (like a designer) to invest their time pays off. Even if you’re paying a designer you should still be spending some of your own time in looking at images and helping give direction to your designer. (And let me tell you the worst thing you can do to a designer is say “I have no idea what I want but I want it to look nice.” At the very least send them a few books covers you like and a few you hate so they know where in the world to start.)
If you do not have time to invest in researching and planning your cover – make it. You are the publisher. If you were being traditionally published and your publisher told you they didn’t have the time to put into researching cover images for your book you would (rightly) be angry.
So how much time do you need? It depends. It could take you two hours it could take you twenty. But if you only allot a few hours for it you will find yourself frustrated. Looking for cover images can actually be fun if you can limit the stress. Especially if you’re looking for something that might be hard to find, please don’t set yourself up for failure by not setting aside the time. Try breaking it up into chunks: Spend 30 minutes a week during your writing process looking for images…which brings me to my next point.
4. Plan Ahead
If you leave your cover until the very last minute or limit yourself to two hours of searching just a few weeks before publication you are going to be frustrated. You may end up settling for something you aren’t happy with. It is never too early to start thinking about your cover. You’re writing the story, you know what’s going on it – what the themes and feel are. If you’re planning to write a series, book one is not too early to be planning a way to make those covers consistent. Plan the time it takes to look for cover images INTO your publishing schedule.
The number of girls with their eyes closed I looked at for Awake can’t even be properly measured. Or for Attempting Elizabeth – I knew what I wanted, but most images of women holding books are just plain odd looking. Luckily, there wasn’t a lot of panic because I started searching early. Search early. Search often.
6. Don’t Limit Yourself to Common Search Terms
Really this should be – don’t limit yourself. It’s not just the search terms. Don’t limit yourself to only one site, don’t limit yourself to only what’s popular in your genre, etc. Getting stuck in a search terms rut can reduce the number of images you find. Sometimes you need to spend some time messing around on a site like Wikimedia Commons or Dreamstime to get a feel for the way their search feature works. For example searching “Regency era portrait” on Wikimedia Commons is going to get you about three results, two of which aren’t portraits. However, searching “1800s portrait” is going to get you pages and pages of results.
If you see a picture you like on a stock photo site like Dreamstime take a look at the tags the photographer has used to describe it when it was uploaded. Use those tags as your search terms! For example – the image of the cover of my short story collection Views from the Tower is not tagged as “Rapunzel” or “long hair” or “long blonde hair,” – all of which you’d think were basic search terms it should come up under. However, I saw another picture by a completely different photographer that I liked and I noticed one of the many tags they used was “fairytale lady.” I swear to heaven above “fairytale lady” is not a search term that would have crossed my mind but without it I wouldn’t have found that perfect image. But I was on a mission – hunting down the best way to search…which brings me to point 7:
7. Be Investigative
Searching for the perfect image is a bit like finding a fugitive, you have to have patience, dedication, and the desire to keep trying until you find your suspect. Here are some practical ways you can be investigative. As I mentioned above with search terms – if you see a picture you like, look at what search terms that photographer has used. If you see an image that just blows your mind but has nothing to do with your book – find out what else that photographer or artist has done. If you see a photograph of a woman that looks exactly like your heroine but she’s got weird makeup on, or is looking off to the side and you need an image that’s someone looking ahead, or she’s making a funny face, etc… see if there are other pictures of the model. Many search sites have “see other images with this model” as an option. They also often have a “see similar images” option. Here’s where building that time into your schedule comes into play. Do not be afraid to spend a few minutes following a bunny trail.
8. Believe in the Power of Cropping
Be open to the possibilities. Especially if you write historical it is not always easy to find a quality image of someone in an exact replica dress. Often times portraiture from the era is available but there might be issues with getting a quality digital image big enough for print. If you are working with a designer ask them about what type of images they want and how much alteration they’re willing to do to an image. If you’re doing this yourself it is still possible to crop and/or to focus on certain aspects of an image without necessarily getting a B.A. in design.
I know it sounds like I’m telling you to put a whole lot of time into your cover. You might argue that you just don’t have a full day, or a full week to put into it. I really do believe that putting in the time can result in a quality cover and that the time doesn’t have to be necessarily in big chunks but worked in throughout the publishing schedule. I also think that most of the time is an upfront investment. There’s a reason I am able to narrow my search terms quickly now when looking for images and that’s because I’ve “learned” how to search on the various sites that I use. Take some time now – even if you don’t have an upcoming release – to play around on these sites!
How do you work the time needed for creating a cover into your publishing schedule? Are there any tips or tricks you’d like to share with us?